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White House Briefing

Aired February 12, 2002 - 12:15   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Quickly now the White House. Ari Fleischer now briefing reporters. We'll go there live.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No, I didn't say that. I talked about the role of the military. I said the United States will continue to work productively with Afghanistan. And a number of steps have not all been determined. They are a young country. They are just at a state of war. So there will be a series of developing actions with Afghanistan, not all of which can be known right now.

QUESTION: But you aren't saying the U.S. military will not take a part in eradicating...

FLEISCHER: I've heard no discussion about the United States military taking part in that role. Now, again, I want to stress that Afghanistan is a young country. There will be continued actions with Afghanistan. Afghanistan is still in the middle of a war. But not all steps can be known with how we're going to cooperate with Afghanistan because, again, they're still an interim government.

FLEISCHER: They don't know all the steps they'll be able to take. But across the board the United States wants to be helpful and work with Afghanistan. It's in both our nations' interests.

QUESTION: Has the president or Karl Rove given the RNC the green light to work behind the scenes to either defeat or alter the leading campaign finance reform bill?


QUESTION: Is the president or any of his aides doing anything to either work to defeat or pass any amendments that would change that bill (INAUDIBLE)?

FLEISCHER: The president would very much like to see the House of Representatives pass a campaign finance reform measure that improves the current system. The president does see a number of weaknesses in the current system that he thinks can be improved.

Particularly, the president would like to ban soft money from corporations, ban soft money from unions. The president would like to see greater disclosure, along the lines of what he, himself, did during the course of the campaign, where the president instantly -- virtually instantly disclosed contributions on his web page.

The president would like to see increase in the hard-dollar limits of contributions to candidates. The president believes if that is enacted it'll mean candidates spend less time raising money and more time focusing on their constituents' needs.

A couple different bills that are currently before the House are going to be amended in a process that's not yet clear. As the rule is currently constituted, there'll be some 10 amendments by the majority and five by the minority. There'll be additional possibilities of amendments. So it's still a little hard to say what the final outcome of the House will be, but the president has made it clear to all those in Congress who ask him that he will sign into law something if in his judgment it improves the system.

QUESTION: Can I follow that? (INAUDIBLE) he says he would very much like to see a bill. Why then isn't he working the phone, inviting lawmakers over here to get the bill that he really likes to pass the House of Representatives?

FLEISCHER: Well, he's contributed to this process mightily by, for the first time in more than 10 years, sending a signal to Democrats and Republicans alike in Washington that this year campaign finance reform is real.

It used to be a phony debate. It used to be a debate where the Democratic Congress would send a bill to former President Bush knowing he was going to veto it. It used to be a debate on which former President Clinton would make a proposal to the Republican Congress knowing it was going to go nowhere. And, frankly, both parties liked it that way. Both parties liked the phoniness of the debate, they both liked being able to say to each other, "We're more for reform than you are. It would be done if it wasn't for you."

President Bush has changed that this year, and I think that's why you're seeing something very close and interesting in the House of Representatives where nobody knows what the ultimate outcome is going to be. And he's accomplished that by making it clear to members of Congress that they should not count on him to scuttle whatever is done, that he genuinely wants to improve the system.

FLEISCHER: So I think people can thank the president for making it a real and meaningful debate and making people on both parties focus on the reality of the actions they'll take.

QUESTION: Why didn't he send a message to the party not to work on trying to defeat the bill?

FLEISCHER: Because individual members are entitled to exercise their individual will. I don't think it should surprise anybody that there are additional members of the Republican National Committee who are state party chairmen, who represent other congressmen in the House or congressmen in the Senate who have individual views about this, and a wide diversity views about it.

QUESTION: The president has no influence over them, and what he...


FLEISCHER: I think the president has exercised his influence plenty, and that's why you're seeing for the first time in more than a decade a real debate.


QUESTION: Influence at all?

FLEISCHER: I think he's exerted to the point where the first time in more than a decade campaign finance reform is real.

