THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
July 29, 2003
WHITE HOUSE PRESS BRIEFING BY SCOTT McCLELLAN[Excerpts on Declassification of 9/11 Report]
QUESTION: The President laid out two reasons why the administration believes it cannot declassify those 28 pages. But that said, isn't there something in that 28 pages that can be declassified? And secondly, do you have anything to say about how the Saudis have cooperated in the war on terrorism, because they say that they are being unfairly maligned here and cannot respond to blank pages?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, as you're aware from what I said earlier, we worked very closely with the joint congressional inquiry and provided unprecedented cooperation. We made sure that the joint committee had access to hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, that they had direct access to hundreds of individuals and intelligence community and law enforcement.
We worked to make sure that we could declassify as much information as possible because of how important that is. But what we will not do is compromise our national security by allowing information relating to sources and methods to be released, or allowing information about ongoing investigations relating to the September 11th terrorist attacks to be released. It is too important to our continuing war on terrorism and our efforts to go after and dismantle, disrupt, and defeat al Qaeda and its terrorist networks.
Q: No, I don't think anyone really quibbles with that. But a Republican Senator on the Hill who you know is on the Senate Intelligence Committee has said that 95 percent of this could be declassified without endangering national security. So what do make of what Senator Shelby had to say?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I continue to reiterate what we said earlier. But in as the President said, there may be some point in the future where that information can be declassified, and when it -- as long as it was consistent with our national security when it harmed our efforts in the war on terrorism -- but we cannot allow ourselves to weaken our efforts in the war on terrorism, or weaken our efforts to go after and pursue those who are responsible for carrying out terrorist attacks against the American people.
Q: Would you at least tell us what the administration's view of Saudi cooperation and any Saudi encouragement or support for terrorism?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, our view continues to be one that the Saudis have been providing good cooperation in the war on terrorism. We certainly understand their concerns over the reports that have been made in the media. But because of these ongoing investigations and because of our national security interest, we cannot allow that information to be released at this time.
Q: Senator Graham today said the only reason this is being withheld, that these 28 pages are blank, in his words, is it's all politics. He says that the administration is trying to avoid embarrassing the Saudi government.
MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think the national security of the American people has anything to do with politics. It's the highest responsibility this President has and it's a responsibility that he takes very seriously. And we are not going to do anything that would jeopardize ongoing investigations. The President made that very clear in the Rose Garden. This is too high of a priority, and the consequences could be too severe if it were to be released.
Q: How do you explain the difference between Senator Shelby and the White House over what could be declassified? Surely he's not somebody whose views on national security issues would run counter to what you normally believe. But he says 95 percent can be declassified without compromising anything. Why do you take such an opposite view? Where's the problem here?
MR. McCLELLAN: We respect the views of members of Congress and those that were involved in the intelligence committee. We made sure that the information was available to those members. I hope that they understand and appreciate our views and our concerns --
Q: -- what he thinks of the information.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- but it is -- I want to reiterate what the President said earlier. We will not do anything to compromise this nation's security or do anything to jeopardize ongoing investigations.
Q: Can you give a readout on the meeting the President had with the Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister? Did the Foreign Minister make a request --
MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, that meeting is going on as we speak.
Q: Is that the message the President is conveying now during the meeting?
MR. McCLELLAN: I expect he will convey the same message if that topic is discussed.
Q: Saudi Arabia is an ally, and what can the President say to them today, what can he offer them today as a means of rebutting these accusations?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, and they will continue to be someone that we work very closely with in the war on terrorism. Saudi Arabia recognizes that -- the importance of confronting the threats posed by al Qaeda. Terrorism has hit their own soil from members of al Qaeda. And so, this is something we'll continue to work very closely with Saudi Arabia on, and we understand their concerns. But I hope that the American people recognize the importance of what we are doing.
Q: But if it's not completely -- if everything in there is not going to jeopardize national security, then is there something that they can offer the Saudis today to help them rebut these accusations?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, that's getting into classified information that relates to our national security, that relates to our ongoing investigation, that relates to sources and methods. And I'm sure that there are people, as the President said, that are involved who would like to know their names. But we will not jeopardize these ongoing investigations by making that information available.
