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White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer Holds Daily Press Briefing

Aired October 12, 2001 - 16:21   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to go to the White House for the daily briefing.

Ari Fleischer:


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... congratulate him on winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The president told the secretary general, and this is a quote, "what a magnificent honor," unquote, it was for him to have won the 100th Nobel Peace Prize.

In addition to congratulating the secretary general, the president expressed his determination to carry through with the battle against terrorism, and he told the secretary general that he thought the United Nations would have an important role to play in the future of Afghanistan.

The president will also, on a separate note, welcome the prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin, to Washington on November 30.

And finally, before I take your questions, in an announcement just concluded by the attorney general, he indicated that the federal government has taken action against aviation screening firm Argon Bright Incorporated (ph) for failure to do background checks on airline screeners. This action taken by the attorney general underscores the president's determination to make certain that his proposal for aviation security is passed by the Congress.

If you recall, the president has proposed that the federal government will take over responsibility for all background checks for screeners at airports.

FLEISCHER: The action taken today by the attorney general is a reminder to the Congress the importance of taking action on that legislation, so the president can sign it.

QUESTION: When did the White House and the president begin considering the idea of having the United Nations get involved in rebuilding a post-Taliban Afghanistan? And when did the president propose it to Kofi Annan or Kofi Annan propose it?

FLEISCHER: Well, in a conversation the president had with Kofi Annan yesterday, the president raised the issue of the United Nations role in the future of Afghanistan...


FLEISCHER: Yesterday. And Kofi Annan said the United Nations was interested in pursuing this subject.

During the course of all the conversations in the Security Council meetings, in accordance with the Afghanistan declaratory policy, this has been a topic. And if you can remember, in the declaratory policy it says, quote, "We do not want to choose who rules Afghanistan. But we will assist those who seek a peaceful, economically developing Afghanistan free of terrorism." Obviously, what the president is saying in his conversations with the secretary general is, the United Nations may be able to help as one of those groups, as the president said, to assist in creating such a peaceful, developing Afghanistan free of terrorism.

QUESTION: But are they getting into any more, Ari? You said today an important role. Is it going beyond that?

FLEISCHER: No, they're not. It's way too early. But it's wise to be thinking long-term, to be thinking ahead about what to do in context with the president's statement.


FLEISCHER: I don't know. Very often on these calls both parties want to talk to each other and staff sets them up.

QUESTION: How do they call?

FLEISCHER: They both call each other at the same time.

QUESTION: What can you tell us about a plan for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, that the administration is reportedly working on?

FLEISCHER: Know nothing beyond what the president said last night.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) nation-building, in the conversation then with the secretary general yesterday, is that the first time that the president expressed the U.S. would like to see the U.N. have a role and that the U.S. would take part as well?

FLEISCHER: Is that the first time the president said it to the secretary general?

QUESTION: Was this the first time the president, sort of, came forward with that?

FLEISCHER: No. The president came forward with that in the Afghan declaratory policy.

QUESTION: But the Afghans, it's more that the U.S. will assist those who seek for a peaceful, democratic Afghanistan. It doesn't really talk about the U.S. playing role or a U.N. playing a role.

FLEISCHER: When it says we will assist, that means the U.S. will play a role to assist.

QUESTION: What about the U.N.? It doesn't talk about a U.N. taking over...

FLEISCHER: That's why this is an indication that the first group the president has cited when he says we will assist those groups, the U.N.

QUESTION: Is the thing about working with the U.N. something that's been in the works prior to yesterday's call to Kofi Annan? Something that the administration has been discussing as they've gamed this out?

FLEISCHER: I wouldn't be surprised if it's one of the topics that came up at the NSC meetings. That's what the president indicated to me; that it's the type of thing they've talked about in the NSC meetings.

But I think this addresses something you were driving at earlier this morning involving military in peacekeeping and playing a role in the future of Afghanistan. What the president could not have made any plainer during the campaign, which he repeats emphatically today, is the purpose of the military is to fight and win wars. The purpose of the military is not, as he said on October 12 during the course of the campaign, to use troops all around the world to serve as social workers or policemen or school walking guards. "I'm not for that," the president said. That's the complaint the president had about the use of military in nation-building.

