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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Conference

Aired January 28, 2002 - 12:20   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.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Here's Ari Fleischer.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon, let me give you a report on the president's day, and then I'll be happy to take your questions.

The president this morning spoke with President Mubarak of Egypt for about 15 minutes.

They discussed the situation in the Middle East. President Bush made clear his disappointment with Chairman Arafat, including Chairman Arafat's failure to crack down on terrorism.

The two leaders emphasized the importance of peace and stability in the region. They both reaffirmed their commitment to continuing to work toward this end, and they also agreed to continue close consultations between the United States and Egypt.

Following the call to President Mubarak, the president received his CIA and FBI briefings. Then he convened a meeting of the National Security Council.

The president will shortly be meeting with the Chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority Hamid Karzai in an Oval Office meeting, and then the president will proceed to the Rose Garden where the two will make a statement to the press and take questions.

Following this, the president this afternoon will return to the domestic agenda, and the president will meet with various members of Congress to talk about strengthening and modernizing Medicare.

And that's a report on the president's day. I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) are meeting today. Did this issue of treatment of prisoners down at Guantanamo Bay come up? And can you describe a little bit how the president wading through the disagreement among other officials about how to treat them and whether they are subject to the Geneva Accords?

FLEISCHER: OK, let me answer that to the best degree I can. I want to proceed with care. As you know, it is a longstanding policy that we don't talk about what's discussed in NSC meetings.

Having said that, to be helpful, as you know, and it's been publicly indicated by others, as for the people who were the detainees who are being held in Cuba, a determination has been made that they are not and will not be considered POWs, that in the tradition of this country and it should go without saying that anybody in the custody of our military will at all times be treated humanely. That is the America way.

As for some of the legal issues involving the applicability of the Geneva Convention, the president received the advice of his counsel and the president has made no determinations having received that advice.

QUESTION: Can you explain what the advice was?

FLEISCHER: No, I cannot get into any individual's advice or the president's at an NSC meeting.

QUESTION: Can I follow-up on another point? In the context of disclosures regarding an energy policy to the GAO, you had talked about the principle involved and how this would be viewed going forward. What about the concern about the principles involved in the treatment of detainees? And how, rightly or wrongly, that may be seen by others around the world that could ultimately affect service personnel of the United States or other Americans in their treatment?

FLEISCHER: Well, aside from the fact that everything the government does should involve principles, I don't see the connection between the two. But, you know, the United States military for hundreds of years has always honored the traditions and the high calling of this nation to treat people well, and that's exactly what's happening in Cuba.

In Cuba, as a result of terrorists who moved to Afghanistan from other countries to be taught and trained in the art of how to kill innocence, how to blow themselves up and commit suicide in a way that takes the lives of others, these people were captured in terrorist camps, at terrorist bases to which they located themselves in Afghanistan. They fought in a war against the United States, in which we had our men and women on the ground fighting. And for these people who are now detainees the choice was either be captured or be killed, and they've been captured. And in being captured, they're lucky to be in the custody of our military because they're receiving three square meals a day, they're receiving health care that they've never received before, their sleeping conditions are probably better than anything they've had in Afghanistan, and they're being treated well because they're in the hands of the men and women of our military, and they're being treated well because that's what Americans do.

Within that, there are legal issues that involve the Geneva Convection that are being looked at. And as I mentioned, they're going to always be treated humanely. They are not going to be considered POWs. They will be allowed, for example, to receive and to send correspondence. They will be allowed to receive and send -- receive food and clothing, subject to proper security clearance screenings.

But one of the things, for example, if they were POWs, that they'd be entitled to, which they are not going to get, is going to be a stipend or tobacco. Those are things they would be entitled to. They'd be entitled to advances on their pay if they were declared POWs. And the United States is not going to pay them stipends. I think that's why we support it.

QUESTION: It's not just the question of whether or not they're POWs. The Geneva Conventions provide for a review of each individual case to determine whether that captive is a POW or not. And it seems that the United States position is that the Geneva Conventions don't even apply as far as that. Why not? What is the administration's position why the Geneva Conventions shouldn't apply at all?

FLEISCHER: They will be treated in accordance with the principles of the Geneva Convention. There's no question about that. And the core of the Geneva Convention focuses on humane treatment, which is something the Americans have always done when other nations around the world have not always done. We will do it because it's the right thing to do and it's the way our military treats people.

But as for the determination of whether they're POWs or not, what you have to recognize that is so different -- and the president has always said this is a different kind of war, a new kind of war -- is the situation surrounding the detainees in Cuba is unlike any conditions before in previous wars were there were simple black-and- white cases of troops typically who were drafted, who have been captured in a corps that is fighting for a recognized country. That's not at all the case here.