Q: Can you walk us through who exactly, in terms of the NSC or CIA or FBI, is making the decisions about what should be classified and what shouldn't? Because with the NIE and the State of the Union debacle, we all found out how difficult cooperation and communication can be between the various intelligence agencies. So who's making the final call --
MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of the joint committee?
Q: In terms of --
MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of the information in the 9/11 report?
Q: In terms of what could be declassified and what can't.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in terms of the information, again, this was a 900-page report. The vast majority of the report we supported declassifying and making public. That was our position. But some of this does relate to our national security. And our position --
Q: Who says that?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm getting to it. Our position is one based on a very important principle and a very important responsibility. When we worked with the committee, obviously, the appropriate intelligence communities were involved in that process and involved in those discussions, whether it's the CIA, FBI, or whoever it may be --
Q: That's what I'm asking, is tell us who --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- but the White House is fully aware of these decisions as they're made and we're very supportive of these decisions because of the reasons I just stated, because of the importance it is to our national security.
Q: Who makes the decisions?
MR. McCLELLAN: I just walked you through it. I think that's the way I would describe it.
Q: Is it the CIA --
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we're aware of the decisions that are made. But those discussions during the committee process were had with the appropriate intelligence agencies. And the White House is fully aware of that, and fully --
Q: So CIA and the NSC -- was Condoleezza Rice a part of this?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- and fully supportive of the steps that we're taking.
Q: Do you know who made the decision?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think I just spelled it out for you. I don't know -- that's a -- I think I'm being precise in the way that the process works. And if you go back and look at the process, that's the way it works, that those discussions are had with the appropriate agencies. The White House is kept fully aware of those discussions and involved, and we support those decisions.
Q: To follow on that, did the NSC or Legislative Affairs brief Card or the President on what was being classified?
MR. McCLELLAN: The President is aware of these decisions, and fully --
Q: Right, I understand. Who kept him aware? Was it in his morning CIA and FBI briefings? Was there someone at NSC charged with monitoring this?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think you can assume that the NSC is involved in this, that the Chief of Staff's involved in this. They're all aware, well aware of this, and the President is briefed on those decisions.
Q: So was it the NSC that was monitoring what was being classified and what was being declassified?
MR. McCLELLAN: They're aware of that. They're aware of the process, as well.
Q: -- the lead West Wing agency.
MR. McCLELLAN: They're aware of the process, as well. I think there are a number of people that are involved in it.
Q: Who are they?
Q: Who in the NSC did it?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- from the senior staff to --
Q: Who in the NSC did it?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think there are a number of people, both NSC and the senior staff, who are involved in this process. We're fully involved in that process.
Q: Scott, can you find out and bring it back to us -- it's a totally fair question.
Q: In terms of, if you can, to the degree that you can enlighten us, it is still confusing about why you all say this material relates to ongoing investigations, and someone like Shelby says it's fine to release it. Obviously, he doesn't think it's an ongoing investigation, or whatever material is there is not going to reveal a source, or at least if there's a name, I guess you could take it out. But he clearly has a different, completely different impression of this.
MR. McCLELLAN: And I think we've clearly stated from the beginning that only the most sensitive national security and law enforcement information was not declassified. And the reasons we've always stated were the ones that we've continued to cite today.
Q: So is Shelby wrong?
Q: But how can he say -- how can you all say this relates to an ongoing investigation and he and others say, no, it doesn't, or it's not that sensitive? What are we missing?
MR. McCLELLAN: We're aware of the information in the report, and it's for the reasons I stated. And again, we're not going to do anything that would jeopardize our national security, that would jeopardize ongoing investigations that are relating to the September 11th terrorist attacks. We're going to continue to pursue everybody that was involved, continue to pursue every piece of evidence involved until we bring those people to justice and until we find them.
Q: So Shelby is wrong then in his assessment of this material?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I'm not going to speak for senators and I'll let the senators speak for themselves. The information is made --
Q: Again, his view on this is 180 degrees different from yours. Is he right or is he wrong?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'll let the Senator speak for himself. Our view is very clear about why this information, the importance of continuing to keep this information classified at this time. Again, at some future point it may be able to be made available, but certainly not while there are ongoing investigations or there are sources and methods that could be compromised and that could harm our nation's security. We will not do that.
