29 March 2005
White House Daily Briefing, March 29
WMD report, Volcker report/oil-for-food scandal, India/Pakistan weapons sale, Iraqi national assembly, Mexico/border, China/loans, trade/Congressman Porter, Afghanistan/First Lady's trip
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan briefed the press March 29.
Following is the transcript of the White House briefing:
THE WHITE HOUSE
PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN
-- Recommendations from the WMD report
PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:03 P.M. EST
MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I want to welcome all those who are back from the great state of Texas, and welcome back to Les, too. Glad to see that you're doing well. It's good to have you back and you've been in our thoughts and prayers.
MR. KINSOLVING: Thank you very much. I appreciate it very much.
MR. McCLELLAN: With that, I will go straight to questions, to those that weren't in Crawford. Not to single anybody out.
QUESTION: Right. Have copies of the WMD report been circulated among members of the White House staff, and has the President seen it yet?
MR. McCLELLAN: He is going to be, actually, be briefed on it later today. We do have some copies of the report. Obviously, it went through a classification review process, as well. There will be a declassified version made available publicly, and then there's a classified version, as well. The President looks forward to meeting with the commission on Thursday and receiving a copy of the official report from the commissioners.
Making sure we have the best possible intelligence is critical to protecting the American people. And the President's most solemn obligation is the safety and security of the American people. He begins each day by receiving an intelligence briefing on the threats that we face. And so the President appointed this bipartisan commission to take a broad look at intelligence relating to the threats we face in the 21st century, namely from weapons of mass destruction. And so he appreciates all the work that they have done and looks forward to meeting with them on Thursday and talking to them about the recommendations. We will carefully consider the recommendations and act quickly on the recommendations, as well. They build upon the steps we've already taken to improve our intelligence-sharing and gathering.
Q: Well, based on the information that you've gleaned from the things in circulation, do you find the conclusions troubling? Or how would you characterize the reaction to them?
MR. McCLELLAN: I would not today, but we will on Thursday. And just so you know, as I said, the President will meet with the commission, the full commission here at the White House on Thursday morning. I also expect, following that meeting, the President will be meeting with members from relevant Cabinet departments who would be affected by some of the recommendations that are going to be put forward by the commission. And then, following that, we will have a press event where the President will participate with the co-chairs. And I know the co-chairs will also take questions from the press following that event, to talk about the report and to talk about their recommendations. And I know that they look forward to doing that.
They have done a very thorough job. They have had many meetings; they've had hundreds of interviews; they've looked through thousands of documents. This was a very comprehensive look at our intelligence capabilities and our intelligence relating to weapons of mass destruction. Their work is very important. The President appreciates the job that they have done.
It's important that we do everything we can to support our men and women in the intelligence community. We have many hardworking, dedicated and capable individuals who work day in and day out to protect the American people, and we want to do everything we can to support them. We've taken a number of steps to improve our intelligence capabilities. We've worked to transform the FBI, to make sure that its mission is focused on confronting threats from terrorism and improving their intelligence capabilities. We've created the position of the Director of National Intelligence. And the National Counter-Terrorism Threat Center -- the National Counter-Terrorism Center. We've created the Terrorist Threat Integration Center to improve our intelligence sharing and gathering of information. So there are many steps that we've taken.
We've also made sure that we're acting on all fronts, with our allies and others, to confront the spread of weapons of mass destruction. That is the most serious threat we face in this day and age. And so the work of the commission and the recommendations that they are going to be putting forward will help us build upon those many steps we've already taken. And the President looks forward to meeting with them this week.
Q: But the steps, all that you've just outlined, they don't go far enough; is that what you're saying?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q: The steps that you just outlined, everything --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, remember, since September 11th, we've taken a number of steps already to improve our intelligence capabilities. We also acted on recommendations from the 9/11 Commission; we appreciate the work that they did. This commission took a broader look at our intelligence capabilities relating to the threats that we face in this day and age, and they build upon the steps that we've taken. So we look forward to seeing those recommendations and acting on those recommendations. We are going to give all of them careful consideration.
