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Ari Fleischer Holds Daily Press Briefing

Aired October 16, 2001 - 12:11   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: And we are probably just a minute, perhaps a little bit less away, from the afternoon White House briefing.

A number of things we would expect to come up, and one thing you might keep an ear open for is the choice of language that Ari Fleischer uses when he talks about the anthrax incidents. Yesterday, he shied away from calling it bioterrorism, something that other people in the administration had called it. He just chose to call it a crime, even when pressed on that, an attempt, we gather, to lower the paranoia level, which is running pretty high.

Here's Mr. Fleischer.


The president this morning spoke with Australian Prime Minister Howard. The president told the prime minister that he appreciated Australia's commitment to help the coalition in the campaign against terrorism and said he was looking forward to the seeing the prime minister at the upcoming APEC meeting, for which the president will depart for Shanghai tomorrow.

The president convened a meeting earlier this morning of his National Security Council, and he will depart from the White House shortly after this briefing to arrive at the Red Cross, where the president will take part in an event to help the children of Afghanistan. As you know, the Red Cross is helping to process all the money that is coming in as a result of children's contributions across America to help the children of Afghanistan.

The funds raised by America's children will go to provide clothing, emergency medicine, clean water, shelter and food for the children of Afghanistan.

Following that, the president will return to the White House.

And then I have one additional announcement, then I'll be happy to take questions.

The president will meet with Federal Chancellor Austria Wolfgang Schussel on November 1, 2001, to talk about bilateral issues involving the United States and Austria, as well as coalition efforts in the war against terrorism. QUESTION: Ari, given that three of the letters now have been traced to Trenton, New Jersey, as its place of origin, has the government been able to establish a link beyond those letters to each other, but to any of the hijackers or anyone associated with Osama bin Laden?

FLEISCHER: Federal investigators are poring through all the evidence they have at their disposal about all these incidents of anthrax, whether it's in Boca Raton, in New York City or elsewhere. And there is nothing definitive to report at this time. The investigation is well under way. The federal resources are committed to it. But there's no indication of anything I can point to at this time.

QUESTION: Is that a major focus of the investigation now, is establishing links between bin Laden or others who are operating here?

FLEISCHER: The investigators will be on the lookout for the source of the anthrax that was put in the mail, and they will make any determinations they can about who was behind that, where it came from, whether there are any links among the various incidents, and whether or not there's any foreign involvement. All of that is being actively looked at.

QUESTION: Ari, there's a dispatch from Islamabad that says that a so-called moderate Taliban member, official, has asked for a bombing pause of two days so that they can persuade the moderates and persuade the hardline Omar to turn over bin Laden. Is there such a thing in the work? Have you talked to Powell? Have you heard anything at the White House?

FLEISCHER: I think the president addressed that in its entirety when he returned from Camp David on Sunday, when he said there will be no negotiations. The military campaign remains underway, the financial campaign remains underway, the diplomatic, the political and...

QUESTION: Why not any negotiations? Everything is negotiated eventually?

FLEISCHER: Because those...

QUESTION: And why not a cease-fire for a couple of days?

FLEISCHER: Because that's not what the president announced to the American people and his speech to the Congress. The president is not pursuing such a course because he does not think it would be constructive.

The president has given the Taliban government ample time to respond. The president made it perfectly plain about what actions the Taliban needed to take in order to avoid the fate that they have chosen for themselves. They had plenty of time. They choose not to act.

QUESTION: It isn't a question of... (CROSSTALK)


QUESTION: ... this is a possible opening.

FLEISCHER: The president does not view it as such.

QUESTION: Ari, if I could follow-up on David's question. Given that there are anthrax attacks confirmed now in Florida, New York, Washington, D.C., post offices in New Jersey and Florida where Al Qaeda cells that committed the hijackings were known to operate -- given the scale of this, isn't the administration leaning toward, at all, the notion that this is not some kind of lone American crazy, but that there would be foreign involvement connected to September 11?

FLEISCHER: The administration is suspicious. The administration is suspicious about whether or not there are or not any such links, and that is being actively reviewed and looked at. But, again, there is no hard evidence, but it remains an issue that the administration is taking a good hard look at.

