Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:50 P.M. EDT
MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I apologize for running late, the President's meeting with the economists ran a little longer than expected. They had a very good discussion about the current economic situation and the President was pleased to listen to some of their forecasts and insights into where the economy is headed.
The President also spent a good portion of his time talking about the importance of the steps that we have taken to strengthen the economy, by giving people more money so that they can spend that on a good or service and help create jobs and get this economy growing faster.
If you all will bear with me, the President does have a speech here shortly, so I will go right to questions and we'll get started from there.
Q: Scott, has the President completely given up on the idea of debt service? And whatever happened to his campaign promise about a Social Security lockbox?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, obviously, we want to return to budget. We --
Q: Sorry, not "debt service," paying down the debt and whatever happened to this idea of a Social Security lockbox?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I understand. Obviously, we would like to return to surpluses so that we can pay down the debt. That remains a priority. But we've made clear that our number one -- our highest priorities are winning the war on terror and getting people back to work, so that we can grow our economy.
But the combination of growth and spending discipline will help return our budget to balance and when the country returns to surplus, then we can pay down the debt. So that remains a priority, though.
Q: And has he given up on his campaign pledge to the Social Security lockbox, as well?
MR. McCLELLAN: He continues to remain committed to both strengthening and reforming Medicare and Social Security. Those remain priorities. He wants to make sure that people -- and I think some of this was brought up yesterday, in yesterday afternoon's briefing, about Social Security -- he remains committed to strengthening and saving Social Security for future generations.
Q: But if you look at the projections in your midsession review yesterday, even if he were to win a second term and stay all the way through 2008, there's not a dime for a Social Security lockbox, there's not a dime to pay down the debt in those projections.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, keep in mind that when you look at yesterday's briefing, that we're going to cut that deficit in half, by nearly 50 percent over the next few years, and the way, number one way we're doing that is getting the economy growing, strengthening our economy, creating jobs, getting people back to work so we can get more revenues coming in. And once we get back to surpluses, then we can begin paying down that national debt again.
Q: That wouldn't be until after he leaves the White House, even after a second term.
MR. McCLELLAN: We're moving as quickly as possible to do everything we can to strengthen our economy. And that's why it's important that across the board tax rate reductions are happening; the withholding tables have been changed so that people are seeing more money coming into their pockets already; and that the child credits are going to be going out shortly. So that we can get more money back in the economy, more money back into people's pockets, they can spend it on a good or service, and help create jobs and get this economy growing faster, get more revenue coming in.
Q: Scott, earlier today, you said you saw steady progress in Iraq. It's been a very bad day. An American soldier killed, a pro-American mayor killed in Iraq, a little kid killed. Where's the progress?
MR. McCLELLAN: We are making some important progress in Iraq. There are obviously -- there are still some difficulties, there are some are there are loyalists to Saddam Hussein and his former regime, Baathists and others from outside the country that are trying to disrupt these successes. They oftentimes will target the success that we are making, so that's why you have seen some of these attacks.
But there are some very important steps announced earlier this week. We are witnessing history being made in Iraq. For the first time in three decades, the Iraqi people have the hope of charting a better future for themselves and controlling what that future will look like. And I'm referring to the governing council of Iraq. It was established on July 13th. It represents a diverse group of 25 political leaders from across the country. And this governing council begins Iraq on the process towards a free and democratic Iraq. And it begins the constitutional process.
So we're focused on the security side of things. That remains a very high priority, stabilizing and securing the country. We're focusing on economic prosperity for the Iraqi people. Ambassador Bremer has taken some strong steps there. And then we're also focused on returning Iraq to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible so that we can leave the country.
But we will stay there as long as it takes to move Iraq to a free and democratic country. And an important aspect of that, too, I might remind you, is that a free and democratic Iraq will help bring peace and stability to the Middle East, which is very important to building a safer country, a safer world.
Q: On Liberia, does the President have in hand final assessments from the two teams? And when does he expect final recommendations from Rumsfeld and Powell?
