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White House Briefing

Aired March 22, 2004 - 13:26   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you now live to the White House. Scott McClellan addressing reporters.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... transfer of authority and likely United Nations resolution and role, they are prepared to stay longer.

The president also called Prime Minister Berlusconi today to thank him for his strong statements against terrorism in the wake of the Madrid bombings. The president also thanked him for extending troop commitment in Iraq and sending additional forces to Kosovo.

Prime Minister Berlusconi stressed the determination to fight terrorism and said he wants the European Union summit this week to issue a strong statement against terrorism.

And with that, I will glad to take your questions.

QUESTION: With Israel's killing of Sheikh Yassin, do you agree with Israel that this was an act of self-defense? And do you support Israel's policy of targeted assassinations?

MCCLELLAN: Well, our policy on the last part of your question there remains the same. It is unchanged.

In terms of the first part of your question, we always have said Israel has a right to defend herself. We also always have said that all parties need to keep in mind the consequences of their actions.

I would point out that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Sheikh Yassin was personally involved in terrorism. It is important, as we have emphasized time and time again, for the Palestinian Authority to take action to dismantle terrorist organizations.

It is also important during this time period that all parties should exercise restraint and do everything possible to avoid any further actions that make it more difficult to restore calm in the region. We want all parties to get back focused on the president's two-state vision so that all people in the region -- Palestinians and Israelis alike -- can realize a better tomorrow.

QUESTION: What does this do to the peace process? Is it a setback?

MCCLELLAN: Well, it's always important to keep in mind that there are possibilities for moving forward.

I mentioned one important aspect. And that is that the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinian prime minister and cabinet act to crack down on terrorism. That is a foundation for moving forward on the two-state vision.

You also have some ideas that have been presented by Prime Minister Sharon. We've been in discussion with the government of Israel about those ideas. Those certainly have the potential to help move forward on peace in the region.

QUESTION: What about the Israeli proposal to withdraw from Gaza? Do you see that as still...

MCCLELLAN: Well, that's something that we've been in discussion with the government of Israel on. We continue to be engaged in an ongoing dialogue on that matter. He certainly has offered some positive and interesting ideas. They certainly have the potential to be historic. We're continuing to discuss those ideas with the prime minister and the government of Israel.

QUESTION: Do you have any words for countries or groups who maintain that nothing can be settled in the rest of the Arab world until the Israeli-Palestinian issue is settled? Are they using that as a stalling factor?

MCCLELLAN: Well, you know, there's the greater Middle East and there's the Israeli-Palestinian situation as well.

Certainly we are moving forward in Iraq on advancing freedom and democracy in a very volatile region. And that's an important effort that will help bring about stability in the region.

But we also have remained very engaged for quite some time on the Middle East peace process. The president has been strongly committed to working with parties to move forward on the two-state vision. There are always difficulties in this process, but we continue to call on all parties to focus on moving forward on the peace process.

QUESTION: Do they use it as a stalling tactic?

MCCLELLAN: Does who?

QUESTION: The rest of the Arab world, the Palestinians...

MCCLELLAN: Well, all parties have responsibility. We've made that very clear and we've called on parties to help move that process forward and move forward on the president's two-state vision.

QUESTION: Israel's foreign minister, after his meeting with Cheney, said this morning at the White House that this is a message to Hamas leaders that they don't have immunity anymore. Do you think a targeted assassination is the correct way to deliver that?

MCCLELLAN: Well, I think that we've expressed our view on that. Our policy remains the same. MCCLELLAN: Where our focus is is on working with the parties in the region -- all parties, Palestinians, Israelis, as well as Arab countries -- to move forward on the two-state vision that the president outlined.

We continue to believe that the road map is the best way forward to get to that two-state vision. And we call on all parties during this time period to exercise restraint to help bring about calm in the region, so that we can get back to moving forward on that two-state vision.

QUESTION: Does the White House condemn the attack?

MCCLELLAN: I think that again, what we have said is that Israel has the right to defend herself, but all parties, including Israel, needs to keep in mind the consequences of their actions.

