CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
White House Briefing: Press Pushes Enron Questions
Aired January 16, 2002 - 12:52 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.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you to the White House where we are expecting any minute now -- as we see there. Ari Fleischer right on time. I guess he got the cue. He's going to begin the press briefing now.
FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I'll give you a brief opening on describing the president's day, then I'll be more than happy to take your questions.
The president this morning had a briefing from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to cover the latest developments in the war against terrorism, and then he convened a meeting of his National Security Council.
Later today, the president will meet with the prime minister of Turkey to discuss Turkey's strong cooperation with the United States in the war against terrorism and talk about other regional issues.
And then this evening the president will give a speech at the Organization of American States, to the World Affairs Council national conference, entitled "The Future of the Americas." In the president's remarks today, the president is going to talk about the importance of prosperity and democracy in our Western Hemisphere. The president will talk about the importance of preserving political freedom and democracy in the region, the importance of strengthening security in the region, and the importance of advancing economic development through economic reforms and through free trade.
And with that, I am more than happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Ari, can you respond to Senator Kennedy's calls today to roll back the later stages of the tax cut?
FLEISCHER: Well, the president views this as a tax increase on the American people that he will oppose. The president thinks it is wrong to raise taxes on the American people. He thinks it'll hurt the economy.
FLEISCHER: He thinks it's unfair to America's workers who need to have more money in their paychecks, and the president thinks it's the wrong approach for our country.
QUESTION: Can you explain how it would work the economy? And secondly, do you disagree with the premise -- Kennedy's premise -- which is that the tax cut was envisioned at a time when the country's finances were much different?
FLEISCHER: Not only does the White House dispute the premise of what Senator Kennedy proposed, but many Democrats in the Senate do as well, especially conservative Democrats and Democrats who have worked with the White House in a bipartisan way on tax issues.
So this really exposes some big differences within the Democratic Party, particularly with the rank and file. I think it also shows, at the leadership level, the Democratic Party is aching to raise people's taxes.
QUESTION: That's a political response and it's unresponsive to the economic point, which is liable to hurt the economy...
FLEISCHER: On the economy, the president has said repeatedly that he believes the best way to get the economy growing again is to let people have more money in their pockets so that they can spend that money producing jobs and providing products to consumers that consumers can purchase because they have more resources in their pockets. And when consumers purchase products, it allows manufacturers and companies to hire more workers who make those products.
And that's why the president thinks the last thing you should do and the worst thing you should do in the middle of a recession is raise taxes on the American people, and the president is proud to be joined in that by a good number of Democratic senators who do not see it the way Senator Kennedy does.
QUESTION: Just one more on this because that's still unresponsive to the -- I know what his views are about this, but what Kennedy is talking about is something that wouldn't take place until 2004. So how would that have that sort of impact by that point?
FLEISCHER: Because a tax increase is a tax increase is a tax increase. It's wrong now, and it's wrong then in the president's opinion, and I dare say in the opinion of many Democrats.
QUESTION: But what about the matter of how it affects the economy?
FLEISCHER: Because the president opposes raising taxes. He thinks it's the wrong thing for the economy. And, you know, I think, really, in so many ways, you know where the president stands on this. I think the interesting question needs to be put to Senator Kennedy's fellow Democrats. It seems that it's the Democrats in the Senate who don't know what approach they want to take on taxes.
There are some Democrats who continue to want to work with the president on a bipartisan plan to help the economy recover. But I do think what you're seeing here is a real yearning by the Democratic leadership, as announced by Senator Kennedy today, to raise taxes on our country. We've been down that road before with Democrats. They always say that these are tax cuts only on the wealthy, but it's always the middle-class that gets soaked.
QUESTION: Let me follow up on that. Will you concede Senator Kennedy the point that this tax plan was drafted at a time when the economy was booming, in 1999?
FLEISCHER: The tax plan was drafted...
QUESTION: The tax plan proposed when the economy...
FLEISCHER: Well, let's walk through the history of the tax plan. The president, in 1999, announced his support for across-the-board tax cuts, for marriage penalty relief, for elimination of the death tax, for example.
The president announced that at the time for the following reasons. One, he thought it was important to let people keep more of their own money. Two, he thought that the less money that was sent to Washington, the less money Washington would have to waste on spending programs that were not effective. And thirdly, the president said at that time it was an insurance policy against a future economic downturn.
Flash forward to 2001, and when the president was elected he of course proposed it to the Congress, and the recession began in March. The tax cut wasn't even signed into law until May. And that's, again, where I think many Democrats have said, the explanation that several Democrats have offered, that the tax cut caused the recession, just doesn't hold water.
