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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Ari Fleischer Holds Press Conference

Aired December 6, 2001 - 12:51   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We go quickly now to the White House for something we look forward to every day in Washington: that is the briefing by White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... President Mubarak's, quote, " courageous leadership," unquote, and noted that he sent the Egyptian Foreign Minister Maher to Israel today to meet with Prime Minister Sharon and also with Chairman Arafat.

The United States and Egypt are working together closely to end the violence and to bring peace to the region. The president also discussed Egypt's economic situation with President Mubarak and reaffirmed his desire to assist Egypt. He also thanked President Mubarak for Egypt's efforts in bringing peace to the Sudan.

The president later today will meet with the president of Bolivia in the Oval Office where they'll discuss the United States and Bolivia in cooperation in the war against terrorism and the war against narcotics and also in promotion of trade between our nations.

And at 3:45, the president will be making an announcement about the appointment of Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach to head -- or to be the director of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. von Eschenbach is a distinguished scientist and surgeon, and the president hopes very much that, through this appointment and through the good work that is being done by the National Cancer Institute, that further advances will be made to lead to breakthroughs in curing or treating cancer as well as in new therapies that can hopefully lead to a cure for cancer.

And then this evening the president will take part in the Pageant of Peace, which is the lighting of the Christmas tree on the ellipse in front of the White House. This year's tree will be lit in honor of all those who died as a result of the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11. The president will be joined at this event by families of Pentagon victims.

One last item, and then I'll be happy to take questions.

The president would like to commend the Senate for last night's confirmation of John Walters, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. But the president would also like to remind the Senate of the important work that remains to be done this year. There are 153 individuals awaiting confirmation by the Senate. Some are, like Eugene Scalia nominated to be solicitor of the Department of Labor, they've passed out of committee, but simply await a vote on the floor of the Senate.

Others, like Otto Reich, the president's nominee to be assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, has not even been given a fair committee hearing, while other nominations have languished in the Senate for months.

The rate of confirmation of federal judges, particularly circuit court judges in the Senate is very, very troubling. Federal judicial seats are being vacated at a rate faster than the Senate is confirming new people to these positions. And despite a record number of nominees by President Bush, there are fewer federal judges today than at the beginning of the administration, because of the Senate's failure to act.

President Bush has nominated 60 judges to the federal judiciary and only 18, or 27 percent, have been confirmed. The Senate confirmed 57 percent of President Clinton's judicial nominees in his first year; 62 percent of President Bush's in his first year; and 91 percent of President Reagan's judicial nominees.

Vice President Cheney, earlier this week, sent a letter to Senator Leahy citing the slow pace of confirmations and urged the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate to take actions so justice can be done.

The failure to confirm qualified individuals to serve in the federal government and the federal judiciary hurts the American people. It's time for the Senate to act on the president's nominees and ensure that the important work of American government can be done and that justice can be carried out. Happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Ari, what's your understanding of the deal that's been struck to hand over Kandahar, and is it acceptable to the president to allow Mullah Omar to stay in Kandahar and live under the protection of the local authorities?

FLEISCHER: Secretary Rumsfeld just concluded a briefing in which he addressed that question. I have nothing to add beyond what the secretary said. The situation on the ground remains fluid.

As for Mullah Omar, the president has made it plain that those who harbor terrorists need to be brought to justice. That statement directly applies to Mullah Omar.

QUESTION: So would he encourage the Pashtun leaders in that area to handover Omar?

FLEISCHER: Whatever form justice takes is a form that will meet with the satisfaction of the president.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not sure that there's anything that...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: I think again the information about these types of things that the Taliban suggests is often fluid. More often than not, there's no truth to what the Taliban is saying they will do or intend to do or might do.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) this offer?

FLEISCHER: Well again the situation is fluid, and I would refer most of these questions to the Department of Defense. They're the ones who are charged with the operational evaluations of information from the ground, and this is information from the ground.

QUESTION: Ari -- but, the president hasn't defined, as you said, how Mullah Omar should be brought to justice, but what are the options? You're talking about a military tribunal?

FLEISCHER: No, I'm just not going to get into hypotheticals. There's a war under way, and no one knows exactly what form this will take, and no one knows if -- you know, with the history of Afghanistan, if the statements made by the Taliban are false.

