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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 12, 2004

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

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12:34 P.M. EDT

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I want to begin with one statement by the President, and then I'll be glad to take your questions.

The United States welcomes Panama's signing today of a ship-boarding agreement that supports the efforts of the Proliferation Security Initiative to stop the trade in deadly weapons and materials. The agreement establishes streamlined procedures for American officials to request and board ships registered to Panama if those ships are suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, or related materials.

More ships sail under the Panamanian flag than that of any other nation. This agreement sends a strong signal to proliferators that the free nations of the world are determined to protect their people and preserve the peace. This is the second bilateral ship-boarding agreement signed to support the Proliferation Security Initiative. The United States and the government of Liberia signed a similar agreement on February 11, 2004. Together, Panama and Liberia account for roughly 30 percent of the world's commercial shipping tonnage. We welcome this historic decision by the government of Panama, and we urge other nations with large commercial shipping registries to follow the lead of Panama and Liberia to make a stand against proliferation.

And with that, I'll go straight to your questions.

Q Are you convinced that Zarqawi was responsible for the beheading, or was this simply just done in his name? Is there an effort underway to find out?

MR. McCLELLAN: Steve, as I made clear yesterday, we will pursue those who are responsible and bring them to justice. No, I do not have an update on who exactly is responsible. Apparently, those who claim credit are terrorists tied to al Qaeda, as they stated in this video. This was a brutal and barbaric act. It shows the true nature of terrorists. They have no regard for innocent life.

Our deepest condolences go out to the family of Nicholas Berg. Nicholas Berg was in Iraq to help build a better future for the Iraqi people. He was there, a civilian who was there to help. And the terrorists seek to intimidate us, but they will not prevail. A free and peaceful Iraq is critical to winning the war on terrorism. And the terrorists understand that when we prevail in Iraq, and a free and peaceful Iraq emerges, that will be a significant blow for their efforts.

Q Scott, has the President seen the tape of Berg's murder, and does the administration believe that this is retribution or revenge for U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners?

MR. McCLELLAN: Suzanne, terrorists will change their excuses, or find whatever excuse they can to try to carry out their murderous and evil acts. The terrorists look for all sorts of excuses to try to justify murder and destruction and chaos. There is no justification for the taking of innocent human life. Terrorists, as we have seen across the world -- whether it be in Madrid or whether it was at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or in Istanbul or other places -- terrorists seek to spread fear and chaos, and they have no regard for the innocent life of civilians, whether it's men, women or children.

Q Has the President seen the tape?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't believe he has. He's certainly been briefed on the tape, though.

Q Does he believe that this supports the argument that perhaps those photos of abuse should not be released to the public because they might incite further anger or violent acts against Americans?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there's no question that the acts of a small number of people in our military did harm. It does not represent the United States of America. Those actions do not represent the United States of America, nor do they represent the 99.9 percent of our men and women in the military who are serving with honor and distinction across the world, including in Iraq.

There have been more than 200,000 men and women in our military who have served in Iraq. They are there to help the Iraqi people build a free and prosperous future, and they are there to make America more secure, because a free and peaceful Iraq will help transform a dangerous region of the world. And those actions at Abu Ghraib do not represent the United States military or their actions that they carry out on a daily basis to -- acts of kindness and decency and compassion in helping the Iraqi people.

Q But does the administration believe that preventing those additional photos from being released to the public may protect U.S. soldiers?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think what the President believes is that it's important that we have an open and transparent process moving forward when it comes to these investigations, so that we can show the world that when acts like this -- shameful acts like this come to our attention, America addresses them swiftly, and America works to bring those responsible to justice, and we work to implement steps that will prevent something like this from happening ever again. So we show the world through our actions what we are truly committed to. And it stands in stark contrast to oppressive regimes. And it stands in stark contrast to terrorists.

Q Scott, can I ask you more specifically what the President's current view is on whether those additional photos should be released? Does he agree with the Vice President, who suggested yesterday in an interview, that essentially releasing those photos would have a negative effect on prosecutions going forward, and that, in essence, the call to release them is just from media types like us who want to print the photos? Does the President agree with the Vice President on that point?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I think the Vice President pointed out that a decision had not been reached on that very matter. The Pentagon is looking into these issues. We have been in close contact with the Pentagon throughout this process. The President appreciates the considerations that the Pentagon has to work to address. They will make a judgment, but the Pentagon has to look at factors such as the ongoing criminal investigations that are underway. That's first and foremost, because no one wants to do anything that would compromise the investigations and possibly prevent people who are responsible from being brought to justice. We want to make sure that people are brought to justice for these shameful and appalling acts.