QUESTION: Is there a policy in place -- perhaps before September 11 -- about any nation or group who would cross the line of using biological weapons? Is there any policy of what the U.S. response would be?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate about what our reaction would be to a foreign nation that did this because we don't have any such evidence at this time. Suffice it to say, the president has taken action to defend our country and will continue to do so.

QUESTION: Ari, the anthrax found at the personnel office of Tom Daschle has been described as, quote, "not amateurish," suggesting that it is of a particularly pure or powerful nature. Given that and other attacks, is it now clear that the United States is subject to bioterrorism? You were reluctant to describe that yesterday. Will you now confirm, and should the American public now assume there's bioterrorism happening within the United States?

FLEISCHER: No. That's a determination that will be made by the appropriate law enforcement officials. The line between whether this is merely criminal or terrorist is something that often involves, whether or not a foreign nation is involved or whether or not cells of any type of foreign nation or terrorist group operating in this country. All that is under investigation right now, and I don't want to get ahead of that story.

QUESTION: How is it not reached this threshold, based on what you know so far? What's missing? What could possibly be missing from that equation?

FLEISCHER: The determination of who is behind it, and that has not been determined at this time.

QUESTION: But Secretary Thompson said, clearly, people feel terrorized. There is anthrax in the mail, therefore, it is bioterrorism.

FLEISCHER: Again, I think the investigation is well under way to determine the source of these mailings, and I'm not going to go beyond that.

QUESTION: Congress has taken steps to protect the mail and, I think, has suspended the delivery of mail, because the White House gets a lot of mail. What steps has the White House taken to protect the mail and what other measures has the White House taken in lieu of these anthrax outbreaks?

FLEISCHER: Well, unfortunately, well before September 11 the White House had security systems well in place. And the reason I say unfortunately is, because the White House, obviously, unique among government agencies, has security precautions that exceed most other federal agencies if not all federal agencies, a reflection of the fact that the entire executive branch is the person -- the one person, the president. And so there have been a series of protections that were in place at the White House prior to September 11.

Suffice it to say, as many of you can witness being around here, security is beefed up even more since September 11 took place, that includes the mail that the White House receives. So there have been a series of precautions put in place that put the White House in a different spot, a more protective spot.

QUESTION: On the anthrax itself that was contained in these letters, is there anything to suggest it might have been the type of anthrax stores that a laboratory that might hold for research that got booted out the back door or is there any evidence that this was the sort of anthrax that had been worked up into a weapon of bioterrorism?

FLEISCHER: The source of the anthrax is being investigated right now, where it possibly could have come from. So that's the only answer I can give you. They're trying to determine where it is.

Helen asked me this morning, earlier, the question about whether it came from any government stockpiles, such of that nature. I just want to remind you that the United States has no anthrax for offensive purposes of such. It was all destroyed as a part of the Biological Weapons Convention to which the United States is a signatory. So any other supplies that may be available for bio-defense purposes are all accounted for.

QUESTION: In your statement you said you had nothing definitive, sounds like you have something.

FLEISCHER: Nothing definitive in which statement?

QUESTION: You said nothing definitive on the cause and the linkage and so forth.

FLEISCHER: It's all under investigation. Keep in mind, the package that was received by Senator Daschle, for example yesterday, came in just 24 hours ago. The investigation has just begun. I don't think it would surprise anybody that at this point in the investigation there is nothing to declare. Everybody, the FBI, all the appropriate law enforcement agencies, including local, are reviewing the information for sources.

QUESTION: Will we press forward on this thing?

FLEISCHER: That's putting it lightly.


QUESTION: Is the administration...

QUESTION: Have any of the investigators told you whether the spores were kind of clumped together in these little clumps or whether they were in the defined powder that they would be manufactured in for use in a weapon?

FLEISCHER: It's all being investigated. And remarks like that or answers like that will come from the appropriate investigative authorities in due course.

