White House Daily Briefing, April 7, 2004

 

Wednesday April 7, 2004

THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
(Crawford, Texas)
April 7, 2004

PRESS GAGGLE WITH SCOTT McCLELLAN

Crawford Elementary School Crawford, Texas

3:35 P.M. CDT

MR. McCLELLAN: All right, good afternoon. Let me give you an update on the President's morning. The President had his usual briefings this morning. Following that, he participated in a phone call with Prime Minister Blair. The two leaders discussed the war on terrorism, Iraq, the Middle East, and Prime Minister Blair's upcoming visit, which you all already have the announcement on from earlier today.

Following that phone call, the President participated in a secure videoconference with his National Security Council. The call also included Ambassador Bremer and General Abizaid. That first meeting lasted for a little bit over an hour, probably about an hour and 15 minutes. And then later in the morning, I guess early afternoon Eastern time, the President participated in a second National Security Council secure video conference with the same individuals. And in both discussions, the President received an update on the operational activities underway in Fallujah and some other parts of Iraq. He received the updates from General Abizaid, himself.

And with that, I will be glad to go straight to your questions. Let me start with Mark.

Q: The President has often said that whenever he talks with his military commanders he asks them if there's anything they need that they don't have. Did he ask that of Abizaid today? And specifically, did he ask whether Abizaid needs more troops?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, typically, you're correct, in calls like this, the President does ask the questions, do you have everything you need to do your job. Let me just start off by saying the President is very proud of our troops. He knows that our troops are performing well, and he knows that our troops will prevail against this violent power play by a relatively small number of extremist elements in Iraq that is led by radical cleric, Sadr. And the President has great confidence in our troops and he knows that they will defeat these minority extremist elements that are trying to undermine democracy and freedom for the Iraqi people.

Q: But on the question of whether Abizaid needs anything else that he doesn't have?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, on those issues, as you are aware, the President believes it's important to leave those decisions to the commanders who are on the ground. And he wants to make sure that, from our end, we're providing them with all the resources that they need, and providing our troops with all the tools they need to do their job. So, certainly, those are issues that the -- issues that the President always asks about in situations like this, to make sure that we have the resources necessary to address the circumstances on the ground. And as you are aware, right now there are offensive military operations underway in certain parts of Iraq. This is part of taking our fight to these minority extremist elements who are trying to derail the transition process and prevent a democratic future from taking hold in Iraq. But they will fail.

Q: What did General Abizaid tell the President today? Does he want to keep more troops there who are supposed to rotate out?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you just had a briefing from Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman Myers and they talked about these issues. In terms of the actual troop issues and military operations, I'm going to leave those specifics to the Pentagon and to our coalition over in Iraq to discuss.

Q: Rumsfeld suggested that some troops that were supposed to come out will stay. I'm wondering what he's recommending to the President, what Abizaid is asking for of the President --

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I think Secretary Rumsfeld talked about the importance of informing the troops on any decisions like that before talking about those issues publicly. And he just addressed that in his briefing.

Q: If I could follow, 25 soldiers have been killed in the last three days, many more Iraqis. Now we have these uprisings from Sunni and Shia. What is the administration doing, beyond military action, to try to win their support --

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, I disagree with the characterization of your question. And I think you just had a briefing from Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman Myers and they talked about how what you are seeing is what I just described -- a relatively small number of extremist elements who are trying to take advantage of the situation and go about a violent power play to try to undermine the transition from oppression to democracy that is underway in Iraq. But they will fail; we will defeat them. These individuals are thugs and terrorists and remnants of the former regime; they are enemies of freedom, and they will not prevail. That is why we are taking the fight to these enemies of freedom.

Q: Scott, they are Sunni and they are Shia in these different groups. What is the administration doing --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think I would describe them as thugs and terrorists and remnants of the former regime. And as was pointed out in the Pentagon briefing just a short time ago, I think they were described as somewhere in the range of 1,000 to 6,000, a relatively small number of these extremist elements who are enemies of freedom and enemies of the Iraqi people and a brighter future for the Iraqi people.