QUESTION: Ari, a point of contention but apparently negotiable is the effect of when a soft money ban will actually take effect. At this point, do you think that it's feasible or even fair for a soft money ban to go into effect this year?

FLEISCHER: Well the president is open-minded about that. I think the effected date will be something that ultimately Congress will decide, but the president is open-minded about whether it should be this year, or it should be after the election. I think you find plenty of people in both parties who will tell you different things about how that would impact the ultimate outcome.

QUESTION: Now if he's open-minded to this and a bill gets on his desk, are you saying then that he would have to tinker on it if it included the ban going into effect this year?

FLEISCHER: Well obviously if a bill lands on his desk, he has 10 days to either sign it or not. So I don't think that changes the timing of how the president would act once it's on his desk.

QUESTION: The president will be announcing shortly his national drug policy. In the past the certification process is something that has irritated a lot of countries in North America because they are pointing the finger (INAUDIBLE) and at the people who produce it, but has not paid much attention to the people who use it, consumption. You say in the present new point, there's a major effort to stop the consumption in this country. How does this president's budget on that issue compare to the previous budget? Because everybody gave lip service (INAUDIBLE).

FLEISCHER: The president's budget will spend more than $19 billion on fighting the war against drugs on a wide variety of fronts including treatment, including demand, including supply, including border enforcement.

I urge you, when Director Walters (ph) is here, you may be able to get into greater depth with him about it.

QUESTION: Ari, can you give us a little more background on where the latest FBI alert came from, whether it was shared with the Office of Homeland Security, how it was implemented? FLEISCHER: The alert that the FBI announced last night was a result of a collaborative process that's been in place here for months that involves many people of the national security team, and especially Governor Ridge. The information was derived from multiple sources, and it was deemed to be credible. It was deemed to be specific by name, a photo was available, in several cases there were more than one photo. And there was no more specificity than that. In other words, there was not a known location, a known target. It's not even known if the Yemeni individual in question is in the United States or outside the United States. We just do not know.

But the information came from a number of sources, sufficiently credible, that the alert went out last night. It's called a BOLO alert, which means "be on the look out." And that's something the FBI or law enforcement communities are long familiar with, "be on the look out" for somebody, for different types of crime. In this case the crime is feared terrorism.

QUESTION: Does that mean that there's any special role for homeland security if it's an FBI alert (ph)?

FLEISCHER: The FBI has almost always issued the alerts. And the FBI is the operational entity here that sends out alerts to 18,000 law enforcement -- the community. The homeland security is a policy coordinating role, just as the National Security Council doesn't put troops in the field to fight a war. The Homeland Security Council doesn't operate the FBI, but it's a coordinating function.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) know the exact date? You were told the exact date that this would occur?

FLEISCHER: Beginning on, on or about, beginning on. So, no, it's not limited to any one day, but based on the information that was gleaned it is beginning today.

QUESTION: Was the president told that the alert was going to go out before it did? And did he sign off on that decision?

FLEISCHER: Yes, the president was aware of it.


FLEISCHER: I mean, this is, unfortunately, this is -- although this is not the same type of ongoing alert status that has been in place, which is currently in place for the Olympics and a little bit beyond.

You know, it's unfortunate to say that there's just almost a routine, a pattern now, that has become part of the alert structure of our government. It's unfortunate, because it's a recognition of the fact that we have to deal with terrorism in that vein. It's fortunate because it means we're dealing with terrorism in that vein, meaning we get information quickly into the hands of the law enforcement community, including in this case a specific picture of a specific individual. QUESTION: There reaction, as reported on the wires, was almost universally how much higher can we go? We're already on high alert. What more do they want us to do? There were quotes from a number of different police officials around the country to that effect. What are you supposed to do if the country's already on high alert, and even higher for the Olympics?

