White House Press Briefing, December 10, 2003
THE WHITE HOUSE
PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
Following her appearance on Ask The White House, Mrs. Bush will be meeting with a group of Afghan teachers who are here in the United States participating in a five-week training program at the University of Nebraska. These women are all English teachers and are upgrading their skills, as well as learning methods that will enable them to train other teachers once they return to Afghanistan. This program is being sponsored by the United States Afghan Women's Council and the Department of State. And there will be a photo release from that later on today.
Second announcement: This is about the implementation of the historic Medicare legislation that was recently passed by Congress. Later today, the Department of Health and Human Services will announce the rule that enables them to move forward on providing the prescription drug discount card within six months, as the legislation calls for. You all will remember that experts believe that seniors can save between 10 and 25 percent on the cost of their medications with this discount card. This regulation will also enable HHS to move forward on the $600 subsidy for low-income seniors that was part of the Medicare prescription drug bill. This again highlights our commitment to help seniors get real discounts on their medicines as quickly as possible, as we move forward on that legislation.
And with that, I will be glad to take questions. Yes.
Q: Can you comment on the campaign finance ruling by the Supreme Court today upholding the ban on soft money contributions?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, the President supported the campaign finance legislation and signed it into law because he believes that overall it helped improve the system. And I think today's court ruling will help bring some clarity to the process. And our Counsel's Office will be reviewing this rather lengthy decision -- I think it's 119 pages -- so our Counsel's Office will be reviewing that decision.
MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon.
Q: Can you tell -- good afternoon to you, too. Can you tell us why the Coalition Provisional Authority has told the Iraqi Health Ministry to stop counting civilian casualties in Iraq?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not aware of that specific -- you might want to check with the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Q: Can I check something else with you, too? Paul Bremer has said that no high ranking Baath Party members will hold positions of power in Iraq. Yet, in the oil city of Karbula, the chief of police is a former high ranking Baath Party official. And I'm just wondering, does that contrast with what Paul Bremer had said? Are you aware that this Baath Party official is in charge of the police department?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think there's some specific criteria that is spelled out about who can be involved, and you might want to direct those questions to the Coalition Provisional Authority. They provide briefings.
Q: The Coalition Provisional Authority -- they won't talk about this particular issue. So I'm wondering, asking the White House.
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that they're the ones that are overseeing those efforts, and about specific questions within the country, that they'll be the ones in the best position to address that --
Q: They have been asked that question --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- but there are some specific criteria I think that they have spelled out for being involved in those efforts.
Q: They have been asked that question; they refuse to talk about it, which is why I'm asking you.
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll see what else I can find out about it, but I think you ought to direct that question to them.
Go ahead, Kate.
Q: Scott, Mr. Wolfowitz has issued this directive saying that for contracts in Iraq, certain countries will be excluded, only coalition partners will be allowed access to the U.S. money for contracts. And he based that on a national security interest. Why is it in the national security interest of the United States to restrict countries like France and Canada from contracts?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think you're referring to a specific wording in a memo. You might want to ask the Department of Defense about some of the specific wording in the memo. But I would point out that this was something that has been previously announced. If you'll go back, there are some media coverage of this on November 20th. There have been a couple of trade fairs, both in London and in Virginia, discussing this issue with Pentagon officials, talking about how these reconstruction funds would be used. But in that memo, it also talks about the importance of encouraging expansion of international cooperation in Iraq and in future efforts, and it talks about encouraging people that are involved with the United States and others to continue to cooperate.
But I think that the bigger picture here is that all of us have a shared goal, and that is helping the Iraqi people build a better and brighter future. All of us have the same goal of making the world a safer and better place. And there are a number of ways for countries to participate in the efforts going on in Iraq right now, to help us realize that, help the Iraqi people realize a brighter future.
