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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Briefing

Aired April 29, 2004 - 14:24   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go live to the White House briefing on this historic day at the White House.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The best way to win the war on terrorism is to go after the terrorists and bring them to justice before they can carry out their attacks.

We've also taken significant steps to better secure the homeland and be prepared to respond in the event of an attack. We've worked to create the Department of Homeland Security, the largest reorganization in some 50 years of government.

We worked to pass the Patriot Act to provide law enforcement with vital tools to prevent attacks from happening in the first place.

That is also why we worked to create the Terrorist Threat Integration Center to improve our intelligence sharing and analysis.

The administration has provided the 9/11 commission unprecedented access to information, including our nation's most sensitive national security documents.

We have provided the commission with more than 2 million pages of documents and hundreds of briefings and interviews with administration officials.

The president very much appreciates the important work of the 9/11 commission. He looks forward to seeing their report and recommendations.

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

QUESTION: Scott, what was the president's goal here in terms of explaining to the commission how this administration saw the threat from al Qaeda prior to 9/11?

MCCLELLAN: I think his goal was the goal of the commission and many other people, and that is to make sure that we learn the lessons of September 11th and to make sure that we are taking all the steps necessary to protect the American people and win the war on terrorism.

And we have taken significant steps since September 11th, but if the commission has additional recommendations on ways to better protect the homeland and win the war on terrorism, this president wants to see them as soon as possible.

QUESTION: Was the president's position before the commission that the administration had done all it could to respond to the threat from al Qaeda?

MCCLELLAN: I think the president talked about this in his news conference. Looking back, he wishes we had had certain things in place. He wishes we had had the Department of Homeland Security in place prior to September 11th. He wishes that we had the Patriot Act in place. And he wishes that we were in a position to better share the intelligence information that we had.

This is something that happened on his watch. And he very much supports the work of the commission and wants to see their report and see their recommendations and act on those recommendations.

QUESTION: Did he repeat that the August 6th memo did not point to a specific threat?

MCCLELLAN: I think that's kind of getting into the substance of the discussion. I think the president was asked a little bit about that in the meeting. The president was pleased to sit down with the commission. It was a very cordial meeting. The president thought they had a number of thoughtful questions, and he was pleased to answer all the questions that they asked. He was pleased to sit down with them for more than three hours and visit with them about all these issues.

But this was a private meeting. And I think I'll leave to it the commission's final report to address a lot of those issues.

QUESTION: You said the discussion about the August 6th memo covered the same ground we've heard before?

MCCLELLAN: I think you've heard from Dr. Rice and others in the administration relating to that. I'm just not going to get into a discussion of the private meeting the president had with the commission.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... on that particular point that the administration's position on the information contained in the PDB has not changed?

MCCLELLAN: I think you've heard our views.

QUESTION: Mr. President and the vice president cleared three hours of their schedule here today. Two members of the commission left early. We saw Vice Chairman Hamilton and Senator Kerrey leave early. Can you explain why, and what the White House reaction is?

MCCLELLAN: I think you'd have to ask those members. I don't know what their other commitments were.

QUESTION: Was the White House aware that these members would leave? MCCLELLAN: I would direct those questions to the members. I'm not going to try to speak for those members.

QUESTION: Was the White House aware in advance that two members would walk out during the session?

MCCLELLAN: I think there may have been some discussion that there were some other commitments those members may have had, but you can direct those questions to them.

QUESTION: Then during the public sessions of the 9/11 commission from time to time it got a little adversarial.

QUESTION: Was there any of that in this?

MCCLELLAN: No, I think you heard from the president. He talked about how it was cordial. And I think it was a respectful meeting.

Like I said, he appreciates very much the work that the 9/11 commission is doing. This is very important work. And their report and their recommendations can help us win the war on terrorism, help us better protect the homeland, and that's why he very much looks forward to seeing their report.

QUESTION: I'm changing the subject slightly. A Gallup poll says that the majority of the Iraqis want the Americans out of their country. What is your reaction to that?

MCCLELLAN: Well, a couple of things, one, I think the president talked about this in his press conference a couple weeks ago. He said no one wants to be occupied. We don't want to be occupiers. Of course the Iraqi people want to run their country. And that is why we're working to move forward as quickly as possible to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people, and we're going to do that on June 30th.

I would also note that in that poll that many Iraqis feel that despite the hardships that they've been through, it was very much worth it to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The world is better off and America is more secure because Saddam Hussein was removed from power.

QUESTION: Are you able to give any date of when all Americans will be out?

