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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 30, 2004

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

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2:22 P.M. EDT

MR. McCLELLAN: It is a Friday turnout, I see. Let me update you on the President's morning. The President spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan earlier today. The President welcomed Prime Minister Erdogan's strong leadership in helping secure Turkish Cypriot approval of the fair and balanced Cyprus settlement outlined by U.N. Secretary General Annan. The two leaders recognized the sovereign right of Greek Cypriots to reject the settlement, but shared disappointment that an historic opportunity for a united Cyprus to enter the European Union on May 1 had been missed. They also expressed hope for the future reunification of Cyprus, as outlined by Secretary General Annan's settlement plan. The leaders noted their support for efforts by the European Union and others to lesson the economic isolation of Turkish Cypriots by strengthening economic ties with Greek Cypriots and the outside world.

And one other thing I'd like to mention is that we welcome the United Nations Security Council's unanimous passage of a resolution authorizing a United Nations peacekeeping operation for Haiti. The United Nations force will take over June 1 from the multinational interim force, led by the United States, which provided security for Haiti's people in the aftermath of former President Aristide's resignation and voluntary departure from Haiti.

The United Nations mission will help ensure a stable and secure environment, so that the Haitian people can move forward with its political and constitutional transformation. The force will also help the transitional government to reform the Haitian police force, and help provide the conditions in which the transitional government can organize free and fair elections at the earliest possible date. A number of countries have already agreed to participate in this important mission.

And with that, I will be glad to take your questions. Steve.

Q Scott, Senator Kerry is giving a speech about Iraq, in which he says they're now facing a moment of truth there, and it may be the last chance to get it right. Do you agree with that assessment?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Steve, I think, one, it's important for a President to provide steady and strong leadership, particularly in a time of war and when times -- when times get tough. A President cannot waver and cannot give in to political pressure just to do what is politically expedient. The stakes are high in Iraq, and the work that we are achieving is vital to winning the war on terrorism.

We are moving forward on our strategy to transfer sovereignty at the end of June to the Iraqi people. We are moving forward to improve the security situation, partnering with the Iraqi forces to bring about a more stable environment, so that we can continue to move forward on our reconstruction efforts and move forward to a free and peaceful Iraq. A free and peaceful Iraq is critical to winning the war on terrorism.

Q Dr. Allen Brandenstein, he's the head of the -- he was the director of the counter-drug office -- he's been forced out of his job for turning down a $1.5 million no-bid contract, or loan -- contract, that is, to a Colorado contributor to the President. Do you have any comment on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, I'm not familiar with the specifics. I'll be glad to look at it, though. I'll be glad to take a look at it and get back to you.

Go ahead, Wayne.

Q When the President said, as he did this morning, that there are a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and can self-govern, who was he talking about?

MR. McCLELLAN: Wayne, what he's talking about is that there are some in the world that think that some people can't be free. And the President rejects that notion. There are people who say, the Middle East -- that some Middle Eastern countries -- that the people in those Middle Eastern countries cannot be free. The President believes freedom is a universal right of all people. And the President believes strongly that everyone aspires to be free. And that's what we're working to help the Iraqi people realize. We're working to help the Iraqi people realize their aspirations and hopes for a free and peaceful future.

Q Are there people out there who are saying dark-skinned Muslims cannot govern themselves?

MR. McCLELLAN: There are certainly people out there that reject the idea that certain people can be free. The President disagrees with that assessment. The President believes all people yearn to live in freedom. And that's why he is such a strong advocate for advancing freedom and democracy across the world. That's why he's working in our hemisphere to stand up for democratic values and to fight for freedom. That's why he's working in the Middle East to bring about a free and peaceful Iraq, because transforming the Middle East will help bring about a better and safer world, and help bring about a more secure America.

It's a very dangerous region in the world, and there are many people out there that -- in that region -- certainly some people out there in that region who would -- who benefitted from oppression and would like to see a return to the days of Saddam Hussein. The people that are trying to derail the democratic process for the Iraqi people are thugs and terrorists and remnants of the former regime who do not want freedom to prevail. But freedom will prevail.