Q: What is the administration doing beyond the military action to try to win the support overall of the Iraqi people?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we're moving forward on several different fronts. We're moving forward on the plan that Ambassador Bremer outlined quite sometime ago on the political front and the democratic front. We're moving forward on the economic front. We're moving forward on the security front. You have more than 200,000 Iraqis who are now involved in their own security. They represent the largest contingent of people involved in providing security for their country.

So we're moving forward on a number of different fronts. Obviously, we have the transitional law that has been put into place. We are moving forward to meet the June 30th deadline. That is a firm deadline. There is nothing more that these extremist elements would like to see than that process derailed. But we will continue to stay the course and finish the job, and we will defeat these minority of extremist elements that exist in Iraq.

Q: Scott, the Ayatollah Sistani is condemning the way U.S. forces are dealing with the Shiite uprising. How do you respond to him?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I continue to disagree with that characterization, as did Chairman Myers and Secretary Rumsfeld in their briefing a short time ago. I think they described the circumstances on the ground and what we are seeing on the ground right now. Again, this is a violent power play by a relatively small number of extremist elements. They are led by this radical cleric, Sadr, who is doing everything he can, through fear and intimidation and chaos, to try and prevent democracy from coming to the Iraqi people.

But democracy is taking root and there is no turning back. They will not succeed. This is an individual who is reacting to the strong efforts that we are taking to end these illegal activities that are going on in Iraq. And he has a small militia that is seeking to derail these democratic reforms that we are helping to provide for the Iraqi people. But our resolve is strong and unshakable.

Go ahead.

Q: This morning, the President's campaign forwarded a column from William Safire this morning in which he described the current situation as a two-front insurgency that calls for a change in our strategy, including additional troops. Does that reflect the President's thinking, or does his campaign think --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President's thinking was described well at the Pentagon briefing just a short time ago. There is -- our commanders on the ground have an aggressive and coordinated strategy in place to restore order and defeat the extremists. And they are continuing to pursue that through an offensive military operation that is underway in Fallujah and certain other parts of the country. This is a strategy that takes the fight to the enemies. This is an offensive strategy, and our commanders will use whatever force is necessary to go after these extremist elements that seek to use violent means and murder to derail the democratic process going on in Iraq.

Go ahead, John.

Q: Scott, I wasn't sure -- when you referred to thugs and remnants of the former regime, you were not referring, I take it, to the Shia elements, that's separate, because, obviously, Shia -- they would not be remnants of the former regime, right?

MR. McCLELLAN: Right.

Q: So you -- you said thugs and other elements --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you've got different -- you're talking about --

Q: Which are the thugs --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, you've got remnants of the regime in Fallujah that are certainly trying to undermine the democratic reforms that are being instituted in Iraq right now. And you have terrorists and you have, obviously, some criminals that were released previously that we've talked about over the past. But I think what you're seeing is primarily remnants of the former regime and extremist elements led by the radical cleric, Sadr, who are seeking to spread fear and chaos and intimidation and undermine democracy for the Iraqi people. But the vast majority of Iraqi people want democracy and freedom. And that's what we are moving forward to provide the Iraqi people.

Q: A two-part question, Scott. Is it the administration's intention still to proceed to enforce that arrest warrant for al-Sadr?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that General Kimmitt spoke a little bit about that earlier today. Certainly, if he turned himself in that would be a quick way to end some of the violence that is going on in certain parts of the country right now. I'll leave it to the military to talk further about the steps that they are taking.

Q: What is the administration's view of the idea that by forcing a military or perhaps bloody confrontation with this individual, that, in effect, a martyr could be made of him and that the administration -- or the coalition could find itself in a worse position because you might be increasing sympathy for him? What is the administration view of that idea?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, again, those are issues that our military is addressing. This individual is one man who has a relatively small following of extremists who are enemies of democracy and freedom. He is an individual who has called for violence and murder in the name of his cause. He is an individual who has pledged solidarity with terrorist organizations, Hamas and Hezbollah, and he is seeking to use a violent power play to try to undermine democracy for the Iraqi people.

