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White House Briefing

Aired October 23, 2001 - 12:40   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: As you can see, Ari Fleischer is at the podium at the White House. And so we will go there now.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ... pass through the Congress as quickly as possible, aviation security legislation, a stimulus package. They discussed the energy bill pending on the Hill, as well as the importance of confirming judges before the session is out.

The president also convened a meeting of his National Security Council earlier this morning.

Later this afternoon, the president will attend, will drop by a meeting that Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, is having with Israeli Foreign Minister Peres. I anticipate that at that meeting the president will convey his condolences over the assassination of Minister Zeevi, as well as urge Israel to withdraw from Palestinian areas.

Following that, the president, in mid-afternoon, will have a meeting with members of Congress to discuss the results of his trip to Asia, where he just returned from Shanghai the other night.

Let me give you an update on one other item, involving the Postal Service and the anthrax issue, then I'll be happy to take questions.

The Postal Service is taking a number of preventative measures to protect our nation's postal workers, as well as the public. As Postmaster General Potter said yesterday, the United States Postal Service is engaged in simultaneous efforts on three fronts to combat the threat, and those fronts are education, investigation and intervention.

The United States Postal Service is continually updating its employees through a series of talks and through information visits by medical experts who are meeting with employees of the Postal Service.

A postcard with information about what to look for in suspicious letters and packages is on its way to every home and business in America. And the Postal Service is also looking into what type of gloves will best protect postal employees who work in back room handling and sorting mail. Post office also will now vacuum their scanning machines to make sure that all the dust is collected. Previously, the Postal Service used a technique that was referred to as a blowing technique, where they would blow out the machines using an air gun to blow out the dust. That procedure will now be changed.

And finally, the Postal Service is moving as quickly as possible to identify, acquire and deploy new technology, new technologically advanced equipment, to sanitize the mail. There is equipment already available that uses radiation or ultraviolet techniques to kill bacteria.

So the Postal Service is moving on multiple fronts as far as the investigation and protection is concerned.

With that, I'm happy to take questions.

QUESTION: In that respect, is there any plan to vaccinate all of the postal workers in the country (inaudible)?

FLEISCHER: No, there is no such plan.

QUESTION: Why not?

FLEISCHER: Well, as was stressed yesterday by one of the medical professionals from here, the procedure that in the estimation of the Centers for Disease Control, the scientists and the medical community that works best is in cases where there is belief that anthrax may have occurred, to move in quickly and provide antibiotics.

For people who have no contact with anything involving anthrax, providing antibiotics can actually have a harmful effect. It can lead to a build up of an immune system that can be counterproductive in case people do later contract an illness. Providing people with antibiotics for problems which have not occurred can lead to more problems than solutions. And that's why the medical community generally does not prescribe medicine for people who have not been impacted by any type of illness.


FLEISCHER: But that's the problem according to the medical community. It's not simply a preventative step of that nature.

QUESTION: Ari, does the president now believe that given that these two Washington, D. C., postal workers have now confirmed have died of anthrax, that these treatment protocols are too conservative, that not enough was done to test and treat postal workers in Washington, D. C., and that going forward, they need to be more aggressive?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that the cause of death was not the treatment made by the federal government or the local officials or anybody else, that the cost of death was the attack that was made on our nation as a result of people mailing anthrax through the mail. And that's why the president, working through the FBI, is determined to find out as quickly as possible who was behind these attacks. It's another reason the Postal Service, for example, has offered a $1 million reward for anybody who can provide information to the federal government who may be behind these attacks.

QUESTION: Ari, it was a terrible lesson learned essentially that the treatment protocols limiting testing and treatment to those right close to the hot spot, that was too conservative, and that people died as a result.

FLEISCHER: Well, in New Jersey, as you see, there is -- it's been announced earlier today, there is a confirmed case of inhalation anthrax where somebody had previously been treated, and his prognosis is sound. And so there is existing protocol, existing evidence based on how people were treated in New Jersey and in Florida that that was the best response.

Clearly, in the case of Washington, the procedure that was in place was after the mail was received in Senator Daschle's office to trace backwards all the points at which the mail was received. And they moved as quickly as they possible could on that.

And I think that, hopefully, there will not be any future incidents like this. But if there are, from each incident the government learns as best as it can from every previous incident and takes every action based on what they've learned.

QUESTION: Ari, there have been criticisms of the government for a long time now that it was ill-prepared to deal with a bioterror attack. The fact that these postal workers have become infected, does that not represent a real sort of break in the chain here that the Centers for Disease Control had not thought through completely the methods of transmission?