Again, Hamas is a terrorist organization. Sheikh Yassin is someone who was personally involved in terrorism. That's very well documented.

QUESTION: If I could just try and spell it out here, the administration's policy remains unchanged concerning targeted assassination; the United States government opposes that. This was a targeted assassination, so this was wrong in the view of the United States government.

MCCLELLAN: Again, during this time period we want to continue to urge all parties to show restraint. That's where our focus is, so that we can get back to moving forward on the peace process.

Again, you know, we've made it very clear. This is not something we had advance warning about.

QUESTION: I'm just wondering: Is there some kind of exception to the policy of opposing targeted assassinations for terrorist leaders? Or is that...

MCCLELLAN: Again, keep in mind what I said about Hamas. Hamas is a well-known terrorist organization. They have carried out atrocious attacks on innocent men, women and children. That's very well-known.

We need to keep in mind the importance of trying to get everybody focused back on working together on the peace process. That's where our focus is and that's where it will remain.

QUESTION: While the United States government and others had identified Sheikh Yassin as a terrorist, obviously many people in the Palestinian territories saw him as a patriot and a leader from their point of view. And so his killing changes the security situation there somewhat.

QUESTION: Given that, and given that Israel had tried to kill him in the past, had the administration ever communicated to Israel anything about Sheikh Yassin? We know that the president has asked that Yasser Arafat not be killed; was there any kind of message like that concerning Sheikh Yassin?

MCCLELLAN: What I can tell you is that we had no knowledge that they were going to carry out this effort that they did over the weekend. And I think we've made that very clear. Dr. Rice made it clear earlier on the shows, as well.

But she also emphasized that there's always the possibility of a better day in the Middle East. And certainly Israel has offered some interesting ideas in that respect.

And so that's where our focus remains so that we can get all parties moving back on the peace process.

QUESTION: About the Richard Clarke book, why shouldn't his account of the war on terror in this administration and past administrations be believed?

MCCLELLAN: I think, one, if you can only look to some of the Senate Democratic leaders who were on some of the Sunday shows yesterday -- Senator Lieberman, Senator Biden -- and they certainly discounted some of his comments about Iraq. And Senator Lieberman, I believe, said something to the effect that there was no basis in fact for that.

I think that his assertions that there was something or his assertion that there was something we could have done to prevent the September 11th attacks from happening is deeply irresponsible. It's offensive and it's flat-out false.

This administration made going after al Qaeda a top priority from very early on. It was something that was discussed in the transition and very early on in this administration. Dr. Rice requested from Dick Clarke that some of his ideas be presented.

And I would remind you that the very first major policy directive of this administration was to develop a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda -- not roll it back as some have previously called for it, but to eliminate al Qaeda.

QUESTION: What would motivate him to engage in, as you say, offensive behavior given, I mean, what you call offensive -- his charges here?

MCCLELLAN: Yes, I mean, you know, it appears from what I've seen that he's been more focused on the process than the substance. It appears to be more about Dick Clarke than about the substance.

MCCLELLAN: For the president, it's more about the actions that we are taking to protect the American people.

Mr. Clarke has been out there talking about what title he had. He's been out there talking about whether or not he was participating in certain meetings. So it appears to be more about the process than the actual actions we have taken.

QUESTION: That seems a little simple, doesn't it, Scott? I mean, the process matters when you work in a White House and have to get the attention of superiors who ultimately have the president's ear to make a decision. So isn't that a little disingenuous to dismiss it as a process complaints?

MCCLELLAN: No, wait a second here. This is a gentleman who left the administration 1.5 years ago.

Certainly, let's go to the facts. These threats did not happen overnight. These threats had been building for quite some time. Go back to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, go back to the 1998 attacks on United States embassies, go back to the 2000 attack on the USS Cole; these threats had been building for quite some time.

Dick Clarke was here for some eight years. This administration was here for some 230 days before the attacks of September 11th.

QUESTION: Condi Rice made a similar point. Should we take from that that the president's view is that Dick Clarke was part of the problem, not part of the solution, since it was all of these things happened on his watch, when his primary job was counterterrorism?

