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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 14, 2004

Press Briefing Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

Press Briefing


12:48 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody. We'll go straight to your questions. Steve.

Q The interim Palestinian leader , Mahmoud Abbas, is urging the Palestinians to drop their weapons in their struggle for a state. Does this mark a turning point for you in any way in the direction things are headed over there?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we've made our views very clear that it's important for the Palestinian Authority and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority to take steps to fight terror. All parties have responsibilities in the Middle East and we want all parties to meet those responsibilities. And fighting terrorism and ending the violence is critical to moving forward on building the institutions for a viable state to emerge.

Q But is this an encouraging sign from Abbas?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I would say that we welcome steps aimed a fighting terrorism, and that is something the President has talked about at length; it's something he talked about again with Prime Minister Blair when he was here to talk about how we move forward on peace in the Middle East. And we remain focused on working toward a strategy that will put in place the institutions necessary for a viable state to emerge. But fighting terrorism and putting in a unified security force are key to those efforts.

Q The Palestinians think they're fighting an occupation. The Palestinians think they're fighting an occupation.

MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, we have a unique opportunity before us to move forward on the President's two-state vision --

Q Right. But is it good that the Israelis continue to occupy their land?

MR. McCLELLAN: John, go ahead.

Q The President awarded the Medal of Freedom to George Tenet, among others, just a short time ago. It was Mr. Tenet who told the President that it was a slam-dunk case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq . Has the President simply forgiven Mr. Tenet, or how does that --

MR. McCLELLAN: I appreciate your question, John. This is a day to honor these three individuals for the many contributions they have made to our nation. Each of these individuals have served their country with distinction. These are three individuals who have answered the call to serve. They have worked to liberate some 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq from oppression and tyranny. And they have worked to help transform a very dangerous region in the world that has been a breeding ground for terrorism, a breeding ground for where people hijack planes and flew them into buildings. And we appreciate their great service. And this is a day to pay tribute to them for their service.

Q So they may have made mistakes, these winners of the Medals of Freedom, but now is not the day to talk about it -- is that what you're saying?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, they have made many incredibly positive contributions to our nation, to make America more secure and to make the world a safer and better place. We appreciate all that these three individuals have accomplished to make the world a better place.

Q What was the thinking behind doing these three people all together?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President tends to do this when he's ready to name more than one individual at a time. The President, if you look back over previous Medal of Freedom ceremonies, has designated it to more than one individual. But these --

Q No, I didn't mean why gather three people at one time, I meant why gather these three people, all of whom were associated in some way with Afghanistan and Iraq and the intelligence and the war on terror? What was the thinking behind having these three together?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, all three of these individuals have now returned to civilian life after serving their nation. And the President felt this was a good time to honor them for their service and their many achievements toward helping make the world safer. And that's why he was pleased to honor them today with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is the nation's highest civilian award, and these individuals have played pivotal roles in our efforts to transform the broader Middle East region and address the root causes of terrorism.

Q Is the President trying to make some sort of statement with this?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you heard directly from the President. I would let his remarks speak for themselves.

Q An important ally to the White House, Senator McCain, has said that he has lost confidence in Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld . How does the President react to that -- both what he said and the substance of his criticisms about Rumsfeld and the war?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President reacts by saying that Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a great job during a time of war. We appreciate his leadership at the Department of Defense. And that's why the President asked him to continue his service, and he's pleased that Secretary Rumsfeld will continue to serve as Secretary of the Defense.

Q But there are some who believe that, given the ongoing dangers to U.S. troops, given issues like armor being a problem and troop size and strength being an issue, that in the middle of this Cabinet reshuffle, Secretary Rumsfeld has been left in place when perhaps he shouldn't have.

MR. McCLELLAN: Secretary Rumsfeld has been doing a tremendous job during some very challenging times. During a time when we are in the middle of the war on terrorism, he has helped us make great progress to dismantle and disrupt the terrorist networks across the world. He has provided strong leadership in liberating Afghanistan and Iraq from oppression and tyranny. And he has been working to transform the military to better meet the challenges that we face and the threats that we face in the 21st century. The President appreciates the job that he's doing, and that's why he asked him --

Q Does he just brush off the criticisms from somebody like McCain?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- that's why he asked him to continue his service. I think you've heard directly from the President on this very issue. He feels very strongly about the great work that Secretary Rumsfeld is doing at the Pentagon.

Q But what I'm asking you, does he just brush aside this kind of criticism from John McCain, a man he campaigned with?