QUESTION: How was the economy doing in 1999 when it was proposed?
FLEISCHER: The economy was strong.
QUESTION: Ari, does the president believe that companies that violate OSHA and environmental regulations should be rewarded?
FLEISCHER: I'm not sure what you're driving at.
QUESTION: I'm driving at the fact that the president has killed this Clinton plan to not give new government contracts to companies that violate OSHA and environmental regulations.
FLEISCHER: I think that's an over-reading of the administration's actions, because the administration's actions focus on setting a standard by which all actions would be reviewed, and that it was called a blacklisting or blackballing companies.
But just as, if a union, for example, were to engage in one act that was questionable, does that mean that union should be denied everything that the government has to offer? The answer would be no.
People need to be held libel and responsible for acts of wrongdoing and corrective measures need to be taken, but does that mean that they should have a government-wide ban on the receipt of all funds from the government in all accounts?
FLEISCHER: I think that would be just as unwise to do to unions as it would be to business.
QUESTION: ... get a new government contract?
FLEISCHER: Again, the standard the White House put in effect was that each individual instance would be examined and the appropriate action should be taken based on the merits of what was found in that case.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Argentine banking systems are teetering on the verge of collapse. What specifically is the administration, either through the Treasury Department or the White House, doing to stop the hemorrhaging?
FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, the position of the Treasury Department and the president's directions to the Treasury on this, is to work closely with Argentina as Argentina develops a plan for sustainable economic growth. And the United States will continue to work with Argentina in development of that plan.
It's important for Argentina to take the necessary steps in turns of economic reforms and internal actions that will create an environment for sustainable economic growth.
QUESTION: So there needs to be improvements in the -- working with the Argentine market, as far as the administration is concerned.
FLEISCHER: Well, I think you can talk to Treasury to determine exactly what specifics they are talking to Argentina about.
But the president has made clear that he will remain helpful. The United States government wants to help through the International Monetary Fund. But first, it's important for Argentina to take the necessary steps to achieve a sustainable growth.
QUESTION: The reason I ask is, when Enron was going down the administration did nothing, despite pleas from Enron, and that is now being defended by the secretary of the treasury and the chief economic adviser, as essentially showing how capitalism works -- the genius of capitalism.
QUESTION: Is that what's happening with Argentina as far as the administration's concerned?
FLEISCHER: No, I don't think you can make really valid comparisons between domestic actions with a company and international relations that have a whole different set of issues and more complications, including issues of contagion, for example, our obligations to work through the International Monetary Fund wherever we believe that it is in the interest of the nation we are working with, as well as a careful examination of what internal procedures a different nation has put into place. I understand the philosophical approach people take to it, but I think it's a little overly simplified and simply painted when it's much more complicated to compare one nation's relations with a sovereign nation as opposed to a domestic issue with a company.
QUESTION: Ari, there are calls today for SEC Chief Harvey Pitt to recuse himself from the Enron investigations, given the fact that he also has a history with the failed corporation as well. Do you think that's something that the White House should get behind? Is that something that you folks support?
FLEISCHER: You know, again, I think the -- SEC, first of all, is an independent agency and the president has appointed Harvey Pitt to the post at the SEC. Having said that, the president has full faith and confidence that Mr. Pitt, as well as all members of his administration, will do the right things for the right reasons and will comply with all ethics provisions.
I do want to make one point, though, about the general approach, which has been raised in this issue, and I would refer you to the SEC for the specifics, and Mr. Pitt, I think, will have information they would provide to you. But I do want to say that if the suggestion is that it is somehow unwise or improper to put somebody who has a background in accounting at the Securities and Exchange Commission because that could raise the possibility of the appearance and the suggestion of a procession of a conflict of interest. The logical conclusion would be that you need to appoint a former to head the Securities Exchange Commission or that you need to appoint an accountant to head the Department of Interior.
One of the strengths of the government is people come from a background in which they have expertise that they then apply in a way that represents the best policy to protect the nation. And I don't think it's a surprise to anybody to see that the Securities and Exchange Commission is led by somebody who has expertise that comes from having spent a career in the relevant working field.
QUESTION: That's a great point, but that wasn't the inference here.
FLEISCHER: Go ahead. Follow up.
QUESTION: What I was basically saying is, because he has a connection to a corporation that's being investigated, not whether he's qualified to have the job he has, but because he has...
QUESTION: ... connections.
