White House Daily Briefing, November 17, 2003


Monday  November 17, 2003

Office of the Press Secretary

November 17, 2003


-- President's trip to England/security
-- Troops in Iraq/NATO
-- British detainees at Guantanamo
-- Domestic issues/President's involvement
-- Vice President Cheney
-- Osama bin Laden
-- Medicare
-- Free trade of Americas
-- al Qaeda prisoners in Yemen
-- Penalty for preaching terrorism in U.S.

Office of the Press Secretary

November 17, 2003

The James S. Brady Briefing Room

12:23 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. Just brief remarks to begin with. The President looks forward this afternoon to meeting with some Iraqi women leaders who are visiting Washington. This is an opportunity for the President to reaffirm our commitment to bringing about a free, peaceful and prosperous Iraq for the Iraqi people. It is also an opportunity for the President to express his longstanding support for full participation of Iraqi women in the political transition, reconstruction efforts, and the future of Iraq.

And with that, I would be glad to go right into questions. John.

QUESTION: Scott, British security forces have apparently gone on their second highest level of alert because of chatter about potential al Qaeda attacks. They are not necessarily related to the President's trip, but what do you know about that, and does it raise any security concerns for the President's trip?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we have great confidence in British security and our own security team. They are taking all appropriate precautions to make sure the visit is safe. And beyond that, I really don't get into discussions of security matters.

Q: You've gotten into ideas of chatter before, though, about the potential for terrorist attacks, in raising the alert here in the United States. Are you hearing similar things about what might be --

MR. McCLELLAN: You might want to direct those questions to the British government. Again, we have great confidence in the British security services.

Q: Scott, given all the protests and all the stories that are going to be done about the response to the President's visit, which, after all, is a heavily ceremonial state visit, why is it so important to do?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, the President was pleased to accept the invitation of the Queen to visit the United Kingdom. The President looks forward to his visit tomorrow and through Friday. And as far as bringing up the protests, democracy is a wonderful thing. Freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble are the very foundation of our democracy. They are fundamental rights the people of the United States and United Kingdom hold dear, and many in the world yearn for. The President talked a little bit about this in some of his interviews. We share the same goal. We all seek peace. And that is why the President has taken the action that he has taken.

But the President believes strongly that freedom is a universal right of all people. And that's a message he will continue to talk about. He will continue to talk about the importance of advancing freedom, because advancing freedom advances peace. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan are beginning to realize these wonders of freedom, including the ability to express their views freely.

Q: Does he feel like in some ways he has to take on this anti-him sentiment in Europe, anti-U.S. sentiment?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think he looks at it that way. He look at it as forward -- as to continue to strengthen a very strong relationship with a steadfast ally and friend.

Q: But he's not blind to the fact that there is this sentiment --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think I just expressed his views.

Q: One other. Can you explain why it's appropriate to limit any coverage of -- at Dover, of the fallen servicemen and women coming back?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think those are questions to direct toward the military. They have some rules in place that have been in place, and I think you should direct those questions --

Q: This is the White House, this is the --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- direct those questions to the military.

Q: -- have no view about that, on why that's appropriate?

MR. McCLELLAN: Our concern is always with the families.

Q: On the eve of the President's trip to London, a London newspaper is reporting that the administration has basically made the decision that it wants to internationalize far more than it's now doing the military forces in Iraq, and that Colin Powell has been speaking to the head of the European Union about this, and now it's a question of can an agreement be worked out. Does -- would the President like to see more forces in, and would the President be willing to give up some of the control in order to get more forces in?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm not aware of any changes beyond what is already outlined in Security Council Resolution 1511, which is an American-led international force. There are, of course, already a significant number of international -- of other countries involved in the coalition efforts in Iraq.

And you have a number of countries that are members of NATO that are involved in our efforts in Iraq. There are more than 30 countries that are involved in those security efforts.