What you have here are typically nonuniformed people, who moved to Afghanistan from more than 30 nations, in the case of the detainees in Cuba, with the purpose of engaging in terror, not for the purpose of engaging in military combat, which is typically what you think of when you think of the Geneva Convention.

So as this nation, the United States, deals with a new type of war, we're also dealing with a new type of detention system involving these people in Cuba. And that means, it's much more complicated than a simple reading of the Geneva Convention would apply. And that's why, frankly, I think it's a healthy process that's under way, where the lawyers are having a discussion about exactly how do you apply the Geneva Convention, where it was written in a very different era following a world war, to apply to the war on terrorism where people don't wear uniforms, they're unlawful combatants and they come from 30 different nations, not any one recognized nation with whom the United States is fighting a war.

QUESTION: So out of that, just to nail it down, the United States is not going to provide an individual case-by-case determination of whether or not these captives count as prisoners of war or not? We're just saying blanket...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: That issue is resolved.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... aren't even covered by the Geneva Convention.

FLEISCHER: That issue is resolved. They are not POWs.

QUESTION: Ari, what about the Taliban fighters who were clearly fighting for their country's government?

QUESTION: How can you not consider those as prisoners of war? And secondly...

FLEISCHER: And that determination has been made. I'm not an attorney, and you can consult with attorneys. I know you all have and will, more specifically on the Geneva Convention, but of course, the United States never recognized the Taliban.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) what do you mean they never -- it was a government, whether you recognized it or not.

FLEISCHER: Well, maybe three countries in the world recognized it and two...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Don't you think the United States should abide by a treaty that it signed?

FLEISCHER: The United States is abiding by the core principles of that treaty.

QUESTION: What if anything is the administration doing to try to get this Wall Street Journal reporter (inaudible) Pakistan, and what if anything can the administration do?

FLEISCHER: In the case of Mr. Pearl, the State Department and the FBI have been in contact with the Pakistani government. He was a journalist just trying to do his job. And this is a serious matter, and it is being pursued by the United States government with officials. It's a reminder of the risks that journalists take, sadly, all around the world in pursuit of journalism. But the United States government has been in contact with the Pakistani authorities.

QUESTION: Ari, are you asking him to do...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Give whatever help can be given to obtain the release of him.

QUESTION: Ari, there were a lot of reports on the weekend that there was a different point of view coming out of Secretary Powell and the rest of the Cabinet. At the meeting today, I don't know if you can discuss this, but you said in the morning there was total unanimity on the issue.

FLEISCHER: There is unanimity on the issue that they're not POWs. It should go without saying that they will be treated humanly.

But there are legal issues that have been brought to the president's attention, and those are being discussed.

I'm not going to describe anybody's individual conversations. This is a meeting of the NSC where the president wants to receive the counsel of all concerned, and allow them to do so privately and forthrightly.

QUESTION: POWs is now -- that's it. No argument?

FLEISCHER: It has not changed. No change.

QUESTION: What was the response from the Pakistani government and what can the administration do besides ask could they help, if anything?

FLEISCHER: Well the first step is to talk to the Pakistani government to seek their help, to try to gather whatever information is available, and that's the stage that's it at.

QUESTION: Do you know what the response was?

FLEISCHER: We'll leave that to the Pakistanis to describe. It's not my place to give.

Sir?

QUESTION: Ari, yesterday, (inaudible) there was an article quoting an IDF official who said that they were studying a model of the Nazi control over the Warsaw ghetto in their attempt to deal with the Palestinian problem. They admitted this.

QUESTION: Is this not a problem now from the U.S. side that certain elements of the IDF are studying the Nazi model of the Warsaw ghetto in order to control the Palestinians and...

FLEISCHER: What was the name of the person who said that (inaudible)?

QUESTION: It was an official, an officer. The article was yesterday.

FLEISCHER: What was his name?

QUESTION: I don't know if his name was actually mentioned.

FLEISCHER: Right.

QUESTION: He was quoted as confirming that.

FLEISCHER: One, I don't comment on things I haven't read, and two, I especially don't comment on things that don't have names attached.

QUESTION: Well, if that is the case, is Yasser Arafat justified...

FLEISCHER: Do you have the article with you?

QUESTION: Is he not justified in evoking the defenders of the Warsaw Ghetto in his fight to defend against aggression from the IDF which is trying to impose a...

FLEISCHER: Let me repeat what I said. I haven't see it, and I don't comment on things I haven't see, and I especially don't comment on things that don't have names attached.