So I think you need to go to DOD for any more of the operational specifics, but like I said, the situation is fluid. It's unclear what the Taliban is saying, if it's true or not true. The president is in the middle of conducting a war to bring people to justice who have attacked our country, and he will not stop until his objectives are achieved.

QUESTION: The president holds Mullah Omar personally, criminally responsible for September 11?

FLEISCHER: It's not a question of personal-criminal; it's a question of the president made plain, in a speech to the United States Congress, that those who harbor terrorists will receive the same fate as terrorists. And that is one of the reasons that the president...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Osama bin Laden?

FLEISCHER: And that's one of the reasons the president has said repeatedly that al Qaeda must be destroyed, and the Taliban must be destroyed.

QUESTION: Does that apply to Omar as well?

FLEISCHER: The president has said that people need to be brought to justice in the prosecution of this war in whatever form justice takes.

QUESTION: Ari, why does the administration feel it's essential to expand wiretap laws, question immigrants en masse, increase surveillance in domestic groups, but it's unwilling to look into gun purchases of targeted individuals?

FLEISCHER: Let me make a couple of points: One, the administration did feel those steps were necessary to prevent further terrorist attacks on the United States, and that opinion was concurred with by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the Congress, and the president was pleased to see that.

On the question that you're asking for, the Department of Justice is ruling in this case pertaining to the national instant check system's audit log for what's called "allowed transactions." With respect to these allowed transactions, let me read to you the regulation that must be followed by the Department of Justice.

It says, quote, "Information in the NICS, the National Instant Check System, audit log pertaining to allowed transfers may be accessed directly only by the FBI for the purpose of conducting audits of the use and performance of the NICS."

Just for your reference, this regulation could be found at 25.9 CFR (b)(2). It was promulgated by the Clinton administration and signed by Attorney General-then Janet Reno.

QUESTION: Do you see a need to change that legislation?

FLEISCHER: I think the attorney general addressed that when he said that this is a regulation that he is following. This is a Janet Reno regulation put in by the Clinton administration that this administration is following.

QUESTION: So you're going to live with that restriction on your investigative powers, seeking legislation...

FLEISCHER: I think if the attorney general viewed it in the manner you did, he would have thought differently about it. He does not view it as a limit on investigative powers in the aftermath of 9/11. If he did, I think he may have shared a different view. So that's not a fair characterization of the attorney general's point-of- view. Kelly?

QUESTION: Ari, can you tell us -- you said that Andy Card called the Pentagon (OFF-MIKE) Captain Burlingame? And also said he didn't make any requests...

FLEISCHER: Right.

QUESTION: ... but is the administration suggesting to the Army that it reverse its decision and that the family is quite angry and allow the captain to be buried in his own grave?

FLEISCHER: No. The administration has the same message for the Army, as well as for the Burlingame family, and that is, we understand the deep sensitivities involved here.

As I indicated yesterday, this is not the first time that there's been controversy about who has burial rights at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting spot for countless number of people who have served our nation with valor. And many people seek to be buried there.

Arlington is also running out of space. And so it's one of the most difficult decisions for the Pentagon to make about who is allowed and who is not allowed. And therefore, they have promulgated and put in place a series of rules and regulations that are widely known about who can be in and who cannot. Most of those were done, all of those done in public and in lengthy, lengthy discussions with the families and people in the various branches of the armed services.

It always presents difficult issues anytime somebody seeks a waiver from the way procedures are, and that is why these are such difficult matters. And they involve the nation's emotions after the attack on our country and a family that is affected by it, the Burlingames.

Andy Card called the Pentagon yesterday and again today, so that the White House could be informed about the status of the talks with the family, what the Pentagon was doing and to be apprised of the family's reactions. So the talks between the Pentagon and the family continue, and the White House will continue to receive status reports.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up on that. Is the president ruling out -- if there can't be a resolution here -- a presidential waiver to allow the family...

FLEISCHER: The president hopes that the family and the Pentagon will be able to come to an amicable agreement.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) intervene, if he wanted to.

FLEISCHER: Presidents have that authority, but the president's message is that he hopes that the family and the Department of Defense will be able to work this out amicably. He thinks that's the best route to proceed.

QUESTION: But does he want to intervene?

