For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 12, 2004
Press Briefing by Index
Statement on Panama/ship-boarding initiative....................1
Murder if Nicholas Berg....................................1-4, 6
Release of more photos of prisoner abuse......................4-5
9/11 Commission/interview of al Qaeda prisoners...............5-6
General Miller/Guantanamo Bay interrogations..................6-7
Geneva Convention/prisoner status.............................7-9
Americans going to Iraq.........................................9
June 30th transfer of power..................................9-10
Arab world response to Berg death, prison abuse................11
Readout/meeting with Angola President..........................12
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
Immediate Release May 12, 2004
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:34 P.M. EDT
MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I want to begin with one statement
by the President, and then I'll be glad to take your questions.
The United States welcomes Panama's signing today of a
ship-boarding agreement that supports the efforts of the Proliferation
Security Initiative to stop the trade in deadly weapons and materials.
The agreement establishes streamlined procedures for American officials
to request and board ships registered to Panama if those ships are
suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction, their delivery
systems, or related materials.
More ships sail under the Panamanian flag than that of any other
nation. This agreement sends a strong signal to proliferators that the
free nations of the world are determined to protect their people and
preserve the peace. This is the second bilateral ship-boarding
agreement signed to support the Proliferation Security Initiative. The
United States and the government of Liberia signed a similar agreement
on February 11, 2004. Together, Panama and Liberia account for roughly
30 percent of the world's commercial shipping tonnage. We welcome this
historic decision by the government of Panama, and we urge other
nations with large commercial shipping registries to follow the lead of
Panama and Liberia to make a stand against proliferation.
And with that, I'll go straight to your questions.
Q Are you convinced that Zarqawi was responsible for the
beheading, or was this simply just done in his name? Is there an
effort underway to find out?
MR. McCLELLAN: Steve, as I made clear yesterday, we will pursue
those who are responsible and bring them to justice. No, I do not have
an update on who exactly is responsible. Apparently, those who claim
credit are terrorists tied to al Qaeda, as they stated in this video.
This was a brutal and barbaric act. It shows the true nature of
terrorists. They have no regard for innocent life.
Our deepest condolences go out to the family of Nicholas Berg.
Nicholas Berg was in Iraq to help build a better future for the Iraqi
people. He was there, a civilian who was there to help. And the
terrorists seek to intimidate us, but they will not prevail. A free
and peaceful Iraq is critical to winning the war on terrorism. And the
terrorists understand that when we prevail in Iraq, and a free and
peaceful Iraq emerges, that will be a significant blow for their
Q Scott, has the President seen the tape of Berg's murder, and
does the administration believe that this is retribution or revenge for
U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners?
MR. McCLELLAN: Suzanne, terrorists will change their excuses, or
find whatever excuse they can to try to carry out their murderous and
evil acts. The terrorists look for all sorts of excuses to try to
justify murder and destruction and chaos. There is no justification
for the taking of innocent human life. Terrorists, as we have seen
across the world -- whether it be in Madrid or whether it was at the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or in Istanbul or other places --
terrorists seek to spread fear and chaos, and they have no regard for
the innocent life of civilians, whether it's men, women or children.
Q Has the President seen the tape?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't believe he has. He's certainly been
briefed on the tape, though.
Q Does he believe that this supports the argument that perhaps
those photos of abuse should not be released to the public because they
might incite further anger or violent acts against Americans?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there's no question that the acts of a small
number of people in our military did harm. It does not represent the
United States of America. Those actions do not represent the United
States of America, nor do they represent the 99.9 percent of our men
and women in the military who are serving with honor and distinction
across the world, including in Iraq.
There have been more than 200,000 men and women in our military who
have served in Iraq. They are there to help the Iraqi people build a
free and prosperous future, and they are there to make America more
secure, because a free and peaceful Iraq will help transform a
dangerous region of the world. And those actions at Abu Ghraib do not
represent the United States military or their actions that they carry
out on a daily basis to -- acts of kindness and decency and compassion
in helping the Iraqi people.
Q But does the administration believe that preventing those
additional photos from being released to the public may protect U.S.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think what the President believes is that
it's important that we have an open and transparent process moving
forward when it comes to these investigations, so that we can show the
world that when acts like this -- shameful acts like this come to our
attention, America addresses them swiftly, and America works to bring
those responsible to justice, and we work to implement steps that will
prevent something like this from happening ever again. So we show the
world through our actions what we are truly committed to. And it
stands in stark contrast to oppressive regimes. And it stands in stark
contrast to terrorists.
Q Scott, can I ask you more specifically what the President's
current view is on whether those additional photos should be released?