QUESTION: There's some religious leaders who are requesting that an ecumenical delegation be allowed to visit Guantanamo. Is that something that the administration would welcome?

FLEISCHER: I think that's a request that needs to be made to DOD. Those issues are not White House determinations; those are determinations of the Department of Defense.

QUESTION: Two questions: One, Chairman Arafat has fired someone, a senior member of his security force and issued arrest warrants for two others from the Palestinian Authority security force which appears to be in response to the very strong language this weekend from the White House. First of all, your reaction, and then I have an Afghanistan question.

FLEISCHER: The reaction from the president is that it's' still incumbent on Chairman Arafat to prove on a long-going, reliable and regular basis that he is determined to stop terrorism and to crack down on terrorism in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and in the Middle East. And there have been arrests made before where just as soon as people were arrested, they were left out through the back door of the jail cell.

So any action that could be considered progress, the president would welcome, but the burden remains on Chairman Arafat to make continued concrete steps so there can be no question that Chairman Arafat is dedicated to eliminating terrorism in the region and the president has not yet seen such steps.

QUESTION: On Afghanistan, you mentioned a moment ago, as you frequently do, this is a different kind of war. I'm wondering if it requires a different kind of assessment of peacekeeping. Many of the independent analysts who have looked at what Afghanistan needs most -- the word, the most often, comes (inaudible) security -- internal security, dealing with the warlords, disarming them.

You made it clear this morning the United States is not going to participate in a long-term international security force. I'm wondering if you can tell us why since so many people who look at Afghanistan's internal problems, say that's what is most necessary, and if the U.S. stepped up, then the world would know that the security force is real, robust and long-term? FLEISCHER: At the heart of your question is participation in the security of Afghanistan. And the answer to that is, yes. The United States will participate to secure the future of Afghanistan, and it's doing through that through a series of ways. First and foremost is through our military presence in Afghanistan to fight a war. The security of Afghanistan will best be attained as a result of the United States having eliminated the Al Qaeda and the Taliban and their ability to create insecurity in Afghanistan.

Secondly, and this is something the president will address directly with Chairman Karzai at his side, the president will announce today a series of steps the United States government will take to help secure the future of Afghanistan through financial means, through diplomatic means, through political means.

The United States has been the largest donator of food to the people of Afghanistan. We continue in that role. When you talk about security, certainly having a people fed is part of security, and the president is very proud of the fact that, when this war began, people were talking about widespread famine in Afghanistan. Nobody talks about that now, because the United States fed the people of Afghanistan, and the United States liberated the women, the children, and the hungry of Afghanistan.

So, to summarize on your question, the United States is and will be dedicated to the security of Afghanistan. It will be done as a result of a war that our military fought and a result of the financial and diplomatic actions our nation will now take.

QUESTION: The administration has said that warlordism continues and could continue to be a problem internally in Afghanistan with or without Al Qaeda or Taliban.

FLEISCHER: Sure, the history of Afghanistan for the last 20 years has been domination by a communist occupier and then internal turmoil and chaos as a result of the infiltration of Afghanistan by the Al Qaeda, people who came from a different country to prey on the Afghan people. And warlordism is a serious problem in Afghanistan and remains one.

John?

QUESTION: The vice president claimed yesterday that, as a constitutional officer, the General Accounting Office has no authority to ask for the records of his energy policy development group, but the GAO contends that it is requesting documents not from a constitutional officer but from a chairman of a task force. So, what's your counter argument to that claim?

FLEISCHER: Well I am not a lawyer, but the vice president in all his duties is a constitutional officer. You cannot separate the vice president from the tasks that he does. He is a constitutional officer.

QUESTION: There's a split here at the White House over who thinks what would be best to do. Some people want to hang onto those records fiercely. Other people are considering whether or not it's politically astute to release them to the GAO. Given the fact now that the majority of Americans believe that the White House's conduct, in terms of these records, leads them to believe that the White House isn't telling them everything, when does it become a political liability for you to hang onto these records as opposed to releasing them?

FLEISCHER: There is no dispute. The president and the vice president have said what needs to be done, and it is being done. And it is being done because they both understand very clearly what principles are at stake here. And the president and the vice president understand that some of the biggest mistakes people make in Washington is, they put politics and perception before principle and policy. And that's how they govern.

And this president and this vice president are proud to put principle before politics and perception, because they believe that, if you do the right thing on principle, politics and perception have a way of taking care of themselves.

QUESTION: So you don't care if this becomes a political liability?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, I really just have to say that for all these reports of drip, drip, drip, everything seems to keep coming up dry, dry, dry.

