Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:35 P.M. EST
MR. MCCLELLAN: Good afternoon. Let me go over a couple of world leader phone calls from this morning. The President spoke to NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson to discuss issues ahead of the NATO summit in Prague next week. And they talked about NATO enlargement, strengthening NATO's military capabilities, and the NATO-Russia relationship. The President -- the phone call lasted about 10 minutes.
The President also talked with Prime Minister Simitis. They had a warm and constructive call, reflecting the strength of the U.S.-Greek partnership. And both leaders agreed on the historic and strategic importance of advancing Turkey's evolution toward the European Union.
They also expressed strong support for U.N. Secretary General Annan's efforts to foster a political settlement for Cyprus. The President also wished the Prime Minister continued success in preparing for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
And with that, I'll take your questions.
Q: To what extent did Robertson and the President talk about Iraq?
MR. MCCLELLAN: The information I have is what I gave you from the readout from that call. Like I said, it was about a 10-minute phone call. I wouldn't be surprised if they discussed that, but that's the information I have.
Q: What can Greece do to help Turkey get into the EU? What do you expect Greece to do?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, I think Turkey has an important role to play in the region, and we're going to continue working with other countries and talking to them, as well.
Q: Hans Blix was just talking to reporters at the U.N. and said that, as he put it, zero tolerance is a very strict word. Is there any concern that his definition of zero tolerance won't be the same as the White House definition?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, first of all, the inspectors, I would remind you, are there to report the facts back to the Security Council. They are not going in, and the inspectors have expressed this themselves, to make assessments. They will report the facts to the Security Council, and that's where it will be discussed and assessed and determined -- and the determinations will be made on what kind of consequences need to follow.
But our view remains one of zero tolerance. For too long, Saddam Hussein has played games with the international community. He has played rope-a-dope with inspectors, and that has got to come to an end. For 16 resolutions in 11 years, he has shown defiance, and no more game playing. That is our message to Saddam Hussein.
Q: Scott, Democrats in the Senate are pushing an amendment to the homeland security bill that would eliminate liability protections that are in the House bill for vaccine makers, do a few other things. Is that amendment a poison pill for the White House?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, we believe -- we support the language that is in the resolution. I think I would refer you back to why that language is -- why that language is in there. These provisions still allow people the right to compensation or the right to sue if they believe they've been harmed by the use of a particular vaccine. These provisions only require that individuals seeking compensation begin by seeking resolution through the Vaccine Injury and Compensation Program. If an individual is not satisfied with the award that is offered through that system, then they always have the right to proceed and sue the manufacturer. But, in short, the vaccine manufacturers will still be subject to liability. We just want to close loopholes, where people can circumvent that process. And that's what this is about.
Q: But is the Democratic amendment unacceptable to you? Would you accept a bill that -- if that amendment does pass?
MR. MCCLELLAN: We support it being in the legislation. That's our position. And we urge Congress to act and get this legislation to the President's desk quickly.
Q: Scott, is the administration worried about some of the warnings that are coming out about this and that, and nothing happening, if people start taking these warnings like a fire alarm that never goes to a fire?
MR. MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry, what was the last part?
Q: Well, like a fire alarm when there's no fire -- because warnings keep coming out, and nothing is happening. My question is, will people just take them with a grain of salt?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, Jacobo, I think the tape from earlier this week, whoever it was that was on that tape, was a reminder that we are still at war, at war on terrorism. The President made it clear well over a year ago that this would be a long, difficult struggle. And we take these threats very seriously. And we have taken additional protective measures -- since the public warnings we issued recently, we have taken additional protective measures to protect our critical infrastructure, both public and private, and secure our borders.
There is unprecedented cooperation going on, both public and private, at the federal, state and local level. But we will not stop in doing everything we can to secure our homeland and to protect the American people. We want to make sure we're doing everything we can to prevent a future attack and to protect Americans from any attack that may come.
Q: Follow-up question, again, on terrorism. The execution last night of Mir Kasi for the attack committed against CIA personnel, is the administration worried about what effect this may have on the Musharraf government in Pakistan?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, again, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families of the victims and the victims. That was a jury decision, and the jury decision was carried out.
Q: Scott, two quick question. One, according to the reports yesterday in The Washington Post, New York Times and other publications that the U.S. is too soft on Pakistan in dealing with North Korea's nuclear program is concerned, but too hard on North Korea. And also yesterday, the government of India, including the foreign minister, he said that there is a double standard when it comes to dealing with Pakistan and terrorism in Kashmir and India, as far as the United States is concerned. And they said that they have provided with all the prove and all the evidence against Pakistan that it is supporting terrorism in Kashmir. But the United States has not done anything, even though India is a partner in fight against terrorism in United States. So do you have any comments?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, we have continued to work with the parties in the region and worked to reduce tensions in that region, and that's important that they continue to work to reduce tensions. But again, though, Pakistan has been a strong partner in our global war against terrorism, our global coalition of some 90 countries.
