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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
January 18, 2006

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
James S. Brady Briefing Room

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1:00 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: I have a few things to begin with. First of all, I want to update you on one world leader call from this morning. The President spoke with Chancellor Merkel this morning. This was a follow-up to their meeting last week, and they discussed Iran's nuclear ambitions and the way forward with recent developments there.

Secondly, I'd like to talk a little bit about some action that the Department of Treasury is taking today against this head of the Syrian security forces. We remain deeply concerned about Syria's destablizing behavior in the Middle East and its continued support for terrorism. The regime in Syria has failed to comply with several Security Council resolutions. Today the Department of Treasury designated Assef Shawkat, pursuant to an executive order the President issued in May of '04. Among other things, this order allows the United States government to block the assets of individuals who play a role in Syria's support for terrorism.

Mr. Shawkat, as Syria's chief of military intelligence, has directly contributed to Syria's support for terrorism, including the insurgency in Iraq, Palestinian terrorist groups given shelter in Damascus, and Hezbollah and other terrorist groups in Lebanon. Mr. Shawkat has also been deeply involved in Syria's ongoing interference in the destabilization of Lebanon. We are seeing democracy take firm root in Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories, and elsewhere in the region. Syria continues to be out of step with the direction the rest of the Middle East is headed.

Today's action is a significant signal that those like Mr. Shawkat, who support Syrian terrorism will be held to account. As you're well aware, we have previously designated other Syrian officials under this executive order, as well.

And finally, let me just preview a little bit about tomorrow's remarks. The President will be traveling to a small business in Sterling, Virginia, tomorrow to focus on the economy. The economy is a top priority for the President. It is because of the pro-growth policies that the President has put in place that the economy is growing strong. And we see that it is on a path to further growth. The President is continuing to talk about the strong economy that we have, and the outlook for job creation. Tomorrow he'll be doing so, and also focusing on the small business side.

In the last two months we've seen 400,000 new jobs created, 4.6 million jobs created in the past three years. The unemployment rate is down to 4.9 percent, lower than the '70s -- average of the '70s, '80s, and '90s. In Loudon County, where the President is going, the unemployment rate is 2 percent. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and the number one job creator in the United States. Many of these small businesses pay taxes at the top rate, so it's important that we make the tax cuts permanent. Otherwise, we're going to hurt job growth and hurt our economy. In 2006, 25 million small business owners will get nearly $93 billion in tax relief. Entrepreneurship and small business growth is flourishing in America like never before, and we must keep our economy strong by pursuing pro-growth policies.

As I mentioned, we need to make the tax cuts permanent; we need to continue to focus on reducing health care costs; we need to focus on spending restraint. Congress is moving in the right direction and we need to continue to build upon that.

And tomorrow the audience at this event will be small business owners. The Loudon County Chamber of Commerce is hosting the event, along with J.K. Moving and Storage. And the President looks forward to going there tomorrow.

And with that, I will be glad to get into questions.

Q Scott, can you just explain a little bit more about what Mr. Shawkat has done and what action the Treasury Department has taken, more specifically?

MR. McCLELLAN: Sure. Well, back in May of '04, the President issued an executive order in response to the regime's continued support for terrorism and its interference inside Lebanon, and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its efforts to undermine the advance of freedom and peace in Iraq. The order declared a national emergency, with respect to Syria. And it authorized the Treasury to block property of certain persons and directed other agencies to impose a ban on exports to Syria.

The Treasury previously designated the Interior Minister under this executive order. As director of the Syrian military intelligence, Mr. Shawkat has been a key architect of Syria's domination of Lebanon and a contributor to Syria's longstanding policy to support terrorism against Israel. And he is someone who has worked with terrorist organizations based in Syria, including Hezbollah and others, like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. He oversaw the Syrian security forces inside Lebanon. So those are the reasons.

Q And what specifically is the government doing, then?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q I don't -- what is --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this will block any assets that he might have in U.S. banks, and it will bar any American from doing business with this individual.

Q What impact do you think that's going to have? What are his assets?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it sends an important signal that people are going to be held to account for their behavior. I think that's what it does.

Q But does it have a significant impact on him? What kind of assets does he have?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this isn't the only way we're addressing the regime's behavior in Syria. There are a number of ways, but --

Q I understand, but I'm asking specifically, with regard to him.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Treasury can probably tell you more about it, if there are any specifics about what assets those may be, if that's what you're getting into.

Q Have you heard from the Syrian government a response?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, this was designated this morning, so it just happened a short time ago.