So this administration is going to continue to pursue, through the Department of Justice, a criminal investigation to determine who did what wrong and how this could have happened to the seventh largest corporation in America going bankrupt, belly-up in a way that no one knew. The administration is going to continue to pursue this in terms of protecting people's pensions, because there are millions of Americans who don't want to be put in a similar spot as the workers at Enron.

And if others in this town choose to pursue politics and perceptions, that's the way Washington sometimes is. That's not the way the president or the vice president approach it.

QUESTION: If I can return you for a moment to the NSC meeting this morning. Set aside the POW issues, and so it's not the issue under debate. The only issue under debate, as we understand it, is whether or not the Geneva Convention applies to all of these prisoners, and then you make other determinations about how you categorize them. You suggested that this was a legal issue and seem to imply that it was an issue, therefore, that was going to be decided by lawyers. Obviously, you don't gather the president, the vice president, the secretary of state and others to decide an issue lawyers can decide. Who's making this decision...

FLEISCHER: No. Because I think it's obvious that the ramifications of legal issues can rise up to a higher level, especially when you with, as Helen put it, the applicably of the Geneva Convention. That's why. I mean, just on its face it rises up to the president's level. QUESTION: So the president will make this and he will make it with legal advice that, but is fundamentally a political decision he's got to make.

FLEISCHER: No. It's a combination of legal issues that have a broader application, in terms of the applicability of the Geneva Convention.

QUESTION: Did this meeting result in a resolution of that issue, not the POW issue, but that issue of the Geneva Convention?

FLEISCHER: No. As I indicated, no determinations were made this morning.

QUESTION: Can I go back to the Afghan peacekeeping? If every nation said that our forces are for winning wars only not for peacekeeping, there would be no peacekeeping force. What exempts us?

FLEISCHER: If every nation used their military forces the way the United States did, there would be no wars.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: That's the point. The United States uses its military for the purpose of fighting and winning wars, which has historically resulted in more peace around the world. It's historically resulted in nations that used to be enemies becoming friends, France and Germany, for example. And that is as a result of the fact that, when our nation commits its military to war, it does so for high moral purposes backed up by military might, and the world has always been a better place for it.

Having said that, that is the contribution that this president believes should be made by our military to fight and win a war. And he is pleased to work with the international community on a peacekeeping mission that would focus on other nation's activities around peacekeeping. That should not be a surprise to anybody. That's exactly what the president committed to during the campaign and that's what he intends to do.

QUESTION: I guess that's the nature of my question, is he has really spoken of this in blanket terms, that this is what we use our military for, this is what we don't use our military for. And you're saying that our willingness to use our military to fight wars exempts us from peacekeeping. Is that right?

FLEISCHER: Well, we're not exempt from peacekeeping. The United States has a series of commitments around the world to peacekeeping that the president is honoring. The president would like, over time, to be able to draw those down, so the core mission of our military can remain focused on a combat-ready force.

But the president made clear -- and it shouldn't surprise anybody that he does what he said he'd do in the campaign -- that he does not intend to pursue new peacekeeping efforts with our military all around the world. We're pursuing combat in Afghanistan, and as a result, Afghanistan now has an environment in which security may be able to take hold.

QUESTION: So it's not blanket. It could be different elsewhere depending upon how...

FLEISCHER: I think you understand the president's philosophy very clearly.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) First of all, I'm very thankful to the White House, first of all, for their courtesy and all the help they have been providing. But number two, I have been in this building, covering this White House longer than many in this room, since President Carter. But last week, if you want to comment on the story in the Washington Post about you and about me, I'm not upset or angry, but I was surprised that the reporter used mostly, mainly minority (ph) reporters, and that wasn't (inaudible) because this kind of behavior should not be at this White House or anywhere. I need your comments.

And number two, we have named President Bush the man of the year, after careful thinking and thousands of interviews in the Washington area -- Indians and Americans and Indian-Americans. Also, comments on that.

FLEISCHER: Well, on your second point, I think it shows how wise and discerning your newspaper is.

(LAUGHTER)

And the president is grateful for that. But let me address your first point. You ask about a story that was in the Washington Post last week, by a White House reporter, one of your colleagues. And I typically don't comment on media stories where one reporter reflects (ph) on another reporter, but it's always been my position here that, when people show up for work in this press room, my job is not to pick and choose who gets questions.

My job is to call on all and not to make distinctions because they're perceived as being liberal or conservative or any other way, because people have questions that I like to focus on. And I think any suggestion that there are reporters in this room who are here as foils or as less-than-serious reporters is demeaning. And I don't share it.