FLEISCHER: But the point is the same -- a connection to a corporation. And again, no suggestion of wrongdoing, it's just, again, the suggestion that because somebody, somehow worked in a background, worked in a field in which they developed expertise, working for a corporation that is connected, somehow suggests wrongdoing of that person. Now, there are recusal rules, there are recusal procedures. They will be followed by all government officials as appropriate. They make those determinations based on the facts at hand.
But I wanted to address the broader issue, because I think there's a risk that many people get tarred with something that is not accurate, wise or helpful to the nation, because they come from a certain field of expertise.
QUESTION: Regarding the alleged shoe bomber, Richard Reid, can you confirm that additional federal charges will be brought against him today and what those charges...
FLEISCHER: If that were to be the case, the Department of Justice would be the appropriate place to make such an announcement.
QUESTION: You can't confirm (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?
FLEISCHER: I would urge you to talk to the Department of Justice.
QUESTION: Can you give us, though, before that, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) we expect it to be today, a broad sense of what the government believes his motives were to be and his ties to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group?
FLEISCHER: That would come from the Department of Justice, not the White House first.
QUESTION: Last week you said: There's nobody here that I'm aware of that it was brought to my attention about contacts who Secretary Evans and Secretary O'Neill told. We've since learned that Mitch Daniels had gotten a call from Mr. Lay...
FLEISCHER: That's correct.
QUESTION: ... and that Secretary Evans told Andy Card.
FLEISCHER: That's correct.
QUESTION: What did Andy Card do with that information?
FLEISCHER: Andy said thank you to Secretary Evans and left it at that.
QUESTION: But did nothing (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?
FLEISCHER: That's correct.
QUESTION: Isn't it odd that he wouldn't tell the president, that two Cabinet officers and that the chief of staff would not inform the president of the United States that an appeal was being made for government help, for a bailout?
FLEISCHER: As you can imagine, Cabinet secretaries, the chief of staff, receive information on all kinds of issues about all kinds of topics, and they make a determination about what they think needs to be brought up to the president's level.
I think, particularly, in a case where a determination was made, as you know, from the secretaries talking to each other, that no action was taken. There was nothing to report.
Those are the determinations Cabinet secretaries and chiefs of staff are paid to make, to use their judgment about what they feel they need to advise the president about. And Secretary Evans and Secretary O'Neill have answered that question themselves repeatedly on I don't even know how many shows by this point, and they've given their reasons why they took the action they did and saw no reason to inform the president.
QUESTION: Is there some order from the president, "only tell me what you think is important to me"?
FLEISCHER: It's at the discretion of Cabinet members, of course.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) review under way at the White House and at various agencies to see if any other individuals talked to Enron executives to make sure it is reported and out there and made public? Is there any informal review under way?
FLEISCHER: I think there are three major issues with Enron that the White House is looking at. One is the question of criminal wrongdoing. And the president is deeply concerned about the criminal wrongdoing that has been alleged or taken place in this case by Enron or anybody else. And that is being pursued vigorously by the Department of Justice. And they will pursue it as they see fit, and the president wants that to be pursued.
Secondly, it is vital that the government review the policies that could have allowed this happen in the first place. The president has directed his secretary of treasury, the secretary of commerce and the secretary of labor to begin a policy review to see what can be done to protect other people's pensions in other companies and to review accounting procedures, so that accounting firms cannot be in a position where this takes place again.
Those are the two areas that the president is focused on: a criminal investigation to get at the bottom of what wrongdoing was done and a policy review to protect people's pensions.
Now, if you're asking is the White House engaged in any effort to determine whether or not any contact was made with anybody at Enron for any reason, I suggest to you that there is no hint there of any wrongdoing.
FLEISCHER: I suggest to you that there is no hint there of any wrongdoing. If you have any information, any evidence you would like to bring forward about potential wrongdoing, we will do our best to track it down for you. But other than that, I liken it to a fishing expedition of such a broad request that we will be helpful to provide information about any allegations of wrongdoing. To date, nobody has made any allegations of wrongdoing or has even any suggestions of them.
QUESTION: Ari, on a different subject, has the president been involved, or the administration been involved in any effort to persuade American allies not to ship weapons, missiles, whatever, to either India or Pakistan in recent weeks?
FLEISCHER: I'll have to check on that.
QUESTION: On the Philippines, how far is the United States willing to go to help in their fight against Abu Sayyaf?
FLEISCHER: Well, as part of the war against terrorism, the president is very concerned about combating terrorism wherever it may exist. There is a terrorism problem in the Philippines, as is well known, and the president wants to be helpful to the Philippine government in combating terrorism there. And so the United States has sent a team of advisers to the Philippines to be helpful to the government there in fighting terrorism, and they're there.
QUESTION: Did they (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Congress?
FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?
