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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
January 10, 2005

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

Play Video  Video (Real)

1:10 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody. As you're aware, the President received a briefing this morning from the delegation that he sent to assess the relief efforts in the Indian Ocean region. The President received a firsthand account of the devastation that took place in the region and the relief efforts that are underway.

Secretary Powell and the delegation updated the President on the, as you heard the President say, extraordinary efforts by the United States government and the American people, along with the international community, to get immediate help flowing to those who are suffering. The Secretary and Administrator Natsios also talked about the need to focus on the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase. They discussed the importance of the rehabilitation phase to restore basic services in the region, and they also discussed the need to focus on the long-term reconstruction.

As we've previously indicated, this is a long-term response effort and the United States will be in it for the long haul. As you heard the President say earlier today, we're in it today and we'll be -- we're committed today and will be committed to it tomorrow. We're continuing to assess needs relating the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction. The United States made an initial commitment of $350 million to help with the immediate relief efforts. In addition, our military has been providing round-the-clock logistical support to get that aid flowing. We have already provided $78 million in relief assistance to the affected countries.

Secretary Powell said it was important, in the meeting, to continue assessing needs in each country, and then make decisions about where resources should be directed based on what those needs are. The delegation also discussed the good level of cooperation between the United States, the international relief organizations, and the United Nations, and the response by the affected countries. Administrator Natsios discussed loans we are providing to get businesses up and running, and materials we're providing for short-term housing.

There was a pretty detailed discussion about Banda Aceh, which was the hardest-hit area both by the earthquake and the tsunami that followed. Secretary Powell showed the President several pictures of the debris fields and that included bodies of those who so tragically lost their lives. And Administrator Natsios commented that he had seen a number of natural disasters in his time, but he had not seen anything like what he saw on the trip to the region.

Administrator Natsios will also be attending a donors conference in Geneva tomorrow, and Secretary Powell, also toward the end of the meeting, let the President know that every leader they met with expressed their deep appreciation to the United States for the outpouring of generosity by the United States from public and private support. And as you're aware, the President met with some of the presidents of these international relief organizations and they discussed the level of cooperation going on between the United States and other countries with those relief organizations. And the President received a very positive report from those presidents.

And so that's my update at the beginning. I do want to make two quick announcements on the White House staff. The President is pleased to announce that Al Hubbard will be the new Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and the Director of the National Economic Council. And Candi Wolff will be Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs. They replace Steve Friedman and David Hobbs respectively. And the President is greatly appreciative of the service by Steve Friedman and David Hobbs, and he looks forward to working with these two individuals who he has a great amount of trust in.

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

Q Scott, when the President talks to Mr. Abbas this week, is he going to invite him to a meeting in Washington?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't -- I don't think there's a specific meeting that's contemplated right this minute. The President said, as you heard him say earlier, that if he would like to come to Washington, he is more than welcome. The President has previously met with President-Elect Abu Mazen here in Washington, D.C. And the President earlier today offered his congratulations to Abu Mazen on his victory. And the President now looks forward to doing everything we can to help support the meeting in London to help get things moving to put the institutions in place necessary for a democratic state to emerge. And the President made it very clear that all parties have responsibilities to help the Palestinian people as they move forward on putting institutions in place. Israel has responsibilities, the Arab states in the region have responsibilities, and the Palestinian leadership has a responsibility to move forward on putting in place a unified security force that is committed to fighting terrorism, a responsibility to end corruption, and they have a responsibility to put in place reforms that will lead to democratic institutions.

Q Scott, could you be more specific about what the United States' responsibilities are, other than just this general to support the Palestinians?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, as these leaders take steps to put these institutions in place, we are there -- the President made it very clear with Prime Minister Blair that it's important that we get a strategy in place so that we can help them put the institutions in place. And that's one of the things, I expect, that will be discussed at the meeting in London that Prime Minister Blair is hosting. There are a number of areas where we need to focus our efforts.

And the President talked about that in his remarks earlier today in the Oval Office. We provided financial assistance to the elections in the Palestinian areas, and we will continue working closely with the Palestinian people as they move forward to build a viable, democratic state, at peace with Israel. The President laid out a vision back on June 24th, 2002, and he remains firmly committed to doing our part to help them realize that vision. But all parties must act to move forward on their responsibilities.

Q Is financial assistance one of the things you're talking about?