FLEISCHER: Again, the president hopes that it can be worked out amicably.

QUESTION: Would he support congressional legislation, some lawmakers talking about some legislation that might change the age for reservists, or something else that would allow Captain Burlingame to be buried in his own grave?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, the president hopes it can be worked out amicably, but the White House is going to continue to listen and to monitor and to receive status reports.

QUESTION: Ari, has the president responded in any way to the request from Senator Allen on behalf of the Burlingame family? And what's the president's message to any reservist who is serving now with military missions overseas on their own desires if something happened to them, to be buried at Arlington? This rule would preclude them from having...

FLEISCHER: Everybody who serves our nation knows that national cemeteries, Arlington included, have a series of regulations that have been promulgated over a considerable period of time to try to address the concerns of the so many who seek to be buried at Arlington with the recognition that it's a final resting place that's running out of space. And so those regulations are in place, and I think service men and women know those regulations and understand them. And I have nothing further to go beyond that.

The president is keenly aware of the congressional interest in the matter and of the family sensitivities in the matter, and he's also aware that there'll be other sensitivities from other families in the future as well that also have to be taken into consideration as regulations are looked into.

QUESTION: So the message is no exemptions for anyone. And if you could, let me know what he thought about Senator Allen's particular request.

FLEISCHER: Yes. I'm sure the president's reaction is that he hopes that the Pentagon and the family will be able to come to an amicable agreement. He's aware of the congressional interest.

QUESTION: You said this morning that President Bush would make some calls today on the free trade fast track.

FLEISCHER: Yes.

QUESTION: How many calls has he made? And what's your head count at this stage of the game?

FLEISCHER: The president has made about a half a dozen phone calls so far today. And as you know, he had several meetings yesterday. By rough approximation, the president now will have either met with or spoken to, over the course of the summer and into now in anticipation of the vote, some probably about 75 to 90 members of Congress, the House and Senate included, urging them to vote on behalf of free trade and to give the president negotiating authority.

You asked me what my head count is...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Well, the best way to keep your head in this business is not to count others' heads.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: It'll be a close vote, and the president hopes the yeas will be greater than the nays.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: I think it will be a close vote.

It's a very important vote, and the president will keep an eye on it.

QUESTION: What's the president's response to Chairman Arafat's letter that he received yesterday asking for more time?

FLEISCHER: Let me be clear about the facts. Yesterday, in the meeting with the Norwegian prime minister, the Norwegian prime minister gave the president a copy of a letter that Chairman Arafat gave to the prime minister. There was one paragraph in that letter that asked a message to be passed on to the president. The bulk of the letter was a communication between Chairman Arafat and the Norwegian prime minister.

The one paragraph simply said, he wanted to thank the president for his efforts in the Middle East and cited the speech that Secretary Powell gave in Kentucky as well as the efforts of General Zinni in the region.

That was the extent of the communication with...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the prime minister, yesterday, said that both he and President Bush agreed that Arafat was in a difficult position and that he should be given time...

FLEISCHER: Well, let me characterize to you the president's position on the events in the Middle East. The president has made it abundantly clear and has not changed his views at all, that Chairman Arafat needs to do more to bring about a secure environment in the Middle East.

The president is interested in results, and the president will be looking to make certain that Chairman Arafat takes enduring, long- term, real and meaningful actions so the terrorists who are trying to interrupt the peace process in the Middle East cannot be successful.

The president remains very concerned about the position with the Palestinians and Palestinian jails and the arrests. The president still is concerned that Palestinian jails are built with bars on the front and revolving doors in the back. And that is not a way to demonstrate a long-term commitment to peace in the president's opinion.

So that's the president's opinion, and I think you heard the president express it directly himself at the town hall meeting he held in Florida just two days ago.

QUESTION: Well, what about the arrest of the Hamas (OFF-MIKE) leader? Does he see that as a possible first step?

FLEISCHER: You know, as Secretary Powell said, there's been some progress, but the president is looking to make certain that there is real, meaningful, lasting peace, efforts to achieve peace that can be measured on the ground.

