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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Briefing

Aired December 17, 2001 - 12:27   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: Here now Ari Fleischer.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon. I want to give you a rundown on the president's schedule for the day, and then I have an opening statement.

The president this morning had his usual intelligence briefings with the Central Intelligence Agency and then the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Following that, he convened another meeting of the National Security Council to discuss developments in Afghanistan.

The president this afternoon will have a reception in honor of Eid-ul Fitr, which is the Muslim holiday to mark the end of Ramadan. The president will welcome to the White House a group of 20 Muslim children between the ages of 8 of 10, all who go to school in the Washington, D.C., area, and the president will join them, as well as their families or chaperons, to commemorate this important day.

Following that, the president will have no additional public events. He will have several meetings with staff. That is it on the president's schedule.

This also is a very important week, which likely is to be the last week of the United States Senate meeting here in Washington before they return home for Christmas. It's an important week to measure whether progress is being made in the Senate, and the president will continue to do everything he can to help the Senate to make progress on the policy front, particularly on the economic stimulus. The talks are under way on the stimulus, and the president remains very hopeful that a stimulus can be agreed to this week to help America's unemployed workers.

It's also an important week to measure progress in the Senate to see if they take any action on the 157 nominees that are still pending in the United States Senate.

The cause of progress, however, was dealt a setback over the weekend in the remarks made by the Senate majority leader in which he indicated that it would require, in a highly unusual manner, 60 votes to confirm Eugene Scalia to be solicitor at the Department of Labor. It has, unfortunately, by both parties, been done before, on rare occasion, to say that more than 50 votes are necessary for a nominee. It has been done before by both parties to filibuster a presidential nominee, but it is rare, and it is wrong. And the 60 vote threshold presents a real setback for the cause of people who seek progress in the Senate.

The confirmation process in the Senate should be about progress, not paybacks. Because it was done before doesn't mean it should be done now. It was wrong when it was done before.

President Bush campaigned for office saying that the tone need to be changed in Washington, and calling for 60 votes when majority rule is sufficient represents a setback for those who want to change the tone in Washington. It's a continuation of the wrong tone in Washington, and the president would regret if that was indeed the action the Senate would take.

The confirmation process should be about progress not paybacks. It should be about people and not partisanship. And unless there is information that is available to the majority leader that is not available to the White House -- the majority leader did indicate yesterday that in Mr. Scalia's case, quote, "We have not been given all the paperwork. If there's any information that the White House is lacking, the White House would welcome an update on that issue of paperwork, because Mr. Scalia was nominated by President Bush on April 30, this hearing was held on October 2, and the last request for any paperwork received by the White House in regard to Mr. Scalia was on October 5 and was fully complied with. All paper has been received by the Senate, so it's hard to imagine any reason why this nomination is being held up.

With that, I'm happy to take questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: That's why I'm not going to speculate about what the future holds, but there should be no reason to engage in that. This is -- there is time left this week for Senate to show that it is indeed willing to make progress on the issue of nominations. And so we'll see what events unfold this week, but certainly Eugene Scalia is very well qualified. Otto Reich is very well qualified. These are two holdups where the Senate is not moving forward.

QUESTION: Is the president willing to take -- does he stand behind these two nominees, to the extent that he's willing to take any unusual steps of issuing a recess appointment if the action is not taken this week?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate about anything the president may or may not do in the future.

The important thing is for the Senate to show that it's here to make progress and not engage in paybacks.

Again, it was done before, and both parties have done it -- on very rare occasions, they have sought 60 votes for nominations. But that is a way to make Washington get mired and gridlock and partisanship. It's not a way that anybody can contribute to changing the tone in Washington. It's a continuation with what's wrong with Washington, not a contribution to what needs to be done to make Washington right.

QUESTION: Is the president concerned that a recess appointment would jeopardize Mr. Scalia's chances of a longer-term appointment, should he be confirmed by the Senate at a later date?

FLEISCHER: The president is concerned that the Senate do its job. And the Senate's job is to give people their fair day, to give people a fair hearing and then to send their votes to the floor, so a majority of the Senate can decide.

It appears that there are a majority of votes in the Senate to confirm Mr. Scalia, and that's why an extraordinarily rare procedure seems like it's is being put in place, if, indeed, it is. Perhaps that was a statement that was made on a Sunday show that is not intended to be the actual results of the Senate, that would be helpful.

