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White House Briefing

Aired December 12, 2001 - 12:38   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: To the White House we go. Ari Fleischer briefing the press.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: All right. Who is the chair of this briefing?

Good afternoon. Let me discuss the president's schedule today, and I have a statement from the president about something, and then be happy to take questions.

The president today again hosted a bipartisan meeting of the congressional leadership as part of his effort to work with the Congress, to help the Congress to break the logjam that is present in the Senate right now on the economic stimulus. Following the meeting, the president had his regular rounds of briefings from the CIA, from the FBI, and he convened a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the latest information in the war effort.

Following that meeting, the president convened a meeting of his economic team, including Secretary O'Neill, Secretary Evans, Glenn Hubbard (ph), Larry Lindsey and others, to discuss the latest information about the state of the economy. The president remains deeply concerned about the number of Americans who are unemployed and the status of the economy and a potential recovery. And this is again why he is working as diligently as he is to help the Senate to figure out a way out of the logjam that they're currently in, and he urges and calls on the Senate again to pass a stimulus to help the economy to grow and recover.

Following that, the president signed into law legislation called the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act of 2001, which will provide health care and educational assistance to the women and the children of Afghanistan.

The president this afternoon will have a meeting here at the White House on one of the signature issues of his presidency and that is improving education, particularly for those in public schools. He will meet with the leaders of the education issue in the Congress; Congressman Boehner, Congressman Miller, Senator Kennedy and Senator Gregg.

And on that point, I want to read a statement by the president about the education conference agreement, which was entered into yesterday and unless something -- it was one the House is scheduled to vote on this this week. The president believes that -- hopes that the Senate will also vote so education reform can be passed into law.

The following is a statement by the president: "The education of every child in America must always be a top priority. I commend the conferees for agreeing on a series of profound reforms to help provide our children the best education possible. I also thank the bipartisan leadership of the conference -- Chair Congressman Boehner, as well as Senators Kennedy, Gregg and Congressman Miller -- for taking major steps toward improving education throughout our country.

"The conference agreement will ensure that no child in America is left behind through historic education reforms based on real accountability, unprecedented flexibility for states and school districts, greater local control, more actions for parents and more funding for what works.

"I urge members of the House and Senate to act soon and send me this legislation so that states and school districts can begin implementing these important reforms."

And that's a statement by the president. I read that because I think it's an important reminder of, even in a time of war, where the president's priorities lie, and he understands the importance of education not only to uplifting people from poverty in terms of them helping improve the future of our economy, but also just as a simple matter of doing what he promised as a candidate and focusing on education. He's very pleased and thankful to the Congress for the actions they've taken this year.

One final point. In a similar spirit, the Senate Finance Committee, just moments ago, passed, by a bipartisan vote of 18-3, trade promotion authority.

And the president is very grateful to the leaders of the Senate Finance Committee and the members who voted this important action. The president thinks this also will help improve the economy long term, that this is good for America's workers and is helpful for developing nations around the world.

Finally, when you take a look at what is happening in the Congress on education, on trade promotion authority, it's a clear sign that, if there's a will, there's a way in the Congress. And the president hopes that the same spirit on education, on trade promotion authority, where Congress is getting the people's business done, will be extended to the economic stimulus.

If ever there was an issue that proves if there's a will, there's a way, it's the economic stimulus. If the will is there in the United States Senate, the votes are there.

The president met last night with a group of Democrat and Republican moderates. Clearly, the votes are there to pass an economic stimulus and to help America's workers. The only question is, is the Senate leadership interested in following the will of the Senate to find a way to pass it? The president hopes so.

QUESTION: What are translators doing now? What seems to be the delay? Can you describe that process? And will it, in fact, be released this afternoon?

FLEISCHER: The tape of Osama bin Laden bragging about the killing in the United States is roughly one hour long. The audio and the video quality are not good. And as a result, to be thorough, to be accurate, before anything is released to the world, the Defense Department has brought in four translators from outside the government to listen to every word and to make certain that there is agreement on what is said on the tape.

We're very comfortable with the translation that we already do have, but prior to its release, which we are all hopeful will still take place, the review is under way.

So literally, four translators are listening carefully to it to make certain that every word is an accurate interpretation of the Arabic language.


