Press Briefing by Mike McCurry
The Briefing Room
2:40 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: And a blissful silence settles across the Briefing Room so that we can begin today's daily briefing at the White House. Good afternoon, everybody. I will hold forth. I know that you've had a lot of news poured forth on you now, so I'll just take whatever questions you have.
Q: Mike, Senator Lugar and Pat Buchanan say the U.S. should consider a military option to free these two Americans. Is that on the table? Has the Pentagon done anything yet to order deployment or contingency planning for that kind of operation?
MR. MCCURRY: Several times now in the last several days, you've heard senior administration figures tell you what we are doing. We are pressing the government of Iraq diligently and persistently for the release of these two Americans who we believe are only in Iraq as a result of an honest mistake. We call upon the government of Iraq for humanitarian reasons to release these two, and we are now pressing through a variety of diplomatic channels the argument that they ought to be released.
It would not be wise for me, indeed, it would be irresponsible for me to speculate on options that the President might wish to consider or might not wish to consider. What we are doing at this point through diplomacy, which has proven effective in the past, doing everything we should be doing to secure the release of these two Americans.
Q: This morning you refused to say that you're going to rule out or rule in. But today, Christopher, the Secretary of State, said that he would not rule out anything.
MR. MCCURRY: In dealing with matters of diplomacy, it's never wise for those of us on the staff or those of us who work for the Commander-In-Chief to rule options in or rule options out; that's up to the President. But I've told you what we are doing at this point through what we believe will be effective diplomacy to secure the release of these two Americans.
Q: Has the President ruled out anything?
MR. MCCURRY: We've said several times now and the Secretary of State said earlier we don't rule in or rule out options for the President.
Q: Have there been any indications that the Iraqis would expect that if you somehow lifted sanctions that things would go easier on these men? Have we received any word on that?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of, and indeed, the view of our government is that that is an unrelated matter.
Q: What Lugar actually said and repeated again today was that the U.S. should make it clear that the President has the military option. Has that been communicated to the Iraqis --
MR. MCCURRY: I think based on recent history, there's probably no doubt in the mind of the government of Iraq that the United States has military options at its disposal.
Q: Mike, beyond the "it's an honest mistake, they crossed over mistakenly," and what's been said in the past few days, does the White House have any reaction to these recent reports out of Iraq today that the Iraqi government is saying more or less they think they were spies, that they crossed secretly?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not even clear that the individual that made those remarks earlier is necessarily saying the same thing earlier. But it's very clear that there was no intent at sabotage or anything else involved here, other than an innocent mistake by two American citizens who crossed over a border that they should not have crossed over.
Q: Do you have any sense of why and how it happened? I mean, obviously border crossings are not that easy to do. Somebody must have some --
MR. MCCURRY: As indicated, at the time of the incident, it appears to have been an honest error on the part of border crossing guards who waved them through a checkpoint. That's the best information we have available to us, and as their families and friends have indicated, they were going to the vicinity of the border in order to visit some friends who were working in the area of the demilitarized zone along the border. That's our understanding, based on the information that we have.
Q: Iraq says the border is clearly demarcated. How does that --
MR. MCCURRY: It is, but there are a series of checkpoints, and it's possible to make progress back and forth through those checkpoints.
Q: What border guards let them through? The other side or --
MR. MCCURRY: Look, the U.N. officials connected to UNICOM -- you should refer those questions there, because they run the border crossing checkpoints there and they have the best information available.
Q: The last time I laid eyes on that border there was a 12-foot trench, which makes it relatively easy to spot.
MR. MCCURRY: There are ways to go back and forth across the border.
Q: But you know what you're doing. You know that you're crossing the border.
MR. MCCURRY: You should follow up with UNICOM officials. They can tell you more about the border.
Q: Given the fact that these two folks are McDonnellDouglas aircraft specialists, is there any concern that --
MR. MCCURRY: Are you positive about that? I mean, I think the one is, and -- there are two contractors involved. But go ahead.
Q: Given the fact that at least one of them may be familiar with American aircraft and warplanes, is there any concern that they may become vulnerable to Iraqi interrogation, may give up information that may be useful to Iraq?
MR. MCCURRY: No. They've been sentenced now, and as I say, we're working to secure their release through means that we hope will be effective.
Q: Are they allowing any more access to these people to the Poles?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the Polish authorities in Baghdad have given the best report available on that.
