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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
February 4, 2004
Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:56 P.M. EST
MR. McCLELLAN: Good morning. I want to begin with some opening remarks -- good afternoon. Sorry.
Recently the commission looking into the September 11th attacks expressed an interest in extending the timetable for the commission from May 27th of this year to July 26th of this year, and reducing the time period for wrapping up their work from 60 days to 30 days. On January 27th, the Chairman and Vice Chairman publicly stated that a 60-day extension would provide the commission the time it needed to do its job, and provide the American people with a "strong and credible report."
The White House has been working very closely and cooperatively with the commission so that they have all the information they need to do a thorough job and complete their work in a timely manner. We welcomed the opportunity to discuss this recent request for an extension with the commission. The President is pleased to support the commission's request, and we urge Congress to act quickly to extend the timetable for an additional 60 days for the commission to complete its work.
I will continue to reiterate that if the commission has information that can help prevent another catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil, we need to have that information as soon as possible. We are pleased to support their request for an extension, and we urge Congress to act quickly to extend that timetable.
Q Has the President agreed to talk with this commission, in terms of testifying?
MR. McCLELLAN: John, as you are well aware, there have been a number of -- in fact, one of the things that the commission cited as a reason for needing this additional extension was that they wanted to further review, analyze and report on the more than 900 interviews it has conducted, and the more than 2.3 million pages of documents it has received from the Executive Branch to date.
We have been providing unprecedented cooperation. We are committed to making sure that the commission has the information that they need to do their job. There's a lot of ways to provide them with that information. We will continue to work with them in a spirit of cooperation, and that includes making officials available to address their questions that they have. There have already been a number of interviews and briefings with administration officials, and we'll continue to work with them in a spirit of cooperation.
In regard to your specific question, we'll continue to have discussions with the commission about issues that they would like to pursue.
Q So that's a no for now?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm saying that all those discussions and all these issues that you're bringing up are discussions that we work with the commission on in a spirit of cooperation. And it's better for us to work with the commission to address these issues than for you and I to try to work these issues out here from this podium.
Q What about Dr. Rice, Scott? There's reports that she will meet with the commission on Saturday. Is that correct?
MR. McCLELLAN: I expect she would be treated just like any other White House official. Like I said, we've been making administration officials available so that the commission has the information they need to do their job. We are working with them in a cooperative way. And that's how I would address it.
Q Can you say if White House officials, including Dr. Rice, are providing information under oath?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q Under oath?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, Terry, what I am saying is that we are committed to making sure that the commission has all the information they need to do their job, and do a thorough job, and complete that work -- complete their work in a timely manner. We have provided them unprecedented cooperation. We have made administration officials -- let me just go down kind of a list of a few things here. There have been more than 100 briefings, including the head-of-agency-level officials briefing the commission. There have been some 500-plus interviews. We've provided more then 2.3 million pages of documents to the commission, as I cited a minute ago. And we are continuing to make sure they have all the information they need to do their job.
Q But does the White House have a flat policy of not wanting officials to provide information under oath?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that there are lots of ways to provide the commission with information, and these are issues that we discuss with the commission and work with them to make sure that they have that information. So that's the way that I would --
Q So you're open to providing --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I wouldn't -- I would state it the way I did. We're working with the --
Q Could I get an answer to the question, which is --
MR. McCLELLAN: We're working with the commission on all those issues and we're making sure that they have all the information they need to do their job.
Q So that is a yes or a no?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, those are issues that we discuss with the commission. And we work to make sure they have the information they need to do their job.
Q Scott, why the change? The administration had been cool toward any extension, saying that you wanted to see this commission wrap up its work. Why now are you saying that you support the idea of an extension?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think I've always said that we want to see the commission move forward as quickly as possible. There was a previously agreed to timetable. We were working with the commission to make sure that they could meet that timetable by providing them all the information that I just cited a minute ago. And the commission came to us, said that they believe that they need some additional time here to do the job that they want to do. And we were glad to discuss that with the commission.
But again, we continue to believe they should move forward as quickly as possible to do a thorough job and get their work done in a timely manner. The initial timetable that was set out by Congress and agreed to by everyone was 18 months. And we now have made it clear that we support -- we support their extension for 60 days.