MR. McCLELLAN: There's nothing to update at this point. But the President made it very clear that we are there -- we will be there to help the Palestinian people as they move forward to put the institutions in place necessary for a democracy to emerge. And this election was an important step in that direction. It was an important moment for the Palestinian people. For the first time, they were able to choose a new leader, after several years.

Q How many journalists does the administration have on its -- under contract to promote its programs? And what are the guidelines that you spoke of earlier this morning? You were very vague, and I'd like to know what they are.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not aware of any others that are under contract other than the one that's been reported on in the media. And questions have been raised about that arrangement. It ought to be looked into, and there are ways to look into matters of that nature. As a matter of principle, we believe very strongly that the media ought to be reporting in an objective, unbiased and fair manner. And so that's the principle upon which we believe people should be guided. And the government certainly has a responsibility to help when it comes to providing accurate information and helping to adhere to that principle.

Q It's your job, too, isn't it?

MR. McCLELLAN: That is my job.

Q The point is you have hired someone. And why did you, and who would do this investigation?

MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of the specific contract you're referring to, I don't know all the details of that contract. The Department of Education can provide you with information on the specific details within that arrangement. But I think I made it very clear as a matter of principle what our view is, and I think the Department of Education Counsel's Office looked into the matter and reviewed it. There are also questions about whether or not this commentator should have been disclosing this information publicly. And so those are all legitimate questions.

Q So he wasn't properly supervised in that respect, or he didn't have the proper guidance to know how he was to behave?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, see, that's one of the questions you might want to direct to Department of Education because I'm not sure about the specific details within this arrangement. But as a matter of a principle, I think our view is very clear.

Q Just to follow up, will you check as far as you can to see if you're paying any other journalists?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know of any. Obviously, decisions are made by individual agencies. I'm not aware of any other arrangements of that nature.

Q Was anyone at the White House aware of the fact that Armstrong Williams was on the payroll?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure that senior staff was consulted before this decision was made. I haven't heard anything to that effect.

Q And then on a different subject, does this administration transfer detainees or prisoners in the war on terror to third countries in order to have them interrogated with means that would be against this country's law -- in order to have them tortured?

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, I think the President has made our view very clear when it comes to torture. The President does not condone torture, and he would never authorize the use of torture. So I think it --

Q That's not what I asked, though.

MR. McCLELLAN: Understood. So I think I want to make that very clear right off the top. Our policy is to adhere to our laws and our treaty obligations. There are very clear laws in the United States regarding torture, and there are clear laws at the international level regarding torture. And our policy is to adhere to that. So I make that very clear.

In terms of intelligence or national security matters, I'm not in a position to get into commenting -- to get into discussing those. Those are questions you might want to direct to the appropriate agencies. But our policy is very clear, and that's what the President expects to be followed.

Q Right, but you can't tell me whether or not there are detainees that have been transferred to third countries and then tortured, with the acquiescence of the United States?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I made our view very clear. And in terms of torture, we do not condone torture and the President has never authorized torture -- nor would he.

Q A related question --

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead.

Q -- to terrorists. Newsweek in its current issue is reporting the Pentagon is considering the formation of so called "hit squads" to go after terrorists and insurgents in Iraq. In the light of the concern over Judge Gonzales's memo on the treatment of detainees, would the President endorse such "hit squads" if they were formed?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I haven't seen the specific article. I'll be glad to take a look at it. But in terms of the war on terrorism, it is a war that continues. It is a different kind of war, and we remained engaged in this war on terrorism. We will continue to go after and pursue those who seek to do us harm. We have brought to justice a number of individuals, some -- I believe three-quarters -- I'll have to double-check the number -- three-quarters of al Qaeda's leadership has been brought to justice in one way or another. We're talking about people like Khalid Shaykh Muhammed and others, who have a history of seeking to do harm to the American people and being involved in attacks like the one that took place on September 11th.

But as we go after these individuals and bring them to justice, the President expects that we do so in a way that adheres to our laws and our treaty obligations. He's made that policy very clear to all.

Q Scott, can you tell us more about the President's meeting on the tsunami warning system for this country?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it's going to take place here shortly. In fact, I think it's starting in a few minutes. So I might be a little late to it, or I think that's where my able deputy just left to go attend that meeting, so maybe we can give you more of an update after that. But the -- NOAA and the Department of Interior have been accelerating our efforts to expand the tsunami monitoring system and look at ways we can do this on a global basis. So I think he'll receive an update on where we are in terms of our own tsunami monitoring system in the Pacific. And I imagine he'll have a lot of questions about ways we can expand this warning system, in the hopes that maybe it can help save lives in the event something like this happens ever again.

