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America Under Attack: White House Press Secretary Holds News Conference

Aired September 12, 2001 - 16:00   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: About an hour ago, I guess it was, our senior White House correspondent John King reported that the reason the President was delayed in coming back to Washington, flown to Louisiana, Nebraska and ultimately back to the White House was because the Air Force One was one of the targets. The White House was one of the targets. John has continued to work that story. And he joins us again with more pieces of that part of this broad puzzle -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The piece of that puzzle, Aaron. And I should know we are waiting Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary. He's a little more than a minute away from briefing, we're told at the White House.

He -- I just spoke to him again and he said there was specific, real, credible information that even when Air Force One was on the ground in Florida, that perhaps it was the target of these terrorists. That why the White House is saying they took extra precautions in getting the President back to Washington yesterday. He went from Florida to Louisiana.

At that time, Mr. Fleischer saying the Federal Aviation Administration still had not accounted -- had not accounted for all of the commercial aircraft. That is why the decision was made to have the President go to another military installation in Nebraska before returning to Washington.

Now one other quick note, as we hear from Ari Fleischer here at the White House briefing, the President is another, his second National Security meeting of the day, with the Defense Secretary, the Secretary of State, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. CNN told by senior administration officials, they are discussing the latest developments in the investigation. And we are told by sources beginning to discuss possible U.S. options to retaliate for these terrorist strikes yesterday.

Now let's go inside the briefing room, where still you can see the picture. They're still waiting for Ari Fleischer to come in. Ari told me just a few moments ago that he is prepared to offer a bit more detail as for why the administration decided to go on the record this morning and say that in its view, there was credible information that both the White House and Air Force One were potential targets, at least. And again, as part of that information, the White House saying the aircraft that crashed into the Pentagon may have indeed been heading for the White House, and then decided at the last minute to change course. And there also, of course, was information provided to Congressional investigators that the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania may have been coming toward Washington.

Let's listen into Ari Fleischer in the White House briefing room.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... has been making a series of phone calls to leaders around the world to rally an international coalition to combat terrorism. He has spoken today with Prime Minister Blair, with Prime Minister Chretien, with President Chirac, with Chancellor Schroeder, with President Jiang of China, and twice with President Putin.

The president will continue to reach out to leaders throughout the world to develop this coalition, to send a message that the United States and the world stand united, all the freedom-loving countries and others, to fight terrorism.

The president is also gratified by the action taken today by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, in which they invoked Article 5, saying that an attack on one NATO nation is an attack on all NATO nations.

The president is also gratified by the United Nations Security Council resolution that passed today condemning this attack and saying that it was a threat to international peace and security.

Finally, as the president said in his remarks this morning, freedom and democracy are under attack. The American people need to know that we are facing a different enemy than we have ever faced, was the president's words. In this case, we have specific and credible information that the White House and Air Force One were also intended targets of these attacks.

As the president also said in his remarks, this battle will take time and resolve, and make no mistake, we will prevail.

I'm happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Ari, in terms of the specific threat that you talked about against the White House and Air Force One, we have heard from administration officials that the plane that went into the Pentagon may have originally been targeted at the White House. What can you tell us about that?

FLEISCHER: We have real and credible information that the airplane that landed at the Pentagon was originally intended to hit the White House.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about the nature of that evidence?

FLEISCHER: No, of course, I cannot. Any questions relating to how we have obtained any of this information, sources and methods, I will, of course, not answer.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) why it changed course, Ari? Why it went to the Pentagon and not the White House?

FLEISCHER: We really do not know the answer to that. But we are aware of what we have.

QUESTION: If this is the case, why did Vice President Cheney remain in the building?

FLEISCHER: The vice president was removed to a secure area at the White House.

QUESTION: We were told he was working out of the Situation Room.

FLEISCHER: The vice president worked out of several locations. And the White House has sufficient secure locations in events such as this. And this follows a regular plan that the White House has in case of any such incidents.

