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Press Briefing by Scott McClellan December 21 2004

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 21, 2004

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

President's trip to Europe
Russia/Yukos sale
Recent killings in Mosul
Reference B
Reference C
Strength of insurgency
Reference B
Prison abuse/FBI memos
Reference B
Meeting with Kweisi Mfume
Reimportation of drugs
Immigration reform
Secretary Rumsfeld
Palestinian state
Fanny Mae/Frank Raines
President's view on religious symbols
Russia/nuclear storage in United States
12:35 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. I want to begin with an update to the President's schedule, and then give you a quick readout on a world leader call from this morning.

The President will travel to Germany and the Slovak Republic, following his meetings on February 22, 2005, with NATO and European Union leaders in Brussels, Belgium. Chancellor Schroeder will host the President in Germany on February 23rd. In addition to a bilateral program in the Slovak Republic on February 24th, the President will meet with Russian President Putin.

The President has emphasized his desire to work with all of our friends and allies in Europe to promote global development and prosperity, to defeat terrorism, and to encourage freedom and democracy as alternatives to tyranny and terror. This trip, which will be the President's first foreign trip following his inauguration, will underscore the President's commitment to building on our shared values of freedom, democracy and human rights, and to work closely with European allies and friends on the 21st century challenges that we face together.

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Q Where in Germany, Scott?

MR. McCLELLAN: We'll get you more details later.

Q Can you talk about the agenda?

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me finish the President's call.

The President this morning spoke with Prime Minister Erdogan. The President congratulated Prime Minister Erdogan on the European Council's December 17th decision that the European Union would begin accession talks with Turkey on October 3, 2005. The leaders agreed on the EU's decision -- agreed that the EU's decision should help strengthen Turkey's relations with both Europe and the United States. The two leaders also discussed the need to increase security cooperation among the United States, Turkey, and Iraq. The President and Prime Minister Erdogan talked about the importance of moving forward on Iraqi elections in January, as well.

And that is all I have. I will be glad to go to your questions.

Q Do you have any concerns about the way Russia has handled the sale of Yukos, and will this come up at the meeting on February 24th?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, we have previously indicated concerns about the situation regarding Yukos. We are disappointed that Russia went ahead with the auction of the Yukos subsidiary. We had hoped for a solution that would allow for the legitimate enforcement of tax laws, but avoid harming investors, especially American investors. And we have communicated to the Russian government repeatedly that its handling of the Yukos matter could have a chilling effect on the foreign investment in Russia, and affect its role in the global economy. We continue to believe it's Russia's responsibility to seek greater integration into the world economy, to create an environment governed by the protection of property rights and rule of law, and to restore confidence in its political, legal and judicial institutions.

The United States supports the ability of investors to pursue interests in Russia and believes that Russia should ensure a stable, predictable and transparent environment for those investors.

Q Will the President raise this with Putin?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the agenda is being worked out now, and the President does bring up the concerns that we have when he meets with President Putin. We have a very good relationship, as the President talked about yesterday, and it's a relationship where we can talk about our efforts to work together on shared priorities like the war on terrorism, as well as talk about differences that we may have in a very open way.

Q The President also --

Q Scott, do you have anything on the Mosul attack?

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me keep going. Go ahead, John.

Q Anything on the Mosul attack?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, General Hamm just briefed a short time ago on that. The President mourns the loss of life and prays for the families of those who were killed. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. The terrorists and Saddam loyalists are desperately seeking to derail the transition to democracy and freedom in Iraq. The enemies of freedom understand the stakes involved. You heard the President talk about that yesterday. They will be defeated, and a free and peaceful Iraq will emerge. When it does, it will be a major blow to their ambitions and the ambitions of those who espouse hatred.

For too long, John, we ignored the Middle East and it became a dangerous breeding ground for terrorism. A free and peaceful Iraq will help transform the Middle East and make the world a safer and better place and provide people with hope and opportunity, as opposed to oppression and hatred. So it's critical that we continue to move forward on completing the mission in Iraq. And we appreciate our troops who are serving and sacrificing for an important cause.

