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White House Briefing

Aired October 1, 2003 - 12:50   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go the to White House right now. The White House Press Secretary Scott Mcclellan answering questions on the CIA leak.

QUESTION: ... if an FBI agent or the Justice -- somebody on the Justice Department team made a request of a White House official that is consistent with past practices in a similar investigation, would the president expect someone on his staff to comply with that request?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: The president has directed the White House to cooperate fully. That message was sent as soon as he learned of the investigation. He made it clear to White House counsel and White House counsel made it clear to senior staff the other day. That was at the president's direction.

We will cooperate fully with the investigation and make sure that we preserve the integrity of the investigation. So that's where things are right now.

QUESTION: Ambassador Wilson says that he was told by a reporter that Karl Rove said, quote, "Wilson's wife is fair game." I know you've spoken to Karl. Does he deny that?

MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Does he deny that he ever used those words, "Wilson's wife is fair game"?

MCCLELLAN: The issue here -- and this came up earlier -- the issue here is whether or not someone leaked classified information. That is a serious matter, and it should be pursued to the fullest.

I have seen comments from Mr. Wilson, and I have seen him back away from those comments later. It seems to be -- he said one thing previously about Karl Rove, and then he backed away from it. And now he's saying other things. I mean, there's a changing of the issue here all of a sudden.

The issue here is did someone leak classified information and if so, who was that person? And then the appropriate action should be taken.

QUESTION: You have said previously from the podium that these types of accusations against Karl are, quote/unquote, "ridiculous."

On the very line that Ambassador Wilson says that Karl used, "Wilson's wife is fair game," is that...

MCCLELLAN: I just said he has said a lot of things and then backed away from what he said. So I think, you know, part of your role is to do some further questioning there.

QUESTION: I'm asking you. That's why we're asking, to make sure -- I mean, we don't want to continue to report something's that inaccurate.

MCCLELLAN: If Mr. Wilson -- while he made some comments earlier and then he backed away from them. And those comments were reported previously.

QUESTION: Does Karl deny that he said that?

MCCLELLAN: What were the words again?

QUESTION: "Wilson's wife is fair game."

MCCLELLAN: And who did he say it to?

QUESTION: To a reporter that then repeated it to Wilson.

MCCLELLAN: Again, this is -- the issue here. What is the issue here? Did someone leak classified information? Is that the issue?

QUESTION: It could be about changing the... MCCLELLAN: I mean, all of a sudden now, we're trying to change the topic in this room.

QUESTION: There's a legal issue. There's an ethical issue too. Going after a man's wife...

MCCLELLAN: Let me make it very clear. As I said previously, he was not involved. And that allegation is not true, in terms of leaking classified information. Nor would he condone it. So let me be very clear.

We're not going to go down every single allegation that someone makes.

MCCLELLAN: We can do that all day long. Let's stay focused on what the issue is here.

QUESTION: You said the issue here was whether someone leaked classified information. As I understand the applicable laws here, isn't the real issue whether someone knowingly leaked classified information?

MCCLELLAN: Well, yes, I may stand corrected on that. You'll have to look at the law. I'm not going to play a lawyer from here.

I'll go back to what I have said and what the president has said, and what he has always said, that the leaking of classified information is a serious matter and it should be pursued to the fullest extent. And the Department of Justice is doing that now. QUESTION: But, I mean, isn't one of the questions here whether or not people knew that she was undercover and went ahead and disclosed that to a journalist or whether they were...

MCCLELLAN: I think that is probably part of the investigation and part of the issue that the career Justice Department officials will look at as they move forward on this investigation.

QUESTION: Now, the other side of this, of course, is that the conversation, senior administration officials, not White House, suggested that they were trying to belittle Joe Wilson's credentials by saying he didn't get the job because he deserved it, he got it because his wife works at the CIA. Is there concern about that side of the issue regardless of whether or not classified information...

MCCLELLAN: Repeat the last part of your question.

QUESTION: Is there concern about the fact that some senior administration officials somewhere suggested that he only got the job because his wife worked at the CIA, which is apart from the classified aspect?

MCCLELLAN: I think the issue before us is the classified aspect of things.

Your specific question is, was there concern that news reports said that he may have -- or suggested that he may have gotten the job because his wife worked at the CIA, is that what you're asking?