Q: Isn't this really more of a political decision, though? I mean, you've said, Secretary Powell had said last spring that those who participate with us, those who help us in the coalition will be rewarded for that. So isn't it really more of a political decision rather than a national security interest?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, there are a lot of countries that are participating in our efforts on Iraq. There are a lot of ways that countries can participate in the reconstruction efforts. There is the international funding that is available. There was, at the Madrid Donors Conference, a very successful conference, there was some $13 billion that was committed to the reconstruction efforts in Iraq by the international community. And all countries are welcome to participate in those efforts.
There is also -- I mean, we're talking about a total of about $55 billion that we're looking at for the overall needs of reconstruction efforts in Iraq. In addition to that $13 billion, there was $18.6 billion committed by the United States Congress. This is U.S. taxpayer dollars that we are talking about. There is additional funding that will come from Iraqi oil revenues, as well. But we are talking about U.S. taxpayer dollars here, and I think it is appropriate and reasonable to expect that the Iraqi people and those countries who have been working with the United States and contributing forces to the efforts in Iraq would be the ones that would be eligible for the prime contracts. That's what we're talking about here. But the subcontracts, those countries are welcome to -- or firms are welcome to reach out to companies from countries of other nations, as well.
Q: So you're saying since it's our money -- just one last thought -- so you're saying since it's our money, since it's U.S. taxpayer money, that it's okay to put some political restrictions on it in terms of who we want access.
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know that I would use those words. What I'm saying is that because we are talking about -- we are talking about Iraqis, the Iraqi people, we are talking about the Iraqi people and countries that have been working with us and that have been sacrificing in helping to build a brighter future for the Iraqi people and a safer and better world. And I think it's perfectly appropriate and reasonable to expect that the prime contracts for reconstruction, funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars, would go to the Iraqi people in those countries who are working with the United States on this difficult task of building a free, prosperous, and sovereign Iraq for the Iraqi people.
Q: So you're saying that the other money that is -- that may come from international donors, out of the total of $55 billion that we know is needed there, would not be subject to this because the U.S. wouldn't have control over those funds, or because we don't think it's appropriate?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this is U.S. taxpayer dollars that we are talking about. So that is a distinction that you point out. I would point out that there are a number of countries already participating in reconstruction efforts in Iraq, a number of firms from companies that maybe would not meet the eligibility under this -- under our reconstruction funding.
You have a German company, Siemens, who has been in Iraq working on the ground. You have a French company that has been working on diesel generators. You have a Russian company that has been refurbishing a power plant. I will also point out that Iraqi firms have become more and more involved in efforts, as well. Over the past week, an Iraqi company was responsible for removing the Saddam Hussein heads that were on top of his palaces. And you had a water treatment plant that serves 80,000 residents that is being reconstructed by an Iraqi company. An Iraqi firm is also repairing the main road to Kuwait.
Q: Where does the money come from for those contracts?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Iraqi ones, I know that that comes from some United States reconstruction funds. They were made available prior to -- as far as those, I can try to get you more information on that. I don't -- I think that some of that may be subcontracts, as well.
Q: You talked about the importance of expanding international cooperation and participation in this. Does the administration believe that limiting the people who can get contracts under U.S. money actually furthers that goal?
MR. McCLELLAN: I've seen some of the comments from some of the countries based on what they have read in the media or seen in the media. And we welcome the opportunity to talk with those countries about what we have previously announced and made public about what we are doing here with U.S. taxpayer dollars, and talking to them about the fact that if additional countries want to participate with our efforts in Iraq, then circumstances can change.
And so we want to continue to build upon the coalition that has been in Iraq and the countries that have been contributing forces. We want to continue to build upon that because this is about the Iraqi people in the end, and building a better future for the Iraqi people.
Q: You're saying if they agree to send troops, they would then qualify for contracts?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm saying if countries want to participate with those efforts that are going on in Iraq, that circumstances can change. And we will explain that to them.
Q: A follow-up, please?
MR. McCLELLAN: Sure.
