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White House Briefing

Aired February 28, 2002 - 12:37   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: But first, we need to go to the White House, where spokesperson Ari Fleischer is having a press conference there. Let's go to that now.

ARI FLEISCER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... : ... and that is, affording them the best nest eggs, the biggest nest eggs possible, so they can retire in happiness and in comfort.

The president will focus on the pension changes that were already enacted into law, as a result of the Tax Act of 2001. He will talk about his plans for pension protections, as a result of the collapse of Enron, as well as his belief that the best way to protect retirement savings for younger workers is to allow them voluntary options of personal retirement accounts.

Following that, the president will meet back here at the White House with a bipartisan group of members of Congress. He'll discuss issues involving steel.

And a couple of other announcements, then I'll be happy to take questions.

The president will welcome Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean Claude Juncker for a working visit on March 6, next week.

And the president and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern will meet at the White House on March 13.

With that, I'm more than happy to take your questions.


QUESTION: Ari, can you find the president's policy -- do we plan to send troops and money to every country that says it has terrorists? And what is this (inaudible) move, for one thing, Georgia and so forth? And where is the money coming from? And does he feel that he has a mandate to go anywhere in the world -- the president?

FLEISCHER: Helen, in the wake of the attack on September 11, one of the things, I think, you've seen around the world is how the world has stood in solidarity with the United States and has faced, now, the fact that terrorism does represent a threat to people throughout the world, in the various regions of the world, people from all types of government, whether they're democracies or whether they are kingdoms in different types of regions. And the president views it as a healthy and welcome sign of the multilateralism that is present in a way that people want to take this threat seriously and look to the United States for leadership, for strength and for help. And the president is pleased to help provide it.

So the United States will work very productively and closely with various nations throughout the world, as they turn internally to deal with their terrorism, with the problems they have in their borders.

Specifically, in Georgia, the United States will our helpful efforts to recognize and respect and strengthen the sovereignty of Georgia. The United States has previously provided helicopters to Georgia, as was previously announced.


QUESTION: ... somewhat a civil war there.

FLEISCHER: In Georgia?


FLEISCHER: Georgia, in the Pankisi Gorge, there are clear threats to the Georgian government.

FLEISCHER: It's a rather lawless area that is a sovereign part of the Georgia republic, and the Georgia government faces threats there. The United States will provide training and equipment to help Georgia deal with that. In Yemen...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) terrorists?

FLEISCHER: There are threats there, as a result of terrorist activities.

QUESTION: Is this an intervention into a civil war?

FLEISCHER: This is an attempt to help Georgia to train and equip Georgians as they deal with internal problems in an area of Georgia that is known for its terrorist influence.

In Yemen, President Saleh has responded very positively since September 11, especially in helping to fight terrorism. That is a serious issue in Yemen, and the vice president will be traveling to Yemen next month as you know. And the United States wants to work closely with the Yemeni government. President Saleh has shown real leadership on this measure.

So the long answer to your question, Helen, is yes. The United States will work directly and closely with nations around the world as they combat terrorism, properly and proudly so.


QUESTION: There is a U.N. organization, and if there's truly a collective problem, why are we taking it on alone? And where do we get the money and the troops?

FLEISCHER: Well, in the case of Georgia, for example, this is a training exercise. It's equipment and training. It's carried out by the United States military. And I don't think you're going to see members of Congress...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) started in that...

FLEISCHER: I'm aware that, even in Afghanistan, Helen, there are some people who make that analogy to Vietnam, but not many. And the president doesn't agree with us, and I think most Americans don't either.

QUESTION: I just want to follow up quickly. What are the criteria for intervention? You say there's a threat to the Georgian government in the Pankisi Gorge. There's a threat to the Colombian government in parts of that country, to the Nigerian government in parts of that country, to the Thai government in parts of that country, to the Indonesian government in parts of that country. What's the criteria for this intervention?

FLEISCHER: It's been the longstanding policy of the United States government to work productively with other nations, and that involves military-to-military cooperation. It involves diplomatic cooperation.

FLEISCHER: It involves a whole series of exercises that are collaborative and cooperational. The criteria in fighting the war on terrorism is going to be to continue to listen to the needs and the requests of nations throughout the world as they deal with these issues.