Q You mean this is something that is now in existence for the U.S., but the U.S. is thinking about trying to expand --

MR. McCLELLAN: We do have a tsunami monitoring system in the Pacific region and we're looking at ways to accelerate efforts to expand that warning system.

Q There's not one in the Atlantic, for the Atlantic?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that NOAA can talk to you about that. I mean, I've seen some of the reports, and I'm sure the President will receive an update on that, as well, about the small likelihood of anything like that occurring from that -- from the Atlantic Ocean side of things in the United States. But, again, that's what -- they're looking at all this to expand it to have a -- some sort of a global warning system.

Q On the aid, you mentioned that $78 million had already been provided. You mean you've spent $78 million out of the $350 million pledged.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's right, that's correct.

Q How much of that aid is from contributions by the military? Are you counting how much they're spending every day?

MR. McCLELLAN: Not logistical support. In terms of this, we're talking about direct aid in the form of either supplies like water or food, hygiene kits, things of that nature, or temporary shelter. The military, obviously, has some of those supplies on hand that they're providing directly. And I think some of it would be in the form of cash assistance or grants.

But the military -- the logistical support from the military is on top of that $350 million in aid. So when you're talking about the helicopters that have been deployed that are working round the clock, and the ships that have been deployed to the region to help respond and make sure that humanitarian relief is flowing freely to the region, that's additional assistance, beyond the direct relief.

Q The other thing is, today CBS has fired four of its personnel who were involved in the story about the President's service in the National Guard. Any comment on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we felt all along that it was important for CBS to get to the bottom of this. CBS has taken steps to hold people accountable, and we appreciate those steps. We also hope that CBS will take steps to prevent something like this from happening again. I think that the report by the panel that investigated the matter makes some recommendations it says CBS should consider. And that's what our position is.

Q Follow-up, follow-up on that, Scott?

MR. McCLELLAN: Not yet, I'll come to you. John, go ahead.

Q Okay, thank you, Scott. Going back to your opening remarks, and the questions about relief, the London Financial Times reported last week that a lot of -- well, all of the U.S. aid would now be channeled through the United Nations and its relief organizations, instead of independently. With all the controversy and investigations surrounding the U.N.'s financial practices, why was this decision made, to make such a fundamental change, and who was responsible for it?

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, let me back up and walk you through how that came about. In the immediate aftermath of this human disaster that took place in the Indian Ocean region, we were able to move quickly with our partners in India and Japan and Australia to establish what was referred to as the regional core group. That core group's purpose was to get relief flowing immediately to those who were suffering in the region. And so that was its stated purpose. Secretary Powell said from the beginning that he envisioned that this would go out of business at some point, as it was merged into the other international relief and response efforts underway.

The United Nations was not in position, we believed, to where that group could be folded into the United Nations relief efforts. We're coordinating very closely with the international community in the relief efforts. And we intend to continue cooperating very closely with the international community as we move forward on rehabilitation and reconstruction in the region. And the United Nations, I know, this weekend spoke to some of the steps they've taken to make sure that the money that they're directing to the efforts is going to where it should go, and that they're doing that in a transparent way.

In terms of some of the issues relating to this oil-for-food program investigation, I think we've made our views very clear. This is a matter that raises very serious questions. We believe that the investigation should be done in an open and transparent manner, and that all the facts should be known, so that everybody can know what occurred. And the commission has released a number of internal audits in the last day, publicly. They've also provided those audits to some of the congressional hearings that are underway on this matter. We believe it should be fully investigated, and that that is matter that should be done in an open and transparent way. And so that's a good step, in that sense.

Go ahead, Peter -- I mean Mark. Peter, Mark. Both radio, sorry. I forget the faces. I hear the voices.

Q Social Security tomorrow, can you describe the forum that's going to take place? And is the President going to get any more specific about the proposals that he favors, as opposed to general principles?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, tomorrow I think you're going to have generations represented on the panel that he's participating in. It's going to be a conversation on Social Security. And so I think you'll have -- when I say, "generations," you'll have grandparents represented to middle-age working Americans or parents, to younger Americans. And I think when you look at my generation and younger generations, a lot of us don't feel that our Social Security retirement benefits are going to be around when we retire. We're not counting on it at this point, because of the fact that the system is headed toward insolvency.