Q Why did they change?
MR. McCLELLAN: For the reasons I just stated, Helen. They felt that they needed some additional time to review and analyze and report --
Q They have been saying that, and you said, no.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- on the hundreds of interviews that they've had and the more than 2.3 million documents that this administration has provided them to get their job done.
Q So are you -- speaking of commissions, are you going to announce today the commission -- the intelligence commission --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't expect that to be today. I still expect that we will move forward on that announcement this week.
Q Scott, aren't there some in this White House who believe that the work being done by the 9/11 Commission is driven by a political agenda?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that we believe -- we appreciate the work that the commission is doing. I can't speak for every individual member of the commission, nor do I speak for the commission, itself. But we have worked very cooperatively and closely with the Chairman and Vice Chairman and others on the commission to help them move forward quickly to get this job done. It's very important work. The President strongly supports the work of the commission. And we want to make sure that it has all the information they need to complete their work.
Q Are you supporting this request for an extension to inoculate yourself against criticism that you're pushing the intelligence commission's work, the new one you're setting up, past the election?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't see the parallel there, David. The work here by this commission --
Q You don't? Could you say, well, look, it took the 9/11 Commission --
MR. McCLELLAN: I guess you could, but I wouldn't say that.
Q I'm asking -- you could make the argument that it's taken the 9/11 Commission extra time; therefore, you need extra time for this intelligence commission.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, the independent commission that you're referring to has not been announced at this point. And like the 9/11 Commission, we believe that they should do a thorough job and complete their work in a timely manner. The 9/11 Commission, the timetable that was set out for the 9/11 Commission, I would remind you, was an 18-month period. This is an additional 60 days to complete their report, and then an additional 30 days to really wrap up their work --
Q Just one more on this. Do you believe -- does the President believe that British Prime Minister Blair's investigation will be a thorough investigation?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that Prime Minister Blair has addressed that matter. There's already been, I would remind you, some investigation -- some investigative work that has been done in Great Britain. And I think Prime Minister Blair shares the President's commitment to learning all the facts. We want to know the facts. And the Prime Minister wants to know those facts, as well, so that we can compare what was done before and what was -- what was done before.
I would remind you that what we are -- well, one -- a few things on that. Congress already has committees that are looking into the pre-war intelligence. The CIA has been working on it for quite some time, as well, to look at the pre-war intelligence. The independent commission that we are setting up will take a broad look at our global intelligence challenges in this day and age as we face new and dangerous threats from weapons of mass destruction. And so this will be a broad assessment. One of the issues we will look at will be the work that is ongoing by the Iraq Survey Group.
Q Scott, can I ask you a couple of unrelated questions?
MR. McCLELLAN: Can I keep moving now? I'll try to come back to you in a minute, so I can keep moving around here. Go ahead, Dana.
Q The families of 9/11 victims and Senator McCain and Senator Lieberman want this extended past the election, until January 2005. Why did you decide to do 60 days and not -- as you say about the other commission that you guys are planning -- take the politics out of this?
MR. McCLELLAN: For the very reasons that I stated. These were discussions that we had with the commission. We worked very closely and cooperatively with the commission in their efforts. We have been from the very beginning. And this was something that they brought to our attention, saying, we would like some additional time to complete our work.
The commission felt that they could complete their work within -- do all that they want to do with an additional 60-day extension. And so this was discussions we had with the commission and we were pleased to support their request for an extension, and look forward to receiving their information.
Again, I would emphasize to you that if they have information that can help us prevent something like September 11th from ever happening again, we want to have that information as soon as possible. And that's why we're working very closely with them to help them get their work done on the timetable that they have set up.
Q Just to be specific, so Senator McCain, Senator Lieberman, their legislation to extend this to 2005, you will oppose that?
MR. McCLELLAN: We support the commission's request. This was a request by --
Q I know, but they have legislation --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me tell you what we're for. We support the commission's request for an additional 60-day extension for them to complete their work. They have said that is what they need, the additional time they need to complete their work. And we're pleased to support their request. This was a request by the commission.