And again, to the question of the difference in response between what happened on Capitol Hill and what happened at Brentwood, a lot of postal workers are saying, "You shut down the government, but you told us to keep working"?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, the procedures that were put in place, were put in place the same way they were done in Florida, successfully; the same way they were done in New York City, where media outlets received anthrax in the mail.

As soon as the anthrax was received, they took all the same actions in Senator Daschle's office they did at NBC, for example, or that they did at AMI in Boca Raton, for example. So you can make it analogous situation between the way government workers in Senator Daschle's office were treated and the media was treated.

Then they walked backwards to determine where the letter could have come from. And as a result of what they learned, they started treating in Trenton, for example, the postal workers there were given the antibiotics, as they identified the hot spots in the facilities there. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) denying any implication that there might have been a discrimination in the way a certain group is treated versus the other?

FLEISCHER: I don't see any evidence to support that.

QUESTION: Even as recently as Thursday there were postal workers in Trenton who were discovered with possibly having skin anthrax, and there wasn't any action on the part of Washington, D.C., federal or state or local officials to treat postal workers here if there is some handlers in Trenton that may have skin anthrax. There was really nothing (inaudible) testing, antibiotics, even any advisory to the postal workers here. Why?

FLEISCHER: It all depends on tracing back the source of the letters. And in the case of Trenton, of course, based on the postmarks, people knew where the letters had come from. In the case of the mail to Senator Daschle's office, it took an amount of time to trace back where the letters had come through, which post offices it came through. They traced it back from Senator Daschle's office to the P Street postal station to the Brentwood facility, and that took some time.

QUESTION: But they always know all mail -- they know that all mail goes from that central mail facility at Brentwood to Capitol Hill. So any mail that would end up in Senator Daschle's desk, they would know right from the outset that that mail starts in Brentwood.

FLEISCHER: And they traced it back as quickly as they could, and took the steps that they did based on what took place in Florida and in New York City.

QUESTION: Even after what happened at this Brentwood facility, you're saying that the government will not change its protocols, in terms of where and when the testing occurs?

FLEISCHER: No. I indicated that with each case the government takes a look at every step that was taken to try to be as helpful as possible to move as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: So the protocols will be changed?

FLEISCHER: As I said, with each case the government analyzes what took place and tries to learn from one incident to the next incident, and hopefully there won't be.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE). Why can't you say...

FLEISCHER: Because these are determinations that are going to be made on the ground, depending on the considered judgment from the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Health and Human Services, the law enforcement officials on the ground, to try to determine what steps need to be done to trace it where.

For example, there can be cases where mail arrives via courier, mail arrives via sources other than the Postal Service. And so it's always important for the people on the ground in the incident affected to analyze what the possible links could be, and then to go backward and explore those links quickly.

QUESTION: I guess isn't it reasonable for people watching you now to say we've lost two people because of anthrax in these postal centers. Why haven't these protocols been changed already? What more do they need?

FLEISCHER: For just the reason I gave -- as I indicated, with each incident, the government is always going to take a careful look about what was done and try to move as rapidly as possible to move backwards in any chain wherever the chain may be established to get antibiotics to people who have been affected.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) at this point, nothing is going to be done differently, as we sit here today?


FLEISCHER: (OFF-MIKE) with each incident, the government is going to take a look to determine...

QUESTION: So the protocols have been changed or they haven't as we sit here now?

FLEISCHER: Protocols are going to depend on the evaluations made on the ground by the relevant officials, and every incident will have its own set of protocols, but the guiding rule is going to be to get help to the people who need help as quickly as possible, wherever they may be.

QUESTION: You didn't answer the first part of the question that I asked you, if I could just come back to that for a second. Does this not represent, the infection at Brentwood, a lack of understanding by the Centers for Disease Control of the route of transmission of anthrax -- that they missed this idea that it could have gotten puffed out of an envelope as it went through a sorting machine? Is it really an indication that they don't fully know what they're dealing with?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think they're also reviewing exactly what the cause is at the Brentwood facility. As you know, there is speculation about whether this is the letter received by Senator Daschle or whether there could be other mail that is received at the facility. And so all these are the matters that they are looking at.

Obviously, nobody wants to see any loss of life, whether it's loss of life in the first case of Mr. Stevens at AMI in Boca Raton or any of the people who have lost their life now in Washington, D.C. at the postal facility where a letter went through on its way to Senator Daschle's office.