Q: The reaction has not been good. The French Foreign Ministry says it's studying the legality; the German government spokesman calling it unacceptable; Russia's Foreign Minister Ivanov expressing dismay; the European Commission now investigating. Surely, this cannot be what the administration was hoping for.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I think that there has been some initial reaction based on some of the media reports, and I've seen that some countries have indicated that they would like to talk to us. And we would welcome the opportunity to talk to them and explain to them about why this decision was made. I mean, this was a decision made through the interagency process. And I think, again, we're talking about U.S. taxpayer dollars. I think you all in this room fully recognize that United States forces and other coalition forces such as British forces and Polish forces have been on the ground from the beginning; they have been making sacrifices to help make the world a better and safer place. And I think that the American people certainly understand the importance of U.S. taxpayer dollars being used in this way.
Q: Given what you're saying here, the sort of -- you're walking around the main point which is, tell me why this is not retaliation against France, Germany and Russia for opposing the war?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think, one, it was previously announced, as I pointed out. So this has been out there in the public realm.
Two, in the memo that someone referenced earlier in the briefing that was put out by Secretary Wolfowitz, it talks about the importance of making every effort to expand international cooperation in Iraq. That's what we have been working to do from even before the initial -- before we went into Iraq in the beginning. And the international cooperation is continuing to build, because the stakes are high in Iraq, and I think the international community recognizes the importance of building a free, prosperous and democratic Iraq for the Iraqi people.
Q: So what would qualify as sufficient cooperation?
MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I said that if countries want to participate in the efforts and join the efforts of the coalition forces in Iraq, then circumstances can change. And we would be glad to discuss those matters with countries.
Q: Scott, one of the reasons for the decision is to ostensibly protect U.S. security. Could you explain what security threat Canada poses, and why would countries like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Colombia be allowed to bid on contracts?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think you should look at the entire context of the memo. I mean, specific language that you are referencing, I was asked earlier about. This memo was put out by the Pentagon; you should talk to them about this specific language.
But all this we believe is fully consistent with our WTO obligations. We have looked at this. And again, we're talking about a significant contribution being made by U.S. taxpayers to the reconstruction efforts in Iraq. And I think it's only appropriate that those countries that have been involved with the United States from the beginning and the Iraqi people and those who are contributing forces to the efforts in Iraq would be the ones that would be eligible for the prime contracts funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars. But those countries are fully welcome to go to firms in other countries and involve them in subcontracts.
Q: The incoming Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin says he simply cannot understand the decision, given that Canada has already contributed millions of dollars to the rebuilding effort.
MR. McCLELLAN: And we appreciate the contributions that they have made and we will be glad to discuss this matter with them. Again, some of this is based on some of the media reporting, and we welcome the opportunity to talk to countries about the reason for this decision, and about, if they want to participate in other ways, that circumstances can change, too.
Q: Scott, does that mean you will reconsider the decision?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, no. This decision has been made. It was made through an interagency process and we fully support it. I'm saying that if countries want to participate in the coalition efforts in Iraq, then circumstances can change. We can discuss that with them if that is the case.
Q: Senator Biden has said that this is a totally gratuitous slap that does nothing to protect our security. He also says, at a time when we're trying to get help from NATO, not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, we're sticking a finger in the eye of those whose help we are trying to seek.
MR. McCLELLAN: That's not at all the way I would look at it. I would look at it for the reasons I described it, and I would point you back to what it says in the memo that was put out essentially implementing this by Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. It talked about every effort must be made to expand international cooperation in Iraq, and that limiting competition for prime contracts will encourage the expansion of international cooperation in Iraq and in future efforts. And then it went on to say that coalition partners share in the U.S. vision of a free and stable Iraq. The limitation of sources to prime contractors from those countries should encourage the continued cooperation of coalition members. These are countries that have been with us from day one. These are countries that are contributing forces, that have been making sacrifices. And that's why this decision was made.