But the Pentagon is still working to address those matters. They are providing information to members of Congress because they recognize the important oversight role that Congress has. So members of Congress, at least members of the Senate will be seeing some of those images this afternoon, so they can carry out their responsibilities. And it's important to keep Congress informed.

Q Does the President agree with the Vice President's comments yesterday?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President supports the judgment of the Pentagon to look into these matters --

Q That's not what I asked.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and address these issues. And the President fully understands the considerations that the Pentagon has to take into account, namely the ongoing criminal investigations that are underway.

Q The Vice President suggested that the calls to release the additional photos by the media and others is really out of an effort so that, as he said, so that the media can have more pictures to print in the paper. And he said this not kindly toward the media. I'm wondering if the President shares that view, that releasing them now is kind of media preoccupation.

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the both the President and the Vice President share the view that we need to get to the bottom of this, that we need to have an open and transparent process as these investigations move forward so that the world sees through our actions that America takes these matters seriously and addresses these matters in a very forceful and direct way.

Q The vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton, wants the commission to interview some of the top al Qaeda people now in U.S. custody. Will the White House allow that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, I think I've always said from this podium that we work very closely with the 9/11 Commission to make sure that they have all the information, or have access to all the information they need to do their job. And there are a number of different ways that we can provide the commission with access to the information they need to do their job, because we want to make sure the commission is able to provide the American people with a comprehensive and thorough report, and that we can look at those recommendations that they make and act on those recommendations moving forward.

But in terms of specific issues like that, those are issues that we prefer to address directly with members of the commission and discuss with them, rather than discuss from this podium. So I think that's the best way to approach it.

Q I take it then, from what you say, that you're not really closing the door, it is a possibility that they could be allowed --

MR. McCLELLAN: What I'm saying is that we will continue to work with them to make sure that they have access to the information they need to do their job.

Q Nicholas Berg was in Iraq to build a better Iraq. What is your understanding of what he was actually doing there? And can you shed any additional light on the fact that he was apparently detained by Iraqi police, and the FBI went and talked to his family, and so forth? Can you shed any light --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that those questions are best directed to the coalition. Over in Iraq, they did talk about some of those issues earlier today, and I would leave it to them to address, because I don't know all the details related to that matter. But his family and friends have made it clear that he was over there trying to help the Iraqi people.

Q Is anyone contacting the family here to follow up on this?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll try to keep you posted if there are any contacts. But the Consular's Office from Baghdad, as well as Consular Affairs, I think, at the State Department, have been in contact with the family.

Q Is the President in touch with the family, or does he intend to be in touch with the family?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I'll try to keep you posted if there's any updates beyond that.

Q Scott, last summer, General Miller went from Guantanamo over to Iraq to look at the way interrogations were being handled at the prisons. He filed a report that we understand is about 15 pages long, in which he gave some general guidelines that were more like what was happening at Guantanamo, perhaps not completely falling under the Geneva Conventions, but rather consistent with the Geneva Conventions. Can you clarify, was that a turning point? Did the rules change at that point?

MR. McCLELLAN: Kate, one, there are several investigations going on relating to not only what happened at Abu Ghraib, but the entire prison system in Iraq. And I think there was some testimony yesterday by military officials that addressed this very issue. There are ongoing investigations; we want to let those ongoing investigations proceed, and look at all these issues. And I certainly don't want to get into conducting those investigations from this podium. I think it's best to let those investigations proceed; let members of Congress exercise their appropriate oversight role, and let the military continue forward with those investigations and the independent review team that the Secretary appointed.

Q Earlier you said you could clarify, though, what Judge Gonzales laid out at first, in terms of what kinds of interrogations could be done in terms of the Geneva Convention.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I think Judge Gonzales has talked about our views. And when it comes to Iraq, we are bound by the Geneva Convention. It is our policy to adhere to all of our laws and our treaty obligations.

Q Scott, so you're limiting -- the Geneva Convention only applies as far as Iraq is concerned in terms of what U.S. military --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President set out some guidelines when it comes to the enemy combatants and the detainees that you may be referring to at Guantanamo Bay, for instance. Al Qaeda obviously was not a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. But the President set out some broad and clear guidelines stating that these detainees should be treated humanely and consistent with the Geneva Conventions.