FLEISCHER: I have to rely on DOD to inform you about it. The process is that the president has asked for the advice of his advisers about the release of the tape. And the president and his team will make the final decision about whether it should be released or not.

FLEISCHER: But clearly the president hopes that information can be shared with the public. The only thing that would stand in the way is if there is anything from intelligence or security that could be compromised. That not's looking like it's likely, so it really is just a matter of being diligent, thorough and accurate prior to releasing someone to the world.

QUESTION: Ari is it just a matter of it's taking so much time for just four translators to go through this, or is there some disagreement among the translators about what they hear on the tape?

FLEISCHER: I've not heard anything about any disagreements. I think you can presume it's the usual conversation to have with four translators about -- do we hear it exactly right, is that syllable exactly right? And they're just going to be thorough and careful, and we recognize that, as soon as the tape is released, you all are going to take it to your translators too. And I think you'll be definitely satisfied that the government diligence of preparing it will match the diligence that you bring to it too.

QUESTION: Ari, if I could just follow-up on that. The fact that the White House is going to sanction a release of this bin Laden videotape after counseling various (inaudible) news organizations to be very careful about what they air. Does that lead you to want to be extra careful to make sure you've dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's before you put this out there?

FLEISCHER: No, because this videotape does not fall in the same category as the prepackaged, prerecorded videotapes that Osama bin Laden himself distributed as a way to communicate with the world. Clearly, this was a tape that was left behind in Afghanistan with no intention of being released, and it does not fall in the same category. That's why the White House does indeed look at this very differently from the category in which Condoleezza Rice called the networks and asked them to exercise their judgment and discretion.

QUESTION: But certainly you could see the issue there, and the inherent appearance at least of the contradiction.

FLEISCHER: No, I can't because I see those tapes as totally different, and I think most observers agree with that.


FLEISCHER: The embassies on the ground are collecting the facts about the most recent violence of the Middle East. It took place shortly before this briefing in terms of the reports coming in.

The latest violence underscores a need for Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to take every step possible to reduce the violence and bring an end to the terrorism that is plaguing the region. Ambassador -- General Zinni remains in the region committed to helping the parties find a way to begin the security talks.

FLEISCHER: And the president remains hopeful that talks can begin.


QUESTION: Is there any doubt now that Arafat (inaudible)?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that this is a process that can't be measured in a day or two, this is a process that will be measured over time. But it is imperative for Chairman Arafat to take every step possible to stop the violence, to stop the attacks. It's hard to imagine how a peace process can be fruitful and take hold if there is no peace, if there's killing.

QUESTION: Why are we condoning the bombing of his headquarters and police quarters and so forth? I mean, is that helpful to the Palestinians?

FLEISCHER: As you know, after the series of suicide attacks took place in Jerusalem and Haifa last week, the president has made it clear that he understands Israel has a right to defend herself.

QUESTION: They aren't trying to get Arafat, are they? I mean, would that be helpful?

FLEISCHER: The United States has not seen any indication that Israel is trying to get Yasser Arafat.

QUESTION: On the tape, a couple of questions. Is it clear from the tape that bin Laden is aware he is being taped or is it the assessment of those who have seen it that he is not aware that he is being taped? And that is the central distinction that goes to what John's (ph) question was about, that it's not a propaganda machinery, because he doesn't know he's being taped. And secondly, as the translators go over this, are they debating the meaning of certain words or is it just very hard to hear the words, and it's the difficulty of hearing that's slowing it down?

FLEISCHER: I think you need to ask that to DOD itself. I did not ask that question to DOD. I know it's a matter of audio quality, means you really have to play the tape over again, listen to it, listen to it over again to be certain about the words. But that's a DOD.

On the first question again? QUESTION: Is he aware, based on those who have seen it, and does that make it centrally different from something that he was clearly...


FLEISCHER: No, it appears he's aware. It's hard to imagine somebody was in the room without him seeing.

QUESTION: Ari, can I just follow up on Helen's question? Does the president believe that the specific response of Israel to those suicide attacks has been helpful, has been productive of a climate in which peace can take hold?