Does he agree with the Vice President, who suggested yesterday in an
interview, that essentially releasing those photos would have a
negative effect on prosecutions going forward, and that, in essence,
the call to release them is just from media types like us who want to
print the photos? Does the President agree with the Vice President on
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I think the Vice President
pointed out that a decision had not been reached on that very matter.
The Pentagon is looking into these issues. We have been in close
contact with the Pentagon throughout this process. The President
appreciates the considerations that the Pentagon has to work to
address. They will make a judgment, but the Pentagon has to look at
factors such as the ongoing criminal investigations that are underway.
That's first and foremost, because no one wants to do anything that
would compromise the investigations and possibly prevent people who are
responsible from being brought to justice. We want to make sure that
people are brought to justice for these shameful and appalling acts.
But the Pentagon is still working to address those matters. They
are providing information to members of Congress because they recognize
the important oversight role that Congress has. So members of
Congress, at least members of the Senate will be seeing some of those
images this afternoon, so they can carry out their responsibilities.
And it's important to keep Congress informed.
Q Does the President agree with the Vice President's comments
MR. McCLELLAN: The President supports the judgment of the Pentagon
to look into these matters --
Q That's not what I asked.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- and address these issues. And the President
fully understands the considerations that the Pentagon has to take into
account, namely the ongoing criminal investigations that are underway.
Q The Vice President suggested that the calls to release the
additional photos by the media and others is really out of an effort so
that, as he said, so that the media can have more pictures to print in
the paper. And he said this not kindly toward the media. I'm
wondering if the President shares that view, that releasing them now is
kind of media preoccupation.
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the both the President and the Vice
President share the view that we need to get to the bottom of this,
that we need to have an open and transparent process as these
investigations move forward so that the world sees through our actions
that America takes these matters seriously and addresses these matters
in a very forceful and direct way.
Q The vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton, wants
the commission to interview some of the top al Qaeda people now in
U.S. custody. Will the White House allow that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, I think I've always said from this
podium that we work very closely with the 9/11 Commission to make sure
that they have all the information, or have access to all the
information they need to do their job. And there are a number of
different ways that we can provide the commission with access to the
information they need to do their job, because we want to make sure the
commission is able to provide the American people with a comprehensive
and thorough report, and that we can look at those recommendations that
they make and act on those recommendations moving forward.
But in terms of specific issues like that, those are issues that we
prefer to address directly with members of the commission and discuss
with them, rather than discuss from this podium. So I think that's the
best way to approach it.
Q I take it then, from what you say, that you're not really
closing the door, it is a possibility that they could be allowed --
MR. McCLELLAN: What I'm saying is that we will continue to work
with them to make sure that they have access to the information they
need to do their job.
Q Nicholas Berg was in Iraq to build a better Iraq. What is
your understanding of what he was actually doing there? And can you
shed any additional light on the fact that he was apparently detained
by Iraqi police, and the FBI went and talked to his family, and so
forth? Can you shed any light --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that those questions are best directed to
the coalition. Over in Iraq, they did talk about some of those issues
earlier today, and I would leave it to them to address, because I don't
know all the details related to that matter. But his family and
friends have made it clear that he was over there trying to help the
Q Is anyone contacting the family here to follow up on this?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll try to keep you posted if there are any
contacts. But the Consular's Office from Baghdad, as well as Consular
Affairs, I think, at the State Department, have been in contact with
Q Is the President in touch with the family, or does he intend
to be in touch with the family?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I'll try to keep you posted if there's any
updates beyond that.
Q Scott, last summer, General Miller went from Guantanamo over
to Iraq to look at the way interrogations were being handled at the
prisons. He filed a report that we understand is about 15 pages long,
in which he gave some general guidelines that were more like what was
happening at Guantanamo, perhaps not completely falling under the
Geneva Conventions, but rather consistent with the Geneva Conventions.
Can you clarify, was that a turning point? Did the rules change at
MR. McCLELLAN: Kate, one, there are several investigations going
on relating to not only what happened at Abu Ghraib, but the entire
prison system in Iraq. And I think there was some testimony yesterday
by military officials that addressed this very issue. There are
ongoing investigations; we want to let those ongoing investigations
proceed, and look at all these issues. And I certainly don't want to
get into conducting those investigations from this podium. I think
it's best to let those investigations proceed; let members of Congress
exercise their appropriate oversight role, and let the military
continue forward with those investigations and the independent review
team that the Secretary appointed.
Q Earlier you said you could clarify, though, what Judge
Gonzales laid out at first, in terms of what kinds of interrogations
could be done in terms of the Geneva Convention.