And the president believes that Chairman Arafat can continue to do much more.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Should the president send federal marshals tomorrow to install his appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, as Mary Frances Berry has threatened the White House will have to use federal marshals to put this guy in?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, the White House is going to proceed in a cordial fashion, and it's rather unusual for anybody in an independent agency or elsewhere to resort to the type of language that she used, and it's not in the public interest for public officials to engage in that type of bellicose language. That's not a way to bring people together. That type of language drives people apart on an issue in which people must be brought together.

Victoria Wilson -- do you have a follow up?

QUESTION: Yes, I was just going say, first of all, does he consider this an act of defiance, because she sounded like she was saying she's not answerable to the president? And secondly, would he consider firing her to gain control of this commission?

FLEISCHER: Well, the facts on the matter of the Civil Rights Commission are rather plain. And let me walk you through a couple of things. Victoria Wilson was a commissioner on the Civil Rights Commission who was appointed by President Clinton to fill the remainder of a term from the late Judge Leon Higginbotham. His term expired, as a member of the Civil Rights Commission, on November 29, 2001.

At the time when she was announced by President Clinton, Victoria Wilson was announced to succeed Judge Higginbotham, official White House records show that the Clinton administration appointment expired on November 29, 2001. She was appointed to fulfill the remainder of that term.

And as you know, often, here, when we make personnel announcements, we say a person has been appointed to fulfill the remainder of that term. It is not an automatic six-year new appointment.

A new six-year appointment on the Civil Rights Commission would be exactly contrary to the laws that govern the Civil Rights Commission that require a staggering of the period of time when somebody is on the commission.

Otherwise, if you could have people step down and then appoint new people to a new six-year term, you could game the Civil Rights Commission so that a president could appoint six people of his own choosing to serve new six-year terms. And that is not the way the Civil Rights Commission was set up.

This has been also buttressed by a Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel authoritative legal opinion that conclusively shows that her term expired on November 29, 2001, just as the Clinton Administration's own paperwork shows her term had expired. So having said all that, it's clear that Ms. Wilson is no longer a commissioner. The White House counsel has spoken with Chairwoman Berry and has informed her of the legal views of the White House and of the Department of Justice.

QUESTION: When the White House informed Chairwoman Berry that it was ready to appoint a new member, what was her response?

FLEISCHER: She said that she would refuse to seat any new people appointed by President Bush in this manner. She said the appointment the president announced yesterday, she said she will refuse to appoint him. She said she will refuse to swear him in. She said that the law says that she, a Clinton appointee, gets a new six years. She further said that the only way that she will let this person be seated is if the United States marshals show up and force her to do so.

And particularly coming from the Civil Rights Commission, that is exactly the wrong approach a nation that needs racial healing needs to hear. This is inflammatory rhetoric for a commission whose mission has to be to bring people together. And the best way to bring people together is to honor the rule of law.

This is akin to people saying because they believe in Bill Clinton, he should be allowed to serve after January 20, 2001. The law is clear, the dates are certain, and it's important on all in the government to honor those commitments in a nation that is guided by the rule of law.

QUESTION: So what happens? Is the White going to...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: What is the next move here? What does the White House intend to do? Will you send the new person over tomorrow to take that seat?

FLEISCHER: We'll keep you informed, but the White House hopes to handle this in a professional manner, in a cordial manner, and in a civil manner, and that's how the White House will proceed. And we urge all members of the Civil Rights Commission to proceed in the same fashion and to respect and to honor a nation who's guided by the rule of law.

QUESTION: So the White House view is that the president has the authority to appoint a new person, and the chairwoman, or a chairperson does not have the right to deny that person a seat on the commission?

FLEISCHER: Clearly in a nation that is guided by appointed terms, set in stone by the rule of law, no one other than the law has the right to decide when a term expires. As the Clinton administration's own records show, the term expired on November 29, 2001.

Now, in fairness, Chairman Berry says that that is not accurate, that at the time the appointment was made, they say that they -- Commissioner Wilson claims that her commissioning documents were wrong and that she alerted the past administration to the error. Well, there is no record of any or recollection of any contact between Ms. Wilson and the clerk's office on any attempt to correct the record.

QUESTION: Are there discussions going on today between the chairwoman and Al Gonzales, and are they trying to resolve it...

FLEISCHER: I don't know if there's been any further communication since this rather unusual phone call yesterday.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Any more information on the Treasury trip to Saudi Arabia, the number of people going, who's going?