FLEISCHER: And the fact of the matter is with each one of these cases, the government is going to continue to review all its protocols and to make all available adjustments as necessary, and the decisions will continue to be made by all the people on the ground. But let me broaden this for one step because you asked, I think, a very fair question about the CDC and what took place at post offices, et cetera.

The fact of the matter is that we were a nation at peace. Some 200 billion pieces of mail are sent every year, and until last month, not a single time ever had anthrax been mailed. So what's happened now is, frankly, just as you're seeing in the military a mobilization in Afghanistan, you're also seeing a nation at home mobilize.

The fact of the matter is that we've been a very fortunate nation where this has never happened before. We have plans that we're putting in place; contingencies that we're putting in place. But no contingency and no plan can ever be 100 percent effective and anticipate all possible attacks on a nation.

And the fact of the matter is that our nation is under attack as a result of these mailings in these cases. We have a war going on overseas and we have a need to defend at home as well, as Governor Ridge said yesterday. And as part of defending at home, we have a mobilization that is underway, and that's why I referred to some of the actions that the postal service is taking. That's why you see Governor Ridge acting in the manner that he is acting in to bring the federal agencies together on a homeland defense. We have not had to deal with these issues before. We are rapidly adjusting to deal with all of them.

QUESTION: Part of homeland defense, though, is letting the American people know that we have been defended appropriately and as well as we can be every time there's been someone -- a casualty in this war. Last week when the letter went to Senator Daschle's office, it had to be clear to people that it had to come through the Brentwood -- at least in hindsight now, it's very clear that it had to come through that -- all the mail going there comes to various sites. Why was there not immediately tests done at Brentwood and people getting advice?

FLEISCHER: Because...

QUESTION: Looking back, were those people as well protected as they should?

FLEISCHER: Because based on the two previous incidents in Boca Raton and in New York City, the same things that took place in Brentwood did not develop in Boca Raton and in Trenton, New Jersey the way they did here in Washington. And as a result of the experiences in Boca Raton and the experiences in New York City, people walked back, looked at the post office, and there was no evidence to suggest that what took place in Brentwood did take place based on the scientific information that was available.

FLEISCHER: And as I indicated, with each incident the government will continue to analyze fully what took place, and if another incident develops, to move rapidly based on what has been ascertained.

QUESTION: Can you tell people, since we're in this war now and we're all trying to figure out how to defend ourselves, will we move quicker the next time a letter comes through a post office?

FLEISCHER: I think I've indicated that. We will move quicker -- we'll move as quickly as possible, but those decisions will continue to be made by the people on the ground who have the most relevant facts available, which is going to be a combination, a collaboration of state and federal officials from the health side and the law enforcement side.

QUESTION: When Representative Gephardt came out of the breakfast meeting today, he said that we all believe, he said, that the anthrax was linked to September 11, but he did not say what led him to believe that. At the course of this meeting or, you know, if you're aware of, has there been a new linkage developed? He said there wasn't any hard evidence, but I'm wondering whether or not there is a developing line of intelligence. He did make reference to the milled nature of the anthrax.

FLEISCHER: No, it remains the same suspicions that you've heard articulated from several people in the White House for several weeks now. There is a suspicion that this is connected to international terrorists.

Having said that, the investigators also do not rule out that it could be something domestic, that it could be a lone person operating, doing this, or it could be terrorism. The suspicion is that it's terrorism, but there is no hard evidence yet at this point to lead anybody who is investigating these matters to reach a conclusion on any of those sources.

QUESTION: Given that you're now dealing with new issues that you didn't anticipate even a couple of weeks ago, does the government think it may need more than the $40 billion that Congress has already set aside for dealing with the immediate aftermath of September 11? Is it going to need more funding to deal with these kinds of threats -- new postal machines, et cetera, et cetera?

FLEISCHER: No. Director Daniels stated last week that the $40 billion, in his estimation, will be adequate to deal with the variety of the responses, including the rebuilding of New York, including the victims' funds, including the money for the Pentagon to wage the war, as well as for the increase in funding for bioterrorism at home and for additional stockpiling of the national pharmaceutical stockpile. So there is nothing else anticipated for this session of Congress, for the first session.

QUESTION: Trying to anticipate, you say every day we learn something new. We've seen the postmaster general. We've seen all the problems with the U.S. post office. How about the private mail carrier? Is anything being done in advance before we get a case to them? Are their contacts between the office of Tom Ridge or the White House or whichever with the private mail carriers? A whole bunch of mail is being carried by them also.