Q: You said just a short time ago, if countries want to participate, then circumstances can change. You say it's not retaliation. Is it -- it sounds more like blackmail then.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, again, I would not look at it that way at all. I described it the way that I would look at it. And I think it's for the reasons that I stated. And we're talking about a significant contribution from U.S. taxpayers to the reconstruction efforts in Iraq for a very important purpose. And all of us -- no one in this room is sitting here disputing that these countries, they all share our goal of helping the Iraqi people build a better and brighter future. They all share the goal of a peaceful, free, and prosperous Iraq, because the importance of bringing it -- it will help in bringing about peace and stability in a very volatile region.
Q: Can you be -- can you say then that perhaps what you're offering is an incentive then for these countries?
MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I referenced back to the memo that was put out, that -- about why, when we're talking about the prime contracts -- the subcontracts is a different matter and countries can participate in that way. And, in fact as I pointed out, a number of countries that may not be on this list are already participating and I think that's -- some of that is through subcontracts. So that's what I would say.
Q: According to -- China would not be eligible, right, for prime contracts?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, look at the list. It's 63 countries, and you're right, they're not on the list.
Q: Scott, second follow-up. France is saying they want to question the legality of this decision by the United States. Is this a sovereign decision -- or is the United States willing to listen to --
MR. McCLELLAN: I said that we believe that this is fully consistent with our WTO obligations. I think there is some language that has been referenced here in the briefing that may relate to some of those legal issues, as well.
Q: Scott, can I clarify one thing? You're saying it was the people who are with us. You've got Albania, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras on here.
MR. McCLELLAN: Countries that have been with us and have participated -- I don't have a list of how all these countries are helping or participating in these efforts. But you might want to direct those to the Pentagon or to the CPA about the ways that those countries are --
Q: Why not Canada, though?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, as I pointed out, there have been a number of countries that have been with us from the beginning and there have been countries that have been contributing forces. There are countries that have been helping and sacrificing to build a free and prosperous Iraq for the Iraqi people to make the world a safer and better place. And I think the American taxpayers appreciate this decision and understand this decision, as well.
Q: Scott, why should companies in various countries be punished by the United States for the actions of their governments?
MR. McCLELLAN: See, you're looking at it in that context; I'm not looking at it in that context. I'm looking at the context of it -- these countries have been with us and they have been contributing -- and additional countries have been contributing forces on the ground in Iraq. They have been making sacrifices for a very important cause. That's the way I look at it.
Q: You're avoiding the question --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't accept the premise of the way you are looking at it.
Q: But you countries aren't bidding on these contracts; their companies are within these countries. They're the ones that are not allowed to get the business. We don't know what their positions were on the war; we just know the positions of their governments. Why can't these companies bid on contracts because of what their government policies are?
MR. McCLELLAN: They can participate through the international funds. They can participate through subcontracts with other countries. There are a lot of ways -- I just pointed out some of the countries where some of the companies within those countries that are participating in the reconstruction efforts in Iraq.
Q: Okay. But aren't we concerned further that -- I mean, there are many policies of the U.S. government that the Europeans don't like. Aren't we concerned that they will create policies, perhaps in retaliation for this, that would harm the ability of our companies to bid on contracts because of policies of the United States government?
MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I said, look, we welcome the opportunity to talk to them about this further if they have questions about it. We welcome the opportunity to visit with those countries about this decision and about how we continue to move forward on our shared goal of helping the Iraqi people build a better and brighter future, and helping bring about a peaceful and free Iraq that will help bring peace and stability to a very volatile region, a region that has not had the hope and opportunity for the people that they deserve and a region that has been a breeding ground for terrorism.
Q: Scott, you mentioned countries that were listed from the beginning. I take it that excludes Afghanistan.
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q: That means any country --
MR. McCLELLAN: You can look at the list. I'm not -- the list is available to -- Afghanistan is on the list.
