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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 14, 2005

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

Play Video  Video (Real)

12:17 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everyone. You just heard from the President in his fourth of a series of speeches he was giving ahead of tomorrow's historic elections that are taking place in Iraq. He thought today was a good time to take stock of where we are in Iraq, why we're there, and why it's so important that we continue to stay there until we succeed.

And before that speech, the President was pleased to participate in a briefing here at the White House with a group of House Democrats. The President, at the beginning of the briefing -- and this is a third in some briefings that we've been doing over last week and this week with members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats -- at the beginning of the meeting, the President talked about his commitment to working together to protect the American people. That is our shared, number one responsibility. And he talked about how there's a lot of debate going on, and he welcomes the debate on these matters, but that it's important that this not be viewed as a political matter, because he doesn't view it as one.

And the President talked to the members about how September 11th changed things in our outlook on foreign policy, much of what you heard in his remarks, and about the importance of confronting threats before they fully materialized. And he talked about how Iraq is critical to our efforts to prevail in the war on terrorism. And then he talked about the three-track strategy that we have in place, the political, security, and economic elements of that strategy for succeeding in Iraq. And the President talked about how we have changed and adapted to circumstances on the ground, that our tactics have been flexible. And he talked about the nature of the enemy, and he made it clear that the enemy will not shake our will. We will win, and he is confident of the outcome, as you heard in his remarks.

Then the members were able to hear from Ambassador Khalilzad, who was on with General Casey from Baghdad, video conference. And General Khalilzad [sic] gave an update on the elections and talked about how there are more than 300 political parties that are participating in the elections; there are more than -- or some 7,600 candidates. This is for the 275-seat assembly that will be elected. The Iraqis will be electing a permanent representative government. And he talked about the more than 6,000 polling places -- polling stations that are in place. He talked about how there are some 300,000 election observers and monitors that will be there to monitor the -- and observe the elections.

And he talked about how there's a lot of political activity going on. He talked about how the Sunni participation is much broader than it has been previously. It went up from the January election, where they, to a large extent, did not participate, to the constitutional referendum, and now we see the Sunnis actively participating in the political process and the elections. And we look forward to broad participation in tomorrow's election.

And then the President and the Ambassador talked also about the importance of expectations going forward. The President talked about how it's going to take some time to get the new government in place. This is a parliamentary system, and it will take time to form that new government. I think it takes a two-thirds vote of the assembly to select a prime minister, and that's good for forming a unity government for the Iraqi people that will represent the interests of all Iraqis.

Then they heard from General Casey. General Casey talked about the security preparations for the elections and how they're on track and you had more than 200,000 Iraqi forces that are providing the security for the elections. Then he gave an update on the military operations and the success of our military operations, particularly in Baghdad and in the Euphrates Valley. And he talked about the challenges that lay ahead, as well. He talked about how the training on the Iraqi security forces is going and how most of the operations are now joint operations or independent Iraqi operations. And I think the Department of Defense has given out some statistics on that. But he talked about the challenges that remain going forward on training and equipping those forces and making sure they have the capability in place to defend their country.

And then he talked about expectations on -- coming out of the elections and how we expect violence to continue. The enemy is determined, and they want to derail the transition to democracy. And he talked about some of the other challenges going forward, as well.

And then there was a good discussion with members that were in the room. They talked about some issues of interest to them. I think they spoke to you all at the stakeout. And so they had a good discussion with our people that were on -- via video conference and with the President and with Secretary Rice and Secretary Rumsfeld who were there, as well, and General Pace, I might add.

Anyway, that's the only update I have for now. I'll be glad to go to your questions.

Q Scott, the President, for the first time in my recollection, took responsibility for taking the nation to war on faulty intelligence. Can you expand on that a little bit?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think he was very clear in what he said. I think he made clear, and he's made it clear before, I believe, that the decision he made to go in and remove Saddam Hussein was his decision and it was the right decision. We're better off with Saddam Hussein out of power.

Q But he also said it was his responsibility for going to war on --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't think that's new. I think he's talked about that before.

Q On faulty intelligence?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President is the one who makes the decision to send our troops into combat.

Q But he's never -- to my recollection, he's never linked those two before. He said --

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, no, he's talked about how --

Q He's said before, I take responsibility in the criticisms for a decision to take the nation to war, but it's the first time, to my recollection --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, he's talked about how we got much of the intelligence wrong and how we have worked to fix that, to make sure that we have the best possible intelligence. That's critical.

Q Also he said today, and he's said this before, that some people have suggested that if we leave the terrorists alone, terrorists will leave the United States alone. Maybe I've missed it, but whoever suggested that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think there are people that have suggested that the terrorists would just be idle if we weren't engaging them in Iraq, and that being in Iraq has led to their attacks. Well, the attacks were taking place for a long time prior to our decision going into Iraq.

