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Ari Fleischer Gives White House Briefing

Aired December 10, 2001 - 12:51   ET


Let's go over to the White House where the press secretary Ari Fleischer is now briefing reporters.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... in presidential history that a president will have a lighting of a Menorah as an event in the residence of the White House, and then we'll have a Hanukkah reception later today.

Tomorrow, the president, as you know, has asked countries from around the world to take part in a commemoration at exactly 8:46 tomorrow morning Eastern time to mark the three-month anniversary of the attack against our country. The worldwide reaction to the president's request has been very strong. And here at the White House the president will have an event in the East Room where the national anthem will be played, and more than 70 nations around the world will also be participating in this event. And this has spread far, wide around the world, including Muslim nations, including Mideast nations. And around the United States there will be similar events.

The president will launch the initiative, as I indicated, at 8:46 in the East Room. There will also be events at the Pentagon, at ground zero in New York, the billboard at Times Square have a patriotic massage at 8:46 tomorrow morning, there'll be other, a long list of states and communities across the country that are participating, including NASA will hold a special event in space where the United States and Russia will play the national anthems of our two nations to commemorate the attack. And it's a real sign of how the world stands united against the terrorists who have done this to freedom-loving people everywhere.

QUESTION: Will the president...


FLEISCHER: The president will have remarks tomorrow morning as well, to commemorate the attack. And then the president will depart for Citadel, where he'll have a different type of remarks, talking about the future of America's military and the future threats that lie ahead.

QUESTION: Did you say the American anthem will be played in other countries? FLEISCHER: Different countries will play their anthems, but you can anticipate events at American embassies around the world where our anthem will be played around the world. And basically it's one of these times where, as you know, people say, "I remember exactly what I was doing the moment I heard."

Well, of course, that's 8:46 Eastern time, that would be 5:46 a.m. California time, it will be 1:46 in the afternoon in certain nations, et cetera. So around the world, at the moment that people first heard, the president has asked these nations to do that, to stand as one world against terror.

QUESTION: Ari, can you give us the latest on the release of this bin Laden tape? Can you tell us more about the tape and what the nature of the debate is inside the administration?

FLEISCHER: There is not update from what I indicated this morning. No decision has been made at this moment about the release of the tape.

What I indicated this morning is there are, in the president's opinion, many good reasons why the tape should be made public; there are also reasons that are being reflected on about why it should not be made public. The good reasons include the president's desire to be forthright, to share information publicly with the country, so people can see things in their eyes and form their own conclusions. People will be able to see Osama bin Laden speak, in Arabic, and, as I indicated, form their own judgments about the things that he has said on this tape.

FLEISCHER: On the other hand, there is also always the issue about intelligence information and always with care not to compromise any intelligence information. This administration previously has said that we don't have an interest in giving Osama bin Laden air time. Although, as I indicated earlier today as well, this tape is of a different nature from the prepackaged propaganda that came out earlier. This really is a different type of tape.

QUESTION: Ari, if I could just follow on that. Besides the desire to share information, doesn't the president believe that, in fact, this tape makes it abundantly clear that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks and that's the most compelling reason for the nation and the world to see it?

FLEISCHER: Well, as Secretary Wolfowitz said yesterday and as Vice President Cheney said yesterday, there's no question that the tapes back up what you all know and have heard repeatedly for months and what the world knows, which is that Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network were behind this attack, and the tape clearly shows that.

QUESTION: Ari, if this tape was found in a private residence in Jalalabad, what are the implications for compromising intelligence sources? And is it not more of a political decision? You're making a calculation of, would this play in your favor? Or could it be viewed in the Arab world as White House propaganda? FLEISCHER: Well, in terms of the finding of it, you state accurately where it was found, but that doesn't indicate every step along the way. And so, there's still some things that are sensitive that will just be assessed, and that's part of what is going on. There's going to be an assessment made to make certain that if it can be released, it's going to be released in a way that can serve both the public needs and the needs of intelligence and the needs of defense and others to make certain that nothing will be done in anyway to compromise anything.