Q: Would the administration -- you mentioned some NATO countries. Would the administration welcome actual NATO involvement --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I said, I'm not aware of any changes, whatsoever, that are envisaged beyond what's called for in Security Council Resolution 1511. That's where we are. It's an American-led international force. There are a number of countries participating. We welcome their participation, and we will continue to talk with others about ways they can participate.

Q: If an American commander were still in charge, would the United States welcome NATO going into Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: As I said, there are a number of NATO countries already involved.

Q: NATO itself, would you like NATO?

MR. McCLELLAN: There aren't any changes, as I said, beyond the security -- what Security Council Resolution 1511 outlines, at this point. It continues to be an American-led international coalition that is overseeing the efforts in Iraq.

Q: What's the status of the British detainess at Guantanamo? Are you working out some deal on their behalf?

MR. McCLELLAN: We continue to have discussions on that issue, and we -- those individuals continue to be treated well and there continue to be discussions on that matter. I don't have anything to announce or update at this point.

Q: Scott, beyond the issue that is freedom of speech, the President is going to miss several significant events in London -- from the parade with the Queen to speaking before Parliament. Beyond photo ops, there's a chance that the President could have had Parliament to sway some of Tony Blair's naysayers. What are your thoughts --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President will give a very important speech on Wednesday, and then he will participate in some meetings, I believe on Thursday, with Prime Minister Blair. They'll continue to talk about a number of shared priorities that we have, and then they will have a press availability following that, following those meetings.

Q: What are your thoughts about the fact that the President cannot speak before Parliament because many --

MR. McCLELLAN: The schedule that we outlined last week is what we worked on with our friends in the United Kingdom. And the President, as I said, has an important speech on Wednesday and some important meetings and other events throughout the week.

Q: Well, would you have liked for him to be able to go before Parliament?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President is pleased to be going to the United Kingdom and he is pleased to have the opportunity to make those remarks on Wednesday, pleased to participate in the other events and pleased to visit with his good friend, Prime Minister Blair and do some travel to the area where Prime Minister Blair is from on Friday. So there will be plenty of opportunity for the President to talk to the people of the United Kingdom.

Q: Energy legislation and Medicare were among the President's campaign promises in 2000, and now that these issues are coming to head in Congress, is the President personally getting involved in trying to make these things get accomplished?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President has been personally involved in these issues --

Q: Specifically how is he --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- he has met with congressional leaders on these issues. He has continued to urge action by Congress that these are two of his highest domestic priorities. Certainly, on the energy legislation, that's also important not only to our national security, but our economic security. And on Medicare, it's time for seniors to realize the same kinds of choices and benefits that members of Congress now have. There's some 40 million seniors and it's important that we seize this historic opportunity to get it passed.

Q: I understand what he has done, but today and this week, what is he personally --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we'll keep you updated on his personal activities that he's involved with on the legislative front when we're ready to make those announcements. We'll keep you posted on that.

Q: How concerned are you, though, that here is two most important pieces of legislation, they're coming up for vote this week, and he's essentially going to be AWOL. He's going to be out in Great Britain.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's assuming that the President of the United States cannot focus on domestic priorities while he's abroad. He's the President of the United States wherever he goes, and he will remain focused on all his priorities, whether he's in the United States or outside the United States.

This is an important visit coming up to the United Kingdom, and there also a number of important legislative priorities that Congress needs to finish this week. You mentioned two of the highest, Medicare and energy -- comprehensive energy legislation.

Q: But we're trying to get some simple answers about what he's going to do, and you can't even --

MR. McCLELLAN: And as always --

Q: -- he going to be in contact with people, is he going to be calling members from Great Britain?

MR. McCLELLAN: I would expect that he will continue to stay involved on these priorities. And I will keep you posted on any updates to his schedule.

Q: Just one more, if I can. How concerned is --

MR. McCLELLAN: But again, I want to point out, he has been involved. He's been going out across the country talking about these important priorities.

These are two of his highest priorities. And he has been meeting with leaders of Congress on these very issues.

