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Ari Fleischer Conducts White House Briefing

Aired December 14, 2001 - 12:35   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: To the White House now, Ari Fleischer briefing reporters this Friday.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon. Happy Friday to a half-empty press briefing room.

QUESTION: Half full.

FLEISCHER: Half full, thank you very much.


FLEISCHER: All right, good morning.

The president this morning had his usual round of intelligence briefings with the CIA, with the FBI, and then he convened a meeting of the National Security Council.

Mid-morning, the president met with a group of members of Congress from some of the textile states to talk to them about the importance of textiles and the importance of the jobs that the textile workers do in our country.

Following that, the president met with the prime minister of Thailand to talk about the strength of our bilateral relationship with Thailand and our cooperation in the war on terrorism.

And the president will depart from the White House a little later this afternoon where he will sign the Drug-Free Communities Act Reauthorization program which provides additional assistance to communities -- local communities and organizations that are fighting the war on drug abuse throughout the country.

Before I take questions, I want to make a statement. As another week comes to a close and we draw closer to the end of the year, I'd like to remind the Senate once again, the important work remains to be done when it comes to confirming presidential appointments.

The Senate has failed to act upon 157 nominees that President Bush has made. These include Eugene Scalia, the president's nominee to be solicitor of the Department of Labor. Mr. Scalia is an eminently qualified labor attorney who has demonstrated in is committee hearing that he'd be a dedicated advocate of the policies of the Department of Labor. And while a majority of the Senate has announced that they would support his vote, he has waited over 200 days to be confirmed, and that's not right.

In addition, the president has nominated individuals to serve as federal judges at a record pace this year. And yet, there are more vacancies in the federal judiciary now than when President Bush came into office.

The reason is because the Senate has failed to act. And the Senate has failed to act on 37 of the president's nominees to the bench. The failure to confirm qualified individuals in the 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 America's government can be done and that justice can be carried out.

Finally, in terms of confirmations, on March 22, 2001, the president announced his intention to nominate Otto Reich as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere -- March 22, 2001 -- and the Senate has failed to even have a hearing on Mr. Reich. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee refuses even a simple request to give the man his day in court or a fair hearing. It's not right for the president to be denied his right to have an entire foreign policy team in place, and Otto Reich needs to be put in place.

His position is critical to our relationships with our partners in the Western Hemisphere at a time when nations in Central and Latin America are looking for leadership from the United States to help them with difficult, internal issues. And this is especially true as we assemble a worldwide coalition to fight the war against terrorism.

Also, Mr. Reich has a bipartisan majority of the votes on this committee and the votes to be confirmed by the full Senate, as well. And that is why one committee is blocking him from having a fair hearing.

The president has asked for a hearing. Secretary Powell has repeatedly asked for a hearing. Three former secretary's of state have asked for a hearing for Mr. Reich, and yet they will not proceed.

He has been confirmed by the Senate twice before. He is qualified. He has dedicated his career to public service. And particularly when you consider some of the previous promises made by Democratic members of the Senate, it's hard to understand why they won't give him a hearing.

Quote, "We will confirm the president's nominations to enable him to run the government he was elected to administer." That was Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on June 6. "Everyone will get a fair hearing," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on June 17. "We're going to move as quickly as we can. I think that every administration deserves to have its people in place," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, back in June, and he still has not moved.

So I think it's very important for the Senate to take action on the judicial nominees as well as the other nominations that are pending in the Senate.

Pleased to take your questions.

QUESTION: Ari, we're getting drips and drabs from the president's conversations with the Jewish leaders (OFF-MIKE) and the Israeli press says that the president said that the State Department was irrelevant and he was going to get rid of what he called the Arabists in that department, along with a lot of other stuff.

Are you confirming all of these things...


FLEISCHER: That report, which appeared somewhere in the Middle Eastern press, is garbage. The president did not make those statements, as reported in that Israeli outlet, and no truth to it.

QUESTION: But did he also say that he would do exactly what Sharon is doing?


QUESTION: Really? You're quoted here as you didn't dispute the characterizations...