QUESTION: What about this political concern, this could be seen in some areas of the world as just an attempt at a White House spin, that they might think that the tape was doctored, not authentic. Are you concerned about that?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, if the decision is made to release it, the tape will speak for itself and people will come to the conclusion they come to. We can't control every conclusion people reach, but the president's approach is wherever it does not compromise security, it's best to share information with the country and with the world.

FLEISCHER: But again, this is all being carefully reviewed.

QUESTION: You said the world stands together on the war in Afghanistan -- that's true -- and the president had been on the phone since September 12 lining up allies and friends. This would not be true if he decides, as some of his advisers want, to go into Iraq, Somalia, every other country they've named on the target list. Would the United States still move unilaterally if it did not have U.N. and key ally backing?

FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to speculate about anything hypothetical of that nature.

QUESTION: Well, I think it's very valid. It's a very valid question, because the U.N. has come out -- the U.N. Secretary General has come out and said it would not support it and France and Britain, apparently, are not supporting. I think we ought to know whether we have allies then.

FLEISCHER: Well, again, it's a hypothetical. And I don't think anybody is in a position to tell you who will do what for something that is not defined.

QUESTION: Well, it's not so hypothetical with all your advisers calling for widening the war everyday.

FLEISCHER: I'm not sure our advisers are calling for widening the war everyday.

QUESTION: Just a follow-on. Since bin Laden know, because we're telling him, that this tape came from a private home in Jalalabad and you're saying there's still security concerns. Does that mean it's a copy or concerned about Al Qaeda being able to trace who might have copied? FLEISCHER: For one, I would not necessarily draw any conclusions that bin Laden knows because we're telling him. I'm not sure how good the reception is in his cave these days.

Anytime there is information that comes from a battle region that is obtained, there are just issues involving, protecting people who were there, who have knowledge about how it was obtained. And there's just an eye toward making certain that things are done, as I indicated. This is a classic issue of striking the right balance between sharing information as much as possible with the public and protecting intelligence concerns. That's always a bit of a balancing, and that's what you're watching right now in the government, that balancing is taking place.

QUESTION: Does that mean that the government is sort of torn between security officials and political officials?

FLEISCHER: No. I don't think it's quite fair to say torn, no. I think what you're watching is, T's getting crossed, I's being dotted to make certain that there are no security issues that could be at stake.

FLEISCHER: And once that is determined, then I think there is a desire to be forthright.

QUESTION: Ari, there's reports that the president is opposed to releasing the tape; is that correct? And is there a timetable for making this decision?

FLEISCHER: The president's position is just as I indicated. He understands that there is this balance. The president wants to share as much as possible with the country, to be as forthright as possible and to let people come to their own judgments by seeing things for themselves. The president also wants to make certain that the ability to see things in the future is in no way impaired as a result of sharing something now.

So this is just like I said, the president understands that balance, and his security people are taking a look, crossing t's and dotting i's to make certain that if it were released, there would be no security implications.

QUESTION: Ari, is there a timetable? Did they discuss it at the NSC meeting this morning?

FLEISCHER: I don't think it's going to take a whole lot of time. I can't guarantee you it's going to be today, but I really don't think this is going to be with us for days. I think this is something that people are taking a careful look at, and once those conclusions are reached, the appropriate people wherever will tell you, aye or nay, it will be released or it will not be released.

QUESTION: This was discussed this morning at the NSC meeting?

FLEISCHER: Yes, it was.

QUESTION: Ari, could you just give us a little more of when it was found? When it came into your possession?

FLEISCHER: I'm going to hesitate to do that until a few more of the items are being reviewed, and then I think if the decision is made to release it, you'll get a lot of the background information, as much as possible, at the time of the release.

QUESTION: Ari, one of the things that happened in the beginning, many countries and many governments said they wanted to see complete proof. If this tape does not make public that they've -- for the whole world to watch, will it be shown to individual governments so whoever has the doubts can verify it for themselves?