FLEISCHER: I believe the answer to that is yes. I haven't asked that directly to the governor. I have heard some conversations about that. And I can tell you that one of the things that the United States Postal Service is doing, and I brought it with me, is that the postcard that they're mailing to every business and every individual will address things that are as relevant to the Postal Service as it is to private carriers.

For example, this says -- and this will be the card -- "What should make a piece of mail suspect?" Let me take a moment to read from this, because I think this will be constructive for people who weren't paying attention to this. "If a package is unexpected or from someone you do not know; if it's addressed to someone no longer at your address; if it's handwritten, has no return address or bears one that you cannot confirm is a legitimate return address; if the package you receive is lopsided or lumpy in its appearance; if it's sealed with excessive amounts of tape; if it's marked with restrictive endorsements, such as personal or confidential; or if it has excessive postage.

"All of those should lead a recipient to believe that this could be a suspicious package or envelope. If that is the case, the citizen should take the following actions. Do not handle the letter or package that you suspect is contaminated. Put it down immediately. Do not shake it, bump it or sniff it. Put the mail piece in a plastic bag. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. And notify local law enforcement officials."

Those are the actions that are being advised to all citizens in this postcard, and that would apply to all mail whether it's publicly or privately delivered.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Governor Ridge said he had no reason or information to go on what he said Friday about the letter, the anthrax coming to Washington being indistinguishable -- the strains.

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Does the government still have no reason to believe that it was milled any differently or that it was manipulated in any way differently than what had gone before it in New York?

FLEISCHER: The governor's statement stands about it being indistinguishable.

QUESTION: Two questions about White House mail -- can you tell us whether or not the White House mail is irradiated for bacteria? And the letters that American kids are sending in with dollars for Afghan children, is that being treated in any special way so that doesn't make them a vehicle for attacks?

FLEISCHER: As with the case of all security at the White House, that would apply to the mail as well. That's just a matter that we do not discuss. We don't reveal what type of security measures are in place. And the reason for that is as people who might want to do harm to the White House, which obviously is always a target of people, as information is revealed about what security measures are in place, clever people will try to find a way to get around those procedures. So we, as a rule, do not discuss those procedures. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) can you say if there have been any special precautions in the case of the letters being sent? (OFF-MIKE) Even without revealing what the precautions are, is there anything special being done with them?

FLEISCHER: Let me check on that and I'll post that for you.

QUESTION: Has there been any mail received in the West Wing, OEOB or the off-site mail facility that has tested positive for anthrax?

FLEISCHER: Having said what I said about the security procedures, let me also advise you that in the event that there would be something that was a health issue, where something was tested positive, the White House would share that information. Yes, of course we would. And that there is nothing to report. There is nothing to share.

QUESTION: You mentioned that aviation security was a topic at the meeting this morning. One way or the other, either by executive order or legislation, what do you think the prospects are for passage of that or enactment of it by the Thanksgiving travel period?

FLEISCHER: Well, based on the meeting this morning, on the anti- terrorism legislation, I think it's fair to say that there is a real strong sense of moving together quickly. The Senate and House have passed slightly different versions. They really are very similar on the anti-terrorism legislation. That's the legislation to give the law enforcement community more tools to prevent future attacks on the country. I think the prognosis for that is strong.

On the aviation bill, I think it's a little more complicated. The president made very clear in the meeting this morning that he hopes that the House will be able to take up legislation on aviation security. The Senate has done it. He hopes the House will be able to do it as well. Because the president does think it is important for Congress to get the business of the nation done when it comes to protecting the traveling public.

QUESTION: Did he put down any markers about the Thanksgiving holiday which is the next busy travel period?

FLEISCHER: He did not lay down a specific marker like that. He just urged them to move as quickly as possible.


QUESTION: Have they gotten any closer to compromise or any movement at all on this issue of federalizing the baggage screeners?

FLEISCHER: I think that remains one of the largest outstanding issues.

FLEISCHER: And that's an issue of some contention in the House. And the president has urged the House to get together within, try to reach an accommodation, try to figure out how to reach a solution on that issue, work together with the Senate. And that way, legislation can be sent to the president that he can sign.

QUESTION: It's not just a contention in the House. He opposes that himself, right? I mean, he hasn't changed has he?

FLEISCHER: The president has a lot of concerns about whether or not federalizing all baggage screeners is the most effective way to provide security at the airports. The president does believe strongly in protecting the cockpit doors and increasing the number of air marshals on the flights. He's already taken actions with his own authority, as a result of the emergency appropriation bill, to fund those initiatives. They are up. They are going. They are under way.