QUESTION: Since the United States is on the verge of victory in Afghanistan, what is the criteria for not declaring victory? And what is, also, the criteria for going into any other country, which all of your people seem to be speculating on constantly?

FLEISCHER: Well, number one, the president is very satisfied with the progress of the war in Afghanistan. He's pleased with the results. He's pleased with the military successes and the victories, as well as the political progress in helping Afghanistan to have a government that will represent the people of that nation.

As for anything that may come after this, I'm not going to engage in any speculation. The president has made clear that this is a war against terrorism, those who would do harm to us around the world, and that there are multiple fronts in that war. And those fronts include political, the economic, it includes the arrests that you're seeing from various nations around the world that are disrupting terrorist activities.

So I'm not saying anything about military, but it's not limited only to the military; there are many other ways.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) should be consulting Congress and other members of the United Nations or does he feel like he can just go it alone from here on?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president consults with Congress every week. The leaders of the Congress come every week, and they discuss with the president the status of the war.

But I'm not going to engage in any speculation.

The president is commander-in-chief and he has the authority vested to him...

QUESTION: The commander-in-chief and... (CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: ... from the Constitution.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) consult, doesn't he at least, to inform...

FLEISCHER: And I just answered that he has.

QUESTION: Ari, now that virtually all the territory of Afghanistan has been liberated from both Taliban and the Al Qaeda, is the U.S. military mission there now essentially a manhunt, a big manhunt, and does that square with the kind of mission that the president outlined for the military to begin with?

FLEISCHER: Well, I can just report that today, for example, the military is still engaged in significant bombing in Afghanistan. Not much change from the previous day. And so I know that there are reports that are probably one or two, maybe three steps ahead of the reality on the ground in Afghanistan. The war remains an engaged war, a shooting war.

And the president's focus is on the long-term, and that means that he has said repeatedly in private and in public that he remains committed and resolved and will not leave Afghanistan militarily until the objectives are achieved, and those objectives are the destruction of the Al Qaeda network, including bringing to justice not only Osama bin Laden, but his top lieutenants as well as the government and the leadership of the Taliban.

QUESTION: So given that those other objectives that he outlined in his speech to Congress have been achieved, what's left is a manhunt, essentially.

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't know that it's a manhunt as much as it is a military mission that remains underway, and the president continues to be patient and urges the American people to be patient. As I said, the president's very satisfied with the pace of the war, but there's a lot of work ahead.

QUESTION: And there's one other thing that has happened in the past couple of days. The Pentagon is now confirming that members of the Al Qaeda are in the custody of the United States military. Under the executive order that the president signed, he alone will make the decision as to who would stand trial before a military tribunal. What's the process? What's the public record that would or would not be laid down for the president himself making that decision?

QUESTION: Well, I think the case of Mr. Moussaoui is indicative of the process in a matter where there is somebody who may be a likely candidate for a military tribunal. The president will listen to the advice of his advisers. The president will meet, as necessary, with the attorney general or others who are involved.

FLEISCHER: And the criteria the president laid down are that he would consider the option of a military tribunal, if such a trial would help protect the national security interest of the country with a particular eye on protecting sources and methods that are used to gather intelligence in the conduct of the war. That was not the case with Mr. Moussaoui, and the trial will proceed through the normal civilian courts.

QUESTION: Will there be any finding, any kind of public record of who reaches such a decision?

FLEISCHER: Just like I did there. I mean, just as I did immediately on the day that General Ashcroft announced that the trial of Mr. Moussaoui would proceed, and you received the indictment of Mr. Moussaoui. We'll answer all the questions we can.

QUESTION: You said the process is going to follow on considering John Walker (inaudible) and do you have any...

FLEISCHER: Well, Mr. Walker, there's no consideration of a military tribunal. Military tribunals are exclusively for non- citizens of this country. Mr. Walker is a citizen.

QUESTION: Will the president make the ultimate decision on his legal process?

FLEISCHER: I don't believe -- it's really not the same. I mean, in the case of a military tribunal, that is reserved for the president alone to make the judgment about whether somebody should be tried in military court or not.

There is a series of procedures that are different from that in civilian matters. With Mr. Walker, the government is still ascertaining what the facts are involved, Department of Defense and others are still inquiring to determine exactly what happened to Mr. Walker, how he came to be a Taliban, what activities, he factually engaged in, as a member of the Taliban. All of that are the relevant facts that need to be gathered and those facts are still being assessed.