But he will not succeed. And there is an arrest warrant that has been issued for him. General Kimmitt spoke earlier today, like I said. He said that he could bring an end to some of the violence that is going on by turning himself in. He was someone that was indicted for the murder of a moderate and broadly respected Shia cleric.

Q: What I'm asking is how you go about enforcing that arrest warrant without creating a worse problem by making a martyr of him.

MR. McCLELLAN: Those are decisions that will be made and carried out by the coalition forces on the ground in Iraq, in consultation with Iraqi leaders, as well, I'm sure.

Q: AP is right now moving a story called "At War Again," and there's been some critics saying that this is a return to major combat. Is this a return to major combat --

MR. McCLELLAN: No. No, I don't think anyone is describing -- I've not heard anyone describe it that way. Obviously, there are some combat operations underway, but these are -- these are offensive military operations aimed at defeating the small -- relatively small number of extremist elements who are using violence and murder to try to undermine the transition going on in Iraq.

Q: Scott, why has the President been relatively quiet on this issue, and can we expect that to change?

MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree with that. The President talks on a regular basis about events going on in Iraq. And he talks often about the great job that our troops are doing, serving and sacrificing in defense of freedom. He often speaks about how there will be tests along the way.

And let me just reiterate something I said yesterday. It is no coincidence that the closer we get to transferring sovereignty, the closer we get to the June 30th date, it is no coincidence that we are seeing some of these extreme elements seeking to undermine the democratic process. But they will not prevail.

Q: Are you concerned about the perception that he's tucked away on the ranch here?

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, the President has spent most of his morning and early afternoon focused on events in Iraq, as I talked about at the beginning of the gaggle.

Q: -- a hope or expectation of seeing him --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think -- Dana, we'll always keep you posted on his schedule and if there's any additional events to announce. But he will continue to talk about the importance of what we are working to achieve in Iraq, because a free and peaceful Iraq is important to winning the war on terrorism. It's important to bringing about greater stability in a dangerous part of the world.

Q: On a related topic, what does the White House hope to accomplish through Condi's testimony tomorrow?

MR. McCLELLAN: Does anybody else have anything else on Iraq first? Can we come back to that, Ed? I'll come back to that. Let's finish.

Q: Scott, the last few days have been one of the most violent in the death of U.S. -- or coalition troops. Could you maybe address what the President has done? Has he reached out to any of the families? And can you address the broader issue of more U.S. troops dying over there?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think, one, the President visited with another family just the other day. He's visited with hundreds of families of our troops who are serving and sacrificing in the war on terrorism, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And the President mourns the loss of each of our fallen. Our troops are serving and sacrificing to make the world a safer place and to make America more secure. And the President believes that it's important to continue to stay the course and finish the important work that our troops are involved in right now. And that's what he'll do. But, certainly, the President mourns the loss of each of our fallen.

Q: Has he spoken to the families yet --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he visited with one of the families of someone who recently made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq, just the other day, in North Carolina on Monday. Like I said, he meets with families on a fairly frequent basis and reminds them that their loved one served in an important cause. He's also visited with many of those who have been wounded, seeking to defend our freedoms and seeking to make America more secure. We are forever grateful for those who are serving and sacrificing in the defense of freedom and in our efforts to make America more secure for future generations.

Q: Scott, how do you now respond to Senator Kerry's assertion yesterday that the June 30 date is an arbitrary one set for domestic political reasons here in this country?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the campaign has already responded to some of the comments he's made. But let me go back to what I said earlier. There are some minority extremist elements that want nothing more than to derail the transition process and prevent the Iraqi people from realizing a free and democratic future. And it is no coincidence that as we get closer and closer to the June 30th timetable for transferring sovereignty, that we are seeing these relatively small number of extremist elements try to undermine the democratic process. This was a mutually agreed-to timetable with leaders in Iraq, and the Iraqi people believe it is an important date, and the vast majority of the Iraqi people want to see the agreed-to timetable met. And that's what we will continue to work with the Iraqi people to do.

