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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 16, 2006

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
James S. Brady Briefing Room

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12:21 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everyone. I want to begin with a couple updates. Earlier today, this morning, the President met with a congressional delegation that had just returned recently from Sudan. This was a group of House leaders, led by Congresswoman Pelosi, and others -- Congressman Wilson and some others that were on that trip. And they visited the Darfur region. The situation in Sudan, and particularly in the Darfur region, remains a top priority for this administration. So the President was pleased to hear a report back from them about what they saw on the ground. And we look forward to continuing to work with these leaders and others to press forward -- press the parties to move forward on a peace agreement, and to end the violence in Darfur.

Following that, the President had a good meeting with a bipartisan group of senators and House members on moving forward on the line-item veto act. This is an important piece of legislation that the President proposed, and will help us to rein in wasteful spending, reduce the budget deficit, and improve accountability so that we can line-item out those earmarks that are sometimes passed and that we do not believe are necessary.

One announcement to make on the President's schedule, and then I'll be glad to go to questions. The President looks forward to welcoming President Johnson Sirleaf of the Republic of Liberia to the White House on March 21st. The visit will be an opportunity for the President to congratulate President Johnson Sirleaf on becoming America -- becoming Africa's first woman to be elected head of state. The two leaders will discuss continuing cooperation in the areas of reconstruction, education, HIV/AIDS, trade, asset recovery and security sector reform, and democratic reform, as well as the need to bring Charles Taylor to justice.

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

Go ahead, Jim.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm wondering -- Stephen Hadley is speaking right now, saying that America is at war as our number one sort of security concern, in terms of understanding what the nation faces by way of security concerns. Can you tell me, in the three-plus years since the last time a National Security Strategy document was released, what has being at war taught the administration, and how is it reflected in this latest Security Strategy?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, this is the National Security Strategy for 2006 that was released earlier today. It is a document that really updates the National Security Strategy we outlined in 2002. It builds upon the foundation and framework that was outlined in that National Security Strategy. What it also does is look at what we have accomplished over that time period. It also looks at the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, and it really charts out a way forward.

And in terms of being a nation at war, we do remain a nation at war. The most immediate, shorter-term threat we face is from terrorists. And that's why we're working to stay on the offensive and go after the terrorists. I think you'll hear our National Security Advisor talk about the successes we have achieved in the war on terrorism and how we have worked to bring terrorists to justice and really disrupt and dismantle the al Qaeda leadership. There are a number of al Qaeda leaders that have been brought to justice. But this is a comprehensive war. We're fighting it on many fronts.

Q What, specifically, has been learned in Iraq that is reflected in this document?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the document talks about Iraq, and it talks about some of the lessons learned from Iraq.

Q Such as?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let me mention -- go back and walk you through some of what the document talks about. There's a whole section in there about Iraq and the decision to remove Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. The President believes it was the right decision to remove Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. His regime was a destabilizing force in a troubled region. And one of the things that the National Security Strategy talks about is the importance of, as I said, fighting this war on many fronts. It's not only -- the war on terrorism is not just a battle of arms, it's a battle of ideas. And that's what the document talks about.

We are also working to spread freedom and democracy, particularly in that troubled region of the world. It is a region that has been a breeding ground for terrorism and a breeding ground for instability in the region. And so the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was made after exhaustive diplomatic efforts. Over 12 years there were some 17 resolutions, including Resolution 1441 by the United Nations Security Council that gave Saddam Hussein one final opportunity to come into full compliance or face serious consequences. And he chose to continue to defy the international community.

And it's important that when you say something you mean it. And tyrants around the world know that we mean what we say. And so the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was made an intensive and exhaustive diplomatic effort.

Q But in terms of making American streets safer, what that's going on in Baghdad, and as reflected in this document, how does that make any street safer in America right now?