Q Have they really said that if we weren't there, the terrorists would be idle?

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, people have talked about this issue. And I think what the President said in his remarks was very clear.

Q How does the President know we killed 30,000 Iraqis?

MR. McCLELLAN: Because, as I indicated the other day, there have been media reports which have cited information that suggests that some 30,000 people, Iraqi citizens, may have been killed. Now, I think that our military has briefed members of Congress and talked about some of these matters, and I think that a significant number of those deaths are attributable to the terrorists and the Saddam loyalists who are trying to prevent democracy from taking hold. But what the Iraqi people have shown, time and time again, is that they are determined to live in freedom. And tomorrow they start a new chapter in their history by going to the polls to elect a permanent, representative government. And this will be a hopeful moment for the world.

Q Why have we not kept records on how many people we kill?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Pentagon has actually talked about that at length, and General Pace has talked about it, I think, in a number of briefings, and talked about why we don't. I think that the ones that are probably in the best position to provide that information would be the Iraqi government. But now, there are times when in operations they have been able to provide some information, in terms of the number of terrorists that may have been killed in those operations.

Q I have another question. You keep saying we don't torture, but you're trying to negotiate a compromise where we can, an exemption.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's not correct, and I've told you that before.

Q What is correct?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President has made it very clear that we do not torture and we do not engage in torture.

Q But you want an exemption.

MR. McCLELLAN: Now, what we do want to do is continue working with Senator McCain and others to come up with a good solution. And Steve Hadley had a meeting --

Q A solution to what?

MR. McCLELLAN: Steve Hadley had a good discussion with Senator McCain earlier today; it was a constructive discussion. We are continuing to work with Senator McCain and his staff to find a good solution on how we move forward. And Secretary Rice spoke about this at length just last week --

Q Why do you need a solution if we don't torture?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and talked about the difficult issues that are involved here, because we're talking about the safety and security of the American people, and we're engaged in a different kind of war against a very dangerous enemy.

Q -- need an exemption? Isn't that what you're trying --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's not a correct assessment, Helen, because there are already laws that prevent and prohibit torture.

Q What's it all about then?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think we've made it very clear. Maybe you should go back and look at what we've said over the last couple weeks.

Q It has not been clear. I want to know why you need an exemption to torture.

MR. McCLELLAN: That is not correct. There are already laws on the books that prohibit torture, both treaties and our own laws. And our own laws prohibit torture.

Q Is the White House preparing another supplemental for Iraq? We're hearing some talk on the Hill of another $80 billion to $100 billion that will be sought. Is that something --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's premature to get into discussing any specific numbers. There are some funds that are being provided in the current budget by Congress. We've made it very clear that we're going to make sure our troops have everything they need to succeed on the ground in Iraq -- and in Afghanistan, I might point out. And we've indicated that next year we would be coming back and -- with a supplemental and talking to members of Congress about moving forward on that supplemental. But I think it's just too early to speculate about what those numbers are.

Q Yes, but it's only about a month away when you'd be doing this, right? So you must have numbers --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm not putting a time line on it. We're going to make sure that there is no disruption in the amount of resources that our troops need to succeed. But, remember, the budget that they're already moving forward on provides some funding for Iraq and for Afghanistan, and to meet our other needs in the war on terrorism.

Q Scott, can you tell us more about this executive order that the President is going to be signing this afternoon on FOIA?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there's actually going to be a -- oh, on FOIA, okay. I thought you meant on the other one. I'll talk a little bit about it. I've got some information on it. First of all, Senators Cornyn and Leahy are expected to be here, as well as Congressmen Smith, Platts and Sherman. These are individuals that have been supportive of improving the Freedom of Information Act. And what this executive order will do is improve the disclosure of information to the general public. The Freedom of Information Act has been an important way for people to obtain information about their government. And there are many employees at the federal level that are involved at the disclosing of this information. And what the executive order will do is it will require the designation of a chief Freedom of Information Act officer at each agency within 30 days. And they will put in place plans to make sure that they're doing as best they can to expedite the disclosure of information.

We want to make sure that the agencies -- and this, really what it does is direct agencies to ensure that their process is citizen-centered and results-oriented. And the goal of it is to help expedite the process and make sure that information is being disclosed in a timely and quick manner.

Q Is this going to change the policy that was instituted under Attorney General Ashcroft where there was a presumption that the information should not be released --

MR. McCLELLAN: What it would do -- I'll tell you what it will do. The order requires agencies to designate a senior official as the chief officer for Freedom of Information Act requests. They'll be responsible for agency-wide implementation of the response, or of this disclosure of information. Under the order, each agency will also be required to take a close look at their programs, identify areas in which it can do better, and then map out a plan for the agency to implement those improvements in the coming fiscal years of '06 and '07. And agencies will also designate public liaisons to serve as a second level to respond to inquiries from those who are requesting information, to assist in resolving issues after staff in those centers have done their best.