Q: Scott, two questions. First, Paul Volcker's report on the oil-for-food scandal at the U.N. is out, and while it shows that Secretary General Annan was not directly implicated in the scandal, it suggests strongly that he was, at the very least, negligent in his oversight of it and obtuse about the role his own son, Kojo, played in the fraud. Should he stay or should he go?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, let me back up. We've always felt it was important for there to be a full investigation of the allegations of corruption and fraud in the oil-for-food program. We appreciate the work that the Volcker Commission is doing. We look forward to seeing the final results. This is another report that they are putting forward today. There needs to be a full accounting. We have always said that it needs to be an open, transparent and full investigation. And so we appreciate the work that's been going on by the Volcker investigation. We have just received a copy of the report today; it's just been made available today. We're going to carefully study that report, and look at what it says.
It's also important that we continue to move forward on reforms at the United Nations, to make sure that it is addressing the challenges that we face in the most effective way, and that things like this are prevented from happening in the future.
Q: One of the things in this report is that Kofi Annan's own chief of staff shredded documents relating to the oil-for-food scandal the day after they were requested. With that kind of event, with that kind of activity in the Secretary General's office, can he continue to lead this organization?
MR. McCLELLAN: This is a very serious matter; we have stated that repeatedly. Congress has been looking into it, as well. We continue to support the United Nations. We continue to support Secretary General Annan in his work at the United Nations. We will carefully study the report that Mr. Volcker has put forward today. We'll also look forward to seeing the final results of his investigation, and we'll also look forward to seeing whatever else Congress uncovers, as well.
Q: What sort of confidence do you have in the job that Annan is doing?
MR. McCLELLAN: Like I said, we continue to support the work of the Secretary General, and we'll continue to work with him and the United Nations on the many challenges that we face. In terms of this report, again, it's just been made available today. We're going to have to take a look at it, and we'll study it closely.
Q: Would the President still have gone into war if he'd known what will be in this report, that there were no weapons of mass destruction?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think he's already addressed that issue, and his position remains the same. And I think that what he said earlier today was important to note, as well. We are seeing that the Iraqi people are serving as an example --
Q: That was not the point when we went to war.
MR. McCLELLAN: We are seeing that the Iraqi people are --
Q: They were supposed to be threatening us.
MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, well, you've expressed your opinion, and you've heard ours, as well.
Go ahead, Goyal.
Q: I've told you what you told us.
MR. McCLELLAN: Saddam Hussein's regime was creating instability in the region and we are better off with his regime out of power. And the Iraqi people are showing --
Q: The American people were told they were under threat.
MR. McCLELLAN: The Iraqi people are showing, through their courage and determination --
Q: Are you sorry you told the American people a falsehood?
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead.
Q: I don't know what is right behind what President has good relations with Indian leader Dr. Manmohan Singh, and also President General Musharraf of Pakistan. And he seems to have them to have peace in the region, and to have direct line. General Musharraf is going to India to watch the games on the 16th of April. And I hope I will see him there. But at the same time, the U.S. is sending weapons to both India and Pakistan, and they have -- on Kashmir and the problem, they are saying, is Kashmir -- to solve the Kashmir problem. How can they solve the Kashmir problem if Kasmiris will be killed in the war because they will use all the weapons buying from the U.S., Russia, China and U.K. and France against --
MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, there's been some --
Q: And also, could you please clarify, the President spoke with Dr. Manmohan Singh of India and General Musharraf on the sale of F16s.
MR. McCLELLAN: He did speak to Prime Minister Singh last week, and my deputy read that call out last week from Waco and talked about what they discussed in the call. Part of the discussion was regarding the F16s. And she read out the additional details of that call, as well.
In terms of the Kashmir situation and the progress in the region, there has been some positive steps moving forward on reducing tensions in the region. We support the dialogue that's going on between the two countries and the opening of that dialogue between the two countries. And we will continue to do that. We have great relations with both countries and both countries have been good allies in the war on terrorism, the global war on terrorism. And so we look forward to continuing to work with both those countries and building upon what is already strong relations.
Q: What is the logic behind selling weapons to both countries?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, we said that we would look at the situation with regards to India and look at ways we can move forward to support them, as well, in this regard. And that was read out as part of the call last week. I mean, we gave out all these details. There's a background briefing on the matter, as well, at the Department of State, and I really don't have anything to add to it at this point.
