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Ari Fleischer Addresses Expulsion of Russian Diplomats

Aired March 22, 2001 - 12:13 p.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you live right now to the White House; White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer talking about the situation with the Russian diplomats being asked immediately to leave the U.S.

Let's listen in.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president believes that there are many areas where we can cooperate with Russia. And he has spoken with President Putin about such areas, and will continue to do so. But there are areas where there are disagreements, clearly this is one of them, and the president took the appropriate action.

QUESTION: Ari, when was the president notified about the matter? And when did he authorize the State Department to take this action?

FLEISCHER: Almost immediately upon the arrest of Agent Hanssen, the president discussed with his national security team at that time what possible remedies and consequences could be.

So at that moment, the president was already thinking about what the appropriate step to take was. He continued to have conversations with his national security team about the matter following the arrest. And then last week, his national security team made a recommendation to him. The president gave the go-ahead last week. Secretary Powell met with Russian officials last night, as you know. And that's when the Russians became informed of the action. The president authorized it last week.

QUESTION: Ari, do you expect retaliatory action by the Russians?

FLEISCHER: You have to ask the Russians that.

QUESTION: You have no intimation of that now? No U.S. diplomats have been asked to leave, as of now?

FLEISCHER: That's a question you'll have to ask the Russians. The United States has not been notified of any such action.

QUESTION: Ari, do you know if this was aimed at people who were directly involved with Hanssen? And how much of it is a broader move? And can you explain what the significance of the broader move would be? FLEISCHER: The State Department addressed that earlier this morning in their announcement. They noted that the action, you know, the expulsion of four Russian intelligence officers, who have been declared persona non grata, followed the arrest on February 18, 2001, of FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen on charges of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.

QUESTION: So are you saying those four were directly involved in espionage with Hanssen?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: What about the rest of the Western diplomats who are being asked to leave?

FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, the United States government for many years has expressed its concern to the Russians about the level and the number of Russian intelligence officers operating in the United States, and we've addressed those concerns to the Russians.

QUESTION: Ari, when was the last time the president spoke with Putin and what kind of contacts have they held in the past two months.

FLEISCHER: He spoke on the phone with President Putin a number of weeks ago, and, of course, we are always in diplomatic touch with the Russians.


FLEISCHER: Clearly, the president did not think that was necessary. The president took the action he thought appropriate.

QUESTION: What's the overall benefit of something like this? We know that they spy on us, they know that we spy on them, when you make a dramatic move like asking more than 40 diplomats/intelligence agents to leave, it's a diplomatic move meant to send a message that will affect Russian-U.S. relations. What's the purpose, what's the goal?

FLEISCHER: The action is a reflection of the president's approach to foreign policy and to dealing with Russia, which is we're going to find areas of cooperation. The president is going to continue to pursue areas of cooperation; he sees many.

But the president is also going to be a realist in the conduct of his foreign policy. And in the wake of what happened with Agent Hanssen and the Russian involvement, the president made the determination that it is in the United State's interest to declare the four Russian intelligence officers persona non grata.

QUESTION: Why was it in our best interest, and what is the message you're sending by doing this?

FLEISCHER: The message the president is sending is that his foreign policy is going to be base on reality. He's going to have a realist approach to foreign policy.

QUESTION: Isn't espionage real, I mean, a reality we face?

FLEISCHER: And the reaction from the president is realistic, based on conducting foreign affairs in a realistic -- and you've heard the president say this many times before -- in a realistic and direct way. He's a plain-spoken man.

QUESTION: Could you please give us a summary of how many we expelled, altogether, how many have left and what's the deadline for the others?

FLEISCHER: As announced earlier this morning by the State Department, four Russians were declared persona non grata, and other concerns have been expressed about the level of intelligence officers in this country.

QUESTION: So you're not giving the number of 51 or 56 that keeps being batted around?

FLEISCHER: I just answered the question.

QUESTION: What are the concerns about potential retaliations, since we apparently have fewer people on the ground in Russia than they have here?

FLEISCHER: Again, that's asking me to speculate about a future event, and I'm not going to do that. We don't know if that event will or will not take place, and I won't speculate.

QUESTION: When did the president become informed of the recommendation? Who made the recommendation to him? And who was it that told the Russians that these folks were no longer invited in our country?

FLEISCHER: The conversations were held with the president and his national security team, and I believe -- you might want to talk to the State Department about it. It's my understanding it was in a meeting last night with Secretary Powell.

QUESTION: That was an answer to the last question, Powell talked to the...

FLEISCHER: Russians.

QUESTION: Was there one meeting at which X number of aides made the recommendation to the president? When was this meeting? Who was in on that?

FLEISCHER: Let me try to find out additional details, if I can, Ron, on who the people in the room were.

QUESTION: And he did sign-off on it personally?

FLEISCHER: Last week. He authorized it last week.

QUESTION: If you could find details of that meeting, I'd appreciate it. QUESTION: Can you confirm how many have actually left?

FLEISCHER: I'd refer you to the State Department for those type of details.

QUESTION: On Monday, the black ministers met with the president. Over the weekend, before the meeting, one of these black ministers had suggested that the reason that conservative evangelicals weren't as supportive of the plan was because they didn't want the money to go to poor black and brown people.

Did the president have any discussion with Reverend Rivers about creating a new Washington? And how is that going to put together a team here to support the faith-based initiative on the left and the right?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the way the president's going about creating a faith-based initiative that's supported on the left and the right is exactly what you have seen him do. He is meeting the left, and he's meeting with the right, and he's building bridges between the two.

And that bridge, in the president's mind, arrives at a faith- based initiative that, for the first time, can get the government involved in helping people who have some intractable problems in our society.

But government programs can helpful, but don't go far enough. And the president does view some of the faith-based caretakers in our country as a way to help people who are suffering from debilitating problems, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, crime.

He sees, particularly for young people, faith-based initiatives as a way to see a role model in the communities and neighborhoods in which they live. And that's why he's meeting with people from all end of the political spectrum. He understands that there are going to be people who oppose it on the left and on the right. He's full-speed ahead, because he is building the center and pushing it on the left and pushing it on the right.

QUESTION: But does it build bridges when the people who come to meet with the president are running down the people on the other side of the spectrum and basically suggesting that they're racists?

FLEISCHER: I think as you heard, following the meeting, there was nothing but praise for the president...

KAGAN: We've been listening to White House Spokesperson Ari Fleischer talking about the situation with the Russian diplomats. The United States is telling four Russian diplomats they must leave this country within the next 10 days. The United States alleging that those diplomats were involved in the Robert Hanssen spy case. An additional 46 Russian diplomats have also been ordered to leave the country, but they have until July 1 to do that, and that is not in relation to the Hanssen case.



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