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Press Briefing by National Security Advisor Tony Lake, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Hershel Gober and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Winston Lord

July 11, 1995

The Briefing Room

2:52 P.M. EDT

MR. LAKE: With me -- Tony Lake -- Hershel Gober, the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs; Winston Lord, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs; and James Wold, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense who follows POW-MIA issues. I'm going to have to go. I'll start with a few remarks, if I may, and then Hershel will take it over.

Let me just give you some background and some points of emphasis. First of all, as many of you know who have been covering this, the President had contemplated this decision now for some time. He made the final decision this weekend. One reason we did it today was that we wanted to wait until the Congress was back in session, so that we could both have members of Congress here, as we did, and so that those members of Congress who might disagree would have an opportunity to voice that disagreement.

We believe that we have the support certainly of most members of the Congress. This was based on a unanimous recommendation by the President's senior advisors, and over the weekend General Shalikashvili polled the Joint Chiefs and they were unanimous also in their support of this decision.

You'll see at the back of the packet statements that were sent to us by a number of former officials including various military commanders in support of the President's decision as well.

Let me emphasize a few points in substance. First of all, this decision the President deeply believes, we all believe, represents the best way before us to pursue our central goal, and that is the fullest possible accounting for all of the Americans who did not return from the Vietnam War.

Let me emphasize also that this is not a reward for what has been done so far. We have been pleased with the cooperation that we have been receiving from the government in Hanoi, but this is not done; there is much more to be done; and we believe that this is the best way to get it done.

We think that evidence for that fact is what has happened since the lifting of the embargo in February 1994. There were those then who said that this would let the Vietnamese off the hook and that there would not be further cooperation. In fact, we have made further progress in that period.

You've got in your packets a lot of statistics. Let me just emphasize a few -- that since February '94, various sets of remains have been returned, 85 total. And of those, 29 have been identified as Americans and, as the President noted, those remains have been returned to the families. We believe that another 40 to 50 sets of remains will be identified during the course of 1995.

We have also recently received a report concerning 79 of the 81 pending so-called special remains cases, and that's described in your packet. Let me emphasize that that report does not resolve those cases, but it does provide us with leads that we can follow up on. And since February 1994, although mostly in the period -- the few months after that, we have determined the fate of 18 so-called discrepancy cases, i.e, cases in which we know that the Americans were alive when they were on the ground and cannot determine what happened to them since.

So we think that, as after the embargo, the strategy is working, and this is another step in pursuing that strategy. We also believe that this step is very much in our national interest. It will help to draw Vietnam into an Asia in which we are supporting stability and democracy and freedom and human rights. And we believe that it will encourage also freedom and human rights within Vietnam.

As the President implied, at least -- or actually stated, we will extend this into our economic relationships. There will, obviously, be trade. We have established an interagency group that will be examining the various legal questions involved with regard to, for example, Ex-Im or OPIC, and other ways in which we can encourage that trade. Those issues have not been resolved, and the President will be getting the advice from his advisers as we work that through.

We have not made a decision to extend more aid. We are annually providing some $2 million to $3 million -- I think it was $3 million over this year, approximately -- humanitarian aid to Vietnam. That includes prosthetics, it includes aid to street children, it includes disaster assistance, for example, when there are floods. As I have said, we have not made a decision to increase that aid level.

The President, before he made his announcement, met first with a group of members of Congress, senators and representatives who had been active on the issue and who stood with him on the stage; thanked them for their work on this issue; gave them the credit that they very richly deserved for this day. Before that, he met with the leaders of veterans organizations and the League of Families, and at that meeting he emphasized to them, first of all, that we do consider this a process, this is another step in the process; that he remains committed to the pledge he made to keep this issue at the center of our concerns. And he asked them to remain engaged to work with us and to participate in the delegation, presidential delegation, that we would be sending to Vietnam later this year. And I'm happy to say that they pledged to stay involved and to work with us. That is not to say that they, all of them, agreed with this decision. There is a tactical difference with a number of them. But they did say they will continue to work with us.

So let me turn it over to Hershel.

Q: Will you tell us a little bit about what's going on in Bosnia and maybe some kind of assessment of the situation there now?

MR. LAKE: Let me give you a very brief answer: No.

Q: Why not?

MR. LAKE: Because this is a fluid situation, is one reason. I'm leaving, and as you know is our practice, when we're in the middle of a situation like that, for a variety of obvious reasons, we prefer not to comment. There will be comment later.