Obviously, what is going on in Afghanistan with America's military is just the opposite. The military is being used for the purpose the president said in the campaign: to fight and win wars.

After the military mission is complete, as the president said last night, then it will be appropriate to work with other nations, just as we standardly do when we talk about foreign aid, when we talk about diplomacy, when we talk about things of a non-military nature, to help create stability in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: There won't be any role, then, after the military operation is over, for U.S. troops with other countries to keep the peace, to make sure that any kind of U.N. structure is in place? Isn't it possible that U.S. troops will be involved in that way with...

FLEISCHER: I think if you want to ask me what's possible one, two, three, four, who knows how many years from now, it's an appropriate question at that time.

At this time, it's very premature. What the president has said, again, is that we will assist those who seek a peaceful economically developing Afghanistan free from terrorism. That's obvious. Of course, we're going to do that. QUESTION: This is a country that's been at war for years -- I mean, more than decades. And you're basically saying that when the U.S. military pulls out there's going to be no need for any, sort of, peacekeepers or military presence there; that this, sort of, government is going to rise up and exist without something there to ensure stability. I mean, are you ruling out that...

FLEISCHER: You're asking me to predict the future one, two, three, four years from now. I think it's a fair question at the appropriate time.

QUESTION: It may not be that long. I mean, we may be talking about six months.

FLEISCHER: I think it's a good question six months from now. But I think it's important to first let the United States military fight and win this war.

QUESTION: Ari, can I ask something about something that's happening right now? There are a lot of groups and individual warlords staking claim to power in Afghanistan. Does the president consider the Northern Alliance troops, who are fighting the Taliban, to be allies of the United States in this military operation?

FLEISCHER: Let me remind you what this military operation is about. Our country was attacked, and the president is going to defend this country. And the best way to defend that country is to take military action, as well as political action and financial action and diplomatic action, against Osama bin Laden, his lieutenants, the Al Qaeda organization and the Taliban. That necessarily means the actions that you are seeing in Afghanistan now are under way and will remain under way until the mission is complete.

During the course of that, the United States will work with a number of groups throughout Afghanistan and the region who have an interest in helping to secure an Afghanistan that is free of terrorism.

QUESTION: Is that a yes that we are working militarily with the Northern Alliance?

FLEISCHER: You're asking me operational details about what we're doing with various groups, and I won't do that.

QUESTION: Do you consider them to be allies in a war on terror in Afghanistan?

FLEISCHER: The president has indicated that he will work in a number of ways with different groups that are interested in securing Afghanistan that's free from terrorism.

QUESTION: One more on this: Does the president believe the Northern Alliance should have a prominent place at the table in the reconstitution of a peaceful government?

FLEISCHER: I think the president would like to first see the military fight and win this war. And then he'll be happy to consider any of the implications for, as he says in the declaratory policy, how to work with others to get a peaceful Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Last night, the president said that he is willing to give second chance or a kind of amnesty to the Taliban. What prompted or what -- is there some indication that they are willing to (OFF- MIKE) the issue of hand over of Osama bin Laden to the United Nations?

FLEISCHER: I think it's always a sign that if somebody wants to sue for peace by doing everything that the president asked for, that would be a satisfactory result, but they have to do everything the president asked for.

QUESTION: Do you have any indication that they're willing to do it?

FLEISCHER: No, we have not heard that. The president has not received a positive response to his message.

QUESTION: Isn't this, kind of, some kind of negotiation, when the president last night said we are not going to negotiate at any point?

FLEISCHER: I think the president reiterated what he said to the American people in his speech to the Congress about what they would have to do.

QUESTION: The president said in his news conference last night that Al Qaeda is believed to be operating in 68 different countries. You've said that this war is designed to protect the American people from Al Qaeda wherever it may be operating; that the president will -- that this administration will root out those terrorists wherever they're operating.

