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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
January 12, 2005

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

Play Video  Video (Real)

12:47 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody. I have nothing to begin with today, so I will go straight to your questions. Seeing only Mark --

Q Only Mark.

MR. McCLELLAN: This will be the only question of the briefing. Go ahead.

Q The fact that the Iraq Survey Group has now folded up its field operations, can you explain to us if there is any sense of embarrassment or lack of comfort about the fact that after two years of looking, these people found nothing that the President and others assured us they would find?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President already talked about this last October in response to the comprehensive report that was released by Charles Duelfer at that point. Charles Duelfer came to the White House in December; the President took that opportunity to thank him for all the work that he had done. The two discussed how Saddam Hussein's regime retained the intent and capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, and they also discussed how he was systematically gaming the system to undermine the sanctions that were in place, so that once those sanctions were eliminated -- which was something he was trying to do through the U.N. oil-for-food program -- then he could begin his weapons programs once again. And I think the President talked about the other issues back in October. Nothing has changed from that time period.

Q He, at that point, even since then, during the campaign on a couple of occasions, held out the possibility that something still might be found. Does he still hold out some hope that something is going to be found?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, at this point, the members of the Iraq Survey Group that are still there in Iraq -- I mean, obviously, if they hear additional reports about anything, they will follow up on those reports. But I think Charles Duelfer has made it pretty clear, and it's my understanding that the comprehensive report he issued last year is essentially the completion of his work. He's going to have an addendum that will be released at some point next month. But there are a number of documents that Charles Duelfer talked about with the President that some of the Iraq Survey Group continues to go through and learn more about the regime, itself.

Q Minority Leader Pelosi has just sent out a statement saying the President owes the American people an explanation for how he was so wrong for so long. Is that --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what the President's focus is on is looking at the recommendations from the independent commission on weapons of mass -- on intelligence relating to weapons of mass destruction that he appointed. That commission has continued to do its work; they've been meeting with a number of people. And one of the areas that they'll focus on is the intelligence from Iraq. Their job is to make sure that they take a comprehensive look at our intelligence capabilities because we face many dangerous new threats in this day and age. And it's vital that Congress and the President have the best possible intelligence to make the necessary decisions to confront the threats that we face

So the President looks forward to seeing the recommendations from the Silberman-Robb commission when they release those recommendations. And he is committed to acting on those recommendations, to make sure we take steps to improve our intelligence.

Q The President accepts that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he said back in October that the comprehensive report by Charles Duelfer concluded what his predecessor had said, as well, that the weapons that we all believed were there, based on the intelligence, were not there. And now what is important is that we need to go back and look at what was wrong with much of the intelligence that we accumulated over a 12-year period and that our allies had accumulated over that same period of time, and correct any flaws.

Q I just want to make sure, though, because you said something about following up on additional reports and learning more about the regime. You are not trying to hold out to the American people the possibility that there might still be weapons somewhere there, are you?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I just said that if there are -- if there are any other reports, obviously, of weapons of mass destruction, then people will follow up on those reports. I'm just stating a fact.

Q And finally, what is the President's assessment of the damage to American credibility that might have been done by his very forceful case that there were weapons and his launching of a war on that basis?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, nothing has changed in terms of the President's view. And if you look at the report that was issued by Charles Duelfer, again, it made very clear that the regime retained the intent and capability, that Saddam Hussein was pursuing an aggressive strategy to undermine the U.N. oil-for-food program and bring down the United Nations sanctions through illicit finance and procurement schemes, and that he intended to resume his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction once those sanctions were eliminated. It also made clear that he was in material breech of Security Council resolutions, including Resolution 1441, which gave him one final opportunity to comply.

And remember, September 11th changed the equation about how we confront the threats that we face, and the President recognizes what his most important responsibility is, and that is to do everything in his power to protect the American people. And nothing has changed in terms of his views when it comes to Iraq, what he has previously stated and what you have previously heard. The President knows that by advancing freedom in a dangerous region, we are making the world a safer place.

This is a historic and hopeful time in the broader Middle East. We've seen elections take place in Afghanistan. We've seen elections move forward for a new Palestinian President in the Palestinian areas. It's a unique opportunity to achieve peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis and realize the President's two-state vision. And the Iraqi people have a very hopeful moment coming for them at the end of this month when, for the first time, they will freely choose a transitional government, and then they will follow up with a couple of additional elections this year. And that's important to making America more secure and making the world a better place.