MR. McCLELLAN: He has not received a full assessment of the situation. But I don't want to put any arbitrary time line on things.
Q: Not so much make a decision, but when does he expect the recommendations from Powell and Rumsfeld?
MR. McCLELLAN: When we have more to talk about on that, we will do so at that time. But it's important to get the assessment, look at all the facts and make the decision from there. But we're going to do things in close coordination with ECOWAS, the Economic Community of Western Africa States, and the U.N. He had a good discussion with Secretary Annan about that earlier in the week.
Q: Scott, can we get back to Iraq? The criticism is coming in hard and fast on the occupation. And this is from Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota -- a Democrat, yes, but he also has a boy, a son, who just returned from Iraq and served his country. He says: our men and women in uniform doing courageous work find themselves in a near shooting gallery environment in Iraq with very little contribution from allies and the world.
The President has often said that there would be a coalition of the willing that would disarm Iraq and, in his estimation, ultimately did. Where is that coalition now, when it comes to helping with the occupation and reducing this risk that right now appears to be just in the face of American soldiers?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, a couple of things. One, you did mention the courage of our troops. Our troops are very courageous and I think they understand the importance of what they are doing -- liberating a country and helping them return to a -- they are bringing freedom to the Iraqi people, bringing democracy to the Iraqi people. It's a very important cause that they are there helping to achieve.
Secondly, there is a coalition provisional authority. We have, I believe it's 19 countries that are now helping out with stabilization and security in Iraq. And we have a number of other countries that we are in discussions with, talking about ways that they can help. Obviously, each country has to make their own decisions about how they contribute or at what level they contribute. But I think that the international community recognizes that whatever the past differences were leading up to the situation is that there are ways that people can contribute and help, because this is important not only to the region and peace and stability in the region, it's important to the world and making the world a safer place.
Q: What's the time frame for the President's own priority to get other troops in there, besides U.S. troops, leading this occupation?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, those discussions are ongoing. We continue to have discussions with a number of other countries. But I mentioned that 19 countries are already helping out. And that's important to point out.
Q: But these other countries don't have troops there.
MR. McCLELLAN: Nineteen other countries are helping contribute in a variety of ways. And I think the Department of Defense, we leave those decisions about what types and size of the troop levels that we need to have, and they will continue to do what is necessary to help secure Iraq. But we're going to do everything we can to support our troops and make sure they have all the resources they need. The President is very grateful for what they are doing. This is a very important cause to a safer world.
Q: Let me just follow-up on one other thing, hang on a second. You repeated something this morning that the President is fond of saying, and that is, when speaking to critics of both the war and the occupation, you said that they're focused on elections and possibly even revising history or rewriting history. What is it that they're revising or rewriting? What are you referring to?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the case against Saddam Hussein and his regime was solid and compelling. There was never any discussion about whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or weapons of mass destruction program until recently. That's only recently come into play.
The debate was about how to confront these weapons of mass destruction. It was about how to confront a regime that was willing to use these weapons of mass destruction. And you do have to raise the question about certain members of Congress now who are trying to rewrite history. They're trying to revise history.
The last thing anyone should do is politicize this issue by rewriting history. There are some where the present rhetoric does not match their past record. So look back at past comments. Look back at past voting records. Congress overwhelmingly, in a bipartisan way, passed a resolution supporting the steps that we are taking and approving the use of force if it was necessary, after 12 years of Saddam Hussein's deception and denial to confront that threat.
But let me point out a couple of comments -- these are from 1998. In a letter to President Clinton, one member of Congress talked about -- well, talked about the President -- he urged the President to "take necessary actions to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq's refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs. By its refusal to abandon its quest for weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, Iraq is directly defying and challenging the international community and directly violating the terms of the cease-fire between itself and the United States-led coalition." That was Senator Levin, back in 1998, well before the attacks of September 11th, which brought to light the new threats of the 21st century.