Terrorism represents a serious threat not only to the sovereign nations of the world, but to the international community. And it's healthy sign that, since September 11, nations have stepped up in their efforts to route out the terrorists where they are. And the president welcomes that, is pleased with the sign of people looking to the United States to provide strength, help, and leadership. And he intends to provide it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) So if a government comes to the United States and says, "This problem within our borders we show you is connected to world terrorism in some sense," the United States is willing to get involved?

FLEISCHER: Well, the United States has been involved for years. It's not as if it's a new development. But what is helpful and productive is the number of nations who now take it even more seriously and want to do more because they recognize in the wake of September 11 just how far these extremists and terrorists are prepared to go.

QUESTION: There's been a lot of political fire today in the realm of foreign policy. And I'd like to start by getting the president's reaction to Leader Daschle's uncomplimentary comments about the war effort, saying that continued success of this effort is still somewhat in doubt. And he talked about if we got to find bin Laden and other key leaders of Al Qaeda -- if we don't, then we would've failed. And he said quote, "but we're not safe until we've broken the bag of Al Qaeda and we haven't done that yet." Your response to this?

FLEISCHER: Well I think the president would remind anybody who would be critical that this is about much more than any one person. This about much more than Osama bin Laden; this is about the entire terrorist network. And the president has been very proud of the bipartisan cooperation that he's gotten from Capitol Hill on this. He'll continue to call for members of Congress to engage in that bipartisan spirit.

QUESTION: Do you think that the leader stepped over the lined here in his comments? FLEISCHER: Well, I don't make any characterization of it, other than the president has said repeatedly this about much more than any one man Osama bin Laden. This about the war on terrorism more broadly. That's where the president is focused. Individuals are free to focus on any one person if they think that's the best conduct to foreign policy. That's the different approach than the president has.

QUESTION: Is the continued success in this war in doubt as the leader suggests?

FLEISCHER: The president has no doubts. The president believes the United States and it will continue to be a success thanks in good part to the bipartisan support he's had from members of Congress.

QUESTION: Well, I wanted to call up on a different point. You amplified in the Congress today that you believe that President Clinton may have actually unleashed through his summitry (ph) the wave of violence at the end of 2000?

FLEISCHER: Yes. That's a mischaracterization of what I said. In fact, I don't even think I used the words President Clinton when I talked this morning. I never did. So that's...

QUESTION: But you meant to leave the impression that his summitry (ph) resulted in nothing and may have stepped up the next round of violence?

FLEISCHER: Actually, let me -- let's review this morning. I was a question (inaudible) quote, "It seems that the violence was quelled a lot when former President Clinton had both at the table," meaning Arafat and Sharon, "had both parties at the table at," or Barak, "had both parties at the table."

FLEISCHER: And now that Bush is leaving Arafat out, was the question put to me, "hasn't that led to the violence?" I would simply site the press for a response to that, and then amplifies on what I said.

All you need to do is look back, as I indicated this morning, that the violence began in late 2000 and escalated through 2001. That's a fact. And all you need to do is take a look at the press at the time. For example, the Washington Post on November 12 reported, quote, "Since the violence erupted September 29, 209 people have been killed." You can keep going if you want. Los Angeles times on November 14 reported, "four Israelis were killed and eight wounded Monday." The violence clearly began late last year.

So what I wanted to do was set correct the premise of the question that was put to me, which implied that the violence began only when President Bush took office. What you really see happening here...


QUESTION: ... use any of those press accounts in your comments earlier. I mean, you stand by the comment that, in fact, the Clinton administration tried to, quote, "shoot the Moon, but ended up with nothing and more violence resulted." I mean, that's what you said.

FLEISCHER: Well, obviously, the violence started on September 29. And so, what you can see here clearly, as I said, the violence began in late 2000 and accelerated in 2001. Is that -- the problem that all presidents have faced in the Middle East over decades, which is something I've said repeatedly, not limited to any administration. But for decades there's been a problem of violence in the Middle East.

I corrected an impression that was left that there was no violence in the Middle East when the parties were at the table.


FLEISCHER: The question was, wasn't there no violence or little violence when the parties were at the table? That's an incorrect characterization. And I corrected that this morning.

QUESTION: Does it mean that the Clinton administration "shot the Moon and ended up with nothing"?

FLEISCHER: Well, there is no question the violence really began on September 29 after the Camp David Accords broke down. That's a historical point.

