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17 March 2004

White House Press Briefing, March 17, 2004

Iraq/bombing, international support for the war, Senator Kerry's remarks, IAEA/intelligence, bin Laden/videotape, Fort Campbell visit, Madrid bombing/intelligence, WMD, ElBaradei/remarks to Congress

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan brief the media March 17:

Following is the transcript of the White House briefing:

(begin transcript)

THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
March 17, 2004

PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN

INDEX
-- Iraq/bombing
-- International support for the war
-- Senator Kerry's remarks
-- IAEA/intelligence
-- bin Laden videotape
-- Fort Campbell visit
-- Madrid bombing/intelligence
-- Search for WMD
-- ElBaradei remarks to Congress


THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
March 17, 2004

PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:26 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. We do not have details on who is responsible for this latest attack in Baghdad, but all indications are that this is a terrible terrorist attack on innocent civilians. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and with the families. This remains a time of testing in Iraq. The stakes are high; the terrorists know the stakes are high. But they will not prevail. We will meet this test with strength and with resolve. Democracy is taking root in Iraq, and there is no turning back. A free and peaceful Iraq will be a major blow to the terrorists in our global war on terrorism.

And with that, I'll be happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Do you think that this is timed in connection with the one-year anniversary? And do you think that the terrorists are trying to send a message to the United States?

MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, first of all, I just said, we just don't have the details on who is responsible for this. I did say that this is a time of testing, the stakes are very high in Iraq. We have made important progress. Democracy is advancing in Iraq. And we will continue to stay to finish the job for the Iraqi people.

Q: Can you say what you know at this point about how bad this is, and how many casualties, how many buildings?

MR. McCLELLAN: I just don't have those details, David. I think this -- well, this just occurred and those details are still coming in at this point.

Q: How has the President been informed of this, and monitoring --

MR. McCLELLAN: He's been briefed and he was briefed about it before departing for the luncheon. Right now he's at the luncheon, and I think he's continued to receive updates.

Q: This is of a scale beyond what we've been able to report on and view ourselves --

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, we just don't have the details at this point.

Q: Scott, Iraqis just had a constitution, new constitution. And the dictator is in jail, and they are free today. And today General Myers was talking at the foreign press center and he said, in order to win war on terrorism -- against terrorism, including in Iraq, it would take more than just a military might. What do you think the President would have to say about -- what kind of military might do you think, and where do we stand now --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, who said military might?

Q: General Myers.

MR. McCLELLAN: And what are you asking me about it?

Q: How would the President answer this, that it would take more than just a military might to win war against terrorism?

MR. McCLELLAN: We are fighting the war on terrorism on many fronts. There is the law enforcement front; there is the intelligence front; there is the financial front, cracking down on terrorist financing; and there certainly is the military front. The way to win the war on terrorism is to stay on the offensive. September 11th taught us that we must confront threats before it's too late, and that's exactly what this President has done and will continue to do.

Q: Do you think this -- Saddam Hussein is in jail, and do we know that his people are not free from his regime --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me make one other point, too. It's also important to continue our efforts to support democracy and freedom across the world, and particularly, to support efforts in the Middle East. And that's what this President is committed to doing. That helps go to the root causes of terrorism and address the needs of the people in those regions, and the aspirations of those people.

Q: Second question. As far as -- are concerned, Saddam Hussein is in jail; do you know that his people are free and they have a new constitution from his regime, and if somebody help -- and who is actually behind these bombings?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, we just don't have the details on who is responsible at this point. It is a terrible terrorist attack on innocent civilians. But we will continue to help the Iraqi people move forward on democracy and freedom and stability in their country. This is a time of testing, but the terrorists will not prevail.

Q: Scott, in light of the bombing, the Pew Research Center shows its findings that a year after the war, discontent with America and its policies has intensified rather than diminished. It talks about France, Germany, Britain, Pakistan, Morocco, and Jordan being among those who do not believe that the war in Iraq has helped in terms of combating terror. While you have the support of the leadership in many of those countries, how do you convince the people of those nations that this is a fight that is worth fighting and that -- are there any efforts the administration is going to make to reach -- to try to deliver that message to the people of these nations?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we are at a critical period in our history. There are very real challenges that we face and that we must work together to confront, starting with the war on terrorism. And the President's message is that it's important for all of us to continue to work together in these common challenges. And that's exactly the message that he will continue to reiterate to leaders around the world. We all must work together to confront the threats that we face in this day and age.