MR. McCLELLAN: We work very closely with Senator McCain on many issues. And of course not. He's one of the leaders in the Senate.

Q Can I follow on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Goyal.

Q Before my question, I must commend to the Secret Service agents at the Southwest gate yesterday. I had a problem with my key. I locked the key in my car, they were very helpful.

MR. McCLELLAN: They've been duly thanked. (Laughter.)

Q My question is, thousands of people here -- the last three years the President supported -- immigration law in the Congress.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, I'm sorry?

Q -- immigration law --


Q -- the President supported wholeheartedly, and he said he would sign when it comes from the Congress. Those people are still waiting. Where do this stand now --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Congress is out of session right now, but we're going to be working closely with them to continue to build upon the steps we've taken to strengthen our immigration laws and to move forward on some of the reforms that the President has proposed.

Q Is the President looking to this economic conference tomorrow to provide answers to economic problems, and Social Security?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the way I would review it is it is an opportunity to bring together a broad cross-section of panelists from various sectors of the economy to discuss specific ways to keep our economy growing and creating jobs, and to make sure America continues to be the best place in the world to do business. This will be an opportunity to have a thoughtful discussion of the state of the economy, the challenges we face, and how we make sure workers are prepared with the skills they need to fill the high-paying, high-growth jobs of the 21st century, and to meet the other challenges of our changing economy. That's the way that I would look at it.

And so the President has outlined specific ways that we can move forward to continue to strengthen our economy. But these panelists will be able to offer some specific ideas about how to move forward on implementing those initiatives. The President has not outlined all the specifics of some of those initiatives, and they will be able to provide some useful and thoughtful insight into how we move forward on implementing those policies.

Q You had mentioned the President hasn't settled on a Social Security strategy, the details of a Social Security strategy. Does he look to this group tomorrow to come forward with some answers?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are going to be a number of panelists on each one of these panels, and we look forward to hearing their views. I think you can expect that they'll have some unique and different perspectives to offer about how we can move forward on some of the initiatives, one of which you referenced, and that the President has outlined previously. There are six different areas that we're focusing on tomorrow and the next day. The President looks forward to participating in two of those panels, the one on addressing the high cost of lawsuit abuse, and the other one on addressing the fiscal challenges that we face, both in the short-term and the long-term. And then he will address the conference at the end of the meetings.

Q Would you expect that he might tip his hand on where he's going -- wants to go on Social Security?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you've heard from the President recently that this is a time when we all need to come together to agree on the problem that we face from Social Security, and how we can work together to move forward on strengthening Social Security. It is unsustainable, and it needs to be fixed. And the President looks forward to the discussion on these panels, and hearing some different ideas about how we can move forward. He's outlined some very clear principles, and you will continue to hear him talk more and more about this issue. And this is an opportunity to focus public attention on these issues, and to discuss ways to move forward on these priorities.

Q I have a question about tax reform . We know that the President intends to appoint a study commission in the spring, which is pretty late in the year, when you're looking at --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think he's going to appoint it sooner than that. He said that he would appoint the bipartisan advisory panel by the end of the year. We're still moving forward on that timetable. If something changes, obviously, we'll let you know. But the President is moving forward on naming that panel.

Q Is there a timetable -- can you tell us if the President hopes to have legislation on his desk, tax reform legislation, sometime in 2005, or do you anticipate --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's another top priority for the President. He wants -- he's been firmly committed to making our tax code fairer and simpler, and that's something that is part of his philosophy when it comes to the tax code. The President looks forward to appointing the bipartisan advisory panel. He remains in conversations with congressional leaders about how we move forward, but he wants to move forward quickly on this priority. It's a high priority. But we'll continue to talk with members of Congress about how we can move forward together and on what timetable to move forward.

Q Also on the war situation, does the White House defend servicemen who have had to scrounge for equipment? And some have reportedly been arrested while looking for spare parts -- what do you think that does for military morale?

MR. McCLELLAN: You heard directly from the President on that issue last week. The President is firmly committed to making sure that our men and women in uniform who are in harm's way have all the resources they need to complete their mission. He is committed to making sure that they have the best possible equipment and any other resources that they need. And I think you've heard from the Department of Defense about some of the steps they've taken to address some of these concerns.