QUESTION: Is this an open-ended mission?
FLEISCHER: They will be there so long as the mission is required. And the Department of Defense and the Department of State consult with the Congress in the process of doing this.
QUESTION: I have two question, Ari. The first one has to do with the criticism that is out there by some civil rights and human rights groups on the way that Taliban prisoners and Al Qaeda are being treated in Cuba, as far as lodging. Some are complaining that the fact that their beards have been shaved off. What do you say to that?
FLEISCHER: The president is very satisfied with the treatment that the detainees are being given, that it is humane, it is respectful. And the president is satisfied at all levels with the actions that the Department of Defense has taken in the treatment of these people.
FLEISCHER: These are very dangerous people. These people have been known to engage in -- people like them were in a prison uprising that had cost a lot of lives. These are, as Secretary Rumsfeld said, among some of the worst of the worst of the Al Qaeda with whom we have fought. But the president is satisfied that they are being treated as Americans would want people to be treated.
QUESTION: About Argentina, is the president going to speak tonight on the future of the Americas -- one of the criticisms that's being felt out there is that countries like Argentina and other countries went through the decade of the 90's putting in a lot of reforms (ph) that the IMF and the U.S. government and the World Bank were sponsoring. And in most of the cases, the people aren't any better off. In some cases, they are worse off. Will the president address that issue in his speech tonight?
FLEISCHER: Well you'll hear his remarks tonight. And as I indicated, I'm going to do my best to try to get you an advanced text because of the hour of the speech, and so you'll see what the president is saying. But you know, in many places in the south, South America, and Central and Latin America, reforms were put into place similarly which have lead to tremendous growth in those countries, and in those economies. They were the right reforms taken for the right reasons.
Each nation has different reasons. Some were successful with those reforms. Argentina of course has had a long standing struggle in keeping its economy strong. So there are unique issues that focus on Argentina, but also irrelevant here.
QUESTION: Getting back to your response to Kelly's (ph) question, will the administration respond to subpoenas and requests from congressional investigators for all contracts between the administration officials and Enron and Arthur Andersen as related to the financial problems of Enron?
FLEISCHER: I think that depends entirely on something that is just pure conjecture and speculation about -- on something that has not happened that is unknown. I don't know how to answer a question like that.
QUESTION: They have let it be known that they're going request all contacts between the administration -- any administration officials and Enron regarding the financial...
(CROSSTALK) FLEISCHER: The administration has received no such request from the Congress.
QUESTION: Ari, back on the tax cut issue. Terry McAuliffe, last night, said it's not fiscally sound to have a tax cut in the midst of war and recession. And President Bush himself, just a couple of weeks ago, said we would be running into -- we'll have running deficits and the budget not balanced this year. What are your thoughts about the fact that people are saying this is not fiscally sound, and we're in the midst of a crisis, and there's no cushion, and you're looking at taking this money out?
FLEISCHER: Well, I think that the call today to raise taxes and the statement made by the leader of the Democratic Party is a reminder the big difference between the two parties. The Republican Party and some group of Democrats want to work to lower taxes, because they believe it's the right thing to do to let people keep their money and because it'll create growth.
There's another group of Democrats that really is represented by the Democratic leadership who, in all times -- good and bad -- looks to raise taxes on the American people. Today is another reminder of that.
QUESTION: Wait a minute. Let's talk about it being fiscally sound, though. Taking money -- giving people money when you're trying to fight a war, which is going to cost millions and maybe billions of dollars, then you also have a recession, where people are losing their jobs. How can you talk about giving people money when you need money?
FLEISCHER: No one is giving people money. The president wants to let people keep the money that they make, because it's theirs. Senator Kennedy, today, proposed taking away people's money. And that's the difference between the two parties.
QUESTION: Ari, on Haiti. On January 1, President Aristide accused the United States of economic terrorism for withholding an American development bank loan; our ambassador apparently walked out of that meeting. What's the administration's position now on the Aristide government? And does the president also have a position on the harassment of journalists by that same government?
FLEISCHER: That's the first I've heard on the premise of that question. So let me take that and report back to you.
QUESTION: I was going to ask an Afghanistan question, but I'll wait until tomorrow. Back to this, I want to make sure I understood the Enron question. You're saying that the president is interested. The government is pursuing the Justice Department investigation and this broader thing of how to make sure this doesn't happen before (sic).
QUESTION: But yet in the White House, there is no effort being made to gather together the contacts -- I want to make sure I understand that because that's a rather novel way of managing a crisis, and I want to make sure -- nobody is interested in who called Enron in this White House or in the government and getting together with those people, what did you tell them, so that you don't know, but that if we find out about one of these calls, you'll...