Let me read one more and then we'll move on. "Saddam Hussein has already used these weapons and has made it clear that he has the intent to continue to try, by virtue of his duplicity and secrecy, to continue to do so. That is a threat to the stability of the Middle East. It is a threat with respect to the potential of terrorist activities on a global basis." Again, this was in 1998, and that was by Senator Kerry.
One other comment. "If we do nothing, I promise you we will face this issue one way or the other again in the Gulf or with respect to Israel or in some form, and I think it is absolutely vital for us to recognize the enormous principle with respect to proliferation and the challenge that this represents in the long term for our country. If we don't face this today, we will face it at some point down the road." This was 1998 and that was Senator Kerry.
Q: Do you think that -- the truth is there are facts on the ground right now that -- you can go back to statements from 1998 and such, but there are facts on the ground now that are raising questions about the situation as presented or laid out by the President, what we could expect, what you all believed would happen, what you believed you would find. Now we have facts on the ground that are undermining the quality and the credibility of those comments.
MR. McCLELLAN: I differ. I think we're beginning to learn the truth and we've seen some of the evidence of Saddam Hussein's desire to seek nuclear weapons, going back quite a while. We've seen some of the evidence of his weapons of mass destruction program through two mobile biological weapon labs that have been discovered. And that's in -- we've only been there, what, 120 days.
Q: Well, do you think, though, that you have a credibility problem right now?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that you need to look back at some of the comments that are being made by some in Congress, and ask them --
Q: Well, they might have their own credibility problems, but I'm asking about you. Does the White House have a credibility problem now?
MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely not. The President has been very straightforward about this from the beginning. He laid out a very compelling case, a very clear case. It was based on solid evidence and it was based on a number of factors. It was based on Saddam Hussein's past history of not only having chemical and biological weapons, but being willing to use those chemical and biological weapons. It was based on UNSCOM's report from 1999, it's final report to the United Nations Security Council, saying he has large stockpiles of unaccounted for biological and chemical weapons. It was based on his support for terrorists and his support for -- and his harboring of terrorists.
So there are a number of compelling parts of this evidence that led to us confronting this threat. And the last thing the President wanted to do was go to war. But Saddam Hussein, for 12 years, was defying the international community, he was defying the United Nations and 17 resolutions. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, that final resolution made it very clear, this is a final opportunity to comply, final opportunity to disarm.
And not only is America safer, the region is safer and the Iraqi people free, but the Middle East will be more peaceful and more stable because of the action that we have taken.
Q: Well, if you are that confident, then would the White House welcome or participate in an independent investigation of what happened in the pre-war intelligence? If you're as confident as you are of your --
MR. McCLELLAN: It wasn't only the United States. This was the United Nations and intelligence from countries around the world that documented this, and I just read you some of the comments from some of these members. But I think Congress has already --
Q: So wouldn't an independent investigation put this to rest?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- Congress is already looking at some of this information. But the facts are very clear.
Q: No one doubts the courage of our soldiers, Marines and so forth, in Iraq. The question is the stories, the photographs show that morale is pretty low. And I wonder what is the President's message to the families? And is the White House upset that they're going public, a lot of them going on the air, talking to reporters about they're very unhappy that the date of their going home has been postponed?
MR. McCLELLAN: It's one of sincere gratitude to the families. They are making a tremendous sacrifice. But the men and women in our military who are over there are involved in a very important cause. It was a just cause from the beginning, and they are doing a superb job and we applaud them for everything that they're doing. We know that there are difficulties over there. We know that they are making significant sacrifices. And it's something no one can ever fully repay. But we --
Q: Well, do you mind them going public?
MR. McCLELLAN: But we are going to do everything we can to support them in that, and get them home as soon as we can. But there remains an important mission to complete, and that's getting out -- that's securing Iraq and moving it towards a free and democratic society.
Q: Just quickly following up on Iraq, two quick questions. The first is on Iraq. You said that you talked about quotes from 1998, of Democrats saying that there were -- that Saddam Hussein perhaps had these weapons of mass destruction --
MR. McCLELLAN: And I want to point out how long -- how far back this goes. I mean, there is a long, well documented trail of evidence here.