Q Are they doing that because they don't want fellow dark-skinned Muslims to run Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President just rejects the notion that some people can't live in freedom. And that's exactly what he was talking about in his remarks.

Q How do you know that they say they don't want freedom or they do want freedom? You haven't taken a poll. These may be Iraqis fighting for their own land.

MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, these are thugs and terrorists and remnants of the former regime. There are --

Q Why do you call people thugs and --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- foreign fighters that have come into the country. They realize the stakes are critical in Iraq. They know that when we achieve a free and peaceful Iraq, that we will have dealt the terrorists a significant blow. And that's why it's important to finish the job that we began.

Q Could they be people coming in to help the Iraqis?

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Dick.

Q Follow a little bit on what Terry asked the President earlier. It's been the bloodiest month ever in Iraq. A year ago he stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier, and while he did say that difficult times lay ahead, he did say that the major combat phase of the operation was over. Does he still think that's true? Does he think what's going on now, particularly this month, constitutes something approaching major combat?

And second question -- I'll give them to you both at once -- in his speech today, Senator Kerry said he favors a U.N. high commissioner to essentially take over in Iraq.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure what he says from one day to the next. It's kind of hard to tell where he is. That's why I said it's important to have strong and steady leadership, particularly in tough times, and particularly when you're at war. And that's what this President is providing. We have a clear strategy to realize a free and peaceful Iraq for the Iraqi people. And we are following that strategy.

The transition from oppression to democracy takes time. It is never easy. It's been one year since the removal of a brutal regime from power. That was a significant moment for the Iraqi people. Our troops performed superbly in removing that regime from power and minimizing loss of life. And the President was proud to go and thank those onboard the USS Lincoln for the job that they had completed. They had done outstanding work.

Now, there are certainly still people serving and sacrificing not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan. They're serving and sacrificing -- our troops are serving and sacrificing to defend our freedoms. And we are going to make sure that they have everything they need to do their job. This is -- the work that they are doing is critical to winning the war on terrorism.

Q Measured against the phrase he used a year ago, "major combat operations are over, " how does the President assess the situation --

MR. McCLELLAN: Look, Dick, for those who are still fighting, they're still involved in combat operations. There are still difficulties that remain. The President talked about that. There are those who seek to derail the transition to democracy, because they want to return to the days of mass graves and torture chambers and rape rooms. But that's not going to happen. The Iraqi people realize that a free and peaceful future is around the corner. And we're going to be there to work with them, to help them realize that future.

Q Can I follow that? How does the combat that's taking place now differ from "major combat"?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Mark, we were -- we went in to initially remove the regime of Saddam Hussein from power. And that's what the President was referring to one year ago, that we had accomplished that vital objective.

Q Major combat -- the difference is Saddam Hussein --

MR. McCLELLAN: And he still stands by what he said last year, absolutely.

Q I'm trying to understand the difference between the classification --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think --

Q Is the difference that because Saddam Hussein is not in power anymore?

MR. McCLELLAN: For those who are still fighting, they're involved in combat operations. And we are making sure that they have everything they need to carry out their work.

Q Don't you think they think it's major?

MR. McCLELLAN: Mark, I just said that for those who are fighting, they're still out there working for a free and peaceful future for the Iraqi people. But one year ago today -- or tomorrow -- when the President stood onboard the USS Lincoln, it was a nice opportunity for the President of the United States, on behalf of a grateful nation, to say thank-you to our troops for accomplishing one of their vital objectives in Iraq.

But you have to keep in mind, we're talking about a transition period from 30-some years of an oppressive regime to a free and democratic future for the Iraqi people. That's always -- there are always going to be difficulties there, there are going to be tasks there. There are people that want to derail that process, Mark. But the Iraqi people are standing up more and more to stop those thugs and terrorists and Saddam loyalists from prevailing. They're working with us, as you heard from our troops --

Q All I'm asking, Scott, is the definition of the word, "major" -- that's all I'm asking -- the definition of the word, "major," is it applicable today, or not?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, like I said, for those who are still fighting, they're still involved in combat operations.

