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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
February 17, 2004

Press Gaggle with Scott Mcclellan
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Fort Polk, Louisiana

11:43 A.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, good morning. Let's get started. The President had his usual briefings before departing the White House. Upon arrival in Fort Polk -- at Fort Polk, there will be a Freedom Corps greeter, Marguerite or Margie Nobles. She's an active volunteer with Army Community Service, which is an organization that provides support programs to assist active and reserve soldiers and their families. And her husband is a staff sergeant in the Army, currently serving in Iraq.

Then the President looks forward to making remarks to our troops.

Q Who is he talking to?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President will -- I expect about 15,000 people to be in attendance; military personnel and families from Fort Polk. And I expect that he -- in his remarks, he will thank our troops and express our gratitude to their families, as well, for the sacrifices that they are making. And he will give an update on the war on terror. I expect he'll talk about Afghanistan and Iraq. I expect, in his remarks, that he will focus a little bit on the stakes involved in Iraq.

I think he will talk about the memo from Zarqawi, and point to that, and how -- as an example of how the terrorists recognize that the stakes are very high in Iraq, that they are trying to do everything they can in Iraq to prevent democracy and freedom from taking root in Iraq. But they will fail. They recognize that Iraq is the central war -- central front in the war on terrorism. And I expect the President will talk about that in his remarks. You might want to pay a little bit of attention to that aspect of his remarks today.

And following the remarks, the President will have lunch with National Guardsmen from the 39th Brigade Combat Team. They are -- oh, let me back up; a little bit about Fort Polk first, Im sorry. Fort Polk is primarily a training base. It has a population of more than 11,000.

Q How much again?

MR. McCLELLAN: More than 11,000, including military personnel and family members. It's the home of the Joint Readiness Training Center. It is also home of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 519th Military Police Battalion, and a number of other brigades. Fort Polk has been supporting the war on terror by providing training for the Army's light infantry and Special Operation forces and by deploying home station forces in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Noble Eagle and participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

And as I said, the President will have lunch with the 39th Brigade Combat Team. They are an Arkansas National Guard unit that has been mobilized. They were mobilized in October. They arrived at Fort Polk for training on -- in late January. And they will deploy to Iraq in March. And they will be joining the 1st Cavalry Division and sharing responsibility for the Baghdad area.

Q How many?

MR. McCLELLAN: How many are deploying?

Q No, how many in the unit?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll try to get you that number.

Q The 1st -- say it again?

MR. McCLELLAN: The 1st Cavalry Division will share responsibility for the Baghdad area.

And then, following that, the President will meet with families of some fallen soldiers. And then after that we return back to the White House this evening.

Q Is this his first time he's met with families of fallen soldiers?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, no, he's met on several occasions -- North Carolina --

Q Will that be a private affair?


Q No press?


Q There were two who were killed from this base last week, on the 2nd. Is that -- do you know if those are the families that you're talking about?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll see what I can get you later, after the visit, after he visits with the families. I think there are seven families that will be present, including spouses, parents and children.

Q Most of the people he's talking to today, are they going to Iraq, coming from Iraq? I'm unclear on --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's both. Obviously, I just mentioned the 39th Brigade -- they will be going to Iraq. But this is a training facility, and I think it will include some that have served in Iraq, too.

Q There are some who are combat veterans here?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's my understanding. I just mentioned that they've been involved in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. So I think it will include both.

Q Do you have any idea how many that he will actually be seeing during the speech are headed to Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: To what?

Q How many are actually about to go to Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, I think Fort Polk can probably get you that information. You ought to check with Fort Polk.

Q Why a National Guard event now? Why having the President's picture taken with National Guard troops now?

MR. McCLELLAN: This is an event that's been in the works for several weeks. And the President -- the President recognizes his most important responsibility is to protect the American people and our troops. Both those in the Armed Forces and those in our reserve units and Guard are playing an important role in helping us confront the dangerous threats that we face, and make the world a safer and better place.

So this is an opportunity to not only thank our troops, but thank their families, and also provide them an update in the war on terrorism. They're involved in a very important cause, and the President is forever grateful for their service and sacrifice.

Q By several weeks, you mean before the Democrats raised questions about the President's service?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, yes.

Q It has nothing to do with that whole controversy, his visit here today?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, this has to do with the President thanking our troops for their service and sacrifice in an important cause.

Q I have two quick ones. One, why did he pardon the Plano -- former Plano mayor? I know the details of what -- but why did the President get involved in that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it went through the standard procedures. This was a gentleman that has paid his debt to society. He is gravely ill. And no one -- and it went through the standard procedure, and no one recommended against granting the pardon.