Q: But it's definitely fair to say that there was significant debate and a number of questions about how imminent the threat was and if it was imminent enough to actually go to war against Saddam Hussein, right before the war. And what Democrats are saying is that the evidence the President gave at the State of the Union and others gave elsewhere now doesn't really hold up, in terms of how imminent the threat was.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, not at all. And, in fact, I'm glad you brought that up. Because I've talked about the large body of evidence relating to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and I won't go back through that. But it was something that was well documented by the United States and by the international community. And, remember, there was a congressional resolution passed last year stating very clearly in an overwhelming way the support for the steps that we were taking.
We live in a post-September 11th world now. Those vivid and tragic events of September 11th brought to light the threats that we face in a very real way and we are going to address them. The President will not ignore growing threats, because we cannot afford to wait and see American lives lost because of the threats that exist.
Q: That means we could go in anywhere.
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll come back to you later, Helen.
Q: Just one more on a different subject. The Palestinians are saying that Mahmoud Abbas is coming here on the 25th of July. Is that correct?
MR. McCLELLAN: We do look forward to Prime Minister Abbas visiting soon. There is no formal announcement that I'm going to make here from the podium today. But we do look forward to Prime Minister Abbas visiting soon.
Q: But he's not telling fibs? I mean, they're saying that it's the 25th. That's not wrong, right?
MR. McCLELLAN: There's nothing to announce at this point, from our end.
Q: One on the budget, one on weapons of mass destruction. Following up on John's question. The $2 trillion in debt that has been amassed under this President, you said that one of the things that he wants to do is continue spending restraint. Where's the spending restraint in this administration?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, look at our budget proposal and look at what was passed by Congress, itself, holding the line on discretionary spending to 4 percent, which matches the income of the growth in average family. That's what the budget guidelines for this past year were set at. Now we're working at the appropriations.
Q: The first year it was 6 percent, last year it was 5 percent, that's roughly quadruple the inflation level. I mean, he's a big spender.
MR. McCLELLAN: We're working to slow the growth. Wait a second. Let me stop you right there. We had a recession. We had a war. We had a national emergency in the form of September 11th. We had some corporate scandals. We've addressed -- we've been addressing those issues aggressively with some bold policies.
But the President -- and I think you have to look back at the fact that when you have a recession, when you have war, you're going to do everything that you need to address those issues. And we have a deficit now that exists because of those reasons I just cited. It's something that is very manageable when you look at it in terms of overall percentage of the GDP, 4.2 percent, well below the record.
And it remains a priority. But the best way to address it is to do exactly what the President has been doing over the last few years, and that's to get our economy growing, that's to get people back to work, that's to get more money back into people's hands so we can create jobs and get revenue growing again.
Q: And to add a $400 billion new entitlement.
MR. McCLELLAN: Are you talking about --
Q: Prescription drugs.
MR. McCLELLAN: Medicare is an important priority. And it's important to set priorities. And that's why if you look at the way the President outlines his budget, he held the line on spending, on discretionary spending to -- he held the line in his budget proposal to 4 percent. Obviously, this is something you have to work closely with Congress to address.
And we will remind Congress as we're going through this budget process, with the appropriations bills being passed now, that it is very important to combine those economic growth policies with spending restraint. And that's what we're doing to address that issue.
Q: Just to shift gears. You just said that the President laid out a clear case for the weapons of mass destruction based on solid evidence and in all the talk about the State of the Union speech. Does the President believe he made a mistake, standing in front of the country, making the case for war, saying that Iraq was trying to get uranium from Africa? Was that a mistake?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, let me go back. We should not have included that in the State of the Union address.
Q: So --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we said it was a mistake to include it in the State of the Union address. But that was one piece of one part of an overall body of evidence that exists showing why we went --
Q: But that's really alarming --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- why we went to war in Iraq, why we addressed that threat.
Q: But that's pretty alarming. That may have been the most alarming thing that he said. And does he feel he misled the American people?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, no, let me make clear. No one has shown that that is wrong, that that statement is wrong. The British have additional sources that they base their information on, and they believe very strongly that it is accurate and that they have strong reasons to believe that.