Q The Geneva Conventions don't say anything about conditions where they don't apply, and they specifically say that if there's some doubt as to whether someone has the status that's protected, they're entitled to a hearing, which folks at Guantanamo have not had.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Mark, we've been talking about all those issues, related to specific cases. But the President's guidelines were very clear; they should be treated humanely and consistent with the Geneva Conventions.

Q Well, he's opting out of that hearing provision, correct?

MR. McCLELLAN: We have previously -- this goes back to, I think, last year, or even prior to that, when we outlined the guidelines that the President had set for the enemy combatants. These are unlawful enemy combatants. They are people that have been involved in, or sought to carry out attacks against the American people. And despite that, the President believes that there should be some clear guidelines with the way they are treated.

Q In terms of the prisoners in Iraq, none of those are to be treated as unlawful combatants, they're all POWs, under Geneva, as far as --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't know -- I mean, there are some that are prisoners; there are other people, obviously, that have come into that country, as well, so there are other detainees that are there, as well. But in terms of the prisoners, yes, our -- we are bound by the Geneva Conventions. And in Iraq, we are bound by the Geneva Conventions.

Q And those conventions do specify that those who do not qualify, who are illegal combatants, are entitled to a hearing as to their status --

MR. McCLELLAN: Mark, we can go and try to get into a discussion of all the legal issues, but I think that in terms of our policy, I can tell you what our policy is and what the guidelines that the President has set out and he has made very clear, and he expects that to be adhered to.

Q Scott, the AP reports from Kuwait that the head of the Iraq's War Crimes Tribunal, Chalabi, said that the United States has pledged to hand over Saddam Hussein before July the 1st. I have a two-part question. Since Saddam is a war criminal, and since the United States turned over none of the Nazi war criminals to German courts, why on Earth is this being done?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've said that we would turn him over to Iraqi authorities at the appropriate time and in an appropriate manner. We believe that he should be held accountable for his decades of brutality and the Iraqi people will be in the best position to do that.

Q So could you tell us, as one of the President's top media advisors, what you believe will be the national reaction if the Iraqi court acquits Saddam Hussein?

MR. McCLELLAN: I just don't see that scenario happening, Les.

Q You don't see it, but it's a possibility, isn't it? Isn't that true?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't see that happening, Les.

Go ahead.

Q Back on the issue of Nicholas Berg, he was -- he was a unique case, they were saying, someone freelancing, going over without being under the umbrella of a large company. What is the White House doing to prevent persons here, who are very patriotic and want to go over to help, from going over there in a freelance capacity so this won't happen again?

MR. McCLELLAN: Wherever American citizens are, their safety and security is a top priority for the administration. It is always that way. There are dangerous places in the world; there are some dangerous parts in Iraq. We have sent out some travel warnings, as well, from the State Department. That is something that they regularly update. But the safety and security of American citizens is always a high priority for this administration.

Q So are you -- are you basically saying that Americans should not go over there on a freelance effort unless they have -- unless they're under the umbrella of a major corporation, be it Halliburton or --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's not the way I described it, but there are travel warnings that you might want to look at that the State Department has issued. I think their latest one, with regard to Iraq, may have been in March. But the -- what I am saying is that the safety and security of Americans, wherever they are, is a high and top priority for this administration.

Q And then another question, real quick. Fifty days out from the June 30th deadline; who is the White House favoring? I mean, you still don't have someone to hand power over to.

MR. McCLELLAN: The Iraqi people; that's who we're favoring. The U.N. Envoy, Mr. Brahimi, is working through those efforts. He's continuing to consult with Iraqi leaders, and we're in close contact with him. He is going to be coming back with some ideas of who will be in that representative, transitional government. We are moving forward to meet the June 30th timetable for transferring sovereignty.

It's an important agreement that we reached with the Iraqi people. They want to see us adhere to that timetable, and we are committed to doing that. And we appreciate the role that the United Nations is playing in these efforts. And we are continuing to talk with Mr. Brahimi and Iraqi leaders on those efforts.

Q What group do you favor, does this White House favor over the others --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, we're talking about an interim representative government. We think it should be representative of the Iraqi people. But these are issues that Mr. Brahimi is heading up and working with Iraqi officials to address.

Q Scott, there have been people who were detainees in Guantanamo who -- now in England, who say that Guantanamo is essentially run by military intelligence. If you give them information, you're allowed to take -- have a postcard home or whatever privileges. Is Guantanamo being run by military police or military intelligence? And how about Afghanistan prisons?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think those questions can be addressed to the Pentagon in terms of who is in charge of the Guantanamo facility. What was the second part of it?