QUESTION: Can you confirm reports then that the plane flew over the Pentagon and passed over the U.S. Capitol? If the White House was indeed a target? There have been military sources who are saying it flew over the U.S. Capitol.

FLEISCHER: No, I cannot -- I have not heard that report. I have not heard that report.

QUESTION: Ari, then do you have credible information that the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was intended for Air Force One?

FLEISCHER: Do not have any information about that -- about that plane.

QUESTION: If Air Force One happened to be a target, isn't it true that when the president went to Louisiana, at that point, once he took off from Louisiana that there were no flights in U.S. airspace?

FLEISCHER: No. At that moment there were still reports of airplanes that had not yet been identified as to the whereabouts. That's another reason that the White House and the president operated in the secure manner that they did. At that moment, when the president had left Florida and was on his way to a base that no one knew where the president was heading to, there were still reports of planes that had not yet been brought onto the ground per the FAA's order.

QUESTION: Can I follow up? When Air Force one left Louisiana and headed to Nebraska, I believe at that time, there were no U.S. planes, or any planes still in U.S. airspace.

Why did the president go to Nebraska and not back here to the White House?

FLEISCHER: Because the information that we had was real and credible about Air Force One, and the manner in which Air Force One operated maintained the security of Air Force One at all times. That also is one of the reasons why Air Force One did not come back to Andrews where some people may have thought it would.

QUESTION: If we can make the connection here, that would suggest that the threat against Air Force One came in the form of another aircraft.

FLEISCHER: No, I'm not indicating what form it came in, and I will not.

QUESTION: What time did the White House get this information?

FLEISCHER: On the flight from Sarasota to the first location.

QUESTION: So did the evacuation of the White House come as a result of that information?

FLEISCHER: That's a detail that I'm not going to get into, but all appropriate security precautions were taken.

QUESTION: And then on the subject of rallying this international coalition, does that indicate that the president would wait or try to get the support -- either operational support or political support -- of other nations before responding to these attacks?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to indicate anything about -- speculate about any type of response. You've heard what the president said and his words speak for themselves about America's resolve.

However, as I indicated in my opening statement, the president is very heartened as a result of the world reaction and the solidarity that the world is showing at all levels and so many nations toward what has happened. And the president is going to continue to talk to leaders around the world as he builds his coalition.

QUESTION: Has the president secured the support of President Jiang and President Putin in those phone calls?

FLEISCHER: Let me try to give you a little more specific information on each of those phone calls. The president, as I indicated, spoke twice with President Putin, once for five minutes, the second time for seven minutes. He thanked -- the president thanked President Putin for his call and for the message of condolence that President Putin sent yesterday.

President Putin informed President Bush that he had signed a decree that there be a moment of silence throughout Russia at noon tomorrow, with flags at half-mast, to express the outrage and solidarity of the Russian people with the American people.

The two presidents agreed that they will work closely together in the coming weeks to fight those responsible for yesterday's acts of terrorism.

The president's phone call with President Jiang of China lasted for approximately 10 minutes. President Bush thanked President Jiang for his condolences and concern for the American people as well. And the two agreed to work together also to combat terrorism, which is another indication, as I mentioned, of the coalition the president is seeking to form, as the world unites in the fight against terrorism.

QUESTION: Ari, will that coalition look at all like the Persian Gulf coalition? Is he reaching out to Arab nations as well?

FLEISCHER: The president is going to continue to have conversations throughout the world. And, as you know, Secretary Powell has, too, talked to many people. And I will try to keep you informed of the conversations the president has.

QUESTION: Is it right that the president has not yet reached out to any Arab nation leaders?

FLEISCHER: I'm going to try to do my best to keep you informed, but this is a process. And the president is going to continue to make phone calls. The president is -- as you know, he has a meeting this afternoon with his security team. Following his meeting with the congressional leaders late this morning, the president had lunch with the vice president. He made additional phone calls. He has a meeting with the security team today.

