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Ari Fleischer Addresses U.S./China Standoff

Aired April 5, 2001 - 12:09   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go now to the White House -- Press Secretary Ari Fleischer now beginning his afternoon briefing.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... and the president looks forward to reviewing ways in which the United States and Poland, old friends and new allies, can intensify cooperation in pursuit of our common goals.

And with that, I'm pleased to take any questions you may have.

QUESTION: Ari, what is the evidence that leads U.S. officials to now be encouraged about the talks going on with China to resolve this? Or have talks turned cold?

FLEISCHER: There is intensive diplomacy under way. The United States and China are heavily engaged in their discussions. There was a meeting at the State Department this morning between Deputy Secretary Armitage and Ambassador Yang, and in the course of that meeting, the United States pressed again for access to the crew, for the release of the crew. And we remain in a sensitive stage of those negotiations, of those discussions, and that is where matters stand as we speak.

QUESTION: Can you report progress?

FLEISCHER: I am reluctant to give a word one way or another to it, due to the sensitivity of where the negotiations and discussions currently stand.

And so, I will be reticent to use any types of adjectives like that. As I indicated, the meeting took place this morning, and we do anticipate ongoing intensive diplomacy.

QUESTION: What was the reaction when we pressed again this morning for the release of the crew?

FLEISCHER: That is part of the ongoing diplomacy.

QUESTION: Was the answer any different than it's been the previous four days?

FLEISCHER: Due to the sensitive nature of it, I'm not going to characterize the answers. Again, we are in the middle of something that is ongoing with the Chinese government. The president has made the position of the government clear, and that position the president took when he addressed the nation and said that the time has come for our men and women to come home, is the focus of the remarks that are being conveyed privately as well, in addition to the return of the airplane. And that continues to be the status, and it is ongoing.

QUESTION: Ari, what's the reaction of this government to the suggestion that things might not have escalated to this point as rapidly as they did if the president had not become involved as soon as he did and with rhetoric as forceful as it was?

FLEISCHER: I think the president said what the United States needed to say, that it is time for our service men and women to come home. The incident took place Saturday night -- the accident took place Saturday night. The president did not say anything on Sunday. He spoke out, as he intended to do, on Monday and on Tuesday, and we are now in the middle of some very intensive discussions and diplomacy, and that's where we are.

QUESTION: A follow-up, if I may? As you know, there's some observers who have suggested that if Secretary of State Powell had, for example, made a call to some Chinese counterpart earlier on and sort of laid out the situation as the United States saw it, that, perhaps, things would not have escalated to the point that they did.

FLEISCHER: I think many other observers have said that the president spoke out directly, plainly, forthrightly and wisely. And, of course, contacts were made with Chinese officials immediately after the accident, as well as on Sunday. And the president has acted in a way that I think most observers have viewed as productive.

QUESTION: As part of these more intensive discussions, are there military-to-military discussions going on, in addition to the foreign ministries and the diplomatic efforts?

FLEISCHER: This is being handled through diplomatic channels.

QUESTION: Ari, is there any contact military-to-military?

FLEISCHER: That's a question you really need to ask the DOD. This is being handled through diplomatic channels.

QUESTION: Is the president employing any private citizens as go- betweens, including his father?

FLEISCHER: We discussed yesterday at great length the question of the president and his father. I'm not going to go beyond what I indicated yesterday.

QUESTION: Not a private conversation with his father; is he employing, for the government, a private citizen as a go-between?

FLEISCHER: The contacts have been between the United States government, through diplomatic channels, and the Chinese government and that has been the contacts that I'm aware of. There are people, of course, here in the National Security Council staff -- other staff -- who will talk to people outside the United States government, but that does not mean the people they are talking to are in contact with Chinese officials necessarily.

QUESTION: So there are no private citizens that being used as go-betweens?

FLEISCHER: None that I'm aware of.

QUESTION: Is it still the United States government's unambiguous position that it will not offer an explicit apology for the incident?

FLEISCHER: The position of the United States is unchanged on that measure.

QUESTION: The idea of a special envoy to China, is that something under active consideration?

FLEISCHER: That is not under active consideration.

QUESTION: Is it under any consideration at all?

FLEISCHER: Nothing that I'm aware of.

QUESTION: Let me ask you one more question. Are the two sides, the U.S. and China, at the point of exchanging explanations about the circumstances that led to the collision? Are we at the point where they're exchanging their sense of what happened?

FLEISCHER: During the course of the many meetings that have been held, they have been discussing the accident. And the United States has made it clear that one of the best ways to ascertain the cause of the accident is to allow us to meet with our crew, to talk to the crew and, of course, to bring the crew home.