Do the American people deserve to know which of those 68 countries are harboring -- playing active host to Al Qaeda? And will you ever tell us if not which exact nations are hosting them, how many?

FLEISCHER: Well, the reason that I've deliberately not answered that question, as you've been asking me to for weeks, is because the president has said that this is phase one of the operation, and phase one begins in Afghanistan with the Al Qaeda. The president has put other nations on notice that if they continue to harbor terrorists, that they too shall meet the same fate as the terrorists. But phase one is focused on what you have seen before you today, which is Afghanistan. And I'm not going to get ahead of the president and indicate that there may or may not be any actions taken against any other nations. I appreciate your asking for a list of nations that may or may not be next. I'm not prepared to go down that road.

QUESTION: On airline security, how long is the president willing to wait for the House to bring their bill to the floor before he decides to take executive action and fill in the gaps?

FLEISCHER: You know, I was just talking to the president about that. He just completed a meeting reviewing a number of domestic issues that are pending in the United States Congress. And the president said that he wants Congress to be able to get this done. He'd like Congress to be able to figure out a way to do it.

He does have broad authority. And his goal is exactly as he announced, if you recall, when he went to Chicago and announced an airline security package that would have safer cockpit doors, providing air marshals. Obviously, some of these things he does have the ability to do on his own. But his preference is for Congress to be able to figure it out, work together, and get it done.

QUESTION: So we know what the red lines are in Congress, how does help to bridge the difference?

FLEISCHER: As always, he's going to keep talking to Congress, have the bipartisan meetings. Obviously, there's a dispute between the Senate and the House on this. I think it's fair to say when the president urged the country to go back to normal, Congress itself has gone back to normal, too.

QUESTION: Speaking of Congress, Ari...

FLEISCHER: Yes, sir?

QUESTION: So is that the end of bipartisanship?

FLEISCHER: No. Regular order in Congress, and that's a sign that things are returning to normal. And it'll be accompanied by a heavy dose of bipartisanship from the president.

QUESTION: The leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus has been complaining last week that they've been trying for about two weeks to get the president's ear and his attention to bringing forward what they think about this crisis and issue; that bombs and bullets alone will not gain the victory that the United States seeks. And they've tried in vain to reach the president.

Is he ignoring the Congressional Black Caucus? Does he think that what views that they might be able to share, or the diplomacy that they might be able to advise is not helpful in this situation?

FLEISCHER: Obviously, that's a message the president agrees with. And as the president made clear, our actions in Afghanistan involve a heavy element of humanitarian assistance -- $320 million worth, to be specific. We have military planes that are dropping food into Afghanistan to help feed people who are starving. And as I indicated, the president wants to work with the United Nations on a way to create a peaceful Afghanistan. So that president agrees with that message.

QUESTION: Will he take the calls from the Congressional Black Caucus?

When the president last night said that he believed that the attacks helped build his case for a missile defense shield, how so, given that a missile defense shield would not have helped prevent what happened on September 11, nor would it help prevent some of the threats that we're now talking about?

FLEISCHER: What the president was referring to is the very sad fact that we have now seen proof positive that there are people, if they can get their hands on a weapon, they will show no hesitation about using against the United States of America and its cities. And it's only a matter of time, given technology, until some of these nations or some of these rogue groups try to acquire nuclear weapons that they may be able to deliver to the United States.

And that's why the president believes that from this we have learned the motives of those who would do harm to the United States, making it even more important for the United States to be able to protect itself from an accidental missile launch or a deliberate one if it ever got to that point.

QUESTION: Well, we don't have any indication at this point that any of those groups or states possess nuclear technology now.

FLEISCHER: I hardly think that's a good reason for the United States to do nothing, and that's why the president has proposed what he's proposed.

QUESTION: Last night the president, when he asked himself the question about "Why do they hate us?" -- basically that question -- he said he was amazed that they didn't understand the goodness of Americans and so on. "We can do more," he said. What's "more"?

