The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 25, 2004

Press Gaggle with Scott McClellan

12:28 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good morning. The President had his usual briefings before he left. Upon arrival, the Freedom Corps greeter is Larry Jeffery who volunteers with Merrimack Valley Chapter of SCORE Counselors to America's Small Business, a nonprofit that provides free counseling to business owners and individuals interested in starting a small business. Then the President looks forward to making remarks at -- or participating in a conversation on jobs and the economy at New Hampshire Community Technical College, which offers associate degree programs and 26 certificate diploma programs to its 1,500 students. The programs included, but are not limited -- well, include not only technical fields, such as engineering and computer programming, but also business, nursing, human services and the liberal arts.

And then, in Boston, the Freedom Corps greeter is Kareen Wilkinson, who graduated in May 2003 from college and since then has served as an AmeriCorps member with City Year of Boston.

On Tuesday -- one update -- the President will make remarks on the economy in Appleton, Wisconsin. And that's what I've got.

Q Scott, Secretary Snow today, speaking to the House Financial Committee, said that the President -- he believes the President would sign any extension on unemployment benefits. Is that something new?

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't seen his comments. Obviously, the President's focus, first and foremost, is on creating as robust an environment as possible for job creation. And we are in a changing economy. In fact, the President will be talking about that today. And it's important that we make sure that workers in this changing economy have the skills they need to fill the high-paying jobs being created in the 21st century. And so that's where our focus is, first and foremost. We've always said that we would work with Congress on the issue of unemployment benefits.

Q What about the fact that all the reports that are coming in show almost no job growth? How do you explain that?

MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree with that. In fact, we've had six straight months of new jobs being created. The unemployment rate at 5.6 percent is below the average of the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Productivity is high; disposable income is up. The economy is strong and growing stronger. It's moving in the right direction. There's more that we need to do, and the President talks about that all the time. He's got a six-point plan, but it's also important to keep in mind that we are in a changing economy and there are a lot of high-growth sectors in the changing economy, and we need to make sure workers have the kind of training and skills they need to fill those jobs. And that's one of the things he'll be talking about today.

Q There was a 4.4 percent GDP figure that came out this morning. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- 4.1? Well, no, that's another sign that the economy is strong and growing stronger. We're seeing sustained economic growth. Obviously, there are people that are still looking for work that cannot find work, and we need to continue to act to make sure that we're creating as robust an environment for job creation as possible.

Q Scott, can you talk about the extent of the distraction to the White House and the West Wing, in particular, caused by the 9/11 hearings and the ongoing investigation?

MR. McCLELLAN: Look, the 9/11 -- the work of the 9/11 Commission is very important. That's why we have been working very closely and cooperatively with the commission, to make sure they have all the information they need to do their job. We have provided unprecedented access in the information -- more than 2.3 million pages of documents; hundreds of administration officials providing interviews and briefings to the 9/11 Commission. Their work is very important. September 11th taught us that we must confront threats before it's too late, and that's why we have taken significant steps to make sure we are doing everything we can to protect the homeland, in the aftermath of September 11th --

Q That's not what I'm asking --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one more point. Obviously, if there's more information that the 9/11 Commission finds, in addition to what we're already doing, that can help us prevent another September 11th from happening, we want to know about that information.

Q Well, what about all the time being pushed into responding to Clarke? You know, Condi is out there; Dan is out there; the Vice President is out there. What work isn't being done because of --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, but look, in terms of Dick Clarke, I mean, Dick Clarke has a growing credibility problem. He stands by his past comments which contradict his new assertions. And he continues to struggle to reconcile his changing story with those past comments. He continues to make statements that are flat-out wrong. He talked about how the Deputies Committee was pushing for substantially eroding al Qaeda, not eliminating al Qaeda, and that's just flat-out false. The first draft the Deputies Committee circulated on the comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda called for eliminating al Qaeda. And then that went to the principals; all those subsequent drafts continued to talk about the elimination of al Qaeda. Mr. Clarke continues to say that because of the meetings at the White House, they were able to prevent the plot -- the Millennium plot. Well, we know from news reports at that time that it was the hard work of an individual Customs agent who was able to thwart the Millennium plot, by stopping this individual at the border. And I think her --

Q It's not what I asked you, but it's a good answer.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, no, go ahead.

Q -- asking you, isn't that a distraction --

MR. McCLELLAN: You brought up Dick Clarke, and I think that's --

Q Yes, but I'm asking about the White House staff, senior staff having to devote so much time to the --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let's remember why we're having this conversation. It is because of the new assertions that Dick Clarke is making that are contradicted by his past comments.

Q A lot of the September 11th families were very moved by Clarke's apology. Does the President plan to apologize, as well?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first and foremost, our thoughts and concerns are always with the families of the victims of September the 11th. And through our grief and anger, I think it's important to remember that it is the terrorists that were responsible for the attacks of September the 11th.

Q Dr. Rice said that she'd be glad to go back and address the commission again under the same terms as before. Do you know if that's --

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely, she would welcome the opportunity to visit with the commission further. As you're aware, she spent more than four hours with the commission previously. It was scheduled for a much shorter amount of time. But she would very much welcome the opportunity to talk to the commission further --

Q Has she been asked by --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- particularly given some of the assertions that were made in yesterday's hearing.

Q Do you know if she's been asked at this point?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know that she's been formally asked at this point. But she would welcome the opportunity to visit with the commission further.

Q What about the President? Now that the public hearings are done in this phase --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the Chairman and Vice Chairman talked a little bit about that the other day. Obviously, they've been focused on the public hearings. And the President looks forward to sitting down with the commission and we'll continue to work with them on when that will happen.

Q Is an hour still the time frame?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, look, again, he wants to sit down with them and answer all their questions. And we've said that, given all the information that they've already had access to, there's a reasonable amount of time you want to set aside to talk about these issues. And so I think you need to keep that in mind.

Q Scott, why do you think it is that Clarke -- as you said, his past statements seem to contradict his new assertions. What in your mind, or in the White House's thinking, is the reason that he seemed to make contradictory --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that that goes to his credibility. I think that those are questions he needs to answer. Even yesterday when he was presented with those inconsistencies and contradictory statements, he continued to stand by his past comments. I think those are questions --

Q But why do you think he is doing that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think those are questions he needs to answer.

Q Do you have any theories --

MR. McCLELLAN: But I think it's clear that he has a growing credibility problem.

Q Who was it that made the decision that Dr. Rice shouldn't testify in a public hearing? Was it Dr. Rice, herself, or was it the White House legal counsel?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, as you've heard from Dr. Rice, this is not a matter of her personal preference. This is --

Q Yes, but who made the call?

MR. McCLELLAN: This is a matter of principle. This is -- I'm speaking on behalf of the White House -- it's a matter of principle. It's a matter of separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. And I noticed yesterday that there's a congressional research report that was cited about national security advisors appearing before Congress, and I would just point out that we looked at that congressional research study that was cited, and the fact is that two of those national security advisors testified -- did so because it was relating to criminal or personal wrongdoing. The third one, according to congressional records, indicates that that person testified in a private session, as Dr. Rice did.

So I'm not aware -- it's an apples and oranges comparison when you're talking about that. I'm not aware of any instance where a national security advisor has testified publicly to members of Congress about policy. I'm just not aware of that.

We've got to land. Thank you.

END 12:38 P.M. EST

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