Q: How does the President decide whether events on the ground in Iraq might warrant previously unscheduled comments from him? And has there ever been any concern inside the White House about the appearance of what looks like for the President not to be seen publicly until Monday?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's assuming certain things, number one. And I'll keep you updated on his schedule over the next few days, but I don't know that I would make that assumption. Like I said, this President speaks often about the important cause that is underway in Iraq. He speaks often about the importance of advancing freedom and democracy in a volatile region of the world, and how that is important and critical to winning the war on terrorism. The stakes are very high -- you just heard from the President yesterday, talking about the stakes involved in Iraq -- and there are going to be tests and challenges along the way. It is never easy to transition from oppression to democracy. There are always going to be challenges and difficulties along the road to democracy.

But democracy is taking root. There is important progress going on in many parts of the country. There are certain areas that still remain dangerous. But the President knows that our troops and coalition forces are performing well and that they will continue to do an outstanding job and prevail over these thugs and terrorists and Saddam loyalists.

Q: Can I ask you to flesh out some of the logic on this main assertion you're making here that this looming deadline, or this approaching deadline of June 30th is responsible or somehow sparking this violence? I don't understand how --

MR. McCLELLAN: Because these are thugs and terrorists and extremist elements who are opposed to democracy and freedom. And they see the progress being made and they fear democracy and freedom because they will no longer have power like they did under the former regime; there will no longer be an oppressive regime in place that was built around mass graves and torture chambers and rape rooms. That day is gone. That regime has been removed. And the Iraqi people have a brighter future ahead of them. And the vast majority of the Iraqi people want democracy and freedom, and we are working side-by-side with them to make that a reality.

Q: Can I ask you, too, to respond -- there's some incredibly bitter rhetoric from Senator Byrd today. Among other things, he said --

MR. McCLELLAN: Sounds like you kind of responded for me. (Laughter.)

Q: What's that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Sounds like you responded for me. (Laughter.)

Q: Me?

MR. McCLELLAN: "Bitter rhetoric."

Q: Oh, well. "Surely, I am not the only one who hears echoes of Vietnam in this development," what's happening in Iraq.

MR. McCLELLAN: I think given his well-known opposition to the action we took in Iraq to make America more secure, it's not surprising that we continue to hear such charged rhetoric from the Senator. But we strongly disagree and the American people strongly disagree.

Q: What about Americans who do see a growing quagmire here? Surely, there are other Americans who see that, too. What do you say to people --

MR. McCLELLAN: I told you, I think I described it in terms of the way things are unfolding in Iraq. We are moving forward to transition to sovereignty for the Iraqi people. There is a lot of progress being made throughout the country, but there are certainly dangers and difficulties that remain. And I think you can expect to see more attempts to carry out violent acts by these relatively small number of extremist elements that do not represent the vast majority of Iraqi people. They represent everything that is contrary to freedom and democracy. They seek to use violent means to gain power. And that's all -- that is exactly what we are seeing right now by one radical cleric and his relatively small number of followers.

Q: Two quick ones. First, is there no set of circumstances under which the 6/30 deadline might be moved?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President has spoken quite clearly to this. He remains firm, firmly committed to that timetable. And as I said, the vast majority of the Iraqi people want to see sovereignty transferred on the previously agreed-to timetable. There is this small minority of extremist elements that want to do everything they can to derail that process, but they cannot. We are moving forward and helping -- I mean, bringing about sovereignty for the Iraqi people will also help move forward on the security front, as well. We're seeing more and more Iraqis involved in their own security, more than 200,000 now. Obviously, there are lessons we are learning along the way and there's more work to do to make sure they are fully prepared to provide for the future security of their country. But we will be there every step of the way, working side-by-side with the Iraqi people to bring about a free and peaceful future.