Q So they said to you, 60 days is all we need and we'll be all done?
MR. McCLELLAN: That's what was expressed to us, as I cited at the beginning of the briefing.
Q And if for some reason they decided that wasn't enough, it sounds like you would be supportive of any request --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I think that they are the ones who have said this additional 60-day period will give them the time they need to come up with what they referred to as a "strong and credible report." And they've been working on this for 18 months -- or they've had an initial 18-month period, and we're pleased to support their request for an additional 60 days.
And I think that, obviously, discussions have been going on with members of Congress, and I think there will be more discussions with members of Congress. But this was a decision the commission took to request this extension.
Q Did the commission raise with the White House any concerns or objections it had about the way information was flowing to it from the administration?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think they have publicly talked about the unprecedented cooperation that we are providing to the commission. You can go back and look at the comments from the Chairman and the Vice Chairman. And if there are issues that come to their attention that need to be resolved, we're more than happy to visit with them and work in a spirit of cooperation to make sure they have the information they need.
Q Did they bring to you any such concerns?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, we are in discussions with them all the time, as I pointed out. Issues that come to their attention that they want to address we talk to them about. And we work in a spirit of cooperation.
Q Did they --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not getting into all the individual issues that we discuss, but we do continue to work in a spirit of cooperation with the commission -- because their work is very important, for the reasons I stated. We want to know if there is information that can help us prevent something like September 11th from ever happening again.
Q Scott, I just want to make clear, are you saying that there are really no major impediments between you and the commission, there are no major disagreements about how information is being shared?
MR. McCLELLAN: I wouldn't try to speak for the commission, but I would point out some of their public comments that they've made about the cooperation that is going on between the White House and the commission, itself.
Q Scott, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling --
MR. McCLELLAN: Are we off 9/11?
Q -- about you.
MR. McCLELLAN: You said other issues. (Laughter.)
Q The Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled that only full rights for married couples were -- for married gay couples were acceptable under that state's Constitution. Does that mean now that Bush believes it is necessary to move ahead with a U.S. constitutional amendment?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President has always believed that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. He firmly -- he is firmly committed to protecting and defending the sanctity of marriage. Today's court ruling is deeply troubling.
Q Go on, go on. And? And?
Q Will he now support moving forward with a constitutional amendment?
MR. McCLELLAN: It is a deeply troubling ruling. We will be reviewing the decision. Activist judges continue to seek to redefine marriage by court order without regard for the will of the people. The President made it very clear in the State of the Union address that it's important that we respect individuals, but that this is a principled stand for one of our most fundamental, enduring institutions. And that is the sacred institution of marriage.
And the President reiterated his strong support for the Defense of Marriage Act. And he talked about activist judges beginning to redefine marriage without regard for the will of the people. And he believes it's an issue of great consequence. And that's why he said that the people's voice must be heard, that this is an important debate and the people should have a voice in this debate. And he said at that time, and I will continue to reiterate what he said at that time, that if judges continue to force their arbitrary will upon the people, that the only alternative to the people would be a constitutional process. And that remains his view.
Q So is this --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I said that this --
Q -- is this the tipping point?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- this ruling is deeply troubling. The President is firmly committed to protecting and defending the sanctity of marriage. He strongly believes that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. We are going to be reviewing this decision. It just came out earlier today, but it is deeply troubling.
Q Would the issue be joined before some gay couple married in Massachusetts goes to another state and asks them to recognize it? Do you wait for that kind of thing and let it --
MR. McCLELLAN: I can't speculate on all the different scenarios, Jim. But the President made it very clear that it's important for the people's voice to be heard in a debate of such great consequence.
Q Does the White House feel like it needs to intervene before that issue is confronted? I mean, you're not challenging the Massachusetts --
MR. McCLELLAN: I know you're asking me to speculate a little bit about some of the timing of matters --
Q No, no --
MR. McCLELLAN: The President, when he outlined his State of the Union, he said that this is an important debate, and activist judges should not be redefining marriage by court order and without regard for the will of the people. And he wants the voice of the people to be heard in this important debate.