FLEISCHER: You're mixing up two stories. They're two separate stories. There was one, a story that came out of an Israeli newspaper two days ago that was purported to be on a meeting that the president had.

There's a separate story in today's New York Times which relates a different message from the president. Two totally different stories.

Your question pertained to the Israeli media accounts, and there were several other pieces of garbage in that account, none of which were true. This is a totally separate issue and a totally separate story, with obviously different sources.

QUESTION: I wonder if you could address in this context the larger perception that this government, when asked about Israel, says nothing, it turns all of its attention toward the Palestinians and Mr. Arafat. And it is a contributing to a perception in the region that by its very silence the United States is tacitly endorsing every step the Israeli government is taking, including cutting off all contacts with Mr. Arafat. Could you address that growing perception in the region? And if you have comments as to what the Israeli government is doing, would you share them with us now?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has made it plain that in order to bring peace to the region, the people who believe in peace have to stand up strongly against the people who are using violence as a means to stop the peace. And the president has said repeatedly, and I say it again this afternoon, this is a test of Yasser Arafat to determine on which side he will stand. This is not only a test for Yasser Arafat to show that he is dedicated to bringing justice to the people who are trying to stop peace in the Middle East, but to demonstrating that he has the ability to lead the Palestinian people, because these attacks on Israel are also an attack on the authority of Chairman Arafat. And this is a real test to see which side he stands on and whether he is the leader that the world is looking for in the Middle East, because the Middle East needs leaders on all sides if peace is going to be found.

QUESTION: In that regard, some Palestinians have said continued attacks from Israeli make it difficult for the chairman to take decisive moves. It appealed to the international community and the United States to bring in some outside observers to make the conditions more favorable for Mr. Arafat to take these aggressive actions. What's the U.S. position on...

FLEISCHER: The president is confident that Yasser Arafat has the ability to take action if he so desires. And he is looking for concrete signs from Chairman Arafat that he will take such action.

QUESTION: Or what, Ari, or what? The president has said this now for weeks, even months. He said he's put no deadline on it. Are there consequences for the continuing failure...

FLEISCHER: Well, the consequences are for all of the good people of the Middle East, including Palestinians. You know it was President Bush who was the first American president to go to the United Nations and, in a speech before the world, say that in his dream for the future of the Middle East, that dream includes, here and now, a Palestinian state and a secure Israel, which can be achieved at the end of the negotiating process set out by the Mitchell accords.

And so the president has made perfectly plain what is at stake, and peace is at stake. But the only way to achieve peace in the Middle East is for the parties themselves to dedicate themselves to peace.

And no one from outside can impose that on the parties.

It's also important for the parties to continue to remember, the consequence of their actions today can have impact tomorrow. And the president reiterates that message to all concerned.

QUESTION: There's now open talk among members of the Israeli government that it's time for them, not only not to deal with Yasser Arafat, but somehow to get rid of him even though he's the freely chosen leader of the Palestinian people...

FLEISCHER: The president has made it plain, directly to Prime Minister Sharon and others, that no action should be taken against Chairman Arafat.

The president has said that Chairman Arafat needs to lead, and this is a test of his leadership. He remains hopeful that Chairman Arafat will arise to that challenge, will demonstrate his authority and will dedicate himself to show the world that he is a man of peace in action as well as word.

QUESTION: Obviously, your remarks were sort of aimed at, not only the Democratic Senate, but Senator Daschle. Senator Daschle meets with the president weekly. Has that come up, has the president expressed his frustration?

FLEISCHER: The president has spoken about the need to move forward on personnel.

QUESTION: Ari, has the hold up on Scalia, is there any concern in the White House that that might be some sort of a payback for the Bush versus Gore Supreme Court decision?

FLEISCHER: It doesn't matter what the motive is, it's wrong to do. People deserve a vote, people deserve their fair day at a hearing, particularly when they've been promised hearings.

If they never intended to give the president's nominees hearings, they should have said so. They should have said, "We will not allow fair hearings. We will not proceed quickly. We will not let you get your team in place." But they've committed to doing that. And it's important that they gave their word, to keep it.

