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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 16, 2004

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Briefing Room

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2:41 P.M. EDT

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody, and "welcome" to our new White House correspondents. I will go straight to your questions at this point.

Q Scott, can I try you again on this intelligence post? Is it fair to say this idea of creating a new director of national intelligence is being discussed -- aside from the 9/11 Commission?

MR. McCLELLAN: Steve, I think that is premature to start making that suggestion at this point. The President made it very clear that he wants to look at other ways we might be able to reform and revamp our intelligence services, beyond the significant steps that we are already -- that we have already taken in the aftermath of September 11th.

Remember, in the wake of that terrible day the President made a number of significant changes in the way we protect the homeland. He created the Department of Homeland Security. We worked to create to Terrorist Threat Integration Center. That was very important to making sure that we improved our intelligence gathering capability and our intelligence sharing capability. And, most importantly, he was taking the offensive and taking the fight to the enemy.

So we have made significant changes in the aftermath of September 11th. But we always should be looking at what more can we do to better protect the American people. And the President very much looks forward to the recommendations from the September 11th Commission and from the Silberman Commission, which is focusing broadly on our intelligence capabilities related to weapons of mass destruction.

Q I think there had been some talk on the Hill about creating a domestic intelligence agency -- maybe Senator Edwards or some others are backing that idea. Is that a good idea?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's just premature to get into what specific steps we may want to look at. Let's let the commissions do their work. They are carrying out very important work that can help us better prepare in the future. Certainly, we have already taken a number of steps to make sure that we are prepared to prevent attacks and respond to attacks if they may come.

Most importantly, the -- well, the number one thing we can do to prevent these attacks from happening in the first place is take the fight to the enemy and win the war on terrorism. We have many dangerous threats in this day and age, and we should always be looking at ways we can better protect the American people.

Q Scott, the President said he couldn't recall whether it was in November, 2001 when he asked Secretary Rumsfeld to draw up war plans for Iraq, and he said he was going to check and try to refresh his memory. Do you know whether it was -- that's the correct date, November?

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, I think what he was referring to was the September time period in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and when he was meeting with his national security team. And at that point in September, all our focus was on Afghanistan and removing the Taliban regime from power and taking away the safe harbor for al Qaeda that existed in Afghanistan.

Certainly, late November it was becoming increasingly clear what direction things were headed in Afghanistan. It was clear that the Taliban was no longer going to have a hold on Afghanistan. We began combat operations in Afghanistan in the earlier period of October, and by November and early December things were winding down. And the President did talk to Secretary Rumsfeld about Iraq. But there is a difference between planning and making a decision.

Q So he did ask him to draw up invasion plans in November of 2001?

MR. McCLELLAN: You're talking about the late period of November, when things were winding down in Afghanistan. He did talk to Secretary Rumsfeld about planning related to Iraq.

Q And that would include an invasion?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, let me walk back, let's talk about planning versus the actual decision, because as I said, there is a difference there.

Remember that when we came into office, the President was talking about Iraq very early on. He talked about the threat posed by Iraq from the very early period in this administration. In fact, the very first time that the President and Prime Minister Blair met, they talked about how the sanctions on Iraq were not effective and how they weren't working. And they talked about the importance of Iraq complying with all relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions. That was back in February of 2001.

The policy of the previous administration was one of regime change. The policy of this administration continued to be one of regime change. We had American pilots patrolling the no-fly zone in Iraq. You had a regime in Iraq that was firing on those pilots. We had Navy ships stationed in the Persian Gulf region to enforce the blockade. We had thousands of troops stationed in Saudi Arabia because of the threat from Iraq.

And then September 11th came. September 11th changed the equation when it came to confronting the threats of the 21st century. September 11th taught us that we must confront gathering dangers before it's too late. And Iraq was a threat. Iraq was a unique situation, because Saddam Hussein's regime was a danger that had a history of invading his neighbors, and had a history of using weapons of mass destruction, and had a history of defying the demands of the international community, and had a history of brutality seen through mass graves and torture chambers and rape rooms.

The process that led up to the President making the decision to remove Saddam Hussein's regime from power was well documented. The President kept the American people updated and informed about the process leading up to his decision. He talked about the threat in his January, 2002 State of the Union address. He went to the United Nations and talked about the importance of confronting this threat in the post-September 11th world.