Q: Can I follow up on that?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll try to come back to you. Let me keep going. Go ahead, Wendell.
Q: As the President was applauding Iraq's parliament today and the Iraqi people, the parliament was failing again to reach a decision on a speaker and the formation of a new government. Does the President have a message for the parliament? Is he concerned about the two-month time frame they've spent -- as concerned as some members of the parliament appear to be -- that they have not yet reached a decision?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we're seeing that the Iraqi leaders are moving forward on this new phase in Iraq. They're now in a phase of moving forward on the political process. These are leaders that were chosen by the Iraqi people. They are committed to moving forward on the political process. The national assembly met for the second time today. That's another step on the path to a free society, as the President talked about earlier today.
We look forward to working with the new government once it is in place. We expect that's going to happen soon. I think any time you have a democracy, on issues like this there is going to be time -- it's going to take some time to forge a consensus and to reach a compromise. And that's what you're seeing happening in Iraq. But the Iraqi people are determined to live in freedom. And the Iraqi leaders are working to reach a consensus. And you're seeing compromise, which is always part of any democracy, move forward. We expect that they will have a new government in place soon.
Q: I take it, then, the time frame doesn't trouble you?
Q: How do you call it "moving forward"?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this is the second meeting of the national assembly. The fact that they have met for the second time is another step on the path to democracy. That's a positive development. These are leaders that were elected by the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people are determining their future. I don't know that they set any specific time frame for putting that new government in place -- obviously, they want to get it in place as quickly as possible, and they're working to do that. There's a lot of discussion going on between the various coalitions and parties in Iraq, and they're working to move forward on that political process so that they can move forward on drafting a constitution and putting that constitution before the people, and then move forward on permanent elections. The fact that they had elections and have chosen an assembly of 275 representatives is a very positive development.
Q: If I could follow that, the time they take here in choosing a new government comes out of the time they theoretically have to draft the constitution. So, once again, I will ask you, is the President concerned that they don't seem to be moving as fast as some members of the Iraqi parliament think they should?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think you heard from him earlier today -- it's going to be an Iraqi-driven process. The Iraqi leaders are determining their future, and they're working to reach a compromise. This is part of moving forward on the political process and coming to an agreement, and they're continuing to have those discussions and that's a healthy part of democracy. And we believe that they will have a new government in place soon, and we're going to do everything we can to support that new government as they work to draft a new constitution, and as they work to move forward on elections for a permanent government. This is a transitional government, but it is a government that has been chosen by the Iraqi people and they're representing the views of the Iraqi people, and they're trying to reach a compromise now.
Q: Scott, do you think the issuance of the WMD report will help maybe repair some of the damage to U.S. credibility around the world? A lot of people are still very suspicious now.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again -- and I don't want to jump ahead of the report, so I think it's going to be important for each of you all to look at the report and see what the conclusions are and see what the recommendations are. I think what is important is for us to focus on the path forward to improving our intelligence capabilities.
We've taken a number of steps; we want to build upon those steps by the recommendations that this commission will be putting forward. We work very closely with the international community on the threats that we face in this day and age. And we work very closely in sharing information with them, and we will continue to do that. We have good cooperation on a number of different fronts. Like I mentioned, the Proliferation Security Initiative is something that this President implemented. It's more than 60 nations working together to confront the spread of weapons of mass destruction and to share intelligence information they gather.
I think it's also going to be important -- because this commission took a broad look at intelligence -- and to take a look at some areas where there has been great success, like Libya, for instance.
Q: Will it be that much different from what we've already heard?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, you're asking me to comment on a report that hasn't been released publicly at this point. I want to wait until that report is released publicly, and then we can talk about it more at that point. And the President will be talking about it more at that point, as well.
Q: In the Terri Schiavo case, there seems to be more efforts to exhaust legal wranglings to reinsert Terri Schiavo's tube. What are the President's thoughts about this. As he said, there's nothing else he could have done.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I don't think that's what the President said, first of all. Let me correct you on that. The President is saddened by the situation. We continue to stand on the side of defending life. We stand on the side of the parents and all those who are working to defend life. This is a complex case, and the President believes in a situation like this, we should always err on the side of life. And so we will continue to stand with all those who are seeking to defend life.