QUESTION: So there's no concern that the son may be being punished for the perceived sins of the father?

FLEISCHER: Again, it's not the White House's position to guess what the motives are of the Democrats. What the president is interested in is results and action.

He understands there may be people who oppose these people for a variety of reasons. Bring it to a vote. Let every senator have their say for whatever their motives. But it's wrong not to act and wrong not to vote, and it's especially wrong to never have a hearing.

QUESTION: Is the Zinni mission coming to an end?

FLEISCHER: You need to talk to the State Department, again, for his exact traveling schedules, but he is in the region right now. I believe he is going to be visiting with other nations in the region. His mission was to talk to the Palestinians, to the Israelis, but to other states in the region that seek to find a way to bring peace.

I don't believe anybody said he would remain in the region forever. But he is there now, and we'll just see what events are and whether he returns for a variety of reasons. But no matter what, the United States, as Secretary Powell said yesterday, will remain engaged in the region through a variety of forms. The Secretary spoke with Chairman Arafat, again, just recently, and there will be continued conversations at the diplomatic level, at General Zinni's level, at various levels in multiple forms.

QUESTION: As far as this is concerned, some people in the Middle East are calling on our country to take (inaudible) and they don't believe (inaudible) now. What I'm asking is that, many countries are asking proof in the past before (inaudible) and even Pakistan was asking proof, until Pakistan got $1 billion from the United States, now they're not asking anymore proof.

QUESTION: So where do we stand today (inaudible)?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's not quite a fair characterization. I think many nations around the world joined with the United States because they heard and saw everything they needed to in order to know who was behind this. It was not unknown that Osama bin Laden was behind this, that was developed almost immediately in the aftermath of the attack, and now the world has been able to watch it with their own eyes and come to the same conclusion.

The president addressed that this morning, when he said that everybody around the world can see and judge how evil he is from this tape, and I think he called it a feeble excuse for people who follow an evil man for anybody to think otherwise.

QUESTION: (inaudible) realistically speaking, does the president think he can bring enough pressure to bear that can force a compromise with the Democrats by his deadline (inaudible)?

FLEISCHER: You know, you hope that when it comes to the economy of the country and to the plight of the unemployed that it doesn't come down to pressure to bear. This should be something the Senate does because the Senate also wants to help the unemployed in America.

I can't make any predictions about ultimately what the Senate is going to do. The Senate has a lot of work ahead of itself. The House has been able to act, so it's hard to understand why the Senate has not been able to act. The president has not given up hope and he is working hard to get it done. Just yesterday, the president made a series of phone calls to Democratic senators on the Hill. He spoke against with Senator Breaux.

So the president is working very hard to assemble the coalition. It's there. The coalition, the votes are there, the only question is will the Senate act.

Here are the numbers. The House of Representatives passed the stimulus 52 days ago. The Senate has not acted. The House of Representatives passed legislation to make America more energy independent 136 days ago. The Senate has not acted. The House of Representatives passed legislation to help the poor and the needy through faith-based initiatives 153 days ago. It's time for the Senate to act.

QUESTION: Let me follow up on one point. There are economists who say that the economy is going to right itself on its own and that a stimulus package, while it might be helpful and it may help the economy recovery be more robust, whatever form it takes, that it's not crucial.

Is that a fair...


FLEISCHER: No. The president understands that there's a major difference in terms of the lives of the unemployed between slow growth and medium growth or high growth. And the best way to achieve an environment in which high growth can take place is for the Senate and the Congress and the president to get a stimulus in place for the American people.

Failure to pass it can lead to a situation in which the growth of the economy will rebound in all likelihood, but at a slower rate. And what excuse does anybody in Washington have to give an unemployed worker that, you are the last one rehired because we took our time in passing the stimulus?

The stimulus will help create more jobs and to create more growth in the economy, and to get more people hired faster. And that's why the president thinks it's so important for Congress to get together, and he's doing his part to help that happen.