FLEISCHER: If you have any suggestion -- and no one has -- of any wrongdoing, I urge you bring it forward, present it, ask it to me, ask it to me on the record, ask it to me on background, ask it to me wherever you like, and we will do our best to track it down to find out. But if you're asking if the White House is chronicling any contact with anybody in this administration and anybody at Enron over any thing, I think that's such a broad request that it's characterized as a fishing expedition. But that's exactly what the question is.
QUESTION: I'm not talking about any -- I'm talking about when the company was in trouble, calls they made or did not make to the White House or the senior staff or the Cabinet. You're telling me you don't even want to know those calls that might have been made?
FLEISCHER: Calls about what?
QUESTION: Hell, for anything. I don't -- I can't -- I don't even know if the calls...
FLEISCHER: And again, there you go. You're asking me, are we doing something that you can't even define. You're saying to me, are you engaged in a...
FLEISCHER: Hold it. Hold it. You're asking me, are you engaged in a...
FLEISCHER: I'm getting there. You're asking me, are you gathering information about any contact with Enron about what? Ask the question.
QUESTION: Any communication...
FLEISCHER: Exactly, any communication.
QUESTION: I have a couple of Harvey Pitt questions. Harvey Pitt is here at the White House, apparently now with Richard Grosso, head of the New York Stock Exchange, and leaders of the Securities industry for a 1:00 o'clock meeting. What is that about?
FLEISCHER: That's a bill signing. That's the signing of legislation that passed by unanimous consent in the Senate and I think 414 votes in the House dealing with fees that are collected.
QUESTION: A couple of follow-ups. One, is the president concerned that his buddies at Enron are going to jail?
FLEISCHER: The president thinks that it is vital for the Department of Justice to pursue this wherever it goes, to whoever it goes and to do whatever it takes to investigate any criminal wrongdoing. If, as a result of that, anybody ends up with a prison sentence, that is the American system of justice and that is proper and that is the way it should work, and that is what the president wants to see pursued. That and the policy reviews is what this administration is dedicated to.
QUESTION: Harvey Pitt, he was a defense attorney for Arthur Andersen before he came to the FCC. Arthur Andersen is accused of destroying documents. They've admitted destroying documents on this matter.
QUESTION: Now, Harvey Pitt wrote, in a law review in 1994 on destruction of documents, this, "Each company should have a system of determining the retention and destruction of documents," asked executives and employees, "to imagine all of their documents in the hands of a zealous regulator or on the front page of the New York Times. Obviously, once a subpoena has been issued or is about to be issued, any existing destruction policy should be brought to an immediate halt."
He seems to be saying there -- and this is white-collar defense attorneys advise their clients -- destroy incriminating documents right up until the time a subpoena arrives. Are you concerned that Harvey Pitt, as a defense attorney, gave the green light to clients like Arthur Andersen to do exactly what they did?
FLEISCHER: Now, the president is very concerned about the allegations, destruction of documents at Arthur Andersen. And that is, again, why this is being investigated.
And I think what you'll find, too, when I urge you to talk to the Securities and Exchange Commission, they will be happy to explain to you what is happening there with the ethics rules and how the enforcement unit of the Securities and Exchange Commission conducts its investigations.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Is the White House determining whether or not administration officials or White House aides have received any calls from Enron since the summer of 2001?
FLEISCHER: On any topic, on anything?
QUESTION: Are you guys determining whether or not White House officials or administration officials have received calls from Enron since the summer of 2001?
FLEISCHER: The standard the White House has put in place is that, if you have any suggestion of any wrongdoing as opposed to an open-ended -- as opposed to such a broad, open-ended question...
QUESTION: I'm asking whether or not you guys are determining whether these calls were made.
FLEISCHER: These calls, meaning which calls?
QUESTION: I'm asking whether or not -- yes or no -- is the administration determining who in this administration got calls from Enron in the last six or 10 months?
FLEISCHER: Now it's six or 10 months.
QUESTION: The summer of 2001.
FLEISCHER: About any topic or anything? Again, the administration is interested if anybody has any evidence of wrongdoing, and that's the question.
FLEISCHER: I think you've heard the answer.
QUESTION: No, no, I haven't.
FLEISCHER: The White House views this as a matter of a criminal investigation and a policy review. And if somebody has a suggestion that something was wrong, it will be investigated and reviewed. But other than that, that is such a broad question, about any topic, any conversation about anything. What you're saying is communication in itself, that all communication in itself needs to be brought under scrutiny.
