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America's New War: White House Press Briefing

Aired September 21, 2001 - 13:51   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: We go to the White House for the daily briefing, I'm sure an update on what the president has been doing today.

The White House press secretary:

ARI FLIESCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon. I want to give you some information about the president's day. And then, if you will remind me, I have as much detail as I can provide on a week ahead, which I'll do at the conclusion.

The president, this morning, spoke with Turkish President Sezer. The president and President Sezer affirmed their solidarity in the fight against terrorism and all those who support and harbor them. The president expressed his thanks to Turkey, a Muslim country in NATO that has long suffered from terrorism, for its strong support. The presidents agreed that Turkey and the United States will work together in the long struggle ahead.

The president also spoke with Nigerian President Obasanjo this morning. The president thanked President Obasanjo for his support and letters and calls of condolence. He described his new policy to fight terrorism and those who provide terrorists with sanctuary. President Obasanjo offered Nigeria's unconditional support to fight against terrorism, stating that, quote, "If we fail in the task, the world is unsafe for all of us." President Bush thanked President Obasanjo for his leadership role in Africa and noted his current efforts to promote peace in the Sudan. And the president offered condolences to the Nigerian people for the loss of life in the recent Muslim-Christian violence in central Nigeria.

The president also spoke with Omani Sultan Qaboos this morning. The sultan conveyed his condolences to the United States over the attack and pledged Oman's support for the international fight against terrorism. The president thanked the sultan for his expression of sympathy and stressed the high value that the United States places on the friendly relationship with the Sultanate of Oman. And the president also made clear in the course of that conversation that the United States did not attribute the criminal actions of the terrorists to the peaceful religion of Islam, which rejects terrorism.

Two upcoming visits I want to report.

President Bush has invited Prime Minister Chretien of Canada to come to Washington for a working visit on Monday, September 24. The prime minister has accepted and he will be in the Oval Office, followed by a private lunch for a meeting with the president.

In addition, President Bush looks forward to welcoming Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi to Washington for a working visit on September 25 next week.

In a little while, this afternoon, the president will meet with leaders of the insurance companies from across America, and the message the president expects to hear from these leaders is that the insurance industry is very well capitalized and is prepared financially to respond fully to all concerns raised in the wake of this disaster, which is good news for all Americans.

And finally, the president will depart for Camp David this afternoon, and I'll get a little bit into the week ahead, including weekend activities at the end.

Two other items -- just an update on a couple of areas involving the Cabinet. Attorney General Ashcroft and Director of the FBI Robert Mueller are in New York City today. General Ashcroft has announced $10 million in emergency assistance from the COPS program to assist the city of New York with its law enforcement needs. And Education Secretary Paige is in New Jersey today where he has announced a $1.5 million grant to assist the New Jersey Department of Education and also to provide $250,000 in assistance to the Maryland Department of Education to assist students and teachers directly impacted by terrorist attacks.

QUESTION: The Taliban's response to the president's speech last night was, "Show us compelling evidence that bin Laden is guilty, and then let's talk." What's the president's message for the Taliban today?

FLEISCHER: The president's message to the Taliban today is the same message that he gave last night; that there will be no negotiations and no discussions. He expects the Taliban to honor the demands that he made in his speech last night to cease their efforts to support and harbor terrorists and to turn terrorists over to the United States or other authorities, and to allow the United States access to the terrorists camps where the training took place to be certain that they are no longer training terrorists who can bring harm to people around the free world.

QUESTION: So he rejects their response?

FLEISCHER: That's a fair characterization.

QUESTION: And he also said that if they do not comply that they will share the fate of the terrorists. So is it now the policy of the administration that if the Taliban regime does not comply they will be removed from power?

FLEISCHER: The president has made it very clear that the United States is preparing for action on a wide range of fronts, that include military, financial, diplomatic, and will be aimed at those who harbor and support or engage in terrorism. And I think your question answers itself.

QUESTION: But shouldn't the American people know that one of our war aims is to remove from power the government of Afghanistan?

FLEISCHER: The president has said that he will take action to protect our citizens and people from around the world, and that those who engage in terrorism will meet with, as he put it a few days ago, that those who attack the United States engage in an act of self- destruction, whether it's a removal of power or whatever form it takes. But I'm not going to go into what specific form it's going to take.