Q: And how is this upsurge in violence and the need, as you said, to restore order there affecting the budgeting for the war effort?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in terms of those issues, those are always things that we look at, based on the circumstances and the needs going forward. We are moving forward on the wartime supplemental that was approved last summer, to make sure our troops have all the resources they need and to make sure that we are moving forward on the political and humanitarian fronts for the Iraqi people.

Q: So this is not adversely affecting the budgeting for the war?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I couldn't speculate about that at this point, James.

Q: Scott, you seem to be suggesting that what we're seeing in Iraq is being done by a very few number of people, sort of downplaying the significance -- I guess significance of what's going on there. Yet this week we've seen Ambassador Bremer cancel his trip back home --

MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree that I'm downplaying anything. I think I'm talking to the facts and the circumstances on the ground, as did Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman Myers before.

Q: But the Ambassador canceled his trip home. There's the possibility of keeping troops over there, if not expanding the number of troops there. The President has spent most of his day on the issue, having meetings scheduled just recently to address the situation. So is this not something that is -- could potentially affect the overall outcome in Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I just said that that's what these extremist elements want to see happen, but they will not prevail. We will defeat them. They will fail. That's exactly what these extremist elements are trying to do. But our resolve is firm, and the Iraqi people -- the vast majority of the Iraqi people support the efforts that are underway to build a democratic and free future for the Iraqi people.

Q: -- see this as a significant turning point --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think it's as Secretary Rumsfeld described it; it's another moment on the road to democracy and freedom for the Iraqi people. And let me just repeat, we have repeatedly said that as we move closer and closer to transferring sovereignty, and as we make progress toward democracy and freedom, you will see these thugs and terrorists and Saddam loyalists seek to undermine those efforts because they are enemies of freedom and democracy, and they are enemies of the Iraqi people.

Q: But if this was always anticipated -- I don't mean to be difficult, but if this was anticipated, this --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you plan for -- I think our coalition forces plan for all contingencies. And I think that you heard in the briefing just a short time ago from Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman Myers on some of these issues. And you always have to look at circumstances on the ground, and it's important to rely on the commanders on the ground because they're in the best position to assess the needs. And right now, there are offensive military operations that our troops and coalition forces are undertaking in certain parts of the country, and we look to our commanders on the ground to determine what their needs are. And then, we are -- and then we make sure that they have everything that they need to do their job.

Q: Call on Ed -- 9/11.

MR. McCLELLAN: 9/11. Go ahead, Ed. Where are we?

Q: What does the White House hope to accomplish through Condi's testimony tomorrow? And will she apologize for 9/11?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, I think on the first part, you need to let her testify for -- you'll hear directly from her, so I will let you listen to her comments tomorrow --

Q: I'm not asking you what she's going to say --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- but let me talk. First of all, she looks forward to meeting with the commission again tomorrow, and this time providing public testimony. She previously met with the commission for some four hours and laid out exactly what we were doing prior to the September 11th attacks during our first eight months in office. And she will do the same tomorrow. She will lay out the facts and talk about exactly what we were doing, the steps and actions that we were taking to confront the threat from al Qaeda and terrorism.

I would remind you that these were threats that were building and emerging over quite some period of time. We took the threats seriously before September 11th, and we were taking a number of steps to confront the threats prior to September 11th. It was a high priority for this administration.

So she looks forward to testifying publicly tomorrow and talking about these issues and answering whatever questions the commission has.

Q: There's nothing to apologize for?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one -- let me back up on that for a second. Our concern is always with the families of the victims. Our thoughts and prayers are always with the families of the victims. The President has personally visited with hundreds of the families. He has shared in their grief; he has shared in their anger; and he has reassured the families that we will win the war on terrorism and do everything in our power to prevent something like September 11th from ever happening again.

We should never lose sight of the fact, even though -- or even through our grief and anger, that the terrorists are the ones that are responsible for these horrific attacks. And the best way to honor those who lost their lives is to continue taking the fight to the enemy and winning -- and win the war on terrorism, and do everything we can in our power to prevent something like that from ever happening again.

In terms of her specific remarks, you'll hear from her tomorrow. I think she's finalizing up her opening remarks and she looks forward to tomorrow.