MR. McCLELLAN: We're laying the foundations of peace for generations to come. Iraq is a central front in the broader war on terrorism. All you have to do is look at what terrorists like Zawahiri and Zarqawi have said about Iraq. They understand how high the stakes are in Iraq. And by spreading freedom in a troubled region of the world, we're advancing our long-term security for generations to come. This is about laying the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren. The President's number one priority is protecting the American people. And that's why winning in Iraq is so important to our overall efforts to lay that foundation of peace.

Q Scott, can I ask you a question about this operation underway in Iraq? Does the President think that an offensive like this, high profile, is necessary, in part to turn public opinion around in this country about the war?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, our commanders in the theater have the authorization to make tactical decisions about the operations that they undertake. And there have been a number of operations that have been undertaken over the course of the last several months to really go after the terrorists and the Saddam loyalists who want to return to the past of oppression and tyranny. So this operation is part of our ongoing efforts to help move forward on the security front. And this includes --

Q Are you saying the President specifically did not sign off --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- I think the military said that this includes American and Iraqi forces. So what we're continuing to do is train and equip those Iraqi security forces, and also focusing our efforts on the enemy, going after those who are seeking to derail the transition to democracy.

Just today, this morning, less than three years after the decision to go in and remove Saddam Hussein from power and liberate the Iraqi people was made, the parliament of a fully constitutional, elected government of Iraq met to begin the process of moving forward on putting in place a national unity government. And the discussions have been going before today, and those discussions continue, but it's important that we continue to act on all fronts that the President outlined for our strategy for victory.

Q You raise the point -- are you saying that the President did not specifically authorize this?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, he knows about the operation, he's been briefed on it, but this is a decision that is made by commanders who are in the best position to make the tactical decisions about the operations that are undertaken.

Q Therefore he didn't have to give the go-ahead order, he was just told after the fact.

MR. McCLELLAN: We want to see a successful operation, and we look forward to a successful operation.

Q Can you just clarify that point?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes.

Q He was told after the decision had been made to do it, or did he have to say, yes, let's do this?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, this was not something that he needed to authorize.

Q But my question -- I'm sorry, but you aren't done with my question, which is, beyond the merits of this particular operation, we are coming to the three-year anniversary of the war. Support for the President is at rock bottom; support for this war is at rock bottom in this country. Does the President think it's important as a show of U.S. and Iraqi force to mount these kinds of operations, to try to change public opinion in this country?

MR. McCLELLAN: I can't accept the premise of your question because this was a decision made by our commanders. And it's important that the commanders have the flexibility to make these type of tactical decisions in order to prevail --

Q But does the President have an opinion on it?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and we're making a lot of important progress on the ground in Iraq. But this is a difficult time period. We have seen recent violence and some sectarian strife, sectarian reprisal attacks that have taken place, and what's important is that we continue to move forward on training and equipping the Iraqi security forces. They were the ones who took the lead in the aftermath of the attack on the Golden Mosque and helped to bring about calm and order in much of Iraq.

But what we are going to do is continue to move forward on that strategy for victory, because success in Iraq is critical to our overall efforts.

Q Scott, just one more. There's been a lot of rumor, as you know, so let me ask you the question straight. Does the President think he needs new blood on his staff, given his political standing?

MR. McCLELLAN: I went through this yesterday; I don't think anything has changed in terms of what I said yesterday.

Q I'm sorry, I wasn't here yesterday. Do you mind just filling me in?

MR. McCLELLAN: Look back at the transcripts.

Q Does the President know that he's in violation of international law when he advocates preemptive war? The U.N. Charter, Geneva, Nuremberg. We violate international law when we advocate attacking a country that did not attack us.

MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, I would just disagree with your assessment. First of all, preemption is a longstanding principle of American foreign --

Q It's not a long-standing principle with us. It's your principle.

MR. McCLELLAN: Have you asked your question?

Q It's a violation of international law.

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, let me back up, preemption is a longstanding principle of American foreign policy. It is also part --

Q It's never been.