FLEISCHER: I have not heard anything on that topic. I would say that I would go on the premise of your question; that appears to be an old issue that was dealt with quite sometime ago. I don't really know of any people left in the world to question whether or not Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda were responsible for this.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) issue. How many people, in your understanding, have watched the tape in the administration? And did they do that as a group outside of intelligence who might be going over it and over it and over it? When it comes to Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz, the president, did they watch that as a group in a National Security Council meeting? Are there copies floating around?

QUESTION: Have you personally seen it? At what level did the transcripts of it get distributed?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to discuss what was done in the literal sense of National Security Council meetings.

I think it's fair to say that it's been seen by a small number of people. And I've read the transcript of it.

QUESTION: And in the decision-making process, is there a recommendation sitting on the president's desk, or is he awaiting a recommendation from the National Security Council?

FLEISCHER: It's exactly as I indicated to Randy (ph). The president understands that, on an issue like this, there is a balance.

I think I've indicated to you, the president's overall approach is to share information with the country.

He wants to make certain that this balance is proper, and some of the people who are focused on that are doing their work as we speak. And that's why I indicated that, as soon as we have something to report, we'll report it. And I can't give you any guarantees of what the timing of that will be.

But once the timing is known, we will share it.

QUESTION: Can you tell us a little more about the president's meeting with the Jewish leaders this afternoon, who might they be and also something about what is happening with General Zinni over in Israel? FLEISCHER: The president this afternoon will be meeting with a bipartisan group of leaders of several of the major Jewish organizations across the country.

They are here, of course, for the Hanukkah celebration under way, and then they will join the president this evening. So he'll have some meetings with them, and then he'll be there for the lighting of the menorah and for a reception later.

QUESTION: The nature of the meetings and also about Zinni?

FLEISCHER: I think they're going to discuss the situation in the Middle East, the peace efforts in the Middle East. That typically is what occupies most of the time at meetings like this. And with General Zinni, General Zinni remains in the region. I know there was a report earlier that I do not believe is accurate about General Zinni leaving the region. He remains in the region, dedicated to finding a way to bring the parties together to achieve some type of security discussions.

QUESTION: Ari, getting back to the video, you said that this was different from the pre-cut, pre-packaged propaganda from before.


QUESTION: So does that lead us to believe that there's no coding in this, and there's no suspicion of coding, the White House feels it's OK, at least if you do get it to the public?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think, reading between the lines, you can infer that that's something that's the people who are paid professionals to make those judgments will review and are reviewing.

FLEISCHER: And that's part of the final assessment. If the decision is made to provide the tape, I think that will answer that question for itself to the best it can be answered.

QUESTION: Ari, follow-up then. Well, if it's not the prepackaged propaganda from before, that was deemed to have coding in it. If this one is like that, how can it not be prepackaged propaganda?

FLEISCHER: Well, first, I don't know if anybody deemed it to have coding in it before. It was a clear worry that it may have that coding before.

But, you know, the difference is if this was the same prepackaged propaganda that had already been provided by the people who did it to outlets in the Middle East, probably Al Jazeera, wherever it would have already been played. And so, this is just a different nature tape. This is a more spontaneous conversation by all appearances. It's not Osama bin Laden speaking with his wall to the back of a cave, getting a message to his followers, for example.


FLEISCHER: Well, I read the transcript so I don't really know what he was wearing in it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) somewhere here has seen the tape?


QUESTION: He was not wearing military...

FLEISCHER: Well, again, if the tape is released, you'll see that with your own eyes.

QUESTION: The Social Security Commission is reporting tomorrow, and it seems pretty clear that Congress doesn't want to take up that issue next year. Is that OK with the president if they wait until after the election year?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has said on that that he would very much like to see a debate this year on Social Security. The president thinks it serves the nation well for politicians in both parties to talk this year about personal accounts, what contributions they can make to Social Security. The exact timing of when Congress may be able to move Social Security legislation is clearly up in the air, but many in Congress do not think it can happen before the election. Obviously, with the Senate not yet even taking action on energy or on a stimulus or on trade promotion authority, faith based legislation, the Armies of Compassion Initiative. There are many thing the Senate has yet to do. This will be one more item to put on the Senate's plate.

The president will welcome the debate.

Also given the fact that we now have a recession and a war, that also could change the calendar for Social Security.