Q You're saying, it's deeply troubling. I'm trying to figure out if you're just going to stew in those troubles, or if there's actually something you feel needs to be done now, or if it should just wait until it becomes an issue between two states.
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm reiterating what the President has said, and what his views are. And we are going to be reviewing today's court decision. Obviously, we haven't had a chance to do that at this point. But I can tell you right now that it is a deeply troubling ruling.
Q Scott, your phrasing still leaves open the possibility of state voters or -- of states deciding by themselves to recognize same-sex civil unions, maybe even marriages. Where does the President stand on that?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President is committed to protecting and defending the sanctity of marriage. And he has previously -- he said during the campaign, the previous campaign -- go all the way back to four years ago -- he said that as governor of Texas he would not have supported it for the state of Texas. But he has always said, too, that states, obviously, have the rights to determine their own legal, contractual arrangements. And he said that I think, as Terry is nodding, on his network, more recently.
Q Would he overturn the Vermont law?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think I just addressed that by what I said, in terms of the contractual arrangements by states.
Q The question that I had was, in November of last year, at an off-site mail-sorting facility, a letter containing a low grade, very crude form of ricin poison was discovered. It was addressed to the White House. It was deemed through testing to not pose a public health threat because of the low concentrations of -- the low potency of the ricin. But it was believed to have come from the same person that mailed ricin to a post office in Greenville, South Carolina. And because it was connected with a criminal act in which a $100,000 reward has been offered, why didn't the White House tell us about this?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm glad you brought that question up, John. Let me try to help you out and walk you through this matter. First of all, I'm not agreeing with everything you said in your opening remarks to your question. (Laughter.) And law enforcement is currently investigating --
Q Was it wrong, or you're just not agreeing?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- a matter that you referred to. Well, there have been some incorrect assumptions that I have seen and some wrong impressions in the media. First of all, what you're referring to was a letter received at an off-site facility where White House mail is sent. The letter contained a suspicious substance. Law enforcement, again, is doing an ongoing investigation into this whole incident. But -- and I would remind you that the off-site facility sorts through a very large volume of mail on a daily basis. Appropriate precautions and procedures are in place to sort through that mail. We often receive letters containing a substance, and most times, they are not a public health risk.
However, let me go back, because I went and collected some of this information to help walk you through this. Late on November 12th, the White House was informed that the Secret Service had identified and intercepted a suspicious substance at the off-site White House mail facility. At that time, White House Homeland Security officials -- or, I should say, early in the early hours of November 13th, White House Homeland Security officials convened an interagency conference call to make sure appropriate law enforcement and public health officials were informed and to determine the next steps. That call included the FBI; it included the CDC; it included the Postal Service, and other officials, as well. At that time, additional exhaustive testing was conducted by the CDC, which, on November 14th, determined that the substance did not pose a public health risk.
We obviously take public health risk very seriously. And if there's information that needs to be shared, we share it appropriately. I think you see that by what we have done to act on other threats that we face. There are a number of threats that we face in this day and age. They are from criminal acts to terrorist acts. And we confront those threats and we share information that we have in an appropriate manner. If there is a public health threat, we share that information. The letter was deemed, by public health officials, not to be a public health threat.
Q So --
MR. McCLELLAN: Now -- hold on. The matter --
Q I was just wondering what my assumptions you're challenging, because it just basically reiterated everything I said, only you took five minutes to do it.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I didn't -- I don't think I did. Again, the matter -- let me tell you again -- the matter continues to be under investigation by law enforcement. It is an ongoing investigation. It is best for me, from this podium, not to get into discussing specifics relating to the ongoing investigation because it could compromise it. And I think you can appreciate that, a matter of this importance.
Q So to get to my question, why weren't we informed that you received a letter that contained ricin, even a low grade?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again -- and I'm not accepting everything that you're saying in your statements -- I would point out to you that, for the reasons I just walked you through, it was determined that it was not a public health risk. There is an ongoing investigation at this time.