FLEISCHER: Well, part of it is the humanitarian effort in Afghanistan; part of it is also through the actions of the Agency for International Development, the Voice of America -- reaching out to different nations around the world, particularly in Afghanistan, to the people of Afghanistan so they hear the facts, the truth.

Many of these people life in -- in Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban regime does not provide information to its people. It's totally Taliban-controlled. They don't hear another side of the news. So Voice of America's ability to present fair and factual information -- all of that is what the president is referring to.

QUESTION: A number of news organizations have done some very in- depth reporting on why they hate us, if you want to use that phrase. And it's not just they don't understand our goodness. I mean, you hear a lot of policy issues -- troops in Saudi Arabia, our Israeli policy, Iraqi women and children -- you know, you hear those things over and over again.

The president, in his response to this question, did not mention any of the policy things that some Muslims have problems with. Is there any reexamination of our policy going on right now?

FLEISCHER: Well, the policies of the government remain the same. It's important to communication those policies to people around the world.

QUESTION: If I could go back briefly to this question of the U.N. and so forth; confine this question to what a narrow time period, not six months or a year out.

The president said last night that the lesson from the previous engagement in the Afghan area was, "We should not simply leave after a military objective has been achieved." Clearly, your concern is that once the Taliban collapses there's a power vacuum and you don't want a free-for-all to go into that. Can you tell us, has there been any planning under way for a temporary administration of Afghanistan that may well-precede getting the United Nations protectorate or anything else like that, something you might have to do over the very short term?

FLEISCHER: Nothing that I'm immediately aware of. You know, I know that there are many smart people who have worked on future contingencies, so I wouldn't be surprised if somebody may be doing some thinking about that topic, but there's nothing that I can report to you today.

QUESTION: The events of today have brought bioterrorism back to the fore as a concern, yet the United States, for anthrax vaccine, is depending on a company called BioPort in Michigan which has numerous problems, that I won't go into; for small pox we're depending on a Danish company, I believe.

Is there going to any move by the government to harness the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, which is the best in the world, to help tackle the issues of supplying vaccines or ramping up production or doing anything? Because at the moment, it doesn't seem like much is coming off the production lines.

FLEISCHER: Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson has said that the United States -- and he has given the specific numbers about the amount of medication we have, the antibodies for anthrax, for example, to combat other types of illnesses. I think, he's indicated that he has the resources, the ability to go beyond that and acquire more if necessary. But that's a question, really, HHS is handling.

QUESTION: Back on post-war Afghanistan for a moment, without trying to predict the future, can you share with us the current thinking of U.S. policy-makers on questions like, for example, the one Campbell (ph) was pursuing earlier? Will there be a need for a follow-on force? Under whose auspices would it be done? And would the United States be willing to participate? Simply the current thinking of U.S. policy-makers.

FLEISCHER: It really is too early. The military action in Afghanistan has been under way for five days, and as the president indicated last night, it could go on for a length that is uncertain and unclear right now. So I appreciate an attempt to look ahead into a crystal ball, but I'm not able to do that right now.

QUESTION: I'm not asking you to look into a crystal ball. I'm asking you to share with us whatever the current thinking is of U.S. policy-makers on this question.

FLEISCHER: You're asking David Sanger's (ph) question in a different way, and my answer is the same as it was to Mr. Sanger (ph).

QUESTION: How does the March of Dimes program work? Would the monies collected here turn over to the Red Cross? Or do you send it to NGOs? Or how does it work?

FLEISCHER: The checks will arrive at the White House, and then the checks will be turned over to the Red Cross. The Red Cross will be responsible for the administration of the program, for public reporting on the program, for the audits of the program. The Red Cross has a long and good history of dealing with receipt of financial donations to provide for charities around the world. And so this is a very helpful program in the view of the Red Cross, and they will be able to provide you updates, as well as how much has come in.

QUESTION: Let me just ask you, Ari, the president talked today about the latest incident of anthrax in New York, and he said that the federal government is working closely with local agencies to respond quickly. He said, "Our nation is still in danger." Was he referring to the alert from yesterday, or was he referring to a concern about more and more incidents of anthrax?