It's also important to recognize that we are providing strong leadership in other areas, as well. The United States is leading the way when it comes to fighting the pandemic of AIDS. In fact, Secretary Thompson is on his way right now -- or in Geneva for the next meeting of The Global Fund. It's also important that we continue to work together to fight poverty across the world -- we are a leader in these efforts -- and that we continue to work together to promote human rights. And that's a message that we will continue to emphasize across the world. We will continue to reach out to people in those countries to remind them that we all have common challenges that we need to work together to address.

Q: Scott, what, in the judgment of the President and the White House, does today's attack and the wave of attacks apparently against civilian, non-governmental organizational aid workers say about how much progress is being made toward stability and security in Iraq, and thus -- and this is an all important question for a lot of Americans -- how long American troops will have to be there?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we are going to stay until the job is done. Obviously -- obviously, we will be working with the new interim government to make some of those determinations as we move forward on transferring sovereignty to the Iraqi people. It's important that we continue helping the Iraqi people move forward on democracy and freedom because that also helps bring about more stability in the country. Obviously, there are remnants of the former regime out there, though many of the leaders have been brought to justice. There are also terrorists who recognize how high the stakes are in Iraq. And they want to do everything they can to stop us from moving forward in Iraq. But they will not prevail.

Q: But do these events, these attacks, show that U.S. forces will have to be there longer than many Americans might have anticipated at the beginning of the war, one year ago, and longer, perhaps, than the President hoped when he sent them there?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you have to keep in mind there is a lot of important progress that is being made on the ground, in the area of democratic institutions, in the area of security, in the area of improving the infrastructure of Iraq. And that's all important. Improving the infrastructure is also important to bringing about more stability in Iraq. But there are still those who are enemies of freedom and they want to turn back from democracy and freedom. But they will not prevail in the end.

Q: Let me just ask you to comment finally on something Senator Kerry just said, which was, "We are still bogged down in Iraq, and the administration stubbornly holds to failed policies that drive potential allies away." Are we bogged down in Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I haven't seen Senator Kerry's comments. Obviously, we've been focused on other priorities here in the recent future -- or the recent -- with recent events. This is a time for us to focus on what is going on in Baghdad and that's what this White House is doing.

Q: Scott, a different subject. The President will be seeing Mohammad ElBaradei later on today. Can you tell us whether or not the IAEA is getting the full amount of intelligence that the U.S. has been able to gather from Pakistan about the Khan network, who their other clients may have been, and so forth, or whether there was material the U.S. is holding back and not sharing with the IAEA?

MR. McCLELLAN: I can check on details for you. But one thing I would point out is that we work closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency and our shared commitment to stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, in particular. Certainly, the actions that have been taken by the government of Pakistan have helped to break up this network. There is a lot more that we are learning about this network. Secretary Powell is in the region, as you are aware, and will be talking with Pakistani leaders about some of these issues

Q: The specific question, if you can get back later on in the day, is, as the Pakistanis give us data, is all of that going to be IAEA under our commitments to the IAEA, or is it being filtered somewhat?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, it's a -- again, generally speaking, we work very closely with the IAEA, and I'll check on the specific details.

Q: NBC has been airing videotape shot by the CIA, apparently, of Osama bin Laden in year 2000 that shows that we had ample opportunity to capture/kill him at that time. Any comment on that? Where did this come from? This is stunning new information that's out there for the American people that we actually had the capability even before your people came in to get Osama bin Laden. Are we to expect these kinds of things to emerge --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me make a couple of points. One, there is a commission, independent commission, that is looking into these matters. And we need to let them complete their work. We are doing everything we can to cooperate with them and help them have all the -- and make sure they all the information they need to do their job. The second point I would make is that certainly the threats we're seeing from terrorism did not happen overnight. These threats have been emerging for quite some time. And the President has made the war on terrorism his number one priority because this is about protecting the American people. And we will continue to wage this war on many fronts. But I think the recent attacks you've seen are clear reminders that we are at war on terrorism. But again, in terms of specific details that the 9/11 Commission will be looking into, or is looking into, we'll let them continue their work.

Q: Is this tape something that people in the administration would have been aware of, or is this information to you, as well?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I believe that report was referring to something that happened prior to this administration. But again, what we're doing is trying to work in a very close and cooperative way with the 9/11 Commission so that they can get their work done in a timely manner.

Q: This tape was classified material. Is the President concerned about this kind of leak of this classified material?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know where that tape was obtained from, Terry.

Q: Following up on Suzanne's question, now that Spain has announced it will retire its troops by the end of June, and knowing that other countries, the leaders, may be backing the United States, but the polls shows that the population is not in favor of that, what is the President and the administration doing -- I know yesterday the President said in the Oval Office next to the Prime Minister of Holland that he expects all the other nations to stand firm. Are there --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, many other nations have expressed their desire to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us in the war on terrorism. Many nations have said that this is a time to show resolve and strength.