Q Well, if they have to use their own initiative, which soldiers have done in all wars, to get spare equipment, should they be punished, should they be arrested for that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely not, Connie, of course not. The President moved forward on passing the $87 billion supplemental to make sure that our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere had what they needed to complete their mission. And the President also set up an emergency reserve contingency fund of $25 billion to make sure that there was no disruption between that supplemental and the one we're going to pursue early next year with Congress, to make sure that they continue to have all the resources --

Q So why are they complaining?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- they need to do their job. The President meets frequently with members of our military, and he visits with them. And one of the very first questions that he asks them is, do you have everything you need, are you getting what you need. And if they bring up concerns, he looks to the Department of Defense and makes sure that they know about those concerns and we follow up to make sure that those concerns are addressed.

We are in a time of war and it's important that we make sure our troops have what they need to complete their mission. And we will always do that. And if you look at our budgets, I think that the President's commitment has been reflected in those budgets, as well, with four consecutive pay increases for our men and women in uniform and with billions of dollars over the last few years on training and equipment.

Q There's a report that NIH did not fully disclose the risk associated with the AIDS drug Novaripine , that would be used for pregnant women who are infected with the disease, to protect their unborn children, particularly at the time two years ago, when the White House was considering using this drug for its AIDS prevention program in Africa. First, is the White House satisfied with the way NIH has handled the matter, in terms of the information, whether or not it was given in a timely fashion? And, second, will it have any impact on the administration's program to use the drug in Africa ?

MR. McCLELLAN: A couple things. One, the President's emergency plan for AIDS relief is about saving lives. The United States does more than any nation in the world to combat AIDS. The President made an unprecedented commitment to addressing the pandemic and helping those who are suffering in our most afflicted areas of the world. That was the $15 billion commitment over a five-year period.

In terms of the specific drug, Novaripine, it's been approved in the United States since the 1990s, and it's been a proven -- a drug that's been proven to be effective in stopping mother-to-child transmissions of the AIDS virus. And the NIH has stood behind it's effectiveness. But because some questions had been raised, they've also asked that the Institute of Medicine do a further analysis of the drug. And so we look forward to seeing what that analysis is. But the President remains committed to doing all that we can to stop the spread of AIDS and prevent -- and implement preventive measures to help those in the most afflicted areas.

Q And is he satisfied with the way NIH handled disclosing the information about the risk?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I don't -- in what term -- in what ways? The NIH referred the matter to the Institute of Medicine for further analysis. It's a drug that is approved for use here in the United States . It is a drug that can help save lives. And the U.S. Public Health Service guidelines continue to recommend short-term therapy with Novaripine as an option for women who enter care late in pregnancy.

Q If I could follow up to that --

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead.

Q You're talking about -- the President is talking about saving lives, but this drug has lethal effects to include liver damage. How are you saving lives one way, and then letting somebody die from a lethal effect another way?

MR. McCLELLAN: I take exception to the way you characterize that, April. The President's plan is about saving lives. And we want to make sure that people who are afflicted have lifesaving drugs available to them, or people in those afflicted areas have lifesaving drugs available to them. I just pointed out that the NIH, because of the questions that have been raised, has referred to the Institutes of Medicine for further analysis. We want to see what that analysis is. But we will always work to improve medicines and treatments on all diseases, and that includes HIV/AIDS. In the meantime, though, we're pursuing the available treatments that have shown to be effective, and it is something that is approved for use here in the United States of America . And it can have very important, positive effects when it is used in the proper dosage.

Q Two things real quick. Isn't there a concern at the White House that the President was not made aware of these lethal effects of this drug when he signed off on sending the drug there? And two, what does the White House say to some African Americans saying this looks like, if you turn your head one way and close your eye another way, it looks like --

MR. McCLELLAN: In what sense? I don't know what you're referring to.

Q -- it looks like it could be syphilis all over again in another country.

MR. McCLELLAN: In what sense? It's approved for use here in the United States . But there have been questions raised, and the NIH is taking an appropriate step to ask for further analysis of the drug. That's what their role is in this. In terms of the review and testing of medications, the White House is not involved in that. That's something that the FDA is involved in.

Q Shouldn't the White House have known about this effect before the President signed off on it?

MR. McCLELLAN: I just pointed out that it's a drug that's approved for use in the United States .

Q But does it make it right? Does that make it right? Just because it's approved --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there's some questions -- let me reiterate again, and then I'm going to move on. It has been approved here for use here in the U.S. , but there have been some questions raised, and the National Institutes of Health is asking for further analysis by the Institute of Medicine . And so that's where it stands. We look forward to that analysis. But the President is going to continue moving forward on his AIDS relief initiative to help those in the most afflicted areas of the world and to save lives. That's what that initiative is about. And it's used here in the United States and we want to make sure that lifesaving drugs that are available here in the United States are also available to people in other parts of the world who are in the afflicted areas.