QUESTION: Yes. I'm asking if there is any concern now about an effort that appears to be -- if it was not an intentional leak of classified information, it was, one could argue, an attempt to belittle his credentials by saying he got the job because of his wife. And I'm just saying, is there concern about that as well as the classified...

MCCLELLAN: The president doesn't condone any such activity. And, you know, I have not seen any information brought to our attention to suggest that.

QUESTION: Scott, with agents possibly hours or days from either showing up at the White House door or making phone calls, has the White House developed any rules of engagement between staffers and contacts with agents? Do they -- do the staffers have to report contacts first to the legal counsel's office or do they just start answering questions? What are the rules here?

MCCLELLAN: What has been asked of us at this point is simply to preserve information, and that's exactly White House staff has been directed to do. And we expect White House staff to do -- that's the issue here. The Justice Department hasn't asked us anything beyond that, at this point. I'm sure that we will receive additional requests from them and we will cooperate fully at that point.

QUESTION: Maybe somebody here is thinking about the next day or... MCCLELLAN: When we do. When we do.

QUESTION: ... this afternoon or tomorrow?

MCCLELLAN: Well, making sure that information is preserved. I mean, they're -- you know, the White House already is required to preserve and maintain a great deal of information. So most -- a lot of our information is already retained. I mean, phone calls that you make to my office, that information is retained.

QUESTION: This is in no way to suggest any responsibility.

MCCLELLAN: On a piece of paper. The message.

QUESTION: I'm trying to get a sense of how widespread certain information might have been within the White House, if it -- the possibility.

In going back through your records and anyone else you've come in contact with, have you come upon any documents that are covered by the, quote/unquote, "relevance" that either mention the ambassador, mention his wife and her role at the CIA?

MCCLELLAN: You're asking if I personally have?

QUESTION: Yes. If you've come across anything in your e-mail or anything...

MCCLELLAN: I was traveling most of yesterday, so I got back at about 10 o'clock last night.

QUESTION: Anyone come to you and said they found -- "Here's this document" that...

MCCLELLAN: Coming to me?

QUESTION: ... came through their e-mail?

MCCLELLAN: Well, first of all, if they have questions, the counsel's office is ready to answer the questions.

If they have information related to the investigation, we made it very clear that we want that information reported to the Department of Justice. I'm sure that staffers are, you know, they feel they need to, are going back and making sure that those records are maintained. That's what we expect.

QUESTION: Could you try to gives us a sense of any sense of the scope? I mean, just news clips about Joe Wilson's wife...

MCCLELLAN: Well, but -- yes...

QUESTION: ... e-mail or ...

MCCLELLAN: ... at this point, staff's been directed to preserve the information and make sure they maintain that information. They haven't been asked to do anything like that. They haven't been asked to give it to anybody or anything, beyond what the president has made clear, that if they have information relevant to the investigation that anybody -- not only in the administration, but outside the administration -- should report that information to the Department of Justice. Particularly people who are citing White House officials as being involved in news reports, if they have relevant information, they should report that to the Department of Justice.

QUESTION: Does "preserve it" mean just do not delete it? Or does "preserve it" mean actually proactively go back and look to see if you have it?

MCCLELLAN: It means preserve it, maintain it, make sure you do not get rid of that information if it's relevant to the Department of Justice request.

QUESTION: Scott, the president used the words "come forward" yesterday. Does he not want anybody to fess up to him or to Andy Card or some...

MCCLELLAN: To the Department of Justice.

QUESTION: Just the Department of Justice?

MCCLELLAN: Just the Department of Justice.

QUESTION: So he doesn't want to know...

MCCLELLAN: The Department of Justice is investigating this. They're the appropriate agency. As I have said earlier in the week, that is where information should be reported.

QUESTION: First, have any investigators yet contacted any members of the White House staff?

MCCLELLAN: Any members -- all they have asked us to do at this point is to -- is what's in the letter.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) there haven't been any specific...

MCCLELLAN: Well, you might ask Department of Justice. They tried to -- I'm not aware of any such contacts beyond contacts they've had with the counsel's office to say, you know, "We're going to be sending this letter here's what we wrote, this is under investigation," and then the letter sent -- the follow-up letter sent yesterday afternoon.