Who better to explain the circumstances of the accident than the people who were involved in it. The best way to have that discussion is to have access to the crew, which is something the United States has pressed for.

QUESTION: Would the U.S. support any kind of commission, a Chinese-America commission, to look at investigating the cause of the collision and what happened?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate about any future steps that may or not be taken, but the United States is interested in determining the exact cause of the accident.

QUESTION: I understand that your language yesterday, if I remember it correctly, was that, "We don't understand the need for an apology." What you seem to just be saying was that, "We can't really ascertain what the facts in the matter are until we have talked to the crew."

FLEISCHER: Separate question. I was asked about the apology, and the answer is, the United States position on apology has not changed.

In terms of the accident, the best way to determine the exact facts and circumstances of the accident, which took place over international waters and in international airspace, is to talk to the crew.

QUESTION: You're saying the U.S. does not understand the need for an apology, which obviously you could not until you know the facts of the situation. Do we have some independent knowledge of the facts or does that require us to talk to...

FLEISCHER: They're two separate questions. There's no link between the apology and then the facts of the accident, which took place in international airspace.

QUESTION: Ari, twice today in this briefing you've started to use the word "negotiations" and then changed it to the word "discussions."

FLEISCHER: Yes, you can use both.

QUESTION: Is there any difference between them?

FLEISCHER: You can use both.

QUESTION: Ari, Senator Lugar is implying that the pilot of the Chinese jet plane that crashed and apparently hit our plane was sort of a hot dog, so to speak, and he had been harassing this plane before on one of its missions. Can you talk about that?

Also, the word "interrogation" has been used of our crew members. Are they, in fact, being interrogated, as far as you know?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to characterize the actions of the Chinese pilot. Again, it underscores the reason why we need to talk to our crew who was in the presence of the Chinese pilot. They can best address those questions.

The Chinese have said from the beginning of this accident that they wanted to investigate the causes of it themselves, that they wanted to interview the crew or to question the crew. We do know from the meeting that was held with the crew that they have been treated well. And that's where that matter stands.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up, a question of semantics, an "interview" is fine, but it's not nearly as strong as "interrogate." And the word coming out of Beijing, as I understand it, is "interrogation." Does that concern the president and the administration at all?

FLEISCHER: Our understanding is they would like to interview or question the crew.

QUESTION: Following up on something you said this morning, if there is questioning of the crew, would you demand the U.S. presence during that? FLEISCHER: I'm not going to deal with any hypotheticals about potential questioning of the crew.

QUESTION: Have you asked to have U.S. representatives in the room if they are questioned?

FLEISCHER: Our position is that the Americans should be removed from the situation and be brought home. And we continue to press that case.

QUESTION: When Americans are detained overseas, it is common practice for the embassy or consulate to go to considerable lengths to provide whatever local representation is appropriate before the investigating board. Why aren't we doing that here?

FLEISCHER: We would like to be with the Americans at all times, of course.

QUESTION: This heavier diplomatic engagement, when did this start and what prompted it? Was it more openness by Chinese diplomats to talk to our diplomats? Was it something they did? Something we did? How would you characterize this?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's part of the ongoing events, as the world watches them unfold, and part of the United States commitment to get our men and women home. The president, in his conversations with Secretary Powell and with National Security Advisor Rice, has directed them to take the steps that will bring our men and women home, and that's reflected in the conversations that are being held on a diplomatic level. There is a heavy engagement on the diplomatic level, and that's well and good.

QUESTION: But that is a change from what had been happening for the last four days.

FLEISCHER: I'm not prepared to characterize reasons why any of those events are happening. Again, there still remains a sensitive stage of these talks, and I will leave it at that.

QUESTION: But it does appear that Chinese diplomats are more open to discussions with the U.S. about how this occurred and what the next step will be than they have been in the previous...

FLEISCHER: I'm going to refrain from characterizing Chinese statements. I'll characterize the American ones.

QUESTION: Ari, from the outset, the Chinese have said that the incident or the collision was caused by the U.S. plane swerving into their plane. Now, four or five days after the incident, we see a published report saying, indeed, the U.S. plane did make an abrupt turn. Why wasn't the U.S. government more forthcoming with that information at the outset?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that the facts are not clear, and that is again why it's very important for the United States to have access and talk to the crew. If you want to know what took place in the air among three different airplanes, the best way is to talk to the crew who was involved. So I think you need to withhold on judgment about those facts until the crew is talked to at greater length.