And I treat everybody here with respect and professionalism and that's because I think the White House press corps has earned it, and I hope nobody would suggest anything to the contrary. We'll have disagreements. I'll disagree with reporters from time to time, but I think everybody is entitled to ask the questions they see fit.

QUESTION: About (inaudible) about this issue.

FLEISCHER: I'll make sure he does. QUESTION: Does the war on homeland defense take up a good part of the budget at this (inaudible)? And since those needs aren't likely to diminish any time soon, does the president agree that he's become an advocate for the government in a way?

FLEISCHER: No, I think the president understands that the Constitution says the first mission of the government is to provide for the common defense and that is what the president is now faced with and that is what our nation is faced with. That's what bipartisan congressional leadership stands so unified on.

Our nation is at war and this is a shooting war in Afghanistan. And there are moments, as the president has said, where it will be less visible, there will be moments where it's going to be more visible and that can be anticipated into the future. But in all cases, the first mission of any president is to make sure that our men and women who are fighting a war have the material and the ability to fight and win that war.

And secondly, the protect our homeland. What IS so changed for America on September 11 is that we were vulnerable here within our own borders and that's virtually without precedent in our country, certainly without (inaudible) precedent going back to Pearl Harbor. And on the domestic side of it, I've heard the president say this privately any number of times, and I think he's now said it publicly, the single most important thing that can be done to protect America's economy and to keep people working is to prevent another terrorist attack on America.

If there was another attack anywhere along the scale of September 11 or even close to it, it could have the potential to disrupt our economy once again, not only to cost lives but to harm the fabric of our society and our economy that keeps us strong and free.

And we are seeing increasing evidence that the recession, which began some 40 days after the president took office, is getting ready to turn a corner. And the president is determined to make sure it turns that corner. That's why he so strongly wants Congress to pass a stimulus bill so we don't take any chances and leave people unemployed any longer than is ever necessary, but it's also why homeland defense is so important to protecting our security and our liberty and our economy.

QUESTION: Ari, back to Afghanistan. Is the president sympathetic to the idea that some feel the role of peacekeeping forces ought to expand beyond just the goal and go out to the rest of the country?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president is not going to be the person making operational decisions about peacekeepers and their operations in Afghanistan. The United States, through its military, will be consulting with the peacekeepers of course. And there's a large peacekeeping presence there that right now is being led by Britain. Soon it will be Turkey. But the president will not be making those operational decisions. QUESTION: Looking ahead to tomorrow night's speech, to what extent does the president hope to link support for the war, the war on terrorism, to hoped-for support for his domestic agenda, especially his economic agenda?

FLEISCHER: Well, one other things that I think the president would very much like to see is that same spirit of unity that has guided members of Congress in their approach to defense and foreign policy can now be applied on the domestic front.

As you know, the president has been working very hard with Democrats and Republicans alike on a bipartisan agenda. He's very cheered by the fact that his tax cut, for example, enjoyed the support of 12 senators. I think it was almost some 30 members of the House of the Democratic Party. In today's polarized environment, that's a healthy showing of bipartisan support.

The president understands he's never going to get every Democrat on board, but that's a strong showing. The education bill was similarly met with bipartisanship.

And what people have seen in President Bush in Washington is the same thing they saw with Governor Bush in Austin; that he makes the effort, he reaches out to the opposite party, brings them in, brings them along. And I think he would welcome that same bipartisan spirit domestically, as been present in the war.

QUESTION: But when it comes to Congress in a midterm election year, especially with control of both houses that are potentially at stake, isn't there a disconnect there?

FLEISCHER: No. To assume it's a disconnect is to assume that somehow our 200-plus-year history of democratic elections, that it can be competitively fought, would somehow disconnects us from getting things done. Our nation has always found the balance of getting things done in an atmosphere where people run for reelection. That's a democracy. QUESTION: So you would argue with the fact that historically major legislation usually doesn't have much of an chance in an election year?

No, I would argue with that. I think history is mixed on that question. I can point you as recently as to 1996 when the most significant piece of social legislation since the New Deal was signed into law, and that was welfare reform.

Portability of health insurance, the so-called Kennedy-Kassebaum legislation allowing people to take their health insurance with them when they left one job and went to another, was signed into law. Medical savings accounts were signed into law in the summer of 1996. The Small Business Job Protection Act, which gave small businesses a series of tax cuts to help protect jobs, create jobs, as well as increase people's pensions, was passed in 1996.

So certainly that summer was a very productive summer. You could find other times in election years where they're not. So, no, I think the history is mixed, but this president is going to make every effort to take action. When you look at what's pending, particularly in the Senate, because the House has already passed many of these items, the Senate's not very far away from making it a bipartisan start to 2002.