The president does believe that we need to federalize the background checks and some of the security procedures at those gates. The question of whether or not putting everybody who is currently at those gates on the federal payroll, whether that is an effective way to increase safety as opposed to increasing standards, which is where the president is focused, is an open issue. But the president is going to work with Congress on that.

QUESTION: You mentioned irradiation technology. Has the administration now made a decision to deploy irradiation technology in all major post offices or at least in sorting centers? And how long will that take? And do you have any sense of how much it will cost?

FLEISCHER: No. As I indicated, the Postal Service is reviewing that right now as one of their options. They're taking a look at its effectiveness, the number of facilities that it would be available to. So that's a matter that is under review as we speak.

QUESTION: I wonder if I can just follow-up on that? Obviously, you can't do that overnight; you just can't bring in the equipment. Is there a sense that this would take some time -- that it would take months, weeks?

FLEISCHER: There's no question it would take some time. And again, it just depends on the type of machines, their availability and how widespread they make the judgment that it would need to be if they go down that road.

QUESTION: Since we are in a time of war on terrorism, there has been Hill testimony this morning about more smallpox vaccines. Does the president favor resuming smallpox vaccinations for all young children?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's a very complicated question. And that, too, it really comes down to medicine and what doctors' judgments are about the best use of medicine. The smallpox vaccine has a lot of unanticipated effects also. There are people who are allergic to the vaccine.

FLEISCHER: There are a host of issues that can rise by providing that vaccine to people that can also do more harm than good.

And so all of that is being analyzed, being weighed, and those are very complicated judgments. The president has not arrived at any conclusion about that.

QUESTION: The Bush budget cut Nunn-Lugar funds to safeguard nuclear weapons.

FLEISCHER: Which ones?

QUESTION: Nunn-Lugar.

FLEISCHER: Oh, Nunn-Lugar. Right.

QUESTION: Are you thinking particularly of re-thinking that, and especially in regards to perhaps safeguarding chemical or other kinds of weapons and biological weapons?

FLEISCHER: Let me do this -- let me take that and get back to you on it. I don't have the budget in front of me with the funding levels, because I believe that there were substantial plus-ups in the funding to work with Russia on decommissioning its nuclear programs. So you mentioned one particular aspect of it. There actually are several programs under Nunn-Lugar, and if I recall, some received big increases. Let me look at it in its entirety.


QUESTION: Attorney General Ashcroft said there is new information today regarding the possible link between the anthrax and September 11 attacks. Can you at all characterize that information as scientific or part of the law enforcement investigation? And also, is that new information the reason why we're hearing from the White House and Congressman Gephardt today that there is this suspicion that there is a connection?

FLEISCHER: Let me see exactly what General Ashcroft said, because when I talked to him this morning, that's why I indicated there's no new hard evidence. Every day, of course, the investigators who work with raw data receive new evidence. There is not a day that goes by that they don't have new things to look at. But the question of any hard evidence that is conclusive, that would lead anybody to determine that this is tied to September 11 is not there. So I think that would be the difference. That's what the attorney general is referring to.


QUESTION: What is the president's position on U.S. bombing during Ramadan?

FLEISCHER: That's an operational matter and frankly was addressed by Secretary Rumsfeld the other day.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) talking, rather is he leaving that decision up to military leaders or is he weighing in on that matter?

FLEISCHER: I think as you heard from the secretary, that issue has already been addressed. But I'm not, as a matter of routine, going to comment on operational details. QUESTION: On the subject of the aviation security legislation that came up today (OFF-MIKE).

FLEISCHER: Well, the president's message was that it's important for Congress to take action on aviation security. That's what he said directly to the House leaders. He urged them to move quickly to pass legislation because he said directly that is preferable than enacting an executive order.

QUESTION: Did they say (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Well, they indicated that they're going to do their best and try and there's several weeks remaining in the session, who knows how much longer there remains in a session, so I think we'll have to see.

QUESTION: The Taliban continues to put its on construction on events in the region. Other than making U.S. officials available for interviews to the Middle East, does the White House have any institutional plans to deal with this public diplomacy problem? It's been pretty well ventilated by now.

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not sure that Taliban statements present anybody with a public diplomacy problem. I think the creditability of the Taliban does not run very high anywhere outside of Taliban circles, and so I don't think it's really an issue that the government worries about or that the president worries about very much.

QUESTION: You don't think there's a need, in view of -- over the last few years that whole capability in the State Department has been diminished. You don't see a need to rebuild that?