Q: So is he working with the senators in some kind
-- working the phones, some kind of backdoor approach to possibly work out some kind of emergency situation to reinsert this tube?
MR. McCLELLAN: As he spoke about last week, we looked at all our options, we explored all our options from the executive branch side, and we made a decision to support the congressional efforts. And Congress passed legislation that the President signed; that legislation gave her parents another opportunity to try to save their daughter's life. They are continuing to work, as well as others, to save their daughters life. And we will continue to stand with those who are on the side of defending life. The President believes that our nation, in situations like this, where someone is at the mercy of others, we should have a presumption in favor of life.
Q: Has the President, since he feels so strongly about this, has he reached out to the parents of Terri Schiavo?
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have any updates on phone calls he's had with them, but obviously, like I said, we continue to stand on the side of the parents and all those who are working to defend life in this situation.
Q: Mexico's President Fox announced during his news conference that our border fence between San Diego and Tijuana, in his words, must be demolished. My first question: During their subsequent Waco summit, did President Bush in any way reply to this Fox demand, which Senator Kyl of Arizona called, downright insulting, other than Mr. Bush denouncing the American Minutemen as "vigilantes"?
MR. McCLELLAN: Les, a couple things. First of all, this goes to a much larger issue, this question, and the larger issue is making sure that we have a safe, orderly and humane migration system. We have worked closely with Mexico on issues relating to our borders. There is more that we can do to control our borders, and the Department of Homeland Security is working to do that every day. We have an increase in the number of agents along the border, they're working to address the situation in some of the areas where you're referencing, as well.
And the President put forward an initiative, his temporary worker initiative, to address some of these issues, because we have a problem in this country where now I think it's some 10 million undocumented immigrants working in this country. And they oftentimes are coming here simply to support their families back home. And they're also filling jobs that otherwise are not being filled by American citizens. So there is an economic need that we can address.
And there is also -- by addressing this situation, the President believes we can do a better job of enforcing our borders and going after those who are coming here for the wrong reason -- whether it's terrorists or people intent on criminal activity. This will free up our border patrol and border agents to go after those who should not be coming into this country in the first place.
Q: The Washington Times has listed nine countries who have either built or are building border fences. Has President Fox, to your knowledge, condemned any border fence, beside our border fence? And why is denouncing the Arizona Minutemen any better than denouncing neighborhood crime watchers?
MR. McCLELLAN: A couple of things. I mean, the President spoke to this issue last week and I think he addressed it very clearly for you all.
In terms of President Fox, I'm not going to try to comment for him -- you might want to direct those questions to his office. But I know that the Department of Homeland Security, regarding the question you're bringing up, tomorrow is going to be having an announcement in Tucson, Arizona, about an initiative they're undertaking along the Arizona border to better control the border there.
In terms of the issue of the Minutemen that you bring up, again, the President spoke to that issue last week. And it's one thing if people are working along the border, simply to report suspicious activity, and that activity should be reported to the proper authorities -- the Department of Homeland Security officials, who are there to enforce our borders. If people are operating outside of the law, that cannot be tolerated. That's a different --
Q: Well, that's my point. That's what they're doing -- they're neighborhood crime watch.
MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on. Hang on. That's a different matter. People cannot take things into their own hands. But if they see suspicious activity, they should report that suspicious activity to the proper authorities and --
Q: And that doesn't make them vigilantes, does it?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, if you're talking about a group of armed, untrained individuals roaming around the desert, that would be something that would concern us and it would increase the chance that someone could get hurt. And we don't want people operating outside the law -- the President made that very clear last week. So if you're talking about people reporting suspicious activity, that's one thing. If you're talking about people operating outside the law, that's another matter and it's one that cannot be allowed to happen.
Q: Just to follow up on the Schiavo case, if I can. The parents' allies have suggested that the President has it within his power to ask the Attorney General to take the daughter into protective custody as a potential federal witness, thus saving her life. Does he have it within his power?
MR. McCLELLAN: Mark, again, I think the President addressed the issue last week. We did look at all our options, our White House Counsel's Office. We worked with the Justice Department, looked at all options. The decision was made to support the congressional efforts. But we will continue to stand with those who are defending life. This is a complex case and there are extraordinary circumstances involved here. And there are people that are still working to save her life.