Q: Nothing new on that since Friday?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, nothing new that I'm aware of.
Q: Are their families asking you to do anything that you're not doing right now?
MR. MCCURRY: We're in close contact with the families.
Q: Given the statements overnight, though, is there concern that they now could be retried on even more serious charges?
MR. MCCURRY: There's no indication of that.
Q: How much time is the President spending on this?
MR. MCCURRY: As he does events and developments around the world each and every day, he follows them as briefed by his National Security Advisor.
Q: Mike, in Bosnia, does the White House regard the new shelling of civilians in safe areas there sufficient to justify NATO air strikes, as some U.N. officials have suggested?
MR. MCCURRY: We remain very concerned about those developments, and will press arguments today within the Contact Group about how to address that.
Q: Press arguments where? With the Contact Group?
MR. MCCURRY: The Contact Group I believe is meeting there today. The State Department was doing a little more briefing on that earlier.
Q: Mike, has there been any discussion on the issue with Republican leaders on the Hill, specifically with Dole and others, maybe, to avoid getting this involved with presidential politics?
MR. MCCURRY: Which issue?
Q: Iraq -- I'm sorry.
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any efforts. We are more than willing to brief members of the Hill and the appropriate committees on the steps that we're taking to secure the release of the two Americans.
Q: You do have here, Mike, one of the more --generally more moderate, at least, in reputation, members of the Senate who has some authority and responsibility in foreign relations making this suggestion about military force. There must be some concern here about that, I would think, other than to talk. What is your view of that?
MR. MCCURRY: Senator Lugar will have to speak for himself. I can say, on behalf of the President and those that work for him, we would consider it irresponsible on our part to raise questions of use of military force when that is -- those are options that the President himself should or should not consider as he deems appropriate.
Q: We didn't hear anything about New Zealand. In fact, you gave it quite short shrift. What happened?
MR. MCCURRY: Short shrift?
Q: Yes, we got nothing on it.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, let's get something. Let me do -- would you like some?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm more than willing to hold forth.
Q: They're so proud that they finally got accepted here.
MR. MCCURRY: I told some of you earlier today that the President and Prime Minister Bolger had a very good bilateral meeting today. It lasted nearly an hour -- I guess about three-quarters of an hour. They had a wide ranging discussion on matters of concern both to the U.S. government and the government of New Zealand.
Overall, I'd say the assessment by President Clinton, I think concurred in by the Prime Minister, is that the bilateral relationship has strengthened considerably since the February 1994 policy review, which led to a series of higher level context between the two governments. This is the first time -- I mentioned to some of you earlier -- the first time a Prime Minister of New Zealand has been here at the White House in 11 years, although the President and the Prime Minister have met twice before on the occasion of meetings of APEC, the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
The discussion of the two ranged across some areas in which New Zealand and the United States have been cooperating. Specifically, on extension of the nonproliferation treaty. New Zealand is a very active, effective and vigorous participant in a variety of U.N. peacekeeping exercises around the world. And they reviewed the progress of U.N. peacekeeping generally.
They talked at some length about the North Korean nuclear issue. New Zealand was one of the first participants to step forward, become a member of KEDO, the Korean Energy Development Organization, which will be the structure by which eventually we hope to address the North Korean nuclear issue.
What else? They talked a great deal about trade and investment opportunities. U.S. investors have over $1 billion invested in the economy of New Zealand. And the efforts that Prime Minister Bolger has been making to liberalize and modernize the economy of New Zealand has made it an attractive source of investment.
And lastly, and importantly, they did discuss the antinuclear legislation, which remains on the books in New Zealand. The President indicated that until that issue is resolved, it will not be possible for the United States to have the same type of security relationship that it had with New Zealand prior to passage of that legislation. So in that sense, that remains a piece of --
Q: What is that legislation, briefly? What does it say?
MR. MCCURRY: It's a -- I will characterize it in shorthand, I don't have a formal description of it, but essentially prohibits the visitation of nuclear equipped, or nuclear powered vessels to ports within the territory of New Zealand. That is a shorthand description. It may not be exactly right, but there are folks at the NSC who could amplify that. That has been a source of concern within the bilateral relationship. There's been a great deal of discussion of the issue with the various levels of which New Zealand has met with the United States. And as I say, there has been some -- I would say some, progress in the general discussion of that issue. But it certainly remains unfinished business, as the President indicated to the Prime Minister today.