MCCLELLAN: Well, actually, I think Dr. Rice pointed out earlier today that she requested some of his ideas be presented to the administration. He presented some of the ideas. There are some we took into account that were useful, and then there were others that we didn't find as useful.

But this was talking about rolling back al Qaeda. We were focused on eliminating al Qaeda.

QUESTION: But you didn't answer my question which is by listing all those things he was here for, is it the president's view that in fact he was part of the problem, not part of the solution?

MCCLELLAN: No, he was this administration's counterterrorism expert up until the time that the job was separated into a cybersecurity position and counterterrorism position, which was something that he had suggested happen.

QUESTION: But that still doesn't answer the question. It doesn't seem to me. It doesn't.

MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Does that answer the question?

MCCLELLAN: I think it does. He was part of our efforts to go after al Qaeda.

MCCLELLAN: He was a member of this team for some two years. I mean, we appreciate the service that he provided, but...


MCCLELLAN: I mean, why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? This is 1.5 years after he left the administration. And now all of a sudden, he's raising these grave concerns that he claims he had.

And I think you have to look at some of the facts. One, he is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book. And he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book.

Certainly, let's look at the politics of it. His best buddy is Rand Beers, who is the principal foreign policy adviser to Senator Kerry's campaign. The Kerry campaign went out and immediately put these comments up on their Web site that Mr. Clarke made.

QUESTION: He say he's raised those concerns in the administration.

QUESTION: The whole point of this book is he says that he did raise these concerns and he was not listened to by his superiors.

MCCLELLAN: And that's just flat-out wrong. I mean, go back and look at what we said. It was very early on when Dr. Rice -- the first week of the administration, Dr. Rice asked for the ideas that Dick Clarke had in mind, the previous policies of the previous administration.

But we wanted to go beyond that. We didn't feel it was sufficient to simply roll back al Qaeda. We pursued a policy to eliminate al Qaeda. And that's what the NSC worked on from very early in this administration. We took the threats posed by al Qaeda very seriously, and we acted on those threats. Certainly during that spring and summertime, there was a spike in the terrorist threat.

QUESTION: Some Democratic senators are asking today, if, based on the revelations of this book, based on the proactive response you guys have had over the weekend, if Dr. Rice will reexamine her position testifying before the 9/11 committee.

MCCLELLAN: I think she stated her position. It's not something that's a matter of personal preference, it's a matter of separation of powers It's a matter of principle. There's some issues involved here about White House staffers testifying before Congress.

MCCLELLAN: And they relate to a separation of powers issue. However, he was more than happy to sit down with the 9/11 commission and visit with them for more than four hours and answer all the questions that they had.

QUESTION: And what the Democrats say is that because it is an independent commission that there are not separation of powers issues.

MCCLELLAN: This is a legislatively created commission. It is a legislative commission.

QUESTION: This morning, you said the president didn't recall the conversation and situation of September 12th that Mr. Clarke says he had, where the president asked, you know, Dick Clarke, you know, three times to pursue links between 9/11 and Iraq. And you said he doesn't -- I had two questions, so did the president tell you or somebody in the White House over the weekend...

MCCLELLAN: Yes, I've talked to him. He doesn't recall that conversation or meeting.

QUESTION: And that -- he said it this morning or this weekend?

MCCLELLAN: Well, this weekend and this morning, yes.

QUESTION: And secondly, Clarke now says that he has three eyewitnesses and he repeated again this morning. And he makes them...

MCCLELLAN: Well, let's just step back regardless. Put that aside.

I mean, there's no record of the president being in the Situation Room on that day that it was alleged to have happened on the day of September the 12th. You know, when the president is in the Situation Room, we keep track of that.

But put all that aside, let's go to the heart of the matter. This was supposedly the day after the September 11th attacks. And, of course, you want to look at all possibilities of who might be responsible; it would be irresponsible not to consider all responsibilities.