Q: In the case of Canada, Canada contributed troops to Afghanistan, lost troops in Afghanistan in an accident by U.S. troops, which politically made it very difficult for them to contribute to Iraq. And they're being punished for not being able to provide --
MR. McCLELLAN: In the war on terrorism, there are a lot of countries participating in those efforts, and we appreciate that. There is a very large coalition of countries across the world that are fighting the war on terrorism and making sacrifices. There were -- there was a decision made by coalition forces on Iraq and there are a number of countries that have been helping from the beginning. There are a number of countries that have been sacrificing on the ground in defense of freedom and in an effort to build a better and safer world. And we're talking just about the U.S. taxpayer funding here, which is a significant amount of money from the U.S. taxpayers.
Q: Do you think it will be more difficult going forward if we need another coalition for another action?
MR. McCLELLAN: No. Look, in fact, this coalition has been growing. We have been reaching out to others and expanding that coalition. We want to continue to do that. There are a lot of opportunities for countries to participate in future efforts. That's why we'll continue reaching out to them. That's why we'll be more than welcome to visit with them about this, about this funding that we're talking about.
But there are a lot of ways that they can participate. I can't emphasize enough how companies from those countries -- some of those countries are already participating on the ground in Iraq. There's a large amount of international funding that's available. There will also be -- and the Iraqi people, let's not forget, that they continue to be more and more involved in the reconstruction efforts, and their companies continue to be more and more involved in some of these contracts.
Q: Scott, Howard Dean said today that this was an example of the way the President crafts foreign policy based on how he feels personally about different world leaders, whether he likes them or dislikes them. Is that the way the President looks at the world?
MR. McCLELLAN: The way the President looks at this decision is the way I described it to you earlier. There's a lot of politics going on in the Democratic primary. They've got a lot of differences to work out amongst themselves. It's a nice way to try to engage us in a primary. But I think the American people see through the political comments that are being made in the context of a primary campaign.
Yes, go ahead.
Q: Paul Martin, who becomes the new Canadian Prime Minister tomorrow, said that he cannot fathom this decision because Canadians are in Afghanistan dying alongside Americans, and because Canada has pledged $300 million to the reconstruction effort in Iraq. Are you not concerned that this is getting things off to a bad start with the new Canadian Prime Minister?
MR. McCLELLAN: First of all -- first of all, let me back up. We look forward to working with Mr. Martin as he becomes the new Prime Minister in Canada. Second of all, we appreciate the contributions that Canada has been making in the war on terrorism. And we appreciate the commitments that they have made through the international donors conference in Madrid. And we will look forward to visiting with Canadian officials about concerns that they have and talk to them about these decisions and talk to them about additional ways that they may be able to participate. And, as I said, in regards to all countries, if there are additional countries that want to participate in our efforts, then the circumstances can change. But again, there are some very appropriate and reasonable reasons why this decision was made. And this is relating specifically to U.S. taxpayer dollars.
Q: One thing a lot of us are having trouble understanding is how, for example, a Canadian company, were it allowed to bid on one of these contracts, would pose a security risk to U.S. interests. Could you address that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, you're referencing a specific comment within a memo, which I referred to the broader memo which talked about what we are trying to do in terms of expanding international cooperation and also encouraging those coalition countries that are participating to continue participating in the efforts in Iraq.
Q: -- that specific --
MR. McCLELLAN: That's in regards to a memo put out by the Pentagon. You might want to ask them that specific question. I think that might be more appropriately addressed to them.
Q: I don't quite understand the international thing. If I remember correctly, the administration has always said that it wasn't fighting alone in Iraq, it was a coalition of 32 nations. Yet there are 63 nations, you said, on this list. So it sounds like there are 31 interlopers who were not participating in Iraq who are eligible for -- (laughter.)
MR. McCLELLAN: The coalition has continued to grow over time. And this list you're referencing includes coalition partners and it includes countries that are contributing forces in Iraq. That's what that list includes that you're referencing.