Q: Scott, Richard Clarke clearly has made some pretty declarative assertions about the state of readiness prior to September 11th and the actions of an awful lot of the principals in the administration, including Dr. Rice. Is it safe to assume that in some sense tomorrow she'll address those issues?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, she looks forward to answering whatever questions the commissioners have. There certainly have been some contradictions that were made by Mr. Clarke and the commissioners said that they are likely to ask about some of those issues. And Condi has already laid out all the facts for the commission previously and now she looks forward to doing it in the public setting.

Q: -- of the 9/11 speech that Dr. Rice was prepared to give --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, I mean, we are always in constant contact with the commission, we're always in close discussion with the commission. I don't get in the habit of talking about all the specific issues that may be raised. But we are continuing to work closely and cooperatively with the commission to make sure that they have all the information to do their job, and to make sure that we are fully responsive to their requests, so that they have access to the information that they request and need. And that's what we will continue to do, without getting into specific discussions that may be going on.

Q: So you might give it up -- or it might be information they might need?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I mean, you're asking me about specific issues that may be being discussed between the commission and the White House. And I'm not confirming one way or the other whether or not that is even correct. What I'm saying is that from day one we have bent over backwards to provide the commission unprecedented access to the information they need and to make sure that we are fully responsible to their requests. And there are lots of ways to provide the commission with the information they need, and there are lots of ways to make sure they have access to the information that they request. And that's what we will continue to do.

Q: Scott, can you say if the President had any guidance or advice to Dr. Rice about her testimony? And should we expect the President to be watching it tomorrow?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you heard from the President the other day. I mean, I think he addressed that very issue. He said she's going to go and lay out the facts and she'll talk about what we were doing prior to September 11th and the high priority that we place on confronting the threats from al Qaeda and terrorists.

But what was the second part of your question?

Q: Will he watch?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'll keep you posted tomorrow. I'll keep you posted on that. I'm sure he will receive updates.

Q: -- we might see him tomorrow?

MR. McCLELLAN: Nothing scheduled at this point, John. If something changes, I'll let you know, but nothing is scheduled at this point.

Q: First, on the -- after the meeting, the NSC meeting, how long was that? You didn't tell us how long it was.

MR. McCLELLAN: It was approximately an hour. The first one was about an hour, 15 minutes. That was -- I think it was around 12:30 p.m., began around 12:30 p.m., Eastern time.

Q: The first one?

MR. McCLELLAN: Second. The first one was in the morning.

Q: Can you give me an idea how long Condi has spent preparing for this? And has her preparation, her testifying been a distraction while all this other stuff is going on?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, she has remained focused on the many priorities that we have on the foreign policy side. As I said, she has been working to finalize her opening remarks. Certainly, I think you can expect she's been talking with her staff and going over some of the questions that may be brought up tomorrow.

But, look, she has already talked to the commission for some four hours and answered all the questions they had in the private meeting, so I think many of these issues have previously been discussed and this will now give her an opportunity to talk further about some of those issues in a public setting. And she looks forward to it.

Q: Has CIA been -- or any other agencies besides NSC been helping her in her preparation?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's been primarily working with her staff. I don't know what other contacts some of the staff may have had, I don't keep track of all that. But that's why I pointed out that, look, she's already been through all these issues once with the commission.

Q: Has she been undergoing a mock hearing?

MR. McCLELLAN: You can check with her office. I think I would describe it as certainly she has gone over some of the questions with her staff.

Q: She is supposed to finish about 10:30 a.m. Waco time tomorrow, Crawford time tomorrow. Would you expect that you would then brief midday, early afternoon-ish?

MR. McCLELLAN: We'll keep you posted; we'll see. I mean, obviously, that's going to be the big news of the day, I imagine. So we'll just -- I'll be around as needed.

Anything else? Thank you.

Q: Week ahead?

MR. McCLELLAN: Wait. No, this is Wednesday -- you're trying to trick me.

END 4:09 P.M. CDT

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