Q It's because of this request? Is this somebody that he knew, or somebody his family knew?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he certainly knows his son. But this went through the standard procedures. This is someone that, like I said, is terminally ill.

Q Second question is, why does the President continue to take trips like yesterday, to Tampa, the factory, and consider those presidential events, talking about the economy, when he really is addressing very political questions that involve running for election?

MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree. I think he's addressing very important priorities for the American people. He is the President of the United States 24/7, and it's his responsibility to talk to the American people about the actions and policies that we are implementing.

Q But under that definition, he could go until November and never actually do a political event.

MR. McCLELLAN: Look, he's focused on our nation's priorities right now. He has said repeatedly that there will be plenty of time to talk about the campaign and talk about the differences. But just because it's an election year doesn't mean he stops being President. And it's important for -- he has traveled across the United States throughout his presidency, because he believes it's important to get outside Washington, D.C. and talk to the American people.

And the priority he talked about yesterday is one of our nation's highest, and that is our economy. And it's important to talk to the American people about the steps that we have taken to strengthen our economy, and the additional steps that he is calling on Congress to take. And that's another reminder, it's important for Congress to remember that regardless of the fact that we're in an election year, that there are still important priorities that need to be addressed, and none more higher than continuing to wage the war on terror and work to strengthen our economy even more.

Q Scott, this is his first trip to a military base, I think, since the David Kay report. Does he have a special message he wants to give the troops in the wake of that report?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I think that what his broader remarks are about is kind of an update on the war on terrorism and, as I said, he'll talk about how Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism. It's important to keep in mind what we are working to achieve in Iraq. A free and peaceful Iraq will help bring stability to a region that has been an exporter of violence in the world. It is a dangerous region. And our efforts are ongoing in Iraq, and a free and peaceful Iraq will help make the world a safer and better place, and help bring about peace and stability in a very volatile region of the world. And so I think the President will talk about the actions that we took in Iraq to remove a brutal regime from power and liberate the Iraqi people.

Q On the situation in Haiti, do you think President Aristide should leave power early, or stay in power and try to put down this violent unrest?

MR. McCLELLAN: One, that's a matter for the people of Haiti to decide. Our focus right now is on working with our partners in the hemisphere to bring about a peaceful resolution to the situation. Secretary Powell met with many of his counterparts from the Caribbean community on Friday. And so that's where our efforts are focused on. Obviously, I think it's important to keep in mind the need for everyone to work together to resolve this matter peacefully. We urge all parties to bring an end to the violence and work toward a peaceful resolution. And the way we get there is through dialogue and compromise and negotiations.

Q Is Aristide refusing to talk to these groups?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, certainly there are -- there needs to be some changes in the way Haiti is governed and the security situation, as well. And so we would call on President Aristide to make sure he implements those essential steps to address those matters. But again, in terms of President Aristide, that's for the people of Haiti to decide. Right now our focus is on bringing about a peaceful resolution to the situation in Haiti. We're continuing to work closely with our partners in the hemisphere, including the Caribbean community and the Organization of American States.

Q Anything new on elections either in -- election plans in Afghanistan or Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: No. I think you know where both stand. I think our Ambassador in Afghanistan addressed some of the issues involving Afghanistan, and I think that President Karzai has, as well. In terms of Iraq, we continue to look forward to the recommendations from the United Nations, which we expect soon.

Q -- (inaudible) --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you'd have to ask that of the United Nations. I think they said they expect it to be very soon. But we are continuing to work with Iraqi leaders to transfer sovereignty on the time line outlined in the November 15th agreement.

Q On the week ahead, there were a couple days where there's nothing. Anything that you can tell us about those days yet?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, tomorrow he's got the meeting with the leader of Tunisia. That's the only update -- I mean, that's already on your schedule. No updates beyond that right now. But I will keep you updated.

Q Is there another ranch trip in addition to the one -- the Fox one?

MR. McCLELLAN: You're asking me for the week ahead on Monday?

Q Tuesday.

MR. McCLELLAN: Two weeks ahead? (Laughter.)

Q How about the month ahead?

MR. McCLELLAN: We'll keep you updated on the schedule. You've got the trip with President Fox coming up.

Q You don't know of another one?

MR. McCLELLAN: Before that? No, at this point, I don't expect that. Not before that. I don't expect it before that.

Okay, thanks.

END 11:58 A.M. EST

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