QUESTION: Let me follow then. During the campaign the president said -- and obviously things have changed -- that one of his conditions for committing military force was having a clear exit strategy. In Afghanistan, what would that look like?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to presume to tell you what the operational details may be, but the goal is very clear, and the definition of victory is when freedom defeats fear, and that is what is on the line, as the president said last night.

The terrorist attacks have created a situation of fear, in the United States and around the world, and this war against terrorism is aimed at making certain that freedom conquers fear and that the world can be safe from terrorism.

QUESTION: Is the president ruling out any kind of discussions with the Taliban that could ultimately lead to his goal, along the lines that the United States has had with Pakistan?

FLEISCHER: The president has made very clear that he is looking for action, not words, and he has given in his speech last night a very clear list of actions that need to be taken.

QUESTION: But does meaningful consultation or negotiation not constitute action?

FLEISCHER: I think the president addressed it last night himself.

QUESTION: Does he believe that the Taliban wants to negotiate or is he convinced that the response to the speech was essentially the Taliban thumbing its nose at the United States?

FLEISCHER: Well, one, we have received no official word from the Taliban. What you have heard has been conveyed through the press. But the president could not have made it any plainer last night that this is not the time for negotiations or discussions, this is the time for action.

QUESTION: If we have concrete proof, other than they hate freedom and, you know, that this is very nebulous, simplistic stuff, because you really don't know. That doesn't really give enough meat on the plate here. Do you have concrete proof that this man was guilty? And if you have that, why don't you present it?

FLEISCHER: Let me remind you what I've been saying for the last three days.


FLEISCHER: That's correct. Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization have been indicted in connection with the bombings of the United States facilities in Kenya and Tanzania. That indictment stands on the books today. There are also indications that the Al Qaeda organization was involved in the bombing of the Cole.

Let me try to help you on your specific question. You're asking for us today, publicly, to provide you, the press, with evidence when Secretary Powell has said that all evidence...


FLEISCHER: Fair enough.

That Secretary Powell has said all roads point to the Al Qaeda organization. You have heard other people, Vice President Cheney talk about, the president talking about prime suspect is Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization.

The challenge that the government always faces when you ask a question like that, "provide the proof," is the means of providing the proof provides valuable information to those who are the objects of any potential action. They would like nothing better than to be able to hide where they are hiding and have the United States reveal what we know and how we know it, which will make it easier for them to hide and will make it easier for them to carry out further actions if we report our sources and methods or how we obtain information. We're just not going to do that.

QUESTION: You're saying, it is not incumbent on this government to explain.

FLEISCHER: I think the American people have heard plenty of explanations from the president and from the government assembled, and the American people support those actions.

QUESTION: The president and others in this administration keep asking for not only hunkering down for the long term, but patience. And yet polls show that the American public is angry and wants some sort of immediate military retaliation. Without getting into operational detail, can you tell us if that military strike or retaliation or whatever is coming within hours, days, weeks or months? Can you give us some kind of time frame?

FLEISCHER: Of course not.


QUESTION: Ari, could we ask this question? Does this administration believe, based on the Taliban's response, that military action is inevitable?

FLEISCHER: The president has made it abundantly clear that this nation is preparing for war, because war has been declared against the United States. And the United States will respond. The United States will respond to protect lives in the future. The United States will respond because justice demands it.

QUESTION: The president also went through a list of what he says are the evils of the Taliban's own governance of Afghanistan. Is this, in effect, a war of liberation of Afghanistan?

FLEISCHER: No, it's a war to protect people around the world so they can enjoy their freedom, and so freedom can defeat fear. I think what the purpose of the president doing that was he wanted to share with the American people who it is who would engage in such an attack on the United States.

The president has previously referred to Al Qaeda organization and terrorists generally as they operate in the shadows, it's hard for Americans to relate to who they are and what they seek. So I think the purpose of the president saying that last night was to give the American public a broader explanation about what these people are who would do this.

QUESTION: One more: Is the administration then supporting this exiled king, the northern insurgency, or some kind of U.N. administration of that country if the Taliban are removed by military or other way?