Q: Did the President talk with some of those leaders or having people contact these leaders --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he certainly met with Prime Minister Ahern earlier today, who was here for the St. Patrick's Day celebrations. And they certainly talked about the importance of showing resolve in the war on terrorism.

Q: My second question is, is the White House standing firm on not allowing or permitting Dr. Condoleezza Rice to testify before the 9/11 Commission?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think this has been previously addressed. It's not a matter of personal preference. You have to look at it as a matter of principle and a separation of powers issue. There are separation of power issues involved here when you're talking about White House staff and a legislative commission, legislatively-created commission.

Q: Is there concern that, given the bombing in Spain, now the bombing in Baghdad, the targeting of people who cooperate with us in Iraq, that this might be actually the opening shots in a new blitz by al Qaeda and their allies? I can't help but feeling, wondering when the next shoe is going to drop.

MR. McCLELLAN: We're certainly at a very critical period in the war on terrorism. We are making significant progress. We have already brought to justice some two-thirds of al Qaeda's leadership. We are disrupting and dismantling terrorist networks. But the war continues. And the recent attacks are grim reminders that we are at war on terrorism. The stakes are very high in the war on terrorism. The terrorists recognize that the stakes are very high. They recognize that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, because they know that when there is a free and peaceful Iraq for the Iraqi people, that that will be a major blow to the terrorists.

Q: Are we going to ramp up our preparations here, just in case? Because our attention is obviously being diverted at the moment, or our gaze is overseas. Are we going to ramp up --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry -- diverted?

Q: well, our attention, our gaze is over what's going on in Spain, what's going on in Iraq, and so forth. Are we going to ramp up our own domestic security --

MR. McCLELLAN: One, we are working to wage the war on terrorism on the offensive, but we have also taken unprecedented steps here at home to protect the homeland. Our Department of Homeland Security and the officials within the Department of Homeland Security work 24/7 to make sure we are doing everything we can to protect the homeland. There's always more that we can do, but we have made significant strides in making sure that the homeland is secure, and making sure that we're prepared to respond to any attacks that might come. And they will continue working 24/7 to make sure we are doing everything we can to protect the homeland.

Q: Tomorrow at Fort Campbell, why Fort Campbell, of all the places the President could do it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Fort Campbell is home to the third largest military population in the Army, and the seventh largest in the Department of Defense. The President has previously gone to Fort Campbell, but Fort Campbell -- the troops at Fort Campbell, starting with the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles and some of their Special Ops troops, have served in both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. There were some 20,000 troops from Fort Campbell who recently returned from Iraq. And the President will be going there to express his gratitude on behalf of the nation to our troops and their families for their service and sacrifice. Our troops are defending our freedoms in the war on terrorism, and they're helping to make the world a safer place and to make America more secure.

So I expect the President will talk about the war on terrorism and the importance of continuing to show strength and resolve. The terrorists want to shake our will, but they cannot. We must continue to stand together and wage this war until it is won. And I expect he'll talk about the circumstances in Iraq, as well, and about what we have done to remove a brutal regime, that committed many atrocities, from power. And I expect he will talk about the importance of advancing freedom and democracy, and the action that we have taken to advance freedom and democracy in Iraq.

Remember, the President often talks about how free nations are peaceful nations. And as I said earlier, a free and peaceful Iraq will be a major blow to the terrorists and the war on terrorism. And so I think he will also talk about the time of testing that we are in and that we must continue to show strength and resolve during this time of testing.

Q: Scott, on the Armed Forces, Senator Kerry's campaign website notes that he wants to repeal the don't ask-don't tell regulation in the Armed Forces, which has been supported by both Presidents Clinton and Bush and most of the Congress. I have a two-part question. Is this still one of the differences between President Bush and Senator Kerry?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President has made his views known and its up to the military leaders to determine how best to carry that policy out.

Q: Since many of the families who provide a lot of our armed services recruits are religious, what does the President, as Commander-in-Chief, believe would be the effect on recruiting of the Kerry plan for openly advertising and practicing sodomist sergeants and commissioned officers?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry? I didn't understand what you're asking.

Q: He's saying repeal the don't ask-don't tell. That means open and practicing homosexuals in the Armed Forces. What does the President believe would be the effect of recruiting --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't expect that's going to happen because I don't expect he's going to win. But the President's policy is very clear on that issue.

Q: Is he opposed to that?