Q: There will be? In what way and where?

MR. LAKE: We're working that out, and it depends in part on events --

Q: Should we expect United Nations --

MR. LAKE: Not necessarily from here.

Q: Do you expect the United Nations to announce a pullout this week?

MR. LAKE: Fluid situation. No, it is not a yes.

Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY GOBER: Tony about said it all. He gave you the background brief; you've got the information there. I am privileged to have led -- been a leader of three presidential delegations to Vietnam since the beginning in 1993 -- '94 and '95. And as Tony indicated, over the years we have seen increased cooperation on the part of the Vietnamese. We are still pushing for more results. We will continue to do so.

The meetings with the veterans groups, to expand a little bit on that, they were part of the President's delegation in 1994 -- well, actually, '93-'94, and they'll go back with us again later this year. There are a lot of differences, but what is good about it is they -- we can disagree on the way to accomplish the mission, but we must never forget the mission, and the mission is to obtain as full accounting as possible. And we take that very seriously.

Our meetings in Vietnam on our past delegation in May -- we met with the highest level of Vietnamese officials and reemphasized to them how important this was to the people of America. And it may be confusing to some people why we place so much emphasis on returning those men that served in Vietnam, but we think they understand it. We will continue to push for more results, full accounting as possible.

I'll tell you right now probably the most productive thing would just be to take questions from you.

Q: Mr. Lord, can you address the issue of MFN, OPIC and Ex-Im -- when will they get that, and what type of economic support are being talked about?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: As the President indicated and Mr. Lake elaborated, we now will be examining this on a systematic basis. So I can't give you any timetable or even any assurance what will happen.

With diplomatic relations you make legally possible certain steps -- or possibly possible -- subject to other conditions, other steps. And so we're going to examine the legal framework as well as the appropriateness of moving on some of these fronts. And, of course, we'll be in close contact with the Congress and others on these issues.

Q: Will you move on any of these fronts before the interagency commission?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: There's no announcement today about moving on any of these fronts. We're going to have to look at the whole picture.

Q: But could you explain just in principle how it works now -- I mean, do you go ahead and appoint an ambassador -- and how quickly that could happen, that type of thing?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: In terms of the process, among your packet should be a fact sheet on diplomatic relations, give you a little bit of background on what this means.

Essentially, I think you will see a response out of Hanoi -- there's a time difference -- in a few hours in which they will -- I don't want to speak for them, but I think it's safe to assume they will welcome this step. So, in effect, according to the lawyers, once both sides have expressed an intention to establish diplomatic relations, in effect takes hold.

But as the President mentioned, the Secretary of State will be traveling to Vietnam. We're still working out the exact dates. This would be after his meetings at Brunei at the beginning of August. And I think we envision some exchange of documents. This won't require laborious negotiations. It's more the symbolism in formalizing what has happened today which, of course, is the key event.

And as far as ambassadors, both -- I think the Vietnamese will also indicate their intentions on ambassadors, and as the President says, the search will now go underway to see who should head up our embassy.

Q: To any of you gentlemen -- you say that you've received a comprehensive report saying 79 of 81 pending special cases, special remains cases, will help you out a great deal. Are you satisfied now, at this time, that the Vietnamese government unilaterally is doing everything it can and is not withholding any more information about POWs or MIAs?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY WOLD: We are satisfied with the progress to date that the Vietnamese have demonstrated. Indeed, on the special remains cases -- discrepancy cases -- we will continue to press them very hard on each one of those cases.

Q: So, in other words, they still have information that they are withholding from you?

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY WOLD: I don't know that they're withholding information, but we believe that they have information and that they will be forthcoming in the months to come. The process is in place, and they have demonstrated their willingness and their forthcomingness on the turnover of documents.

Q: And they've not been forthcoming up until this point? I'm just wondering why that is.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY WOLD: I would disagree. I think they have been forthcoming.

DEPUTY SECRETARY GOBER: Let me answer a little bit of that. You know, when we were there in 1994, we asked them to establish document teams to go into the Ministry of the Interior which controls the police there and has a great deal of power, and the Ministry of National Defense. They did establish those teams. And the documents that we received, over 200 pages of documents when we were there in May, was a result -- some of the work was a result of that.