QUESTION: Ari, just follow on that. Does the...

FLEISCHER: We'll come back to you.

QUESTION: Back to Chairman Arafat. What specifically does President Bush want him to do to demonstrate that he's leading? Is it simply arrests and detentions, or are there other things that are things that are required of him beyond that?

FLEISCHER: Let me put this way. I think that, if you live in a region where you have to worry about getting on a bus and making it off alive, if you live in a region where it's hard to go shopping without worrying about a bomb that will take your life, the action you expect is for somebody to go after the people who would engage in those terrorist activities that lead to such taking of life in such massive numbers in such a small country.

And the president has called on Chairman Arafat to demonstrate that he stands on the sides of those who are dedicated to peace, because they are clearly people in Hamas and Hezbollah whose only intention is to stop peace and pursue a life of violence, and they're willing to kill to achieve that objective. And that's where the president is looking at Yasser Arafat to demonstrate the leadership to show that he will take meaningful action to stop the violence. He believes the chairman can do it.

QUESTION: To follow up on that. When you say go after, are you talking about arresting and detaining people solely -- that's it?

FLEISCHER: Arresting and detaining people who are responsible for the actions.

QUESTION: Has the president talked to any of the world leaders after the videotape has been made public?

And has he -- what is his opinion about the reaction around the world? I know what his opinion is about the reaction here, but how about around the world?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president talked to the leaders yesterday but in the context of the missile defense treaty announcement that the president made. I can share with you several of the reactions that I've seen around the Arab world today, as the tape was watched.

Quote, "The tape displays the cruel and inhumane face of a murderous criminal who has no respect for the sanctity of human life or the principles of his faith." That was said by the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar.

Quote, "There is no doubt in my mind that bin Laden was behind these operations. The tape confirms that in a way that leaves no room for doubt." That was said by United Arab Emirates information minister, Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayid Al Nuhayyan.

And finally, an Egyptian political analyst who is widely respected in the region, Imad Ghad (ph), said, quote, "People who just don't want to believe he did it will talk about the tape quality and unclear voices. But objectively speaking, I think there is no room for doubt that bin laden did it."

So the president understands and is appreciative for the reactions around the world. But I think the president also recognized who was responsible for this early on, and so too has much of the world. The tape is proof perfect about bin Laden's responsibility.

QUESTION: Ari, on the stimulus, Democrats would say that one of the problems is that the White House won't consider their counter proposals on tax cuts, such as the payroll tax holiday or a little bit less in income tax -- further income tax cuts than you want.

Why won't you take a look at those -- or are you taking a look at those?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president this week made a major effort to break the log jam, and as a result there clearly are a majority of Democrat and Republican senators ready, willing and able to vote for a stimulus package. It's just a question of whether the Senate leadership will allow that to take place.

The coalition is there, and it's bipartisan around the proposal that the president made this week. And that proposal allows for unemployment checks to be sent on a 13-week additional basis, not just to the states mostly impacted but to all 50 states. It provided additional funding to help people with their health care benefits, while also creating an economic stimulus by lowering income tax rates from 27 to 25 percent.

What the president thinks the economy needs is not only an unemployment check, which is important, but a paycheck, because workers deserve a right to have jobs, and that's what the stimulus does.

QUESTION: (inaudible)

FLEISCHER: Well, the talks are ongoing. They're continuing to talk up on the Hill. I'm not going to negotiate in public, of course. But the conversations are under way on the Hill. The president, as I indicated, is seeking to bring people together by making phone calls. You know, in the previous tax cut there were 12 Democratic senators who voted for it. And so obviously the majority is there to do it, it's just a question of whether there is a minority in a position to block the majority from helping the unemployed.

QUESTION: Who else did he call yesterday in addition to Breaux?

FLEISCHER: He called a number of the Democratic senators, the more moderate Democratic senators who previously voted for tax relief.