Q And how about Afghanistan?

MR. McCLELLAN: In Afghanistan? Again, address those questions to the military. I'm sure they'll be glad to answer those questions for you.

Q Scott, two questions. One, several hearings are going on on human rights and religious freedoms on Capitol Hill. This morning, under the leadership of Congressman Dan Burton, they have accused India as far as human rights violations are concerned. And also, a report was released this morning by the Presidential Commission on International Religious Freedom. And they have also recommended to the President and to the Secretary of State that India should be labeled as a country of concern as far as religious freedoms are concerned. What does -- how does the President feel about this?

MR. McCLELLAN: This is something Congress was taking up this morning? I haven't had a chance to take a look at it. I'll be glad to -- I was in the meeting with the President, that the President had with the President of Angola. But I'll be glad to take a look at it and we can talk about it.

In terms of the President's views on religious freedom, I think those are very clear. He's a strong supporter of religious freedom.

Q And second question -- nobody is disputing, and we are not disputing as far as those images from Iraq, abuse of prisoners are concerned. But Americans are also asking that -- 75 percent of them, that how does the President feel that whenever there is abuse like this, Muslims or Arabs will come out against those, but as far as when Americans are being killed there, murdered and burned alive, and none of those, they will come with a statement of condemning those murders --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, I think there is wide condemnation for the kind of brutal murder that you saw in this video. There is wide condemnation for those kind of terrorist acts. I don't think anyone in civil society would not condemn such atrocious acts against an innocent civilian.

Q -- has actually condemned it?

Q Excuse me, many people are celebrating in many part of the Arab world about this murder, also, Scott. I don't know how do we bring understanding that human life is human life rather than American or an Arab --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think there's a huge difference that you see between terrorists and the civilized world. Terrorists are people who have no regard for innocent life. They are willing to use whatever excuse they can find to carry out their murderous acts against innocent men, women, and children. We have seen that all across the world, as I pointed out, and everybody should condemn those actions by terrorists.

Q Can you say who specifically has condemned this?

Q Has Saudi Arabia --

MR. McCLELLAN: You had your question. Go ahead, Dick.

Q Just switching off topic for a second. The trade deficit hit a new record, driven primarily by higher fuel prices, which, at this point, show no signs of coming down. How concerned is the President about it? And besides urging Congress to pass his energy bill, what is he doing?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President remains concerned about rising gas prices. I think most Americans are concerned about rising gas prices. And that's why we remain in contact with producers around the world urging them not to act in a way that would hurt our economy or hurt our -- or harm our consumers.

Saudi Arabia has made some comments in the past about the steps that they're committed to taking to make sure that they are committed to that. And it's also important that we move forward on passing a comprehensive energy plan so we don't run into this situation year after year, a comprehensive energy plan that will reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy.

Q Despite warnings that the release of the Abu Ghraib pictures might put Americans in danger, CBS went ahead and did it anyway. The feeding frenzy over these photos has been briefly interrupted by the video of Nick Berg being brutally beheaded. But they won't show that on the air. Do you find any inconsistency with regard to the media treatment for releasing these photographs they knew would inflame the Arab street, but not airing something that they also know would inflame the American street, or at least the center and the right part of it would see the President --

MR. McCLELLAN: What's important --- Jeff, I'm sorry to speed this up, but the helicopter is landing and we have to leave for another event. But what's important is that America shows the world how we act when these kind of issues come to light, when prisoners are mistreated. And we act by holding people responsible who committed these acts, and taking steps to make sure something like this doesn't happen again. It stands in stark contrast to a regime like Saddam Hussein's who tolerated and encouraged these kind of activities.

Q Scott, a readout of the Angola meeting. You were in the room, you said?

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, yes, well, they had a good a discussion. They talked -- they talked about Iraq some. The President appreciates the support Angola has given for our efforts in Iraq. They also talked about the need to combat HIV/AIDS. They had a good discussion about that. They talked about Angola's leadership following what has been a difficult period in Angola. And they talked about the importance of moving forward on elections, that the President of Angola is committed to doing, a couple of years from now, I believe. So it was a good -- it was a good discussion.

Q -- either the prison abuse or the --

MR. McCLELLAN: The President did talk about it and expressed some of what I've already expressed here in this briefing.

Thank you.

END 12:55 P.M. EDT