Q: How concerned is he that conservatives in the House seem to be unhappy about some of the cost-saving provisions in the legislation, that the premium support provision, whereby private entities would compete with the Medicare program, is way scaled back in this deal? What's he going to say to these House conservatives?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President believes that this is a good piece of legislation that improves health care for our seniors. Seniors have waited long enough for the prescription drug coverage that they need and deserve. Seniors should have the same kinds of choices and benefits that members of Congress and many other Americans have today, so that they can chose the care that best meets their individual health care needs. That's what the President will continue to urge. It's the right thing to pass this legislation. It's an historic opportunity. We are on the verge of getting it passed.

It brings in competition to Medicare. If seniors want to stay in their traditional plan, they're fully welcome to stay in their traditional plan if they like the way it is meeting their health care needs, but it will also give them more choices and better benefits to chose from, through competition. And competition will help make that care more affordable, so it will help address some of the cost issues. There are also some cost-containment agreements that were reached in a bipartisan way over the weekend. You mentioned one, on the demonstration project. And there are some other measures in there to help address those cost issues as we move forward on Medicare.

Q: On the verdict that's just been issued on the John Allen Mohammed case, has the President been notified -- and does the White House have a statement on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: He's been in some meetings just before this. But I guess I would say that the jury has spoken. Hopefully the jury's decision will help bring some comfort to the families of those whose lives were senselessly taken and those who were injured. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families of those who were killed, as well as the others who were injured.

Q: Scott, the President, in an interview, I believe with David Frost, was asked about the composition of the second term Bush administration, and he responded by saying, well, of course Vice President Cheney will be part of it.

Given the fact that the Vice President has been associated with the most criticized facts in the first Bush administration -- the talk about nuclear weapons that Iraq allegedly --

MR. McCLELLAN: The intelligence that was shared by many intelligence agencies around the world and the United Nations?

Q: -- weapons of mass destruction, as well as the push for reintroducing many nuclear weapons as an active part of the U.S. armory, all those things have been so highly criticized. The Vice President has been closely associated with them. Does that not represent a handicap for getting the President reelected?

MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree with a lot of the premise of your question. The President has already previously said that the Vice President would continue to be his Vice President if he were to win election to a second term. The Vice President is doing an outstanding job, and he's someone who shares the President's commitment to making America more secure and making the world a safer and better place.

Q: Scott, we don't here anymore about Osama bin Laden and attacks are still going on against the United States, India, Israel and Turkey now, and also in Iraq. Do you think now Osama bin Laden is not behind all those attacks going on or al Qaeda or terrorist activities are going on around the world?

MR. McCLELLAN: You're right, we haven't heard a whole lot from him lately. I think he continues to be on the run. We will find him and bring him to justice, as we have been doing to a number of the leaders within the al Qaeda hierarchy. We continue to pursue those leaders and bring them to justice. Many of the -- certainly the middle management leaders have already been brought to justice. The war on terror continues. I think the tragic attacks in Turkey over the weekend are a reminder that the war on terrorism continues and it goes on. And the President's highest priority is winning the war on terrorism. We will continue to take the fight to the terrorists and bring them to justice.

Q: Is he still wanted dead or alive?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q: He's still wanted --

MR. McCLELLAN: We will -- we continue to pursue him and we will bring him to justice. But what's important is that we have made significant strides in winning the war on terrorism by taking a number of steps to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure of al Qaeda. We've made great progress, but the war continues.

Q: A follow-up to Keith's question on the demonstration project issue -- where the House conservatives feel it isn't going far enough -- you have many Democrats in the Senate, and also including some moderate Republicans in the Senate, feeling that it does not go far enough. Does the President believe that this is a negotiable item still?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President, as you heard him express in a statement on Saturday, believes that -- and even in remarks yesterday when he arrived back from Camp David, he believes this is a good piece of legislation and it will help address the health care needs of our seniors by bringing Medicare up to date to today's health care system. It will help modernize and improve Medicare for our seniors. And it's important that we use this opportunity to finally get it passed. And the President will continue urging the Congress to move forward on this legislation. He's pleased that leaders within Congress have worked in a bipartisan way to reach a bipartisan consensus on this legislation.