FLEISCHER: No, the president was addressing his broad concern about, given the fact that our country was attacked on September 11, that we need to remain on alert.

The president was reiterating the same message he was saying there.

QUESTION: Can I just follow that? One other concern is, you said, you know, the federal government is doing everything it possibly can. But, you know, we're certainly hearing that federal resources are certainly starting to feel a little strapped trying to follow up leads connected to September. Is there any sense that federal...

FLEISCHER: I've not heard either the director of the FBI or the secretary of health and human services indicate that.

QUESTION: What about a concern about -- the president tried to address this, about just getting scared: calling their doctors for antibiotics; every package that comes in, calling their local law enforcement authorities? What to do about that?

FLEISCHER: Well, this is why the president has done everything he can to be as forthright -- to be forthright with American people. And that's why, when the president heard this morning about the case at NBC News, the White House asked officials to make sure they shared information with the public. And that's why you saw Secretary Thompson, Attorney General Ashcroft give all information to the public today to address it directly.

I think this is a time where the American people say to their government, "Tell us the facts. We want to know what is going on." And the American people will, in their own way, figure out how to move forward and deal with this. And given the history of our country, they're going to figure it out and move forward well. And I think people also are becoming sensitized to the fact they are going to false alarms out there; there are going to be incidents, such as what took place at the State Department with the talcum powdery substance, which for moments, in this room, of course, prompted many questions to me about what could be going on. We're going to answer those questions.

But I think the American people want a government that remains vigilant, but they want to live their lives. They don't want terrorism to win. They don't want to alter what they do. But they do want to be vigilant, they want to be alert, and they're entitled to the facts.

QUESTION: Can you tell us how this idea originated? Did the Red Cross come to the White House and say, "This would be a good idea"? Did somebody here in the White House think that the president wanted to reach out?

FLEISCHER: The idea came up in the speech-making process for the address to the Congress, where the president has heard the message of a lot of the American people, "What can we do?" And so, the president -- actually, it was the president's idea about helping the children of Afghanistan. I think that's something that he and Mrs. Bush had talked about. And then, I don't know which particular aide in the White House thought about it or came up with the idea of the Red Cross. But that's the genesis of it.

QUESTION: You mentioned the State Department. Has there been anything like that through the package (inaudible) sent here? Any suspicious incidents or anybody testing or to be tested or anything like that?

FLEISCHER: I have not been told about any incidents involving any mail here that raised those questions.

QUESTION: And has the president received the anthrax vaccine?

FLEISCHER: On any type of question involving how or if the president is taking any steps to protect himself from a security point of view, obviously if I were to answer questions like that, I could be indicating what he has or has not been protected from, which is information somebody else might want to get. So matters dealing with the security of the president are things I'm not going to answer.

QUESTION: Fair enough.

Just a follow-up on a different topic: He was very spirited today in his remarks. He was also very emotional, as he has been in recent days. Have you noticed any greater degree of emotionalism? Is he wearing his heart on his sleeve in these days at all?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, I only go back two and a half, three years with Governor Bush, now President Bush -- two years. And I can tell you from my time with him, I've always known him to be compassionate. He is a person who cares deeply and it shows visibly every now and then. That's the man that I see. QUESTION: Do you see any more of it?

QUESTION: Ari, has there been any change in the level of threat that the government is assessing? It's been more than 24 hours now since that threat was issued. Has that changed at all? Has it gone up? Has anything changed?

FLEISCHER: No, the current notice that went out yesterday remains in place.

QUESTION: Have any specifics changed in that, though? Have you received any more information that would suggest anything over the weekend?

FLEISCHER: No, nothing that's been brought to my attention and nothing that I'm aware of.

QUESTION: I'd like to go back to the president's statement last night that the United States has to do a better job of making the case that this isn't a war against Islam. Is that an acknowledgement that that issue is straining the coalition?