QUESTION: Ari, did the investigation extend since you've just said that our bio-defense stockpiles are all accounted for. Does this investigation then extend overseas? Are we in contact with Russia, which had a major bio-weapons program, not all of which can be accounted for? Do you know if we're in touch with Russian officials on this?

FLEISCHER: I'd have to ask about specificity about any diplomatic contacts of that nature.

QUESTION: Do you foresee a role for the Taliban in a post-war Afghanistan? Apparently Secretary Powell has been saying that over there in Pakistan.

FLEISCHER: I think that's a little bit of an over- characterization of what the secretary said. And I've read the transcript of the news conference that he had with President Musharraf. But the president has made it very plain in the Afghanistan declaratory policy that the United States will work with those who would seek a peaceful, economically developed Afghanistan that is free from terrorism. And that will be a broadbased group. I think beyond that,it's too early to say exactly who will be in, who will not be in. That's going to be something the president has indicated he wants to work with the United Nations as a part of. Suffice it to say, it will be broadbased.

QUESTION: Given that the president is speaking at the Red Cross this afternoon, is he going to have any reaction to the bombing of the Red Cross warehouse in Kabul?

FLEISCHER: That's a matter that the Department of Defense is taking a look at right now, and it has not yet been confirmed.

QUESTION: Ari, the International Red Cross says that it happened. And how do you square that confirmation from the Red Cross with the president's very personal plea to the children of America to help buy supplies...

FLEISCHER: Again, as I indicated.

QUESTION: ... the very same supplies destroyed over...

FLEISCHER: As I indicated, the Department of Defense is taking a look at this right now to determine what the source could have been. And as I remind you that, in a case like this, until the information comes in that is determinative or final, it's hard to say whether something was a result of anti-aircraft weaponry that was shot from the ground, other weapons that were shot from the ground, they came back down or whether or not it was coalition efforts, and that's why the Department of Defense reviews these matters carefully and takes it seriously.

QUESTION: Bob Graham, who's the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said that he has information that the United States is very close to getting bin Laden, either killing him or capturing him. Is this a view that is shared in the White House?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, that gets into the operational areas, and I'm not going to discuss operational areas.

QUESTION: Is he speaking at a (OFF-MIKE) as a recipient of intelligence?

FLEISCHER: I think I would want to see exactly what he said, how he said it, before I can characterize what somebody said and something that I'm hearing about for the first time today.

QUESTION: You don't believe me?

FLEISCHER: Of course, I do.

QUESTION: Ari, Treasury Secretary O'Neill said yesterday, he indicated that the stimulus package that the Republicans are pushing in the House is too big. Is that also the president's position..

FLEISCHER: Well, the president said that, what we need to do is have a stimulus that can help get the economy going, without having any adverse impact on long-term interest rates, and that's what the president supports. The president identified a number, as scored by the Department of Treasury between $60 and $75 billion.

As you know, better than many, there often are a difference in the scoring conventions used by the Joint Committee on Taxation, the congressional entity and the Department of Treasury here in the executive branch. And so, often, when you take a look at similar proposals, it somehow scored differently by both entities.

So the president is very pleased with the actions that the House Ways and Means Committee has taken and Chairman Thomas' leadership. He looks forward to the vote on the floor and hopes that this will pass. He's confident in the end the bill that emerges from the conference will, indeed, be a stimulus that can give bipartisan support that'll help get the economy going, will fit into the description he described -- big enough to provide a boost for the economy, but not so big that it has any impact on long-term rates.

QUESTION: So since the House bill is bigger than $75 billion, is it safe to assume that the president also thinks that that's too big. It may have an effect on long-term (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: No. I think it's safe to say that the president understands it's the beginning of a process, and he's going to want to continue to work closely with Democrats and Republicans to successfully complete the process.

QUESTION: What does the president want to see taken out during the conference committee? You keep saying that it will go to conference and come out in the end OK. What do you hope will be taken out?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think at this point it's important to let Congress do its work. The House Ways and Means Committee just passed it on Monday. It is scheduled for a vote on the floor of the House perhaps as early as Thursday. And then it's important to let the Senate do its work. And very often, the most helpful way to be successful and bipartisan is to be respectful of each of the Senate and the House's prerogatives, and wait until it gets to conference and then work shoulder-to-shoulder bipartisan at conference.