FLEISCHER: OK. Separately from reaction to anything the Taliban is doing, you know, the president does think that there is a need for an increased role by the Voice of America to make sure that people understand what the message of the United States government is saying, that -- people, not only in Afghanistan -- the people of Afghanistan -- to receive that message, but people in the Arab world to hear the message about who the United States is and what the United States represents. The president does think that's an important part of public diplomacy, and he's had several conversations about how public diplomacy can play that role.

For example, in Afghanistan, as you know, leaflets are being dropped, Voice of America is broadcasting in there. But generally speaking, the very best way to deal with anybody around the world who would suggest that the United States is doing things and these statements they make are often lies is for public officials to take to the podium, to take to microphones, as Secretary Rumsfeld has been doing, and speak forthrightly to answer people's questions and to reveal what it is the government is doing.

There are, of course, as Secretary Rumsfeld said yesterday, times when he's not going to be in a position to reveal what we're doing. It is a war, and he's not going to pass on information that could be used by those who would do the United States harm. But by and large, the best antidote to any types of lie campaigns against the United States are for government officials to speak forthrightly.

QUESTION: Ari, you said the president is going to ask Shimon Peres today to convey to Sharon to withdraw from the West Bank area. President Bush has urged restraint in the past. I'm wondering is this somehow different? Is this new six-day offensive causing new stresses on the coalition, particularly in the Arab and Islamic world?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me do this. What I want to do is -- the meeting is going to take place in about a couple of hours, I think, so let me see if there's any report following that meeting. I think I'm going to go to it, and so if I have anything I can shed light on after the meeting I will. I've given you what the president's intentions are going into that meeting.


QUESTION: ... reaction to Israel's flat rejection of U.S. urging for withdrawal from...

FLEISCHER: Let me reiterate. The president, at this meeting with Foreign Minister Peres, is going to urge Israel to withdraw from Palestinian areas.

QUESTION: How are you going to brief at...

FLEISCHER: I'll try to get a readout; either I'll do it or somebody else from the meeting will do it. So allow the meeting to take place and then we'll figure out the next step.

QUESTION: Two things real quick. First of all, the situation that Helen was talking about, going back to the discrimination issue, the Brentwood thing.

QUESTION: There is a little bit of a concern in the public about that, because these people were not on Capitol Hill, did not have the prestigious job and what have you, that there situation was somewhat sluffed to the side and let go for a couple of days. Could you expound upon that? And also the fact that you said that Brentwood was different, was it different because of the potency of the anthrax in that letter going to Daschle's office?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, back on the premise of the question, what was done for employees in Senator Daschle's office was the same thing done for employees at NBC News, the same thing that was done for the Globe and for the National Enquirer and the employees at AMI. The treatment protocol was the same in all cases.

The places where the letters were received, the workers who were closest to the letter received nasal swabs, to test where they are positive or negative, and those who work closet to the receipt of that mail were given Cipro as an antibiotic treatment in case that they did come down with any illnesses.

But again, as a result of what happened at the post offices in Boca Raton and in New York, there was not an anticipated need to take additional action upstream the way -- that how it was developed at Brentwood.

The cause of what's happening at that facility is still under review. It's being investigated as we speak by law enforcement personnel. And so, I don't have an answer for you on that yet

QUESTION: I have a follow-up again. Many of those people -- what do you say to the workers there who said, when the situation was going on on Capitol Hill in Daschle's office when they closed it down and investigated and took the swabs and tested people, they were told to stay, keep working, to stay. And that mail actually came through that Brentwood facility. What do you say to those workers who are upset about the fact that they were told to stay and continue to work and a week or so later, now they're being tested?

FLEISCHER: The president's message to them is the same as the president's message has been to everybody who has been effected by this, and it's a real cause for concern that anybody would be mailing anthrax to people in the United States that could do harm to people at the Postal Service, they can do harm to people who receive the mail, they can do harm to the security personnel who rushed to the scene to help people who received the mail. That is the source of the president's concern. And what he is doing is putting all the resources of the federal government to work collaboratively with the local officials to prevent anybody from getting anthrax, to immediately respond wherever the anthrax is received.

What happened in Washington was different from what happened in Boca Raton, different what happened in New York City. But that's the reason that the treatment or the speed with which the treatment was done and Brentwood followed the course that it did, because of the precedents that were established in Florida and New York.