Q The President also said yesterday that these insurgent and terrorist attacks are having some kind of effect in Iraq, they are an effective propaganda tool. Is this another example of that?

MR. McCLELLAN: John, what we are focused on is working with the Iraqi people and the Iraqi security forces to defeat the terrorists and defeat the Saddam loyalists. Our men and women understand the stakes involved. They understand -- our men and women in uniform understand the importance of the mission. They know that this mission is critical to the safety and security of the free world. And we appreciate their service and sacrifice. We are forever grateful for those who have fallen in defense of freedom and building a better future for the Iraqi people.

And this afternoon the President will be visiting some of the wounded and families at Walter Reed, and I'm sure that he will talk to them about the important mission that they have served and sacrificed for in Iraq.

Q Scott, can I ask you, you have said for months, and the President has said that they are trying to derail freedom, these insurgents, and that the insurgents will be defeated -- as you just said. And, yet, you've said that for months and, yet, the insurgency continues to grow stronger. This now appears to be the most deadly attack against U.S. troops since the war began. How can you show that progress is being made?

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, General Casey briefed on it last week when he was here in Washington, D.C. and he talked about the progress that had been made in places like Fallujah and Najaf and Samarra. And he talked about how even Iraqi security forces in those areas were partnering with us to address the ongoing security challenges. There are tough challenges that remain; the President talked about that yesterday. But we are making important progress on the ground.

We also have to keep in mind that the terrorists and Saddam loyalists have adapted and changed their tactics. We adapt and change with that, as well, to meet those ongoing security challenges. We saw what was accomplished in Fallujah. Security has been brought to the city of Fallujah, great progress made there. There are other areas that we must continue to address some of the ongoing security challenges. And it's important that we continue to help the Iraqi people move forward on the political process, as well, because as they move forward on holding elections next month, that will be a significant blow to the ambitions of those who want to turn back to the past. The terrorists and Saddam loyalists want to turn back to the past of oppression and brutality. That will not happen. The Iraqi people have made it very clear that they want a free and peaceful future and that they want to move forward on elections.

Q Scott, what has the President been told about why this mess hall was within range of the rocket fire and vulnerable to attack?

MR. McCLELLAN: This attack just occurred today. We know what you all know, at this point. General Hamm briefed reporters a short time ago about the situation on the ground, and that's what we know at this point. So we will continue to be briefed about it as more is learned.

Q If the United States military can't completely secure an American military base from this kind of attack, what does it say to Iraqis who are expected to show up at 9,000 polling places next month?

MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, there -- as General Hamm and others -- I mean, as General Casey, I believe, last week, and others have pointed out, in about 15 of the 18 provinces in Iraq, there is security and peace. There are some provinces where there are security challenges that remain because the terrorists recognize what a significant blow it will be when Iraq is a democratic, free and peaceful state. It will be a major blow to the ambitions of the terrorists. It is critical to our efforts to win the war on terrorism. That's why they're desperately seeking to derail the transition and attacking our forces, attacking the Iraqi people, attacking innocent civilians. They will be defeated. We have seen progress made to bring to justice those who are the enemies of freedom, and we will continue to pursue them.

Q The message to the Iraqi people from this podium is, in most of your country it's okay, go vote?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the Iraqi people are grateful for the sacrifices that coalition forces are making to help them move forward on a better future, a future that is in stark contrast to the past, of oppression. And that's what we will continue to do. The Iraqi people are registering to vote. They're filing for office. As the President talked about yesterday, you've seen a number of political parties that have already -- that have filed for the election, to participate in the election with hundreds to thousands of candidates that are involved in that election process. They are determined to move forward on holding elections. We are determined to help them move forward on elections, because moving forward on the political process, as well as moving forward on the security front and the reconstruction front will help defeat those who want to turn back to the past.