Q: Scott, given the relative paucity of information connecting Muslim fundamentalists to the bombings in Madrid, some European intelligence sources are looking more closely at these right-wing groups connected to the Falange, the Italian neo-fascists, which, over the past two years, have been reinvigorated, much more visible, with a lot of activity in countries like Argentina and Brazil here on this hemisphere. And the modus operandi also is similar to what happened during the 1970s "strategy of tension," that they called it, in Europe with the bombings in the Bologna train station. I was wondering if any of this stuff has come on the radar screen of people here who are looking or cooperating with the Spanish authorities on this Madrid bombing.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in terms of the Madrid bombing, we have offered to assist in any way we can. The only request I know of at this point has been for some technical assistance from the FBI, and the FBI has been providing some technical assistance to Spanish authorities in their investigation. But in terms of the actual investigation, I don't have any more details, other than what the Spanish government has said publicly.

Q: Scott, can I follow on that same --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, but I'll try to come back to you later.

Go ahead, Greg.

Q: Scott, does the President receive regular updates on the work of the Iraq Survey Group?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he's been updated previously. David Kay certainly came here. He met with Charles Duelfer, the new head of the Iraq Survey Group. I don't know that I would call it regular, but updated as needed.

Q: So no -- there's been no additional information about the search for weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that work is ongoing. And Charles Duelfer only has been there for a short amount of time. He's only been in the position of overseeing that group for a short amount of time. But certainly the people involved in that Iraq Survey Group have continued to carry out their work. There is a lot of information we have already learned, but there is certainly more that they are still working to uncover.

Q: Senator Kerry has suggested that the President has a credibility gap, especially when it comes to WMD. How does the President respond?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think before he starts making assertions about others, he needs to back up his own claims.

Q: Is there likely to be a readout after the ElBaradei meeting?

MR. McCLELLAN: Check with us. We'll do what we can.

Q: -- going to the stakeout?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know, because he had not arrived, as far as I know, before I came out here. But that would be his choice to make.

Q: Is that meeting at 2:50 p.m.?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's when it's scheduled for, yes.

Jim, did you have one? Then I'll come to David.

Q: Mr. ElBaradei said to Congress today that he couldn't rule out the possibility that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Does the Bush administration believe that Iran does have a nuclear weapons program, or are they more certain about it than ElBaradei?

MR. McCLELLAN: We have serious concerns about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. There certainly is no reason why they need to have nuclear energy, given all their vast oil and gas resources. And we need to continue to send a clear, consistent and strong message to Iran. I think that Dr. ElBaradei has stated both publicly and in his recent report that there are serious concerns about Iran's omissions and their disclosures about their nuclear programs. So we continue to have concerns about their behavior and about their nuclear program.

Q: When pressed further he said that -- he refused to really go further, I guess, and commit to what they know or don't know about Iran's program, because he said, his statements can, "make the difference between war and peace. That's why we have to be careful." Do you know what he might have meant by that, and if he might have been referring to their work regarding Iraq before the war?

MR. McCLELLAN: You'd have to ask him what he meant by his comments.

Q: Under Secretary Armitage this morning, in some interviews, TV interviews, said that he believes the Spanish government reacted too slowly in letting out information that would have suggested who the suspected bombers were, and that that may well have affected the election and led to the defeat of the Conservative Party. Is this a view the White House shares?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think there's been analysis to that effect in the press --

Q: But it was different coming from --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- Terry brought it up yesterday, and we discussed some of the different analysis that has been out there. I'm leaving the analysis to others.

Q: You declined to make an analytical point on this. But Secretary Armitage has gone where you fear to tread, and I was wondering whether or not you share his view.

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't get into political analysis, generally speaking, whether it's here or whether it's overseas.

Q: Senator Kerry said earlier today that under President Bush's watch, the U.S. military is stretched to the breaking point. He says that 2,500 are waiting for equipment, there's been inadequate medical care. He goes on to say that the administration has exposed young soldiers to unnecessary danger because there was not a shared burden with boots on the ground, and that forces are spread to thin. Do you have a response?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. One, I think Senator Kerry's record tends to contradict his own election-year rhetoric. And if you look at some of the facts -- I'd point you back to the wartime supplemental on Iraq. Senator Kerry -- I guess he said he voted for it first, and then he voted against it. Talk about having it both ways. I think that was a very telling comment about Senator Kerry, but he needs to look back at his own record on that issue.

This President, from day one, has provided strong support to our troops to make sure they have all the resources they need to do their job, and that includes supporting significant pay raises for our troops, improving housing and health care for our troops. This President, from day one of this administration, has been working to make sure our troops have all the resources they need to do their job.

Thanks.

END 1:50 P.M. EST

(end transcript)

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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