Q: One more, about Virginia. Virginia Governor Mark Warner is going to introduce a new terrorism warning alert in his own state different than what the federal government. Is the President aware of that, or is --
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, I'm not familiar with what each and every state is doing. But states across the U.S. are working with the federal government in an unprecedented way to make sure that we're doing at all levels, federal, state and local, in partnership between the public and private sector, that we're doing everything we can to protect the American people. And it's important that we continue to work in cooperation as we do that.
Q: Scott, why does the White House believe that if Osama bin Laden were really alive, they would not have him in a videotape, rather than presenting an audio tape, which is so easily forged?
MR. MCCLELLAN: I can't begin to speculate on that, Les.
Q: Do you think that he is alive?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Les, one, if he is, he's running. We have taken away the safe haven he had in Afghanistan. We have disrupted the network. But this war is going to be long, it's going to be difficult. We've said that from the beginning. And we will continue working with our global coalition to track down these terrorists and their leaders wherever they are and bring them to justice. They can hide and they can run, but we will not let up one bit.
Q: Just to clarify that, you would admit that it's easier to forge an audio tape than a videotape?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, Les, again, you're asking about a specific videotape. It's continuing to be analyzed. Whoever the person is on that videotape, we take those threats in -- I mean, in the audio tape, I'm sorry, in the audio tape --
Q: No doubt it is Osama?
MR. MCCLELLAN: -- we take those threats very seriously.
Q: Both Agence France Press, as well as World Net Daily report that in Israel there's a growing support for what is called transfer. And my question is, can you recall for us any objection by the first Bush administration to Kuwait's very rapidly transferring more than a quarter of a million Palestinians out of Kuwait just after Desert Storm because they supported Saddam Hussein? And does the second Bush administration object to Israeli transfer of pro-terrorist Palestinians?
MR. MCCLELLAN: One, I don't speak for the first Bush administration; I speak for the current --
Q: But do you recall?
MR. MCCLELLAN: I speak for the current Bush administration.
Q: But you're a very well-informed fellow. And do you recall? I can't recall any time that the Bush administration -- the first one -- ever objected to this massive deportation.
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, again, I don't speak for the first Bush administration.
Katie -- let me go to Katie. We need to keep moving here.
Q: What role did the White House play in this new terror alert? Did the President personally sign off on it?
MR. MCCLELLAN: We were aware -- we were aware of it -- first of all, what new alert?
MR. MCCLELLAN: That's not new information. That is not --
Q: It's a new alert.
MR. MCCLELLAN: It is not new information. What it is, it summarizes all the intelligence that we have. That's what that is, that we share with law enforcement.
Q: But did the White House sign off on that?
MR. MCCLELLAN: But I remind you that we issued public warnings previously about the potential for large-scale or small-scale attacks.
Q: Did the President sign off on this one, in particular, though?
MR. MCCLELLAN: The White House was aware of it and we were aware of what we shared.
Q: And the President was aware?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Let me double-check.
Q: Did you sign off on the language, the specific language that was used in the FBI --
MR. MCCLELLAN: We saw it, we saw it. We were aware of it.
Q: You approved it? Someone did?
MR. MCCLELLAN: It was an interagency process.
Q: Did the President approve of this creation of this new Big Brother agency in homeland security where -- well, the Pentagon would become aware of all the data on every American? I don't know exactly the name of the agency, but even your conservative supporters --
Q: Poindexter --
Q: Yes, one with Poindexter, who did not tell the truth to the American people or Congress, should be in charge of it?
MR. MCCLELLAN: I've seen some reports, but that is not in the homeland security department legislation.
Q: It's not in the current --
MR. MCCLELLAN: That's not in there.
Q: Scott, could I come back to the FBI bulletin one more time? I think what kind of jumps out at us is the word "spectacular." Should we be looking at this as sort of a level higher in terms of the language, if nothing else, than some of these previous FBI bulletins?
MR. MCCLELLAN: I want to be clear that the threat level remains where it is, at the elevated level, which means a significant chance of a terrorist attack. That has been in place for a while now. We did issue several public warnings recently about the heightened possibility of either a large-scale or several small-scale attacks on the United States at home or against our interest abroad. And that's why we're working with a coordinated effort at federal, state and local level, to ramp up our protection and prevention measures.
Q: I understand that, but I'm asking for your read on the specific language that was used. It seems to us that this is sort of a more alarming level of language. Do you -- should we be viewing that as a sort of more alarming level of caution?
MR. MCCLELLAN: I think the way I described it, as that the concern about a potential possibility of a large-scale or several small-scale attacks. And that's what we've made clear to the American people, as well, that the American people need to continue living their lives, but they need to be alert. They can be a helpful resource, often the first line of defense in helping us to prevent or disrupt a potential attack.
Q: I understand that, but you're not able to help us in terms of the level of the rhetoric that you're using here?
MR. MCCLELLAN: I'm not sure what you're saying about the level. I mean, I think the way I described it --
Q: The word "spectacular" really does set off a flashing light, whether or not you're raising the actual color code --
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, there's information that is shared with law enforcement officials; there's information that's shared with the private sector; there's information that's shared with the public. And that's why I'm here today describing it as we need to stay on the alert about a possible large-scale or small-scale -- several small-scale attacks.
Q: Well, is the information different that is --
MR. MCCLELLAN: No, it's a summary of information and --
Q: -- for all the groups you mentioned.