QUESTION: You're giving no instruction to the Senate, what the president would like to see in the bill?

FLEISCHER: The Senate is very well aware of the proposal that the president made, which is scored by the Department of Treasury, a stimulus that costs between $60 billion and $75 billion, that would include such bipartisan ideas as expensing, as elimination of the corporate alternative minimum tax, as acceleration of the existing tax cuts that are in law, as well as rebates which score in many ways as a spending program for people who did not pay income taxes.

QUESTION: You said earlier this morning that when federal officials speak about anthrax, they should speak accurately. Are you in any way indicating that to date that hasn't always occurred? And does the president himself feel any particular burden to help the nation deal with what is becoming a rising level of anxiety about anthrax?

FLEISCHER: No. When I said that I'm saying it because everybody should speak accurately in all that they do. It's worth noting that in the development of this anthrax story, I've seen a wide discrepancy in the media about how many people, for example, have been exposed. I've seen reports in the media that people were hospitalized with anthrax when they never were. So it's a particularly important job for the federal government, and I speak for the president and for agencies in the government to some degree, to make certain that the information they have is considered and is accurate before rushing to report it.

QUESTION: Does he feel any particular burden to help the country deal with what is becoming a rather anxious situation, not just with war, not just with the general threat of terrorism, but with anthrax specifically?

FLEISCHER: Well, if you recall in the remarks the president made last, I believe it was Friday, the Hispanic Heritage event in the East Room, the president addressed the topic of anthrax when it came to light that an employee at NBC News had been diagnosed with exposure to anthrax. And...


QUESTION: ... is he going to try to work the country through this day by day?

FLEISCHER: I think you've heard the president speak about this before and you'll hear him speak about it in the future, of course.

QUESTION: Ari, the president is going to be out of Washington for six days and out of the country for the first time since September 11. A lot of Americans are wondering is it safe for him to be that far away for that length of time and is it a good idea.

FLEISCHER: Let me take that in both parts. One, the president has absolute faith in the Secret Service to secure his safety. Presidents before have traveled to places that were dangerous, and Shanghai certainly does not fit that description. So the president has absolute confidence in the ability of Secret Service to protect his safety at all times.

As for being out of the country, just remind you, the communications available to the president is second to none. He will be in frequent contact with everybody he needs to be in contact with throughout this issue. Anticipate he'll be having lots of updates and phone calls and he'll be able to give direction from the road, just as he would from the White House.

But even beyond that, the president continues to be concerned about the strength of the United States economy. Even during this time of war, it's important to keep an eye domestically on issues that matter. And the ability of the United States and our allies to engage in free trade, which helps create high-paying jobs at home for Americans, and also to help developing economies of the world so they can grow richer and prosper, creating jobs and security for their own people, is in the American interest at all times, in war and in peace.

So the president does see important domestic goals to be achieved rough this conference, which will bring together some 21 leaders from across the globe as part of the Asian-Pacific Economic Council, and that's why he's hearing off to this morning.

QUESTION: He doesn't see any limits on his ability to give commands at a time of war from the other side of the world?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely not. Telephones work.

QUESTION: Does the president have any reaction to the violent demonstrations, anti-American demonstrations in Indonesia, Pakistan, other parts of the world? And is that likely to change his policy in any way?

FLEISCHER: Well, as you've heard the president say before, he understands people throughout the world have the right to demonstrate and to have their voices heard. But I think it's worth keeping these protests in context. Pakistan is a nation of 150 million people, and the protests have numbers in the thousands. And with each day, it seems that there are less people in the streets, not more.

I remind you that when the president has traveled around Europe, for example, after he left Gothenburg where there was a EU summit, the president was already in Poland and there were more protesters at that EU meeting than there were in some of these protests that we've seen in the Middle East. So I don't think that was an indication that the European governments, for example, had the majority of their populations against them. It's hard to say that.