FLEISCHER: Be armed with a photo, somebody -- they can look for the person if they see him. That's what the purpose is. That's why this is not the same status of alert before as I just said. The United States is still in the same alert status it was prior to the Olympic games and through the duration of the games. This is what's called a BOLO, be on the look out for, and that's something frankly that the law enforcement community welcomes.

They want that type of specific information wherever there's a photo available. Imagine how helpful that is to the eyes and ears of law enforcement throughout the communities in the country. That's exactly the type of information police officials and local officials want, and in this case, the United States government was able to provide it.

QUESTION: Has the CIA in any way overstepped its mandate as an intelligence-gathering organization by participating in military operations in Afghanistan?

FLEISCHER: Actually, the President believes immediately that the integration of the CIA with the Department of Defense has been one of the reasons we've been so successful in winning the war on terrorism up to this point in Afghanistan, that everything that has happened has been a result of a marriage of the CIA and DOD, and involving intelligence sharing and operational role that the CIA has played. So it's just the opposite. The president believes that this is a great transformation in a way that a country like ours has a large conventional capacity, can fight and win terrorist style wars, guerrilla style wars, because of the strength that the CIA and the DOD have when combined.

QUESTION: Just so I'm understanding this. So the CIA no longer has to maintain its operations in intelligence-gathering, in moving to a variety of other operational areas as well, including military actions taken against specific targets?

FLEISCHER: At all times conform with what the law requires and that is always allowable under the laws.

QUESTION: If I could clarify one thing on the warning. Are you saying that this was not an alert to the public that they should expect a new terrorist alert, rather just a warning to law enforcement to watch out for these guys?

FLEISCHER: Technically, it is an alert to 18,000 law enforcement officials who are part of the FBI and media communication system. As a practical matter, it's hard to send something out to 18,000 law enforcement officials without it also becoming a public alert and that's just a recognition of the way the media and the interaction of government officials plays in our society with a free press.

So it's a blurring of the lines, but, technically, it was sent to 18,000 law enforcement officials, the public was notified, and in the president's judgment that's helpful.

QUESTION: But that was also done in the previous cases. You're saying this was different from previous alerts.

FLEISCHER: Well, in previous cases as well, there were notices that were sent to the 18,000 law enforcement officials and, at the same time, it was made public. The same thing happened last night here.

QUESTION: You said they were different -- the previous ones.

FLEISCHER: Well, because the technical answer is the FBI notifies 18,000 people who are part of their communication system; that's the instant communication that helps keep law enforcement locally tied in to what's happening nationally. Imagine the process: word gets out, the FBI shares it with the public.

QUESTION: Let me ask you a question about Iraq. The president's remarks and some other comments by officials after the State of the Union led some people to believe that the basically bombers were warming up and headed to the runway. You and Secretary Powell today have suggested that is not the case. What is the case? What is the state of play on going after Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, I think that's an overinterpretation. The president said directly in his State of the Union address that we will be patient, we are a deliberative nation, but time is not on our side. And immediately the next morning, when I was asked for additional information, I said military action is not imminent.

So I think it's all very clear. I think the American people have welcomed what the president said.

Let me make a broader point about what the president said, though, on the axis of evil and the language that he used, because this is the type of diplomacy that the president engages, and it's rather plainspoken. But the president believes that moral clarity makes for strong diplomacy, and that creates better results.

And as an example, Ronald Reagan did not say to Mikhail Gorbachev -- let me rephrase that. Ronald Reagan said to Mikhail Gorbachev, "Tear down this wall." He didn't say, "Would you mind making it a little shorter?" He spoke with moral clarity, and as a result the world is a better place. So, too, with President Bush.

QUESTION: He didn't say what he was going to do if he didn't tear it down.

FLEISCHER: And it came down as a result of Ronald Reagan's moral clarity and strength. QUESTION: If time is not on our side, as the president said and as you've pointed out several times, then why isn't an attack imminent?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's the determination of the president to protect the American people, and the president understands the timetable that he may or may not operate under. And so the president is continuing to take whatever action he thinks is necessary, and the American people have, I think, strongly supported the statement the president made and the actions that the president may or may not take.