MR. McCLELLAN: It is also part of an inherent right to self-defense. But what we seek to do is to address issues diplomatically by working with our friends and allies, and working with regional partners. That's what we're doing when it comes to the threat posed by Iran pursuing nuclear weapons. That's what we're doing when it comes to resolving the nuclear issue with North Korea. So we seek diplomatic solutions to confront threats.

And it's important what September 11th taught us --

Q The heavy emphasis of your paper today is war and preemptive war.

MR. McCLELLAN: Can I finish responding to your question, because I think it's important to answer your question. It's a good question and it's a fair question. But first of all, are we supposed to wait until a threat fully materializes and then respond? September 11th --

Q Under international law you have to be attacked first.

MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, you're not letting me respond to your question. You have the opportunity to ask your question, and I would like to be able to provide a response so that the American people can hear what our view is. This is not new in terms of our foreign policy. This has been a longstanding principle, the question that you bring up. But again, I'll put the question back to you. Are we supposed to wait until a threat fully materializes before we respond --

Q You had no threat from Iraq.

MR. McCLELLAN: September 11th taught us --

Q That was not a threat from Iraq.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- some important lessons. One important lesson it taught us was that we must confront threats before they fully materialize. That's why we are working to address the threats when it comes to nuclear issues involving Iran and North Korea. That's why we're pursuing diplomatic solutions to those efforts, by working with our friends and allies, by working with regional partners who understand the stakes involved and understand the consequences of failing to confront those threats early, before it's too late.

Q What are the consequences?

MR. McCLELLAN: The consequences of a nuclear armed Iran, they are very serious in terms of stability --

Q Are you warning Iran that it has consequences as you did Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what has happened with Iran right now is that the matter has been reported to the United Nations Security Council because the regime in Iran has failed to come into compliance with its safeguard obligations, and they continue to engage in enrichment related activity. And we have supported the efforts of the Europeans to resolve this matter diplomatically, but the regime in Iran continues to pursue the wrong course.

They need to change their behavior. They continue to defy the international community. That's why the matter has been reported to the Security Council. We have now entered a new phase of diplomacy. And there are a lot of discussions going on about how to prevent the regime from developing a nuclear weapon capability, or developing nuclear weapons. And that's why those discussions are ongoing.

This is an important issue. It outlines in our national security strategy that this is one of the most serious challenges that we face.

Q Are we threatening Iran with preemptive war?

MR. McCLELLAN: We're trying to resolve this in a diplomatic manner by working with our friends and allies.

Q May I ask you about the timing of the operation in Iraq today? The 101st released a press release calling it the biggest air assault since the invasion on the very same day that the White House released the National Security Strategy, and Hadley gives this major speech. Is there any coordination whatsoever?

MR. McCLELLAN: I just told you this was a decision made by our commanders, so, no.

Q There was no coordination. And is it an intense effort of this administration to show with the press release from the 101st, to call attention to what the U.S. is doing there? Do you think they need to broadcast more effectively what the U.S. is doing in Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Those are decisions made by the military. You ought to direct those questions to them.

Q So all that is done without consultation with the administration?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's correct.

Q As the same time as you're taking a hard line approach towards Iran on its nuclear program, you're also talking about opening up a dialogue with them on Iraq. What do you --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I don't know about opening up a dialogue. I don't think that's a correct characterization of what we previously said. I mean, our ambassador is authorized to talk with leaders in Iran, but it's to reiterate to them and express our concerns we have about their involvement inside Iraq. Those are concerns that we've expressed publicly, and those are concerns that we are willing to express to them, as well, if they want to discuss the matter.

Q But you are also going to be asking them for some sort of help on Iraq, right?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've already made it very clear that we want to see all of Iraq's neighbors play a helpful role as the Iraqi people move forward on building a free, democratic, and peaceful country. And those views have been expressed very clearly. We've expressed concerns about Iran on a number of issues that are separate and apart from the Iraq issue. But when it comes to this issue, we've already previously said that our Ambassador is authorized to speak with Iran for the purpose of expressing our concerns to the regime about their involvement inside Iraq.

