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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
February 1, 2005

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

12:18 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody. The President looks forward to tomorrow night's State of the Union address. He is continuing to participate in some speech preparation today, finishing up a session from this morning, as well as he will be participating in a session later today. The inaugural and the State of the Union are an opportunity for the President to speak directly with the American people about his vision and his agenda. And as I've spoken about before, the inaugural focused on the great goals we are working to achieve and the ideals we should always strive for, advancing freedom at home and abroad, and the philosophy behind the President's vision. The State of the Union is a detailed blueprint for achieving the great goals and ideals the President outlined in his inaugural.

And the President looks forward to tomorrow night's address. We'll have a briefing coming up here shortly. So with that, I will jump straight to your questions.

Q He's going to have details of how you get to the great goals of wiping out tyranny in the world?

MR. McCLELLAN: He's going to -- I think you can expect he'll continue to talk about the advance of freedom in the world.

Q You said a blueprint.

MR. McCLELLAN: We have seen tremendous progress made when it comes to the advance of freedom in the world in the last few months. We've seen elections take place in Afghanistan; we've seen elections take place in the Palestinian Territories; and we saw an historic election take place just this weekend in Iraq.

Q How will he reference the Iraqi elections?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, we're going to have a briefing coming up here shortly, so I wanted to jump straight to your questions. But you can expect that he'll be talking about Iraq in the remarks, and the hopeful period that it is for the Iraqi people. Now is the time to focus on how we can build upon the success of the elections and help the Iraqi people realize a brighter future, one that is built on democracy and freedom and peace and stability.

Q Did he revise his address at all in view of the outcome of the way the elections were conducted in Iraq? Is it something that -- I mean, I know that you were on like a 13th draft last week. Is he --

MR. McCLELLAN: And now he's gone through at least draft 17 was the last I saw. But, again, you'll have more on this. But, no, I saw a report that there was some change related to that. That's not the way I would describe it. I mean, obviously, I think one of the areas that he has always intended to talk about was supporting the advance of freedom in the world and in place like Iraq and the Palestinian Territories, so that we can realize the President's two-state vision with a viable democratic state emerging in the Palestinian areas.

And so I think that was something that he would always reference, and what we've accomplished in places like Afghanistan. Advancing freedom is critical to our future's peace and security and it's critical to winning the war on terrorism.

Q But, I mean, obviously you didn't know last week how the situation in Iraq was going to turn out on Sunday. So wouldn't it make sense just to update it with whatever happened?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you'll be there to cover it, so you'll hear more from the President tomorrow night.

Q Scott, in recent phone calls with world leaders you said the President -- the topic of sending more troops did not come up. But when the President travels to Europe later this month, does he planning on asking the countries that were opposed to the war -- France, Germany and Russia -- if they will now consider sending troops to train Iraqi forces, so that U.S. troops, perhaps some can come home sooner?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Iraqi people showed that the elections were a great success. They showed the world that all people yearn to be free, and that includes the Iraqi people. It was a powerful moment to watch the images of the Iraqi people celebrating their chance to cast a ballot in their own country for the first time to freely choose their leaders. And this is the first step. There are more elections to take place over the course of the next year. We need to do all we can to support the new Iraqi government, as they organize themselves and select a presidency council, which, in turn, will set up the cabinet. So we need to do all we can to support them going forward.

This is a time to focus on ways that all of us in the international community can support the Iraqi people and the new Iraqi leaders, as they continue to work to build the institutions necessary for democracy to fully emerge in Iraq. There are still challenges that remain, and we hope all countries will do their part to help the Iraqi people build upon this weekend's great success.

Q But does that include troops? Will he specifically be asking leaders later this month --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what we're focused on right now is training and equipping the Iraqi security forces so that they can provide for their own security going forward. And we're working to accelerate those efforts. You've had General Luck in the region assessing the situation and looking at ways to take additional steps to train and equip those security forces. We need to make sure that they have a command structure in place so that they are fully ready to defend themselves against terrorists and against other external threats. And that's what we're working to do; that's where our focus is.