Q: But the sticking point is the requirement, whether it's on a demonstration level or broader level, to require Medicare recipients to move into a private plan in the future. Does the President believe that's absolutely necessary rather than --

MR. McCLELLAN: The President is going to work with the congressional leaders to get this legislation passed, and he's pleased that there is an agreement reached and it did address a number of the cost containment issues that are priorities for the President, as well.

Q: Scott, this week in Miami, the -- of this hemisphere were going to discuss the free trade area of the Americas. And there is a lot of problem with Brazil and the United States -- exports and imports. Brazil says nothing is going to happen in Miami until the United States eliminates all the subsidies in the agriculture sector. What does the President expect of this meeting?

MR. McCLELLAN: Ambassador Zoellick continues to work with the Brazilian officials on those issues. There was recently some informal dialogue here in Washington on some of those issues. We are continuing to work toward achieving a free trade area of the Americas. And so those discussions are ongoing between officials within the United States and officials in Brazil.

Q: Do you think the free trade of the Americas will be a fact in 2005, year 2005, or without Brazil it's impossible to get it --

MR. McCLELLAN: We continue to work to achieve that reality, of a free trade are of the Americas. And we're continuing to work with officials throughout the hemisphere on that.

Q: Just to follow up on Medicare. Yesterday the President said that members of Congress are going to be under intense pressure to vote for this bill. Can you just elaborate on that, what kind of intense pressure he was talking about that might come from the White House? And also, is he going to meet with conferees before he leaves for Great Britain?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the issue here -- one, we're still working on details of a possible meeting and we'll keep you posted when anything is final. Back to your question, I think that there are those leaders who are working in a bipartisan way to improve health care for our some 40 million seniors and people with disabilities who are eligible for Medicare. Then there are those who are standing in the way of the biggest improvements in Medicare in some 40 years.

It is time that we bring Medicare into the 21st century. It is time that we act on this historic opportunity to improve health care for America's seniors. We should not let this opportunity pass. Congress has worked hard to reach a bipartisan agreement and the President is pleased that they were able to do so. And now it's important to continue moving forward and get that legislation passed and to the President's desk, so that seniors can realize the kinds of choices and benefits that members of Congress now have.

Q: On the Hill they're making clear that this is whip-counting time, and it's going to be very, very tight. And they're saying that they need -- Republicans are saying they need the President to get involved specifically --

MR. McCLELLAN: I just said that we're working on a meeting for later today. The President will continue to emphasize that this is the right thing to do for America's seniors. This is about America's seniors, and we should put aside the old politics of the past and move forward on this legislation, because of the historic opportunity that we now have before us, and the hard work that members of Congress -- leaders in Congress worked to get this -- get an agreement on this legislation.

Q: There's an article in the Weekly Standard outlining something like a 13-year relationship between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, based on intelligence reports, and how they were trying to coordinate or work together on terrorist activities. Your reaction to the article, and also, do you think that the administration sees this as more justification --

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't had an opportunity to read the actual article. I've seen the reports. But the ties between, or the relationship between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda were well-documented. They were documented by Secretary Powell before the United Nations, back in February, I believe. And we have previously talked about those ties that are there.

Q: More justification for the war, then?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q: Do you see that as more justification for the war?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we outlined -- the justification for the war was clear in all the Security Council resolutions that were passed. Resolution 1411 called for serious consequences if Saddam Hussein continued to defy the international community. He did, and the President acted to make the world a safer and better place by removing his regime.

Q: That large monument of the 10 commandments in the Texas state capitol in Austin has just been ruled constitutional by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, not long after one Alabama federal judge ruled that just such a 10 commandments monument in an Alabama courthouse is unconstitutional. And my first of two-part question is, since the President, while he was governor of Texas, took no step whatsoever to remove that 10 commandment monument from the Texas capitol, this surely illustrates the President's support rather than opposition to 10 commandments monuments, doesn't it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Les, I think that there are examples you can find of where the courts have said in some circumstances it's okay to display the 10 commandments. In other circumstances they have said it is not. It's important that the legal process be followed. And you just pointed out that in some circumstances it has been ruled to be okay, and in other circumstances it has not.