FLEISCHER: I don't think the president looks at things in literally the light that you raise it. I think the president looks at it in a manner that, given what took place in Israel, Israel had a right to defend herself, and the president understands that.

The president is also calling on all the parties to work with General Zinni. General Zinni remains in the area for the expressed purpose of helping the two -- Israel and the Palestinians -- to find a way to begin the security dialogue once again that they both still say they are committed to.

QUESTION: Is the president looking for Israel to take any steps, because it may be that it's not just Arafat's inability or refusal to control violence, but that there are other factors which contribute to these attacks, the crack down -- continued crack down of Palestinians in areas which many people say sponsored some of the frustrations with...

FLEISCHER: The president understands that the ability of the parties in the conflict to take the next steps first depends on the ability of violence to be reduced.

It's very hard to begin a political dialogue when people are still being killed in the streets and wounded in the streets on an almost regular basis, and that's why the president has focused so strongly in calling Chairman Arafat to reduce the violence, to take responsibility.

And it's also important to recognize for the future of the region that these are attacks on Chairman Arafat's authority himself. These attacks undermine his ability to be a leader in the Palestinian cause, and that's important to recognize as well. QUESTION: Ari, has Arafat taken any steps that you can see are positive?

FLEISCHER: The chairman has made several statements which are positive statements. The chairman has arrested individuals, although still there is the issue of after arrests are made, people are frequently returned right to the streets. So it is a difficult situation for one and all, but that does not change the responsibility on a leader of a would-be state to demonstrate that he is capable to demonstrating the leadership required to end the violence.

QUESTION: Ari, why wasn't the president able to close the deal on the stimulus during the breakfast he had with congressional leaders this morning?

FLEISCHER: I don't think that when it comes to Congress scheduling a vote, it's something that the president controls.

FLEISCHER: The determination of when to schedule a vote is uniquely an issue -- a decision made by the Senate leadership.

The president, as he said today, had a very productive meeting with enough senators last night in both parties to put this over the top.

So the House of Representatives has shown its ability to pass a stimulus. The president has shown his ability not only to propose a stimulus, but to then subsequently modify it in an effort to break log jam.

The only group left in town that has shown no ability so far to pass a stimulus is the Senate leadership. There is enough votes to pass it. If there's a will, there's a way. And that's the only question that remains now, will the Senate show the will to find the way?

QUESTION: If I could follow on that? Is the president still insisting that speeding up the tax cut passed earlier this year must be part of the stimulus plan?

FLEISCHER: The president feels very strongly that it must be stimulative. And he is heartened to see that there are a majority of senators, including both parties, who agree. Senator Breaux was eloquent last night on the point of supporting an increase in acceleration of the marginal income tax rate from 27 percent to 25 percent.

Clearly, the majority of the Senate agrees with the president that we have a need to do two things, stimulate the economy and protect unemployed workers. And the president just cannot imagine that the Senate would leave town without addressing both those important priorities.

And there's still time for it to be done, and he hopes that it will be. But much of this is up to the Senate leadership. QUESTION: What else is the president doing today (inaudible) get this through? Is he making policy today? Is he having other meetings?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president has brought it to the point where it is very close to getting done.

Keep in mind, that a stimulus was originally the president's idea. He proposed it during the summer. The House passed it. The president then -- worked with the Senate, modified it. I don't know what more a president can do, other than to meet with the leadership, as he did this morning, to meet with a bipartisan group, as he did last night. The statement the president made this morning, again, calling on the parties to get together.

But at the end of the day, it is still the Senate that governs itself. And this is a real test of the new leadership of the Senate.

You know, I just remind you that, it wasn't so long ago that the Senate was led by Senator Lott with very close margin.

FLEISCHER: And there still is a very close margin in the Senate, but that doesn't change the responsibility of the leaders of the Senate to in the end deliver for the American people.

QUESTION: There's been a decline in contributions to some charities in the United States. Does the White House have any reaction to that? I think there's a fear that these charities are somehow fronts for terrorist organizations.

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has addressed this before when he's called on groups to continue to donate to charities. And the president would hope that donations will continue to all charities that do good works, and that of course includes Muslim charities.