He had a good conversation with Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer this morning to talk about the NATO training mission. And we're moving forward on getting that fully up and running and I expect they'll be talking more about that when the President goes to Europe later this month. He will be meeting with NATO leaders, and that will be an opportunity to talk more about what the next steps are going forward, and how we can work together to support the Iraqi people.

Go ahead, Goyal.

Q I have two questions. One, is the President getting any feedback or any reaction from the world leaders on Iraq elections, especially from the Muslim and the Arab world, including Iran?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you've seen a lot of positive statements coming out of the international community in support of what the Iraqi people were able to achieve on Sunday, which is the first free election for their leaders. And there -- I think that includes even some positive statements out of Iran, of all places. I think we've made it very clear that all parties in the neighborhood need to play a constructive role going forward in helping the Iraqi people move forward on putting in place those institutions for democracy to fully emerge in the country.

Q Second, on this China -- converting passenger planes into spy planes, like they said in the past that China made a threat to the world peace and threat to the U.S. What's the reaction you have on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, what's your question?

Q The Chinese planes, passenger planes they are converting into spy planes.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll take a look at those reports. I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to.

Q A 737, they are converting -- according to the report the White House is investigating.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll take a look into it.

Carl, did you have something?

Q Thanks, Scott. I guess furthering on the earlier question about the President's calls to foreign leaders in the last couple of days, can you give us a feel for how the President will talk about the Iraqi elections tomorrow night, and urge international leaders to get more involved with specifics, be that forces, money, et cetera, and how tomorrow night provides him the venue to advance that initiative?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you're going to hear more in a briefing here shortly about the State of the Union address, itself. So I want to leave some of that to the briefing that will take place at that point. But I think you can expect that Iraq will be something that he will certainly address in his State of the Union remarks, and he'll talk about the importance of doing all that we can to support the Iraqi people. We've made some important progress in the country, but we need to continue to work to train and equip Iraqi security forces and make sure that they are ready to provide for the country's security. We need to continue to support Iraqi leaders as they move forward on drafting a constitution and providing elections for a permanent government at the end of the year.

So this was an important step that was taken on Sunday, but there is more work that remains to be done, and the United States will be there throughout that process. We are fully committed to completing the mission in Iraq, and we are continuing to work with the international community on ways that they can support those efforts, as well. I mean, there have been -- I mean, the European Commission has pledged a significant amount of financial assistance for government institution-building, for example. The European Union provided assistance for the elections. So there are a number of ways countries can participate in Iraq and help the Iraqi people. And we hope that they all see this historic opportunity before us to build upon what occurred this last weekend.

Q Scott, on Michael Chertoff, are you expecting difficulties with his confirmation process, given some of the stories that are out there about how he may have advised the CIA on interrogation techniques? you said earlier that you had -- you had issues or you took exception to some of the stories out there. Could you elaborate on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I think that, obviously, Judge Chertoff will be testifying tomorrow and be answering questions, some of which you bring up, and he looks forward to it. Judge Chertoff is someone who enjoys wide respect for his work, both as head of the Criminal Justice Division and his work in other positions within government, such as being a U.S. attorney. And this is respect that he enjoys from both sides of the aisle. We expect that Congress will move forward quickly and vote on his nomination as they begin the hearings tomorrow. We hope that Congress will do so, certainly.

Q But were there inaccuracies, though, in some of the stories? What was it that he was asked about? What was he asked to do for the intelligence community, the CIA?

MR. McCLELLAN: What was he asked?

Q Yes. You had talked about that earlier today, that he was asked his opinion. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Office of Legal Counsel in the intelligence community simply asked him his opinion, as a prosecutor, of how he would approach the statute relating to these issues, the anti-torture statute. And so that's what they were asking him. And he made it very clear that those who are conducting interrogations need to know very clearly where the line is, and they need to not get close to that line, because as a prosecutor -- if you get close to that line, that could lead to action by the prosecutor.

Q Two quick ones. What are your thoughts on increasing the death penalties [sic] for loved ones of those killed in the war? And if Congress takes --

MR. McCLELLAN: The death benefit.

Q Right, the death benefits -- sorry. (Laughter.) Wow. All right, let's start again. Your thoughts on increasing the death benefits, and if Congress stalls on passing it, can the President pass this quickly by executive order?