Q Just one more. What I was getting at is looking forward -- when it comes to Iraq, North Korea, and the President -- this President stands up and says, they've got weapons programs, they've got weapons of mass destruction, isn't it the case that there will be many people in the world who will say, how can we believe him? And how does he deal with that?

MR. McCLELLAN: He's going to continue working with the international community to confront the threats that we face. He recognizes what his most important responsibility is; that's the safety and security of the American people. And at the same time, we are acting to make sure that we have the best possible intelligence. We have taken a number of steps since September 11th to improve our intelligence-sharing and gathering of information. We're working closely with friends and allies across the globe to win the global war on terrorism. We will continue to do that. We will continue to coordinate our efforts, and we will continue to share our information so that we can act on that intelligence. But we're also going to continue taking steps to make sure that that intelligence is the best possible intelligence.

Our friends and allies had the same intelligence that we had when it came to Saddam Hussein, and now we need to continue to move forward to find out what went wrong and to correct those flaws. And that's exactly what the independent commission the President appointed is going to do. And they're going to make recommendations, and the President is committed to acting on those recommendations.

Q Scott, this is an important political question that you're not really addressing squarely, which is, can this President or a future President go to a Tony Blair or a leader of Spain and say, we believe something is happening and you need to join us in a preemptive show of force? Has this experience not totally wiped out that possibility for political action in the future?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all -- a couple of things -- we're working together in a number of areas to confront threats that the international community faces. We're working together to confront threats in places like North Korea and Iran. The President is pursuing diplomatic solutions in close consultation with other countries. I think that the people in the region, in the Korean Peninsula region, recognize the importance of having a non-nuclear Peninsula --

Q I'm talking about preemptive military action.

MR. McCLELLAN: Right. And that's the last option that you always want to pursue. But the President is going to continue working closely with our friends and allies to confront the threats that we face --

Q How can he do it again --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and we continue to take steps to improve our intelligence. That's what the President is going to do. We have very good relationships with countries across the world because of the President's efforts over the last few years. He's worked to build strong relationships with our friends and allies, and worked to make sure that we're confronting the threats that we face. It's important that we act together to confront the threats that we face. And it's important that when we say something, that we follow through on what we say. That's why the President is also --

Q Even if the information is wrong?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- that's why the President is also working to strengthen the United Nations and make it more effective. That's something that we're working on, as well, because it was very clear what the international community expected of Saddam Hussein, and he continued to defy the international community. It was a very unique threat that we faced in terms of Iraq. And in a post-September 11th world, it was a threat you could not ignore.

Q Secretary Rumsfeld said you go -- infamously, he said, "you go to war with the Army that you have." Well, this administration went to war, when it went to war, based on information that proved to be incorrect. Does the President now regret the timing of this? Does he feel that the war effort and its aftermath and the post-immediate war conflict phase was undermined by that timetable and intelligence that was wrong?

MR. McCLELLAN: Based on what we know today, the President would have taken the same action, because this is about protecting the American people. As I said --

Q At the very same time, he would have done it on the same timetable?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- this is about advancing freedom and democracy in a dangerous region of the world. We saw what happened as the threat built over a long period of time in the Middle East, while countries were looking the other way and letting tyranny advance in that region and letting -- and we took action to confront a threat posed by Saddam Hussein. We're also taking action to support reform in other parts of the broader Middle East. And the world is going to be a safer place because of the action that we're taking.

Q Scott, can I follow up, too?

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Connie.

Q Two follow-ups. There's been quite a bit of talk that Syria might have hidden some of these weapons of mass destruction. Is the government of Syria cooperating at all in the search for WMD?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you have the report from Charles Duelfer. You can go and look at that report in terms of addressing those issues, and I think the President has spoken to the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction. Obviously, if there are any other reports that come to people's attention, they'll follow up on those reports.

Q And one last thing -- is Saddam Hussein revealing any information that we know about?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have any update in terms of -- in terms of him.

Q Scott, on the intelligence, does the President plan before the inaugural to name a Director of National Intelligence, and if not, will it be soon, speaking of threats on intelligence?

MR. McCLELLAN: I do not speculate on personnel matters so I'm not going to get into speculating on the timing. We continue to move forward on that nomination, and you will hear more from the President in due course.

