Question-and-Answer Session With Area Reporters in Chattanooga, Tennessee

May 19, 1987

The President. Before you start with your questions, I have just a little statement here that I would like to make and maybe will help -- something about yesterday's incident in the Persian Gulf. It's a tragedy that must never be repeated. Our ships are deployed in the Gulf to protect U.S. interests and to maintain freedom of access and navigation to the area's oil supplies. And following my review of the incident yesterday with the national security group, the area commander has ordered that a naval board of inquiry be convened to fully investigate the circumstances surrounding the attack on the U.S.S. Stark, and to report to me promptly their recommendations for any additional actions that may be warranted.

That's that. And now, I think we start with the questions, to the right.

Attack on the U.S.S. Stark

Mr. Powell. Referring to that incident yesterday, and you say you're going to wait for them to decide what to do, but there's nothing further we'll do right now?

The President. Well, there's nothing further that we can do other than the orders that I have given that have already been announced: that hereafter, our ships there will, if any vessel of any kind appears to be putting itself in position for hostile action, that we will act accordingly.

Mr. Copper. Sir, do you have any other indications -- Saddam Husayn yesterday said that this was just an inadvertent incident and the Government thus far appears to have accepted that conclusion. Do you have any evidence as to exactly what prompted this attack, any further than has already been announced?

The President. No, and I've had a very fulsome apology from the President of Iraq. The whole thing -- the course of the plane coming down that coast was the course that's taken by Iraqi planes all the time, and we've never considered them hostile at all. They've never been in any way hostile. And this was at night, of course, so never had any visual sight of the target. They fired by radar, that missile. And this is why we're waiting for further investigation and to find out what the attitude was on the vessel. We can understand -- first of all, an AWACS plane of ours over Saudi Arabia had reported it as an Iraqi plane. And we didn't have any reason to ever suspect hostility from them, and we won't know until investigation is concluded whether this was an error of identification on the part of the pilot -- that, I'm sure, we'll hopefully find out from the Iraqis.

You?

Textile Industry

Ms. Clemons. I'm Carolyn Clemons, with the Herald News in Rhea County. I want to localize our discussion just a little bit, Mr. President. Rhea County paychecks come from the textile industry and farming and TVA, which gives you some idea of the situation we're in. Right now, the textile industry in Rhea County is in very, very bad shape like it is everywhere. Can you give us any hope that it's going to improve, say, anytime soon?

The President. Well, I know that we've made an arrangement that has reduced textile exports and put other countries on a quota system. We can't go into total -- you know, the kind of protectionism that some people have been advocating in which it might help somebody here, but it would lose other jobs here in our country if we get into that kind of a trade war. I would have to know more about the local situation here, because I do know that some of the unemployment situation in the textile industry, at least further east, has been occasioned not by competition but simply by modernizing and the new technologies that have reduced the number of employees needed to do the same kind of work. And the market generally -- as I understand it, nationally -- the textile market is doing better than it's been doing in quite some time.

Ms. Clemons. Of course, we're still having, twice a year, layoffs, you know. Inventory is backed up. They can't get rid of it. And it's hard -- --

The President. I'll tell you what I'll do. When I get back to our people on this, I'll mention this. It's here in Chattanooga?

Ms. Clemons. No, it's in Rhea County. It's north of here.

The President. Oh, in Rhea County. I'll see if I can find out any information about the situation here.

Ms. Clemons. Thank you.

Attack on the U.S.S. Stark

Mr. Norton. Mr. President, if I missed this, I apologize. With the cameras flashing and things, I sort of had trouble hearing what you were saying. Did you, sir, offer a comment on why the Stark was unable to defend itself the other day?

The President. Well, as I said, the only thing that we know is that we're aware it was an Iraqi plane and they're not a hostile. And this is the normal trail or path that they use up and down that coast. So, they were just accepting it there and it had been identified as an Iraqi plane by our own AWACS. And then when it made its turn and fastened by radar onto our ship as a target -- once that button is pushed on the missile, you've only got a few seconds over a minute for anything, and the ship was not -- in other words, general quarters hadn't been sounded, as it might be if a hostile plane were coming into the area. So, what we're waiting to find out now in the hearing that has been ordered is what exactly was the situation on the ship and the attitude and why they hadn't prepared. And yet, I have to say in advance here that what would we have done if we were in the same position on there, believing that it was a totally friendly plane?

Mr. Norton. Have you placed a timetable on that report as yet?

The President. Well, no, the investigation has just been ordered by the area commander there. So, I imagine that will get underway immediately. But the plane [ship] is in port, and I think that I heard that it was supposed to be in port about 2 o'clock our time.

Mr. Norton. Thank you sir.