Energy legislation to make us more independent is pending in the Senate. Trade promotion authority; there is no reason, the votes are there in the Senate, there no reason that trade promotion authority can't be passed and enacted into law, and that would be a break with more than 10 years in which presidents valiantly tried to get it done, including President Clinton, who made a strong bipartisan effort but couldn't get it done.

So it's mixed.

QUESTION: I want to go back to the detainees with a couple questions. The first is on timing. I know you'll announce it when it's ready to announce. But is this an issue that the president hopes to resolve quickly or is this the kind of thing...

FLEISCHER: When I talked to him about it, he didn't give me any indication of timetable.

QUESTION: The other thing is the factors in the balance here. I mean, if these guys were nonuniformed terrorists who clearly are not POWs, why the hand wringing about the Geneva Convention? Is this a case where the president knows what he wants to do but he's worried about world opinion?

FLEISCHER: Well, I mean, your word hand wringing. I think what you're also seeing is a good process within the government that when there are issues that are brought to the National Security Council they consider them. I think that's what the National Security Council is set up to do.

QUESTION: What's the argument for expanding Geneva Convention coverage for these folks? I understand there's a distinction between the POW issue...

FLEISCHER: It's not a question of expanding, it's a question of whether or not legally it applies, and that's why lawyers are involved.

QUESTION: Two questions on your Arafat statement at the meeting. Does the United States want Yasser Arafat replaced? If so, by whom? And does the administration still think a Palestinian state is viable at this time?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president, as he said at the United Nations, is committed, at the end of a vision, at the end of the process, to the creation of a Palestinian state, and the president was the first Republican president to publicly state that. And that's just another example of the missed opportunity that Yasser Arafat had and let go. And right after the president said that, if you remember, Secretary Powell went to Kentucky and gave a major speech about a framework for achieving peace in the Middle East, and then General Zinni was dispatched as an envoy to the Middle East.

So much could have been done, and yet the opportunity was missed because the Palestinian Authority engaged, in violation of the Oslo accords, on the path of violence and the pursuit of acquiring weapons, as opposed to a path of peace and working with Israel to achieve peace.

So it's a very complicated position, and the president again calls on Chairman Arafat to make 100 percent effort to stop the violence.

QUESTION: Who do think should replace him, if he's to be replaced?

FLEISCHER: I'm not getting into that.

QUESTION: Legally, the POW decision was made within the confines of the Geneva Convention or outside it?

FLEISCHER: Any decision that would be made that would be concurred with by the attorneys is, of course, made in accordance with all appropriate laws.

QUESTION: I believe we're clear that the president has decided they're not POWs, we're not going to revisit that, but there are still legal issues open. I'm trying to determine was the decision that they are not POWs made -- as I understand it, you can decide within the Geneva Convention that someone is not a POW. Was this...

FLEISCHER: That very well may be the case. I'm not an attorney and that's why I've given you a rather nebulous, roundabout answer. But the lawyers have taken a careful look at that. And they would not have done it if they were not on sound legal ground, whether that comes from the Geneva Convention itself or from other international laws or domestic.

QUESTION: But our decision was not part of the Geneva Convention, it was outside that?

FLEISCHER: No. I didn't say that. I said I'm not an attorney, so I couldn't give you that specific legal definition. I think that's obtainable, and we can try to do that for you. We'll post it.

QUESTION: On the GAO matter, in the past sometimes these matters have been resolved by allowing people to come and look at notes, write down things, but not take the documents themselves and circulate them for what I'm sure someone here would consider a fishing expedition.

Is it possible, is there some middle ground here for the GAO to come and look at documents, report back to Congress on what it finds, without actually taking the documents themselves?

FLEISCHER: No. I think the vice president made himself perfectly plain on that point yesterday. The answer is no.

QUESTION: No accommodation whatsoever?

FLEISCHER: The vice president said that yesterday.

QUESTION: Just to sum up. Is it accurate to say that the president and Colin Powell agree on the prisoner status, but may have some difference of opinion on the finer legal points, that this was hashed over in today's NSC meeting, and that now the president is considering altering his view of these legal issues in response to Mr. Powell?

FLEISCHER: I would simply say that the president has made no determination yet. And I did not indicate to you who was representing any point of view. As I explained earlier, that's not my position to explain to you what any individuals say at a National Security Council meeting.

I want to find that line to be helpful to you to let you know something that took place at the NSC this morning, even though we typically do not talk about it. But I am not going to get into who said what at an NSC.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... NSC meeting, was it accurate to say that Powell and the president have some difference of opinion on these finer legal points?