Q Scott, Jill Carroll from the Christian Science Monitor -- what have you got on her situation, and what is the White House trying to do to locate her and win her release?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, anytime there is an American held hostage, it is a priority for the administration. Her safe return is a priority, and that's what we all want to see. But I don't think it's helpful to get into talking about it further than that because of the sensitivity of the situation. And so I think I will leave it at that.

Q Do you have any idea where she is?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, John, I think that it would be unhelpful to get into talking more about the matter at this point.

Q Scott, can you at least say whether you think she's being held by Zarqawi's people or by a more common criminal element?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to go any further than what I've said.

Q There are allegations that we send people to Syria to be tortured.

MR. McCLELLAN: To Syria?

Q Yes. You've never heard of any allegation like that?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I've never heard that one. That's a new one.

Q To Syria? You haven't heard that?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's a new one.

Q Well, I can assure you it's been well-publicized.

MR. McCLELLAN: By bloggers?

Q My questions is, in the first place -- I gather you can go on to the next question. Will the President abide by the ban on torture of prisoners of war that is very specified in the military spending bill? I mean, his signing statement does not seem to go along with that.

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, I think you ought to look at the op-ed that was issued by Robert McCallum over at the Department of Justice yesterday -- it was in USA Today -- and he walked through this. I mean, the signing statement is consistent --

Q Will the President abide by -- that's all you've got to say, yes or no.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, he is fully committed to following the law. It's also been our policy, but the President has made it very clear that we are a nation that abides by our laws and our values, and that we do not torture.

Q We haven't --

MR. McCLELLAN: If people have, then they've been held to account, Helen. And that's the difference between us and others.

Q Do you think everybody is a free-lancer who has been torturing?

MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, I reject that wholeheartedly -- the President made it clear that we do not torture. If people engage in that kind of activity, they are held to account --

Q It's been proved otherwise.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and we have held people to account for engaging in the mistreatment of detainees. And the world has seen that we are someone that takes the treatment of prisoners very seriously --

Q What did we see in the Abu Ghraib pictures, photographs? Should we not believe our own eyes?

MR. McCLELLAN: And look at what has happened. People that were engaged in that kind of activity are being brought to justice. They've been held to account; there have been steps taken to prevent something like that from happening again. Our military goes out of the way to treat detainees humanely. That stands in stark contrast to the terrorists who target innocent civilians and --

Q That's not the question. The question is that this happened and the higher-ups knew about it.

Q Scott, can you respond to the human rights report that came out today saying "the U.S. government's use of offensive torture and inhumane treatment played the largest role in undermining Washington's ability to promote human rights; in the course of 2005 it became indisputable that U.S. mistreatment of detainees reflected not a failure of training, discipline, or oversight, but a deliberate policy choice"?

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't seen the report. I have seen news accounts of it. It appears that the report is based more on a political agenda than on facts. The United States of America does more than any country in the world to advance freedom and promote human rights. Our focus should be on those who are denying people human dignity and who are violating human rights.

The President, just earlier today, met with several individuals who had been victims of the brutal, oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein. These individuals talked about the torture that they saw or the torture that was carried out on them. Some of these individuals talked about being beaten for hours on end by cables and sticks. One individual talked about how a political prisoner was ordered executed by the regime leader known as Chemical Ali. He was in a lineup of prisoners, and Chemical Ali heard that he had spoken out against the regime and he said -- and this was the words of the person in this meeting -- "cut his head off." And that was the last they ever saw of that individual.

Q You say you haven't seen the report, so how do you know it's based on politics and not on fact?

MR. McCLELLAN: I've seen the reports, the news coverage of the reports, and it specifically references some -- or talks in negative terms about some of our efforts in Iraq. And so I think it's clear from some of the news coverage that it's based more on a political agenda than on facts, because if you look at the facts, the United States is leading the way when it comes to promoting human rights and promoting human dignity. And we will continue to do so.

The United States of America has helped to liberate 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are individuals that lived under brutal, oppressive regimes. Remember the Taliban that denied rights to women and would execute people at random. Remember the regime of Saddam Hussein, a regime that gassed his own people, that is responsible for grave atrocities. That regime is now being held to account. The leaders of that regime are being brought to justice by the Iraqi people.

Q What about the timing of the meeting today? Does it have any coordination with the release of the human rights report?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, this was something we've been looking at scheduling for a while, and he's met with previous victims of the regime, as well.

Q Scott, are you saying that talk in negative terms about the administration is inherently political? Anybody who says negative things about the administration --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I didn't say that; you said that.