Q So are you confirming that it was ricin, or that it wasn't ricin?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, that's getting into specific questions relating to an ongoing investigation. And I want to help this investigation --
Q So is that the part of what John said that you're not agreeing with?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I want to help this investigation move forward, and that's the spirit in which I'm working. So if you have specific questions relating to an investigation, you might want to address that to law enforcement. But again, this was not something that was a public health risk.
Q It could have still been ricin?
Q Just on the other matter of whether or not the White House and the Secret Service shared this information with law enforcement who was looking at the broader cases, as John raised, you're telling us that early on November 13th, the White House did share this information with the FBI?
MR. McCLELLAN: Correct. CDC, Postal Service, and other officials were involved in that -- were involved in that interagency conference call. That's what I -- and typically, that's what would happen -- when we're notified, the Homeland Security officials here at the White House would convene an interagency process, and begin that process.
Q It sounds as if somebody didn't connect the dots once again, though, between the White House incident and the other incident that was already under investigation.
MR. McCLELLAN: And nor am I, from this podium, getting into those questions. I have not seen law enforcement go out and publicly talk about either of these investigations that are going on right now. They are ongoing and it's important that those investigations succeed.
Q If it was not ricin it's one thing. But if it was ricin, wouldn't it behoove the White House to inform other agencies, since someone was clearly targeting a federal agency with a poison?
MR. McCLELLAN: We did. I just pointed out to you --
Q I mean Capitol Hill --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- I just pointed out to you, and other officials were informed, as well. But this was deemed not to be a public health risk. Obviously, we are also -- have an interagency process going on on Capitol Hill. The Capitol Hill incident was deemed to be a public health risk. We have an interagency team that is working with Capitol Hill police, the FBI and others to look into the matter on the Hill, as well. The FBI is investigating that matter, as well. We have health officials that are working with those on the Hill to address the health concerns.
Q Was Capitol Hill informed in this case of the November letter --
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I informed you of what I know, what I've been able to gather. There are certainly -- I can try to go back and get you additional information. But what I know in terms of the timing and who was informed is what I just told you a few minutes ago. Remember, this was at an off-site White House facility. There is an ongoing investigation into that matter at this point.*
Q Just one more -- is the President fully satisfied with the way this was handled, that the proper people were informed, and that if Capitol Hill was not informed, that's fine? Is he satisfied that this was handled correctly?
MR. McCLELLAN: We do expect the appropriate people to be informed in situations like this. And it is our understanding that they were. And I just noted to you what we did when we learned of this information.
Q Was there a warning on the envelope that it contained dangerous material? Was it addressed to the President, and what does the letter say?
MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, this is -- I appreciate you asking that question, but I reiterate to you, that's getting into specific matters relating to an ongoing investigation. We need to let law enforcement do their work. And it's best for me, from this podium, not to get into the specifics of an ongoing investigation because it could compromise that investigation.
Q Was the President told?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q Was the President told?
MR. McCLELLAN: I said earlier today that I don't believe so. I talked to him earlier today. He certainly is notified if there is a public health risk. In this case there was not one.
Q You said you expected the --
Q But he was -- but he was notified, though?
MR. McCLELLAN: He asked -- I think you're asking, at the time of the incident?
MR. McCLELLAN: And I said I don't believe so. I checked on that earlier. And I said that I, myself, I don't recall ever being informed about it.
Q So the President first heard of it yesterday?
Q Why won't he tell anything about recognizing it? What about -- shouldn't the public know to be on the lookout in their own mail?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Helen, again, this letter -- and I said we receive lots of letters at the White House mail facility, which is an off-site facility, and there are a lot of letters that contain substance that come across that facility. And when we have a suspicious substance, we act on that. There are certainly precautions that are in place at the facility, and procedures in place to look into suspicious substances. That's what was done in this incident. It was deemed that it was not a public health risk.
At the same time, it was something that raised concern among law enforcement officials. And that's why law enforcement is investigating this matter and trying to continue to move forward on the investigation.
Q Scott, if there are a lot of substances that go there, is there anything else besides this one ricin incident?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q Is there anything else that got there that we should know about?
MR. McCLELLAN: Like I said, if there is something that comes to our attention that is a public health threat or a risk, we share that information appropriately. I think if you go back and look at other threats that we have worked to address, you know that we share that information appropriately.