Q: So everybody on this list has contributed --
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have a list of all the different ways that some 63 different countries are helping in the efforts, but you might want to direct those questions elsewhere.
Q: Scott, do you know what the criteria is, what the definition is --
MR. McCLELLAN: You might want to talk to those who are responsible, the Pentagon and the Coalition Provisional Authority, about some of those issues.
Q: But the broader point here --
MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of the criteria here, I mean what's spelled out, that's the memo that was for these prime contracts of the wartime supplemental reconstruction funds. That's spelled out in the memo. And that memo was made publicly available on the website.
Q: But the broader point is on trying to encourage international cooperation. And it is clear that it would be --
MR. McCLELLAN: We all share the same goals here. That's one point I'm trying to make to you all in this room.
Q: That's clear with regard to, let's say, Russia, Germany and France. But, on the other hand, Canada is actually contributing in Afghanistan. They're actually doing something with the coalition there, and it seems like they're being punished for participating in one country, but not participating in the other.
MR. McCLELLAN: I would hope that they wouldn't look at it that way. I would hope that they would look at it the way that I described it. And that's why I said we welcome the opportunity to talk with these countries about any concerns they may have. And we will explain to them what I've been trying to explain to you all in this room here.
Q: How does this policy help the people of Iraq? You said that should be the shared goal. How does excluding countries like Canada from these prime contracts actually help the people of Iraq, if there are businesses that can provide a suitable service?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are a number of firms from countries that maybe aren't on this list that are already participating in some of the reconstruction efforts in Iraq. And companies from countries that may receive those prime contracts can certainly reach out to companies in other countries, as well, for the subcontracts.
Q: Can you just explain for us why over a quarter of a billion dollars and leading the NATO forces in Afghanistan is not considered participation for these --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think I've already addressed this, about how we appreciate the efforts of the large coalition of more than 90 nations that have been participating in the broader war on terrorism. We appreciate all those contributions.
Q: The President, as the Commander in Chief who cared enough about our troops in Iraq to fly 30 hours to be with them on Thanksgiving, surely must care about Lieutenant Colonel Alan West and is happy at yesterday's recommendation against his court martial. And my question, the President -- I have a follow-up. The President has the authority, as perhaps a Christmas commutation, to assure no court martial or other punishment, doesn't he?
MR. McCLELLAN: You need to direct those questions to the appropriate officials.
Q: Well, I thought you're appropriate.
MR. McCLELLAN: The appropriate officials at the Pentagon, if you're talking about --
Q: The President, he has the right to --
MR. McCLELLAN: If you're talking about legal matters relating to troops. I'm not familiar with all the specifics of the case you reference.
Q: Do you remember any incident where the President has ever treated any member of the media as insultingly as those Democrat presidential candidates did to Ted Koppel last night?
MR. McCLELLAN: Didn't see the debate, Les, so --
Q: You didn't see the debate? You read about it. You certainly saw what those people did to Ted Koppel. Now, has the President ever done anything --
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm focused on our business here at the White House at the direction of the President.
Q: On North Korea, in light of the talks yesterday with Premier Wen, where do we stand now? What are the expectations for the North Koreans?
MR. McCLELLAN: With North Korea? Well, we continue to work towards a peaceful solution through the multilateral process. We are continuing to have discussions toward the next round of talks with our friends in these six-party talks. And we are hopeful that we can have a new round of talks in the near future. That's where things stand. But what our goal -- and this is the goal of, I'd say, five of the six parties in these talks -- is a nuclear-free peninsula, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. And that's what we're working towards. And North Korea knows what it needs to do. We've made our views very well-known.
Q: The timing of this is very important to Canada, the contracts issue. We have our new Prime Minister taking office and saying that U.S.-Canada relations -- improved U.S.-Canada relations is his top priority. What does this say about the possibility of improved relations, from the U.S. side? He wants to do this; Canadians want this. How can this happen under these circumstances?