Q No, you just said --

MR. McCLELLAN: I described it the way -- what I said is based on the news accounts -- because the focus ought to be on those regimes that are engaged in torture and that are violating people's human rights. This administration speaks out all across the world for human dignity and human rights, and advancing human rights.

Q You said you knew it was political because it spoke in negative terms about the administration.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the characterizations I saw in the news reports clearly reflect what I said.

Q Scott, why wouldn't you take a look -- why don't you know what's in this report now? Wouldn't it be in the administration's interest to get -- to gauge what the rest of the world --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it was just released today.

Q -- earlier today.

MR. McCLELLAN: I've been in meetings with the President focused on talking about the progress that's been made in Iraq three years after it was in the grip of a brutal dictator that had systematically engaged in torture of his own people, and hearing from victims of that regime.

Q Does it not create a challenge for this administration in terms of credibility to have an organization that's coming out and essentially --

MR. McCLELLAN: Like I said, look at what we have done and look at what we are doing. We are leading the way when it comes to promoting human rights and human dignity, and we will continue to do so. In other words, I reject wholeheartedly the suggestions.

And to go back to Peter's question, where does it point out facts? I mean, it seems to imply things that don't back up with facts -- in the news reports, at least.

Q Are you denying everything in the report?

Q Scott, two questions. One, as far as going back to yesterday's question about Pakistan. Now the reports are saying that at least 12 terrorists were killed in that attack and some villagers had a dinner party for the terrorists, including the number two al Qaeda man of Osama bin Laden, but just minutes before the attack, somebody tipped off the number two man not to go to the dinner party, which he cancelled, sending his deputies. So that means, how the President feel that somebody in that area is not with the U.S. --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm very aware of the news reports. We talked about this at length yesterday. I really don't have anything to add to what I said yesterday other than what I said, which was Pakistan is a valued ally in the global war on terrorism. There are al Qaeda leaders who continue to want to do harm to the civilized world and to kill innocent civilians, whether it be in Pakistan or in Afghanistan or America, and we will continue to pursue them and bring them to justice. We are making important progress, but this is a war that continues.

Q And going back on the human rights report which I'm talking about yesterday -- issued by Human Rights Watch -- what they are calling that gross human rights violation in Asia, including China -- the report is calling that U.S. administration or President Bush, they are calling on that they should do more to bring full democracy in those countries where military dictators are.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, supporting the advance of democracy and freedom is a way to ensure human rights, because under democracies there is equality for all people, people have a voice in their future and they're able to choose their governments, as opposed to being under the rule of a regime or a government that engages in torture. And we have an annual report that we put out listing violators of human rights. And that's where the focus should be; that's where we keep the focus, on those who are abusing human rights.

Q Any particular significance of the timing of the Shawkat ruling today? Why now?

MR. McCLELLAN: As far as I know, Treasury was ready to move forward on this designation based on the information that I described to you. I think they can probably provide you any more specific information. But it's Syria's continued destabilizing behavior in the regime, and this individual's involvement in supporting terrorism and supporting interference within Lebanon. We stand with the people of Lebanon who want to chart their own future.

Q And insofar as you haven't seen the Human Rights Watch report, are you suggesting that it has no value in terms of a public discourse, and an international service in terms of advocacy for human rights?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm rejecting the description of the United States.

Q Scott, last week Andrew Card gave a speech to the Chamber across the street --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me finish up on that thought -- because I think when a group like this makes some of these assertions, it diminishes the effectiveness of that organization. The United States is a leader when it comes to advancing freedom and promoting democracy. And we will continue to be. We are the leader.

Q Last week Andrew Card gave a speech to the U.S. Chamber, and he previewed the President's State of the Union address, in that he said that the President's discretionary budget would have some serious belt-tightening. I was wondering if you can tell us -- conservative Republicans are very skeptical, your base, that this administration can do any real belt-tightening at all. Will this belt-tightening be along the lines of the last budget, or will it be more aggressive?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, look at what we've done, first of all, in terms of slowing the growth in discretionary spending. In this last budget we were able to enact a cut in nonsecurity discretionary spending. The budget we proposed was the most disciplined budget since the Reagan administration. Congress has also acted on some of the mandatory savings, as well. It's important that we continue to move forward in a fiscally responsible way to keep our economy growing. We need to continue to pursue pro-growth policies -- that will keep revenues coming in. And we also need to exercise spending restraint. That's what the President is committed to doing; that's what we have been doing in our budgets. We are engaged in a war on terrorism and we will continue to make sure that our troops have everything they need to complete the mission and carry out that war. But we also must look at other areas of the budget and find ways to reduce spending.