I would refer you to what we did over the holidays when the threat level was elevated to high because we had concerns about a possible terrorist attack on the United States. And it was specifically more related to our aviation security. We had information; we shared that information appropriately. And we worked to make sure some flight were canceled, because the number one priority of this administration is the safety and security of the American people. And when information comes to our attention that poses a potential threat, we share that information appropriately. And we act on that information.
Q You said in November that you expected the appropriate people would be informed. Is the FBI charged with passing that information on to Capitol Hill Police, or to the leadership in Congress? How do you expect them to be informed?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, Jim, I'm working to try to get you all some additional information, that's getting beyond the information that I have at this point.
Q Scott, what was the name of the person that made the decision that it wasn't a public health risk?
MR. McCLELLAN: Roger, the officials that looked at this were from CDC. They're the ones that -- as I said, pointed out -- did the additional exhaustive testing to confirm that it was not a public health risk.
Q So it was a person at CDC that made the decision --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the public health officials -- again, I don't know every single person that was involved, but CDC was involved in doing the additional exhaustive testing. And they determined on November 14th that the substance did not pose a public health risk.
Anything else on this matter?
Q I do --
MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, you do? Okay, go ahead, Richard.
Q In addition to substances that come in there, obviously, you get letters from people who either make threats, and you get phone calls that make threats. How do you determine which ones you want to investigate, which ones you don't want to investigate --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think those determinations are made by the appropriate authorities. And the Secret Service is the one that would be responsible for making those determinations. But we take information.
Q -- (inaudible) --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, like I said, Richard, unfortunately, there are some people in this world that are seeking to either carry out pranks or make some serious threats. And we appreciate the work of the Secret Service that they do to address each and every one of these matters. They take every one of them seriously. The Secret Service looks into those matters, and then they act appropriately on those. But it's not my position from this podium to get into every single piece of mail that comes across our White House off site-mail facility. But when there is information that's important to share, we do so.
Q Is there information that you could provide that gives us an idea of how many cases actually have to be investigated each year, that are fully investigated?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sure you can probably place calls to the appropriate officials. But like I said, on this particular one, I'm working to get you additional information that I can. But I think I've outlined for you a good time line of what happened and the actions that we took.
Anything else on this?
Q Let's walk to the Oval Office. Yesterday's meeting between President Bush and United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan -- can you give a little more about, as far as India and Pakistan discussions? And also, who brought the issue up for discussion on India and Pakistan, and whether they discussed about Kashmir, and if President had asked the Secretary General to play any role, or United Nations role in --
MR. McCLELLAN: They had a good general discussion. Ultimately, resolving those tensions that exist in the region requires dialogue between the two countries, as I pointed out yesterday. I don't recall specifically who was the first to mention relationships between India and Pakistan and the dialogue that is ongoing at this point. But they both expressed their support for these high-level dialogues between the two countries that will help reduce tensions in the region.
Q Did the President ask any role the U.N. will play?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, it was a general discussion, and they talked about the importance of everybody supporting the efforts of Pakistan and India to reduce tensions in the region.
Q How is the President going to counter Democratic challenges that he got preferential treatment while serving in the National Guard during Vietnam?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we went through this issue four years ago and I went through this issue yesterday. And I will leave it where I left it yesterday.
Q I want to go back to the intelligence investigation. You spoke about it being a broad investigation. Well, how deep is it going to go? What I'm asking is, at the end of this exercise, will the American people be fully aware of what happened to our intelligence agencies over the last decade, and who has been responsible for slashing funding for these intelligence agencies? Intelligence failures didn't start on January 20th, 2001.
MR. McCLELLAN: The President will appoint highly-qualified individuals to this commission, people that will have the independence they need to do their job. The executive order will spell out the fact that they have the independence to do the job they need to do. And this will look at our intelligence capabilities, do a broad assessment of our intelligence capabilities, as we're now in the 21st century and addressing new and dangerous threats that we haven't had to face in the same ways before.