Similarly, in a nation of 150 million people, when the protests do number in the thousands, I think it's also fair to say and to ask, is there a majority that is silent on this matter? So you have pictures, of course, that I have seen on the air, of these pictures. Pictures often get on the air easier than the broader context does.

QUESTION: Where is the vice president going to be during the president's trip?

FLEISCHER: I'll have to get an answer to that with specificity, whether it's at the White House or some other secure location. I don't know. The vice president's office would probably be the fastest way to get that.

QUESTION: Ari, on the stimulative package, you said earlier the Senate understands the components the president laid out. But according to Senator Daschle, one of the other understandings at that initial meeting was that these tax cuts should be temporary and not permanent. Does the White House believe the tax cuts should be permanent or temporary in order to stimulate the economy?

FLEISCHER: Well, obviously, with some of them -- for example, the tax rate reductions that are already part of the law, those are, by definition, permanent. They were agreed to by Congress early this year and signed by the president. So when you talk about accelerating them from 2006 to 2004 or 2003 -- or 2002, I'm sorry -- that doesn't really fall within that definition as something permanent that's being accelerated.

QUESTION: But, specifically, corporate investments, in order to -- if you have an open-ended window, the argument is then there's no, you know, window to...

FLEISCHER: Well, let me put it to you this way; one, a lot of those ideas are bipartisan. Expensing is something that had been suggested to the president by a number of Democrats. But the president wants to make certain that the package has a short-term effect on the economy to give it a boost so that the fiscal impact will be measured short-term and not have any longer, larger long-term implications. QUESTION: You said a little while ago, you didn't want to speculative on a reaction to any -- if we discover that any particular state had been the source of the anthrax, because you don't know the source of it. Can I ask you a policy question. In 1991, the first Bush administration issued a very specific warning to Iraq that if the Iraqis used any chemical or biological weapons on U.S. forces, U.S. targets or U.S. allies you would respond with weapons of mass destruction. Does that still stand as U.S. policy?

FLEISCHER: I answered the question by saying that the president has said the United States will defend itself.

QUESTION: You talked about the Senate trimming back the stimulus package to $75 billion as you proposed. Can you say that's what your message is going to be tomorrow morning, clearly? Because you're sort of talking out of two sides...

FLEISCHER: Well, again, you're really...


QUESTION: ... on the WTO ministerial meeting, does the administration have a position on possible moving into Singapore or...

FLEISCHER: On the first of the two very related questions. On the first part of it, you really are now getting deep into the weeds of scoring conventions between the Department of Revenue Analysis, I think is the technical name at the Department of Treasury, and the Joint Committee on Taxation in the Congress, and this is not a surprise.

Very often both entities take a look at the exact identical proposal and come out with a different analysis of how much the cost would be. And so the proposal that the president made, taking a look at by the Department of Treasury, fit into the president's parameters. The proposal then was received on the Hill was scored differently by the JCT. In addition, the items passed by the Ways and Means Committee included several items that the president did not propose.

But again, this is the beginning of the process. It should surprise nobody who's watched Capitol Hill before. The process has just started, and that's how you can get through a conference where a successful end can come. If they never started, there wouldn't be a stimulus. The fact that they've started is very healthy.

On the second question, the WTO has been discussing very actively the site for its next meeting.

The government of Qatar has done a superb job in preparing for the meeting that is scheduled in November in Qatar. The United States intends to show up wherever that meeting is because of the importance of securing another round of free trade throughout the world.

So this is a decision that the WTO will make. As far as its exact location, it very well may end up being where it's scheduled to be. But in all cases, the United States will be there. QUESTION: Reports coming out of Boston today that doctors are going to pharmacies and basically clearing the shelves of Cipro and other antibiotics, not for their patients, but for their own families. If the caregivers are not feeling secure about the threat of bioterrorism, isn't it incumbent upon the president to say something, especially before he leaves the country tomorrow, to tell people whether or not they should be panicking? There is panic in the country about this.

FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, the supply is plentiful. Secretary Thompson has made that clear. The United States government has some 2 million antibiotics available in the case of treating anthrax symptoms. And if you take a look at what's happened now, you've seen, at the most, several thousand people, at most, who have even been tested for possible exposure out of a supply of some 2 million. And so health professionals have told people that if they're coming in, that there is no need to take this unless there has been an exposure. And as you know, there have been very few places where there has been any type of confirmed exposures.


QUESTION: The doctors are clearing out the pharmacies themselves.

QUESTION: Ari, can you talk about what the volume of mail response is to the White House, from the president's request that children send in dollars for children in Afghanistan?

QUESTION: And also is there any concern at the White House that the president solicited this mass mailing right before we have all these concerns about what's in the mail?

FLEISCHER: On the answer to the numbers, this morning when I was briefed on this, as of yesterday afternoon the White House had received some 8,000 pieces of correspondence addressed to the children of Afghanistan, and then by 9:15 this morning it had been upped to 18,000. So obviously it's coming in, and the president is very pleased to note that. We will have updated numbers, of course, throughout the process.

As for the security arrangements, all that is being considered, of course, so that any questions like that will be fully addressed.

QUESTION: In relation to that question, many critics are wondering how can the president ask for children to send money for the Afghanistan children when many children of the victims at the World Trade Center still have not received funding yet because of the loss of a parent? And also, the White House pretty much is a place unto itself as far as security, with the metal and organic detectors for the mail. What about the main post offices in certain states or in every state to have some type of sophisticated system because this is going on to do what the White House is doing?

FLEISCHER: I heard Mayor Giuliani say this yesterday and I think it's sage, that across the United States every day the volume of the mail sent compared to what is happening here, you can't even compare. I mean, what's happened here is you've had in the case of Boca Raton, NBC, Senator Daschle's office, three confirmed instances of something being apparently either mailed or dropped off.

It's not clear whether it was mailed or dropped off in all cases. Billions of pieces of mail move across this country on a regular basis, and I don't recall if that's over a day period of a year period. So there clearly based on everything we know is no need to take that type of step. It has to be kept in perspective, and every precaution is being taken. I think people are hearing about what to do if they receive something they believe is suspicious; the types of activities they should engage in as far as putting it down immediately, calling 9-1-1. Federal law enforcement authorities or the postal inspector will come; will take care of it; they're trained to take care of it. That's the proper response.

QUESTION: What about the Afghan situation?

FLEISCHER: To compare the plight of the children of Afghanistan to people who are blessed to live in this country, even those whose lives have been affected by the attack on our country, really is not equal. The children of Afghanistan have no food or they have barely any food. It's been taken away from them by the Taliban. The children of Afghanistan don't have access to medicine. They often don't have access to blankets and to clothing. And that's what this is aimed at.

The families of those who have been affected by the attacks in New York have suffered a tragedy in human terms and in family terms that has touched everybody in this country. But you can't compare the resources available to help those families to the resources available to help the children of Afghanistan. Help is available for both in different measures, and the president thinks it's entirely fitting the traditions of our country to have the children of America help the children of Afghanistan. We'll also help our home here as well.

QUESTION: Going back to Secretary Powell's statement from Pakistan today, from your remarks from the podium, are you trying to distance the White House and the president from what Powell said today? And secondly, isn't it irregular for a United States Cabinet officer, particularly the secretary of state, to talk about including an organization in any kind of government that we are now at war with?

FLEISCHER: Let me just cite to you what the secretary said in his remarks in Pakistan this morning: "In our discussions, there was no doubt that both our common goals is seeing that the post-Taliban government in Kabul would be one that represented all the people of Afghanistan, would be a regime that, obviously, would be friendly to all its neighbors, including Pakistan." So that's what the secretary said, and that's perfectly consistent with the president's Afghanistan declaratory policy of course.

QUESTION: Except that the organization, the Pashtun, which is the largest ethnic organization, is the Taliban.

FLEISCHER: Well, there are elements of the Pashtun that are in the Taliban, but I don't think it's accurate to say -- I know it's not accurate to say that all the Pashtun are Taliban.

QUESTION: In addition to the APEC agenda you had spoken to earlier...

BROWN: We are going to leave the White House.




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