Q: He doesn't have that power --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we addressed it last week. I don't think there's a need to repeat what we've already addressed.
Q: For the President's trip tomorrow to Iowa, given all the recent polls in Social Security, is there going to be any update on his speeches on Social Security, or any changes in it?
MR. McCLELLAN: A couple of things. The President looks forward to going to Iowa tomorrow to continue his effort to reach out to the American people and educate them about the problems facing Social Security, and also to reassure our seniors that when it comes to them, nothing is going to change. The Social Security system is working fine for those who are currently receiving the benefits. It's for our children and grandchildren that it needs to be fixed, because it's on an unsustainable course. And you saw last week, with the Social Security trustees report, that it is only getting worse, and that it only continues to get worse each year that we wait. The date for when it starts experiencing shortfalls is now 2017, instead of 2018, and the date when it becomes insolvent is now 2041, instead of 2042.
So this would be -- I believe it's the 20th state that the President will travel to as part of our outreach efforts to the American people. And he looks forward to going to Iowa, he looks forward to being with Senator Grassley. We appreciate the efforts of Senator Grassley to move forward on legislation that would make it permanently sound and strengthen it for our children and grandchildren. He is someone who has stated that he intends to move forward on legislation in his committee, and we're going to continue reaching out to the American people. More and more Americans recognize that there are serious problems facing Social Security. That's important in the first phase. And we will continue to work with members of Congress, like Senator Grassley, to come up with a bipartisan solution this year.
And also, while he's in Iowa, prior to the conversation on Social Security that he will be participating in, he will be stopping by a diner in Cedar Rapids and participating in a radio interview with an Iowa radio station. And the pool will be there to cover that, as well.
Q: So he likes radio now? (Laughter.)
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, John.
Q: On April 6th, the Small Business Committee in the House, under Chairman Donald Manzullo of Illinois, are going to hold hearings that, among other things, will deal with nuclear proliferation and whether the sale of parts to build nuclear reactors to China, as the -- or to loan money to China, through the Ex-Im Bank, could possibly lead to proliferation. Is this something the administration will watch carefully, the hearings coming up, in whether or not to determine to go ahead with the loans and loan guarantees to China?
MR. McCLELLAN: I would hesitate to use the words that we watch Congress carefully, but I'll say that we follow Congress closely -- (laughter) -- and obviously, we work very closely with members of Congress and we will continue to do so. I don't have any update in terms of this specific issue for you.
Q: Any date set for the visit of Prime Minister Abbas here to the United States?
MR. McCLELLAN: No.
Q: Any chance he might show up with Prime Minister Sharon?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, that's a visit with Prime Minister Sharon. We would look forward to it at a time that's convenient for President Abbas to come to the United States, as well.
Q: Scott, President Bush met yesterday with the Greek Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis, and a big member of prominent Greek-American community here at the White House and delivered a 15-minute speech. May we have a readout? What was it about and what the President said exactly?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you -- oh, it was celebrating Greek Independence Day, and the President was honored to welcome all those people you mentioned to the White House. And this is something we've done each year.
Q: Also, I was told that the President said something about the Cyprus issue, and the Greek/Turkish relations in general. I wonder if you could say anything about that.
MR. McCLELLAN: Our position remains the same. We continue to support the efforts by the Secretary General Annan when it comes to reunification. That's what our position is.
Q: Scott, another question about this trip to Iowa tomorrow. And this is an issue that's come up here before, but it's back in the news today. There's a wire story from Colorado that three people were barred -- who had tickets to go to the President's Social Security conversation in Colorado were barred because of a bumper sticker that someone thought to be anti-Bush. Can you tell us what the guidelines are for local volunteers, in terms of allowing people to come in and hear their President speak?
MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of volunteers?
Q: In the past you've blamed this kind of thing on over-zealous volunteers.
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know all the specific circumstances you're bringing up regarding that event. But in terms of the events, we distribute tickets to these conversations, and they are typically given to congressional offices or institutions like -- at Notre Dame University we provided tickets to the university, and they distributed those tickets, or a congressional office distribute the tickets. In Tennessee, when we were, I believe it was Memphis -- when we were in Memphis we provided some tickets to Congressman Ford's office. And I think he had 40 or 50 tickets that he distributed. And so people came to the events, as well.