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I think Judge Gonzales has talked about our
views. And when it comes to Iraq, we are bound by the Geneva
Convention. It is our policy to adhere to all of our laws and our
Q Scott, so you're limiting -- the Geneva Convention only
applies as far as Iraq is concerned in terms of what U.S. military --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President set out some guidelines when it
comes to the enemy combatants and the detainees that you may be
referring to at Guantanamo Bay, for instance. Al Qaeda obviously was
not a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. But the President set out
some broad and clear guidelines stating that these detainees should be
treated humanely and consistent with the Geneva Conventions.
Q The Geneva Conventions don't say anything about conditions
where they don't apply, and they specifically say that if there's some
doubt as to whether someone has the status that's protected, they're
entitled to a hearing, which folks at Guantanamo have not had.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Mark, we've been talking about all those
issues, related to specific cases. But the President's guidelines were
very clear; they should be treated humanely and consistent with the
Q Well, he's opting out of that hearing provision, correct?
MR. McCLELLAN: We have previously -- this goes back to, I think,
last year, or even prior to that, when we outlined the guidelines that
the President had set for the enemy combatants. These are unlawful
enemy combatants. They are people that have been involved in, or
sought to carry out attacks against the American people. And despite
that, the President believes that there should be some clear guidelines
with the way they are treated.
Q In terms of the prisoners in Iraq, none of those are to be
treated as unlawful combatants, they're all POWs, under Geneva, as far
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't know -- I mean, there are some that are
prisoners; there are other people, obviously, that have come into that
country, as well, so there are other detainees that are there, as
well. But in terms of the prisoners, yes, our -- we are bound by the
Geneva Conventions. And in Iraq, we are bound by the Geneva
Q And those conventions do specify that those who do not
qualify, who are illegal combatants, are entitled to a hearing as to
their status --
MR. McCLELLAN: Mark, we can go and try to get into a discussion of
all the legal issues, but I think that in terms of our policy, I can
tell you what our policy is and what the guidelines that the President
has set out and he has made very clear, and he expects that to be
Q Scott, the AP reports from Kuwait that the head of the Iraq's
War Crimes Tribunal, Chalabi, said that the United States has pledged
to hand over Saddam Hussein before July the 1st. I have a two-part
question. Since Saddam is a war criminal, and since the United States
turned over none of the Nazi war criminals to German courts, why on
Earth is this being done?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've said that we would turn him over to
Iraqi authorities at the appropriate time and in an appropriate
manner. We believe that he should be held accountable for his decades
of brutality and the Iraqi people will be in the best position to do
Q So could you tell us, as one of the President's top media
advisors, what you believe will be the national reaction if the Iraqi
court acquits Saddam Hussein?
MR. McCLELLAN: I just don't see that scenario happening, Les.
Q You don't see it, but it's a possibility, isn't it? Isn't
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't see that happening, Les.
Q Back on the issue of Nicholas Berg, he was -- he was a unique
case, they were saying, someone freelancing, going over without being
under the umbrella of a large company. What is the White House doing
to prevent persons here, who are very patriotic and want to go over to
help, from going over there in a freelance capacity so this won't
MR. McCLELLAN: Wherever American citizens are, their safety and
security is a top priority for the administration. It is always that
way. There are dangerous places in the world; there are some dangerous
parts in Iraq. We have sent out some travel warnings, as well, from
the State Department. That is something that they regularly update.
But the safety and security of American citizens is always a high
priority for this administration.
Q So are you -- are you basically saying that Americans should
not go over there on a freelance effort unless they have -- unless
they're under the umbrella of a major corporation, be it Halliburton or
MR. McCLELLAN: That's not the way I described it, but there are
travel warnings that you might want to look at that the State
Department has issued. I think their latest one, with regard to Iraq,
may have been in March. But the -- what I am saying is that the safety
and security of Americans, wherever they are, is a high and top
priority for this administration.
Q And then another question, real quick. Fifty days out from
the June 30th deadline; who is the White House favoring? I mean, you
still don't have someone to hand power over to.
MR. McCLELLAN: The Iraqi people; that's who we're favoring. The
U.N. Envoy, Mr. Brahimi, is working through those efforts. He's
continuing to consult with Iraqi leaders, and we're in close contact
with him. He is going to be coming back with some ideas of who will be
in that representative, transitional government. We are moving forward
to meet the June 30th timetable for transferring sovereignty.
It's an important agreement that we reached with the Iraqi people.
They want to see us adhere to that timetable, and we are committed to
doing that. And we appreciate the role that the United Nations is
playing in these efforts. And we are continuing to talk with Mr.
Brahimi and Iraqi leaders on those efforts.
Q What group do you favor, does this White House favor over the
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, we're talking about an interim
representative government. We think it should be representative of the
Iraqi people. But these are issues that Mr. Brahimi is heading up and
working with Iraqi officials to address.