And, in fact, I would point out that Mr. Clarke himself said, in a "Frontline" interview -- he emphasized the importance of officials having a very open mind. Quote, "On the day of September 11th, then the day or two following, we had a very open mind." Those are words from Dick Clarke.

He went on to say, "CIA and FBI were asked, 'See if it's Hezbollah. See if it's Hamas. Don't assume it's al Qaeda. Don't just assume it's al Qaeda.'"

QUESTION: So are you saying that while the president doesn't recall the conversation, are you totally being open to the possibility that there's these three eyewitnesses that Clarke says therefore it may have happened?

MCCLELLAN: Well, but let's go even beyond that. I mean, one, in the immediate aftermath of an attack like that, you want to explore all possibilities. And that's what this administration did.

Of course, you wanted to -- but just days later, the president met with his National Security Council.

MCCLELLAN: The director of central intelligence informed him that there was no link between the September 11th attacks and Iraq.

And at the National Security Council meeting, what happened? There was map that was unrolled on the table and it was a map of Afghanistan. And what did the president do? The president directed that we go into Afghanistan and we go after al Qaeda and we go after and remove the Taliban from power so that al Qaeda would no longer have a safe harbor from which to plan and plot their attacks on the American people.

QUESTION: Clarke is now saying that your response this morning was an example of how the Bush administration just goes after -- just uses ad hominem attacks and then tries to suppress the truth.

MCCLELLAN: Well, when someone uses such charged rhetoric that is just not matched by the facts, it's important that we set the record straight, and that's what we're doing.

If you look back at his past comments and his past actions, they contradict his current rhetoric. I talked to you all a little bit about that earlier today. Go back and look at exactly what he has said in the past and compare that with what he is saying today. And ask yourself "Why 1.5 years later, after he left the administration, he's all of a sudden coming forward with these grave concerns? If he had had such grave concerns, why didn't he come out with them sooner?"

QUESTION: Scott, two questions. So you're saying because the president doesn't recall the conversation, you're not saying he denies that that conversation happened?

MCCLELLAN: I'm saying let's look at the heart of the matter regardless of whether or not that took place. The president doesn't recollect it.

But let's look at the heart of the matter and that is in the aftermath of an attack like that -- the immediate aftermath -- is it the responsibility to explore all possibilities? Of course it is. And Dick Clarke said so himself.

QUESTION: He's not denying that that conversation could have taken place?

MCCLELLAN: He doesn't have any recollection of it. And, again, it purportedly took place in the Situation Room; there's no record to indicate that happening.

QUESTION: Why do you feel it's a fair criticism to say this is partisan politics, that he's trying to promote a book? This is a man who served 30 years in the government under Reagan, under Bush senior, Clinton as well as this president. He was a registered Republican in 2000. Why do you believe that that is a fair way to judge him -- that it's simply politics?

MCCLELLAN: Well, let's look at the facts. Let's look at the timing. It's important to look at all those aspects.

Let's look at his history there. This was someone who is now saying he was against the Department of Homeland Security, but we know that he actually sought to be the number two person at the Department of Homeland Security.

MCCLELLAN: He wanted to be the deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department after it was created.

The fact of the matter is, just a few months after that, he left the administration. He did not get that position. Someone else was appointed to it. And now all of a sudden, he's saying he's against the Department of Homeland Security.

And if someone's going to make these kind of serious allegations, it's important to look back at his past comments and his past actions and compare that with what his current rhetoric is.

It's also important to keep in mind -- I think Newsweek pointed this out this week -- who his best friend is. His best friend is Rand Beers, who is the principal adviser to the Kerry campaign.

It's also important to keep in context we're in the heat of a presidential campaign and all of a sudden he comes out with a book that he is seeking to promote. He is actively going out there and putting himself on prime-time news shows and morning shows to promote this book. And he is making charges that simply did not happen.

Look back at the facts. To suggest that Iraq was the immediate priority in the aftermath of September 11th, that's just not the case. This president was focused on reassuring the American people, on making sure that there wasn't any follow-on attack that as coming, on making sure that we got our airlines back up and running in a secure fashion. There were a lot of immediate focuses that this administration had in the aftermath of September 11th.