FLEISCHER: The objective again is to protect the American people and people from around the world from terrorism and from harm so they can live without fear. That's the objective of the campaign, the president has made it very clear.

As plans are put in place, through the variety of means which I've identified before, diplomatic, political, otherwise, the United States, of course, will always keep an eye on issues involving stability, and that will all be taken into account involving the planning.

QUESTION: Let me do one more. Shouldn't the American people be involved, informed in that debate as to what their government is committing to in the governance of Afghanistan? (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: That's not the case. What we're doing is preparing for action on a host of fronts with our allies and, as the United States leads, that helps to protect people around the world from terrorism. You're right away jumping to hypotheticals, about, "Well, what happens next after a hypothetical action is taken? What happens to a hypothetical government that would be in a hypothetical place?" I can't go there.

QUESTION: Ari, one of the ways to achieve that objective domestically at least Secretary O'Neill has said is to federalize the U.S. Marshal program for the skies for the aviation. Is the White House economic team, Josh Bolten, Larry Lindsey... FLEISCHER: Well, the U.S. Marshal program, of course, is federal.

QUESTION: You mean the sky marshals?

FLEISCHER: But they are federal.

QUESTION: The security -- increase the number of sky marshals and the security screeners at the airport?


QUESTION: Did the White House economic team, Josh Bolten, Larry Lindsey, have a different view of that?

FLEISCHER: Well, actually, I think what he was referring to -- what the secretary of treasury was referring to was the agreement that's being negotiated and was completed last night on the Hill. There's still additional talks going on today and I think it will still get voted on today.


FLEISCHER: No, what he was referring to was not a question on putting people on a payroll. He was referring to -- and making them federal employees. He was talking about the federal assistance to upgrade security and to have better training of the people that are at those gates who the Americans see every day when they travel through airports, who look through the X-ray machines, et cetera.

QUESTION: So federalizing those workers, the security screeners, is off the table?

FLEISCHER: That's not part of the -- what they're talking about on the Hill right now.

QUESTION: I realize it might be in the initial package, but are you rejecting it, you know, out of hand forever, or just for the immediate future?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's not in the cards right now, and we'll see exact when you say, "Is it off the table?" the administration's going to continue to listen and work with the Congress on it. There's some people who have some thoughts about it, so we'll listen. But I think the agreement that's being worked on on the Hill is all but final. They're going to vote on it shortly. So just watch the events on the Hill.

QUESTION: Ari, going back to the exit strategy question, when will we know, how we know, that freedom has defeated fear, the war is over and troops come home?

FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, I need to again remind everybody that this is going to be a different type of war. And so you're asking in the traditional sense of troops come home.


FLEISCHER: Well, there are going to be things such as undermining financial networks that the president has talked about that -- he may not know. There'll be victories the president has talked about that are going to be unseen.

But I think it will be clear to the American people that when there are again able to say that they can travel without fear throughout the country, that the risks have been so reduced, because of the actions that were taken in the form of financial and the form of military, that the world will be able to breathe a sign of relief and say that, "The events have changed," the war on terrorism has been won.

QUESTION: But when he decides to put troops in battle to do this military operation that he's building up for, will he be able to tell the American people at that time when they're coming out?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to deal with hypotheticals. I mean, he has made no such commitment yet about putting troops in battle. So I think you're way ahead of things.

But I'll just remind you: The president has said that the definition of victory is when freedom conquers free and the world is safe.

QUESTION: So you can see that's a hard thing (OFF-MIKE) when freedom has defeated fear, when a war is over.

FLEISCHER: Well, but I think also the American people will recognize that over the course of this struggle there are going to be many victories. Many of which they will know and be plain to see. Many of which will be new, things in the financial realm, that they'll come to understand. And it'll be a different type of war. But I think in the end the American people will have a good grasp of what victory means.

QUESTION: The president, secretary of state, others in the administration have made clear that priority one is taking out Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. If that is successfully done, will the American people, should the American people feel that a level of security has been restored? Is that the important marker?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I am not going to get into hypotheticals about any potential action against any group right now. I think that you have to let this develop over time.


QUESTION: ... defined goal, and the president has said his pledge that that goal will be achieved. So when and if that's done, what should Americans conclude?




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