FLEISCHER: The president always wants to encourage people in his Cabinet to come to him with their opinions and thoughts, and do so in a manner that he'll respect their privacy so he can get more of it.

QUESTION: Ari, you said a minute ago that the votes for fast track are there in the Senate. Are you confident that the votes would be there in the House for a conference report on fast-track?

FLEISCHER: Well, of course it all depends on the language, but you can't get to a conference agreement until you get the Senate to pass it. So it depends on the language. But clearly more progress has been made on trade promotion authority this year than in 10 years.

As I mentioned, President Clinton made a very strong effort during his administration to secure passage of free trade agreement. He worked valiantly to get it done. It fell short.

This year, it got done in the House, which was a breakthrough. The Senate has historically had more support for trade promotion authority than the House.

QUESTION: You could not have a more delicate coalition than the one that now exists in the House.

FLEISCHER: I agree with that.

QUESTION: And a conference report by definition will break ground with the bill that passed in the House. And it could break ground in ways...

FLEISCHER: It won't break any ground if they don't send it to the conference. So the action still remains in the Senate to determine what can be done, and the President will work very hard to make that happen.

QUESTION: Is the White House doing anything at all to try and avert a lawsuit from the GAO?

FLEISCHER: I think the vice president addressed that directly yesterday, and the reason that the president and the vice president feel so strongly about this is because of the precedent it would set and the principles that are involved in allowing the president and the vice president, these two, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, as well as future presidents to receive candid, frank advice from people who are outside the government who come here to share their thoughts on a host of issues.

And it's much bigger than just the energy policy, which is not just Enron that the GAO is seeking records of. They want everybody's records. They want notes from meetings, they want records from meetings, not only about Enron, but anybody and everybody that they met with, and that's far-reaching, and it has implications outside of the energy task force.

For example, I was talking about that, even though it's the world of national security, which legally is considered differently, but that the president wants his members of Cabinet to be able to come to him and give him forthright and frank advice.

I'll give you another example. The president met on Capitol Hill about 10 days ago with a group of labor leaders, a large group of labor leaders, who represent millions of workers in this country, and they talked to the president and gave their advice, candidly and privately, about how to secure passage of energy legislation in the Senate.

Now should that have to get revealed? Should that become a news release? Should we send a signal to everybody in America that you can never have any conversations with the White House without it turning into a news release?

I submit to you that that does not serve the cause of the nation, and that it could be politically foolish because it would violate a principle. And the president believes in leading by principle.

QUESTION: Without abandoning those principles, though, are there any conversations, is there any kind of effort to try and head off the lawsuits, not have this evolve into a bigger...

FLEISCHER: Well, I think only GAO can decide if it's going to sue, and I think if you read what they leaked over the weekend, they've already said they're going to.

QUESTION: Two quick follow-ups. On Enron, you said that the drip, drip, drip keeps coming up dry, dry, dry. What explains then these poll finding which are pretty consistent that a large percentage of the American people feel the administration is hiding something that it did wrong?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think if you were to say why won't the president release notes of his meetings with anybody, and then the press says he refuses to release notes of his meeting with anybody, people will come to that conclusion. It doesn't mean that they're right. But that's the way the press can portray it, and they have the right as the press to say that about any meeting that the president engages in. We all know how it works in Washington. You can make that charge, but that doesn't mean the president will sacrifice the principle.

In fact, he think it's just the opposite. The president really thinks that one of the things that's wrong with Washington is that there are too many politicians who are willing to put politics and perception first and principle and policy last. And its time for somebody in the administration, somebody in the executive branch to stop the slide where presidential authority, constitutionally vested, has been yielded to the Congress since Watergate and Vietnam. That's been a steady erosion of constitutional authority granted to the president, because of just what you said, that people want to see the politics first, they worry about perceptions first, even if important principles are involved.

I want to give you another example, too, where this has risks. If you recall, in July and August, the president was repeatedly about his position on stem cell research. And the president gave a major speech to the nation, his first to the nation, in August about his position on stem cell.

To arrive at the decision the president made about allowing for the first time stem cell research to proceed in modified form, the president met with many ethicists who came in here privately into the Oval Office, outside government people, to share their candid advice, religious leaders, people from the health community who are dedicated to finding scientific breakthroughs. If somebody said, "Give us those notes, share with us any e-mails, tell us everything they said," you could easily paint another story, "They're hiding something," even if that's not close to the case.

But the damage to a democracy that can get done is if the next group of people, of ethicists and academicians who would get called on to give a president counsel say, "I cannot give you consul because a year from now, six months from now, one month from now, they may want to have everything I say to you be turned into a news release, and I think the nation's best served by me being able to speak to you candidly and from the heart."