The president also was focused on going in and taking the fight to the terrorists, going on the offensive, because September 11th taught us a lot of important lessons. And this president learned those lessons by the actions that we took, by implementing the Patriot Act to provide law enforcement with new tools to combat terrorism at home, by working on all fronts to go after the terrorists: the military front, the diplomatic front, the financial front, the law enforcement and the intelligence fronts.

QUESTION: Dr. Rice said this morning the reason why he was kept on is because he was so valuable in his counterterrorism expertise. Why is it that this administration and previous Republican administrations would keep him on if he didn't have any credibility?

MCCLELLAN: I think Dr. Rice said earlier that obviously he had been around for quite some time. Like I said, he had been around for some eight years before the September 11th attacks. This administration had been in place for some 230 days.

MCCLELLAN: Again, these threats did not develop overnight. They had been building for quite some time. And I think that's important to keep in perspective when we're having this discussion.

But certainly al Qaeda was a top priority. We made that determination during the transition and immediately began acting on that priority when we came in to office. And it was important to continue some of those policies until we were able to develop a new comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda, not roll it back like was the previous policy.

QUESTION: You're really suggesting that he's a scapegoat and that he missed it for eight years, right?

QUESTION: Would you go over the facts in this? I mean, he's clearly suggesting that he could not get the administration, the president and his top national security aides, to pay sufficient attention to the threat from al Qaeda. You just said that the determination was made during the transition that al Qaeda was the top threat. What set of facts would you point to from the transition on that would...

MCCLELLAN: Well, we were briefed on it during the transition, and in the very first week, Dr. Rice requested information from some of the ideas that Mr. Clarke had and requested that those be presented to her. And we began very early on in this administration to develop a new comprehensive strategy to go after and eliminate al Qaeda so that we could get rid of this threat.


MCCLELLAN: Well, it was actually presented to the president -- or actually it was completed on September 4th -- this new comprehensive strategy; that was the timing of it.

Certainly, there's a terror spike during the summer as well. And all the focus was on threats overseas.

And it's important to point out that Mr. Clarke is the one who made some assertions about the millennium plot on Los Angeles. And the question that should be asked of him is what was done after that? Well, there wasn't any effort, really, to focus on the sleeper cells in the United States. The attention was still focused overseas.

QUESTION: When did the administration begin its work on the comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda?

MCCLELLAN: We began very early on. I think it was -- actually the NSC deputies -- they met frequently between March and September of 2001 to decide and talk about many of the complex issues that were involved in the development of that strategy.

And contrary to his assertion that he wasn't able to brief senior officials until late April, the first deputy-levels meeting on al Qaeda was held on March 7th and Dick Clarke was the one who conducted the briefing. And the deputies agreed that the national security policy directive should be prepared at that point. And it was just, you know, less than six months later when the strategy was ready to go on September 4th.

QUESTION: Scott, you earlier said that Clarke had refused orders to attend a certain number of meetings. You said that at the gaggle this morning. Can you tell me what you mean by that? Were there meetings he was supposed to attend that he didn't attend? Did he have to be ordered to...

MCCLELLAN: Yes, Dr. Rice, early on in the administration, started holding daily briefings with the senior directors of the National Security Council, of which he was one. But he refused to attend those meetings. And he was later asked to attend those meetings, and he continued to refuse to attend those meetings.

You'd have to ask him why, but those, obviously, are important meetings and meetings that are held on a daily basis by the national security adviser.


MCCLELLAN: He was asked to attend those meetings, but he continued to refuse to do so.

QUESTION: Scott, I want to follow on on your answer just a little bit ago about the threat being presumed to be abroad, rather than domestic.

Dr. Rice said this morning in the CNN interview that in fact it was she that asked for a meeting with Mr. Clarke, because she believed that in June or July that there could have been a domestic threat.

MCCLELLAN: That's right.

QUESTION: And she specifically said in the interview that she asked for the meeting to talk with aviation and FBI.