Q Scott, there have been people who were detainees in
Guantanamo who -- now in England, who say that Guantanamo is
essentially run by military intelligence. If you give them
information, you're allowed to take -- have a postcard home or whatever
privileges. Is Guantanamo being run by military police or military
intelligence? And how about Afghanistan prisons?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think those questions can be addressed to the
Pentagon in terms of who is in charge of the Guantanamo facility. What
was the second part of it?
Q And how about Afghanistan?
MR. McCLELLAN: In Afghanistan? Again, address those questions to
the military. I'm sure they'll be glad to answer those questions for
Q Scott, two questions. One, several hearings are going on on
human rights and religious freedoms on Capitol Hill. This morning,
under the leadership of Congressman Dan Burton, they have accused India
as far as human rights violations are concerned. And also, a report
was released this morning by the Presidential Commission on
International Religious Freedom. And they have also recommended to the
President and to the Secretary of State that India should be labeled as
a country of concern as far as religious freedoms are concerned. What
does -- how does the President feel about this?
MR. McCLELLAN: This is something Congress was taking up this
morning? I haven't had a chance to take a look at it. I'll be glad to
-- I was in the meeting with the President, that the President had with
the President of Angola. But I'll be glad to take a look at it and we
can talk about it.
In terms of the President's views on religious freedom, I think
those are very clear. He's a strong supporter of religious freedom.
Q And second question -- nobody is disputing, and we are not
disputing as far as those images from Iraq, abuse of prisoners are
concerned. But Americans are also asking that -- 75 percent of them,
that how does the President feel that whenever there is abuse like
this, Muslims or Arabs will come out against those, but as far as when
Americans are being killed there, murdered and burned alive, and none
of those, they will come with a statement of condemning those murders
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, I think there is wide condemnation for
the kind of brutal murder that you saw in this video. There is wide
condemnation for those kind of terrorist acts. I don't think anyone in
civil society would not condemn such atrocious acts against an innocent
Q -- has actually condemned it?
Q Excuse me, many people are celebrating in many part of the
Arab world about this murder, also, Scott. I don't know how do we
bring understanding that human life is human life rather than American
or an Arab --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think there's a huge difference that you see
between terrorists and the civilized world. Terrorists are people who
have no regard for innocent life. They are willing to use whatever
excuse they can find to carry out their murderous acts against innocent
men, women, and children. We have seen that all across the world, as I
pointed out, and everybody should condemn those actions by terrorists.
Q Can you say who specifically has condemned this?
Q Has Saudi Arabia --
MR. McCLELLAN: You had your question. Go ahead, Dick.
Q Just switching off topic for a second. The trade deficit hit
a new record, driven primarily by higher fuel prices, which, at this
point, show no signs of coming down. How concerned is the President
about it? And besides urging Congress to pass his energy bill, what is
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President remains concerned about rising
gas prices. I think most Americans are concerned about rising gas
prices. And that's why we remain in contact with producers around the
world urging them not to act in a way that would hurt our economy or
hurt our -- or harm our consumers.
Saudi Arabia has made some comments in the past about the steps
that they're committed to taking to make sure that they are committed
to that. And it's also important that we move forward on passing a
comprehensive energy plan so we don't run into this situation year
after year, a comprehensive energy plan that will reduce our dependence
on foreign sources of energy.
Q Despite warnings that the release of the Abu Ghraib pictures
might put Americans in danger, CBS went ahead and did it anyway. The
feeding frenzy over these photos has been briefly interrupted by the
video of Nick Berg being brutally beheaded. But they won't show that
on the air. Do you find any inconsistency with regard to the media
treatment for releasing these photographs they knew would inflame the
Arab street, but not airing something that they also know would inflame
the American street, or at least the center and the right part of it
would see the President --
MR. McCLELLAN: What's important --- Jeff, I'm sorry to speed this
up, but the helicopter is landing and we have to leave for another
event. But what's important is that America shows the world how we act
when these kind of issues come to light, when prisoners are
mistreated. And we act by holding people responsible who committed
these acts, and taking steps to make sure something like this doesn't
happen again. It stands in stark contrast to a regime like Saddam
Hussein's who tolerated and encouraged these kind of activities.
Q Scott, a readout of the Angola meeting. You were in the
room, you said?
MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, yes, well, they had a good a discussion. They
talked -- they talked about Iraq some. The President appreciates the
support Angola has given for our efforts in Iraq. They also talked
about the need to combat HIV/AIDS. They had a good discussion about
that. They talked about Angola's leadership following what has been a
difficult period in Angola. And they talked about the importance of
moving forward on elections, that the President of Angola is committed
to doing, a couple of years from now, I believe. So it was a good --
it was a good discussion.
Q -- either the prison abuse or the --
MR. McCLELLAN: The President did talk about it and expressed some
of what I've already expressed here in this briefing.
END 12:55 P.M. EDT