QUESTION: What was your reaction when you read this transcript?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that, again, this validates or verifies everything that has been said along about who is responsible for the attack.

FLEISCHER: And Secretary Wolfowitz, on a show, I think he used the word "disgusting." To see a person be pleased with the taking of innocent lives is a real sign of what the president calls evil can be personified in this one person. And we feel that what we are doing is absolutely the right thing to do to bring justice to people who would do this to our country and smile about it.


QUESTION: ... follow-up attacks on this tape? You say takes credit or brags about September 11, that it shows that he had prior knowledge of the events of September 11. Is there any discussion at all about follow-up attacks?

FLEISCHER: I don't believe so.

QUESTION: Ari, you touched briefly on the speech the president's going to give tomorrow. Getting back on that, is that more of a conceptual speech about where he sees the military going or is there going to be some new policy on the present situation?

FLEISCHER: The president's speech tomorrow at The Citadel will be an interesting follow-up to a speech that he gave there in the fall of 1999. The speech also, of course, coincides with the three-month anniversary of the attack on our country.

We are distributing this afternoon the exact text of a speech from 1999, and in it you will see that his '99 remarks contained many of the seeds of the actions he's taking today to defend our country.

In those 1999 remarks, he talked about if any nation sponsors terrorism the reaction of the United States to that nation that harbors or sponsors terrorism will be devastating.

And if you recall, on September 11 of this year, when the president returned to the Oval Office and gave a speech to the nation, he said for the first time as president that nations that harbor terrorists will receive the same fate as the terrorists. And the seeds of that were contained in the Citadel address.

The president also in that address talked about the need to move beyond the ABM Treaty, the need to unilaterally reduce the number of offensive weapons.

What you see is a series of promises made as a candidate that have been promises kept as a president. In his remarks tomorrow, the president will flesh out a little more detail about the role of the military in 21st century wars and what it means to fight terrorism and how it's important to have a military ready, able to do so.


FLEISCHER: I would leave it as I left it with you. I think you'll all want to be there, but I'm not going that far on it.

QUESTION: On the economic stimulus package, over the weekend Senator Lott indicated that this was pretty much to be the make or break week for that. I wondered if the White House agrees with his assessment on that, as well as the fact that if it doesn't happen this year, he suggests revisiting it next year?

FLEISCHER: Well, Senator Lott gave a real indication that he thinks the time has come for the Senate to complete its work, and he does so with good reason. It was 48 days ago that the House of Representatives passed the stimulus legislation; the Senate has yet to act on it. was 132 days ago that the House of Representatives passed legislation to make America less energy dependent on foreign nations.

It's been 149 days since the House of Representatives passed legislation to help low-income Americans, people who are suffering in poverty, to have more help and more resources through what the president calls his Armies of Compassion initiative. On all these measures, the Senate has yet to act. So I can understand why Senator said that. This is a test of the Senate. This is a test of the Senate leadership and a real test of whether or not they are able to govern the Senate.

QUESTION: But how do you know, though, in terms of the regular process in the Senate, that hasn't been working so another group of negotiators have formed to try to work this through. On Friday, the lead negotiator, House, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, just walked out abruptly from having meetings on Friday or Saturday. Does the White House at all consider this obstruction of...

FLEISCHER: Well, I think Congressman Thomas returned to California, as members often do, over the weekend, and that followed a statement by Senator Daschle in which he indicated that in order to pass a stimulus he would create a relatively new procedure on where they'd have to have two-thirds of the votes of all the Democrats in the Senate to pass a stimulus. And I think that is a formula for gridlock, for partisanship and for inaction, and I think Congressman Thomas is known for trying to create action and for trying to get results.

And so, I think that when they return this week, it's an important test to see whether or not members of Congress can work together to get it done.

QUESTION: You said that given the fact that we have war and recession, it might change the schedule for Social Security. Can you say why the president is concerned about each of those separately, you know, delaying action on Social Security in the near future?

FLEISCHER: It, clearly, when you take a look at the backlog that's building up in the Senate, it does suggest that there could be calender problems. Now, if the Congress were able to proceed on the legislation that would change everything, but there are other events that have intervened.