QUESTION: And if I could follow up on that, Ari, how can we be sure that an apology from the U.S. is unwarranted if we don't have an understanding of the basic facts of the situation?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, the basic facts are that the P-3 was operating in international airspace.

QUESTION: I mean, you can still do something wrong in international airspace, can't you?

FLEISCHER: There is a right to fly in international airspace, which is why the United States, as we have said repeatedly, did nothing wrong. It is the government's right to fly in international airspace around the world.


QUESTION: ... error by the crew or the aircraft or a number of other things which could be offensive that an aircraft could do in international airspace.

FLEISCHER: Again, I think that's why it's important to talk to the crew. But we have made our position very clear on it for a variety of good reasons, not all of which I'm at liberty to get into.

QUESTION: Does that mean our position on an apology could change once we've talked to the crew and discover what happened?

FLEISCHER: No, the position on the apology is clear and consistent.

QUESTION: Ari, even if those discussions with the crew eventually reveal that that crew perhaps made a mistake which caused the accident, we still would not apologize?

FLEISCHER: The reason the United States government has said what it said about the apology is based on information that we have, and I'm not going to go beyond that.

QUESTION: Ari, two days ago the president made a very clear statement saying, "Give us the crew. Give us the plane." In essence saying, time is running out. Two days later we've got nothing, no crew, no plane and no greater access to the crew. Shouldn't the public be concerned that China is not meeting any of these requests or demands?

FLEISCHER: In the president's approach on this, he is not going to act or react based on news cycles. He's going to continue to lead in a manner that he thinks is the most productive way to bring our men and women home. And that's why, again, you've seen this pace of diplomacy that we are engaged in with China, and that is continuing. That is the president's position.

QUESTION: Right, but the public is being told that there's intense diplomacy, and it's not getting anywhere so far.

FLEISCHER: I think all Americans have reason to be concerned and want our crews home. So there is cause for concern, of course, because our crew remains in China. And the president is concerned; that's why he spoke out as he did. And I think the American people do have cause for concern about Americans not coming home.

QUESTION: Is China showing any good faith here, in this negotiation?

FLEISCHER: Again, there remain discussions at a very sensitive stage. I'm going to refrain from characterizing them one way or another, you know, in order to allow the most productive events to develop.

QUESTION: Ari, can we switch to the budget for a minute?

QUESTION: Couple more on China.

FLEISCHER: Do mind if we come back to you?

QUESTION: Ari, you've talked a couple of times this week, and Scott talked on Monday, about roles played in the administration played by Dr. Rice, Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell. One thing that hasn't come up, at least that I'm aware of, is the vice president. What's his role been in this?

FLEISCHER: The vice president's been participating in the intelligence meetings with the president, receiving information about it. And as in all issues, the vice president lends his advice to the president about what course of action to take.

QUESTION: Ari, is there concern that, because of these events, that Congress may revoke China's normal trade relations status?

FLEISCHER: Well, we're aware of various statements that are being made up on Capitol Hill. And as far as the president's concerned, it underscores what he said two days ago, that this matter needs to be resolved and our men and women brought home in order to avoid any damage to United States-China relations.

QUESTION: OK, and at this point the White House is still going to push for normal trade relations for China if the vote does come up in spring, as it will?

FLEISCHER: The president is taking it one step at a time.

QUESTION: So he may not?

FLEISCHER: I'm not indicating that one way or another. The president is taking events one step at a time.

QUESTION: You know a number of congressional trips were planned or are planned for during the recess to China. I think one office is telling a colleague of mine at CNN that the White House is encouraging lawmakers to go forward with these trips, that continued contact is good.

Can you say, A, is the White House encouraging lawmakers to continue with their plans?

FLEISCHER: The White House is not objecting to any trips that lawmakers have to China.

QUESTION: Can you say if the members have come to the White House and said, "Is this OK? Should we go?"

FLEISCHER: I think members are sensitive to what is happening diplomatically, sensitive at what's happening, given the fact that there are 24 service men in China. And so they're asking proper questions. And the White House has made it clear.

QUESTION: Why would the White House not object? Because some members are deciding that they think it's not in the right interest to go if 24 crew members are detained there.

FLEISCHER: The judgment of the president, the judgment of the White House.

QUESTION: Let's go back to interrogation, Ari. Do the Chinese have the right to interrogate these people? Or are they just entitled to name, rank and serial number?

FLEISCHER: Well, we have the right to have our men and women returned home, is the president's view. And that's what his focus is on. And absent their immediate return to the United States, we want to have American officials with the American crew at all times. And that is the position of the government.