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, I think Congress shares the President's view that we should be doing everything we can to support not only our men and women in uniform, particularly those in harm's way, but also the families of our men and women who are serving and sacrificing in defense of freedom. We need to do all we can to support the families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending the freedom's that we enjoy and making the world a better and more peaceful place.

And so the President strongly supports increasing the death gratuity, or the death benefit for the families of the fallen. Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness at the Department of Defense, David Chu, has been testifying on this issue this morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and we hope Congress will act on this proposal. This is retroactive, so it would go back to the beginning of combat operation in October 2001.

Certainly, we can never fully compensate the families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. There is nothing that can compensate them for the loss of a loved one, but we should do all that we can to support them, and this is one way to show that support.

Q How soon can the money start to flow to the families, to the loved ones?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've got to get it acted on by Congress, and I expect that we will be moving forward on this as we move forward on our budget.

Q With deference to the upcoming briefing, those of us who need to talk to you about that in this forum, is the President going to repeat tomorrow night that the crisis -- that there is a crisis in Social Security, that's it's now -- that his way forward is the way --

MR. McCLELLAN: And I want to keep it general, because I want you to be there and pay attention to the President's remarks, and hear it for yourself, along with the American people -- not that we don't want to help you all out in your jobs. But this is an important and big speech, where the President will be talking directly with the American people about the policies and the reforms that we should pursue to build upon the accomplishments of the past four years.

And these are some challenging and historic times that we live in. It's also a hopeful time that we live in. We live in a changing world, and there are many institutions that were created for the world of yesterday, or for the America of yesterday, and they have not been reformed and strengthened to meet the challenges for the America of tomorrow. And I think one of the things the President will talk about is that we should work together to make the world a better and stronger place, and make America a better and stronger place for our children and grandchildren.

And that starts with taking steps to reform and strengthen institutions that have been around for some time and served a very important purpose, but they have not changed with the times. And Social Security is right at the top of the President's list. We need to save and strengthen Social Security for our children and grandchildren. There will be no changes for those seniors who are now retired or those near retirement. The President has made that very clear. This is about making this system work better for younger Americans, so that younger workers can have a little bit more say over their own retirement savings, and so that they will have a system that is around when they retire. Right now many younger workers, my age and younger, don't think that they're going to have any retirement benefits from Social Security when they retire. And so we need to take steps now to strengthen it.

I think you can expect the President will talk about the problem facing Social Security. It is a serious problem. When you look at 2018 as being the date when the system will be paying more out than it takes in, you have a serious problem. Shortfalls will increase from that year going forward, until 2042, when the system will be bankrupt. We should not pass on a bankrupt system to our children. We should act now to strengthen Social Security, so that our children will have a better future.

Q I guess I was just trying to ask a general question about the nature of how he's going to cast that problem and whether he's going to use the "crisis" language that he has used in the past, which, as you know, has been criticized.

MR. McCLELLAN: He will certainly talk about the serious problems facing Social Security and the need to act now, because it only gets worse over time. And I think you will hear him talk in greater detail than he has previously about how we need to work together to solve this problem and permanently fix Social Security so that we don't have to come back every decade or two decades to try to fix this problem. He wants to permanently fix it, and also help build an ownership society in America, and that's one important part of the program, as well, to give younger workers more of a say over their retirement savings. And he'll talk in greater detail about some of the ideas for addressing the issue, as well.

Q Scott, could you explain for us what the White House thinking is in keeping briefings such as the one this afternoon on background, rather than on the record?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, we want to keep the focus on the President and his remarks tomorrow night. But this is a way to hopefully help you all with stories that you'll be doing in advance of the remarks. But we want to make sure that the focus stays on the President. And this is something we've done in the past to help you all out, as well as to help preview this ahead of the President's remarks.

Q Thank you. Scott, Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez, is threatening to stop sending oil to the United States and to oust American oil interests from his country. Does the President plan to do anything about this?

MR. McCLELLAN: We have made our concerns known when it comes to President Chavez. We have talked about our concerns with other leaders in the Americas. And we have made our views known in terms of the -- in the way he has treated the opposition in his country and the way he has treated the media in his country, as well, and we will continue to do so. We have serious concerns. You heard from Secretary Rice in her testimony in more detail about some of those concerns.