QUESTION: As I understand from your answer to Helen, that you dismissed everything that was written in (inaudible) the Israeli paper on Wednesday as garbage, including his comment about King Fahd and about the Palestinians and about Lebanon and Syria being (inaudible), all this is garbage. But what about what's written today in the New York Times attributed to him saying that he contacted Arab governments to control the media in the Middle East and that Al Jazeera is the big one?

FLEISCHER: Well, have you ever heard an elected leader who didn't complain about the press somewhere?

QUESTION: What about freedom of the press?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely, they have the freedom to publish exactly as they see fit.

QUESTION: Did the president ask...


FLEISCHER: Not that I've ever heard of. I mean, he's expressed frustration with the media. We've all heard that.

QUESTION: But did he try to control the media and the press through the governments in the Middle East?

FLEISCHER: He does not have that power. Not even here, of course.

QUESTION: (inaudible)

FLEISCHER: No. He has complaints, but that doesn't mean that he has the power to do anything about it. I don't think it's unexpected for a politician to complain about the press.

QUESTION: Given the president's concern about the unemployed, does he still stand by a position he stated in a letter last week that regardless of whether you enact any other part of the stimulus package, that he would urge Congress to go forward separately on worker relief?

FLEISCHER: The president is committed to the worker relief provisions, you're heard that, and the trade adjustment assistance in other areas. FLEISCHER: And that's why he's working so hard with the senators right now to get an agreement on a stimulus package. There is time in the Congress to get it done. And the president is putting his shoulder to the wheel and working with Congress to help make that happen.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) specifically on unemployment and health care assistance.

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to speculate about any final outcomes, but the president is doing his part to make it happen.


FLEISCHER: His letter speaks for itself if that's what you're asking, of course.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) former Iranian hostages. Has President Bush given any thought to overturning the prohibition regarding lawsuits by the former hostages? Apparently, Iran is not opposed to that change.

FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, actions by the government dealing with the former hostage crisis in Iran are (inaudible) by the Algiers Accords of -- I think it was 1981. And that makes it plain about what type of treatment has to be provided, involving anything with the hostages. And we will continue to meet our obligations under the Algiers Accords.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to overturning the Algiers Accords?

FLEISCHER: No. As I just indicated, we will maintain, of course, our obligations under the Algiers Accords.

QUESTION: It looks like the United Airlines' mechanics are getting closer to striking. Is the president disposed to intervene to prevent a strike there?

FLEISCHER: The president has made it clear that, given the fragility of the airline industry, the importance for the American people of enjoying their right to travel, that he would look very unkindly on any action that would interfere with those rights. And so the president is prepared when required or necessary to name a mediation board. We will inform you if and when that happens.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) last week was the magic word. Is there any thought or second-guessing on the part of the administration's -- second thoughts on the part of the administration that may have given too much ground on it's free trade principals and winning that fast- track vote last week?

FLEISCHER: No. In fact, the president is meeting with a group of members today, and noted to them if they did the right thing for the right policy reasons to promote American trade, which helps all workers. He wants to listen very carefully to any of the thoughts that members have about textile workers, and he intends to do just that.

FLEISCHER: I remind you that in the result of the passage last week, what now happens the Senate still has to act -- this is another issue in fairness to the Senate which just passed by the House, but the Senate has not acted on free trade. But as a result, if the Senate does act, and the president is given the authority to negotiate free trade agreements around the world, there are a series of consultations built in that will allow for further input from members before anything is submitted to the Congress.

QUESTION: Was that meeting the (inaudible) these were what, members of the Textile Caucus?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Is that in any way a reward for their votes this week?

FLEISCHER: This was after the vote was cast. The president thought it would be a good idea to have people down just to talk about some of the issues that are on their mind. He does that often with members as you know.

QUESTION: Ari, former office (inaudible) is now going into the private sector -- it's opening up privately. What are your thoughts about that? That's the office that President Clinton's former office had dealt with race. What are your thoughts about that, and what is the Bush administration doing about dealing with racial issues in America right now with your office that's in the public liaisons office?

FLEISCHER: I have no information on the first part of your question, and on the second, there has been group in the White House that has been working on that as pertaining to race. It is an issue that is at the fabric of our country.