Q: Scott, what it appears to come down to on this 9/11 report and the Saudis are allegations which, even before the release of this report, that supposedly there were some funds from Saudi officials that somehow got funneled over to the 9/11 hijackers. Is there any way that you can deny that right now, saying -- back the Saudis in refuting that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Look, I mean if you're asking me to get into specific information that could be -- that would be classified, I'm just going to stop you there. I'm not even going to -- regardless of what the question is, of trying to get into classified information, I can't do that. What I can do is tell you that the material in the section being discussed contains information about ongoing investigations about counterterrorism operations and about sensitive sources and methods. And that is simply something that we will not jeopardize, because it's about the safety and security of the American people.
Q: Without getting into classified information, can you say whether the President is confident that no Saudi officials assisted terrorists -- have assisted or are assisting terrorists directly or indirectly?
MR. McCLELLAN: The Saudis are being very helpful in our war on terrorism. That's what I will make clear. We are working with them to confront the threats that we both face. And that is something that we will continue to do. Investigations remain ongoing in terms of September 11th. I wouldn't read anything into it, one way or the other. I would let the investigations proceed.
Q: So you're saying it's an open question?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm saying, I wouldn't read anything into that at all.
Q: Let me follow up on the question then. Does the President believe that Saudi officials may have played some role in financing the terrorists?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that the President believes that the Saudis are playing a helpful role in cracking down on terrorist financing and helping in other ways to go after the al Qaeda terrorist network. Again -- Chris brought up a question earlier, and I said, I'm just not going to get into any questions about ongoing investigations. So I wouldn't take that to read anything one-way or the other. Let's let the investigations proceed. We are going to pursue these investigations and pursue them to the fullest, until we bring all those responsible for the September 11th terrorist attacks to justice.
Q: Scott, I hope you clear up something for me. On this whole issue of the redacted pages and the Saudi request that we release them, I'm very curious about the timing of this. Saudi Arabia is supposed to be our ally and doing great things in the war against terrorism. There are 28 pages in a report that seem to allege or detail possible links between Saudi officials and Saudi money and terrorists. The Foreign Minister comes over here to personally appeal to the President that this be released so that they can answer these charges, and even before he walks into the gate, you're up there saying, we are not going to change our decision, nothing is going to be released. Are we sending some kind of message --
MR. McCLELLAN: I think we made our position known during the joint committee process, as well. And I'm not going to get into any position where I'm prejudging ongoing investigations or prejudging where they may go. We're going to pursue them, where they may go.
Q: I'm just curious about the timing that -- he wasn't even allowed to come in the gate before we said, no. He wasn't allowed to make his pitch. That just strikes me as odd that we've come down so firm beforehand.
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I think that you're reiterating what we've already said. We certainly understand the concerns of Saudi Arabia and we appreciate those concerns. But we have concerns, as well, concerns about compromising our nation's security, or compromising ongoing investigations, something we won't do.
Q: Aside from declassifying these pages, what is the administration going to do to help the Saudis deal with this issue?
MR. McCLELLAN: What are we going to do? Well, I think that there's a meeting going on. Obviously, it's going on as I speak, so there's nothing I can report back to you on that meeting at this point. But what we're going to do is continue to work with the Saudis to confront the terrorist threat that both our countries and the world face. So we're pleased with the cooperation we've had. We're going to continue to work with them, and we have a good friendship and we will continue to move forward on that friendship.
But no -- but, look, let me make very clear, we are not going to do anything that would jeopardize our nation's security, that would jeopardize sources and methods that could harm our national security if those sources and methods were known, that would compromise ongoing investigations if information became public.
Q: Well, no one is quibbling with that, but is there anything you can say that would disabuse people of the notion being spread by some critics that some Saudi officials knowingly supported the terrorists?
MR. McCLELLAN: Jim, again, there are ongoing investigations relating to the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Q: I'm not asking --
MR. McCLELLAN: I would never get in position to prejudge any of those ongoing investigations. And I think that some of the questions going on want to prejudge it one way or the other, is relating to ongoing investigations --
Q: I'm not asking about the outcome of an investigation, I'm just saying, does the U.S. --
MR. McCLELLAN: So we need to let those investigations continue and continue in a way where they are not compromised. That's what we're going to do --