These threats -- I mean, you correctly point out that these threats didn't happen overnight. But this administration is committed to confronting these threats. And because of the actions that we are taking, in a number of different ways, we're achieving some important successes to make the world more safe and to make the world a better place, in a number of different ways. But this commission will make the decisions in terms of all those issues that you're bringing up. They will have the independence they need to do their job and do so thoroughly.
Q We can look back at the 20th century to determine how we got to the position --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, those are decisions that the commission members will be able to make. And certainly if you're doing a broad assessment of your intelligence capabilities, you want to make sure you look at where we've been and where we're headed. If there are ways that we can improve our intelligence capabilities, we want to know, particularly in this day and age where we face so many dangerous threats that we must address before it's too late.
Q Can you tell us about the South Carolina trip, and why the President, in particular, wants to talk about the war on terror there? Is it purely coincidence that it's two days after a Democratic primary, once again?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are primaries happening all over the place these days, Mark, and I guess we could stay here in Washington, D.C. and not go anywhere. But those primaries are happening all over the place.
The President will talk about what we are doing to protect the American people here at home and better secure our homeland. But as you pointed out, the war -- he will also talk about the broader war on terrorism. The President will spend a good portion of his remarks focusing on that war and how the best way to win the war on terrorism is by taking the fight to the enemy. We must stay on the offense. He will talk about the choices we have made and how this is a time of testing. There is more work to be done to win this war on terrorism. And this war on terrorism will be won on the offensive.
The President is firmly committed to seeing it through and making the world a safer and better place in which to live. And I expect he will talk about the importance of a free and peaceful Iraq to the war on terrorism. A free and peaceful Iraq will help advance freedom and democracy in a dangerous part of the world that has been a breeding ground for terrorism. So that's what I expect he will talk about in his remarks tomorrow.
Q On Iraq, there were, in the last 24 hours, there have been some indications that the June 30th deadline for a handover may slip, and that the U.S. government is recognizing that. Do you have any update --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure of the exact indications, but we remain firmly committed to working with the -- working with Iraqi leaders and the Iraqi people to meet the timetable that the Governing Council worked on and agreed to. We want to move forward as quickly as possible to transfer -- and in a timely manner, but in an orderly fashion -- to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people.
We believe it's important that we all work together to meet that timetable. This was a decision that was worked on by the Governing Council and agreed to with the Coalition Provisional Authority. And we've always said that we're open to refinements within that framework, refinements or clarifications. And we welcome the efforts by Secretary General Annan, who is sending a team into Iraq to assess the feasibility of elections within that timetable.
Q Scott, in the last few days, the President has said he wants to get all the facts on what -- the issue of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But the commission that you outlined this morning has a broader mandate to look at intelligence in general. When this commission wraps up its work, will the answers that the President wants on Iraq be forthcoming?
MR. McCLELLAN: I would point out several things. One, the Iraq Survey Group is working to complete their work. So there is more information that we will learn from the Iraq Survey Group once they complete their work. It's important that they complete their work. We already know that -- from their initial progress report, that Saddam Hussein was in clear violation of his international obligations, and continued to pose a gathering danger to the world. And congressional committees, as I pointed out earlier in this briefing, are also looking into the pre-war intelligence. The CIA is looking into pre-war intelligence. And this commission will look at Iraq, as well, as part of a broad assessment of our intelligence capabilities.
It's very important in this day and age that we take a close look at our global intelligence challenges, so that we have -- if there are ways to improve our ability to meet the security threats of the 21st century, we want to know about that.
Q The President said he wants to know all the facts. The commission clearly would be a vehicle to do that, and that's why I'm --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Iraq Survey Group is gathering a lot of facts on the ground, so we can compare that with what we knew before. I fully expect that the commission will look at the work that they are in the process of completing.
Q Thank you.
MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.
END 1:36 P.M. EST
* On November 19, 2003, the FBI sent an Intelligence Bulletin to law enforcement authorities. The Bulletin alerted authorities to the fact that ricin had been discovered in a mail distribution facility and that it continued to pose a threat. It also outlined facts about ricin, symptoms of ricin exposure, and general recommended responses if the presence of ricin is suspected.
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