QUESTION: What is the status that you know about Daniel Pearl? And does the U.S. hold Pakistan responsible for the safety of American journalists? Do you suggest more journalists get out of Pakistan?

FLEISCHER: The United States continues to very closely monitor what is happening with the kidnapping of Mr. Pearl. There have been reports this morning that I cannot confirm. The United States continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Pearl. He's a journalist who's doing his job. And as I've said before from here, it's a reminder about the risks and the dangers that journalists face in doing their job around the world to keep the viewers and their readers informed.

FLEISCHER: President Musharraf will be here tomorrow. The cooperation of the Pakistani government and security forces have been very strong and very helpful. The president hopes that this matter will be resolved.

QUESTION: Well, the man who was arrested, did he give any indication where Pearl is, either dead or alive?

FLEISCHER: I have no information to contribute on that.

QUESTION: Ari, getting back to this alert issue. Whatever happened to the idea of the homeland security director coming up with a recognizable series of alerts that people could identify with?

FLEISCHER: That's still under development. Nothing is final about that. The homeland security director believes that would be helpful, and I think you will see that happening.

But again, I want to remind you, what was put out by the FBI last night is called a BOLO, be on the look out. It's not a change in our alert status. Our alert status remains just as it was prior to the Olympics and ongoing.


FLEISCHER: Last night's alert, in other words, last night's BOLO fits in to the existing alert.

QUESTION: But it just as, as others have mentioned, it just adds to anxiety, if you will. And how soon do you think there will be a recognizable system of alerts that would have, maybe, various graves (ph) or various names attached to them? FLEISCHER: I'm not willing to take a guess. That will be developed by the Homeland Security Council in cooperation with other agencies, and I've not heard a timetable for when it will be.

But, you know, I'm not really sure that it does add to anxiety. I think, frankly, it's just the type of information the law enforcement community seeks. That when there is something specific, when there is a picture available, imagine how much safer we are because that picture is then in the hands of officials at airports, at train stations, at bus stations, at different security venues. That's exactly the type of information that needs to be shared with local law enforcement community by the federal government to prevent terrorism or disrupt a potential attack. QUESTION: Ari, with the Boy Scouts meeting with the president this afternoon, does the president share the view by some Boy Scouts and their supporters that the organization has been mistreated or unfairly treated, I guess, since the issue of the membership requirements of the group went before the Supreme Court?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think, not by President Bush. Certainly, the president met with the Boy Scouts last year. He's meeting with them again today. So the president is very pleased to receive them here at the White House.

QUESTION: Ari, union leaders representing the United Airlines workers predict that they'll reject the company's contract offer in the next day or two, setting a strike deadline for the 20th, I believe. Does the president or Larry Lindsey or anyone intend to get further involved in this process?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's premature to judge the outcome of an election that's under way. The voting by the members of United Airlines union have begun today. It's ongoing. The results will not be known until some time later, and that's even unclear exactly at what point the voting will be known. So I don't think it's wise to judge the outcome of an election. Certainly, we've learned that lesson from 2000 about judging outcomes of elections. So we'll wait six weeks until it's over.

QUESTION: Ari, the Senate bill on the faith-based initiative doesn't have any of the Charitable Choice language that the House bill had. Now that House members are saying that the Charitable Choice language this year in reauthorizing welfare reform is going to be a struggle, as well. How would the president treat the idea that this idea of charitable choice for faith-based groups is actually -- might be on the decline right now with the way that the Senate's become more democratic?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president would differ with that interpretation actually. The House, of course, did pass a measure that sought to create a level playing field so that faith-based groups, community organizations would not be discriminated against by the government in issuing contracts, because those groups from a basis of faith.