So the initiatives that the president has advanced that frankly have found widespread support in the African American community in particular, the faith-based initiative. The president believes very strongly that there's a lot of churches, mosques, synagogues around the country that do a world of good to help alleviate poverty, but they are not allowed under the law to receive any federal funding. And the president believes deeply that is a way to help in ways that play a very valuable role and have met with the support of people who don't typically support ideas that Republicans have. And that's part of the initiative that he's bringing to alleviate poverty.

QUESTION: Ari, a follow-up. Poverty is different from racism on many respects. What specifically has the administration done since January 21 through this office to help alleviate the racism problem that still exists in America?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think much of that is also set in the tone and the manner which the president acts.

If you'll recall, immediately after the attack at the World Trade Center -- the Monday afterwards; the attack took place on a Tuesday, and the Monday afterwards the president visited a mosque to remind Americans that the importance of treating all individual Americans with respect, with dignity and to honor their rights. In meetings the president had with members of Congress, he urged all of them to set that same tone as we fight a war. And that's something you've heard repeatedly from the president, and you'll continue to hear.

QUESTION: What about the ban on racial profiling?

FLEISCHER: The Department of Justice is still working on the president's initiative, as announced in his State of the Union, to end racial profiling.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Oval Office the president said he did not know if we, the United States, would get bin Laden tomorrow or sometime in the future (INAUDIBLE) some Americans in reference to tomorrow might prove very tantalizing indeed. I know you're not going to get into operational details, but what can you tell us about all the briefings the president's received recently about how close forces are to getting bin Laden? And what expectations should Americans have about actually getting this done sooner rather than later?

FLEISCHER: The president has used that same phraseology previously about how long the war might last, et cetera, and so the president says that to remind American people that there is no telling how long the war will last, no telling how long any one operation bringing bin Laden to justice will last. But I really would refer you to the Department of Defense.

I think the secretary addressed this yesterday. And he said, we still don't have, you know, exact knowledge about where Osama bin Laden is. He was asked about different reports that he could be in the country, that he could be out of Afghanistan. And he said, you know, there is no telling for certain, we do continue to believe that he is in Afghanistan.


FLEISCHER: All the information continues to point in that direction, that's correct.

QUESTION: About Thailand. What specifically the president want Thailand to do as far as cooperation on terrorism, given the fact that Thailand earlier announced that it will take a neutral stance and follow the U.N. lead?

FLEISCHER: Thailand has been very helpful in the effort in the war on terrorism. And the president expressed his appreciation to the prime minister for their efforts. And, you know, I think I would refer you to the government of Thailand if they wanted to define exactly what role their playing. It's not for the American government to do.

FLEISCHER: But the president expressed his appreciation in the meeting.

Going ahead with a follow-up. QUESTION: There was a report, two reports in the Thai press, one was about two hijackers who spent time in Thailand before entering the U.S., and another report was about the Thailand prime minister considering sending Muslims in a contingent to join the U.N. peacekeeping in Afghanistan. What does the president think about...

FLEISCHER: I'm not familiar with either report and it did not come up in the meeting.

QUESTION: Ari, in practical terms, is there any downside to Russia's refusal to join us in withdrawing from ABM, or it mainly sort of just a public display of unity that we're losing?

FLEISCHER: When you look around the world, Russia included, about the reaction to the president's decision yesterday to move forward with developing a missile defense system outside the ABM Treaty, what a difference a year makes. Earlier this year, people said if the president took this step it would lead to a resumption of the Cold War and immediate buildup in nuclear arms -- and it's not doing that at all.

In fact, the relationship with Russia has advanced so much to the point this year that the United States and Russia are talking about a new strategic framework, new cooperation in the war on terrorism, a new economic role for Russia that leans toward the West. And that is the strength of this relationship that's been built between the United States and Russia.

All the naysayers, all the doomsayers, every indication is that they are wrong and have been proved wrong, and as a result of the president's leadership, in the president's opinion, this is going to lead to a more peaceful world.