MR. MCCLELLAN: Yes. And remember, in early October there was a release of tapes and increased intelligence reporting that led us to issue several public warnings.
Q: If it's just a summary, though, then why use that word that jumps out so much from -- that was not used in these prior alerts?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, we take these threats very seriously.
Q: Scott, what is the mechanism for military action if the U.S. perceives that the Iraqis have deceived and defied? Do you go back to the U.N., or do you start assembling the coalition? And is the United States in charge of that coalition?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Sure. One, the resolution spells it out that we will go back to -- if there is a violation, then the security -- then it goes to the Security Council for discussion and assessment. But that is for discussion and assessment about serious consequences that need to be taken for those violations.
That does not preclude the United States from acting with like-minded nations if we need to in order to protect the interests -- protect the American people and protect our friends and allies. And the President retains that authority.
Q: Speaking of the tape, the al Qaeda tape that came out earlier this week, have you finished your analysis of it and made conclusions as to whether it's Osama bin Laden or not?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, when there's a final analysis done, as the President pointed out, we'll let the experts announce that. But I'm not aware of any -- as far as I'm aware, the analysis is ongoing at this point.
Q: Dr. Rice, earlier today, said that the United States is not certain what role Osama bin Laden is playing in al Qaeda. That formulation, that language suggests that you have concluded he is still alive. Is that right?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Again, as far as I am aware, the analysis is ongoing at this point. But as I talked about if he is alive, he is on the run and we have disrupted his network. But we will continue to pursue the terrorist networks and their leaders wherever they are.
Q: Why would she be -- why would Dr. Rice be talking about him in the present tense and talking about the role that he's playing?
MR. MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry. Which comments were you referring to?
Q: Dr. Rice, this morning. She was talking about him in the present tense. She was talking about the role that he is playing -- an uncertain role.
MR. MCCLELLAN: Right. That's correct.
Q: Why would she be using that language if you haven't, in fact, concluded he's alive?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Again, the analysis is ongoing. That's where it stands.
Q: Scott, unemployment insurance, as you know, runs out at the end of December. There's two proposals out there -- one to extend it for five weeks, and one to extend it through, I believe, March. Where does the administration stand on extending unemployment insurance?
MR. MCCLELLAN: Well, first, the President believes it's important to protect unemployed workers, which is why we supported extending unemployment benefits earlier this year that, as you pointed out, go through December. The House and the Senate are working to resolve some differences in their bills, but the President believes we must address the root of that problem. He's concerned about people that are looking for jobs, he's concerned about people that are worried that they may lose their jobs, and he thinks we need to do more to stimulate the economy and create jobs.
And I go back to point out that we're working with Congress to move this terrorism legislation forward. We are working with Congress on what the President has previously outlined about making the tax cuts permanent. We're working toward a new economic and growth package next year. The best way to help these people is to create more jobs and economic growth and opportunity.
Q: Some lawmakers feel five weeks is not adequate enough, that the economy is not going to bounce back or a stimulus package, whatever you have in mind, is not going to be out there in time to protect workers with just a five-week extension. So again, does the administration --
MR. MCCLELLAN: As I said, I mean, they're working to resolve these differences. We believe it's important to protect unemployed workers. We also believe it's important to create more jobs so that they have an opportunity to improve their economic outlook.
Q: This was touched on briefly -- oh, I'm sorry.
Q: That's all right. Scott, since the elections last week, the White House has appeared reluctant to talk about GOP efforts on the Hill to place new restrictions on abortions. Why is that?
MR. MCCLELLAN: I don't know what you're talking about. I think our views are very clear, when it comes to having a culture that welcomes life at all stages, the President has made his views very well-known. Our views on various pieces of legislation are well-known. Right now, we're in a lame duck session. There's a limited amount of time of what can get done. But there are a lot of important priorities.
Q: I understand the focus -- your desire to focus on the items in this lame duck session. But specifically on those pieces of legislation, there has been talk by the leaders in both the House and the Senate to move particularly on the banning of partial birth abortion. Does the President -- would he welcome and sign that legislation?
MR. MCCLELLAN: We strongly support that legislation. It's a brutal practice and it needs to be -- we need to end it.
Q: This was touched on briefly in Dr. Rice's briefing. But can you elaborate a little bit on the type of security measures that are needed next week at the Prague summit and why there is the need for more security?
MR. MCCLELLAN: I think she addressed it earlier and about the cooperation and the role that the United States plays in NATO.
Q: Scott, a follow-up on the unemployment insurance. Does the President support extending the benefits? You didn't really answer that. And why not? If Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan says it's a good idea and it gives unemployed people more disposable income --
MR. MCCLELLAN: I think I made it clear that we welcome efforts to protect unemployed workers and that there are differences that are being resolved by the Congress right now --
Q: What's the White House's view on --
MR. MCCLELLAN: -- and we'll continue working with Congress, but the President believes it's important to protect those unemployed workers but, more importantly, we need to get those unemployed workers jobs.
Q: Thank you.
END 12:54 P.M. EST
Scott McClellan, Press Briefing by Scott McClellan Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/272148