And I wanted to ask you, because I remember the discussion she had with us here in the briefing room sometime after 9/11 in which she said that there was no way that this White House could have known or suspected airline attack in the United States. But I was wondering if there's an inconsistency there, and if she was more specific in describing those meetings...

MCCLELLAN: I think she's talked about what we knew and what we were briefed on during that time period.

But during that spring and summer period, there was a spike in the terrorist threat. And it was Dr. Rice who went to Dick Clarke and specifically asked Dick Clarke and the counterterrorism strategy group to meet to consider possible threats that could happen to the homeland and to coordinate responses by domestic agencies. That was something Dr. Rice did do. Even though all the chatter was pointing to something overseas, she wanted to go back and make sure that we were looking at the homeland as well, so that we could increase security and surveillance here at home.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) described for the 9/11 commission already that this White House had sufficient information or she had sufficient concerns that she asked for a specific meeting to talk about aviation threats domestically?

MCCLELLAN: Well, obviously, the 9/11 commission is continuing their work. I'll let you direct specific questions to them about the information that they are learning in their process.

MCCLELLAN: We are working very closely and cooperatively with them to help them...

QUESTION: Is the White House willing to share her responses that she's already given to the 9/11 commission?

MCCLELLAN: I think she's been out there taking your questions in the media. She's been very pleased to do that.

QUESTION: Do you have a transcript?

MCCLELLAN: Well, again, she met with them for more than four hours, and this goes to the issue of public testimony from White House staffers. And again, it's not a personal preference; this goes to a matter of principle. This goes to the issue of separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branch. And when you start crossing those two, it could have a chilling effect on the president receiving the kind of advice that he needs.

QUESTION: If she's already been candid and helpful, could we get access to that information?

MCCLELLAN: Well, again, if you ask specific questions like that you need to direct those questions to the 9/11 commission. She was pleased to meet with them and answer all their questions that they had for more than four hours.

QUESTION: If they want to release it, that'd be OK with you?

MCCLELLAN: I'm not saying that.

I'm saying that, again, there are separation of power issues, there are principles involved, and that's where it stands.

QUESTION: Well, I thought the separation of powers had to do with testimony, not...


MCCLELLAN: I think I answered this, and now you're trying to get into public testimony versus private meetings with the commission, and I'm saying there is a difference here that we need to keep in mind.

QUESTION: Presidents have been known to waive executive privilege. Why doesn't the president do so in this case so that Condoleezza Rice can testify publicly for the 9/11 commission just like she's done on all these talk shows?

Second question, is she going to be acting as a campaign surrogate?

MCCLELLAN: Again, we've been through this question a number of times, and in terms of her personal schedule, I'm sure that her office can keep you posted on that.

QUESTION: Why doesn't he waive executive privilege in this case so that she can testify publicly for the 9/11 commission?

MCCLELLAN: I think we've been through this question many times and she's answered it and I've answered it and that's where it stands. QUESTION: Just for the record, could you please explain the different reaction by the White House to this book in contrast to the book in which Paul O'Neill played such a central role? Is it because Dick Clarke has -- on these issues, he has more credibility? Why the difference in reaction?

MCCLELLAN: There have been some assertions made that just are not backed up by the facts, and it's important to set the record straight, and that's exactly what we are doing right now.

QUESTION: Scott, can you please clarify two reports? One, last month when president made an announcement in Mexico that the U.S. is giving the India with their special strategic partnership certificate, now last week, Secretary Powell was in Pakistan, he announced a special status for Pakistan: non-NATO status.

PHILLIPS: White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan standing by the White House there, lashing out against its former counterterrorism chief, calling his assertions in a new book that just came out about the administration's handling of terrorism in Iraq deeply irresponsible and flat-out wrong, and his behavior is offensive.

Of course, he's talking about Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism chief there with the Bush administration. Clarke accuses the Bush administration of ignoring repeated warnings about an al Qaeda threat in 2001. However, Scott McClellan saying the Bush administration pre-9/11 has always had a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al Qaeda.


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