And we're going to keep you informed of all the information we can about the president's phone calls and activities.

QUESTION: Given the scale and the level of killing in these attacks yesterday, can the president assure the American people that the response will be commensurate?

FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to speculate about the response. You have what the president said about how the United States will prevail. But I'm not going to go beyond that, I'm not going to speculate. And I leave it at that.

QUESTION: Can you say how close the U.S. is to knowing who's responsible for these attacks?

FLEISCHER: The United States is in the process of gathering all the facts about this matter. The full resources of the federal government at all levels have been dedicated to this. And we will continue to gather those facts and ascertain all the information available.

QUESTION: Has there been at least early consideration of possible U.S. responses or is the U.S. government not at that point yet?

FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not going to speculate on that.

QUESTION: What is the practical effect of invoking Article 5 with NATO that it's an attack against the entire alliance?

FLEISCHER: It is a message of solidarity with NATO, and I'm not going to go beyond that in terms of anything else that is a practical effect. It is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for NATO to have taken this step.

QUESTION: It does suggest a unified military response, though.

FLEISCHER: I think it suggests a unified response. And again, anything dealing with anything military I'm not going to speculate about.

QUESTION: But, Ari, when you talk about coalitions, it implies that you're looking for some, sort of, tangible support from other nations, not just words of support. Is that a way to look at it?

FLEISCHER: Well, this is a moment for the world to stand up to terrorism, and President Bush is very pleased with the reactions of leaders around the world. This is an opportunity for the world to stand up to terrorism, and that's how President Bush sees this.

QUESTION: Ari, is the White House going to make an open-ended request to Congress for funding or is there going to be a figure given to Congress?

FLEISCHER: No, the president thinks it's important that this not become a open-ended request. The president -- and by the way, the meeting with the congressional leaders today -- bipartisan congressional leaders, was a very important and stirring meeting of patriotism. The outpouring of support shoulder-to-shoulder, regardless of anybody's political party, was wonderful and it was impressive, and it should make every American proud.

The president will continue to work with Congress, but he does not think it should be an open-ended commitment.

QUESTION: So just to follow up, is there going to be a specific request given to Congress today or tomorrow for a specific amount of funding?

FLEISCHER: We're going to work with Congress on the specifics of it. And then as soon as we have something to announce, I will announce it or provide the information to you.

QUESTION: Given NATO's decision today and the kind words from so many -- or supportive words from so many foreign leaders, does the president feel that, at this point, he has the international support he needs if he decides to strike...

FLEISCHER: You know, I understand that you're trying to determine what may or may not come next, but it is just an area that I'm not going to speculate about. I'm sure you can appreciate the reason why.

QUESTION: Can I just go back to the threat on Air Force One? I mean, at the time the four planes were hijacked the president was in Florida. If you have a threat to Air Force One, it seems as though you're raising an additional threat that, perhaps, we don't about.

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry? Raising an additional threat that we might... QUESTION: Well, some other action that was going on. I mean, obviously the four planes that we know were hijacked clearly were no threat to Air Force One.

FLEISCHER: There was real and credible information that came into the White House, and that is the reason why the White House, Air Force One took the actions that it took, in accordance with all existing plans. And that also included yesterday, as those who traveled with us knew that we were not going to indicate where Air Force One was heading to.

QUESTION: Is it only one of those planes -- one of those four planes -- is that where the credible threat? Or can you say -- are we talking about something totally different?

FLEISCHER: You're asking me in essence what the source of information is, and I think the American people...

QUESTION: No. After we accounted for those four planes and what their targets were, which by deduction you would assume that is something else that we're talking about -- targeting Air Force One. Can we make that assumption?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to lead you any further as to speculating about what was the nature of the threat to Air Force One. But as I indicated, and I'll say it again, it was real, it was credible.

QUESTION: Are you saying it was not one of the four planes that we have accounted for?

FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to speculate about the nature of it.

QUESTION: Could I ask you this question -- was the president's original destination upon departure from Sarasota, Andrews Air Force Base?

FLEISCHER: Again, I'm just not going to get into those type of details about Air Force One's operations and its locations in this context.

QUESTION: I'm just wondering if it was your intention to return to Washington and...

FLEISCHER: Suffice it to say, if people suspected that the likely location of a return of Air Force One would be to Andrews Air Force Base if the president were turning to Washington, it would be wise and in the interests of the country for Air Force One not to return to a location that would have been predictable.

QUESTION: All the fingers are being pointed at Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, who has been helped by -- supported by the Taliban and bases in Pakistan. So, are we talking about now going against Afghanistan or Pakistan? And if it happened then it is all in the name of Islam. So is it time now for the United States not to make any more innocent people will be killed in the name of Islam?

FLEISCHER: I was asked earlier about who we believe is the source of this. And I indicated that the United States continues to gather the facts about that information. And so your question presupposes the answer and I'm not prepared to do that.

QUESTION: Surely investigators have uncovered reams of credible information that you've chosen not to release. Why did you decide to release this information to us today and just this?

FLEISCHER: Because just as the president said in his remarks this morning, the -- and I'm quoting from the president, "The American people need to know that we are facing a different enemy than we have ever faced." And the president, having said that, thought it was appropriate to let the American people know the lengths to which those who perpetrated these terrorist acts were prepared to go in an attack on our nation.

QUESTION: Where there any other targets that we don't know about?

FLEISCHER: These are the only ones that I'm aware of.

QUESTION: Is the president satisfied, and should the American people be satisfied with the performance of the intelligence community in this country given what happened yesterday?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that the intelligence community and the nation's military are the best in the world. And clearly something yesterday took place in New York that was not foreseen, that we had no specific information about.

But the president's focus right now is on helping those who have lost their -- the families of those who have lost their lives and those who are suffering in this tragedy and then taking whatever the appropriate next steps should be.

QUESTION: Does he want to know what went wrong? Has he asked to find out where the gaps were?

FLEISCHER: I think at the appropriate time the president will ask all the appropriate questions, but the president is focused now on getting help to those who need help in New York, here at the Pentagon, and on to talking with his national security team about any appropriate actions.

QUESTION: Ari, in terms of the president's statement this morning that this was an act of war, was it the realization that both the White House and Air Force One were targeted that elevated his language to talk about an act of war? Was it a threat against the head of this country that elevated it to that level?

FLEISCHER: I think that the actions against the soil of the United States are what led the president to say that this was an act of war against the United States. QUESTION: But why not use the word "war" last night in his televised address to the nation? What changed overnight to ratchet up that rhetoric?

FLEISCHER: I think that you're just going to continue to hear the president speak out on a regular basis. And the president will share his thoughts with you as his thoughts develop as a result of the conversations he has with his security team and as he thinks this matter through in his mind, he'll share his information with the public.

QUESTION: How much money are you talking about in this spending request? You know, are we correct to assume that it's in the billions of dollars?

FLEISCHER: That's a correct assumption. Again, once we have specific information -- more specific than that -- I will give it to you. But the president made it clear that this should not be an open- ended commitment.

(CROSSTALK) FLEISCHER: We'll have -- as soon as the information is better developed in our conversation with the Congress, I'm going to do my best to provide it to you in specificity.

QUESTION: What are you hearing from the president's financial working group about a possible timetable to reopen the markets, and how important is that to not only investors in this country, but to the global economy?

FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, on the first part of your question, the Security and Exchange Commission, as well as the Department of Treasury, are looking at that matter, and so I'm going to leave that answer up to them. But obviously as the president said today, the federal government -- all our agencies are conducting business, but it's not business as usual. So the president is cognizant of the fact that it's important to get as much back on-line as quickly as is possible, and all the agencies of the government are tasked with doing so.