Nuclear Storage Facility Site

Ms. Baxter. Sir, I'm Jenny Baxter, from the News Herald in Loudon County. We're located close to Oak Ridge, where there's been talk of the MRS [Monitored Retrievable Storage] facility -- --

The President. Could you speak up?

Ms. Baxter. Okay. We're located close to Oak Ridge, where the MRS facility is being talked about putting in. What I was wondering is why is DOE pushing Oak Ridge as the site so hard when there's so much local opposition to it?

The President. The -- --

Ms. Baxter. The MRS -- --

The President. Are we talking about the nuclear -- oh.

Ms. Baxter. The nuclear storage facility.

The President. The only thing that's being considered -- there is the possibility of being a staging area until it can go to the permanent place and where, right now, the targets being looked for that -- the permanent disposal -- are the States of Washington, Nevada, and Texas. And so this, if it is done, would only be, as I say, a temporary point. But no decision has been made because no decision has been made yet on the ultimate disposal site.

The Persian Gulf

Mr. Headrick. Doug Headrick, from Athens, sir. The Iranian Prime Minister said that the attack on the Stark demonstrated that the Gulf is ``not a safe place for superpowers.'' Is that anywhere near the truth? Is the Gulf becoming more unsafe? And are we going to beef up basically our security now and be much more alert after this?

The President. Oh, yes. I have already issued the orders on that. But quite sometime ago, a few years ago, there was a threat from Iran of closing the Persian Gulf, and I publicly stated then that there was no way that the United States could allow the Persian Gulf to be closed. First of all, it's important to us from our continued need to import oil. And to our Western allies, the same thing is true, and they feel the same way about it that we do. And we're going to do what has to be done to keep the Persian Gulf open. It's international waters. No country there has a right to try and close it off and take it for itself. And the villain in the piece really is Iran. And, so, they're delighted with what has just happened.

Mr. Headrick. The Soviets have said that basically our presence there in the Gulf aggravates a very dangerous situation. Yet they're there, too. Do you see us in an aggravating role in that sense?

The President. No, I don't think we can be seen as that. And remember that all the other nations around there -- there are only two that are at war. And we have been doing everything we can and working with the other nations to try and bring about a peace in that war. And so far, we have had approval of that from Iraq and it has been Iran that refuses to go -- to find a way of ending the war.

Mr. Griscom. Mr. President, it's time -- --

The President. We only got one round? Here I was just getting ready to start around again.

Iran-Contra Hearings

Mr. Powell. Can I ask you one quick one? I know I shouldn't, but the Iran-contra hearings started again today. If there is any evidence down the road that you did do something illegal, is there any consideration whatsoever of resigning if it turns out that something was done illegally on your part?

The President. Well, I have to tell you, I know absolutely that I did nothing illegal. As a matter of fact, I have, over and over again, told the Washington press corps and told the leaders of Congress that the only thing about which I have no answer is the apparent funds in the Swiss bank accounts supposedly that came from our shipment of arms to Iran. Now, we got our money for that shipment and the only thing that we can figure is that somebody -- in the go-betweens there between us and Iran -- must have put an additional price on it and got more money from Iran than we were asking. And who did that, where the money came from or where it has gone, we absolutely have no knowledge of that, and I'm still waiting to find out who did it and what was done.

As far as just helping the contras, no, there's never been any restriction on my ability to speak publicly, as I have, in urging support for the contras. We did not violate any rules when the Congress, after appropriating money for help and then called that off after it had been used and refused to issue a new appropriation -- we haven't violated that in any way. And I never solicited a foreign country, although under the Boland amendment -- one of the versions of it, there are about five -- actually authorized the Secretary of State, who is certainly my appointee, to solicit other countries, democratic countries, to do as we were doing and try to aid the freedom fighters down there.

So I -- as I say, I never solicited anyone directly. And the one thing that has been mentioned -- I, myself, have told it -- and that is when King Fahd of Saudi Arabia was present in a meeting here -- that was never discussed in the meeting. And he simply made mention as he was leaving that he was going to increase the contribution that he had been making to the freedom fighters.

Mr. Griscom. Thank you all very much.

Reporters. Thank you, Mr. President.

Note: The question-and-answer session began at 1:20 p.m. in the Heritage Room at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Participants included Jeff Powell, News-Free Press, Chattanooga, TN; Dick Copper, Chattanooga Times; Carolyn Clemons, Herald-News, Dayton, TN; Rick Norton, Cleveland Daily Banner; Jenny Baxter, News-Herald, Loudon County, TN; Doug Headrick, Daily Post Athenean, and Thomas C. Griscom, Assistant to the President for Communications and Planning. The President then met with area teachers who had received Laura Handly Brock Memorial Grants for excellence in teaching.