Q: Given the fact that one of the stars in the Confederate flag is for Texas, which provided that army some of its bravest troops, the President would never call that flag, "loathsome," would he, Scott?

MR. McCLELLAN: Look, Les, the President, as governor, was proud that we displayed the Texas flag.

Go ahead, Sara.

Q: But what about the Confederate --

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Sara.

Q: Thank you. Thank you, Lester. Scott, the French Foreign Minister says the U.S. timetable for giving Iraq back to the Iraqis is not good enough.

He says there should be provisional government in place by the end of the year.

Any reaction from the President?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, the decision that was announced by the Governing Council over the weekend sets in course a process for transferring sovereignty to the Iraqi people by the end of May. And I can't emphasize enough how important of a step this is toward achieving a free, peaceful and prosperous future for the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people are well on their way toward realizing that important goal. And this was an important step toward -- this announcement over the weekend was an important step toward achieving that goal.

Q: Yemen has freed 92 suspected followers of al Qaeda, saying they have repented, and that the release is part of the Ramadan amnesty. Does this fly in the face of the war against terror?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, does it what?

Q: Does it fly in the face of the war against terror?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure about the specifics, about who was released and what their relationships might have been to al Qaeda. I can look into that.

But the war on terrorism -- we continue to carry out the war on terrorism.

Q: Ambassador Bremer said yesterday that U.S. troops will remain on the ground in Iraq, even after the government is elected there. What if the government asks the United States to get out? Will we get out?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think that that's the case. The Governing Council themselves said that they would expect that they would remain -- that we would remain as invited guests, that the coalition forces -- the security of Iraq is a very high priority. And we will continue to have discussions with the Governing Council as we move forward. And then we will continue to have discussions with the new interim government once it is in place about the security matters.

Q: But the question is, let's say they elect a theocracy against your wishes, and the theocracy says, like in Iran, get out. Will we get out?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, we will continue to have discussions with the new interim government once it is in place. But I think that the Iraqi people have indicated in a number of different ways, if you look at polls, if you look at the Governing Council representatives, that they want us to stay until the job is finished. And part of that job is making sure that we have a secure environment for the Iraqi people.

We still have important obligations that will need to be fulfilled. That includes the security side; that includes the reconstruction side. There are enormous amount of resources that are going into Iraq from the international community. All of us have a stake in seeing a peaceful and free Iraq come about. It's important to transforming the Middle East. The Middle East has been a volatile region that has been a breeding ground for terrorism. And bringing about a free, peaceful, and democratic Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will help transform that region for the better and bring about a safer and better world.

Q: Scott, thank you. Obviously I applaud freedom of religion and freedom of speech, but are there any prohibitions to terrorists who want to use our mosques or churches? We have restrictions on charity terrorist groups, but what about preaching terrorism in this country?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you're talking about the United States?

Q: Yes.

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know specifically what you're referring to. If you have a specific instance you want to bring to my attention, then we can talk about that. But there are a number of different ways that we are going after the terrorists, through the sharing of intelligence with other countries, through law enforcement efforts, through some new tools that were passed by Congress to go after those terrorists. So there are a number of ways we're going after the terrorists. I don't -- a specific instance you would have to bring to my attention.

Q: All right. If a terrorist gets up in a mosque or a church and calls for a bombing in America, or any place else, is there any penalty --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that that's -- well, one, you're not referring to a specific matter. Let me be clear on that. You're referring generally. But we will do what it takes to protect the American people from terrorist attacks. And there's some tools that we have available to us on the law enforcement side that we will use if necessary.

Q: But is it illegal for them --

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I'm not a lawyer, Connie. I'm not going to get into all the legal issues here. I sometimes play one on TV. (Laughter.)

Thank you.

12:51 P.M. EST


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