MR. McCLELLAN: First of all -- and I previously said this -- but we congratulate him as he begins to assume his new role as Prime Minister. We congratulate Mr. Martin. We welcome the opportunity and look forward to the opportunity to work closely with him. As I said, if there are concerns countries have, we're welcome to -- we look forward to the opportunity to discussing those concerns and explaining to them, for the reasons that I've stated in this room, why this decision was made and why we believe it's appropriate and reasonable.
Q: What specifically would the White House like to say to Paul Martin, specifically, that he could do to improve U.S.-Canada relations right now?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've worked together on a number of common areas. And we look forward to his assuming his new role. And we look forward to working closely with him on future efforts.
Q: What specifically can he do, especially given this contract issue? What specifically do you want from Canada right now?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, as with any country, if they have concerns they want to discuss with us, we look forward to doing that, and we will do that.
Q: The death toll in Iraq continues to climb. And what I'm talking about is a new estimate of as many as 1.5 million Iraqi citizens who vanished during the regime of Saddam Hussein. What's the administration doing to encourage international bodies like the U.N. to investigate this holocaust?
MR. McCLELLAN: One, there was an announcement by the Iraqi Governing Council earlier this week about the tribunal that they have set up to hold accountable members of the former regime who were responsible for three decades of brutality and atrocities. And we welcome that decision by the Governing Council.
Q: But that, in and of itself, doesn't bring the international bodies into the process.
MR. McCLELLAN: We continue to learn more and more about the atrocities of the former regime as time goes on. And I think the Iraqi people suffered for decades under a very brutal regime, and that regime is not coming back; we can assure the Iraqi people of that.
Q: You seem to want to go to the United Nations over every other matter concerning Iraq. Why not this one? Why isn't this a priority to get the U.N. involved in something that maybe they actually can accomplish?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I think you're talking about some matters about holding people responsible for atrocities that were committed. We know about the mass graves and the rape rooms and the torture chambers of Saddam Hussein's regime. His regime is gone and they're not coming back, and the Iraqi people have a brighter future coming. We've been talking about this in this room here today, and we welcome their decision to move forward on a tribunal to hold people accountable for those atrocities.
Q: Taiwanese officials are saying that President Bush sent the President of Taiwan a letter cautioning him about any moves towards independence. I was wondering if you could confirm this or give us any information on it --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that our views have been very well-known, made very clear publicly for some time. And again, the President made it very clear, this applies to both sides, that a possible use of force by Beijing or unilateral attempts by Taiwan to move toward independence.
Q: Did the President send a letter?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to get into specific discussions about some meetings that may or may not have occurred, but our policy is very well-known, and he made it clear yesterday, as well.
Q: Scott, tomorrow's Cabinet meeting, is there a particular agenda for what I presume is going to be the last Cabinet meeting of the year?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that's probably a good presumption. Well, the Cabinet meeting tomorrow will really focus on the accomplishments of the past year, the accomplishments this administration has made to make the world a better and safer place, and to make America more secure, and our efforts to build a more prosperous America, and make America a more compassionate place, as well. So that's what the focus will be. I don't want to get too far ahead on the preview, but I think that different Cabinet members will talk about some of the important accomplishments we have achieved on behalf of the American people over the course of the past year. And the President looks forward to tomorrow's meeting.
Q: Is one of those Cabinet secretaries soon to be departing and perhaps running for senator of Florida?
MR. McCLELLAN: Without getting into announcements that have yet to be made or have not been made, I expect that that Cabinet Secretary will be there, as well, to talk about some of the efforts and the achievements we have made in expanding home ownership and closing the minority home ownership gap, which is a very high priority for the President domestically.
Q: You told us yesterday the President raised his concerns with the Chinese Premier about religious rights and the political rights in China.
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes.