So that's really what it is. It's really just improving the disclosure of information. And we've had good discussions with these members who will be coming to participate in this executive order signing later this afternoon.

Q Will there be a presumption that information should be disclosed?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what we want to do is make sure that we're expediting that process, and we'll get you a copy of all this information.

Ann, go ahead.

Q If the House subpoenas White House emails on Hurricane Katrina aid, will the White House answer that subpoena? And have you -- some Democrats on the committee are accusing the White House of running out the clock and not supplying the information to them?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's just not correct. First of all, I think that you ought to see what the chairman of the committee has said. And I'm not expecting anything of that nature at this point. What we have done is work to make sure that they get the information they need to do their job. We've worked in good faith. We've provided some 450,000 pages of documents to the committee already. Many witnesses have been made available. We've responded with substantial information and in a rapid manner to the priority areas that they've identified. And so we've continued to work with the committee to make sure they have what they need. Tomorrow, we'll also be providing the committee a high-level briefing. That was something that we offered for the committee to help them move forward and make sure that they have what they need. And Chairman Davis talked about it earlier today, I think. I saw some comments from him.

Q -- from the White House will --

MR. McCLELLAN: I will keep you posted on that. It will be a high-level official in the administration. We'll keep you posted on that.

Q I have two questions. One, tomorrow is the historic vote, an election in Iraq. I hope the Saudis will follow Iraq because there is no human rights and no one can worship there, only Muslims. Now, as far as tomorrow's election in Iraq is concerned, millions of Iraqis are watching the trial of their brutal dictator, and now they will be voting for a free Iraq. What lesson you think the President has for Saddam Hussein, and also for Iran, who are still supporting terrorism and they do not want to see democracy in Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Saddam Hussein is being brought to account for the atrocities he committed against the Iraqi people. What the President focused on some in his remarks today was the importance of succeeding in Iraq. He talked about how advancing freedom is vital to advancing our own long-term security here in America. And he talked about how the power of freedom defeats tyranny every time, and the greatest force for freedom are our men and women in uniform. And we appreciate all that they're doing.

A lasting democracy in the center of the Middle East will help bring about change in a troubled region of the world. This is a dangerous region of the world. This is a region that has been a breeding ground for terrorism. The Iraqi people have shown what people have shown time and time again, that all desire to live in freedom. It is a universal right of all people to live in freedom. The President believes very strongly in that. And so we support the advance of freedom in many different ways. Iraq was different than most -- most of the time when it comes to the policy we've been pursuing. We can support democracy -- and military means is not the only way to support the advance of democracy; there are other ways, too. And that's why we're working with the Palestinian people to support their efforts to put in place the institutions for a state to emerge. And both of these will be examples to the rest of the broader Middle East. But what we are putting in place is a democracy in the heart of the Middle East, and it will help change that dangerous region of the world, and help inspire reformers throughout the broader Middle East.

It will also bring us a partner, an ally in the war on terrorism, and make sure that Iraq does not become a safe haven for terrorists who want to plan and plot attacks against the American people.

Q I have a second and different question -- there are billions of Chinese -- now more and more U.S. companies are looking into India. Bill Gates in India with $2 billion to invest in high-tech and -- can you explain how -- what is the future of the U.S.-India economic relations --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one thing that's going on right --

Q And -- I'm sorry -- when I -- thousands of U.S. -- Fords and Chevrolets on the roads of India roads now more and more this time than last year I was there.

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me talk about trade. One of the things that's going on right now is discussions on the global trade talks. We want to see those talks come to a successful end next year. It's important that we continue to open markets and advance free and fair trade. We have been doing that across the world. We've been doing it bilaterally; we've been doing it regionally; we've been doing it -- and we're working to do it globally, as well. Trade lifts people out of poverty. Trade helps open up markets for our producers and products. They can compete with anybody, anywhere. And it's important to keep our economy growing. Our economy is stronger than others around the world, and that's why you have the -- you brought up the deficit, and that's one of the reasons you have that. We've got to continue to make sure we're opening markets and leveling the playing field.

Q Scott, I'm sure you're aware there are rumors swirling inside the beltway that Secretary Rumsfeld will leave after tomorrow's election. And yet he says, "I have no plans to resign" -- or to leave. And yet we all know that the Secretary serves at the pleasure of the President. Does the President -- or I should talk to the Secretary -- does he plan to remove him or replace him, and if so --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that those rumors were pretty much addressed last week or the week before. I think they were pretty much put to rest pretty quick. Secretary Rumsfeld is doing an outstanding job during a time of war, and we appreciate all that he's doing.