Q Was the President aware of the FBI charges of abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo by the Defense Department?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I think what you're referring to is some of the reports about some memos that have been publicly released now. And some of this information dates back to previous periods of time. The President expects that any allegations of abuse are taken seriously and fully investigated, and that corrective measures are taken to make sure that abuse does not occur again. That's what the President expects. The President made it very clear yesterday again that we are a nation of laws and a nation of values, and we adhere to our laws and values. And he expects --

Q So you're sure now that it doesn't go on anymore?

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me finish. The President expects that there -- if there are allegations of abuse, that those allegations need to be taken seriously. They need to be fully investigated, people need to be held accountable and brought to justice if they're involved in wrongdoing, and that preventative measures and corrective measures are put in place to prevent it from happening again. The Department of Defense has a number of investigations ongoing into allegations of abuse. I think they show that they take these allegations very seriously, and that's what we expect.

Q You've several times made the point that eventually you expect the insurgents will be defeated. But this is a pretty sophisticated attack today, apparently, from what we know of it. What does this attack say to you about the resourcefulness and capabilities of the insurgents now, even after Fallujah? And the President made a point yesterday of saying that the elections at the end of January are just the beginning of a process, not the end.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's correct.

Q Does that suggest that we should expect this kind of violence to go on throughout the year?

MR. McCLELLAN: And I think we've addressed that previously, that as we continue to move forward on helping the Iraqi people build a free and democratic future, and a peaceful future. The enemies of freedom will continue to seek to derail that transition. But as -- each step that we move forward is another defeat for the ambitions of the terrorists and the Saddam loyalists who want to return to the past. And the political process is critical to moving forward toward a democratic and free and peaceful Iraq for the Iraqi people.

Now, General Hamm, a short time ago, said that the investigation into the attack today is ongoing. So I don't think it's appropriate for me to get into talking about the specific attack. But we have talked about how some of these terrorists that have come into the country and the Saddam loyalists who fled the battlefield previously were changing some of their tactics. And we are adapting to meet the challenges from those changing tactics, as well -- and the military has talked about that -- and we will continue to do so.

But we expect violence to continue as we move forward on helping the Iraqi people build a free and peaceful future. But they will -- those who seek to derail that transition will be defeated. We have seen in a number of areas the progress that has been made. But we will also always remember those who have served and sacrificed on behalf of the Iraqi people and on behalf of building a better and safer world.

Q Scott, as you say, the violence -- you're expecting the violence to continue. This goes back to the security for the military who is fighting in Iraq. What is being done to fortify military bases over there? What's being done to help these soldiers deal with these insurgents?

MR. McCLELLAN: A lot. Our men and women in uniform are performing superbly. We are greatly appreciative of the service and sacrifice that they are making in Iraq and Afghanistan and other areas of the world in the war on terrorism. They understand the importance of their mission. And we will always make sure they have what they need to complete that mission. That's what the President has made clear repeatedly.

Q What's needed today? What's needed to fortify a U.S. military base --

MR. McCLELLAN: The military can talk to you about the specific steps that they're taking. They're the ones who are in the best position to do that. General Casey did that last week, and they will continue to keep you updated on what they're doing to address the ongoing security challenges and partner with Iraqi security forces to address those security challenges.

Q And on another topic, real quickly. In a matter of minutes, the President is supposed to meet with Kweisi Mfume, the head of the NAACP -- the outgoing head of the NAACP. What is the President going to discuss and what's on the President's civil rights agenda for his second term?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this was a meeting that was requested by Mr. Mfume. Mr. Mfume asked for the meeting to discuss ways we can work together in the future. The President and Mr. Mfume have had a good relationship in the past, and this meeting is an opportunity to talk about ways we can work together in the future on shared priorities. The President is always open to talking to people who want to work together on our common challenges and our shared priorities. So he looks forward to the meeting here shortly. And in terms of the actual meeting, I think we need to let it take place for now.

