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Special Event

White House Press Secretary Holds News Briefing

Aired October 13, 2000 - 1:29 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: And now to the White House, Jake Siewert, the new presidential spokesman, is conducting a briefing.

JAKE SIEWERT, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: "I congratulate President Kim Dae-jung on his selection as the winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. It is a fitting tribute to his courage in promoting peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula and to his lifelong dedication to the principle that peace depends on respect for human rights.

"This prize not only celebrates what President Kim has accomplished, it inspires those of us who cherish peace and freedom to help him realize his vision. Since his historic summit with Chairman Kim Jong Il, prospects for a better future on the Korean Peninsula have risen greatly. The American people will stand with the people of Korea until the sunshine of peace and freedom illuminates the entire Korean Peninsula."

Poetic -- for the NSC especially.

(LAUGHTER)

They must have some new staff over there.

(LAUGHTER)

The only other thing I have to tell you is that the president has been on the phone again this morning with leaders in the Mideast. He talked to Crown Prince Abdullah this morning, and he's also been speaking to King Mohammed of Morocco. And we're continuing to work with everyone in the region there to do everything we can to break the cycle of violence and try to defuse tension that's in that part of the world.

The president will meet with his national security team this afternoon at 5 p.m. We expect the vice president to join him for that meeting. He'll be joined by Secretary Albright, Secretary Cohen, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, and he will review both what we know about the USS Cole and the latest in the Mideast.

QUESTION: The vice president has been spending a lot of time on the campaign trail and hasn't been here very much. Why is it necessary for him to be here now? Is the president trying to give him a boost by...

(CROSSTALK)

SIEWERT: I think it was his decision to come back here. But the president appreciates -- always has appreciated his work on the Mideast peace process. He's been to the region four times. Al worked very closely on the binational commission we have with the Egyptians and has been in contact with the president from the campaign trail about these issues over the weekend, and was back here, obviously, again yesterday.

He's kept abreast of what happens here by his national security adviser, Leon Fuerth. And the president looks forward to spending a little more time with him today.

QUESTION: And is Bush also being briefed by the...

(CROSSTALK)

SIEWERT: I understand he's received a briefing through his national security team. Sandy Berger spoke to Condi Rice yesterday, who had called to get an update.

QUESTION: Jake, are there conditions holding up agreement on a summit? Has there been any change in that?

SIEWERT: We are not setting any preconditions to a meeting...

(CROSSTALK)

SIEWERT: ... although I think it's going to take -- both sides have a right to expect something to come from the meeting, and I think that they're both focused on what such a meeting might produce.

As you know, as we said this morning, President Mubarak has suggested the idea of a summit, something that we had raised last week.

SIEWERT: We welcome his support for such a meeting, and we're working with him. And we'll make a judgment about whether it's useful and whether it would be productive working with the parties. As I said this morning, we don't want to set any preconditions for such a summit.

We continue to expect, apart from that issue, that it's important that both sides renounce violence and recognize that differences are best resolved at the negotiating table and not in the streets. But we would like to get people to a point where we could have clear lines of dialogue between the parties directly, because we think that might provide a way to defuse tension and reduce the conflict in the region.

QUESTION: So you say it's important for both sides to renounce violence. But if they don't, and since you have no preconditions, their reluctance to do so or refusal to do so would not preclude a summit? SIEWERT: We'll make an overall assessment on whether a summit, whether some sort of meeting, like that suggested by President Mubarak, would be helpful in reducing tension. And ultimately, that decision will be driven by what we think might be effective, or what provides some realistic chance of diffusing tension.

But at the same time, we've been crystal clear that we think everyone needs to renounce violence and that public declarations to renounce violence would be helpful, given the level of violence we've seen over the last two weeks.

QUESTION: Last night, the senior official one suggested that there were several steps that needed to happen before we could go talk about a summit. There was sort of on the ground backing away from violence, some steps that the parties needed to make. But it sounds like today the discussion really has advanced really quickly that those parties, Barak and Arafat, are in fact engaged and talking about the possibility of summit, that perhaps we've moved further than where we thought we were.

SIEWERT: Well, I think that there was a lot of discussion about that yesterday. That's exactly -- the president was focused both on the process, but also on the substance that might allow us to re- establish some lines of communication between the parties. And that's why the president was burning up the phone lines yesterday and spent the better part of his day in contact with leaders in the region.

QUESTION: Jake, there are an enormous security concerns for such a summit. What can they really accomplish in person, other than a photo op, they can't accomplish...

SIEWERT: We think a meeting might be productive. We haven't made that assessment yet, that it would be productive, but a meeting could be productive. We, obviously, don't discuss security matters from this podium or anywhere else, really. But we think that there might be a scenario under which some sort of face-to-face meeting could help diffuse the tension and reduce the level of violence in the Mideast.

QUESTION: Jake, Mrs. Clinton, Vice President Gore and a number of Republicans have all pointed their finger at Arafat, saying he's the one who needs to come out and make a statement renouncing violence; they singled him out. Is the president willing to do that or ready to do that?