Q As a follow-up, though, if he should decide to leave, is the leading candidate --

MR. McCLELLAN: You know I don't speculate on personnel matters.

Q -- is the leading candidate Senator Lieberman, or can you say --

MR. McCLELLAN: I just answered your question.

Go ahead, Peter.

Q The section of the speech that John was talking about earlier, you said was not new. Is there anything in the speech you would highlight as actually being new, or -- all things the President said --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, each of these speeches -- I mean, the President gave three in-depth speeches on our strategy for succeeding in Iraq. He touched back on each of those speeches in his remarks today. He talked about how the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces is going and the challenges ahead. These speeches were designed to talk about the progress we're making, our strategy that we have in place for winning, and the challenges that lie ahead as we're moving forward. But today, the President thought it was a good time to take stock of where we are and what we're working to achieve and why it is so important. And so in the remarks today, too, he was also laying out expectations for the American people going forward. And I think that's important for the President to do. He has an obligation to keep the American people informed about our strategy for winning and an obligation to keep them informed about the progress and the challenges. And so that's what he's doing.

Q This blitz of communication on the war --

MR. McCLELLAN: And I think -- I think there are many Americans that haven't heard some of this information, and he talked about it in greater detail in these past few speeches than he has previously all in one place.

Q This flurry of speeches on Iraq and so forth, what happens after the election? Does that continue in some form?

MR. McCLELLAN: You bet. He will continue to talk about Iraq because it's critical to our efforts to prevail in the broader war on terrorism. And we remain a country at war and the President will continue talking about it in great detail as we go forward. This is one of the top priorities that the American people care most about, and it's one of the top priorities -- or is the top priority for the President, because his highest responsibility is the safety and security of the American people.

We're going to continue talking about the war on terrorism and our strategy for winning in Iraq. We're going to continue talking about the economy and the strength of our economy and how it's going. Those are two priorities that the American people care most about, and they're the two highest of priorities for the President.

Go ahead, Paula.

Q On pension legislation, the House reached agreement yesterday, after discussing with the UAW, pension legislation. Does the White House support that version? And is --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've made clear what our views are. And the President, last week also, when he was talking about the economy, he brought up the importance of moving forward on pension reform and strengthening our pension systems. And he made clear that he was not going to sign anything that would weaken our pension system. So we're continuing to work with members of Congress. I think we spelled out our views very clearly. I haven't seen what was discussed with the UAW members.

Q And also, are there any plans to hold a full-blown press conference before the holidays?

MR. McCLELLAN: You know, I keep you updated on that when they happen.

Q Scott, a two-part question. The President frequently attends St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square. In California, the AP has just reported that Superior Court Judge David Velasquez has just ruled that the Episcopal diocese of Los Angeles does not have the right to confiscate the property of three parishes who seceded from the Episcopal Church. And my question: Does the President agree with this decision that no diocese should be able to seize the property of any local church whose people have paid far more for the property and maintenance than the diocese?

MR. McCLELLAN: You're saying this is a court that made the decision?

Q Yes.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think it's a legal matter best left to our courts.

Q No, no, no, no. It's -- the decision is in. How does the President feel?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, these are issues relating to the church, and I'd -- you should address those questions to the church.

Q Scott, 38 members of Congress from 12 top electoral states have written to the President for the fourth time because, as Congresswoman Maloney of New York says, "I was hoping the President would be able to answer whether or not he supports birth control in less than 165 days." The only clue we have gotten from Scott McClellan is that abstinence is at the heart of the administration birth control policy. Who knows what that means for 95 percent of American women who use birth control?" And my question: Does the President approve of the use of contraceptives or not?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's not an accurate description of what we've said and --

Q No, no, but she --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and we've been over this question before, and my answer is --

Q I know, but they quoted that.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and my answer is the same as what I've said previously.

Go ahead, Holly.

Q Can you explain what specifically this December 7th directive ruling does? I was kind of confused by the statement that you put out earlier. I don't understand what it does.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there's going to be a briefing at 2:00 p.m. over at the State Department. We have an individual that is the head of a new office for stability and reconstruction. His name is Carlos Pasquel. He'll be conducting a briefing at 2:00 p.m. to talk in more detail about it. But what this executive order does -- or presidential directive, I should say -- the presidential directive puts State in charge of coordinating among relevant departments and agencies. And he'll talk a little bit more about it.

Q Does that mean that Secretary Rice has authority over Secretary Rumsfeld --

MR. McCLELLAN: There will be a briefing later today. I would encourage you to go there and ask those questions. I don't think that's the way that I would look at it.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thanks.

END 12:42 P.M. EST