Q So does this mean that the NAACP -- Kweisi Mfume is the outgoing head of the NAACP. Does this mean the NAACP will now have an open door to come and sit and talk with the President, after years of a chasm between the two organizations?

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me repeat what I just said. The President is always open to sitting down and visiting with and working with those who want to work together on shared priorities. He has had a good relationship with Mr. Mfume in the past. Today's meeting is a way to talk about how we can work together in the future. Mr. Mfume sent the letter requesting the meeting prior to his announcement that he would be leaving as president of the NAACP. So we look forward to hearing what he wants to bring up. The President, I'm sure, will have some things to say, as well, and talk about ways we can work together.

Q Will there be a readout on that?

MR. McCLELLAN: This was scheduled as a private meeting. I will see what else we can get you all later in the day, but the President felt this was a good opportunity to sit down and talk in private about ways we can work together in the future.

Q Can Mfume come to the stakeout?

MR. McCLELLAN: Anybody is welcome to go to the stakeout, April.

Q Back on Mosul, to follow up on April's question. Already the critics are saying that this is another example that soldiers aren't protected, that this was -- this mess hall was simply under a tent. How does the administration respond to that criticism? And then, also, can you clarify the Iraqi elections -- is that seen as really a benchmark when it comes to, I guess, measuring just how much the violence will increase or what you expect after those elections?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's an important step in the process toward a democratic, free and peaceful Iraq. The President talked about yesterday how it's the beginning of the process toward a free, democratic and peaceful Iraq. And this election will be about putting in place a transitional government as we move forward, from the interim government to a transitional government, that will work on drafting a constitution, getting that to the Iraqi people for their approval and then, ultimately, at the end of next year, they will be able to hold elections to decide who their permanent representatives are for their government going forward.

And it's important that we move forward on all fronts, because as we move forward on the reconstruction front, the political front and the security front, it helps defeat those who seek to derail that transition and it helps defeat their ambitions. The Iraqi people are assuming more and more responsibility for their future. And as they assume more responsibility, those who seek to stop that from moving forward will see that their days are numbered.

Q So the administration has been trying to prepare the American people for the increase in violence leading up to the election. Do you think that that will subside once the election occurs?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you have to adjust to circumstances on the ground. And we always look to the commanders on the ground to tell us what is needed, and then we work to make sure they have what they needed, in terms of the best equipment and all the resources to complete the mission. And as circumstances change on the ground, the military adapts to those circumstances. And that's what they've been working to do with some of these issues involving improvised explosive devices and RPG attacks.

Q The President, during the campaign, was pretty skeptical about reimportation of drugs -- or sounded skeptical of the reimportation of drugs from Canada. And he said he was awaiting a report, and it seems that that report is going to come out today. Has he read that yet, and does he have a position?

MR. McCLELLAN: He is familiar with the report. I believe there's a briefing here shortly. The President's top priority has always been the safety of the American people when it comes to drugs, and that will remain his top priority. We have the strongest system of regulation of drugs of anyplace in the world. And so let's let the briefing take place and then we can talk about it further.

Q Scott, if I could go back to the FBI memos for a moment. Were the concerns of the FBI, as communicated to the Director and other officials there, from its agents who have been at Guantanamo Bay ever shared with any officials at the White House?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's a broad question. I mean, I can go check specifics if you want to bring it to my attention; I can see what else I can get for you. We're aware --

Q The FBI agents are saying people in Guantanamo, military officials are, one, posing as FBI agents, and two, doing things to prisoners that we are not allowed to do, which they considered abuses.

MR. McCLELLAN: Generally speaking, we are aware of the allegations of abuse that are being made available in some of the documents that have been released. And I told you what the President's view is. Everybody knows what the policy is. And we've made it very clear that we expect that policy to be followed. And so, yes, we do stay in touch with the Department of Defense on issues of this nature when they come up. The Department of Defense has assured you, has assured the public that they take these issues seriously, that they have investigations going on. There have been instances where they have taken action to hold people accountable for alleged abuse.