But the bottom line is, we didn't feel, after learning some new information later -- and that's what happens sometimes with intelligence, you learn information later that you didn't know -- and we didn't feel it was specific enough to rise to the level of a Presidential speech.
Q: The national intelligence estimate we now know contained the reference to Niger and the rest of that was published on October 1st.
MR. McCLELLAN: Aptly pointed out in your article today.
Q: Right. We now know that the DCI called Mr. Hadley on -- about four days later, to say, don't go ahead with that part of the speech because we're not certain of it.
What did you do at that point to alert Congress, which was getting ready to make a vote that -- take the vote that you referred to before, authorizing war? That, in fact, an element -- just one element, but an element of the classified document that they had received no longer was considered credible by the Director of Central Intelligence?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's back up. Yes, the national intelligence estimate did come out during the drafting of the Cincinnati speech toward -- just days before.
Q: A week before.
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, it's a lengthy document, let's keep that in mind, too; and there's a lot of information to look at.
Now, the specific reference in that Cincinnati speech was relating to a specific amount on a specific source. So it was different from what we're talking about with the State of the Union address.
Q: But it was in the NIE.
MR. McCLELLAN: That's correct. But it was different from what was in the State of the Union address. This one statement was by no means the reason we went to war. And I think it's nonsense and ludicrous to suggest otherwise. There was so much evidence there, the case was so strong that that one piece of information didn't change the overlying facts -- whether or not it is accurate. And, again, it hasn't been shown to be wrong.
Q: I think my question was what steps did you take to alert the recipients of this classified document that you no longer had confidence in this part of the piece of evidence?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'll let the intelligence community speak to those issues.
Q: Did you find the answer to Jeanne's question from yesterday, whether the President knew that this reference was taken out of the October speech?
MR. McCLELLAN: These issues, this statement -- I mean, it's been addressed in a very straightforward way, the statement should not have been put in the State of the Union address. We've made that clear and we've been very straightforward with the American people about why we think that.
Not to say that it's not accurate. And, in fact, again, the British maintain that it is an accurate statement based on the additional sourcing that they had. But you have to come back to the issue here, and the issue here related to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his regime. And the case for that was compelling and strong.
Q: If I could jump in on this, Scott. Clearly, one of the reasons there is so much talk about this one sentence in the State of the Union speech is that, to date, there obviously have been no significant discoveries of weapons of mass destruction. We have these two mobile trailers, which experts are divided upon. They think that they could have been intended for that, they could have been intended for other things.
In any event, it's certainly not the cache --
MR. McCLELLAN: It sure does closely match what Secretary Powell outlined to the United Nations.
Q: Certainly it does, but it's certainly not the volume of weapons that everybody in the administration said we would find. Director Tenet was very clear on that in February, shortly after Secretary Powell's presentation, when he went up before the intelligence --
MR. McCLELLAN: Can I stop you one second and let me just point out something. Saddam Hussein was someone who UNSCOM learned was deceiving and concealing programs, was deceiving them and concealing his weapons of mass destruction program. This was back in the '90s when he was supposed to be complying with everything after the Gulf war.
Q: -- answer my question.
MR. McCLELLAN: And then when he kicked those -- when those inspectors were essentially kicked out of the country, you don't think he was taking additional steps to try to even be more deceiving and conceal his programs even more so? He was very sophisticated in what he did. And that's why we've got the Iraq survey group in there now, that's why we've got David Kaye, an expert in this, looking at all these issues, looking at the documents. And he's talked about some of the documents.
But we want to gather the full picture, see the full picture. But we are confident that we will uncover that full picture.
Q: But my question is, do we currently have enough human intelligence assets on the ground there, turning that country upside down? Is there talk about sending more? Because --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think those decisions are --
Q: How long -- how long is this --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think those specific questions need to be discussed with the team over there and the Department of Defense, I think. But there is a large group over there doing their work and doing it well and continuing to interview people, talk to some of the people that we have captured, talk to scientists and go through a lot of documents. We're confident that we'll learn the full extent of it.