Q: This administration has opted to engage China with the hopes that that would lead to improvements in those areas. Has the President seen any improvements in religious freedom? He continues to raise these concerns with --
MR. McCLELLAN: And he talked about some of that in his -- I think in the arrival ceremony, as well, about the importance of political freedom. And we have consistently raised these concerns and we will continue to raise those concerns. And that was one of the issues that was discussed in the Oval Office. And we made our views very well-known on that.
Q: And has that approach borne any fruit in seeing improvements?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you can probably look at some steps that may have been made, but there is certainly more that needs to be done, and the President expressed those concerns to Premier Wen in the meeting in the Oval Office.
Q: Scott, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan says it's still too dangerous to go back inside of Iraq for U.N. operations -- What is the administration doing to reassure that it's worth it to go back in?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, we welcome the step the Secretary General took to appoint an acting special representative. That is someone who can begin working to prepare for the day when the United Nations staff can go back into Iraq. And we remain hopeful that the United Nations will be able to come to a decision soon to go back to Iraq. The Iraqi people need and can use the assistance of the United Nations in building a free and prosperous nation.
And I would point out that you have three Security Council resolutions, 1483, 1500, and most recently, Resolution 1511, that calls upon the U.N. to play a vital role. And we are hopeful that they will be able to return soon to play that vital role. I would point out that in his report, the Secretary General pointed out some of the very real progress, in his words, that has been made in Iraq.
And so we're continuing to work on the security situation, but also, the security situation will continue to improve as we move forward on the reconstruction efforts and help the Iraqi people assume more and more responsibility and authority for their future.
Q: Is it disappointing that he's made that decision, that they're not ready to go back in?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why I said -- we, one, we welcome the step he took to appoint a special representative that can help move forward on this. And we remain hopeful that they will be able to come to a decision to return to Iraq soon, because of the important assistance that the Iraqi people need in these efforts.
Q: France, Germany and Russia actively opposed the war in Iraq, and that's not exactly something you can take back, even diplomatically, perhaps. What would they have to do to get themselves on the list of the 63 preferred nations? Does it have to be troops on the ground? Are there diplomatic things they can do, go to the United Nations, make happy noises --
MR. McCLELLAN: When I talked about how circumstances can change, I think those are discussions that we can have with countries about ways that they can join in the coalition --
Q: Are there specific steps they can take --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- coalition efforts in Iraq. And I think those discussions are best had with those countries, not from this podium.
Q: When is the President expected to sign the Syria Accountability Act?
MR. McCLELLAN: I expect that will be -- obviously, it will be soon, but I don't have a specific date to announce for you at this point. There are a number of bills that he's in the process of signing and reviewing at this point.
Q: One more on Canada, Scott?
MR. McCLELLAN: Dana hasn't had a question.
Q: The Vice President on Monday shot 70 pheasants and an unspecified number of ducks. And I'm wondering how many of these were Canadian. (Laughter.)
MR. McCLELLAN: Ask the Vice President's office. Next question.
Q: Congressional Democrats looking into Halliburton in Iraq have found that they're charging about $2.64 a gallon for gas, and that's U.S. taxpayer money, I assume, that's going through the Halliburton contract. Do you have an explanation for taxpayers as to why it's costing so much for them to buy gas?
MR. McCLELLAN: Those are contract decisions that are made by the Pentagon and Coalition Provisional Authority. So you ought to direct those questions to the appropriate authorities, to the appropriate authorities there.
Q: Doesn't it seem absurdly high for a gallon of gas?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that the ones who make the decisions on the contracting could discuss that with you.
Q: How concerned is the White House about the rising number of civilians that are dying in Afghanistan, and what is the White House doing about it?
MR. McCLELLAN: One, our thoughts and prayers are always with the families of any innocent person who loses their life. The United States military goes out of their way to make sure that that doesn't happen. And there's been a couple of unfortunate incidents, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who lost their lives.
Q: Thank you.
MR. McCLELLAN: Thanks.
END 1:15 P.M. EST
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