The president's approach is to learn the lessons of all previous presidents, and that's something, I think, that all previous presidents, including President Clinton, tried valiantly to achieve peace in the Middle East.

FLEISCHER: No United States president is to blame for violence in the Middle East. The only people who are to blame are the terrorists who carry out the violence. President Bush is intent to learn the lessons of all previous presidents and focus on what he thinks can be successful, which is an incremental approach based on the Mitchell accords and not an attempt to have an immediate comprehensive solution, because he thinks that'll raise expectations too high, and therefore meet with unmet expectations and therefore create more trouble.

QUESTION: So in hindsight, it is the view of this administration that President Clinton, a tactical error, in bringing the parties together for a summit at Camp David, absent 99 percent of a deal, that he raised expectations and in your words, violence resulted when those expectations were not met, that it was a mistake to try to bring the parties together, when they didn't really already have a deal?

FLEISCHER: The point I'm making John is that the president thinks it's important to learn lessons of all previous presidents who have worked very hard to bring peace to the Middle East. And President Clinton did work very hard to bring peace to the Middle East. But President Bush's focus is to learn all these lessons from previous administrations and try to bring the parties together on something that the parties themselves can agree to.

And that's why the Mitchell accords are so helpful and important, because the Mitchell accords begin with a process that focuses really on what the parties agree. Now President Bush, when he was a candidate, said repeatedly throughout the campaign that it's important not to pursue beyond what the parties agree to.

QUESTION: Ari, so after the question this morning, when you made the statement, "shoot for the moon and come up with nothing," the Clinton administration did perceive that as passing the buck. So you're saying that was a mischaracterization of the question that was asked this morning, saying that violence was quelled a bit in the Middle East, and now when both parties brought together -- and now Yasser Arafat is not brought to the table, this fighting is escalated. That was the context of the question I asked this morning.

FLEISCHER: Here's the question. The transcript reads, "Ari, on the Middle East, it seems that..."


FLEISCHER: "Ari, it seems that the violence was quelled a lot, when President Clinton had both at the table."

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) was ended -- It was quelled a lot.

FLEISCHER: I understand, but then the implication was shouldn't President Bush bring the parties to the table, because that seems to make the violence go away? And I was noting, that despite best efforts, the violence began late in 2000, accelerated in 2001. There's no doubt about that. Everybody acknowledges that's what took place. What's important is what can be done now to achieve peace in the Middle East, and in that regard, the President's going to continue focus on the Mitchell accords.

FLEISCHER: But there's no question that there are lessons to be learned from previous efforts to bring about peace in the Middle East, not only from President Clinton, from all presidents.

QUESTION: So are you trying to -- in a way, it sounds like you're backpeddling from that statement this morning, shooting for the moon and coming up with nothing, because the Clinton administration is saying that that sounds like passing the buck. FLEISCHER: No, there's no question that the president's focus is on making an agreement that the parties themselves can agree to and not pushing beyond that.

QUESTION: Can I try once more? The Clinton administration's approach rejects what you just said. Their approach was -- and they learned their own lessons, at least they would say they learned their own lessons -- that Oslo and the follow-ups here at the White House, that the incremental approach was not getting them anywhere, that they wanted to bring the parties to Camp David and shoot for the moon, get the comprehensive agreement, because every time they got an incremental agreement, on the way to the next incremental agreement there was backsliding.

You say the lesson of Camp David is that that's wrong.

FLEISCHER: The president has clearly said, and he said it throughout the campaign, that the best way to achieve a comprehensive agreement is through these series that Senator Mitchell, a Democrat, has recommended, of interim steps that begin with security talks, that lead to political discussions about borders and boundaries, et cetera, finally getting to settlement issues, and that's how you build confidence to achieve a comprehensive solution.

It is a different approach. But the point is that for decades American presidents have wrestled with how to bring peace to the Middle East. President Clinton tried valiantly to do so. Nobody should be surprised if President Bush has a different approach.

What is important to correct is an impression left by a question this morning that President Bush's different approach has been what led to more violence, because that's not an appropriate question.

QUESTION: Can I just clarify a couple of things going back just slightly? On Daschle, does the administration disagree with Daschle's assessment that the administration or the anti-terrorism campaign has not yet broken the back of the Al Qaeda network? FLEISCHER: You've heard the president repeatedly say himself that the Al Qaeda network is far less capable of carrying out any of the operations they were previously capable of carrying out, that it's been severely disrupted and severely hampered.