But as I indicated, the president would welcome a debate all year long on Social Security.

The president believes very much that one of the reasons he won the presidency was because he took a bold position on Social Security and he has sent America a signal that he knew Social Security would not be there for younger workers unless politicians faced up to the music and took action to protect the system that's going broke.

QUESTION: If I could follow-up? What about the recession, is he concerned that there be less support for his privatization ideas, given the current state of the economy?

FLEISCHER: Clearly, when at a time when Congress can't even pass stimulus to get us out of a recession, it does raise questions about whether Congress -- if Congress, particularly the Senate, cannot solve the problem that's here and with us today, it does make you wonder if the Senate is able to solve a problem that really won't be with us in a direct way until some 20, 30 years from now he young people want to retire.


QUESTION: Tomorrow's travel schedule makes it impossible to cover Citadel and the morning event if you could look into that.

FLEISCHER: OK. We'll work with you on that and see what I can do.

QUESTION: A couple of administration officials said yesterday that the tape suggests some of these hijackers didn't know they were going to die. Information was pretty fuzzy. Can you elaborate on that at all?

FLEISCHER: Let me withhold on that. Again, there is information that is on those tapes that, again, shows the world just how evil Osama bin Laden is and how he claims piety while leading people to deaths that they very well were not aware of.

QUESTION: Do you assume that the tape that was put out, what we know about so far, was leaked?


QUESTION: And was it leaked by the government? And so then why are you so...


FLEISCHER: If you can provide me a list of who leaks in this government, I'd be very grateful to you.

QUESTION: What is the deliberation about putting it out officially when you know it's out and you're quite happy?

FLEISCHER: I can't tell you who is behind some of those things. I can assume you, as you know, working with this White House, that is not the manner in which the White House does its business. We have to fact the reality when something is in the papers like that

QUESTION: Are you upset that it's out? Are you upset it was leaked?

FLEISCHER: I think that it's always the preferences of White Houses, particular this White House, to allow a deliberative process to take place quietly, so that if the president and the National Security Council had decided to release the tape, it could have been released. Things of this nature, obviously, suggest that people want to talk about it before this question of balance has been addressed on how to protect intelligence information...


QUESTION: Was it not put out by the government itself?

FLEISCHER: I can't speak for the entire government. It certainly was not put out by the White House, and the White House is not pleased about that.

QUESTION: Can I follow on a related point?

FLEISCHER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Are you and the president not concerned about the perception that the White House is getting a little heavy-handed with regard to the flow of information? After all, the national security adviser cautioned the major broadcast networks and cable networks about airing Al Jazeera tapes of bin Laden. Now here's a new tape that the government is all too happy to talk about and you're characterizing it here in a way that is consistent with the truth as you're telling it to us in terms of what's on the tape, and yet there's a lot of deliberation and we're not getting the tape. I mean, are you not worried about...


FLEISCHER: Yes, we are. I think that's a legitimate point. And that's why I said that people are reviewing the tape and assessing it. And I think you can safely assume that if the decision is made to release it, the assessment will have been that this is of such a different nature tape from the prepackaged tapes that we earlier discussed that releasing it will not present the same issues that were presented in the other tapes that Dr. Rice called the networks about.

So yes, people are concerned about that, and that's part of he assessment.

QUESTION: Ari, is there a question about the authenticity of this tape? And how did the administration address that?

FLEISCHER: Again, I'm going to withhold on some of this until a decision is made about whether or not it will be released, and then I think you can get a lot more answers to those type questions. But until then, I think it's best just to allow the people who are doing their work to do their work.

QUESTION: On Social Security, you said that there should be -- the president believes there should be discussion over the next year about this issue or (INAUDIBLE) that's what you said the beginning of last (INAUDIBLE) as well.

FLEISCHER: That's correct. The president welcomes the debate on Social Security. The president believes very strongly in the fact that Social Security must be there for our current seniors with no changes whatsoever; for people who are nearing retirement, Social Security system should not be changed whatsoever. It works very well for people who are retired and who are nearing retirement.





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