I think that what they're doing -- and we feel good about it because they're going into the provinces and they're starting to get documents, because many of those documents would be at the province level. You know, like the state capitols -- they're provinces are like our states. So I think, as Jim said, the process is in effect, and we hope to see continued results from it. And we will continue to remind them that, as the President said, that's still our number one concern is the MIA problem.

And so -- that doesn't answer your question fully. I think that they are trying to find these documents.

Q: Could you please outline a little bit what is changing strategically by that commission in that part of the world?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: Let me emphasize again what the President and Mr. Lake emphasized. This decision was taken on the criterion of progress toward the fullest possible accounting. Now, as the President and Lake also mentioned, obviously there are other American interests. And we believe this will further those interests as well, now that the criteria the President set out have been met in terms of sufficient progress on the key question.

So Asia is a very dynamic region. We have tremendous security and economic interests in the region. We think one of the benefits of this move will be to forward those interests, and that will be one of the objectives of Secretary Christopher's trip to the region, in general, and to Vietnam, in particular.

So, regional security, geopolitical factors, economic factors, promotion of human rights, promotion of our efforts to control the flow of narcotics -- all of these issues, we think, will be advanced by this step today by the President and by our expanded presence in Hanoi. In short, I think, it helps our strategic position in Asia. But this is a benefit that flows from it -- the primary criteria where the progress made on the MIA question.

Q: You keep referring to security interests. Is there any hint of military cooperation between the United States and Vietnam?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: Only in a sense of going after to the MIA question. There our militaries have cooperated very closely. But, no, not in other respects. What I'm talking about is regional security dialogues. As you may know, they have these yearly at the foreign minister level, and they've had, a couple of months ago, at the senior officials level. Vietnam is part of that dialogue, as is Russia, China, Japan, ASEAN, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Korea and so on.

Q: Have there been any visits to the old facilities at Cameron Bay?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: Only in the search for MIAs which is an example of sensitive military areas, like Haiphong Harbor and Cameron Bay, which the Vietnamese, with our encouragement, have opened up for inspection for MIAs. But no strategic talks.

Q: Has there been any response today to this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: Well, we just announced it a couple of hours ago, so I have not heard any response.

Q: Can I ask you one on another topic while you're there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: Sure. I think New Zealand will welcome this, too. (Laughter.)

Q: All right. Have you had any contact with the French? Just every country in the world has now condemned the French because of the situation of Rainbow Warrior and the resumed testing and, of course, the U.S. --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: I think my instructions ought to keep this on the Vietnam or closely-related subjects.

Q: Could you tell us whether you've had contacts with the French?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: We've had contact with the French to tell them about our announcement today on Vietnam. (Laughter.)

Q: The Republicans are talking about cutting off funding --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: No, no. I'm just reconfirming my tight instructions from Mr. McCurry. (Laughter.)

Q: The Republicans are talking about cutting off funding in the next budget for any actions that would formalize -- towards normalization. What can they do to interfere with what you're trying to do?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: First of all, there are many Republicans, and you saw many standing up with the President today in that room, who would disagree with that. So it's not monolithic.

Secondly, we'll have to see how this plays out on Capitol Hill. And I know one of the resolutions is suggesting that. But I think there are other resolutions that are more positive, and we would hope they would prevail.

Q: But if they won't -- if they do cut off funding, what can they do? How much interference --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: Well, I really don't want to speculate on a hypothetical situation. I'd rather wait and see. But we made very clear, the President has, why this is in the U.S. national interest, and we are confident that a majority in the Congress, as well as the American people will support that.

Q: How will this decision affect U.S. relations with China?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: Well, we would certainly not see this in any way directly related to China in a sense that this would be taken as a grand strategy with respect to China. That is not our intent. So I would imagine China would welcome it. They've indicated in the past we should establish friendly relations with Vietnam. So we'll have to see -- you'd have to ask them that question. But there is not a China motive behind our move today.

Q: Mr. Lord, you've spoken today about documents and remains. Does the U.S. government now believe that there are no live Americans being kept in Vietnam?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LORD: Why don't I have Mr. Wold address that question.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY WOLD: The government cannot say that there are no live Americans. However, all of the live study investigations and all the evidence that we have available to us does not -- is not suggestive that there are alive Americans remaining anywhere in Southeast Asia.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 3:10 P.M. EDT

William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by National Security Advisor Tony Lake, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Hershel Gober and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Winston Lord Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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