QUESTION: With all due respect -- the question could be narrower -- it's yes or no, are you investigating who received these calls? You either are or you aren't.
FLEISCHER: Wrongdoing should be investigated. Communication, I want to again remind everybody here, communication...
QUESTION: So the answer's no?
QUESTION: Why won't you say yes or no?
FLEISCHER: Because it's not being handled in the way that I think you all are looking for it to be handled, because you're trying to make comparisons to previous administrations. That's not the White House...
FLEISCHER: That is not the White House approach.
QUESTION: ... try to go at this a different way. I understand your point of, "We're not going to engage in a fishing expedition," but look at it this way. Are you guys doing a review not of any calls about anything, but checking with different agencies? Just like Evans and O'Neill got calls, just like Robert Rubin made calls, did anybody else here get calls about Enron's financial problems? Is that specific question being inquired so you have the information?
FLEISCHER: I think all the agencies are aware, as a result of the questions that they've gotten from the press, as well as conversations that we've had with the agencies, that if there are any questions the press is asking about those contacts, they should look into it and see if they can't answer reporters' questions. And what you've seen is all those questions have been answered by each agency as those questions are put to them.
QUESTION: Except this agency, the White House will not say who in this White House received calls from Enron since -- you won't even tell us whether or not you're asking White House aides, and you certainly won't tell us what White House aides, if any, have received these calls.
FLEISCHER: Again, because you're asking, again, the question that is so broad -- has there been any connection or conversation with anybody at the White House about Enron about anything, anything at all.
FLEISCHER: That's what you're asking to the White House to see if it is investigating. And I'm telling you, and I'm answering the question by telling you that the White House is going to focus on this, again, on the criminal manner, the policy manner. But communication in and of itself, there is nothing wrong with it.
It would not surprise me at all if there have been conversations with people at Enron throughout the government. It wouldn't surprise me if former Clinton administration officials talked to the White House. It wouldn't surprise me if people at Enron -- the point is, no one but no one has made any allegation or suggestion of wrongdoing. And by asking the White House, "Are you chronicling something," you're suggesting that there should be something to chronicle because there might be wrongdoing.
QUESTION: You're putting an inference in yourself, for the record. None of us here suggest that.
QUESTION: If it was relevant to disclose the calls that Rubin made, the calls that Lay made to Evans and O'Neill, and if it was relevant for the Treasury Department to continue to find out as they did that Undersecretary Fisher received a call from Rubin subsequent to the Lay calls, why does it become a fishing expedition to find out if Lay or any other Enron officer made telephone calls or any contact with other administration officials on the specific point of Enron's financial problems and what if anything could be done about it? Because we know, because you've told us, that Don Evans was asked for help -- he was asked for help by Ken Lay and the administration said no.
FLEISCHER: And the response to that much narrower, more specific question, the administration is being helpful to reporters who ask questions about, "Was there a conversation with anybody in the administration and Enron about the financial condition of Enron?" That is entirely different. What I've always said on that, and I say again today, is you have heard about all the conversations that I been made aware of -- that I'm aware of. And we will continue to provide you that information about questions; "Did anybody at Enron reach out to anybody at the White House about Enron's financial condition?"
But if they're asking, again, "Was there any conversation with anybody at the White House and Enron about anything else?" that is such a broad question, and there is no inference of wrongdoing.
FLEISCHER: I think the first question was answered because there was a suggestion there could have been something the government knew that it could have taken action on.
(INTERRUPTED BY BREAKING NEWS)
QUESTION: -- Enron's concern or stated concern that their own troubles would lead to a broader systemic risk for the American financial system?
FLEISCHER: Sure. Just as Secretary Fisher at the Department of Treasury took a look at that and came to the conclusion at Treasury that there was nothing systemic, that conclusion was shared by White House officials also, who took a look at whether or not there could be any broader market-wide implications to Enron's bankruptcy and reached the same conclusion.
QUESTION: I'm sorry. I don't think we knew that before. Which White House officials looked at that?
FLEISCHER: The economic team had conversations with themselves to explore this, not in reaction to any phone calls they had with Enron officials. But as they took a look at what was publicly known at the time with the collapse of Enron, they asked the very logical question, "Could this have a broader impact on the economy?"
QUESTION: And did they know that Peter Fisher was examining the same question because of concerns voiced by Enron?
FLEISCHER: Not because of concerns with any phone call with Enron, but because they thought it in itself was a meritorious question. Obviously, I think if the economic team at the White House, having seen what was happening to Enron, reading about it in the papers every day, did not ask the question, "Does this have an impact really on the economy?" they wouldn't have been doing their jobs.
