Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters

October 11, 1985

The President's Health

The President. Before making the announcement and the business that has brought me here and knowing your great concern and not wanting you to lose any sleep at night -- [laughter] -- let me explain the patch on my nose. I figured you might ask. The doctor has been keeping track of me since the first operation for skin cancer on my nose and felt that there was some additional work needed. So, yesterday afternoon when we came back from Chicago, I went over there in the White House to the doctor's office, and he did the additional work. And a biopsy revealed there were some cancer cells. And now I have a verdict of -- my nose is clean.

Hijacking of the Achille Lauro

So, listening to all the questions and comments regarding my thoughts on last night's events, I felt it might be helpful to take a moment here to make a comment, and then I'd ask Bud McFarlane to be here to provide answers to all the questions that you may have.

Events of the past 24 hours reinforce the determination of all of those who share the privileges of freedom and liberty to join together in countering the scourge of international terrorism. All civilized peoples welcome the apprehension of the terrorists responsible for the seizure of Achille Lauro and the brutal murder of Leon Klinghoffer. The pursuit of justice is well served by this cooperative effort to ensure that these terrorists are prosecuted and punished for their crimes.

I want to point out the crucial role played by the Italian Government in bringing this operation to a successful and peaceful conclusion. Throughout, Prime Minister Craxi has been courageous in his insistence that those apprehended shall be subject to full due process of law. I also want to note my gratitude that the Government of Egypt was able to end the crisis without additional loss of life, although I disagreed with their disposition of the terrorists. And, additionally, I wish to praise President Bourguiba's forthright decision to refuse the entry of the fugitives.

Most of all, I am proud to be the Commander in Chief of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who deployed, supported, and played the crucial role in the delivery of these terrorists to Italian authorities. They and the men and women of our foreign service and intelligence community performed flawlessly in this most difficult and delicate operation. They have my gratitude and, I'm sure, the gratitude of all of their countrymen. These young Americans sent a message to terrorists everywhere. The message: You can run but you can't hide.

End of statement.

Q. Mr. President, Mr. President, does your action last night increase the danger for other Americans being held hostage in the Middle East?

The President. I don't believe so. I don't think that there's any increase that could be made. I think that Americans are, as well as many other people from other countries -- as was evidenced in the passenger list of that ship -- are targets of continued terrorism.

Q. Mr. President, we were told you'd answer a few questions. If I might ask one. The Egyptians are apparently holding on to the Achille Lauro, the ship that the hijacking took place on. What do you know about that? Is there any tie to the fact that Italy is now holding the Egyptian plane, and what are you going to do to try to get that ship released? There are apparently still Americans on it.

The President. I really don't know whether that is being held there for anything other than just simply it is berthed there at this time. I don't know whether the other passengers who were away from Port Said -- they are waiting for them to come aboard or anything -- whatever might be true of that. I just don't know.

Q. Mr. President, can you tell us about your attitude now toward Egypt, and can you tell us whether we intercepted this plane without any help from Egyptian authorities, either the top officials of the Government or lower down or whether in fact they did give us some sort of help?

The President. Knowing that we could not risk a leak of any plans of this kind -- this plan was ours, and the decision was made yesterday afternoon on Air Force One coming back from Chicago.

Q. You're telling us, sir, if I may follow up, you're telling us that Egypt then didn't know we were going to do it and didn't sanction it in any way?

The President. And nor did the Italians know we were going to do it, as far as I'm aware.

Q. Mr. President, you say the decision was made on Air Force One. Can you tell all of us exactly what you did on this yesterday? What went through your mind, what decisions exactly you made, and what it was like for you yesterday?

The President. Well, I can't answer exactly on some of those things, on the decisions that were made. The operation, as it was carried out, was the operation that I ordered and approved of. But the reason I don't want to answer any more specifically on things of that kind is because terrorism and fighting terrorism is an ongoing thing, and again, as we've said before, I don't want to make public decisions that we've made as to what we would or would not do in events of that kind, because I think it's for the terrorists to wonder what we're going to do.

Q. But was it difficult for you or easy for you? Can you give us some sense of your own state of mind?

The President. I don't know whether a decision like that can ever be called easy, but I had complete faith in our forces, and the opportunity was there, and I believed that the mission was possible, and I didn't think there was any way that I could not approve a mission of that kind with what was at stake.

Q. Mr. President, what kind of message do you think this sends regarding your resolve? You've been criticized in the past for not taking action against terrorists. How does this fit the profile of what you think is possible, feasible, and what kind of message for the future?

The President. Well, our problem in the past has not been a lack of will. Our problem has been in terrorist attacks that have taken place in the past. First of all, in a number of them, such as the terrible tragedy with the marines, the perpetrators of the act went up with the bomb. They were suicides, so, there wasn't -- you couldn't -- you were faced with, well, who were their collaborators, who were behind them, how do you retaliate -- they're gone. And the other thing is in a number of incidents where to retaliate would simply be an act of violence without any knowledge that you were striking the perpetrators of the deed and you might be attacking many innocent people. This has been our great problem with terrorism. But here was a clear-cut case in which we could lay our hands on the terrorists.