Q Senator Reid said this morning that he had pledges from all Senate Democrats to oppose to carve out private accounts from Social Security. Is the President concerned that the opportunity for a bipartisan solution may be slipping away before he can --

MR. McCLELLAN: There are a number of leaders on both sides of the aisle who have talked about the problem and challenges facing Social Security for quite some time. We heard from President Clinton in the late '90s about the need to address the problem facing Social Security, and he referred to it as a fiscal crisis at that point in time. It only gets worse over time, and that's why we need to act this year.

If we don't act this year, next year it's going to cost us $600 billion more to try and fix the problem; and then the year after, another $600 billion, and it will keep adding on that cost year after year, unless we act. And the options will become more limited. Right now, younger workers are facing either massive tax increases or massive benefit cuts if we do nothing. That's why we need to act now to solve the problem.

And I think you've seen Democratic leaders in Congress step forward and say they agree, it is a serious problem facing the American people. This is the time to act on it to solve it and to strengthen it for younger workers. Congressman Boyd has stepped forward and signed on to some legislative ideas for solving this problem. The President has made it very clear that it's important that we work in a bipartisan way as we move forward. That's why he's reached out to leaders on both sides of the aisle and spoken with them about this very issue.

He's also going to reach out to the American people. The day after the State of the Union he will begin traveling to various states and communities around the country to talk about the problem facing Social Security and to talk about the need to seize this opportunity before us and permanently fix it.

So we hope that people will focus on solutions and what they're for, rather than trying to stand up and simply oppose things that they are against. The President is going to continue focusing on solutions and what we can accomplish by working together. If others want to focus on what they're against and what they're going to oppose, that's their business, but I think the American people want us to work together to solve problems, and not pass them on to future generations.

Q Scott, there are government projections that the Medicare trust fund would actually run dry maybe two decades or more ahead of Social Security. Does the President believe that that's a serious problem, and one that he would address in a second term?


Q And more important than Social Security in some ways?

MR. McCLELLAN: In fact it is an issue he's talked about. He's talked about the need to address these entitlement programs that we have, when he's talked about the need to address our long-term deficit outlook, that we have to address these problems. And that's why the President led when it came to strengthening Medicare and to modernizing it. We took an important step by passing Medicare reforms in the last Congress, and we're moving forward on implementing those reforms right now. Those reforms will go into place next year.

Now, there were some cost controls that were part of that legislation. It didn't -- by no my means, went as far as we need to, to address some of those issues. I think the President has made his views very well-known when it comes to that. But right now, when it comes to Medicare, we need to focus on putting those reforms in place, getting seniors the prescription drug coverage that they have waited on for far too long, and letting those reforms start to work.

But, yes, we will need to continue to work with Congress in the future to address this issue. But the first thing we need to do is get those reforms up and running. Social Security -- we have not done anything to address Social Security at this point. And that's why we need to take steps to address it now.

Q So in the speech, if the President talks about Medicare, it will be in terms of what has already occurred legislatively, as opposed to any plans he has --

MR. McCLELLAN: You will be there. I'm not going to get into specific details of the speech. But you will be there to cover it. That was one of the great accomplishments of the first term. We need to build upon those accomplishments and address these other government institutions to make them work for tomorrow's generation.

Q Mainland China and Taiwan have had the first direct flight in 56 years. Do you have any comment on that, and what is the President's plan in the second term on the issue of Taiwan?

MR. McCLELLAN: His views are still the same; they have not changed. And certainly dialogue, cross-strait dialogue is important for moving forward to resolve some of these issues. But the President's views on Taiwan and China are very well-known and they remain unchanged.

Q Scott, last night, in an amicus brief filed before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department came down in favor of displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses and statehouses around the country. The question is, does the President believe in commandment number six, "Thou shalt not kill," as it applies to the U.S. invasion in Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead. Next question. Ken, go ahead.

Q Scott, on Social Security, the speech and the subsequent road show, will it be more about detail and how to fix it, or convincing people that it needs to be fixed?

MR. McCLELLAN: On Social Security?