FLEISCHER: And as I indicated at the very beginning of the briefing, the government is going to continue to take a look each time something like this comes up, and adjust to do whatever is necessary as quickly as possible to get help to anybody who needs it. So for the people at the Postal Service, the president is of course deeply concerned about what has happened at the postal facilities here in Washington, D.C., and the fact that two people have died; two others have been diagnosed with inhalation anthrax, and that others may be exposed. So of course he's concerned about it and he's responding to it.

QUESTION: Basically you're saying you're writing your own script still -- you're writing your own script with this, but you're getting the guidelines of the CDC -- I mean, in response.

FLEISCHER: The CDC will play a prominent role in this, of course.

QUESTION: The Washington Post reports, and this is a quote, "Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority rejected an ultimatum by Israel to hand over the assassins of an Israeli cabinet minister," and they also quoted Sharon's promise, "If not, we'll go to war against him." And my question, the first of two, since we are at war with the terrorists in Afghanistan, how can we with any fairness oppose Israel's war on the terrorists in the West Bank?

FLEISCHER: The two situations really are not the same. In the case of what's happening between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, both parties have committed to a peace process. Both parties have signed onto the Mitchell agreement, and the Mitchell agreement provides a political solution, not a military solution, to the problems in the Middle East. Both parties have endorsed that.

So the president believes what's important is to hold both parties accountable for the promises they made to follow a political process toward peace. That is not at all the case in what's happened in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: The New York Times reports, "Mr. Arafat has repeatedly promised to jail Palestinian militants and he has repeatedly failed to do so." How could any Palestinian state possibly be expected to respect Israel's peace and national security if Arafat heads it?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has made it very clear to the Palestinian Authority and Secretary Powell has done so as well, about the need for the Palestinian Authority to immediately arrest those who were responsible for the assassination of Israeli cabinet member Zeevi. And also, he has called on the Palestinian Authority to act more decisively against all of those who are planning or conducting acts of terrorism and violence.

FLEISCHER: That's the president's message to both parties.

QUESTION: I wanted to follow up to Ron's question, whether there has been any testing of suspicious packages here that have later turned out to be negative for anthrax? But you said it was no health issue, have there been suspicious substances that would have presented themselves?

FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not going to discuss what steps are in place at the White House. But if anything were to come about that would be a positive result, a positive test, we will fully inform the public. And there is nothing to report.

QUESTION: I just want to follow on a related point which is, in all of the cases that you've mentioned prior to now where there's been anthrax letters, there has been this sort of tangible evidence. There's been this powdery substance. And now we have at the Brentwood facility, you know, the real horrible circumstance where it is invisible and it's airborne and it's lethal. As a result of that, wouldn't it make sense, and is it currently under review to do precautionary environmental testing at postal centers around the country lest you act too late the next time?

FLEISCHER: That has not been ruled out. There are a series of steps that are under review. And as those steps are determined, that information will be provided.

QUESTION: Ari, last week there was a lot of fear and confusion generated when there were conflicting statements on the Hill about the potency of the letter that went up there. Now we have Gephardt coming out this morning and talking about that same issue. And yet the White House maintained that it's still indistinguishable. Are you telling us today that Gephardt was wrong this morning and that there is nothing at all different whether it's the strain or the way it was milled or anything? That he was wrong and there is nothing to be...

FLEISCHER: Actually, if you take a look at Leader Gephardt's statements in their entirety, I saw at the end of this statements out on the driveway he said something that was a little bit different from what he said at the beginning where he said that he doesn't mean to draw attention to any one specific word and the meaning of any one word, or to parse any word. In the literal sense, he added, just as I did this morning, that the issue here is, whatever is being mailed, is being mailed as a weapon. Obviously, it's been mailed in a way that has led to fatalities in Florida and now in Washington, D.C.

So however it is scientifically characterized, which is an open question, it is being used as a weapon, and that's why Congressman Gephardt said what he said.

QUESTION: But it is (OFF-MIKE) about the character and nature of this stuff. That's an open question? It's not...

FLEISCHER: That's a scientific matter and this is where the governor's statement, as I indicated a little while ago stands. That's indistinguishable.

QUESTION: Indistinguishable, which doesn't lead us to believe it's an open question.

QUESTION: That leads us to believe it's a closed question.

FLEISCHER: It's indistinguishable.

QUESTION: The death of at least one of these postal workers -- does it not represent a hole in the public health system? This gentlemen went to the emergency room of a hospital at 2 o'clock in the morning on Sunday; was told to go home with a diagnosis of the flu. He did not offer up the information that he was a postal worker, but he wasn't asked either.