FLEISCHER: No. You may want to talk to Treasury. They're the lead agency on it, so they might have more details.

QUESTION: I have, but I haven't heard back from them. I was hoping you could be forthcoming.

FLEISCHER: I'm sure they will be prompt in returning your phone calls, just as I always am. They'll get back to you.

QUESTION: Nothing, no purpose -- I mean, you said this morning the purpose was to...

FLEISCHER: It's part of the ongoing cooperation with Saudi Arabia on the financial front in the war against terrorism.

QUESTION: Ari, may I try again, please?

FLEISCHER: Did you have a follow-up?

QUESTION: Condi Rice is not going?

FLEISCHER: No. I told you that this morning.

QUESTION: And you can't tell us who is going, not one person?

FLEISCHER: It's a working group. So it's a group of officials whose names I might not even recognize. It's a working group of experts.

I know that there are people who are going from Treasury, State, the FBI and the National Security Council.

QUESTION: Thank you. Going back to Arlington. I was speaking for the superintendent, yesterday (OFF-MIKE) Arlington. He said the captain would be buried with full military honors, but it's a family plot. So is the issue here actually -- other than sharing space with family -- the marker, will there be a marker in his name and a tombstone to honor him?

FLEISCHER: Well, you're right. The issue is no longer just burial at Arlington, because burial at Arlington has been assured for the family. It's a question of the manner in which the burial at Arlington will take place and on what plot it would take place. It's a very complicated matter.

QUESTION: Full military honors, I don't really see what the big controversy is.

FLEISCHER: Well, this is why these matters are very emotional and very sensitive. It's a very hard task that the Department of Defense has been handed in allocating space at a cemetery where countless people would like to be buried in a way that is not always able to get done in a way that also preserves the rights of future service men and women to have their guaranteed spot at Arlington provided. So it's a very complicated matter and the Department of Defense is working hard to settle it in an amicable fashion.

QUESTION: Ari, do you have copies of the Clinton administration paperwork, and has anybody from this counsel's office been in touch with that counsel's office to verify?

FLEISCHER: This counsel with the previous counsel? Well, the clerk is the same. The Office of the Clerk is the same, that's a nonpartisan position. And as I indicated, the Office of the Clerk here has told us they have no record or recollection of any contact with former Commissioner Wilson about this matter.

QUESTION: But, Ari, can you release the paperwork? And have you called their counsel's office just to sort of verify that they also agree this is the case?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not sure that this goes through counsel's office. This is an appointment, the Civil Rights Commission, this is a personnel matter. It only becomes a matter of counsel when you have the odd instance of a commissioner saying they refuse to seat somebody who has been properly and duly nominated by the president in accordance with the laws.

QUESTION: But can you release the paperwork?

FLEISCHER: Yes. We'll work with you on the paperwork. Be happy to.

QUESTION: What prompted Judge Gonzalez to call her in the first place?

FLEISCHER: When it became clear that the commissioner was going to refuse to seat the new appointee. And it was important for the White House to reach out and to proceed, as I indicated, in a cordial fashion, which is exactly how Judge Gonzalez proceeded.

I think it's fair to say that Judge Gonzalez was very, very surprised about the tenor of the commissioner's remarks, as well as the substance of the remarks.

QUESTION: Did Ms. Berry call the White House, did she send a letter, what was the communication that made clear that she was going to refuse to seat the president's nominee? FLEISCHER: I really don't remember how that first came to be. It may very well have come through the press. I know that's how I first heard that the commissioner was going to refuse to seat a presidential nominee was when it was brought to me by a member of the media. So, obviously, she had gone through the media to get the message through, but there may have been other forms of communication I don't know.

QUESTION: Ari, I wonder if you can clear up one aspect regarding Mullah Omar? You say that the president believes that all those who harbor terrorists have to be brought to justice. Does it necessarily have to be American justice or could it be something outside the American justice system that...

FLEISCHER: You need to address these questions to the Department of Defense. And I think, again, it's a lot of hypotheticals and prematures here. No one knows what the status of Mullah Omar is.

And as Secretary Rumsfeld indicated in his briefing earlier, there have been previous incidents in which the Taliban or members of al Qaeda indicated they were going to surrender, only to engage in armed combat as soon as people came -- in the case of a prison uprising. So I really don't have more to offer beyond what Secretary Rumsfeld said.