So I think the President, tomorrow, will continue to highlight the problem facing Social Security and the need to act to address it now, before it gets worse, because over time it only gets worse. And so I think, tomorrow, he'll continue to talk about the problem we face. And it's important that we have a common understanding of the problem facing Social Security. The President had a bipartisan commission that looked into the situation and made some recommendations for fixing it. And he said that would be a guide for him, moving forward. This is a matter that many Democrats have said is a problem that needs to be addressed. And the President wants to move forward in a bipartisan way. So I think it's important, right now, to continue to talk to the American people about the problem facing Social Security so that we can move forward in a bipartisan way to get something done this year.

Q But you're still unable to tell us when we're going to hear specifics?

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, he indicated -- he indicated, I think in his press conference, that he would be offering more specific proposals as time goes by. But I think at this point we're still in the stage of reaching out to congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle who recognize that this is a problem and want to solve it, want to work together to solve it. So we're looking at a number of ideas that are out there that are consistent with the President's principle that would solve this problem facing Social Security. Right now we have a more than $10-trillion unfunded liability, and that's going to put a burden on our children and grandchildren. That's why we need to act now to solve it.

Q -- it's a crisis, then why not tell us the specifics as soon as possible?

MR. McCLELLAN: For the reasons we've stated repeatedly, that first we need to have a common understanding of the problem. And so that's what we're talking about. And secondly, that he wants to -- that this is such an important issue and such a challenge facing the American people that we need to move forward in as bipartisan a way as possible to solve it. And that's the approach that the President is taking.

Q Scott, is the White House 100 percent pleased with the level of cooperation that you're seeing right now between all the parties to the peace treaty signed over the weekend in the Sudan? There are reports of some ongoing violence in the Darfur region.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we remained concerned about violence in the Darfur region, and we remain concerned about the ability of humanitarian aid to flow freely to those displaced persons in the region. We do commend the government and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement for signing the comprehensive peace agreement. As the President said in his statement yesterday, what's going to be key now is the implementation of that agreement, and that as they move forward on that comprehensive agreement that it is our hope that that will help alleviate the suffering in the Darfur region.

But the conflict in the Darfur region continues, and this agreement can serve as an inspiration and model for both sides in that region toward resolving this in a peaceful way. And we expect all parties in the region to live up to their cease-fire commitments, to end the atrocities, as the President said, and to allow for the free movement of humanitarian workers and supplies. And we will continue to assist the people in Darfur as they work to reach a lasting peace.

Go ahead, Paula.

Q A moment ago when you said that the President is looking at various ideas on Social Security that conform with his principles. Does that include the idea being advanced by the former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich to set up a off-budget mechanism rather than changing benefit formula, or changing benefits at all?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think we've been through this very question before. You've asked it and I've answered it before. And --

Q -- not about Newt Gingrich's proposal.

MR. McCLELLAN: And as the President develops more specifics, then we will be talking about the budgeting of that proposal, as well. We are not at that point. But the President remains open to all ideas that are consistent with the principles that he outlined. And those principles were very clear: the need for younger workers to be able to, if they so choose, set up personal retirements accounts where they could set aside a portion of their own retirement savings to realize a greater rate of return; the need for no payroll tax increases; and then to make sure that those at or near retirement -- for those at or near retirement, that there are no changes in their Social Security system. But we will talk more about it as we develop a specific proposal in conjunction with congressional leaders.

Q I want to go back to "Rathergate" for a minute. Four people have been fired. There's a 224-page report and an eight-page statement --

MR. McCLELLAN: I see you have it there in your hand.

Q -- that's been released. Not a single word of apology to the

President for this episode. Is the White House disappointed in that? Or is that --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in fairness, I think CBS has previously expressed regret about this story airing. In terms of the specific report, it's just been released this morning. I'm not sure if everybody has had a chance to fully review the report and look at what the recommendations are, and look at all the issues they looked at to come to their conclusions.

Q The governor of Baghdad was recently assassinated. Now we learn that an entire election board in one province has been intimidated by insurgents to resign, heading to the run-up to the election in Iraq. How close is this country to dissolving into anarchy? And is the President deeply concerned that these elections will not give him the result that he's hoping for, which is the embryonic development of a democracy in Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you heard from the President directly on this issue on Friday. This will be an historic moment for the people of Iraq. Survey after survey shows that the Iraqi people want to choose their leaders.