Q Scott, if I could just briefly revisit a subject from yesterday's discussion -- the administration is against drug reimportation . Was the position of the administration against drug reimportation, did that bring about a threat from Senator Dorgan to oppose your brother, if he were named Secretary of Health and Human Services?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President made a decision on his nominee for the Secretary of Health and Human Services. It's an outstanding nominee and he will do a great job once he's confirmed by the Senate. Governor Leavitt is someone who has a proven record of getting real results.

Q No argument there, but --

MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of drug importation, I would disagree with your characterization of our position. Our position is that under the Medicare legislation, there was a task force set up to look at the issue and to see if there are ways this could be done safely. The President's top priority when it comes to drugs is to make sure that they are safe and effective, and the public health of the American people will always be our top priority. The task force has been looking at this issue; they're going to be reporting back very soon on it, and we look forward to seeing what they report back and seeing what they recommend going forward.

Q Scott, former Chilean dictator Agusto Pinochet has been indicted for kidnapping and murder, and has been placed under house arrest. Does the President have any comments on the charges against this former Cold War ally?

MR. McCLELLAN: Those are questions for the Chilean people and the Chilean justice system to address.

Q Scott, does the President consider the intelligence that George Tenet provided him on weapons of mass destruction prior to going into Iraq to have been good intelligence, or to have been faulty intelligence?

MR. McCLELLAN: I stand by what I said earlier -- this is a day to pay tribute to all three of these individuals for the great record of accomplishment that each of them have achieved in public service.

Q So was it good --

MR. McCLELLAN: We've answered those questions. Today is a day to pay tribute to these men for the great work that they've done to make America more secure and to make the world a safer and better place. As I pointed out, these individuals have helped transform a very dangerous region of the world that was ignored for some two decades and it became a breeding ground for terrorism --

Q -- what part of the record are we supposed to look at?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you get to report what you want, David. But this is a day to pay tribute to these individuals.

Q He has a legitimate question. You can't just whitewash it and say we're not going to talk about that today.

MR. McCLELLAN: But I can say that we've already addressed that issue, and we have.

Q You didn't answer the question, though.

MR. McCLELLAN: We've already addressed the question. Today is a day to pay tribute to these individuals, and we're going to stay focused --

Q I asked a question about something else, about whether the intelligence was good, or whether it was faulty.

MR. McCLELLAN: And we're going to stay focused on honoring these individuals on this day. That's where our focus will be.

Q The President said last year in no uncertain terms that for the late and lamented road map to peace to move forward, Hamas must be dismantled. Now there is recent violence again along the border attributed to Hamas. With the elections coming up, is this administration or their allies doing anything to mitigate or neutralize Hamas, so that we don't see just a civil war break out as we try to create a Palestinian state, as the President hopes to in the next four years?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's up to the Palestinian leaders to take these issues on and to stop terrorism. That's what the President has repeatedly said. We are in contact with all parties in the region to talk about how we can seize this unique opportunity before us and move toward the President's two-state vision. And that's where --

Q -- that the U.N. help in this process at all, or the Palestinians don't want any --

MR. McCLELLAN: We work closely with our European friends and others on these matters. But what you need are Palestinian leaders that are willing to step up and address these issues, and to stop terrorism.

Q After the election, the President said that he was reaching out to Democrats , particularly Democrats in the Senate. But they just announced the formation of an oversight committee to investigate the Bush administration, and they also pledged to continue obstruction of the President's judicial nominees. This doesn't sound like the words of people who want to reach back and work with this administration. How does the White House plan to deal with the Senate minority to advance some of its agenda?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you've heard the President say that he intends to continue reaching out to people on both sides of the aisle who want to get things done. We are here to focus on getting positive results for the American people, and implementing the priorities for the American people. That's where the President's focus will continue to be. We hope that members of Congress will also reach back to us. There are a lot of oversight committees already in place in Congress.

Q Scott --

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead.

Q Am I going to be just passed up, or what?

Q Can you set up the visit of the Prime Minister of Italy?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, repeat the first part of your question? I was interrupted up front.

Q Can you set up the Berlusconi visit? And also, up in Halifax, the President said that one of his goals in a second term was going to be reform or strengthening international institutions. The U.S. Ambassador to Japan said Japan should sit on the Security Council and have a veto as a permanent member. When are we going to get more than piecemeal parts to that initiative?

MR. McCLELLAN: Piecemeal parts of which initiative?