QUESTION: Well, but he seemed to open the door to, at least a little bit, to the notion that some other tribunal, other than an American tribunal or an American court, could eventually take jurisdiction over...

FLEISCHER: I have nothing to offer beyond what the secretary said.

QUESTION: With the trip to Saudi Arabia happening today, can you still say as of today that the president is fully satisfied with Saudi Arabia's cooperation in terms of cutting off funding...

FLEISCHER: Yes, absolutely.

QUESTION: ... or have there been concerns that have come up?

FLEISCHER: Yes.

QUESTION: The concerns about that are not in any way a reason for the...

FLEISCHER: The trip is a trip in a cooperative fashion to work with the Saudis on this. I think it's an encouraging sign that a trip like this is taking place. It's a sign of the Saudi government working with us.

QUESTION: Any reaction to some House Democrats calling for hearings on the special influence Enron may have had? Any sort of...

FLEISCHER: Yes, I was asked that a couple of days ago and I said that the administration continues to monitor events and it's very understandable why people in Congress who were similarly charged with oversight of any implications of Enron's bankruptcy would seek hearings.

QUESTION: Ari, you've said a few times now in the last week that Palestinian prisons are built with bars on the front and some revolving doors on the back. Has that sentiment been expressed by any administration official directly to Chairman Arafat? And can we take by the president's continued dismay that this hasn't happened, that no action has occurred on this front by the chairman in the last week?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not characterizing it as no action. Campbell asked me a question and I indicated that in some elements there was -- as Secretary Powell said, some progress, but the president, through his representatives, has made it clear to Chairman Arafat that when they arrest people, they need to keep them detained, and that's a very important sign that Chairman Arafat is serious about taking action against terrorism.

QUESTION: Can I follow-up on that? Is the arrest of Hamas members and the crushing of Hamas part of the U.S. war on terror?

FLEISCHER: The president, as you know, is focused on phase one of this war against terrorism, and that is in Afghanistan. But, clearly, there are people in the Middle East, as the president said, who do not share an interest in bringing peace to the region. And the president's interest in the Middle East is finding a way for the Israelis and the Palestinians to get together and enter into agreement.

I remind you that it was President Bush who went to the United Nations and talked about the need to have an Israeli state and a state of Palestine.

The president is committed to achieving peace in the region. And as he said in his remarks at the town hall in Atlanta, he has a dream about peace being achieved there.

But in order to succeed in peace, those who have no interest in peace, who are the terrorists in the region, in the groups that you've mentioned, in the president's opinion, need to be brought to justice.

And it is also, as Secretary Powell has pointed out directly to Chairman Arafat, this is an attack on Chairman Arafat's authority as well, and it's important for the chairman to show that if he is dedicated to peace he will take action against those who are not.

QUESTION: But I was asking about the U.S. war on terror.

FLEISCHER: Phase one.

QUESTION: Is stopping those who would derail the Mideast peace process through the use of violence part of the U.S. war on terror?

FLEISCHER: I think I answered that by saying that the president is focused on phase one, which is in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Ari, back on judicial nominations, does the president believe that ideological differences are driving the slow rate of confirmations?

FLEISCHER: You know, I don't know that the president is as interested in what the reasons may be, whether they're ideological or just the difficulty of the Senate being governed with a small majority. As is it, this is hurting the American people, whatever the reason.

The pace of the Senate is far, far behind the pace of previous Senates for presidents, in the first years especially, and that is really troubling. And I walked you through the numbers, they speak for themselves. And at a time when you see more vacancies today than when the administration began, even though the president has made a record number of appointments, something is going wrong in the United States Senate, and that something is hurting the American people's ability to get swift deliberations about justice.

QUESTION: Is the pace seen here, the pace by Leahy's committee seen here as perhaps a signal of what the White House could expect about a possible future Supreme Court nomination?

FLEISCHER: I can't engage in any speculation about that.

QUESTION: Ari, on the pending nomination, the case of Mr. Otto Reich, in the Senate, Senator Biden and Dodd, has been said that they don't want to give him a hearing. I want to know what is the response of the president to the critics from Senator Dodd that the commitment with Otto Reich, it's only because the president wants to assure the votes of the Cuban community to his brother (OFF-MIKE) re-election as the governor of Florida?