Q. Well, since you know that these were the criminals and since you knew there were not innocent people around, were you prepared to fire? Were you prepared to shoot that plane down?

The President. This, again, is one of those questions, Andrea [Andrea Mitchell, NBC News], that I'm not going to answer. That's for them to go to bed every night wondering.

Q. Mr. President, on extradition, will you press to extradite the terrorists to the United States if the Italians do give them what you consider to be justice, knowing that there is no capital punishment in Italy?

The President. Well, we think this is the proper thing to do because -- I'm not a lawyer, and I don't intend to get into too many legal areas where I might be caught short -- but they could be tried in both countries, and in this country they would be tried for murder, where in Italy they will probably be tried on the basis of piracy because of the taking over of the Italian vessel. So, this is why we have put in a request for extradition.

Q. Well, do you want two trials, or would you be satisfied if the Italians give them, say, a long prison sentence?

The President. That remains to be decided as to how far we go or how far we pursue this. What we want is justice done.

Q. Does that mean death?

The President. What?

Q. Does that mean death to the hijackers?

The President. Well, I'm just going to say justice done.

Q. Mr. President, there were reports that there was disagreement between yourself and Prime Minister Craxi about the disposition of these terrorists -- how they'd be tried, where they'd be tried. Is there any truth to that?

The President. No. We had a phone call last night. He told me what his situation was with regard to them, and I told him what ours was. And I told him that we would introduce an extradition request. He told me what their legal process was with regard to that, that it wasn't something that he could just give an opinion on himself, any more than I could if the situation was reversed. And, no, we had full cooperation.

But now, I think the few are finished. I know there are many hands, and I'm going to turn them all over to Bud McFarlane.

The President's Health

Q. Well, can you just tell us about your nose, Mr. President? Does -- --

The President. What?

Q. Can you tell us what -- [laughter] -- forgive us, but what kind of finding the biopsy you had, what level of cancer?

The President. Oh, I thought I answered that -- that there were -- --

Q. Well, there are different levels. Was it melanoma? Was it basal cell?

The President. -- -- there were some cancerous cells found -- --

Q. Let him -- --

The President. -- -- and now, following that, the examination following the little minor operation, there is such that, as I say, I can stand before you proudly and say, ``My nose is clean.''

Q. Do you mean cancer cells found yesterday, sir, or are you referring to the original swatch a month ago?

The President. There were a few found yesterday. This was, as I say -- the doctor had felt that there was additional work that he needed and wanted to do.

Hijacking of the Achille Lauro

Q. Well, Mr. President, are you concerned that this act may endanger the other six American hostages -- that the action taken yesterday may endanger the other six?

The President. I have no way of knowing that or what they're thinking. All I know is that we are still doing everything we can, and investigating every channel we can, to try and get back the other six hostages.

Q. Are you -- --

The President's Health

Q. -- -- basal cell or a melanoma, sir? Can you tell us the diagnosis?

The President. I heard the term. I'm not medical, and I'm not a lawyer. And I'm not medical, either, but I did hear the term basal cell.

Hijacking of the Achille Lauro

Q. Are you angry at Mubarak?

The President. Pardon?

Q. Are you angry at President Mubarak for his conduct in this whole affair?

The President. No. As I say, we disagreed, but we have had too firm a relationship between our two countries, and there's too much at stake with regard to peace in the Middle East for us to let a single incident of one kind or a disagreement of this kind color that relationship.

Q. But did he not lie to you, sir?

Q. -- -- lie to the U.S.

Q. -- -- Mubarak -- --

Q. Did he not lie about where the hijackers were to the United States?

The President. I have no way of knowing that, either, or in knowing what that -- --

Q. Did the Egyptians assist in any way, Mr. President?

Q. Did you call the Klinghoffer -- --

Q. Did the Egyptians assist in any way in this operation? Did the Egyptians in any way assist you in this operation?

The President. No. As I say, we did this all by our little selves.

Q. Mr. President, are you satisfied that all the perpetrators are in custody?

Q. Have you talked to Mubarak -- --

Q. Mr. President, are you satisfied that all of the perpetrators are in custody?

The President. I don't think any one of us could answer that. We have no way of knowing that. We know that the four that were on the ship were the ones that perpetrated the crime. Very obviously, they are part of a splinter group from the PLO and have their own goals and aims, and how many were involved in planning or supporting such a mission of this kind, we don't know.

Q. But, sir, it is said that there are two additional Palestinians -- --

Q. Have you called the Klinghoffer family yet, sir? Have you called the Klinghoffer family yet?

The President. That's what I'm going to the office to do, and you're making me late.

Q. -- -- two additional Palestinians on that plane; one of them is said to be one of the murder experts for the PLO, who has organized many raids of this type.

The President. All of these things, I think, will be answered in the investigation leading to prosecution.

Q. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:25 p.m. in the Briefing Room at the White House. Following the President's remarks, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Robert C. McFarlane briefed reporters and answered questions.