Now, I would remind you that this election that will take place on January 30th is one of three elections that will take place in the country over the course of the next year. This will be to elect a transitional national government. That transitional government will draft a constitution. Then they'll also put in place the leadership for that transitional government. They'll draft a constitution; the people will vote on that constitution; and then, at the end of the year, the people will be able to elect their permanently -- permanent representative government. So it's an important step on the path to democracy.

But as we've indicated, it's not an election that I think you expect will be perfect. We want a -- best possible election to take place, and we want the fullest possible participation in that election. But I did a little -- had someone do a little research, and if you go back to our first popular vote that was recorded in the United States -- I think it was 1824, at least according to what we were able to pull together -- and there was a population of nearly 11 million people in the country. We had 356,000 people participating in that election. So democracy takes time to build, but the Iraqi people are committed to moving forward on a free and democratic and peaceful future. And we are there to support them every step of the way.

The terrorists want to delay the election because they want to return to the past of tyranny and oppression and brutality. But they will fail. The Iraqi people want a future that is based on democratic values and freedom.

We saw what took place in the Palestinian areas just yesterday. That was a hopeful moment for the Palestinian people. The election on January 30th in Iraq will be a hopeful moment for the Iraqi people. But it is only one step -- a significant step on the path to democracy. And we will be there to support them every step of the way. You have more than 14 million Iraqis who are registered to vote. We expect millions will actually do so in a matter of a couple of weeks. You have close to 19,000 candidates, and you have more than 100 coalition and parties that have put themselves forward on that ballot. So I think that shows the desire of the Iraqi people to choose their leaders.

Go ahead. And then -- go ahead, and then Ed.

Q -- in the Los Angeles Times said yesterday that -- -- (inaudible) -- Iran is pumping millions of dollars into Iraq. What's your comment --

MR. McCLELLAN: My comment is what we have said before, that all nations in the region have a responsibility to help the Iraqi people as they move forward on building a free and peaceful future. Iran, as Syria and others in the region have stated and signed in documents -- they said that they will make sure that they can play a -- that they play a constructive role in Iraq's future. Those countries should not be trying to influence the outcomes of the election. They should be trying to help support the Iraqi people as they build a democratic and peaceful future. And they've made commitments to that effect, and we expect them to follow through on those commitments and play a constructive role in Iraq's future.

Q How did the President learn of the CBS development? And what was his direct reaction?

MR. McCLELLAN: His reaction is my reaction to the report. And he was reformed -- informed this morning right after reports hit the wires.

Go ahead, April.

Q Scott, back on Social Security. Some of your critics are calling the personal investment account issue the "wheel of misfortune." They're saying there's no such thing as safe investment in the stock market, and it's basically a lottery for young Americans. Depending on when you're born, it could be a high rate of return or a low rate of return. Any comments?

MR. McCLELLAN: My comments would be to read the bipartisan Social Security Commission report, because Senator Moynihan and the other members of that commission looked at the current Social Security situation, recognized the crisis facing Social Security, and called for the need to strengthen Social Security for future generations to enjoy. And in that, they pointed to the Thrift Savings Plan, the Federal Employee Thrift Savings Plan, as an example of how to move forward on establishing personal retirement accounts.

Now, mind you, these are Democrats and Republicans that are calling for personal retirement accounts, because they recognize that younger workers can realize a greater rate of return on their benefits than they would under the current system now, if they're allowed to invest a portion of their own retirement savings into personal retirement accounts. And it talked about the great rate of return that federal employees have realized from the Thrift Savings Plan, substantially above what people are realizing from their Social Security benefits right now.

And so that's why the President believes it's important. It's also -- he also believes it's important for individuals to have more ownership over their own retirement savings. And so this will strengthen the system. That's what -

Q People, on average, know the stock market isn't safe. You go from the business sector to the financial sector to anywhere, it's pretty much just not a safe bet. What -- you said from that podium that you're looking for safe investments. What do you term -- what is the definition of "safe?"

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I just pointed to an example, the Thrift Savings Plans and the mutual funds you're talking about under that plan. And look at what people have realized from their investments in the thrift savings plan. That information is publicly available.

Thank you.

END 1:41 P.M. EST