QUESTION: If I can follow up. If there has been no downside, why did he try so hard to convince the Russians to do this?

FLEISCHER: Because the president believes in the power of diplomacy, in the power of reaching agreements, but he also, in the course of all those conversations with Russia, was able to bring the relationship to the point where a new strategic framework is underway. And also, I think, as I indicated in yesterday's briefing, it became very clear that any attempt to try to amend the treaty would lead to the permanent employment act for negotiators and lawyers. It would have been so complicated and so mind-boggling to determine whether any one test fulfilled the terms of the treaty.

I was reminded by one of the arms control experts yesterday that it took some four years for the Clinton administration to negotiate with the Russian arms control authorities a possible test up in Alaska -- four years for what was just one small test in an overall system, but the president is seeking a robust testing.

FLEISCHER: It would have just led to more conflict with Russia, not less.

QUESTION: Is the president aware of and pleased by the Gallup poll report that national approval of his attorney general is now in the 70s?

FLEISCHER: I think that's another indication that many of the naysayers and critics at the beginning of this administration were wrong. The president knows that General Ashcroft is doing a superb job in protecting our country from terrorism and honoring the rights of individual citizens.

QUESTION: Speaking of -- a follow-up -- speaking of naysayers, is the president aware of General Ashcroft's leading opponent, Chairman Leahy, having, during the Reagan administration, resigned from the Senate Intelligence Committee for twice leaking classified information to the media?

FLEISCHER: I have no information on that.

QUESTION: Is he aware of it? You're aware of it, aren't you, Ari?

QUESTION: Back on the bin Laden tape, (OFF-MIKE) summit from a political analyst. Have you heard anything more definitive from the government? And isn't that important to do so, given that there was a lot of skepticism...

FLEISCHER: I was reading just a couple different types of quotes. There are different quotes from government, different quotes from experts. I'd have to check with State Department or other sources to say if that's readily available.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE). The FDA is taking steps (inaudible) the American Red Cross, the way they've been handling the blood supply. Does the president have any feeling or opinions on...

FLEISCHER: The president wants to make certain that all steps are taken to make certain that the blood supply is safe, and this is being monitored. I would refer you to the Department of Health and Human Services if you want to get the more fact-based assessment of the situation involving the blood supply.


FLEISCHER: The week ahead? The week ahead.

As of this moment on Friday, not much.



FLEISCHER: At this moment, there are no public events at the White House on Monday.

FLEISCHER: The president will make remarks in honor of Eid al- Fitr in the East Room on Tuesday, which is the end of Ramadan.

On Wednesday and Thursday, there are no public events, at this moment, at the White House. And on Friday, the president will meet with the president of Kazakhstan in the Oval Office.

And we will provide updates to the schedule as needed, and clearly it is needed.

Thank you everybody. Have a great weekend.

WOODRUFF: Ari Fleischer at the White House giving his Friday briefing. The headlines out of this, perhaps the Middle East. Ari asked repeatedly by reporters about the fact that the Israeli are coming down harder than ever in a military way, going after Yasser Arafat's forces in Gaza, in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank, Fleischer saying this is a test of Yasser Arafat to determine which side he's on. The real test is for Yasser Arafat, is he the leader needed to find peace?

He did say when one of the reporters asked him, "Is the president trying to suggest that Arafat should be removed from position as the head of the Palestinian Authority?" He said the president has told Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, not to get rid of Arafat, but to deal with Yasser Arafat.

Moving on to Osama bin Laden, the tape that was released yesterday, the candid tape, in which he appeared to acknowledge and to know ahead of time about the attacks on September 11th, Ari Fleischer cited three different individuals in the Middle East, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, among others, a UAE minister. All of them saying there's no doubt that Osama bin Laden was behind the terror operations that came forth on September 11th.

And finally, when asked about Osama bin Laden, how close U.S. forces are to getting him, he simply referred reporters to the Pentagon and said, as the president said this morning, it could come tomorrow, it could be a year from now, but we don't have exact knowledge, we don't know for certain, but we can continue to believe that he is in Afghanistan.




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