Q Right. But what I'm asking about in this particular case, you had the FBI expressing specific concerns from people who had been down there and seen what they considered abusive behavior. Are you saying, in that particular instance, those particular concerns were expressed to the White House?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, in terms of specifics, this information is becoming public so we're becoming aware of more information as it becomes public, as you are. I think that these are matters that are typically addressed with the Department of Defense, and the Department of Defense is the one who takes action to look into those matters. So I can't say that specific matters and memos, internal memos at the FBI, I can't say that we were necessarily aware of those. I'd have to check on individual matters.

Q Well, the question would be whether the White House knew that the FBI was concerned that there were abuses and that its name was being invoked in perpetrating those abuses. If the White House didn't know, then we would be led to believe that it was up to Director Mueller to go to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and say, hey, your guys are doing things that are wrong and blaming my guys for doing it.

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, there's a lot of documents that have been released. I'd have to check into specific instances and let you know on that.

Q So you -- would you clear up one thing? There was one story out there that the President had signed some executive order that somehow dealt with the interrogation of prisoners?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that's already been cleared up by the Department of Defense, as well as the Department of Justice, who said that that individual was mistaken.

Q Well, would you just state for the record whether the President had ever signed any sort of order dealing with interrogation?

MR. McCLELLAN: There is no executive order relating to interrogation techniques. When it comes to military detainees and interrogation methods, those are determinations made by the Department of Defense.

Go ahead, Sarah.

Q Scott, the President says he wants to see immigration reform in his second term. He wants to see people who are willing to work be allowed to enter the United States. But many thousands of hardworking people, some who have been here for many years and who have families here, entered the U.S. illegally. Has the President changed his position on amnesty?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, the President's position is very clear. I think you heard him talk to this issue yesterday at length. He remains committed to moving forward on his temporary worker program and working with Congress on that matter.

Go ahead, Goyal.

Q Scott, Asia Today Magazine was searching the best man of the year. They interviewed so many people here and also overseas, and most of the voices came for President Bush. What I want to hear, really, is directly from the President why and how he should be the man of the year, and best person for --

MR. McCLELLAN: For -- for what award?

Q Asia Today Magazine.

MR. McCLELLAN: Those are determinations, obviously, for that magazine to make, and they're very well aware of his record and his leadership and we'll leave it to them to make that determination.

Q And secondly --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me keep moving. Jacobo, go ahead.

Q Scott, yesterday, the President defended Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld quite vehemently at yesterday's press conference. Is it just an open-ended endorsement, or will the President continue to review the performance of the Pentagon, especially when things are not going always well in Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President works very closely with Secretary Rumsfeld. As we carry out the war on terrorism and as we move forward on transforming the military, he will continue to do so. He appreciates the job that he is doing. You heard directly from the President yesterday, and that's where I would leave it.

Q Scott, to follow up on that, since both The Washington Times and The Maryville, Tennessee Daily Times report that when Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Edward Pitts rehearsed Army Specialist Thomas Wilson of what to ask Secretary Rumsfeld, the Pentagon had already up-armored 97 percent of the vehicles in Wilson's regimental combat team, and the last 20 of their 830 vehicles were in the up-armored pipeline, said General Speaks, in a Pentagon briefing last week --

MR. McCLELLAN: And your question.

Q So my first question: What is the President's reaction to the fact that all of this was ignored by the old big media, like The Washington Post, who published a page one poll reporting a majority want Rumsfeld to go?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President was asked about this very issue in the Oval Office, and he made his views very clear, that he could understand why the soldier was asking the question that he did. He said, if I were in that soldier's position, I would have asked the same question. The question came from the soldier. It was his decision to ask the question. And in terms of the increase of armoring Humvees, the military has worked to increase the number of armored Humvees that are being produced a month, from 35 to 450. Secretary Rumsfeld has talked about that, and the Pentagon has talked about it, as well.