Q Scott, so you're confirming that the President did ask Secretary Rumsfeld to draw up plans in November, 2001 on Iraq? But let me just switch, I have one other question here, and then I'll yield. The President said today that governing entity which will assume sovereignty in Iraq on June 30th, "will be decided by Brahimi, a full grant of authority to the United Nations to determine the political structure that will assume sovereignty."

A year ago, this administration was not willing to do that. Six months ago, this administration was not willing to do that. And I wonder, what are the costs of a year of not embracing U.N. legitimacy in the process, as the President is now?

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me correct something. I think the President all along said that the United Nations has a vital role to play in the political process in Iraq. He has always felt the United Nations has a vital role to play, and they were playing a vital role in the political process, in the reconstruction of Iraq previously. Certainly, they have a lot of expertise they can offer when it comes to elections and when it comes to the drafting of a constitution. And, certainly, Mr. Brahimi has been playing a vital role in helping move forward on the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people by June 30th.

And so we -- the President, in his remarks today, said he very much welcomes his efforts and welcomes the proposal that he has put forward. At this point, Mr. Brahimi is going back to the United Nations and speaking with Secretary General Annan about these ideas, and he'll be talking further about his plans with the coalition and with Iraqi leaders during the May time period and so that we can move forward on those ideas.

The President is very supportive of his efforts, but we need to let him talk back with the United Nations and continue to talk about the specifics as we go forward.

And, most importantly, I think we have to keep in mind that the Iraqi people have an important role to play in this and, ultimately, they will have a say in how that interim representative government is shaped.

Q Well, how will they have a say?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, they've been involved in these discussions. Mr. Brahimi has been talking with Iraqi leaders --

Q But not in a popular way --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- throughout this process, and they very much have a say in their future. They have been assuming more and more responsibility for their future. I wouldn't view it as top-down, I'd view it as discussing it with everybody involved -- most importantly, the Iraqi people.

Q But you're going to live with whatever --

MR. McCLELLAN: It's John's turn.

Q I'm sorry.

Q No, go ahead.

Q You're going to live with whatever he comes up with, whatever Brahimi comes up with?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, the specifics he's going to come back with -- but there is nothing that we have seen that causes any concern at this time. We've made that very clear.

Q Scott, Prime Minister Blair today said that he and the President agreed that there should be a Quartet meeting as soon as possible, to talk about the Sharon plan. And then the Prime Minister said, in his view, that meeting should talk about immediate and urgent economic, political, diplomatic assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

Is this President prepared to support economic and political assistance to a Palestinian Authority that is still controlled by Yasser Arafat?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, look, the Palestinian people have a unique opportunity here that they should seize, and the President has talked about that. We have a real opportunity to move forward on the road map and reaching the two-state vision that the President previously outlined. It is -- this withdrawal proposal by Prime Minister Sharon would be the first withdrawal of Israeli settlements ever, in areas that will become part of a future Palestinian state. And it's important for the Palestinian people to seize this opportunity and work to move forward on political and economic reform. And we will be there to assist them.

Of course, remember that the foundation for moving forward on the two-state solution remains cracking down on terrorism and cracking down -- and dismantling terrorist organizations. The President has made that very clear.

Q And if the Palestinian people do not seize that opportunity, and two weeks or a month from now the Quartet gets together and the Europeans and the United Nations and the Russians say, we need to give money, we need to give support, we need to engage Yasser Arafat and the Prime Minister, because they are the Palestinian leadership now, will the President do that?

MR. McCLELLAN: But Mr. Arafat has been part of the problem. Mr. Arafat has undermined efforts every step of the way. Remember, we were making some important progress on the road map when you had Prime Minister Abbas in his position. But Mr. Arafat was the one who undermined those efforts. We need to focus, as the President has pointed out, on setting up the institutions necessary for a viable state to exist for the Palestinian people. The President is focused on moving forward to that two-state vision. And we have an opportunity here, because of the historic step that Prime Minister Sharon announced, to move forward on that process.

Q So is it fair to say that if the Europeans and others want to come up with a pot of money, and other assistance to help the Palestinians, and Yasser Arafat is still calling the shots, the United States will say "no"?

MR. McCLELLAN: We believe there needs to be a Palestinian leadership that is committed to, first and foremost, cracking down on terrorism and dismantling terrorist organizations.

And remember what the President said earlier this week -- it's important that you have the institutions in place for a viable government -- viable and democratic government to exist. The President often talks about how the institution is much bigger than any one person. This isn't about any one person. And certainly the person that you've mentioned has been someone who has undermined the process every step of the way, and we need to recognize that fact.