Q Of the President's stated aim of reforming and strengthening international institutions ?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he's going to continue to work with other leaders on how we can make sure that international institutions are effective. That's what the President wants to ensure. And it's a top priority for him moving forward in a second term. We intend to continue working through international organizations, but we want to make sure that they're focused on results, and that they're focused on making positive changes in the world. And that's what the President will continue to talk with world leaders about.

In terms of Prime Minister Berlusconi , the President looks forward to welcoming Prime Minister Berlusconi back to the White House. Italy, under Prime Minister Berlusconi's leadership, has provided many important contributions to the ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we appreciate their support for those efforts and for the people of Afghanistan and the people of Iraq, as they move forward on building peaceful and democratic futures.

And we look forward to discussing those issues, how we can continue to move forward together, as well as talking about how we can continue to strengthen transatlantic relations. The President, you heard in his remarks, again, at Halifax, that he intends to continue reaching out to our European friends on ways we can work together to address common challenges.

Q Scott?

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead.

Q On international institutions, there are two candidates for the OAS Secretary General -- the Foreign Minister of Chile and the Foreign Minister of Mexico. I just wonder if the White House has taken a look at both candidates, and which one are you going --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me take your question and see if we can get you more than we've already said.

Q Going back to the economic summit , would the participants who are going to be in there, how are they chosen, and are they all supporters of the President's economic policy?

MR. McCLELLAN: The participants on the panels are outlined in the document we released last Friday. So you'll be able to look at them yourselves. But, as I said, the panelists will represent a broad cross-section of people from various sectors of the economy, and you can go and look at that list yourself.

In terms of the audience, it's going to include small business owners, business leaders, policy experts, academic leaders and others, and you'll be there to cover it.

Q The list has their names and their organization, but it does not say how they were chosen by the White House.

MR. McCLELLAN: We reached out to a broad cross-section of people from the different sectors of the economy to participate in the panels, and I think the panels are -- the themes for each of the panels are described in the document we released last Friday, and that's what I would point you back to. But there will be educators there, there will be small business owners, there will be academic leaders, there will be policy experts. That's the way I would describe it. And so we look forward to hearing their views on how we can move forward together to continue to keep our economy growing and creating jobs.

Q Scott, the conference on the economy comes as the dollar continues its slide and the deficit continues to grow. But the President is choosing to go to a panel on lawsuit abuse. Is the White House's way of suggesting that you think that frivolous lawsuits are as much a threat to the economy as the growing deficit?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President is participating in two panels, so I'd go back and look at that. But lawsuit abuse is something that drives up costs for consumers and it drives up the cost of products. And so it's an important issue that we address for our economy going forward. Medical liability reform was something that the President made a top priority previously; it was something that was debated and discussed during the campaign. That will help to address some of the rising cost of health care and the President remains firmly committed to stopping lawsuit abuse. It is something he has worked on going back to his days as governor.

And there are a number of areas that we're working to move forward on strengthening our economy -- that is one of them. But he's also going to be talking about addressing the short-term and long-term fiscal challenges that we face. Social Security reform is key to addressing the long-term fiscal challenges that we face.

Q Today Iran's Prime Minister said his country is willing to talk with the United States about Washington 's concern over Tehran 's nuclear program. There is no reason not to go on with negotiations if they are conducted on the basis of mutual respect. Do you have any comment?

MR. McCLELLAN: We remain supportive of the European efforts. We appreciate the efforts of our European friends in working to get Iran to agree to suspend all their enrichment reprocessing activities. And ultimately, we want to see an end to all their nuclear weapons programs and activities. That's what we've made very clear. And the Europeans are continuing to talk with Iran. We want to see action by Iran on the agreement that they reached. It's a first step toward ultimately getting toward an end to their nuclear weapons programs. We will continue to stay in close contact with our Europeans friends, and that's the way we're approaching this issue.

Q Scott?

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Les.

Q Thank you. What is the President's reaction to the record number of vandalisms of Christian Christmas displays across the country and the widespread removal of Christianity from college and store holiday displays?

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't kept track of the number of vandals -- vandalism that's gone on. But, obviously, we would condemn any vandalism.

Q Does the President agree or disagree with Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association in his statement that if lawsuits against gun manufacturers for crimes of a third party are allowed to continue, the nation will have to rely on foreign corporations to supply our firearms?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President's position on liability issues of that nature has been previously stated. And we've made it very clear.

Q That you're opposed to those?

MR. McCLELLAN: We've made our view very clear.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.

END 1:23 P.M. EST

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