We welcome a diversity of views at the events. Obviously, the conversations that the President is participating in are designed to educate the American people about the problems facing our Social Security system, the problems that are facing it for our children and grandchildren. And so it's part of an educational effort. I think that there's plenty of people out there talking about the other side of the issue, and you see those people talking about it on a daily basis.
Q: What are the marching orders that are given to the people at the door?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?
Q: What are the marching orders --
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know. I'll be glad to look into it and see what else I can find. I don't know if there's formal marching orders, as you referred to them. But I'll be glad to look at them.
Q: Are you concerned that the President is not hearing a lot of different viewpoints in these conversations?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President hears a lot of different viewpoints every day, when we follow the news. I mean, there's plenty of viewpoints being expressed on this issue. As I said, these conversations are about educating the American people about the problems facing Social Security. That's what they're designed for, to talk about the problems that we face and to talk about possible ideas for solving it. I think the American people expect that when members of Congress and their elected officials in Washington, D.C., see problems, that they work together to find ways to solve those problems.
Our door has been open for Democratic leaders to come forward and work with us to fashion a bipartisan solution on this issue. And so far we have seen little response from Democratic leaders. There are some Democrats who have stepped forward and said that they recognize there is a problem -- that's an important first step. And now we need to work together to find a bipartisan solution. But there are plenty of views being expressed on this issue. And we're going to continue talking to the American people about the problems facing Social Security. And that's what these conversations are about.
Q: Two short questions. Does the President favor changing the laws in this country so that parents, rather than the husband, could have custody of a person in this situation?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I think that the case that we're talking about here with Terri Schiavo is an extraordinary circumstance, and that's the way we looked at this. I know Congress -- some members of Congress are looking at some legislation, that's something they're looking at. Obviously, if legislation came our way, we would take a look at it, at that point.
Q: On the U.N., would this administration favor Bill Clinton becoming U.N. Secretary General?
MR. McCLELLAN: There is a Secretary General and I addressed that issue earlier today.
Q: Scott, going back to Iraq again, was the President trying to send them a message today? He kept -- he seemed to emphasize compromise, majority rule with minority rights. I couldn't help but feel that he was trying to send a message, because we hear reports of the political lines becoming more firm, more entrenched, not much give-and-take going on.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, those are important principles that we feel are part of any democracy. Obviously, the democracy that the Iraqi people are building is going to be based on their own culture and their own heritage, but there are certain fundamental principles that are important for any democracy. And we've made those views known repeatedly, and we will continue to in all places across the world.
It's important that there be rule of law. It's important that there be democratic institutions in place that are built on protecting the rights of all people. And those are important aspects. In fact, that's something that was adopted by the interim government in the transitional administrative law, and I think you've seen a number of Iraqi leaders step forward and state how important that is to their future. And so they will be working to move forward on drafting a constitution, and it's important that -- we believe it's important that the constitution addresses some of those fundamental principles of any democracy.
Q: With Congress facing some contentious trade issues, CAFTA among them, fast track also included in that category, to what extent was Congressman Portman's position in the House a factor -- that is, an extent to which you will be able to leverage his connections in the House on those two issues -- to what extent was that a factor in picking him for Trade Representative?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the President talked about the factors that were considered in picking him. I mean, he's someone who is close to the President, who enjoys the President's trust. He is someone who has a background as an international trade lawyer. He's someone with a lot of experience in working to build compromises and to get things done. And he's someone who is fully committed, like the President, to expanding free trade and to making sure that there's a level playing field. And so I think that's the reasons that he was selected.
You mentioned a couple of important priorities of this administration -- the Central American Free Trade Agreement -- and Deputy Secretary Zoellick was speaking to that issue, I believe, earlier today, as well.
Q: To what extent are you concerned about your trade agenda at this point?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've made a lot of progress over the last four years on advancing free and fair trade, and thanks in large part to the work of Deputy Secretary Zoellick when he was head, when he was in the position. And we believe that Congressman Portman will build upon his work at the U.S. Trade Representative, and so we look forward to Congress, or to the Senate, moving quickly on his confirmation to get him in place.