It's important that we make sure our troops have everything they need. And when circumstances on the ground change, sometimes there's a need to change what equipment and armor they have, and we need to make sure it gets to them as quickly as possible. That's what the President expects.

Q Yesterday the President's said, there will never be peace until a true democratic state emerges in the Palestinian territory. And my question: How does he imagine that this can possibly take place when the lead candidate to run this Palestinian state is a Holocaust denying, four-decade assistant to Arafat, who now demands of Israel the right of Arab return?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President believes that we have a very unique opportunity before us in the Middle East, and I think that all parties recognize that this is an opportunity we need to seize. We have an opportunity to move forward on a Palestinian state, and getting to a Palestinian state living side-by-side at peace with Israel. That's the President's two-state vision. All parties have responsibilities moving forward. We need to continue to work together to put in place a strategy so that the Palestinians can put in place institutions necessary for a democracy to emerge.

The President knows that when you have democracies living next to each other, that they're at peace with one another. And that's why it's important to move forward on this. And it's important to let the Palestinians choose who their leaders are. And in terms of the election next month, that will be a step, but it is not the completion of a democratic Palestinian state. There is much work to be done. And the President talked about how he appreciated Prime Minister Blair's efforts in that respect, as well.

Q For the last 18 months, Fanny Mae's CEO, Franklin Raines, has told Congress, investors, taxpayers, that his company's accounting is sound. On Wednesday, the SEC ruled the accounting is flawed and the company should restate earnings by as much as $9 billion. Should the board of Fanny Mae, a government-chartered company, remove Raines?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that those are matters that the board will work to address. In terms of the issues relating to Fanny Mae, there are some ongoing investigations by independent agencies that I'm not going to get into discussing. We've long talked about the importance of making sure that government-sponsored enterprises, like Fanny Mae, have a strong regulator, and some of the issues that have arisen recently underscore the need for that. GSEs like Fannie Mae have an important role to play in increasing home ownership opportunities for the under-served. And we believe there should be vigorous oversight so that those enterprises serve their public purpose and contribute to a sound and strong financial system. And that's what our views are. But in terms of those matters, those are matters that the board will address.

Q Scott, with regard to the attack in Mosul today, for the last two weeks, we've been hearing about not enough armored Humvees being out in the field. Now this attack has taken place at the base. A holiday is coming; insurgent groups like to strike on symbolic days. What can you say to the parents of American troops who are over there who are concerned, given the fact that the holidays are coming and that these reports seem to be gaining critical mass?

MR. McCLELLAN: We can say what the President says when he visits with the families of those who are serving in places like Iraq and Afghanistan: Your loved one is serving an important cause and an important mission. The efforts in Iraq are critical to winning the war on terrorism, as the President talked about yesterday. This is about transforming a dangerous region of the world that for too long we ignored, and bringing hope and opportunity to that region and defeating the ideology of hatred that the terrorists in that region espouse and seek to advance.

And we can also say that we thank you for your service and your sacrifice, as well. The families have made tremendous sacrifices, and we appreciate all that they do. And the President also tells them that your loved ones who are in harm's way will have everything they need to complete their mission. We will make sure they have the best possible equipment and the resources they need to carry out that mission. And that's what our commitment is.

Q Are you ramping up force protection in light of this?

MR. McCLELLAN: The military has acted on a number of fronts. They talked about those issues over the last few days, and they talked about the steps they're taking to address some of the challenges that remain.

Go ahead, Connie.

Q Scott, what are the President's thoughts on restrictions on religious symbols, especially during the holidays? After all, this is a nation that's built on religion and relies heavily on God. And by the way, while we're at it, merry Christmas.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you. Happy holidays to everybody here.

Q You can say, Christmas.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure about what restrictions you're specifically referring to. I think -- the President believes that we ought to be welcoming of people of faith, and people ought to be able to express their views freely and openly and -- whether they worship in a God or not. And the President has talked about that.

Q But the challenge is specifically on Christmas symbols, on nativity scenes and so forth.