FLEISCHER: Number one, the man deserves a hearing. The president made this nomination months ago and it's only fair to bring it up for a hearing. The president knows that Otto Reich is an experienced diplomat with outstanding credentials, and the White House urgently needs a chief diplomat to communicate with our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere at all times, but especially during this crucial time. His nomination should proceed.

QUESTION: Any reaction to the critics about the political future of Governor Bush of Florida tied to the appointment of Mr. Otto Reich?

FLEISCHER: He was appointed because the president believes he's the right man for the job.

QUESTION: There is much concern here in the Pakistani community and also in Pakistan that two-thirds of the people who are arrested in the United States on various charges after the 9/11, they are Pakistanis, and a group of Pakistanis met with President Bush last week here and also Pakistani (OFF-MIKE) met with (OFF-MIKE) State Department?

So where do they stand now, what does he think, or what assurance he gave them for their future?

FLEISCHER: Well, it was a very productive meeting with the group of Pakistani Americans. And I think if you talk to any of them afterwards, they would have shared that with you.

As you know, that the president has made it clear that this is a war being fought on two home fronts and he believes that the attorney general is doing and outstanding job on the domestic home front in very difficult circumstances, and I leave it at that.

QUESTION: Just to follow -- I'm sorry -- if General Musharraf ever brought this issue with President Bush, either by phone call or up in New York?

FLEISCHER: The issue of?

QUESTION: Pakistanis being held or arrested.

FLEISCHER: I'd have to back and check to be thorough.

QUESTION: I want to go back and follow on his question, because I can see sort of an interesting situation perhaps arising. The president has told us that he will have the power to decide who should go before a military tribunal. In Bonn, they're now forming this new government. And one can imagine, given some of the statements that the new president or council will say that someone like Mullah Omar is someone they actually want to try for crimes against Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Is someone here thinking about that and already working out that potential situation, that what if the country in question says, "We've lived in hell for the last five years, we want to try this guy," versus the president saying, "We really need to get him into an American tribunal"?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think a lot of this is premature. Mullah Omar is still fighting the United States. Mullah Omar has not been captured nor brought to justice. And until that happens, I think it's all pure speculation.

In the event that somebody is captured, careful and proper, deliberate decisions will be made about what course should come next. But that is not the case now because he remains a combatant against the United States and other nations.

QUESTION: Ari, tell us about tomorrow's Pearl Harbor observance and the president's thoughts about the 60th anniversary falling, the nation again fighting in response to a foreign attack.

FLEISCHER: The president tomorrow will fly to Norfolk, Virginia, where he will give a speech aboard the USS Enterprise, which is one of the ships that was stationed off of Afghanistan and in the region that returned back to its home port just a little while ago.

In the president's remarks tomorrow he is going to commemorate, of course, the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and his remarks will be a reflection about the changing threats that our nation faces, about the fact that there are nations that have sought to do us harm in the past, that seek to do us harm now, that there's terrorists that seek to do us harm now, and the need for us to defend our freedom and our liberty. And that's what his remarks about. QUESTION: As he's prepared for this event, has he spoken of the emotion of those who went to war 60 years ago vis-a-vis the emotion of those who had to do so again 60 years later?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president, he shared this with the American people in his speech to the Congress in September, and you've heard it when the president has talked about the United States is a giant that has been roused, the United States is a peaceful nation and the United States is not a nation that goes to war lightly, that the United States 60 years ago and the United States in September of this year did not ask for war, the United States was a peaceful nation. Others brought war to us.

And when that happens, the United States properly and fully defends itself. And as the president has said, and this is true both for World War II and for today, as a result of the United States defending itself and the world, the world became a better place. And that is what the president thinks will be the likely outcome of this war against terrorism.

QUESTION: Ari, do you have a reaction to the unemployment benefits, the total number of people getting unemployment benefits is down (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: Right.

QUESTION: Do you see this as a sign that the recession could be bottoming out?