FLEISCHER: No, I think actually when it comes to the coalition, not at all. As the president indicated, the 56 nations that make up the Organization of Islamic Conferences, the OIC, came out with a statement that condemned the terrorist attack on the United States and expressed to some degree a level of support for the United States.

I think it's a reflection of the fact that no nation around the world is loved by 100 percent of the people around the world. The United States, though, if you took a look at how many people want to come to our country for a better way of life, it's probably a lot more than most. And that's a very good thing. That's one of the strengths of our country. Look at how many Arab Americans have come to this country, because they enjoy the freedoms and the liberties of this country provides.

So that's a reflection of the rich melting pot that we are. We all come from somewhere else, so many people here who are the immigrants. And I think that's what the president's reflecting on.

QUESTION: Well then, to flip it around, if it's not hurting the coalition, to be callous about it, why should we care? And why do we need to make a better case if the case we've made has convinced our allies to stick with it?

FLEISCHER: Because it's always important for sovereign nations to continue to know that their nation's support the activities of the United States. And as I've indicated many times from here, different nations are going different things for different reasons. And to the degree that their country supports the United States efforts, it'll give those nations more flexibility and ability to work with us.

QUESTION: Since September the 11th, has there been a single agency or individual that reports to the president, in which or in whose performance he has been less than satisfied? And is there anything he himself would have done differently if he had the events, since September 11, to do over again?

FLEISCHER: Gordon, Shaun (ph), Claire (ph), Scott, Ari.

The president has not expressed any thoughts like that to me. And I think the president is focused on the mission ahead of him. And I've just not heard any thoughts like that from the president.

QUESTION: Ari, on an ordinary day, the fact that the House Ways and Means Committee put together $100 billion stimulus package would draw a response from the White House. And I just wonder if you have a response today.

FLEISCHER: Yes. The president is pleased that action is beginning in the House on a stimulus package. The measure before the Ways and Means Committee includes many of the items that the president has proposed, and the president is very pleased by that.

The president urges the House to take action and he hopes that the end product will be a very bipartisan product. He wants to work closely with the Democrats on this.

The House includes some items that the president did not ask for. It was a little broader in the Ways and Means Committee than that which the president had asked. But the president understands this is the beginning of the process and he's pleased that the House is beginning to take action, and that includes a package to help the country get the economy going again.

QUESTION: At the risk of engaging in some (OFF-MIKE), has there been any thought given to the idea of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan after this is all over?

FLEISCHER: Again, this is Mr. Sanger's (ph) question, Mr. Feyerman's (ph) question, now the Roberts (ph) version thereof.

QUESTION: No, no, no. I'm not talking about government. I'm talking about rebuilding the infrastructure.

FLEISCHER: Again, the military effort is five days old. I think this is premature.

QUESTION: There's been a lot of damage in five days. There's a lot to rebuild.

FLEISCHER: There's a little more work to do.

Thank you.

WOODRUFF: Well, if you ever wondered how many topics the White House press secretary has to get prepared on before he goes into a briefing with reporters, we got a sense there. I think there must have been 15 or 20 different subjects that Ari Fleischer was asked about.

Not much in the way of headlines, except I just want to touch on a couple things. He started out by saying the president called Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, to congratulate him on say winning the Nobel Peace Prize. In that conversation, he raised the subject of with Secretary Annan of a U.N. role in rebuilding Afghanistan after the military part of the campaign is over. Reporters pressed Ari Fleischer afterwards on that. He didn't offer much else. But that is a new little piece of information, I should say, in the White House thinking about what comes next.

Separately, we want to point out he was asked a lot of questions about the new anthrax case that was revealed today, we learned about today in New York City, and, again, didn't have much new information there, except to say that the president -- the government is doing all it can to keep the American people safe.

And I just want to underline that Ari Fleischer, when asked if the alert that was issued by the FBI yesterday saying that it has credible information that there could be, in the next few days, another terrorist attack, either inside the United States or at American facilities and bases overseas, we heard Ari Fleischer say, yes, that alert is very much still there. It is still active. Americans should be vigilant.




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