The House of Representatives accomplished it through measure very similar with 1996 welfare law called Charitable Choice. The Senate arrived at the same result through a different measure, which is a ban on discrimination against religious groups based on a chronology and other issues of that nature. So they both, in the president's opinion, help accomplish the goal of tearing down barriers so groups that do good work in communities to help people who are suffering, help people who are in poverty, help people who suffer from drug abuse or alcohol abuse can get help often from the faith-based groups that provide the best help in breaking people of these habits.

So the president is pleased to see it...


QUESTION: ... see really a significant difference between the two bills on that?

FLEISCHER: No. The president sees them both as constructive ways to get to the same endpoint, and that endpoint is tearing down barriers in which the government discriminates against faith-based groups and refuses to give them money because they may operate from a faith position, as they help improve and save people's lives.

QUESTION: On the Boy Scouts, does the president agree with the Boy Scouts view, their decision to exclude gays from membership?

FLEISCHER: The president views this, as the courts have held, which is that it's a private organization.

QUESTION: The New York Times reports that while Congress twice voted last year to allow U.S. hostages who were held in our Tehran Embassy for 444 days, to sue the $8 billion we hold in the Iranian assets. This is being opposed by the State Department, even though President Bush has accurately identified Iran, part of the evil access. And my question: Why is the president allowing the State Department to try to block this twice congressionally justified lawsuit?

FLEISCHER: I have no information on that. So let me take that question and try to post something on that.

QUESTION: And what...

FLEISCHER: Question number two.

QUESTION: And what, I think, is your impressive knowledge of the presidency, can you name any book, besides the Bible, that has been more promoted by any president than The New York Times number one bestseller that was carried by President Bush in front of cameras, (INAUDIBLE) exposes how the media distort the news?

FLEISCHER: What was the question?

QUESTION: Do you know of any book that has ever been more promoted by a president of the United States than this book?

FLEISCHER: I'm sure there were some. (LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Can you name one and did you like the book, too, Ari?

FLEISCHER: You guys keep me so busy, I have a hard time reading books. Actually, I think it's an interesting book. I think it raises some interesting issues.

QUESTION: The president (OFF-MIKE) didn't he? The president thought it was great.

FLEISCHER: The president thought it also raised some interesting questions.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) this comes on the eve of General Musharraf's visit to Washington (OFF-MIKE) in Washington on September 11th. And finally, what are we seeking and asking General Musharraf when he comes tomorrow to meet with the president? What (OFF-MIKE) expecting and what is the United States expecting from him?

FLEISCHER: This will be the president's second meeting, directly and personally with President Musharraf. They met up in New York in November and they'll discuss a wide range of issues, including the war against terrorism, education reform which, interestingly, has been a key issue for President Musharraf and it's something that they spent a lot of time talking about in New York.

And I anticipate he'll spend a lot more time talking about here in Washington.

I anticipate they're going to want to talk about economic assistance, and also restoration of democratic government in Pakistan. I think they'll also talk about military-to-military cooperation and expanding military exchange programs as well.

QUESTION: The Wall Street Journal reporter is now in Osama Bin Laden's presence?

FLEISCHER: I think the Wall Street Journal reporter will likely come up.

Thank you.

HEMMER: All right, a wide-ranging briefing there from Ari Fleischer at the White House. Prior to us joining Ari Fleischer there, we were at the Pentagon, and what we missed at the White House was the message of the day today, and that is the war on drugs. We do anticipate in about an hour's time the president will appear in the East Room of the White House to give a message on the war on drugs here in the U.S., and we will carry that speech live when it happens, again, about an hour away.

There was more talk, though, about campaign finance reform. You are going to hear a lot more about this into the day on Tuesday, later today and also on Wednesday. There was a measure before the House, and again that appears to be picking up steam, Ari Fleischer saying this year, campaign finance reform is real, comparing it to previous administrations there, and including that of the president's father, George Bush back in the late '80s and early '90.

And in regards to that terror alert we talked about throughout the morning, the FBI came out with last night. In the words of Ari Fleischer, this is a "be on the lookout" terror alert, not more information handed out on this one.




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