QUESTION: Given the president's language today, is there any discussion here of asking Congress for a declaration of war?

FLEISCHER: You know, as the president said, there were acts of war that were carried out against our country, and the president will continue to work with Congress. Any appropriate measures at the appropriate time.

But you know, this is also a different situation from situations our nation has faced in the past. And the president is cognizant of that -- you know, as the president indicated. In this case, as we ascertain information, we are dealing, at least at this point, with nameless, faceless people, and it is a different type of war then it was, say, when you knew the capital of the country that attacked you. So we will continue to work with the Congress on appropriate language at the appropriate time. QUESTION: Given what you said, since it is unclear who has done this, or officially unclear who has done this at this point, is it less likely that there will be a request for declaration of war?

FLEISCHER: No, I didn't indicate one way or another. I said that the president will continue to work with Congress on appropriate language at the appropriate time.

QUESTION: He's not ruling it out?

FLEISCHER: I've answered the question.

QUESTION: Are you planning, Ari, are you planning a major change in the sky marshal program?

FLEISCHER: That's a question that you need to talk to the Department of Transportation about. They'll be addressing all issues dealing with airline safety.

QUESTION: What is the president's mood right now, his state of mind?

FLEISCHER: You know, I gave you some indication about the meeting with members of Congress, and I really have to say that it was a striking meeting, in that the leaders of our nation in the Congress, regardless of party, and in the White House, are resolute and are shoulder to shoulder. And that is the president's mood.

I indicated yesterday that the president is determined, and I think that is still a fitting description of the president.

QUESTION: There are administration officials who are describing him as more angered than they've ever seen him. Do you see that?

FLEISCHER: I see him as determined. There's no question that the president has strong thoughts and strong feelings. But the president also is focused on this matter in a way that, you know, again I'd just go back to the meeting he had with the members of Congress. He is focused on rallying our nation, on helping those who need help at this time, in New York and at the Pentagon, expressing his sorrow to the families involved, and on ascertaining all facts and all information so that the United States can and will do the right thing.

QUESTION: Ari, has he heard from or reached out to former presidents for advice, for counsel, for support?

FLEISCHER: I don't have any information about any former presidents that he's talked to beyond what I indicated yesterday. QUESTION: As to the meeting with the leaders of Congress today, did the president come out of that thinking he has carte blanche in the response, et cetera?

FLEISCHER: No, the president does not think that. The president is going to continue to consult. The president is going to continue to lead. But the president understands that at all times it's important to work with Congress, but it's particularly important now to consult with the Congress.

One of the greatest strengths of our country is that we are a Constitution-based democracy. Our Constitution and our nation have survived acts of terror and attacks on our nation before. And the president knows that the strength of our nation comes from that Constitution, which gives an important role to Congress, and he will continue to consult closely with Congress and its leadership.

QUESTION: On the threat to Air Force One, are you really saying that this was an assassination plot that went awry or was thwarted by a reaction -- the U.S. reaction?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to speculate about that. I'm just going to share the information that I've shared about the targets were, and I think you can draw your own conclusions.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about the idea of a willingness to attack those who host terrorism. Is this a change in U.S. policy for how we treat these countries who may not have participated in the act, but may have known that these terrorists were in-country? Is this a change in U.S. policy? And if so, where does it come from?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, I don't know if this is a change or not. Of course, given the fact that President Bush has been in office now for nine months, this is, I think, an example of how President Bush is going to address this in a resolute manner. The president's words speak for themselves about what he said and why he said it, and everyone should be clear about what the president said.

QUESTION: The president is outspoken about this religious faith. Can you tell us if he's had any conversations with pastors or religious leaders over the course of events in the last two days?

FLEISCHER: I have not asked him that, so I do not know.

QUESTION: He quoted the Bible in the speech last night. Is it safe to assume that his religious faith is sustaining him during the crisis?