Q: It was clear early on, when we began picking up al Qaeda operatives, that useful intelligence was being gathered. There have been statements from the government that potential threats were discovered in advance. You know, there was real, high-quality intelligence there. And in fairly short order, potential attacks were thwarted or intelligence was gathered about other cells that have led to other arrests.
MR. McCLELLAN: Are you talking about Afghanistan?
Q: I'm talking about Afghanistan and any other place.
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think in Afghanistan with the Taliban, they were concealing everything.
Q: No, no. The point is there were results, discernable results, pretty early on. But that hasn't been the case. We've talked to lots of Iraqi scientists. We really don't have much yet. I mean, is the President concerned that we don't have more at this point?
MR. McCLELLAN: I just don't know that I can agree with that characterization until we've gathered everything and learned the full extent of this program and then we'll talk about it more then. But we want to see the overall picture.
Q: Scott, when the President meets with Prime Minister Blair tomorrow, will he ask Prime Minister Blair for additional information about this allegation and try to substantiate it in any way?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, I don't want to jump ahead of any meeting tomorrow, but let's let that meeting take place. And you will certainly have an opportunity to hear from them after the meeting has taken place. It's not just any specific issue, I just want to let the meeting take place before getting into specifics about what they may or may not talk about.
Q: Scott, talking about Hong Kong, the people of Hong Kong are now crying for democracy and demonstrations are going on in the hundreds of thousands every day. And is -- warning them that it may come back, 1989, or it my repeat, 1989, Tiananmen Square. they may take action like in the 1989 Tiananmen Square. So what action do you think the President or U.S. will take, are they concerned about all these demonstrators?
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me try to come back to that. And I'll get you some information later. Let's try to get a couple more questions. Let's go quick. Ken, I'm sorry.
Q: A quick follow on Bob's question.
MR. McCLELLAN: The President is speaking shortly. That's why.
Q: Does the President want to know the origins of the evidence at this point, aside from whether or not he's going to ask the Prime Minister directly tomorrow? Does he want to know? Does he think at this point it would make sense to know exactly where the British got the information from?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, this goes back to getting into an issue that I think we had fully addressed, that we've been very straightforward about. That is not something that changes the overall case, or changes the specifics regarding his reconstitution of a nuclear weapons program.
Q: Senator Kerry is giving a speech today in which he accuses the President of a dangerous gap in credibility and a dangerous gap in preparedness to deal with any future terrorist attack. Does the White House have any response?
MR. McCLELLAN: Does that sound like the comments I -- I just referred to some of his comments. I know this is a different issue, but you might want to look back at some his previous comments elsewhere. What was his specific comment?
Q: He's talking, in particular, about homeland security, though he's talking about credibility on the broader intelligence issues. And he notes that the recent report commissioned, co-chaired by Senator Rudman, said the country was drastically underfunded and dangerously unprepared, and talks about --
MR. McCLELLAN: I've got to -- let me go, since we're in a rush to get to the President's speech. I recognize there are a number of Democratic candidates trying to gain an advantage in an election. But the bottom line is, America is safer, more secure, and better prepared than we were on September 11th, 2001. We are detaining al Qaeda leaders all over the world, we're freezing and taking away their terrorist assets, our aviation security is stronger, we patrol our ports 24 hours a day, we've deployed more border patrol agents on our northern and southern borders. We inspect more containers before they even get to this country. We provided significant resources -- billions of dollars -- for our nation's first responders, and we're committed to make sure they get the training and equipment they need.
The Department of Homeland Security has made available almost $4 billion in funding for grants since March 1 of 2003 for first responders in state and local governments to enhance response and preparedness capabilities. And this war on terror, the President has made clear, will not be won overnight, but we will be relentless in pursuing those who would do harm to Americans and we will do everything we can on the home front to better secure the country.
And I apologize to everybody. We've got to go to President's speech.
END 1:20 P.M. EDT
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/272112