QUESTION: But do they have the right to interrogate these people? You say that you understand, it's understandable they would want to investigate what happened...

FLEISCHER: If you're asking me a legal question, that's a question that you really need to address to consular officials who have a legal understanding of these issues. That's a very specific legal question about rights. And it's not at all clear.

QUESTION: There's also some pressure in Congress to oppose China's bid for the Olympics. Does the president have any position at this time on whether or not China should be given the Olympics?

FLEISCHER: Similar to what I responded to Keith's question, the president is going to take this one step at a time. The president, as he said two days ago, hopes that this will not damage long-term United States-China relations.

QUESTION: Is it your sense and have you communicated to the Chinese that one of the problems here is they're risking not only a congressional backlash but also a public backlash? FLEISCHER: Well, this is what the president indicated two days ago, that unless this matter is resolved, it does risk harming United States-China relations.

And, you know, during the meeting that the president had with Deputy Premier Qian Qichen, what they focused on in the Oval Office was entirely positive. They talked about the fruitful, growing relations between the United States and China, the many opportunities our two nations have, particularly in the area of trade, which are mutually beneficial. That was the tenor of the meeting.

And the president continues to believe that there are many fruitful opportunities between the United States and China, particularly in the areas of trade. It underscores what the president said two days ago, though, that unless this matter is resolved, it does threaten to harm future U.S.-China relations.

QUESTION: Public backlash or congressional backlash would in some ways take away the president's control over this issue.

FLEISCHER: I can only speak to the president, the president's thoughts, the president's actions, and...

QUESTION: Is he concerned about losing control of this issue as Congress and the public becomes angry about it and decides to take their own position on various things, like Olympics...

FLEISCHER: I see no evidence it has reached that point.

QUESTION: I'm sorry?

FLEISCHER: I see no evidence that it has reached that point.

QUESTION: And what does he say to the public? Many people feel a natural welling up of anger and sentiment over seeing these American men and women held, detained against their will, now interrogated. What does he say to people who are getting downright angry about this?

FLEISCHER: Well, as the president said publicly after he talked to Ambassador Prueher, who met with the service men and women, that all Americans will be relieved to know that they've been treated well and that their health is well, but all Americans want them to come home. And so the president understands the feelings of the country, that it is time for them to come home, and that's why he has engaged in the diplomacy that he has.

STAFF: It wasn't Prueher; it was Sealock.

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry. Thank you. General Sealock, not Ambassador Prueher, who met with the service men and women.

QUESTION: Ari, can I just be clear about the administration's position? Before this incident, the president did support normal trade relations for China. Is that correct?

FLEISCHER: That is correct. QUESTION: Ari, now your position is that we have to take things one step at a time. Is that what you are saying?

FLEISCHER: That is the president's position on both measures.

QUESTION: Ari, you talked about how if this goes on there might be a risk of damaging the U.S. Sino-relationship. Is there also a risk on a political level of diminishing the effectiveness, perhaps, of the presidency? In other words, if this becomes a hostage debacle, does that harm him politically?

I realize his first, you know, priority right now is to get our people home, but is there any concern in the White House politically that this could hurt his presidency?

FLEISCHER: That's such a hypothetical, I'm not even going to deal with that. The White House's focus has been on one thing, and it's not politics. It's getting our men and women home.

And, again, I want to remind you that it remains at a very sensitive stage, and that's where we stand as we speak today at 12:30 or so. That's where we stand at this very moment.

QUESTION: Is it the United States government's position that the United States has not yet learned whether our reconnaissance aircraft swerved or not? We simply don't know? Or did we learn from the initial meeting with the crew what happened?

FLEISCHER: What I've indicated is the best way to ascertain information is to talk directly with the crew. The United States, of course, has other ways of obtaining information, which I'm not at liberty to get into. But the best way to obtain that information is to meet with the crew.

QUESTION: But, Ari, are you saying that that means the U.S. government, at this point, remains ignorant of the facts of whether the plane swerved or not?

FLEISCHER: No. I had just indicated that the United States government has other information, additional information, as is typical in the matter of flights, and I'm not at liberty to get into that, as you can imagine.

HARRIS: White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer there briefing the press today on the White House's position, as this Chinese-U.S. standoff continues -- the word coming from the White House is that the U.S. position on an apology has not changed.

The U.S. will not issue an apology for the incident or the accident that happened over the weekend. The idea of a special envoy going to China as a private citizen or whatever, that idea is not being considered, according to Ari Fleischer. And he says that the intensive diplomacy is continuing to be under way and remains at now a sensitive stage.



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