MCCLELLAN: We are going to stay to finish the job and make sure that there is a free and peaceful Iraq. I think...

QUESTION: Were you surprised at the poll?

MCCLELLAN: No, look, I think the president talked about it in his press conference a couple weeks ago that very question.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCLELLAN: Of course no one wants to be occupied. We don't want to be occupiers. But we liberated the country, and now we're there to help the Iraqi people realize a free and peaceful future because that is critical to winning the war on terrorism.

MCCLELLAN: That's why we're there. A free and peaceful Iraq...

QUESTION: ... didn't go in to win the war on terrorism when we invaded Iraq...

MCCLELLAN: A free and peaceful Iraq -- this is a broad war on terrorism that we are undertaking. The president believes that we must take strong and decisive action to eliminate the threats that we face.

That's what September 11th taught us, which is what we're talking about right now.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... terrorism by invading Iraq?

MCCLELLAN: Terrorists have no regard for innocent life. They will carry out their attacks without discretion. They want to harm innocent men, women and children and spread fear and chaos.

And I think that if you go back to what David Kay said in one of his reports -- or after one of his reports -- he said that Iraq was potentially even more dangerous than we thought prior to September 11th. He talked about it. You can go back to his comments.

QUESTION: How much of a readout did you get from either the president or Judge Gonzalez on the substance of the meeting...

MCCLELLAN: I talked to the president after the meeting. But I'm not going to get into discussing the substance of the meeting. The president said he felt that was best left to others to address. And I think they'll obviously be addressing all these issues in their final report.

QUESTION: So he did not discuss with you, and you don't know in terms of the president said they discussed a wide range of topics, you don't know...

MCCLELLAN: He said that. He said, out in the Rose Garden, he talked about how they discussed a wide range of topics. And I did visit with him afterwards but I'm not going to get into the substance of the discussion.

QUESTION: You did say that they discussed the August 6th PDB. Can you...

MCCLELLAN: No, I didn't. I said our views are very well known.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) you did say it came up in the meeting.

MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: I think you did say that it came up in the meeting.

MCCLELLAN: I don't think I did.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCLELLAN: What that in response to? I don't remember saying it. I don't recall saying it to that specific question.

QUESTION: OK, I was going to say that if that came up, did you get any sense from the president about how much time they might have spent on this testimony by Mr. Clarke, who says that the president and Dr. Rice were...

MCCLELLAN: Again, I'm going to let the commission's report speak to all of these issues, and that will be coming out soon enough.

QUESTION: The president also talked about how he was interested in the recommendations...

MCCLELLAN: I would point out what the commission said in their statement. They did say that it was extraordinary and talked about how it lasted for more than three hours. And they went on to talk about how the president and vice president were very forthcoming and candid, according to their statement.

And they talked about how the information that was provided to them by the president and vice president was of great assistance to the commission as it completes its final report.

And they thanked the president and vice president for their continued cooperation with the commission. We've been working closely and cooperatively with the commission from the beginning.

QUESTION: The president said in the Rose Garden that he was very interested in the recommendations, that the commission talked about what they've been looking for and that he was very interested in that. Can you characterize the discussions on that?

Did they talk about specific proposals? As you know, many members of the commission have said there needs to be some domestic intelligence agency. The president has said he would consider that, because...

MCCLELLAN: I'll leave it to what the president said in the Rose Garden. He touched on that subject. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Did anyone at the White House ask the commission today to not discuss the contents or substance of the three hours?

MCCLELLAN: Not that I'm aware of. I mean, I think that the commission, if you look back to the private meeting they had with President Clinton and Vice President Gore, addressed this the same way. They put out a statement afterwards. And I don't think they really got into any substantive discussion about any of the issues. They maybe talked very generally about it. QUESTION: Can you discuss what you think is different about the president and vice president's meeting as opposed to former president Clinton and Gore? Because in those interviews with the 9/11 commission, they were recorded.

QUESTION: Why didn't President Bush and the vice president allow their meeting to be...

MCCLELLAN: Well, I think this is consistent with many important meetings that we have at the White House, and certainly meetings that the president has in the Oval Office.

There are many important meetings, whether they are meetings with world leaders or National Security Council meetings or policy briefings on high priorities, where notes are taken.

QUESTION: Probably none of those were on the level of importance of determining what went wrong on September 11th.

MCCLELLAN: Well, let's see, the NSC meeting that the president had when he decided to launch war and go into Afghanistan, notes were taken from that meeting. It wasn't recorded. So I think that I would disagree with that somewhat, but there were detailed notes taken of this meeting.