Q Is he narrowing it down, are we getting close?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to speculate about it. I just said he continues to work on that nomination, and when he's ready to say more on it, he will do so at that point.

Q Scott, the President, in nominating Michael Chertoff as the Homeland Security director, he -- Chertoff has a very extreme profile in terms of his actions. He was the head of the Whitewater investigation. He was in the criminal division when they did the big sweep of a thousand individuals who were taken into custody immediately after September 11th, out of which only one person actually became a legal case. He's also said to have been involved in the Lackawanna Seven operation, which was something of a fiasco. Doesn't his nomination send a wrong message to the country at a point in time where after a very tough election and very contentious election --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you take a very different view from the Democratic senators from New Jersey who expressed their support for his nomination. You take a different view from Senator Schumer who has expressed his support for this nomination. Judge Chertoff is someone who is widely respected on both sides of the aisle, and he is someone who has strong support from the first responders that he will continue working closely with in this new position, once he is confirmed by the United States Senate. He has a solid record of accomplishment, and he has a deep commitment to making sure we are doing all we can to protect the American people. And the President looks forward to the Senate moving quickly on this nominee.

Q And secondly, Scott, on the Social Security privatization -- the President has said he would be very concerned in making sure that funds in the private accounts were not at risk for the people who wanted to place them there, but -- and he took the example of placing them in U.S. Treasury bonds. Now, the Social Security funds are already being placed in Treasury bonds. Why should the private accounts make a difference, unless people are allowed to put them in the stock market, which, of course, is a very risky undertaking?

MR. McCLELLAN: There was a bipartisan commission that looked at the problems facing Social Security. That commission outlined some options to consider, as we work to solve this problem. It was led by the late Senator Moynihan. And they recognized the importance of establishing personal retirement accounts where people -- younger workers could voluntarily set aside some of their own savings, if they so chose, in personal retirement accounts. And the President is strongly committed to that, as part of a comprehensive effort to strengthen Social Security.

The Social Security Commission talked about the Federal Employee Thrift Savings Plan as an example of the type of investments they're talking about. And those are investments that have yielded significant returns for federal employees. And so we're talking about establishing something similar to what federal employees now have as part of our plan to strengthen Social Security.

But we're continuing to talk with members of Congress and all those who want to work together to solve this problem. The President wants to move forward in a bipartisan way, and he's encouraged that there are a number of people on both sides of the aisle that recognize there is a serious problem and that we need to address it. Now we need to talk about how we can do that by working together.

Q Scott, are you saying that the President -- it's the President's view that the WMD situation has not hurt United States credibility around the world?

MR. McCLELLAN: Ed, what I'm saying is what the President has previously said, because we've been through this issue before, when Charles Duelfer issued the comprehensive report. We need to make sure that we do receive the best possible intelligence, and that we take steps to have better intelligence. The report showed that much of that accumulated body of intelligence that the United States had and that our allies had, and that we had compiled over a 12-year period, was wrong. And we need to find out why, and we need to take steps to correct those flaws.

That's why the independent commission is looking into these matters, and the President wants to hear back from them. And then, when he looks at their recommendations, he has made it clear that he intends to act on their recommendations. Because in this day and age, when we face dangerous threats, it's vital that Congress and the administration have the best possible intelligence to make the decisions necessary to protect and defend the United States.

Q So if the information is wrong, is there no consequence?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q If the information about WMDs is wrong, as we all agree now, is there no consequence?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's separate out here -- there's the issue of Iraq and the decision to go into Iraq, and the President has previously spoken to that: It was the right decision to go in and remove Saddam Hussein from power. I think that there's wide agreement that the world is better off because he has been removed from power. And I also think that there is a good understanding that by advancing freedom in the Middle East, that we are making the world a better place and that we're making America more secure. That's where the President's focus is. His focus is on helping to support those in the region who want to move forward on building democratic institutions in places like Iraq, in places like the Palestinian areas. We have some historic opportunities before us; it's a very hopeful period of time. And that's where the President's focus is.

Q Scott, did the White House intend to, at any point, come out and tell the American people that the search for WMD was over?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that the President addressed this issue back in October. Maybe you weren't there for when he talked about it. But Charles Duelfer is the one who was overseeing these efforts and he's now back here. He's continuing to wrap up his work. I think it's up to him to make those determinations about when he says everything is concluded.