Q You said the President onboard the USS Lincoln thanked the troops. He did. And then he looked the American people in the eye and said, major combat operations are over, and he was wrong. He was wrong. Major combat operations are still going on.

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me talk to you this way -- no, there are still certain areas in Iraq that are dangerous. There are still certain areas in Iraq where there are pockets of resistance. And certainly we have troops in harm's way that are fighting to defeat those remnants of the former regime, and those foreign fighters who have come into Iraq, and those thugs. So we must make sure that they always have what they need to do their job, and that's what we're doing. And we are grateful for their service. We're grateful for their sacrifice. Because the work that they're doing is very important to building a safer and better world and making America more secure.

Q Does he see this as like a transition moment --

MR. McCLELLAN: You've had your question. Let me finish with Terry.

Q We aren't going to get anywhere on the "major" thing, it's obvious. So let me ask you a factual question. How long has the President been aware of the evidence of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there were allegations that go back quite some time here, Terry. And that's why you already have the military pursuing some criminal charges against some individuals.

Q Had the President seen these photographs before two nights ago?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know the exact time when he saw the photographs. I mean, they've certainly been in the media the last couple of days. But the President made it very clear that he was disgusted when he saw these photographs. And the President made it very clear that this does not represent what the United States stands for, and it does not represent our values, nor does it represent the great work of the vast majority -- the 99 percent of our men and women in uniform who are committed to upholding the values that America holds so dear.

Q Understood. I'm just asking because CBS said that the government had asked them not to run with this story. And I want to know if the President --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know anything about that.

Q -- did not want these photographs published.

MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, I don't know anything about that.

Q May I follow on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: You may, Connie.

Q Has the President heard directly from any foreign leaders on this situation? This has really caused consternation around the world.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he met with a foreign leader today. And he also spoke with another leader on the phone. But I don't know -- I'm trying to remember -- obviously, Prime Minister Martin was with him when he made his comments, so I think there may have been some talk around that time.

Q -- to Prime Minister Blair or the other major allies?

MR. McCLELLAN: He hasn't had any other phone calls today.

Q Also, the President said they would be taken care of. What does the President want to see done?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, appropriate -- if people -- the people who carried out these acts, the military is working to address that matter. They are pursuing criminal charges. They are looking at additional criminal charges. And we need to let that process work.

Q Scott, given the fact that you're two months away from trying to convince Iraqis that they are going to have sovereignty and that you're going to -- at least temporary sovereignty, and that you guys are going to pull out, what else are you trying to do to try sort of --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, not the last part of that. I mean, we still have important work to do on security and reconstruction.

Q Politically, politically. What else are you going to do at this point to try to sort of quell some of the -- what's going on as a result of those pictures? Obviously, we heard from the President today, but are you going to try to penetrate the Arab media in some other way? I mean, what else are you going to try to do to try to stop --

MR. McCLELLAN: The President certainly made his views very clear, and made it clear that this does not represent -- the actions of a few do not represent the hard work of the many of our men and women in uniform. And he's made that very clear. And we will continue to make that clear.

I think that if you look at the actions that are being taken, it shows how seriously the military takes this matter. They have taken strong steps to change the situation, and they have taken strong steps to pursue individuals that may have been involved in this.

Q Can you speak to, generally, how much this hurts your cause, in terms of the PR strategy, to try to get Iraqis on your side as you turn over --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's why we will continue to talk about what America stands for and what America represents. And we will continue to work with the Iraqi people to help them realize their free and peaceful future. We are moving forward on the transfer and sovereignty. As we continue to move forward on all these fronts the Iraqi people are seeing that we are there to help them realize a free and peaceful and better future.

If you look at Iraqi people, they are very supportive of the fact that Saddam Hussein's regime was removed from power. And we will continue working with those Iraqis and they're seeing by the actions that we are taking on the ground, on the political front and the transferring to sovereignty, and on the security front, by partnering with them that we are committed to helping them realize a better and brighter future.

Q Just one follow-up related to this. The Prime Minister of Qatar was here yesterday. Can you talk about what you're doing with that country at this point to try to talk about Al Jazeera and --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think Secretary Powell addressed it. We've expressed our concerns about some of the coverage, and we've spoken to that over the last couple of days.