QUESTION: You mentioned yesterday that you anticipated that most of the questions would be to the president. Obviously...

MCCLELLAN: To my understanding, that's the way it was.

QUESTION: That's the way it was?

MCCLELLAN: Yes.

QUESTION: The president indicated that there were obviously some questions to the vice president as well. Do you have some feel for how the questions were divided up?

MCCLELLAN: I'm not going to try to break it down to that extent. But the president answered most of the questions because most of the questions were directed to him, as I said they probably would be.

QUESTION: Is it safe to say they were on the same page?

MCCLELLAN: Safe to say they were in the same room.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Can you characterize at all the extent to which the commissioners were interested in what happened on the day of the attacks as opposed to all of the other issues involved here?

MCCLELLAN: Again, I'm just not going to get into discussion of the substance of the meeting at this point.

QUESTION: The president said it was important for the commission to see him and the vice president together, to see their body language, to see how they work together.

QUESTION: Were we to take that as an indication that both answered some of the same questions? In other words, a question was posed, you'd get an answer from one and then an answer from the other.

MCCLELLAN: Look, I wasn't the meeting, but I certainly wouldn't rule it out that the president maybe addressed some things and the vice president may have added some comments. I wouldn't rule that out. But, again, I wasn't in the meeting and I'm not going to get too far into discussion on the substance of those discussions.

QUESTION: What does that mean: "Judging by their body language."

MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: What does that mean, what does the president mean when he says that?

MCCLELLAN: You're talking about what he said in the Rose Garden?

QUESTION: Yes.

MCCLELLAN: Well, let's look back at what he said.

Well, I think that he was obviously there in the room. They were sitting very close together. They were all sitting somewhat in a circle. And he felt it was a very cordial meeting. They had a very good discussion. He felt it was a great meeting. He appreciated the opportunity to share his views and thoughts with the commission and to talk about what we were doing.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCLELLAN: You keep jumping in here, I'm going to keep going back to other people, and maybe we'll come back.

QUESTION: Your last answer actually anticipated some of my question. Could you describe in some detail the physical layout of the meeting in terms of...

MCCLELLAN: Well, it's the Oval Office, and you know how the Oval Office is set up. And you have the two chairs in front of the fireplace, and that's where the president and vice president sat, as they typically do. And then members of the commission were sitting on the couch, as well as chairs right at the end of those couches. They were kind of in a little bit of a semicircle shape.

QUESTION: The chairs were at the opposite end from the president and the vice president?

MCCLELLAN: Yes, that's right. That's correct. Close to the desk.

QUESTION: And the president was seated on the right or the left... MCCLELLAN: In his usual seat where he sits. So if you're standing in front of the fireplace, facing his desk, he's to the left.

QUESTION: Why did you decide to do it in the Oval as opposed to say the, say the...

MCCLELLAN: Well, there are a lot of important meetings that take place in the Oval. I talked about meetings with world leaders and, then, certainly, policy briefings. So the president viewed it as a good way to sit down and discuss these important issues with members of the commission.

QUESTION: Part of the calculation -- just one more, if I may -- was part of the calculation -- you used the word "sitting together" somewhat informally -- was part of the calculation that a setting like that in the Oval would be less potentially adversarial than...

MCCLELLAN: I don't think I would look at it like that. I don't think anyone came in looking at this meeting as something that was adversarial. I think they came into this meeting looking to find some answers to their questions. And I think that they got those answers to their questions to help piece together the information that they've already been provided to -- have access to.

QUESTION: Did the White House take stills?

MCCLELLAN: I think there were some pictures taken at the beginning.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCLELLAN: I don't think we're going to. I mean, this was a private meeting.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCLELLAN: I don't recall specifically. I know -- I think Chairman Kean was on the couch close to the president. I'm not sure where Chairman Hamilton was.

QUESTION: Scott, who brought the meeting to an end? And how...

MCCLELLAN: It ended. Look, I mean...

QUESTION: ... did it end...

MCCLELLAN: No, it wasn't. No. It wasn't something he ended. It came to an end.

I think that they were very satisfied with the time that they were allotted or that they had with the president. But I think that typically the chairman kind of looks for a good opportunity when they've had their questions answered to wrap things up. But the president was pleased to sit down and visit with them for, I believe, it was three hours and 10 minutes, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:40 p.m. O'BRIEN: We'll leave it there for now. That's Scott McClellan at the White House in his briefing on a historic day at the White House as the president and vice president had a conversation with the 9/11 Commission members and some staffers as well. Reporters trying to get a few more details. Not having very much success.

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