Q And understanding that the White House --

MR. McCLELLAN: I mean, there is still some wrap-up work that he's doing; there's still some -- the Iraq Survey Group continues to operate in Iraq under the multinational force command. And much --

Q The search is over? Is the search --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think -- I think that others have already addressed that much of their physical search has -- that their physical search has essentially ended, yes, but that they continue to go through documents. So they're -- some of their work continues, because there are thousands and thousands of pages of documents that they were able to recover that were part of the basis for the previous report that Charles Duelfer released. And it was -- the President talked about it at that time, it was a comprehensive look at the regime and the regime's intentions and the regime's capabilities.

Q And understanding that the President wants to look ahead and see what intelligence missteps were made, still, critics are saying that this demonstrates an unwillingness on the White House's part to deal with realities as they exist now, versus what initial assessments may have been. Could you respond to that?

MR. McCLELLAN: The reality is that the United States of America was attacked on September 11, 2001, and some 3,000 innocent civilians lost their lives. The reality is that the Middle East has been a dangerous region of the world and has been a breeding ground for terrorism. The reality is that Saddam Hussein's regime was a sworn enemy of the United States, that Iraq under Saddam Hussein's regime was a state sponsor of terrorism and had terrorist ties. The reality is that it was a unique threat, and the President recognizes that September 11th changed the equation for how we confront the threats that we face. And this President is committed to acting to make the world a better place, make the world a safer place, and make America more secure.

Q Has the Iraq Survey Group shed any light on the question of why there seems to be an unlimited supply of munitions to the insurgents in Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know -- I don't know of any update beyond what you've heard publicly from the military. I think the military would be the best one to address those questions to.

Q Scott, you've addressed the intelligence failures. Based on that, would the President send a Secretary of State -- Condoleezza Rice -- to the United Nations to make the same kind of case that Secretary Powell made based on U.S. intelligence?

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, Peter, in terms of the intelligence, that's continued -- we're continuing to look at that through the commission that the President appointed. They're continuing to look at why much of that was wrong and what steps we can take to correct any flaws from that intelligence. This was intelligence that the international community had. We had a regime that had a history of using weapons of mass destruction, and had a history of defying the international community, and had a history of ties to terrorists organizations in Iraq. We had the attacks on September 11th that taught us we must confront threats before it's too late. And that's what the President is committed to doing. That's why we're acting on a number of different fronts to address the threats that the world faces because this is about making America more secure. And I'm not going to try to play into some hypothetical situation that you're asking about.

Q Well, to put a finer point on it, does he have enough confidence in the current quality of intelligence to go to the United Nations with it, if need be, or not -- as was mentioned, Korea, Iran, or some other --

MR. McCLELLAN: We work closely with the other nations that are committed to winning the global war on terrorism and work closely with them in intelligence matters. And we have good cooperation and sharing going on since September 11th. We've taken a number of steps since September 11th to improve our intelligence, and to improve our gathering of that intelligence, and our sharing of information not only here at home, but abroad, as well. And that's what we'll continue to do to make sure that we have the best possible intelligence.

Q Has it improved enough, though, for him to act on it?

MR. McCLELLAN: He will -- he will act on intelligence that he receives to protect the American people. When we have actionable intelligence, we will act on it. And this President has acted on it in a number of cases. That's why we've been able to disrupt and dismantle much of the leadership of al Qaeda, because September 11th taught us that we need to confront threats, that we need to act on intelligence that we receive. And what we also need to do is make sure that we're receiving the best possible intelligence. So, you bet, the President is going to act on intelligence that he receives if it's about protecting the American people. And we have, and will do so with our partners in the international community, as well.

Q Can you address -- the Indonesian government reported the decision to ask all the foreign troops out. Does the U.S. intend to strengthen military relations with Indonesia?

MR. McCLELLAN: On the first part, right now our efforts with Indonesia are focused on -- or the last part -- our efforts with Indonesia are focused on making sure we're getting relief to those who are suffering in the region and in Indonesia. And we have seen the reports that you're referring to. We are seeking further clarification about what that means. But the immediate aid that needs to get to these people in the region is our focus right now, of getting that aid to those who are suffering in the region. That's what our focus will continue to be and that's what the focus of the international relief organizations is in the area, as well. So we hope the Indonesian government will continue to show the strong support that they have to those international relief efforts that are underway.