Q Is that dialogue going to take place any time soon, or have any attempts been made?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know of any update. I saw the news report earlier today. An Iranian leader expressing a willingness to, "negotiate," I think is what the leaders said. The Iraqi people are the ones who will decide the future of Iraq. And if there are any negotiations to be done with Iraq about Iran's activities inside of the country, then that would be done with the Iraqis.

Q I have a question on two topics. First, St. Patrick's Day and Ireland. Last night the Irish Prime Minister said there are a number of issues, a number of problems for the United States, including immigration problems. Does the President have any outreach to make? Will he grant any special favors --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you're going to hear from the two leaders tomorrow. They will be meeting. The President looks forward to having the Taoiseach back at the White House to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. He is participating in a lunch here right now, over at the Capitol, a day ahead of St. Patrick's Day, to celebrate the occasion. But we have a very good relationship with Ireland. And he looks forward to tomorrow, and continuing to talk about our shared priorities.

Q On this strategy report, and on the offensive today, have you had any reaction from the allies, and are any allied troops other than Iraq involved? Are the U.K. troops involved in it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I don't get into talking about military operations, particularly ones that are ongoing, from this podium. I think those are questions best to direct to the military. My understanding from just reading the statement was it included American and Iraqi forces. Keep in mind that Iraqi forces are continuing to take more of the lead in the fight, when it comes to their country. Iraqi forces are controlling more battle territory. They are taking the lead more and more in the fight.

As the President talked about earlier today, there are some 130 battalions, more than 130 battalions that are operating, Iraqi battalions, and more than 60 of those are now in the lead. So we want to be in position to where the Iraqi forces can provide for the defense of the Iraqi people. And as the President said, as we move forward on that, and the Iraqi forces stand up, then we'll stand down American forces. But we've got a clear strategy for winning in Iraq. And that's what the American people want to see our troops do.

Q -- the strategy of offense? Did the Iraqi forces decide this today?

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Suzanne.

Q Scott, May 1, 2003, President Bush stood in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner, and announced that major combat operations in Iraq had been completed. In light of the scale and the scope of today's air assault, is that still the case, or are we in a new phase in Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, there have been a number of operations that have been undertaken over the last several months, over the last year, to go and root out the terrorists, and to target the regime loyalists. And so this is another operation that is aimed at the area north of Baghdad in the Samara area to go after some insurgents that are in that area as the military pointed out in their statement. But no one said the combat operations weren't ongoing. Those operations continue.

Q Do we expect to hear from the President on this today?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q Can we expect to hear from the President on this today?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't expect that.

Q You characterized the largest air assault since the start of the war as a major combat operation?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's keep in perspective differences there. I think one was talking about an initial operation that was a major bombing operation, so I think you need to look at it in the context of what this is. And I think the military talked about the aircraft that were involved in transporting American and Iraqi forces to this area to go after the enemy.

Q That's a no, then?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q That's a no?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I don't think you can characterize it just the way you did. That simplifies it, and there are differences here, I think.

Q Are you satisfied with the pace of the efforts to form a reconciliation government? The Iraqi parliament met for a very brief time today.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President said earlier today that it's going to require some patience on our part as they move forward to form the new government that was elected under a constitution approved by the Iraqi people. More than 11 million Iraqis showed up at the polls to choose their government -- some 75 percent of eligible voters. That's a sign that the Iraqis want to chart their own future. And Iraqi leaders are showing that they want to form a government of national unity that represents all sectors and all communities inside Iraq.

Democracy is not an easy thing, and there's going to be a lot of political back and forth going on as they move forward, as there already is. There have been a lot of discussions that continue. But I'm not going to try to put a time frame on it. What we are doing is trying to help the Iraqi leaders move forward as quickly as they can to put that government of national unity in place. I think they understand the importance of continuing to come together and forming a government that represents all Iraqis.