Q Can I follow on Dana's question, directly?

MR. McCLELLAN: You may.

Q Gallup recently completed a survey of 3,400 people in Iraq, from all parts of the country -- Kurdish and Shia. They found that 71 percent of those surveyed view the United States as an occupier. Only 19 percent view the United States as a liberator. How did it come to pass that so many Iraqis view the United States --

MR. McCLELLAN: This actually came up in the -- this actually came up in the briefing yesterday and I talked about it. You might want to look back at that. And the President -- you may have missed that part of the President's news conference, but the President made it very clear -- he said, no one wants to be occupied. We don't want to be occupiers. We are liberators. That's what we have done in Iraq. But there is still important work to accomplish, and that's what we're in the middle of right now.

Q The question was how -- obviously, no one wants to be an occupier. But 70 percent apparently view us that way. How did it -- how did that happen? How did it come to pass that so many Iraqis view us in this light?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we are in the country right now and we're in the process of transferring sovereignty. And they want us to stick to the timetable that was agreed to with the Iraqi Governing Council. And that's exactly what we are doing.

And the Iraqi people, also, in that poll, I might point out, talked about how, despite all the hardships they've been through, that it was very much worth it to remove Saddam Hussein from power. It is always a difficult task to go from oppression to democracy. And I think if -- all you have to do is go back and look at the history of other countries to realize that.

Go ahead, Jacobo.

Q Yes, two questions. Senator Kerry has made it quite clear that he will not be signing any new free trade agreements, assuming if he's elected President, and that he would review six existing ones. President Bush will be meeting any moment now with the President of Guatemala. His country has negotiated a free trade agreement with the Central American countries and with the Dominican Republic. Is the President going to expend some political capital trying to get it approved this year by Congress during a presidential election --

MR. McCLELLAN: We are moving forward in a number of different ways to expand free trade in open markets to American producers and products and farmers. And we will continue to move forward aggressively to open markets and make sure that we have a level playing field. The last thing we need to do is retreat into economic isolationism. I expect that the two leaders will, shortly here, discuss the importance of moving forward on trade and moving forward on bilateral agreements and regional agreements and in other ways.

Q My question is, will he fight for it this year, 2004?

MR. McCLELLAN: He's going to continue to fight for opening up markets. I think you can get the status of where certain specific agreements stand from the United States trade representative.

Q Can you tell us -- one more question -- can you tell us what the agenda is besides visit with the President of Guatemala?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm sure they'll discuss a number of bilateral and hemispheric issues, and let's let the meeting take place. The President looks forward to this meeting. I think it's beginning right about now.

Q Scott, two questions. First, on Syria. For more than a year now, they have not fulfilled their promises in regards to terrorist groups within their country. Apparently, the border is wide open in regards to foreign fighters going into Iraq, and so forth. When is the administration going to take some steps toward Syria, some steps that have actual teeth in it?

MR. McCLELLAN: We have a number of serious concerns when it comes to actions by Syria. We have concerns about Syria's harboring and supporting of terrorism. We have concerns about the border along the Iraq-Syria border, and their ability to control those borders and who's crossing those borders. We have concerns about the situation in Lebanon when it comes to Syria. And we certainly have concerns about Syria's continued development of weapons of mass destruction. And we've expressed those concerns to Syria. And we are moving forward on the Syria Accountability Act, and we will probably be having more to say on that soon. But those concerns need to be addressed. Syria needs to take them seriously and work to address those concerns. But we are going to continue to move forward on these sanctions.

Q Can I assume, then, that the concerns are actually going to turn into concrete action in the very near future?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what our goal is, is to make sure that we take steps that will lead to Syria changing its behavior. And that's why we're moving forward on implementing the Syria Accountability Act. And we'll have more to say on that very soon.

Q Second question, the President -- I believe it was in the press conference or in other appearance -- had said that one of the lessons he learned from Vietnam was not to let politics or political leaders get involved in the military operations, to the soldiers on the ground, and so forth. Yet, in Fallujah we see a cease-fire put into effect, which gave insurgents time to regroup and resupply. We now see our troops pulling back from Fallujah.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, that's not correct. You need to go back and see what the military leaders said earlier today.