We look forward to talking further with the Quartet at an early date. Secretary Powell is certainly in close contact with people all the time on these issues. And we will be consulting with the Quartet as we move forward. But we need to keep the focus on moving toward that two-state solution, where there is a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people to realize their hopes and aspirations.

John.

Q Scott, getting back to the whole intelligence issue -- and I wanted to ask this to the President the other night, but I'll pose it to you -- was the President --

MR. McCLELLAN: No intelligence up here. (Laughter.)

Q Was the President surprised or disturbed about the admission Senator Bob Graham made both through my publication and on "Meet the Press" in May of last year, that the Senate Intelligence Committee had the same intelligence reports leading up to 9/11 that the President, himself, had in his daily intelligence briefing?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, look, I mean, these are all issues, one, that the joint inquiry looked into. These are all issues that the September 11th Commission is looking into. They're going to be coming forth with their report; they're going to be looking at recommendations to make that could possibly help us prevent future attacks. These would be recommendations in addition to all the steps that we have already taken.

Q Was the President surprised at all, or disappointed --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know if I've talked to him about that specific instance --

Q He never mentioned Senator Graham's --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- but, certainly, we are continuing to work closely with the September 11th Commission to help them move forward on their efforts, these important efforts.

Q Scott, on the road map -- since the road map --

MR. McCLELLAN: How did you jump in here?

Q You recognized me.

MR. McCLELLAN: Did I call on you? No, I looked at you. Norah.

Q Thank you.

Q Will you come back?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll come back to you.

Q Scott, also in Woodward's book about November 2001, he says and reports in his book that the President, in talking about these contingency plans, told Rumsfeld not to bring -- not to tell Tenet that they were doing this, or other members of the foreign policy team. Why keep Tenet out of the loop, then, in November?

MR. McCLELLAN: One, I have not seen the book at this point, so I can't get into commenting on things that you're bringing up at this point. I mean, the specific question that Terry asked, I can confirm that, that we discussed earlier. But I haven't seen the book at this point. I don't have any reason to dispute any of the quotes in the book, but beyond that, I cannot get into commenting about some of the characterizations that may be in there at this point.

Q So you don't know whether or not Rumsfeld was told by the President not to inform Tenet?

MR. McCLELLAN: Look, I don't have any transcript in front of me at this point. The book hasn't officially been released at this point. I recognize there are some stories out there, but until I've had a chance to see the book, I wouldn't be able to get into any of those issues.

Q Scott, can I follow on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Sure, go ahead, Kate.

Q One other point that The Washington Post makes about the book. They say that the President delayed the war's start until March 19th because Blair asked -- because Tony Blair asked for them to go seek another U.N. resolution. Is that --

MR. McCLELLAN: This is going into different questions about what may be in the book. I haven't seen the book --

Q Is it true, did the President delay the war by a day?

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't seen the book at this point, Kate. It was very clear to the American people the process leading up to the decision to go to war. Remember that Saddam Hussein had the choice in the end, and he chose continued defiance. We were no longer, in a post-September 11th world, going to rely on the good intentions of a madman. And keep in mind, that when we're talking about all this, that as President you don't have the luxury of thinking about one thing at a time. You have to be looking --

Q Did the President do a favor for Tony Blair, did he hold off for a day for domestic --

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, the book hasn't been released at this point.

Q Can I ask about the Patriot Act? The President has got three days' worth of events campaigning for renewal of an act that doesn't -- first of all, that parts of which are permanent, but some of which will expire next year. Why now?

MR. McCLELLAN: Because it's an -- one, it's an important priority that we make sure that these provisions do not expire. This is a very high priority for the President of the United States. The war on terrorism is the number one priority, and this Act provides authorities with important tools to prevent attacks from happening in the first place.

Remember, this was legislation that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, including 98 to one in the Senate and 357 to 66 in the House of Representatives. It has helped tear down the wall between the FBI and the CIA, and allowed us to greatly improve our ability to share information in order to track down terrorists. And these are important tools for our law enforcement authorities to have in winning the war on terrorism.

Q Is the President making a campaign issue of this?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President believes this is a very important priority and he's going to continue to talk about it and there's some clear choices on this issue, I think, in this election.