FLEISCHER: I make it a practice not to comment on the Thursday weekly report about unemployment rates because it fluctuates with some great amounts. The more reliable figures, of course, are the monthly unemployment insurance numbers, which will come out actually tomorrow. And so, those Thursday weekly reports have great fluctuation to them and I think that most economists would tell you it's not sound policy to make any conclusions based on something that's so volatile.

QUESTION: The Reverend Jesse Jackson told the AFL-CIO convention in Las Vegas that the Bush administration, quote, "is using the FBI, the IRS and the right-wing media like The Washington Times and Fox News as weapons against union leaders to destroy the leadership of organized labor before the 2010 elections."

And my question, am I wrong in recalling, Ari, that when the Reverend Mr. Jackson impregnated his mistress and used tax-exempt contributions to get her out of Chicago, you told us that the president telephoned Jesse to say, "You are in my prayers," rather than, "You'll be investigated like the head of United Way?"

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: What was the question?

QUESTION: Could you tell us this? And, you know, the head of United Way was sent to prison, Ari.

FLEISCHER: I'm still not sure what the question is.

QUESTION: You did tell us that the president phoned Jesse and said, "You're in my prayers," right?

FLEISCHER: Leave it there.

QUESTION: All right.

FLEISCHER: Yes.

Next question.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: No, wait a minute. That was my first question. And since I presume the president supports the great work of the Salvation Army, he surely opposes the current national campaign of parents and friends of lesbians and gays to drop counterfeit money into the Salvation Army's Christmas kettles. Doesn't he, Ari?

FLEISCHER: I have not discussed that...

QUESTION: Well, he surely opposes it doesn't he, Ari?

QUESTION: Ari, can you tell us the latest information that the White House has on the gentleman that was arrested this morning at the southwest gate carrying a knife and finding weapons in his car?

FLEISCHER: The Secret Service this morning issued a statement concerning an incident in which a gentleman close to the southwest gate at approximately 7:00 this morning acted in a suspicious manner and was found by the Uniform Division of the Secret Service to be carrying a knife, a long knife.

I'll refer you to the Secret Service statement. Beyond that, the Secret Service has been handling this matter. What I can tell you, as far as the president is concerned, it in no way, shape or form interrupted the president's day. He continued his day in a normal fashion.

QUESTION: Ari, just to follow up on the earlier discussion about the Commission on Civil Rights. Is the Bush administration satisfied with the performance of that commission under Mary Frances Berry?

FLEISCHER: That is not the context in which today's issue arises. Whether a president is satisfied, dissatisfied or has no opinion about how a commission is operating, it is very troubling for any member of any commission for any reason, whether they are supportive or they oppose the president, to refuse to follow the rule of law.

One of the great strengths of our system is that commissioners who were previously appointed by previous presidents to terms that have not yet expired know that they can fully serve on those terms, because the president does not have the power to remove unless the law allows it. Similarly, people should know they do not have the power to stay beyond their expiration because they seek to do so.

And that continuity has been one of the great strengths that keeps us a free country, that keeps the laws guiding how people serve as opposed to arbitrary determinations made by commissioners who have agendas that they would like to see fulfilled.

QUESTION: So prior to this situation coming up, the White House had no complaint whatsoever with the commission?

FLEISCHER: No, what I'm saying is anything that the White House thought is not considered in the context of this case. Regardless of what the president thought, it is the law that needs to be followed, and the law clearly states that the term expired on November 29 and that there is a vacancy, and the president has appointed someone to fulfill that vacancy.

QUESTION: Ari, do you have any information that would back up claims by local Northern Alliance commanders in the Tora Bora area that Zawahiri in fact has been killed?

FLEISCHER: I do not have anything for you on that, Jim.

Thank you.

WOODRUFF: White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer answering questions, literally, all over the map -- domestic and international. Very briefly, with regard to Afghanistan, he threw some cold water on the excitement, I think, that's been generated by Taliban -- reported Taliban offers to surrender Kandahar.

Fleischer -- Ari Fleischer saying it's not clear if what the Taliban says is true or not true. No one knows the status of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He said the U.S. is continuing to look into the situation.

And just quickly on the Middle East, with regard to Yasser Arafat, the president continues to believe that Mr. Arafat can do much more than he has to move the Middle East to a peaceful resolution.

And just finally, the president hopes that he will win a very important -- crucial, in fact, trade authority vote coming up this day in the House of Representatives.

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