Do you know how many members of Congress would want to release everything that they do? Don't they have the right to have candid and free advice? Of course they do.

QUESTION: But, Ari, isn't it a specious argument, though, to compare the deliberations and the consultations of the president and the deliberations and consultations of a presidentially appointed task force? And the GAO was not asking for what was discussed; it was asking for subject matter -- who, what, where, when and how much it cost.

FLEISCHER: That's not correct. They have asked for notes and records of meetings.

QUESTION: Right. They want to know who met with who, when, where and what subject that they talked about and how much it cost.

FLEISCHER: And what was discussed.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: How much it cost is a legitimate issue which has been provided to the GAO because the GAO, under the statutes, has the authority to receive information about financing. But the GAO itself is not above the law. The law also subjects the GAO to limits and the GAO has to comply with those limits. And our attorneys feel very strongly that if this were to end up in court, the GAO will lose because they have exceeded their statutory authority.

QUESTION: Getting back to my original question, though. Isn't it a specious argument to compare the president's consultations and deliberations with those of a presidentially appointed task force that just happens to be headed up by the vice president?

FLEISCHER: No, I think there's no distinction.

QUESTION: Ari, back on the point about politics here in Washington. The majority leader, over the weekend, said he's fearful of an Enronizing of the budget, meaning Social Security and Medicare could somehow disappear because of the disappearing deficits. I'm wondering, first of all, is that the kind of rhetoric that would constitute a second presidential hug in the well of the United States House? And do you have any direct reaction to it? And I have a follow-up question on what's called the president's fund-raising plan...

FLEISCHER: The president paid no attention to it.

QUESTION: He doesn't care one way or the other what -- the majority leader is trying to link the two?

FLEISCHER: I think there's a widespread understanding in the White House that the Democratic primary is beginning early.

QUESTION: The point I was going to bring up is, why do you suggest that the members of this task force or those who doled out advice would want to shield their advice? I mean, it seems to me that if you ask anybody from Ken Lay down they'd be happen to tell you what ought to make up energy policy.

FLEISCHER: You're free to ask them.

QUESTION: I understand that, but Congress, who represents the people, is also asking that. FLEISCHER: I think the president also represents the people. Congress and the president do and that's why you have a legal dispute between an arm of the Congress and the president.

QUESTION: Your example was that it would have a chilling effect because these people wouldn't feel like they could give unvarnished advice. Well, how is that the case? I mean, these are all advocates.

QUESTION: They'd be happy to stand up in front of the stakeout cameras and tell us what they think about energy policy.

FLEISCHER: If that's the case, I'm sure you'll invite them to the stakeout camera and it's their free right to tell you.

QUESTION: I mean, I'm talking about your point, which is that you're suggesting that somehow they would have a chilling effect, and I just want to see the basis of it.

FLEISCHER: Again, I go back to the example on the president's decision on stem cell research. Which, as you know, the president, through a several month period, invited people to the White House to give their candid advice from an ethical point of view, from a religious point of view, from a health community point of view. And the president believes that the way he is best served, as well as future presidents are best served, is to let those people speak from the heart, speak openly and not have to worry that every word they say will somehow become a news release. And I don't think that surprises anybody.

You know, the very document that protects our liberties more than anything else, the Constitution, was, of course, drafted in total secrecy. And that's because the founders and the people who wrote the Constitution recognize that in order to make careful decisions they wanted to set forth deliberative and thoughtful process, and they concluded to do so quietly.

QUESTION: What kind of secrecy are you talking about?

FLEISCHER: It was a closed process.

QUESTION: What evidence is there that this is politics when you've got leading Republicans, like Representative Chris Shays and Senator Thompson, also pressing for these documents to be released? What evidence is there that it's politics?

FLEISCHER: I said that the president is focused on the criminal investigation. The president is focused on protecting people's pensions. I was asked many questions about is, "Is the president worried about PR, is the president worried about politics?" and I've answered those questions.

STAFF: Thank you.

HEMMER: A wide-ranging briefing for Ari Fleischer, at the White House. The two map topics, certainly, have to do with the detainees. It continues to be a sticky point, at this point Ari Fleischer saying -- quote -- "The detainees are lucky to be in the custody of the United States." Asked whether or not the status will change, he said they are not and will not be considered prisoners of war, POWs, in his words.

Also, on the issue of Enron, at one time, Ari Fleischer said the drip, drip, drip continues to be coming up dry, dry, dry. Reporters continue to ask those questions about the possibility of a suit filed at the White House.

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