Q I'm just wondering, if -- does the President's policy stand that politics and politicians will not get involved in --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President -- no, the President is in very close contact with his military leaders and with his commanders in the region and with Ambassador Bremer, who is involved on the political and reconstruction side of things. The President's role is to set the direction and lay out the broad strategy and then make sure efforts are coordinated in a way that we can achieve a free and peaceful Iraq for the Iraqi people. And he wants to make sure that the actions that we are taking on the ground are coordinated when it comes to the political front and the reconstruction front and the security front, in a way that helps us achieve that objective.

So the President stays -- he's been in close contact with military commanders over these last few weeks, which have been some tough weeks. But we continue to move forward and make progress in all those different areas. And the decisions for implementing the strategy laid out by the President are best made by those who are on the ground, in the best situation to determine how to move forward and achieve those objectives. But he's in close contact with them about those steps that they are taking.

Q Scott, what has the President been doing lately to promote his call for a federal marriage amendment?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President's views are very clear, that he is a strong supporter of the sanctity of marriage being between a man and a woman. And we continue to talk with members of Congress about this effort. And he strongly supports moving forward on a constitutional amendment.

Q Because the reason I ask is because he's been fairly silent on the issue publicly, whereas he's giving many speeches on the Patriot Act --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know that he necessarily has. He continues to talk about it. He continues to talk about it. It's a priority for the President.

Q Yesterday, the White House criticized the Justice Department for releasing the Gorelick memos. You said the President doesn't believe that there should be finger-pointing. This indicates that you know there is something in those memos that is potentially damaging to Commissioner Gorelick. Why shouldn't this information be made public?

MR. McCLELLAN: Jeff, I think that there is work going on by the 9/11 Commission to look at all issues related to the threat from terrorism prior to September 11th. And I said yesterday that it's important for the commission to look at everything that can help them complete their work. I think what I was referring to on the Justice Department I addressed yesterday, and I think I will leave it there. I think the President made his views known.

Q Okay, fine. It was Senator Cornyn and also Senator Graham that requested that information be released in a letter to them a week ago. So it wasn't the Justice Department just acting on its own to do that, it was from a specific request from the Senate. And Senator Cornyn believes that Commissioner Gorelick should testify in front of the 9/11 Commission. Why shouldn't Commissioner Gorelick have her chance to publicly apologize to the 9/11 families?

MR. McCLELLAN: We're going to do everything we can to support the work of the 9/11 Commission, so that they can provide the American people with a comprehensive and thorough report. I think I made the President's views known yesterday when I was asked a question, and I let you know what he said to the 9/11 Commission, as well. And certainly the 9/11 Commission -- everyone should cooperate with the 9/11 Commission and make sure that they have the information they need to complete their important work.

Q Tomorrow the President will speak to us, I mean, to the White House press corps. And May 3rd is World Press Freedom Day. And journalists around the world are under attack and they are not safe. And many times they are victims and those who attacked them are not prosecuted, including Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, where Justice is not done yet. And Freedom Forum will add another 53 names on Monday that journalists were killed last year. What President --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's always important to remember that there are journalists that put themselves in harm's way to provide people with reporting of what is going on. And we have to remember those who have lost their lives in those situations. The President has great appreciation and respect for the job that all journalists do. And we are saddened when journalists are killed doing their job on the battlefield.

Q And second. Saddam Hussein is gone from power, but still Iraq is still on the U.S. list of countries supporting terrorism, and so is Libya. Now, Libya supported terrorism all of the 25, 30 years, and now U.S. has opened doors for him as far as economy, trade and business is concerned. But Libya is also on the U.S. list --

MR. McCLELLAN: Libya has shown good faith, and they have continued to take steps to move beyond their past, and open up for better relations with the international community. We've said that that would be met by our good faith as they take those steps. They're still taking some additional steps, and we're appreciative of their efforts. And I think that Libya is a good example of what some other countries should look to as a way to realize better relations with the outside world, as well.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thanks.

END 2:45 P.M. EDT