KING: We've been listening to the White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Obviously, all of the questions concerning what the White House knows about the terrorists attacks yesterday in New York and at the Pentagon, the President's response to it, the President this hour, meeting with his National Security team. Senior administration officials telling CNN among the agenda items, possible U.S. responses to this as the investigation continues.

And Mr. Fleischer saying yet again at this briefing one of the reasons the President did not return immediately to the White House yesterday in the middle of these unfolding events was that because both the White House and Air Force One were considered potential targets for terrorist attack, Mr. Fleischer saying the White House had credible and reasonable information to believe that. Back to you now, Aaron Brown in New York.

BROWN: John, don't go away. Two things. It always is the case what they won't say is sometimes as interesting as what they do. Mr. Fleischer says the Pentagon plane, and I heard him without qualification, was intended to hit the White House. How do they know, any idea?

KING: Well, he won't say how they know, but we know from our reporting here at the White House and the fine reporting of David Ensor and others on the CNN team, that they have intercepted some communications. Federal authorities saying they have intercepted some communications after the attacks from associates of Osama Bin Laden and this network in which they were congratulating themselves for hitting the targets.

One hypothesis would be that perhaps in one of those intercepted communications or other information gathered in the investigation, it has been learned that that plane was initially targeted at the White House. The administration saying it won't discuss that publicly right now because to do so in its view would compromise the investigation.

BROWN: And again, Ari was very careful. I think he went out there to say a specific thing, we had real and credible evidence that the White House itself, Air Force One were targets. And he never moved an inch beyond that, did he?

KING: He would not move beyond that, except to say that they believed even when Air Force One was in Florida or then in Louisiana there was still a risk. That was what some of us found extraordinary, because in conversations with Secret Service yesterday, they certainly betrayed no such fear.

They said all the time that Air Force One was secure. What Mr. Fleischer did say though, Aaron, was that at that point, when Air Force One went from Florida to Louisiana, the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration had still not accounted for all the commercial planes The FAA had ordered all flights grounded. What he's saying is they had not accounted for all the flights at that time.

So given the fact that they believed there was a credible threat, they did not at that point, want to fly the President back to Washington. So he went to one, and then a second military installation. And then when he did return, even though they believed by then the skies were safe, he came back with an extraordinary escort of fighter jets.

BROWN: If I remember this right, there were about 50 airplanes that were for some time before they got to nearest airport to them and put down. And it took a fair amount of time.

John, the First Lady, again, the First Lady has a symbolic role. It's an important role. Have we seen her? What do we know of her activity?

KING: We have seen her, indeed. We have not seen -- she's done two things today that are part of another tract of what the White House is trying to do. Get about relief and recovery effort, reassure the American people. For once, she stopped by a White House blood bank on the grounds here of the White House. Then she also left the White House campus, Aaron. She went to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. And on her way out of that, she stopped briefly to talk to reporters, paying tributes to the doctors inside, to those injured and their families, and urging the American people to hang in there.


LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY: Well, really thankful that I had the opportunity to thank them and to wish my best to the patients. All of us now as Americans have the opportunity to show our compassion, our resilience as a country, our courage. That's what these members of the team behind me showed America yesterday when they rushed to the Pentagon to rescue people.


KING: We also know that the President himself wants the get out of the White House to visit both tragic locations, the Pentagon and the site of those tragic attacks, the World Trade Center in New York. But we're also told by administration officials, the President will not go until he believes his being there would not hinder the search- and-recovery investigation, would not at all impede with efforts underway by law enforcement, by fire officials, rescue officials, and local officials. So it will be a day or so before we see the President go. We are told to expect him to go to the Pentagon first, and then perhaps several days down the road, plan a trip up to New York.

BROWN: We would suspect that if they want to make sure they don't disrupt process, and a presidential trip does that, it's going to be several days before they come here in New York. The world, John, thank you. John King, our senior White House correspondent.



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