QUESTION: Are you getting information that he may have been more actively involved in the Taliban or Al Qaeda than previously thought and will he be allowed to see a lawyer anytime soon?

FLEISCHER: You need to ask those questions to the Department of Defense or the attorney general, and the facts are still being gathered.

QUESTION: I understand you want to get a deal on the stimulus, but do you consider it constructive for the House Republicans to bring up their up version of the stimulus package tomorrow night, if there's no deal and what do you expect on Wednesday and will that give you any leverage on Wednesday morning to try to, you know, compromise something when the leaders come up here?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president continues to talk to members of Congress. He's talked extensively to the Democratic centrists who have supported similar legislation in the past, involving stimulating the economy by cutting taxes. The president is hopeful that Congress will still get an agreement. The president just cannot imagine that the Senate would leave town without taking action to help the economy, to help the unemployed and to provide assistance to the people who are already unemployed.

The House of Representatives has been able to do so. The president made a proposal. The House of Representatives acted on it 55 days ago, but the Senate has failed to act.

So it's just hard for the president to see that the Senate would want to leave town without taking action to do two things. One, to stimulate the economy so people who currently have jobs don't lose them. And two, to help people who have lost jobs so they can receive additional unemployment and health care.

QUESTION: Specifically, does the Republican plan help you get that agreement? Does it give you leverage or is it counterproductive?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think there's a real possibility it might help. It seems to be a rather centrist proposal and a positive idea, something that the president supports.

QUESTION: Can you just be more specific, you said the president's doing everything he can. Is he meeting with moderates? Is he making phone calls? Is he bringing anybody down here?

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: The president met with a group of moderates last week. He followed that up the next day with a whole series of phone calls to a group of Democrat senators. He spoke to Senate Breaux over the week.

The president will continue to help the Senate to help itself. Obviously, the Senate is on a slow path, a slow track to stimulating the economy, and the president would like to help the Senate.

QUESTION: But the next 48 hours are obviously very crucial.

FLEISCHER: They are.

QUESTION: Is anybody coming down -- I mean, is there anything specifically planned for this time period, aside from the breakfast...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Well, the Congress is returning to town from the weekend. There were discussions throughout the weekend. There may be additional discussions today. So we'll just keep you posted. I think know, at the end of the Congress, as is typical, it's a day-by-day event up on the Hill to see what action they are able to take.

QUESTION: You saw the speech from Yasser Arafat over the weekend urging a cessation of violence against Israel. Is that enough, or has he done enough, in the administration's view, to arrest people on the lists provided to him both by the Israelis and the United States?

FLEISCHER: Yes, the president viewed Chairman Arafat's words as constructive, the president is also most interested in making certain that the constructive words are matched by concrete actions. And only time will tell.

QUESTION: Has he done enough to arrest people who he's been asked to arrest.

FLEISCHER: The president will watch to make certain that the concrete actions result in a dimunition of the violence that is plaguing Israel, and that will be the real measurement of Chairman Arafat's leadership.

QUESTION: This morning, in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, armed men tried to assault the president palace and people were killed. It seems that the action has been stopped. Has the president, was he advised this morning at the national security briefing, and does the White House have any latest knowledge about it or any comment?

FLEISCHER: The White House received a report, of course, from the ambassador, and the ambassador reported that all members of the U.S. mission in Haiti are safe and accounted for. The ambassador requested additional police protection for the embassy and the consulate, and the government of Haiti responded quickly to that request.

The embassy is closed to the public today following the attack, and the United States urges all citizens in Haiti to remain in their homes today.

QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up? Also in the Caribbean, today, a warship in (inaudible) paid in cash by the Cuban government, arrived in Havana (OFF-MIKE) Does the White House see any particular significance to this and does it mean an indirect easing of the sanctions that the U.S. has had for over four decades?

FLEISCHER: No, the president's position remains unchanged on maintaining the sanctions against Cuba until it is free and until democratic elections are held. This was an action taken privately and in accordance with a law that was passed by Congress previously, and signed into law. So the law has been obeyed in this case.

QUESTION: Ari, India over the weekend said that the terrorists who had been involved in the attack on the parliament had training camps just over the border in Pakistan, and they used a variant of the Bush doctrine to suggest that they should go after those camps. Obviously, you folks have been urging them not to retaliate harshly, but they said they had a right of self-defense. Is it a fair indication of the Bush doctrine in this case, and if not, why not?