And so that's what the President is committed to doing in his budget that he will be releasing in early February. And building upon that, we urge Congress to move forward on the mandatory savings that both chambers have passed -- $40 billion in mandatory savings -- we urge them to get that passed so that he can sign it into law. That's significant. It has been several years since Congress has addressed the mandatory side of the equation, as well. And when we're talking about the long-term problems facing our budget, it's the mandatory side that we need to look at, the entitlement programs. And the President has led the way when it comes to addressing those entitlement programs. We need to modernize those programs and reform them. And we've taken some steps and we will continue to speak out about doing that.

Q Are you indicating that you might reach out and grab that third rail of Social Security again?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that the President has already indicated where we are on that, and he's made it clear that he's never going to give up, in terms of pursuing reform of Social Security, because we don't want to burden future generations, our children and grandchildren, with the debt that will come if we don't address it. And the sooner we address it, the better. But I think Congress has shown an unwillingness to move forward on it at this point. But the President will never give up talking about it and fighting to reform Social Security.

Q But the President hasn't made a Social Security proposal, so to that extent he --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we laid out some clear ideas. But we've got to continue to move forward on spending restraint, and that means addressing the entitlement side, as well.

Q Scott, Russia, the United States and the European Union refuse to reopen talks with Iran. Saudi Arabian King Abdullah wants to resume and refrain from taking Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations. Will there be new talks, and if the U.N. isn't an option, what is?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this is about trust in the -- trust when it comes to the regime in Iran. They have shown that they cannot be trusted. For two decades they hid their nuclear activities from the international community. They have continued to fail to comply with their safeguard obligations. They have failed to adhere to the Paris agreement. They have shown that they are not interested in negotiating in good faith.

Iran can't have it both ways. They can't say they want to engage in negotiations, and then continue to thumb their nose at the international community. And that's what they are doing by pursuing their nuclear activities. And so the Europeans, who were negotiating in good faith with the regime in Iran, are now looking to refer the matter to the Security Council, and we support those efforts very strongly. We have said for some time that their non-compliance needs to be referred to the Security Council.

And so we're in discussions with the Europeans, with Russia, with China, with others, about how to move forward. And there will be a board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in early February to look at referring the matter to the Security Council. But I think we're long past the point of talk. We expect action from the regime in Iran, and the only action they have shown has run contrary to the demands of the international community. They have continued to pursue uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. They have failed to comply with their international obligations. And the international community is fed up with it. The patience of the international community has worn thin.

Q The Secretary of the Army says the Army has increased its advertising budget by 65 percent, has put more recruiters on the job, and is doubling the bonus for some enlistees to $40,000, all this in an effort to get new recruits. Is the President concerned that the Army may not have the soldiers to handle any future conflicts while engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan?

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't had a chance to look at the briefing that was earlier today over at the Pentagon -- there was a briefing on these matters. I think I'd leave the description to the way the Pentagon described it, leave it to them. But, obviously, that's an important priority and I think they've been taking steps to continue to build upon their retention and recruiting efforts. And I know from past discussions that the retention efforts have been very high, that people are continuing to re-enlist and serve longer tours. I know that that's been discussed in the past. And they've also been working to make sure the recruiting goals are being met, as well. We have an all-volunteer force, and the President greatly appreciates all those who volunteer to serve and defend America and he strongly supports the all-volunteer force.

Q Scott, a two-part. There's been extensive reporting of a homosexual group, Soulforce, calling on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual and trans-gender Americans to be the first in line at this year's White House Easter Egg Roll on April 17th, as a way to show the nation their so-called families. And my question: Will the President take any measures to prevent these activists from using this non-political event as a way to push their agenda on the rest of us?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this event is a time to celebrate Easter and to have a good family celebration here at the White House. And in terms of any other details about it, I think it's still a few months off, so we'll talk about it as we get closer. I've seen a couple of reports about it; I don't know how extensive that reporting has been. But this has been a family event for a long time and the President always looks forward to this event.

Q Page one of yesterday's Washington Times reported that more than 200 suspected incursions of what are thought to be Mexican soldiers along our border with Mexico. And my question: Does the President believe there is no problem here, or does he believe and intend to enforce the protection of our borders?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President has made a strong commitment to enforcing our borders and taking additional steps to do so. I don't know the specific reports you're referring to, it might be something better referred to the border security. I haven't looked into those specific reports, Les -- but I haven't looked into those specific reports.