Q Does a meeting of something like 30 minutes actually indicate a commitment to do that?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that you need to know what was expected going into this meeting. I don't think there were any expectations beyond what took place today for this meeting. This meeting was to get the parliament in place and sworn in.

But the discussions, in terms of forming a national unity government, are continuing. Those are things -- those are discussions that were going on before this meeting, and they're continuing after this meeting. So let's look at what the expectations were. I don't think it's -- there's any change in terms of that.

Q Thank you. Scott, a new House report criticizes former FEMA head Michael Brown for not invoking the national response plan for Katrina and for ignoring the Secretary of Homeland Security by -- the White House. Was the White House involvement in the Katrina disaster appropriate? Or should the White House have told Brown to --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, our Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend talked about this very issue that you're bringing up, in a briefing here for reporters the day we released our own comprehensive lessons-learned review. The President felt very strongly that we needed to make sure that we did a comprehensive look at what worked and what didn't work when it came to the response efforts. The President was not satisfied with the way the federal government responded to this catastrophic natural disaster. All levels of government fell short.

And so that's why we undertook our own lessons-learned review. It's also why we've been providing unprecedented cooperation to congressional investigations, which have continued to look at these issues, as well.

It's important that we continue moving forward and apply the lessons learned so that we're in a better position to respond in the future to such catastrophes -- not only natural disasters like hurricanes, but potential terrorist attacks, as well.

And so that's where our focus is, as well as continuing to move forward to make sure that the people in the Gulf Coast are getting the help they need so that they can rebuild their lives and they can rebuild their communities. The House today has been moving forward -- or is moving forward on emergency supplemental spending, which includes vital funds to help the people of the Gulf Coast continue to move forward and rebuild their communities along the Gulf Coast.

Go ahead, Richard.

Q Scott, when you said that our ambassador has a very narrow mandate to talk with the Iranians about matters that pertain to Iraq, what ambassador are you talking about? Our U.N. Ambassador, our Ambassador to Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Iraqi. Ambassador Khalilzad.

Q To Iraq.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's right.

Q Okay.

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay.

Q Scott --

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, you didn't have your hand up. I almost skipped you.

Q I have a two-part. The government of the District of Columbia has failed to expel from its City Council a member who is not only a convicted and previously imprisoned violator, and now repeat offender of our narcotics laws, but who also failed to pay his income taxes for six years, for which a D.C. judge gave him probation rather than prison. And my question, since this nation's chief law enforcer surely must be concerned about this, could you please tell us, what is his position on this case?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, if people break the law, they need to be held to account, Les. And those are for the appropriate authorities to make those decisions. This isn't a matter that I've discussed with the President.

Q All right. The Associated Press reports that the FCC has noted that a network program called, "Without a Trace," that aired in December of 2004, was indecent in that it contained a graphic depiction of "teenage boys and girls participating in a sex orgy." And my question: Does the President believe it is wrong for the FCC to propose a fine of $3.6 million against CBS and dozens of its stations and affiliates for televising this? Or does he oppose the penalty?

MR. McCLELLAN: The FCC Commissioner -- a number of the FCC Commissioners have been people that were appointed by the President, and we support the work they are doing. We have also worked to increase --

Q In this case?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- penalties when it comes to violations of decency standards. The President always reminds people -- parents, particularly -- that they have the option to turn off the TV or change the channel if you think something is inappropriate, as well. And so you need to keep that in mind, too.

Q Scott, in the strategy it says that no country should ever use preemption as a pretext for aggression. Is this an acknowledgment that not only our country, but other countries have the right to a doctrine of preemption?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this is focused on what our strategy is and what we are pursuing in terms of our foreign policy, and what we're hoping to accomplish. There are real threats that we face in this day and age. We have seen since September 11th -- fortunately, we have not been attacked again here on our own soil. And that's not just because of luck; it's because of the hard work of men and women in our law enforcement and intelligence community who are working 24/7 to protect the American people and to disrupt attacks before they happen. It's also because of the great efforts of our men and women in uniform who are serving and sacrificing overseas to defend our freedoms.