FLEISCHER: Larry Lindsey and his economic team.
QUESTION: Larry used to be a consultant at Enron so he was familiar with the company and its operations.
FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that the entire economic team understood about the importance of looking into whether Enron's collapse could have broader implications and they came to the same solution that the undersecretary of treasury did.
QUESTION: They took a broad look at this, but they were not aware that Enron had made this case across the street at the Treasury.
FLEISCHER: Again, I have to check to see if they -- about that Enron made a case across the street?
QUESTION: Yes. When Enron called, and what started Peter Fisher down the line was Ken Lay and then some other Enron officials saying there would be a systemic risk out here...
FLEISCHER: Not that anybody's made me aware of. They took a look at it because of the obvious implications it could have had for the broader economy.
QUESTION: Pardon me as I go back to India and Pakistan. These days very high-level visits are taking place to and from India. One, the defense minister of India will be here tomorrow. I'm not aware if he's meeting with the president or not. I do not know that. Secretary Powell is in India and Pakistan. Now whether Secretary Powell is getting any special message from the president and asking India or Pakistan to move their forces because they are aiming at each other and clouds of war are still there. And if the defense minister meets with the president tomorrow if the president is going to ask him to move the forces from the border.
FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to comment on specifically exactly what the topics of conversation are. Secretary Powell will be able to address that himself after his meetings.
FLEISCHER: But the secretary is there at the direction of the president because of the ongoing concern about the tensions between India and Pakistan.
There have been some very helpful developments in the last several days, including President Musharraf's speech. And as you know, the president praised President Musharraf for what he viewed as a courageous speech. But the region does remain tense, it remains an issue of vital priority and importance to the administration, hence the secretary's presence in the region.
QUESTION: Just to follow, if when president spoke with both leaders, in India and Pakistan, whether he asked them to -- not only that tensions are high, but to move their forces and not to aim or not to go to war at this time.
FLEISCHER: I would refer you to the statement that was made on the president's calls right after he made them.
QUESTION: Let me understand: When the national economic team was assessing the implications of Enron collapse, was this occurring about the same time that Ken Lay was talking to two of the president's Cabinet officers, including his former campaign chair? And was the president at all consulted or made aware that the economic team was considering this?
FLEISCHER: I'd have to check to see if they informed the president about anything they found. But again, I think it's logical, natural, you should expect the economic team, you would hope the economic team is taking a look at the broader implications when the seventh-largest company in the United States unexpectedly collapses in a way that surprised your business pages, as well as people here.
QUESTION: Are we talking about October here?
FLEISCHER: I'll have to take a look...
FLEISCHER: I'll have to take a look at the exact time line.
QUESTION: It's critical whether or not this assessment was going on at the same time that Enron was contacting people supervising some of the folks dealing with the assessment, whether or not they told their superiors they were undertaking the assessment and whether the superiors, the president's Cabinet, told him.
FLEISCHER: You already have heard Larry Lindsey say that he had no conversations with the people at Enron during that period of time. So he did it in his capacity, and wisely so, as an economic adviser who would be charged with exploring whether or not the bankruptcy at the seventh-largest company could have broader implications.
It's just as when we...
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the president's treasury secretary who did have contact with Enron at the same time.
FLEISCHER: And are you alleging something or are you...
QUESTION: I would say that if he's looking into this, wouldn't he have told the treasury secretary? Wouldn't the treasury secretary have told him, "Enron's called and there are some problems"?
FLEISCHER: Well, now you're asking a question about whether or not there was any contact in the administration to discuss whether Enron's collapse would have broader implications on the economy.
FLEISCHER: Your point is?
QUESTION: The people involved in that would have talked to each other, yes?
FLEISCHER: They may have, so what?
FLEISCHER: On the broader implications about whether Enron's collapse has implications for the economy, I think if the administration didn't look at that, you would be asking, "Why wouldn't you look at that?" Of course they should look at that, and they did.
QUESTION: And how is that (OFF-MIKE) how is that conversation held without somebody saying, "Well, the chairman of the company called me the other day and said it would have broader implications for these reasons"?
FLEISCHER: Again, I can only report to you that they looked at it. You know that Secretary O'Neill and Secretary Evans told you who they talked to about it. And again, if they didn't take a look at it, I'd think you'd be asking questions why didn't they. I really don't have anything more to offer on this subject.
QUESTION: Did Larry Lindsey talk to Ken Lay or anybody at Enron?
FLEISCHER: Larry was asked that on "Fox News Sunday" a few weeks ago and he said no.
QUESTION: Ari, can you get back to us on the time frame? You had mentioned earlier you will...