Q: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has made some extremely strong anti-American statements. Is there a concern that he could turn into the Saddam Hussein of Latin America and be a haven for al Qaeda in the months or years to come?
MR. McCLELLAN: One of the things that was discussed last week with our partners from Mexico and Canada was the importance of supporting democratic institutions in our own hemisphere. And that's the broader issue here, that all of us in the Americas should work together to support the advance of democratic institutions throughout the region and not take steps back from moving forward on democracy.
We've expressed our concerns when it comes to the situation in Venezuela. Those concerns remain. Those are discussions we discuss with others, as well. And it's important to work through the Organization of American States to address some of those issues, as well.
Let me keep going, because I need to get back here to Terry, and -- go ahead.
Q: Yes, the First Lady is on her way to Afghanistan for a trip to express America's solidarity with that country. She's going to be on the ground about five hours, max, in which time she's going to have dinner with U.S. forces, she's going to meet with President Karzai, and meet with some women. But in that time, isn't it literally only going to be a photo op? How much can she actually achieve?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, she has a very full schedule while she is there. I went through that schedule earlier today. And one of the things that she is going to be doing is using this opportunity to visit Afghanistan to highlight the advances of women in Afghanistan. That is something that is near and dear to her heart. It's also an opportunity to show our continued support for the people of Afghanistan as they work to move forward on building a free and democratic future. They've made tremendous progress -- as the President talked about earlier today, freedom is on the march in the broader Middle East region. And the people of Afghanistan have shown their commitment to moving forward on a free and democratic future.
And Mrs. Bush has been looking forward to going to Afghanistan for some time now, to focus on an area that has always been important to her, and that is education. So she will be visiting with teachers and students at the Women's Teacher Training Institute. She will be announcing some grant money that's being provided by the United States to a university there, as well as an elementary school, to support those efforts to educate all the people of Afghanistan. And she will be there to thank our men and women in uniform for their service and sacrifice in Afghanistan, as well.
So this is a trip where, when she hits the ground it will be a very busy schedule. And she will also meet with President Karzai during that time. So I think that the people of Afghanistan, and particularly the women of Afghanistan, appreciate her coming there to show our support for the people of Afghanistan.
Q: What about the tremendous difficulties the women in Afghanistan, particularly outside the capital, are facing with regard to being able to go to school, where schools are being burned down, being forced to go back to wearing burqas and not being given the freedoms that --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, and that's one of the reasons we created the U.S. Afghan Women's Council, was to support exchanges between our two countries and between the ministries in Afghanistan and agencies here in the United States, and to help advance the rights of women in the country and help to advance the rights of all people in that country. And we will continue to support those efforts and do all that we can.
Q: I just wanted to get you on the record here, a follow-up on Goyal's question on the sale of F16s to Pakistan. What is the logic here? What is the rationale? You spoke of reducing tensions in south Asia. How does it reduce tensions to sell these advanced aircraft which can deliver nuclear weapons, to a government -- which, by the way, as the President promotes democracy, is headed by a man who took power in a military coup?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we are in a different period in the region, where there is greater stability in the region, and that's one of the things that was discussed in the briefing last Friday, as well. And Pakistan has been an important ally in the global war on terrorism and we want to make sure we are supporting them as they work to confront the threats from terrorism that we continue to face. They continue to go after members of al Qaeda and members of the Taliban.
We also work very closely with India on these issues, and that's why the President reached out to Prime Minister Singh, to inform him of the decision. But this is something we've talked about for some time with both countries.
Q: Scott, on Social Security, quickly, some people are concerned that if you do the private accounts that it would take away the disability benefits. Is that the case? Could you explain that?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, and the President has made it very clear previously that we're not talking about changing benefits for those with disabilities. This is about focusing on the retirement side of Social Security, and that's where our focus is. And we want to make sure -- as the President has talked about, as well -- that we work toward making sure it's a progressive system, so that we have a system that is focused, first and foremost, on helping those lower-income Americans who depend on Social Security for their livelihood.
But we know right now that if we do nothing, they're going to face massive benefit cuts or massive tax increases. That's why we need to act now. But in terms of the disability side of things, the President has already addressed that and made that clear.
END 1:43 P.M. EST
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