Q The Consumer Price Index report this morning showed that there was virtually no threat of inflation at the end of last year. Now, given that, how confident are you that the monetary policy will remain pro-growth, given that there's a leadership change coming up?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've got a great Chairman that's going to be heading up the Federal Reserve and building upon the great work that Chairman Greenspan has done. We have great confidence in the Federal Reserve to address monetary policy. And you pointed out that core consumer inflation remains low, that it is contained. That was in the latest numbers that came out today. There is still concern about energy prices. We are concerned about high energy prices. They're still too high. And that's something that the President is committed to addressing.

We have taken a number of steps to address the root causes of high energy prices. We were able to, last year, pass an important piece of legislation that puts in place a comprehensive energy strategy to help us reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy. And we need to build upon that. There are additional steps that we can take, and the President will be talking more about that as a way to keep our economy growing strong.

Q Scott, are you aware if anyone in the White House, including the President, got an invitation -- (inaudible) -- next Monday -- it's the same -- when they torture and brainwash people in the Chinese labor camps.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not aware of any such invitation.

Q I'm asking because I noted that when the show was in Toronto last week, a member of the -- a Canadian elected official was there -- (inaudible) -- that's why I'm asking.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not aware of any invitation. You might check with the State dept.

Go ahead, Connie.

Q Thank you. Just to follow up on my friend Sarah's excellent question on Iran. Just to clarify, does the U.S. accept nuclear power on the part of Iran, especially an arrangement with Russia, but not nuclear arms?

MR. McCLELLAN: This is not -- and Secretary Rice talked about this earlier today -- it's not an issue of their rights, it's an issue of trust. The regime in Iran has shown that it can't be trusted. They need to provide confidence to the international community that they are not developing nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian program. We have already expressed our support for the efforts of Russia to help address some of these issues and to provide an objective guarantee that would be in place. This is about the trust -- this is about trust in the regime in Iran, and they have shown that they cannot be trusted by their actions.

Q I understand that, but if there is a trust arrangement that can be worked out for nuclear energy --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think we've already indicated that, Connie.

Q Scott, just quickly back to Abramoff. Can you give any more specificity on those meetings, when they were, years, times?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, this is sticking with our past policy. We're not going to engage in a fishing expedition.

Q Not even years? I mean, you're talking about --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Hanukkah receptions were back in 2001 and 2002.

Q Okay, you talked about the Hanukkah receptions. Can you talk about the staff-level meetings and what years those were, or --

MR. McCLELLAN: No --

Q And why would you tell us the Hanukkah --

MR. McCLELLAN: I did a check for you all, to provide you that information. But we're not going to engage in a fishing expedition. I know that there are some that want to do that. But I don't see any reason to do so.

Q Can you explain why you wouldn't want it out there?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this has been in keeping with past practice, in terms of what -- in similar incidents. In terms of why we wouldn't want what out there?

Q Why wouldn't you want to just clear up who these meetings were with, who was there, who wasn't --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think there are some people that are insinuating things based on no evidence whatsoever. I said if you have a specific issue of concern, then we'll be glad to take a look into that. But no one has brought anything like that to my attention.

Q You could clear up all the insinuation that you say is going on?

MR. McCLELLAN: Like I said, people are insinuating things based on no evidence whatsoever. And remember, this is a gentleman who contributed, either through himself or through his clients, to both Democrats and Republicans. This was not --

Q Not many Democrats.

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, there's significant amount, if you look at some of the media reports, that has been contributed by his clients to Democrats.

Q Far more Republicans.

Q One more on Iran. Did Chancellor Merkel report to the President on her conservation with President Putin about Iran?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll leave it at what I said, in terms of the readout of the call.

Q Who is insinuating, Scott, and what are they insinuating?

MR. McCLELLAN: Peter, go ahead.

Q On Shawkat, you said -- you talked about Lebanon, but you also mentioned that you contributed to the insurgency in Iraq. Can you elaborate on that at all, what he --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I didn't say he did, I was referring to the executive order that referenced that. I mean, the regime -- I didn't say him, specifically.* His activity, I was specifically talking about his support for terrorism and involvement with terrorist organizations and his overseeing of the -- of Syria's interference within Lebanon, meaning the security forces. But if you look back at the executive order, it includes that category, as well. And we certainly talked about those issues in the past.

Q Scott, who is insinuating anything about Abramoff, and what are they insinuating? In our requests that say --

MR. McCLELLAN: Some that want to engage in partisan politics. I'm not saying you.

Q Thank you.

END 1:30 P.M. EST

*Correction: I did indicate he contributed to the insurgency in my opening statement. My apologies. If we can elaborate further, we will post it.