We'll have -- I think we can probably get a piece of paper out on this.
Q: You want them to wipe that out?
MR. MCCURRY: We've had discussions with them about our concerns related to that.
Q: What sort of progress has been made, Mike?
MR. MCCURRY: There have been dialogue on the issue and there's been discussions about what degree of flexibility there might be on the policy. But it -- again, there's not any substantive breakthrough to report on the issue today.
Q: A Federal Reserve governor announced his resignation today. Does the President have a list of potential candidates waiting?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know the answer to that. That's the first I've heard of that.
Q: Mike, you said it would be irresponsible for you or people on the White House staff to rule options in or out. Does that mean you think it's irresponsible for Senator Lugar to be talking about these options?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they're already facing some criticism for their comments. So they'll have to answer that for themselves.
Q: They are? From whom?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I've read several editorial today that are criticizing those comments. But they can speak for themselves on that.
Q: Mike, does the administration have a voluntary point of contact when companies do business overseas?
MR. MCCURRY: Not one that has been formally promulgated.
Q: How soon --
MR. MCCURRY: When it's ready.
Q: Mike, the code of conduct that was distributed at meetings this morning between administration officials and others outside the administration, does that represent the administration's --
MR. MCCURRY: There are some consultations underway, and we'll see whether or not that affects the final work product.
Q: Is the administration going to be involved at all in refining the line-item veto in the Conference Committee that the House and the Senate will --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we'll follow the work of the Conference Committee carefully. We are interested in how the final draft of the legislation comes up, because the President is quite anxious to have available to him the line-item veto so he can use it effectively.
Q: Will the administration be at the table trying to fashion it in the Conference Committee?
MR. MCCURRY: The Executive Branch doesn't sit at the table and House-Senate conference committees, but we'll follow the deliberations carefully.
Q: Has the President said anything about the possibility he might have to sign like a transportation bill -- his signature 700 times?
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard him express any concern on that point.
Q: The President had a red blotch on his forehead this morning. Did he run into something?
MR. MCCURRY: He had some skin blemish -- he had some solar keratoses that he had treated while he was up at Bethesda. They're also called actinics, by those of you, like me, who occasionally have to go to a dermatologist for sun damage.
Q: Those are potentially precancerous little growths, aren't they?
MR. MCCURRY: They're actinics.
Q: Is that a yes or no? Am I incorrect about that?
MR. MCCURRY: They are not cancerous.
Q: Are they precancerous?
MR. MCCURRY: They can be -- under some circumstances, they can develop.
Q: Did he have them removed?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, they touch them with liquid nitrogen, and they burn off and scab up later.
Q: Is that mentioned in the medical report?
MR. MCCURRY: Not in the one that was available to me on Friday.
Q: Why not?
MR. MCCURRY: I just didn't ask about what type of consultations he had with the dermatologist.
Q: How many did he have, Mike? How many?
MR. MCCURRY: I think he had several places -- they touched on his forehead and behind his ear.
Q: Was he given any advice that perhaps a hat would be in order when he plays golf or out in the sun?
MR. MCCURRY: Dr. Mariano tells me that he is pretty good about using sunscreen. It's developed over the course of many years of exposure to the sun. Those of you that have had these know that's how they develop.
Q: Is this the first time he's had any of these removed?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe so. I believe he's had some removed in the past. I'm not sure on what occasions, though.
Q: What kind of keratoses again?
MR. MCCURRY: Solar. They're called actinics, I'm told by a dermatologist.
Q: Can you tell us about this code of conduct issue that came up? Somehow that kind of went over --
MR. MCCURRY: There is a New York Times account that we're getting ready to announce a business -- or that we were going to announce today a business code of ethics or something, code of principles. We have had discussions with private sector businesses that do business around the world, especially in Asia, about what type of business practices they pursue to further general interest in the promotion of human rights. We have looked for ways through an interagency process to codify that into some type of generally accepted set of standards. And we have been -- that interagency has been completed, and they're now consulting with both private sector leaders and the Congress on the result of that review. Hopefully, it will be announced sometime shortly.
Q: But this isn't related to anything of recent vintage in Iraq, Iran or any of that?
MR. MCCURRY: No, this is the fulfillment of a commitment on the part of the administration to really look at ways in which we can advance this country's concerns about human rights and its values of democracy and market economics as we engage in commerce around the world.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:52 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Mike McCurry Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269985