QUESTION: To follow up, what changed between July 14th and yesterday that accounts for the president not having spoken out then where he is speaking out on this now?

MCCLELLAN: Well, for the very reason I've already said, and the very reason I said back in July, is that there was an anonymous source making allegations. I'm not even sure when it was specifically -- an allegation specifically made that it was a White House person involved in this. But the process was followed. There is a process for if...


MCCLELLAN: Well, and there is discussion -- you know, I think there was a news report several days later after the initial article suggesting that classified information had been leaked and citing senior administration officials.

Again, the appropriate way for this to be handled is the way it was. The CIA looked at this, made some determinations, sent some information to the Department of Justice, and that's what the president expects to happen.

QUESTION: But isn't the underlying question...

MCCLELLAN: And as soon as the Justice Department contacted us and said that investigation under way and then the president was informed, he made it very clear that he expects the White House to cooperate fully.

QUESTION: But the question remains, if he feels so strongly about this why was there nothing earlier -- why was there nothing in July and August?

MCCLELLAN: Because there was no information brought to our attention beyond an anonymous source in media reports to suggest that there was White House involvement. That's why.

QUESTION: Scott, there's also been some suggestion that White House aides may have pointed reporters toward that story after it was published, toward the name on the story...

MCCLELLAN: Here we go. I mean, this is -- I understand that this is the way Washington, D.C., operates and all of a sudden -- the first allegation -- "Well, maybe it was shaky," and then they go to the next allegation and then the next allegation...

QUESTION: But that's the real issue...


QUESTION: You want to knock it down.

MCCLELLAN: The real issue...


QUESTION: That's the real issue, whether...

MCCLELLAN: The real issue here is that this president...

QUESTION: ... the president thinks there is anything wrong with that? MCCLELLAN: The real issue here is that this president thinks the leaking of classified information is a very serious matter and it should be pursued to the fullest, and the president does not condone the kind of activity you talked about.

QUESTION: He does not condone the people pointing reporters toward classified information that's been released; he would not condone that either, is that what you're saying?

MCCLELLAN: The president doesn't condone the activity that you're suggesting. Absolutely he does not.

QUESTION: Long-time intelligence experts, former CIA employees who have now become talking head class, if you will, say beyond the problem with the leak itself is the contacts that Mr. Wilson's wife may have had.

Can you tell us what type of investigation is under way to look into either protecting those kind of contacts or actually an investigation into whether or not any of her contacts may have been compromised because of this leak?

MCCLELLAN: You might want to direct those questions to the CIA.

QUESTION: Are you aware of any investigations along those lines? Are you confident...


MCCLELLAN: The CIA looking back and seeing if anything -- you need to talk to CIA.

QUESTION: Presumably, someone here in the White House would have asked someone at CIA to say, "Hey, are your people OK by this?" Are you aware of that happening?

MCCLELLAN: I think you need to talk to the CIA about those questions, if they've gone back and made those determinations.

QUESTION: And if I can follow, is there any need for Attorney General Ashcroft, given his relationship with Karl Rove and others, to recuse himself in this investigation at this point?

MCCLELLAN: Well, as I said earlier, those are determinations that the Department of Justice will make. The Department of Justice publicly said that they are not ruling anything out. I mean, remember, this investigation has just gotten under way. And there are career Justice Department officials and FBI officials who are looking into this, who are part of the investigation.

It's being addressed by the career professionals at the Department of Justice and FBI. And the president responded to that issue yesterday as well.

QUESTION: Ambassador Wilson is meeting today on the Hill with congressional Democrats. Does the White House consider him an honest broker in this? MCCLELLAN: I did see those reports. You know, I think that I will leave it to you to raise those issues and to look at that. That's part of the job of you all in the media to look at and make determinations about, or to at least present it to the public in the way that you determine best.

QUESTION: Scott, the Republican Party has launched an offensive impugning Mr. Wilson's credibility. Does the president condone that?

MCCLELLAN: The president is focused on getting to the bottom of this. We need to get to the bottom of this. There is a lot of back and forth that goes down here in Washington, D.C.

MCCLELLAN: The president is most interested in determining what happened, in getting to the bottom of this investigation. There have been some serious allegations made, and we need to get to the bottom of it.