Q Yes.

MR. McCLELLAN: Like I said, in the State of the Union you're going to hear him talk in greater detail about ideas for strengthening and saving Social Security, in greater detail than he has previously. So I think you need to listen to those remarks. But he will go out and speak directly with the American people not only about the problem facing Social Security, but also about possible ways to strengthen Social Security.

Q Does the White House feel that the Congress and the populous is not quite there yet on acknowledging there is a crisis -- or whatever word you want to use -- that needs to be addressed?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we talked about the word "crisis" recently. We can debate whether it's a crisis or not a crisis, but you can't ignore the fact that it is a serious problem that we face and that it only gets worse over time. I mean, people --

Q But is --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, people can look the other way and stick their head in the sand and think that the problem will go away, but it doesn't, Ken, it gets worse over time. That's why we need to work together in a bipartisan way to address it now, because if we don't, the options for fixing it become more limited and the consequences more severe for our future generations.

Q The question is, does the administration feel like the people and the Congress are there? Obviously, you have the numbers, the White House believes there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Do you think you've made that case and now it's time to go on to the detail? Or do you still need to convince people there's a problem?

MR. McCLELLAN: We need to continue -- we're going to continue to talk about the problem facing Social Security and why it's important that we act now to fix it. That's an important first step, everybody recognizing the challenges facing Social Security and why we need to act to address it this year. That will be a very important part of his message to the American people. It's time to shine a very clear light on the problems facing Social Security and then to talk about ways we can work together to strengthen it. And so it will be both that he will be talking about.

But I think you see, particularly among younger Americans, that there is a real concern about Social Security going forward. I think that you'll also see from grandparents, concerns about their grandchildren and their future and whether or not they're going to have retirement benefits when it comes time for them to retire.

Q Yesterday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was criticizing the President's proposal for -- to reform Social Security, particularly the part about the transitional costs, which she said were going to be off the budget. Isn't the reality of the Social Security debate is that the entire system is off the budget and the President's plan will actually bring it back on to the budget?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you have to look at what the cost is of doing nothing. The cost of doing nothing is nearly $11 trillion. That's the unfunded liability we face in Social Security -- and that's why, as I pointed out, right now you have fewer number of workers -- and this continues to get smaller and smaller -- fewer number of workers paying into the system, and the retirees being covered by -- than the ratio of retirees being covered by the system. And that number continues to diminish over time. So it is a matter that the President takes very seriously, and that believes we need to act on to address.

And so when we talk about the cost, we need to look at the cost and the actual cost of doing nothing, and that's in today's dollars, versus the transition aspects of it. Because if you look at the transition, that's actually going to bring those costs down. So it should be viewed as a savings.

Q Does the administration agree with Chairman Thomas, the AARP and other opponents of personal accounts that are indulging in scare tactics?

MR. McCLELLAN: Agree with who?

Q Chairman Thomas?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think your question is scaring everybody off, but -- (laughter) -- look, we -- the President is open to looking at all ideas that are consistent with the principles that he outlined. He made his principles very clear when he first started talking about Social Security. We would welcome ideas from the AARP and other groups about ways to address this challenge facing Social Security. That's our view.

Q Scott, thank you. The future of six-party talks seems to be uncertain. Does the United States has any special inducement plan to make North Korea come to the table?

MR. McCLELLAN: Does the administration have any -- sorry, the last part of your question?

Q Any special inducement plan to make North Korea come to the table?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that we put forward a proposal at the last round of talks. We believe that proposal addresses the concerns for all parties when it comes to the six-party talks. We believe the six-party talks are the way forward to solving this situation in North Korea. We've made it very clear that North Korea needs to end -- permanently end its nuclear weapons programs. And we hope that they will come back to the six-party talks soon. We'll see how serious they are. There have been some indications from them, but we'll see by their action how serious they are.

When we come back, we want to talk about how to move forward on the proposal that we outlined. And that proposal talks about how they can -- the way that they can enjoy better relations with the international community, and ways that they can become part of the international community. That begins with a commitment to end their nuclear weapons program. And so that's what we hope will occur at the next round of talks, a substantive discussion of that proposal. Thanks.

END 12:47 P.M. EST