It does not mean that the threat has gone away entirely, because there does remain a threat as Al Qaeda tries to reassemble in other nations. That's why the president is still so determined to pursue this war. He believes it's been successful and continues to be successful; it is not over yet.

QUESTION: Do you feel as though -- does this administration feel they have broken the back of the Al Qaeda network?

FLEISCHER: I would characterize it exactly as I just did, in the president's words. I don't use any other words than the president's.

QUESTION: And then one other. When we go with the action in Georgia and Yemen and other countries, is there any concern in the administration about spreading itself too thin? While I understand the desire to respond to those countries who are trying to respond to the president's call to go after terrorism, there still is a question of not only what is the criteria for picking and choosing where you do go, but at what level is the administration concerned about spreading itself too thin as well?


QUESTION: There is no concern?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that when it comes to fighting the war against terrorism and winning the war against terrorism, it requires the nation to be prepared to do whatever it takes. That's one of the reasons the president has made his budget request to the Congress for an increase in defense spending, and he hopes that members of the Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, will not underfund defense, as some have indicated they might want to do.

It is important, in the president's opinion, to do whatever it takes to win this war because the threats to our country are of that nature.

QUESTION: Yes, I wanted to ask you again getting back to what you said this morning. One of your statements said first of all that (OFF-MIKE) first week after the parties have been pushed beyond what they were ready to give. You also said they should proceed at a pace that is doable and not raise the expectations because to high, and the impression we got was that there was (inaudible) that the administration handled...


FLEISCHER: You know this is the exact question, just raised differently, that John King (ph) just asked. And what I said is, it should not surprise anybody that President Bush has a different approach for how to bring about peace in the Middle East. And it's patterned after a recommendation from the former Democrat Majority Leader George Mitchell, and that is the process I just outlined, which shows an incremental way to build confidence to lead up to comprehensive solution as opposed to a one-shot deal to try lead to a comprehensive solution.

QUESTION: You also mentioned this morning that the president was willing to look at requests from all nations as far as how to fight terrorism.


QUESTION: Well, in the case of Colombia, Colombia's getting aid already from the United States. But the aid is strictly limited by Congress for certain objectives only. I understand that Colombia has asked the U.S. government to U.S. government to see if they can use some of those funds to help fight the guerrilla FARC, now that negotiations have broken down, they have sent Colombian troops into the zone of dissension. And my question (inaudible) answered he has to abide by the laws. My question is, is the president willing to try to convince Congress to allow some of those funds to be used the way Colombia, the government, wants to use it?

FLEISCHER: Right. The president is aware that there are different members of Congress who have different ideas about the statute that is in place. The president will of course continue to, one, support the Pastrana government and do so strongly; two, abide by the statute that is in place.

The administration is prepared to listen to the ideas from members of Congress. But I remind you, this is also one of the reasons, because of the FARC and the threat that it poses to the people of Colombia and the government of Colombia, that the president's budget requests, in 2003, $98 million of additional money to help train the Colombian military, to defend critical infrastructure with an additional focus on the oil pipelines from the terrorist attacks that have taken place.

So we are already engaged with Congress in an attempt to do more to help the Pastrana government. And you are correct -- the United States has provided a very robust package of aid for Colombia. I think it was $1.3 billion of support for Colombia and their anti-narcotics efforts as well as additional money through what's called the Andean Regional Initiative.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) specific question and maybe get a specific answer instead of your general on the Middle East. What U.S. administrations were you referring to when you said, "they shot the Moon and got nothing"?

QUESTION: Who were you referring to?

FLEISCHER: We're back to John King's (ph) question. And I really would phrase it the same way I did when John (ph) asked it. The president's approach is going to be based on the Mitchell accords, to have a more incremental approach.

QUESTION: I'm asking you what administration shot the Moon and got nothing?

FLEISCHER: The president believes it's important to learn the lessons from all previous administrations on how to deal with the Middle East. And I leave it at that.

QUESTION: No, no. The question is...

FLEISCHER: I leave it at that.

QUESTION: The question is, what administration shot the Moon and got nothing, and what administration pushed too far and pushed the parties farther than they wanted to go?