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I'm not sure what you're referring to in terms of restrictions. But the President believes -- we're a country that values the ability of people to freely worship as they choose.

Q Do you mind looking into it and trying to --

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead. Go ahead.

Q Yes, I wanted to come back to the agenda of the meeting with Putin, if I may, for a second. The meeting will happen two days before the new vote in Ukraine. Do you expect that to be a major subject in the discussion? Also the President yesterday mentioned --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, the meeting with Putin? That will be --

Q Yes.

MR. McCLELLAN: That won't be until February. When the vote -- the vote on Ukraine will be --

Q All right, sorry, I don't know what I'm talking about.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- this week. That's okay, I don't either, so -- (Laughter.)

Q That is a moment of frankness in the briefing room. (Laughter.)

MR. McCLELLAN: -- then we can begin the holidays.

Q Apology made, apology accepted. The other subject that the President himself mentioned yesterday was this idea of allowing the Russians access to the nuclear storage facilities in the United States. Is this a new idea? And, again, will it be a major subject of discussion?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I think that is something that they will discuss when they meet. The prevention of the proliferation of nuclear material is one of our top security priorities. And he will likely bring that up with President Putin when they meet. We have long-established cooperation in this area, and the two leaders can discuss ways to improve that cooperation, including through sharing ideas and ways to build confidence that both countries are doing separately and together, and to make sure we're doing all that is necessary to secure nuclear material.

Q Why was it needed? Why was this new initiative needed? Was there a lack --

MR. McCLELLAN: We've done -- we've taken a lot of steps to work to address some of the unsecured nuclear material in countries around the world, including in Russia. And I think the President was talking about it would be an opportunity for Russia to see how we address some of those issues, too, and ways to improve some of that cooperation.

Q I'm going to follow up on Connie's question with specifics. The ACLU has gone to court to prevent a 5th grade class in Oklahoma from singing Christmas carols during a holiday program. Also, this is happening in New Jersey. In Seattle, a city building, they had to take the Christmas tree down because the city was being threatened by a lawsuit from the ACLU, and Americans for the Separation of Church and State.

These are very important symbols to people of faith, not only Christians, but members of other faiths. We know that the President is a man of faith, and I'm sure that the faithful who believe they're being persecuted would appreciate some strong support and encouragement from the President.

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President has made it very clear that people ought to be able to freely worship as they choose. And in terms of schools, he's talked about those issues, as well. He has been a strong supporter of voluntary efforts like voluntary student prayer. And so I think his views are very clear on these issues.

Q Scott, just about all of us in this room are old enough to remember what happened in 1983, with the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, and what that one incident did to American resolve regarding that mission. I'm just wondering if the President believes -- and I realize the Mosul thing is quite different, the circumstances are quite different, but it's been widely reported -- I'm wondering if the President worries that the American people are going to continue to be accepting of the consequences of this invasion ad infinitum or at some point --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, there -- a free and peaceful and democratic Iraq is going to emerge. It's going to be an Iraq that is run by the Iraqi people, as they choose to run that country. And we've made that very clear. The President will continue to talk to the American people about the challenges that remain. As he talked about yesterday, there are still some tough challenges going forward. But he will also talk to them about the importance of the mission we are working to complete in Iraq.

As I said, for some two decades at least, we ignored the Middle East while terrorism was building and strengthening. And we saw what happened on September 11th because of that. It was a threat that was emerging that was not being confronted. This President made a decision after September 11th that we are going to confront the war on terrorism on all fronts. This is a struggle of ideologies; it's a struggle of the ideology of hatred and tyranny and the ideology of freedom and democracy. And we must continue to move forward to build a safer and better world, and Iraq is critical in those efforts. And so that's what he will continue to talk about.

Thank you all. Have a happy holiday, and good luck to those in Crawford.

Q Will you be briefing tomorrow?

MR. McCLELLAN: I will not be briefing tomorrow. Thank you.

END 1:10 P.M. EST

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