And by staying on the offensive and going after the terrorists we are keeping them on the run, we are keeping them under pressure, and we are advancing the fight in the war on terrorism. We are no longer on the defensive. I think that I talked about part of an inherent right to self-defense that countries have. And we've seen some countries across the world have been attacked since September 11th from terrorist attacks. And so I think it goes to this very issue that if you're about to be attacked and you know it, then you have an obligation to act and protect your people. The number one priority of this President is the safety and security of the American people, and he is going to continue to act to protect the American people and save lives.

Q So there is an acknowledgment that other countries have the right of adopting a preemptive --

MR. McCLELLAN: Of self-defense? Sure, they have the right of self-defense.

Q Then the question becomes, if you know you're about to be attacked, and yet the strategy acknowledges that we might attack even if there's uncertainty about the intelligence.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we live in a different world, in a post-September 11th world, Victoria, and I think you have to step back and look at how you prevail in the war on terrorism. You prevail in the war on terrorism by fighting this on many fronts and all fronts. That's what we are doing. We're taking the fight to the enemy; we're also enhancing our protections at home to disrupt plots and bring people to justice before they can carry out attacks on the American people.

But we're also fighting the battle of ideas. This is a long-term struggle that we are engaged in against an ideology of hate and oppression. And that's why we're working to advance freedom and democracy. That's why we're partnering with other countries around the world to confront threats before it's too late. That's why we're partnering with other countries around the world to support the advance of freedom and democracy all across the world.

Q In his speech on Monday, the President claimed that the Iranian government shares a responsibility for anti-coalition attacks in Iraq because, the President said, Tehran is providing the capability for building IEDs used in those attacks. On Tuesday, however, General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had no evidence of Iranian government involvement in such activities. And Defense Secretary Rumsfeld also declined to stand by the claim. I have two questions. First, isn't it true that the vast majority of attacks on coalition forces are by Sunni --

MR. McCLELLAN: Can I stop you, first of all? I don't think that's what Secretary Rumsfeld did, the way you described it. You said he failed to stand by that. I don't think that's the case. In fact, he talked about it at fairly more length than what you just described.

Q He said that it's impossible to tell where material -- who is really responsible.

MR. McCLELLAN: I think he pointed out that it's material coming from -- or components coming from Iran.

Q But he said it's impossible to tell who's responsible.

MR. McCLELLAN: He talked about individuals that are part of Iranian forces that are operating inside -- talked about the example --

Q He said he could not blame the Iranian government on these components coming in.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's make sure what you're saying.

Q Okay. So, first, isn't it true that the vast majority of attacks on coalition forces are by Sunni insurgents who have no connection to Shiite Iran? And two, will the President retract his claim that apparently was not based on accurate intelligence?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, that's false. That's just -- I don't accept the premise of your question. You're absolutely describing it in a false way. Let's look back at what the President said. The President said that some of the most powerful IEDs -- improvised explosive devices -- we're seeing in Iraq include components from Iran. I don't think there's any conflict with what Secretary Rumsfeld or General Pace said at their press briefing the next day. So you're providing a false premise in your question.

And the President also specifically cited what our Director of National Intelligence said in testimony before Congress back in early February. And so you should go and look at that testimony and look at what he said. But he also talked about how coalition forces have seized IEDs and components that were clearly produced in Iran. We know that from our intelligence.

Q The President quoted Negroponte as saying that Tehran had provided the capability for building those IEDs.

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't see any conflict with what Secretary Rumsfeld and General Pace said.

Thank you. I'll see you tomorrow.

END 12:53 P.M. EST