FLEISCHER: Yes, I will. Sure.
QUESTION: Ari, can I just clarify exactly what you were saying is that Peter Fisher didn't talk to Larry Lindsey about his call about LTCM.
FLEISCHER: I said not that I've been made aware of. And I'll find out.
QUESTION: Ari, one more follow-up...
FLEISCHER: Thank you.
HARRIS: Rather abruptly there, Ari Fleischer there ending the day's press briefing. A press briefing which -- quite different than ones we've seen in recent weeks.
Quite a bit intense questioning brought up about the Enron issue, and about whether or not there are any other contacts between Enron and any other administration members, and Ari Fleischer obviously having no intention of answering any question about any other contacts, saying that even asking the question about whether there have been other contacts was an unfair suggestion that there had been some wrongdoing, and he suggested that if the press wants to know more about that, then the press should come up with a specific allegation of some wrongdoing by way of contact between Enron and the administration, and then that question would get answered.
He said that was too broad a request, and that was very interesting to see, because the press basically asked that question about maybe a hundred different ways, and Ari Fleischer still kept saying, I'm not going to answer that question.
Let's see -- since Enron has a big topic of the last half hour or so, let's check in now with our Kate Snow on Capitol Hill where there was been intense questioning right now of a former employee of Arthur Andersen, which is the company that had been doing the auditing for Enron, is taking place right now in Washington.
Let's see what she knows on that -- Kate, hello.
KATE SNOW, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi Leon, actually, we expect that to start in about a half hour from now, but we do know that David Duncan is here in Washington now, here with his lawyers.
You know, one of several congressional committees that are going to be looking into the Enron case is the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, chaired by Republican Billy Tauzin. Investigators from his office and the Democratic side of the isle are all going to be in the room, about four investigators, we're told, questioning David Duncan, we just saw entering there.
He was, until yesterday, Arthur Andersen's lead partner on the Enron account. Now, Duncan was let go yesterday, amid allegations that he instructed others to destroy documents.
Here is what Andersen said about that in a statement yesterday. They said "the firm discovered activities including the deletion of thousands of e-mails, and the rushed disposal of large amounts -- large numbers of paper documents. These activities were on such a scale and of such a nature as to remove any doubt that Andersen's policies and reasonable good judgment were violated."
Investigators plan to spend, we are told, at least two hours asking David Duncan many questions about that statement, about whether he did instruct others to destroy documents, and if so, why did he do that.
They also have a lot of questions about Andersen's former accounting practices, and how they reviewed the books of Enron. One committee staffer telling us that now that this man is no longer an Andersen employee, perhaps he will -- quote -- "be more forthcoming" in answering their questions.
Investigators yesterday were sifting through documents. They continue to do that. We caught up with some of them yesterday as they looked through some of these documents. They let our cameras come in just for a brief period. They are looking through communications, e- mails, financial records provided to this committee from Enron and also from Andersen that they had requested back in December. This particular committee, the Energy and Commerce House Committee, plans to hold hearing in February.
And Leon, one other note, we are told that they have also been in touch with the woman that you have heard about down in Houston who wrote a now-famous memo, seven page letter, anonymously last summer, warning of potential accounting problems.
They are trying to get in touch with that -- they talked with that woman. They are trying to get her to come here and talk with their committee as well -- Leon.
HARRIS: Interesting. Kate, what do you hear about this talk we're hearing about another law maker saying something about there being other conflicts of interest here?
SNOW: Well, you know, there have been a lot of questions raised about potential conflicts of interest. You will remember that the attorney general himself, John Ashcroft, recused himself from looking into the Enron case.
Now we have a letter that we've obtained from Senator Patrick Leahy. This is a letter from the lead senator on the Judiciary Committee. He sent this letter today to the deputy attorney general, who is the one who is now in charge of investigating Enron.
What he raises is another question about what he calls a "potential conflict of interest," Arthur Andersen actually has a contract with the Department of Justice and the FBI says Patrick Leahy, to help them reorganize the FBI and the DOJ. This is something that they have got in touch with them about a while ago. They asked them to come in. It's a $700,000 contract, asking them to conduct a review of the Department of Justice and the FBI.
Andersen is doing that work separately from this Enron investigation, and so what Leahy is saying is -- and I will quote from the letter -- "the role that Arthur Andersen, or any related entity has or will play in the department's review of the FBI while this same firm is being simultaneously a subject of high profile investigations raises obvious concerns and questions, and I would welcome your thoughts."
That's the latest wrinkle from here -- Leon, back to you.
HARRIS: That's plenty. That's plenty. Kate Snow, thank you very much.
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