FLEISCHER: Well, as you stated correctly, India has a legitimate right to self-defense. And at the same time, the president counsels that this is a very difficult situation in the region, and one that could spiral out of control. And so therefore, he urges that both sides share information, work with each other and take no action that would in any way hinder the war against terrorism, to which both India and Pakistan have committed themselves.

QUESTION: Have he spoken with either leaders since the attack?

FLEISCHER: Yes. He's spoke with Prime Minister Vajpayee at the day of the attack.

QUESTION: Can I follow?

QUESTION: I'm sorry and with Musharraf?

FLEISCHER: I do not believe he spoke directly with Mr. Musharraf.

QUESTION: Ari, also India claims that the attack on the Indian parliament was a similar in New York and Washington, same group and same actions -- same with (inaudible) with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and they are based now in Pakistan, this group. Now yesterday they changed the name when they heard that the U.S. State department is planning to -- or they have already ordered that they will not get the visa for the U.S. and all that now. Now, yesterday, they changed the name, and two, Pakistan's General Musharraf and the ISI knows this group.

QUESTION: Now, my question is, is the president asking Musharraf to warn this group or arrest them, like they did in Israel that this group should be arrested, or like India already put Pakistan on alert and they are warning that they should be arrested, otherwise we have to take action?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president -- again, no change of what I said. The Indians, as we understand, have arrested two individuals who are suspected in the attack and the investigation is ongoing, being conducted by the Indian government to bring to justice all those who are responsible for this.

The United States has offered its assistance to India, and that offer stands ready.

QUESTION: A couple of things. The Washington Post weekend report indicated that the anthrax used in all of the mailings seems to have a domestic source. Has the administration concluded -- has the investigation concluded, to your knowledge, that we are dealing with anthrax taken from a U.S. lab?

FLEISCHER: There is nothing that has been final that has been concluded, but the evidence is increasingly looking like it was a domestic sources. But again, this remains something that is not final, nor totally conclusive yet.

QUESTION: On another matter, totally different. Apparently, there are reports of a letter from bin Laden, tracked down about a week and a half ago, advising, as is usual, jihad. What can you tell me about that?

FLEISCHER: That's the first report I've heard of a letter.

QUESTION: Ari, can we come back to the anthrax? What you leads you to believe that it's a domestic source, and have you narrowed it down to laboratories that received their Bacillus anthracis stocks from USAMRIID up in Frederick?

FLEISCHER: The investigators at the FBI are just very carefully exploring all the information they have about the anthrax attack on the country. And I'm not at liberty to go beyond what I've said.

The investigation...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: I can just report to you the information that I've heard. I can't give you the scientific reasons behind it, but you can assume that they're based on investigative and scientific means.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) talk about DNA fingerprinting?

FLEISCHER: Again, you're asking questions about the science and the technical aspects of it, and I can't go into that.

QUESTION: You don't have any idea who sent it?

FLEISCHER: No. That still is not known.

QUESTION: Have you narrowed down, as they said to a...

FLEISCHER: You always have to keep in mind, there's a difference (inaudible) just very accurately puts his finger on something important. There's a big difference between the source of it and who sent it, because the two do not have to be tied.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) find out where it came from, you've got a better chance of finding out who sent it. So have you narrowed it down, again, to a smaller group of laboratories that received their stocks of the bacteria from USAMRIID?

FLEISCHER: Just as I indicated, I'm not at liberty to go beyond what I've said about that topic.

QUESTION: Back on Mr. Walker. Mayor Giuliani, who who had quite an accomplished record of a prosecutor yesterday suggested that should it be proven that he is, in fact, a traitor, he would deserve the death penalty. Is Mayor Giuliani someone whose advice or reasoning at this point is something the administration would take into consideration given that he's the mayor of New York City?

FLEISCHER: The mayor is listened to on all things, particularly baseball.

(LAUGHTER)

No, Mayor Giuliani is very well respected by the president and by the members of the White House team. But when it comes to the administration of justice on Mr. Walker, that will be based on the facts as they are found by the investigators on the ground in terms of what actions he has taken, and I'm not going to speculate about the course of justice. Those are matters that are legal, and once decisions are made, those decisions will be shared.

QUESTION: Do you think it's not helpful then, perhaps, for the mayor to be offering his opinion on such a matter?