And because you've raised it, I would remind people that the president's legislation that is still pending in the Senate for the armies of compassion initiative does provide incentives for people to give increased money to charity, that does find a role for Muslim groups or Islamic or groups of all religious denominations to receive federal funding for their charitable efforts and their social efforts in a way to alleviate poverty. And that would of course include Muslim, Islamic groups.

QUESTION: Ari, you said this morning that the Pentagon was handling the video tape. (inaudible) independent translators working on it with an advisory panel. My question is, will the president make the final call whether the tape will be released or not?

FLEISCHER: Yes. Ultimately, it is the president's decision. The president will make the decision in concert with his security team. And as I reviewed earlier, the only criteria he is concerned with is there any intelligence that would be compromised or national security implications to releasing the tape. It's fair to say with each passing day there appear to be fewer and fewer things that are imaginable like that. But again, the president will make that final determination, and then if that determination is made the release will come from the Department of Defense.

QUESTION: Can I ask another question. On the free trade, you said the Senate Finance Committee has approved 18-3. When do you expect the whole Senate to vote on it? The House has already approved it.

FLEISCHER: That's a question that can only be addressed to the Senate leadership.

QUESTION: Do you think you might get it this year...


FLEISCHER: I think the president would be delighted if he could get it this year, because the president believes very strongly in the power of trade to improve the lots of people around the world to provide products for the American consumer and to provide high-paying jobs for American workers.

QUESTION: Ari, back on the tape, is there concern about body language as well, other than the phrasing and the wording of bin Laden? Is there concern about his body language? I mean, you're talking about coding with words possibly, but what about the body language?

FLEISCHER: In terms of coding, there's nothing that's been brought to my attention on that. So, again, that's why I said that with each passing day, as it's reviewed, there are fewer and fewer concerns about the security implications of it.

FLEISCHER: In terms of Osama bin Laden's body language, you know, he appears -- if you can believe it -- happy, comfortable and joyous with the fact that he was able to take lives.

QUESTION: So you've seen the tape then?

FLEISCHER: I've been briefed on the tape. I'll watch it later. And I've read the entire transcript though.

QUESTION: Ari, another question about (inaudible). Apparently, one of the 19 hijackers was stopped in the state of Maryland by a state trooper and was let go because they did not know about the fact that he was on the CIA terrorist watch list. Why is not there an interface system right now in place? And why is there not a system in place at that time for someone to be a major criminal or a major threat to the United States for no other state entity or local government to know there was a major -- it seems like there was a major mixup or problem there?

FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of the facts on the case you're citing, so I'll be happy to take a look at that. But, clearly, if a police officer pulled somebody over, it's not as if, you know, there's one central computer database for the entire country that runs every highway stop into a system.

QUESTION: But do you think there needs to be now, especially since this guy could have been stopped before.

FLEISCHER: Let me take a look at the facts in this particular case. You may want also to address it to DOJ or to the local authorities who may have been involved in this stop because I don't have any information on that.

QUESTION: Is the White House recommending that...

FLEISCHER: Ron, go ahead. Helen, we'll come back to you.

QUESTION: Why did the president consider but then reject the idea of having Moussaoui go before a military tribunal?

FLEISCHER: The president two days ago discussed with Attorney General Ashcroft during the Oval Office meeting what the best venue would be to bring Mr. Moussaoui to justice, and as the president said when he created the military tribunals, he wanted to have the option of a military tribunal for those limited number of cases where the national security of the United States or our ability to continue to obtain intelligence information without compromising sources or methods would be achieved as a result of going to a military court as opposed to a civilian court.

So during his meeting with the attorney general, the president asked a series of questions about civilian versus military trial.

FLEISCHER: And asked if this were to be decided in a civilian court -- civilian criminal court, would national security be in danger, would sources or methods be compromised? The president was satisfied that the answers to those questions were no.

The attorney general recommended that this go to a civilian court, the president concurred. And so that's what took place.


FLEISCHER: Well, actually, I should add one caveat, and that is, it's based on all the information that has been received at this time. If subsequent information were to be received in the course of developing facts and information, the president's options remain open.

But you clearly have heard an announcement by the attorney general, you've received the indictment --

WOODRUFF: We're going to slide out of the White House, and go directly to the Pentagon briefing.




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