QUESTION: According to the chronology you outlined yesterday, there's approximately an 11-hour time lag between the time the counsel's office was notified by Justice on Monday night, and the memo or message was put out to staffers to preserve their records.

Some Democrats, such as Senator Schumer, have jumped on that time lag, been very critical of it.

MCCLELLAN: And what do they say?

QUESTION: They said that this illustrates the need for a special prosecutor; that a special prosecutor would never have allowed that.

I understand what you said yesterday, that you were prepared to move immediately -- you, the counsel's office, was prepared to move immediately and were told by Justice, "No, tomorrow morning's OK." But Schumer and other people are saying that a special prosecutor never would have allowed that.

Who in the counsel's office got the call Monday night and who did they then notify?

MCCLELLAN: Yes, I think I'll leave it that the counsel's office was contacted by the Department of Justice -- I'm not getting into all the names -- approximately 8:30 on Monday evening. And, I mean, the White House staff was not notified at that point because they said, "It's fine to notify them tomorrow morning."

So, I don't think, you know -- I mean, it wasn't known amongst the White House staff that there was an investigation under way until the next morning.

QUESTION: Who was notified? Did the person who, in the counsel's office who got the call come...

MCCLELLAN: I think you can expect that the chief of staff would have been notified.

QUESTION: The chief of staff was notified? And did he that night disseminate the information to anyone else?

MCCLELLAN: No, it was -- the president was informed of the investigation the next morning. QUESTION: So nobody else, it went from the counsel's office to the chief of staff on Monday night and no further?

MCCLELLAN: That's what I know, what I just told you is what I know. I don't know beyond that. But I know that the White House staff was not contacted.

It went to counsel's office, and I think counsel, appropriately so, would inform the chief of staff at that point.

QUESTION: Two quick questions, if I may.

MCCLELLAN: Do we want to stay on this subject? Does anybody else have some -- all right, let me stay on this subject so we can go through some more hypotheticals.


QUESTION: To get away from hypotheticals, would you lay out the details of what Counsel Gonzales has now told White House staff they must preserve? I mean, it's a rather detailed...

MCCLELLAN: You have it all in the memos. You have it in the memo. We released those two memos. I didn't bring them with me to read through that, but it was very specific information that was sent to us yesterday afternoon from the Department of Justice.

All right, who has a hypothetical?



MCCLELLAN: No, you've already had one. We'll come back. We'll try to get back to people later.

You have a hypothetical? I asked for a hypothetical.

QUESTION: I'm no Bob Novak, but my feelings are really hurt that nobody leaked anything to me.

Has the White House asked George Tenet or anyone else at the CIA why they would send a partisan like Ambassador Wilson on this mission? And because he is so partisan...

MCCLELLAN: Has who asked? Has who asked anybody?

QUESTION: Has the White House asked George Tenet or anyone at the CIA why they would send a partisan like Ambassador Wilson on this mission? He's proven himself to be partisan, and does that cast doubt on the report that he filed in this matter?

MCCLELLAN: I think we've, kind of, been through this issue already.

I don't know of any such conversations. Certainly, you know, I don't think it's my position to get into speculating about someone's motives. I think that is a role for you in the media to determine how to follow it and how to present it to...

QUESTION: Isn't the White House the least bit curious about how the process was that Ambassador Wilson was chosen to go on this very important mission?

MCCLELLAN: I've seen the news coverage, just like you have. I've seen the issues that have been raised. And, again, I think that that's best left for you in the media to determine, not me from this podium.

QUESTION: Scott, this is not hypothetical at all. You say the issue is leaking classified information. So my question is, did Karl Rove or any others in the White House talk with reporters -- not leak classified information, but talk with reporters about Mr. Wilson's wife and her CIA status after the initial report by Robert Novak?

MCCLELLAN: After his initial report. Again, now the issue's changing. The issue was...


MCCLELLAN: The issue is did someone leak classified information? That's a serious matter. That's being investigated.

Do people talk about what's in the news? That's a whole different...

QUESTION: But to talk about a woman who is still undercover...

MCCLELLAN: And I just made clear...

QUESTION: ... I believe it's still a federal crime.

MCCLELLAN: And I just made clear that what was reported that, one -- was that was reported in the article?

QUESTION: I'm just asking...