Q Scott, since the road map is one year old in two weeks, and since it requires the Palestinians to "arrest, disrupt, and restrain terrorists, confiscate terrorist weapons, and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure" -- which they have never, ever done-- first question, why is the anti-terrorist Bush administration giving $30 million to the PA directly as, reported by The New York Times, rather than cancelling all such aid?

MR. McCLELLAN: Les, let me talk to the bigger picture here. If you put the institutions in place for a viable and democratic government to exist, the leaders will emerge, the leaders that are necessary to take steps to crack down on terrorism and to dismantle terrorist organizations. And that's where the President's focus is.

Q You said last week, when I asked why there were so many U.S. cameramen, but no U.S. troops, artillery, or helicopters in Fallujah, the mutilation and hanging of the bodies of U.S. veterans, you said that you are sure this crowd will be brought to justice. And my question, are you still sure that we are willing to bring them to justice along with any Hamas terrorists who have killed Americans or citizens?

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely, and I think our military leaders have made that very clear.

Q They're going to do it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely.

Q Scott, what's the President's thinking on the prospects of bringing at least some troops home or shortly thereafter on June 30?

MR. McCLELLAN: The decisions about troops, the President believes are best left to our commanders in the field. Those are the decisions that our commanders will make based on the circumstances on the ground in Iraq. And Secretary Rumsfeld spoke to this issue yesterday in his briefing and talked about the request that General Abizaid made. But you always have to look at the circumstances on the ground, as Secretary Rumsfeld pointed out in his briefing yesterday, to make those determinations. And you rely on your commanders in the field, who are in the best position to make those judgments, to make those determinations.

Q What about the prospects --

MR. McCLELLAN: And our job is to make sure, then, they have all the resources they need to do their job, to make sure they are fully equipped, to make sure they are fully trained and prepared to protect themselves when they're in harm's way.

Q Prospects, though --

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, you're asking me to speculate, and we look to the commanders in the field to make those decisions. Secretary Rumsfeld talked about those tours that would be extended for some of our military personnel, for a 90-day period in Iraq and a 120-day period overall, yesterday in his briefing.

Q Can I ask you, is there --

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Peter. And welcome to the White House. Maybe. Let me see what your question is first. (Laughter.)

Q You keep talking about a vital role that the U.N. will play in Iraq. Is there a difference between a vital role and a central role, which is the word that we've heard, I think, from Tony Blair, and others?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've always talked about, one, that this is a coalition-led effort in Iraq, and we want the United Nations to play a vital role. We want them to play a vital role in the future. We hope that they will continue to do so. Remember, besides Mr. Brahimi, there's also a U.N. mission there focusing on elections that will be held beginning in January, 2005, under the transitional administrative law. So they are playing a vital role. We want them to continue to play a vital role.

But come January 30th, we're going to transfer sovereignty back to the Iraqi people and the Coalition Provisional Authority will cease to exist, as the President pointed out today. And we believe the United Nations should continue to play a vital role moving forward, in helping the Iraqi people have free and fair elections, so that they can choose their representatives.

Q But you wouldn't be --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the Iraqi people will have the central role going forward after June 30th.

Q But not the U.N.? The U.N. won't have a central role?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we think they should have a vital role.

Q Is there a difference between "vital" and "central"?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you maybe have different definitions than I do. The central role is going to be led by the Iraqi people come the end of June.

Q Can I ask you one other question about this Woodward book? And I'm just curious if, with this book now, and then the similar -- there was the allegation by Richard Clarke that there was an obsession with Iraq. I wonder if there's a danger that there becomes an impression that you guys were obsessed with Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's just not the case. And, again, go back to -- you all have covered the President from very early on. And certainly you have to, as President of the United States, look at all threats that you face. Remember what I just said earlier: regime change was the policy of the previous administration, it was the policy of this administration, we continued to have that policy. We talked about our concerns related to the threat from very early on in this administration.

September 11th came along and that changed the equation. We are in a global war on terrorism, and we must confront threats before it's too late. We must confront threats before they gather and before they are able to carry out their attacks. That's exactly what this President is committed to doing, it's what he has been doing, and it's what he will continue to do, because he recognizes that his highest priority is the safety and the security of the American people. And the stakes involved in Iraq right now are very high. And the terrorists recognize that, the President recognizes that, and that's why it's important that we continue to stay the course and finish the work that we have started.

Q I've got one more on the interim government. Last fall the idea was a caucus, then in January it was sort of caucus --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, under the November 15th agreement -- I think you're referring to.

