On The International Front (1/28)
Clinton Says, 'I Didn't Know. I Should've Known'
President says he wasn't briefed by FBI on Chinese campaign contributions; defends U.S. veto of U.N. resolution on Israeli construction in Jerusalem
By Kathleen Hayden/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (March 10) -- President Bill Clinton said today he was never told the FBI suspected China of trying to influence U.S. congressional elections through campaign contributions. He told reporters he should have been briefed and the "episode" was under investigation.
The president's comments came during a joint White House news conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak where questioning focused on the Israeli decision to construct housing in East Jerusalem. Clinton defended a U.S. veto last Friday of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel's action.
Earlier today, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry confirmed that in June 1996, two National Security Council career professionals received a briefing from the FBI dealing with "allegations of Chinese attempts to funnel money to congressional campaigns." The FBI requested that this information not be disseminated or "briefed up the higher chain of command here at the White House," McCurry said.
Late Monday the FBI issued a statement flatly contradicting the White House claim. "The FBI placed no restrictions whatsoever on the dissemination up the chain-of-command at the NSC on any information provided to the NSC senior staff by the FBI during the June 3, 1996 briefing," the statement said.
In a strong public rebuke, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry fired back at the FBI Monday, claiming the agency was wrong.
"The White House legal counsel had very specific conversations with the two (White House) staffers in question. And they are adamant in recalling specifically that they were urged (by the FBI) not to disseminate the information outside the briefing room," McCurry said.
"Therefore the White House considers the FBI statement to be in error," said McCurry, who had come into the White House briefing room to make his remarks. Asked whether Clinton still has faith in FBI director Louis Freeh after the highly unusual public dispute, McCurry said, "Yes" but added, "I'm not going to go into it."
At his press conference Monday, Clinton said he was kept in the dark about the FBI warning. "I absolutely did not know it was done," he said.
When asked if he should have known, and what his action would have been, Clinton said, "Yes, I believe I should have known. No, I didn't know. If I had known I would have asked the national security advisor and the chief of staff to look at the evidence and make whatever recommendations were appropriate."
When asked why he didn't appear angry at the apparent break in the chain of communication, Clinton said, "Well, what I seem and what I feel may be two different things." He indicated that an investigation into how it had happened was already underway.
For most of the news conference, though, Clinton was peppered with questions about the U.S. veto of the U.N. resolution condemning Israel. Clinton insisted that the U.S. decision should not be interpreted as approval of the plan to build housing in Jerusalem. Describing the action as a "complication" to the peace process, Clinton said, "We would prefer strongly that it not have been made."
President Mubarak was less equivocal. "We view such actions as flagrant violations that would not serve any useful purpose," he said.
"We shouldn't build anything in the area of Jerusalem... Until the negotiations for the final agreement come to an end, it would be much more convenient for both sides," Mubarak said.
Mubarak also said that he was disappointed that the U.N. condemnation did not pass because it would have sent a united message to Israel.
But Clinton called the U.N. resolution "ill-advised" and said that the U.S. believed it should "not be injected into the peace negotiations."
"This should be part of the final status negotiations. Everything surrounding Jerusalem is of immense emotional, political and religious significant to all the parties involved here," Clinton said.
Saying that he could understand Palestinian feelings of anger, Clinton said, "I still believe it would be a terrible mistake for the Palestinians to resort to violence. Every time they have done it, they wind up losing. They wind up getting hurt."
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