Q How long does the -- allow the relief teams to stay there? Do they have a plan?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the United States is in this for the long haul, because there's the immediate relief phase; there's also the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase. And I think Administrator Natsios has talked about that, Secretary Powell has talked about it, the President has talked about it. This is a long-term effort, and the United States will be there for the long haul, to help people in the region get the relief they need and to reconstruct their cities and reconstruct their lives.

Q You said you're seeking clarification from the Indonesian government. Have you encountered anything on the ground that would give meaning to what the reports suggested, that they wanted --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have any further updates. I mean, State Department is working, I think, through the embassy to find out further information and I'm not aware of any additional update at this point.

Q In a few weeks the President is going to be proposing his budget. There's been reports that some discretionary programs will be frozen and others will be cut, including veterans and housing. Can you comment on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President, I think, has made it very clear what we are doing when it comes to the budget. We are going to put forward a responsible budget that funds our highest priorities and that exercises fiscal, or spending restraint. And we're also going to make sure that government programs are focused on results. I think when you look at the budget, it's more than $2 trillion -- I think more than $800 million* of that is discretionary spending. I think the American people recognize that we can do much better with less, and that's the approach that the President has taken. He's focused on results and how those programs are working to achieve results that benefit the American people.

Q The previous budgets have called for at least a minimum increase, not freezing any specific programs. So is freezing --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I know you're trying to jump ahead of the budget release, but the budget will be released on February 7th and we'll be able to talk more about it at that point.

Q Scott, does the President have an opinion about the -- there are some in Congress who would like to increase the death benefit to spouses of servicemen and women to I think -- a death benefit of $100,000, up from $12,000.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll have to look at the specific legislation that you're referring to, but the President is firmly committed to doing everything we can to support our men and women in the military, and to support the families of those who are serving and sacrificing for the United States. And I think he's made that very clear.

Q Can you check on that, though, that specific point?

MR. McCLELLAN: But I'll have to look at the specifics.

Q Scott, in one of the local papers, the President says he's going to push for congressional reform this year. But it's not clear what he means with this temporary worker program. Three years and maybe to renew another time for three years, so that means six years. And then the deportations to the people who get involved in this. And he said it's not an instant way to get citizenship. So how does he want to resolve the problem, which is only keep six years, millions of legal workers in this country, and then they're going to send them back home and they will look for a way to get back to the U.S.?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's a high priority for the President. The President has made it very clear that he intends to move forward on his reform proposals this year. He believes that we have a real problem facing the United States when you have some 8 million undocumented workers in the United States. And he's talked about this in a number of different ways, that we need to address it.

He has proposed a temporary guest worker program to match willing workers with willing employers to meet an economic need and also to provide a more compassionate and humane way to address the problem along our borders, because there are many people coming here simply to support their families back in places like Mexico or other countries.

And we also need to work to expand trade and encourage growth across the world so that we can improve living conditions and improve standards in other countries, so that people will be less likely wanting to leave their country. I think many of these people would prefer to stay in their own neighborhood and work in their own country. But there are a number of people that are simply coming here to provide for their families back home. And there are a number of jobs that are not being filled by Americans, but there are people willing to fill those jobs that are coming here.

And so the President believes we need to act to address this problem. And that -- by acting to address it, we're also going to free up our border enforcement efforts to focus on those who are coming here for the wrong reasons -- criminals and terrorists.

Q One question on Iraq. Are you worried that with your report, countries like France will gather more credibility than the U.S. in

discussions in the Security Council of the United Nations?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think that -- first of all, that everybody is really focused now on working together to support the Iraqi people as they move forward on elections and building a democratic and peaceful future. Everybody recognizes the stakes involved in Iraq. The terrorists recognize the stakes, and the international community recognize the stake. The Iraqi people recognize the stakes involved. And we need to continue to focus our efforts on helping the Iraqi people build a democratic and peaceful future.

And that's exactly what we're going to continue to do. The Iraqi people want a free, democratic and peaceful future. They want to assume responsibility for their future. They want to elect their leaders. And that's what we're there to do, to help them realize their aspirations. And there are a number of countries that are helping in that regard. And there are a number of others that have expressed their strong support for what is going on there.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.

END 1:16 P.M. EST

* $800 billion