SIEWERT: We're playing a role here that's somewhat unique as the broker in these talks. And we think -- we've said it's important that public renunciation of violence is important, statements to that effect are helpful. And we're going to continue to say that.

But we're doing our best to remain in a position where we can play useful role as mediator in this conflict. And we'll do everything we can to try keep the trust of both sides.

QUESTION: Jake, the talks from the campaign trail is that the Republican vice presidential candidate said that, "The time for diplomacy and talk is over. It's time for action."

SIEWERT: Well, I haven't seen those reports, but we're actively engaged in talks. I'd have to know what he was referring to.

QUESTION: Do you find that suggestion helpful?

SIEWERT: Well, I'd have to hear a little bit more about the context of that. But, frankly, we're engaged in diplomacy right now. Diplomacy is the best way to resolve this. I'm not sure what action he refers to.

QUESTION: Jake, I thought both the senior officials, yesterday and again this morning, suggested that the talks could also be a way of diffusing the violence.

SIEWERT: Yes, that's what I said.

QUESTION: Is that one of the possibilities now for the summit, that you can actually call a summit to stop the violence as opposed to having that...

(CROSSTALK)

SIEWERT: I'm not sure I understand. I think that we believe that we'll make a judgment about whether or not a summit or some sort of meeting like that suggested by President Mubarak would be useful in defusing tension in the region and stopping the violence.

What I said this morning simply was that it's probably a bit unrealistic, although a desired outcome, to have absolutely no violence in the region before we meet, but we're not going to say that we can't meet while there's still some sort of violence. There's no acceptable level of violence. At the same time, a meeting might be helpful in reducing the overall level. So we'll make a judgment about that when we -- as we continue to consult with leaders in the region.

QUESTION: Can you confirm the closing of U.S. embassies in Africa?

SIEWERT: I understand that the State Department has closed roughly 37 embassies around the world, mostly in the region, in the Mideast, but there are some outside of that region. But you'll have to check with them on the exact closures.

QUESTION: Jake, would the president attend a summit if he felt there was little chance that the summit would not result in resumption of the peace process?

SIEWERT: We think that in the end that the parties need to get back to the table and that that's where their differences will be resolved. We again haven't set a precondition, so it's hard to answer that question, but we think that in the end it might be helpful to have a meeting, face to face, so that we can reduce the level of violence. That's our most immediate objective. Ultimately, we think the parties belong at the table, belong at the negotiating table, and that's where they're best able to narrow their difference. But there may be some utility to meeting in the region in trying to find a way to reduce the overall level of tension.

QUESTION: How concerned are you to avoid any repetition of Paris last week, which one of the Israelis described as a fiasco?

SIEWERT: I think there was good work done at Paris. We came very close to having the parties sign an agreement. In any case, they left with a shared sense of understanding of certain security concerns. And there's been some level of actual cooperation on security, even in the midst of all this conflict. It may have done something -- it may not be -- it may be hard to imagine at this point, but it may have done something to actually keep the level of violence from escalating.

At the same time, both parties at the talks there said that they were committed to reducing the overall level of violence, and they also talked to their security forces, to their police forces, and instructed them to do everything they can.

QUESTION: Well, it seems to have gotten worse since then.

SIEWERT: I'm not disputing that the situation is very tense, remains difficult, but we don't think that there's any -- we continue to believe that there was some valuable work done. The secretary of state met face-to-face and made some progress in terms of getting their security forces to reduce tension in what was a very volatile situation last week.

QUESTION: Can you give us some sense of timing on the assessment for the summit or any other meeting, even the fact that -- you know, given the urgency of the situation on the ground?

SIEWERT: The urgency of the situation is exactly why we're embarked on the kind of diplomacy that we're embarked on. The president canceled his schedule today. He pretty much cleared his schedule yesterday. We're continuing to look to the schedule every hour to determine whether we need to do some of the events that we had scheduled, whether we cancel them so that the president can devote his energies.

But no one should doubt that we're working every minute that we can on diffusing the tension here.

In terms of making a decision, I can't give you a realistic deadline on when we might make a decision about a meeting. We'll just be having to look at that minute by minute.

WATERS: Press spokesman Jake Siewert at the White House giving us the indication of the effort being employed by the president and others on the national security team to secure some kind of cessation of violence in the Middle East and possibly a summit, a meeting of the leaders, but only if it will be productive.

We have no details, as you just heard, except for the fact that the effort is ongoing and that there's still a way to go to follow though on Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president's suggesting that some sort of summit be held possibly this weekend.

Siewert was also asked about Al Gore being briefed by the national security team, whether or not that might be a boost for Gore in the presidential campaign. Jake Siewert said, no, the president of the United States just appreciates Al Gore's input. We're expecting to hear from Al Gore and George Bush within the hour.

We will take a break. "CNN TODAY" will continue in a moment.

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