MCCLELLAN: Was that what was reported in the article?

QUESTION: That she was an undercover op?

QUESTION: That she...

MCCLELLAN: In the original article?


MCCLELLAN: I think it was reported operative.

QUESTION: Said she was undercover.

MCCLELLAN: In the Novak column.

QUESTION: It was operative by definition.


MCCLELLAN: I think it was reported.


MCCLELLAN: Right. And he said he shouldn't have used the word "operative." I think the word was "operative."


MCCLELLAN: So I don't that it said...

QUESTION: But my question is pretty straightforward. Did Karl Rove or others have conversations with reporters about Mrs. Wilson...

MCCLELLAN: In what way?

QUESTION: ... and her CIA...

MCCLELLAN: I mean, there's an investigation going on and asking everybody to preserve any information they would have related to some of the issues you bring up. I'm not -- there's been no information brought to our attention to suggest that anyone leaked classified information. And the president certainly doesn't condone the leaking or the tactics you're suggesting.

QUESTION: But you seem to be suggesting that perhaps they had conversations but weren't leaking classified information.

MCCLELLAN: Well, there's an investigation going on to pull together all the information. But the issue is did someone leak classified information.


MCCLELLAN: That's a serious issue. And I just made it clear earlier -- you brought up Karl's name -- let's be very clear. I said it was a ridiculous suggestion. I said it's simply not true that he was involved in leaking classified information. Nor did he condone that kind of activity.

So, I mean, this has been answered. And now we're trying to get in a whole bunch of issues, separate and apart from that.

QUESTION: Did your conversation with Rove include whether or not you tried to highlight that story for reporters?

MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Did your conversation with Rove include asking him whether or not he tried to highlight that story for reporters, the Novak story?

MCCLELLAN: I made it very clear. I've spoken with him. I've spoken with him. I've spoken with him. I made it very clear that it is not true that he was involved in the leaking classified information or that he condoned some of what you're suggesting.

QUESTION: But did he participate in that?

QUESTION: Because then it would make sense that he said, "She's fair game now," if it was after the fact. Did you ask him whether or not he had participated in that?

MCCLELLAN: I think the individual who said that has already backed away from other previous comments, and...

QUESTION: I'm asking what you asked Rove.

MCCLELLAN: ... and I made it very clear that the issue was regarding the leaking of classified information. And the issue was, and...

QUESTION: At that point, you talked to Rove?

MCCLELLAN: ... someone asked about condoning that information. I made it very clear that he didn't condone that kind of activity, and was not involved in that kind of activity.

QUESTION: Just to be clear, that whether Rove condoned it or not, he also did not participate in that type of activity, as far as you're aware; is that correct?

MCCLELLAN: There is an investigation going on to pull together all that information. I've answered this question, and we can ask it a million different ways, but my response is still going to be the same.

QUESTION: Are you saying that it's OK to discuss something -- a leak -- are you saying that after the fact, after such a leak it's OK to discuss...

MCCLELLAN: Well, let me put it in perspective. Now we're getting into issues such as, "Did anyone talk about what was in the news, what was reported in the paper?" things of that nature. That can go down a whole lot of different roads.

And that's why I think it's important to let the investigation take place, and the investigation is specifically about potential leak of classified information.

And you're asking me to try to determine information that's going to be pulled together by the Department of Justice. I mean, they -- I think the request, or the information that we've been asked to preserve and maintain was spelled out in the letter from the Department of Justice, and that's the information that could be related to those topics and those areas.

And so we expect all White House staff to follow the directive from the president to cooperate fully in preserving and maintaining that information. QUESTION: What I'm asking very specifically is, is it OK, in the president's view, to discuss -- for a staffer to discuss after the fact classified information?

BLITZER: Since Monday, White House Press Secretary Scott Mcclellan has been bombarded with reporter's questions. The White House press corps asking questions about the leak of a covert, an undercover CIA operative's name to a newspaper reporter. The White House press secretary insisting that the White House -- all officials in the White House, will be cooperating fully with the criminal investigation that's now been initiated over at the Justice Department.

We're going to continue to monitor this White House briefing. Our own reporter, our senior White House correspondent John King is inside. We'll monitor it, for more news, bringing it of course to our viewers throughout this day.


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