FLEISCHER: Right. Well, as has been explained by D.C. medical personnel, when somebody goes into a hospital, into an emergency room, they are asked treatment questions about what it is that they have that is an ailment; whether they have allergies; if they're aware of where they may have gotten this from. And then they prescribe remedies. It is not a standard question to ask somebody, "Where do you work?"

QUESTION: Should it not be in a case like this?

FLEISCHER: I think that may be something that evolves. I think that's going to be a decision again, though, that is going to be made by the appropriate medical authorities. That's not going to be a decision that the White House, for example, makes, but that's something that medical authorities -- the Centers for Disease Control and others -- will review and make determinations about. But people go into the emergency rooms hundreds and thousands of times across the United States every day -- whether that's a question that needs to be asked everywhere will be a medical determination.

QUESTION: Secretary Thompson was testifying this morning and he said if any postal facility is found with an anthrax-tainted letter coming through, that facility would be immediately checked; workers there would be immediately tested and treated. It sounded like a new policy in light of lessons learned over the past couple of days. Is that a new administration policy?

FLEISCHER: Well again, as I indicated at the top of this, there is no change from what I said just a little while ago. Those determinations will be made collaboratively by the various officials involved. Secretary Thompson, through the Centers for Disease Control, is certainly one of them. So there will be a series of officials, local law enforcement, health officials will make the determinations about where the tests need to be done as quickly as possible. For example, again, there can be cases where a letter is couriered in, a letter is brought in individually by somebody -- it doesn't go through the postal service. So clearly if that's the case, then there would not be a need to test at a postal facility. Those determinations will be driven by the facts on the ground.

QUESTION: Are we to expect Governor Ridge to come out today and brief us again?

FLEISCHER: There is no plan at this moment for Governor Ridge to come out today. He will be coming out regularly. It may not be daily, though.

Thank you.

BROWN: That's spokesman Ari Fleischer in a session with reporters that more than anything else, focused on how the government responded to the anthrax cases in Washington, whether the government responds at the Capitol when the letter was received to Daschle's office, was the same and appropriate as the one used at the Brentwood facility and there is a lot of belief among postal workers certainly in the Washington, D.C. area that two sets of standards were applied.

Elizabeth Cohen in Atlanta -- if you are there.

Elizabeth, your background is in public health, maybe you can help a little bit here.

I heard it as a kind of one-size-fits-all government response. Did you hear it that way?


What I heard was people saying -- and also people, sort of, mystified -- why is it that we're seeing more and more cases coming out of this one location? That didn't seem to happen as much in the other locations.

We heard now that two deaths -- yesterday they told us were suspected of being from anthrax, now are from anthrax. So I think that there is some querying -- saying, "Last week when he heard about the Capitol, they closed it down. Why didn't they trace it back to the mail faster? Why didn't they figure out who else might have handled that letter?"

Obviously people in Daschle's office handled the letter. Why didn't they figure out who else, going backwards, might have handled it in time to save those two lives.

And that's, you know -- that's a big job to go backwards and figure that out. And the reason why it needs to be figured out quickly is that anthrax can kill quickly as we've seen. It starts out as a flu-like illness and then, very quickly, within just a few days, can develop into something much more serious -- into a second stage of a serious illness. And once that serious illness begins, people can be dead within hours. So those are the questions that I've heard being asked, Aaron?


And I don't want to become the king of hindsight here, which is an easy thing to do in these situations, but we know in the Daschle case that -- I think 20-some people -- 28 people were exposed just in the opening of that letter.

And there was suggestion that -- a guest that we had on the program last week, that that should have signaled to public health officials there was something qualitatively different about the anthrax received in Daschle's office and that which went to NBC and CBS and, perhaps, the "New York Post" as well.

Is that a step you're willing to take in your thinking?

COHEN: No, it's not a step I'm willing to take and I'll tell why.

I was just speaking with an expert who said, "Yes, 28 people tested positive for exposure, but that might have been just because they got to those people very quickly." And, maybe in the Florida and in the New York cases, it took them too long because after a while, anthrax will pass through your nose -- it won't show up and so you'll test as negative even if you were infected.

So these exposure numbers, the 28 exposed, they -- this person and other people I've spoken to have said, "It doesn't mean a thing. You can't compare. It just doesn't mean a thing."

BROWN: OK. Elizabeth Cohen in Atlanta -- Elizabeth's background, as I said, is in public health, so that -- you're on familiar turf.

Thank you. We appreciate it.




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