FLEISCHER: It's always helpful for people in this country to offer their opinions.

QUESTION: Ari, what has the president been told about the likelihood that Osama bin Laden remains in Afghanistan?

FLEISCHER: As you've heard repeatedly over the weekend, while we do not know the precise location of Osama bin Laden, we have no evidence indicating that he has left the country. We do not know with precision where he is, and that's the same status, same answer, you've heard for quite a period of time on that.

QUESTION: But, Ari (OFF-MIKE) I mean there's been a real difference over the last week. I mean, we're hearing reports that you could hear Osama bin Laden on radio transmissions out in the field that the administration felt like he was still there. And Powell basically said yesterday that they really have no idea where he is.

FLEISCHER: That's the exact same answer that Secretary Rumsfeld has been given for weeks. If you remember, in fact, Secretary Rumsfeld has said it's like chasing a chicken and then the defense reporters are familiar with the secretary's full-throttle answer; "We've always indicated that if we knew where he was, we would take action against him," which is a real indication that the United States did not have precise knowledge of his exact whereabouts. Rumsfeld repeatedly said he could be out of the country. We don't know. We believe he's still in Afghanistan and nothing has changed.

QUESTION: Just a little while ago, Admiral Stufflebeem said that there was much less chatter, meaning much less intelligence data.

QUESTION: He said he couldn't say for certain, as you just said, that he was still in Afghanistan. Given that, obviously, cooperation with the Pakistan intelligence services would be critical. There was a shakeup there, in fact, encouraged by the U.S. administration, who believed some of the people hired in the intelligence services a few months back were, shall we say, less than loyal to Musharraf and perhaps inclined to be supportive of Al Qaeda. Is the United States convinced it is receiving full cooperation for Pakistan at the intelligence sort of a level.

FLEISCHER: Yes. Now, the cooperation with Pakistan has been very strong. And Pakistan has no interest in allowing Osama bin Laden to enter its country. That would be not helpful to Pakistan or to the majority of the people of Pakistan and they've been very helpful in working with the United States, as they have been all along.

QUESTION: On the stimulus package, you said that the president wanted to help the Senate help itself. How far is he willing to go on the two things that Senate Democrats have most insisted upon: unemployment insurance and health benefits -- increasing health benefits? Is that too far for him to go and is he willing to risk agreement on the stimulus package, rather than go a long way towards providing a great deal more in unemployment and health benefits?

FLEISCHER: Well, on the issue of unemployment insurance, the president already did modify his proposal and so I don't think there should be any disagreement on this point. The president has moved. The president has now proposed that unemployment insurance be extended from six months to nine months, from 26 weeks to 39 weeks and that people in all 50 states be eligible for the extended benefit period, as opposed to just those who lived in the states that were hardest impacted, as a result of the attacks. So the president has already shown substantial movement.

On the issue of the health insurance benefits, the president has a proposal that helps people who have lost their jobs through no choice of their own -- those people who were laid off. The Senate proposal goes well beyond that and it provides health insurance benefits to people who walked away from their jobs or who retired early, not to the people who were laid off. So it's unclear why the Senate would want to pursue a path that is so broad, that it doesn't focus on the people who need help the most.

QUESTION: Is that a make-or-break issue for (OFF-MIKE) they won't give on that issue? Is it over?

FLEISCHER: Well, it's just hard to imagine why the Senate would want to stop a stimulus bill that could be agreed to, by insisting on giving health insurance to people who don't need it, people who left their jobs or took early retirement, as opposed to those who've involuntarily lost their jobs or be laid off. That's where the bill should be focused on, on the needs of workers who have been laid off. That's where the president is focused. But all of this can be addressed.

All of this can be done, if the Senate is willing to take action this week, as a result of the meetings the president had with the Senate Democrats and the conversations he's had on the phone with them. Clearly, the votes are there in the Senate to pass this.

It's interesting because if you look at this last week in the Senate, the votes were there to pass the stimulus.

WOODRUFF: Ari Fleischer, at the White House, telling reporters the president very much expect the U.S. Senate to get economic stimulus done, taking a few shots at the Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, not only on the stimulus, but on comments about why the president's nominees are not being confirmed fast enough.

Quickly, on the war in Afghanistan, he said there is significant bombing still underway. This is a war where we remain engaged. It is still a shooting war. The American people need to be patient.

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