Q Correct. And then in January, there was talk of caucus-plus, and then there was an evolution here. And as of a couple weeks ago, there was still a lot of talk about caucus-plus. Can you tell us what's changed that makes the Brahimi approach a sort of technocratic-driven --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, the specifics -- the United Nations came in and looked at the situation and looked at the situation on the ground, spoke with Iraqi leaders, worked with the coalition. We've been working with Iraqi leaders, as well, and discussed all these ideas. The important thing is that we're continuing to move forward on the transfer of sovereignty, and that we're continuing to move toward democracy in Iraq. And we're continuing to move forward on a brighter future for the Iraqi people. These are always things that you discuss along the way, and you have to be willing to make adjustments, as necessary.

Q I'm just wondering what change precipitated this adjustment; what makes this one --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think, remember, talking with Iraqi leaders early -- quite a while back, I think, or at least a couple months back, we essentially ruled out the part -- the caucus idea within the November 15th agreement. It wasn't something that was gathering a lot of consensus within the leadership of the Iraqi people. And so then we started the process of talking about other ideas to have an interim representative government in place.

Q Can you say what makes this plan more representative, more democratic than a caucus-plus approach?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that the proposal, one, has -- as Mr. Brahimi has talked about, has just been talked about in a general sense. He's talked about how there would be a cabinet and a prime minister and two vice presidents and a president. He said he's going to come back with more specifics. He wants to go back and talk to the Secretary General, and then he'll come back and talk about more specifics about the exact shape and form of that government within that proposal. And so we need to listen to those ideas. But we appreciate his efforts, and we are strongly supportive of his efforts.

Q The White House declassified the August 6, 2001 PDB for the 9/11 Commission investigation. Will there be others, and have there been other PDBs that have been declassified?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the September 11th Commission has talked about some that maybe they would like to see declassified. You might want to direct some questions to them. Those are always issues that certainly we talk with the commission about in direct discussions. And we always talk with them in a spirit of trying to make sure they have all the information they need to do their job.

Q But it's you that make the decision to declassify.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, if a request has been made of us, we'll work with the commission and discuss those issues with the commission. I'm not going to get into discussing specific issues that may be going on at this point. But we always work with them to accommodate their needs.

Q One more question on that.

MR. McCLELLAN: We try to be fully responsive -- well, we have worked to be fully responsive to all their requests, I might point out.

Q PDBs from the previous administration, are those under consideration to be declassified?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, direct those questions to the 9/11 Commission. I don't want to get into talking about all the specific discussions that go on between the commission and the administration. But we certainly always listen to their requests and work with them to make sure they have the -- access, at least, to the information they need to do their job.

Go ahead, Greg.

Q Scott, with the President's support of the Israeli plan, has the U.S. squandered any of its ability to act as a mediator, an honest broker, in the Middle East peace talks?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President -- the President's focus is on getting to the two-state solution. And he sees this as a step that could move that process forward. He sees this as a way forward. He views this as a unique opportunity. This is a proposal by Prime Minister Sharon, I would point out, and the President thanked him for the historic step that he is proposing. He thinks it represents a unique opportunity to get moving again toward the two-state solution and a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people have an opportunity here to realize what they have long aspired for, which is their own state.

Q So there's no concern that the President's endorsement might be viewed by some as one-sided?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we -- well, his support is for peace in the Middle East. And his support is for moving forward on the two-state solution and the road map as the best way to achieve that two-state solution. He thinks that this represents a real opportunity for the Palestinian people. You heard him talk about that in his remarks in the Rose Garden a little bit earlier today, and that this is a time to seize this opportunity to move forward so that we can have the two-state solution and so the Palestinian people can realize their hopes and aspirations.

Q May I ask two questions?

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead. Two?

Q When is the President and the Vice President going to meet with the 9/11 Commission?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have any updates to report at this time. You all will be kept apprised.

Q You know, don't you?

MR. McCLELLAN: I didn't say that, I'm just -- we'll keep you apprised.

Q And then anything on -- there's apparently a video out now, an American soldier who was taken hostage.

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have anything on that report. I'm not aware

at this point of any -- any additional American hostage at this point.

Q It's someone who was previously taken hostage and now there's apparently video of it.

MR. McCLELLAN: And I don't have any confirmation on that, nor am I aware of any such.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thanks.

END 3:09 P.M. EDT