FLEISCHER: There's no question that the president's approach to how to bring about peace in the Middle East focuses on approaches recommended by Senator Mitchell, which creates a comprehensive settlement, which is what the previous administration sought to do. But over the Mitchell -- in accordance with the Mitchell recommendations, it seeks a comprehensive settlement at the end of a series of confidence-building measures, as opposed to any one summit.

QUESTION: Why won't you tell us who you're referring to when you say, "shot the Moon and got nothing" and "push the parties further than they wanted to go"?

FLEISCHER: I phrased it exactly as I intended to.

QUESTION: Are you backtracking on what you said?

FLEISCHER: Not at all.

QUESTION: Two questions. Did we misunderstand then, this morning, when you said, "failure to reach that level," the level of expectations, did we misunderstand that the failure to reach that level was, in your opinion, one of the contributors to the violence?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president believes that whatever solution can be arrived at has got to be set at such a level that the parties can agree to it. Failure to do that can lead to a situation where expectations are set too high. And if expectations aren't risen to a level, where then people are disappointed, people can act on their disappointment.


QUESTION: I'm sorry. I have a second question.

FLEISCHER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: The other question is, the president, early on in this war on terrorism, used to confine his target or define his target as a terrorist of a global reach. Is it no longer the case that terrorist organizations need have a global reach for countries to petition the U.S. for aid and support, and be given that?

FLEISCHER: The president never limited the amount of assistance the United States would give to other nations who are dealing with terrorist threats to only those nations that deal with terrorist threats of a global reach. It's been a long-standing policy of the United States to help other nations in their wars on terrorism, and Georgia is the case in point.

Prior to September 11 the United States provided helicopters to Georgia. The issue of Georgian sovereignty is an important issue and a part of America's foreign policy. So it's not limited to just that group.

Your questions. Go right ahead.

QUESTION: Back on Senator Daschle; between his comments and those of Senator Byrd, is this a sign to you that the Democrats are seeking to politicize this issue and maybe put it on the table for midterm 2002?

FLEISCHER: Well, it's never easy to guess what the motives are of the loyal (ph) opposition on Capitol Hill. Obviously, people feel heartfelt about various issues. Obviously, there's going to be politics involved. Some people may want to run for president one day, but the president's going to continue to always work productively and bipartisan with members of the Congress.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) for president?


QUESTION: Has it sort of been an off-limits issue, or did it surprise you that those comments came today?

FLEISCHER: Well, there's a bottom line. And the president always understands that members of Congress are going to speak out as freely as they should.

But when it comes to the defense of the nation, the president surely hopes that nobody will vote to underfund our nation's defense needs. Because the needs are serious. There is a war underway. The president has made a serious proposal to the Congress. It's Congress' right and prerogative to ask tough questions about it. At the end of the day, it will come to a vote, and the president hopes that the Congress will continue its bipartisan spirit and support the defense budget he sent up there.

QUESTION: Just to go back one more time to this morning and the Mideast, just wondering, do you still stand by what you said this morning? Or in retrospect, do you wish perhaps you had either qualified or tempered...

FLEISCHER: No, of course I stand by it. I think it was important to address what the question suggested, which was that violence has been quelled a lot when the parties are at the table. That was a misrepresentation, and that's why I said this morning, I said it again today, and brought some newspaper articles today to show it, that the violence historically began in late 2000, accelerated into 2001.

The premise of the question was, the violence had really subsided a lot so long as the parties were at the table. That's an important impression to correct.

QUESTION: You don't think Senator Daschle's or Senator Byrd's comments were damaging to unity on the war? FLEISCHER: I think members of Congress have every right to speak out as they see fit.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) asked about the global reach, whether that was a continuing standard. When the president first launched this effort, he also said that the administration had to be careful to differentiate between real terrorists and people, internally, in a country, in a dispute that are exercising their own political voices.

QUESTION: Now, what's unclear to us -- and hopefully you could clarify it -- is what the criteria is now. How is the administration being sure that a country calls up and says, "These people, we think they're connected with Al Qaeda, so can you come and help us?" The case in Georgia is an example of that. What steps is the administration taking, what criteria is the administration proposing to make sure that the standards the president originally set are, in fact, met as these requests come in from other nations?

FLEISCHER: The standard, broadly, is the national interest, and let me walk through the specifics.

Georgia. There is the Pankisi Gorge, which by all estimates is a lawless area. It's an area in which the borders are hard to seal and are unsealed, in which people freely go back and forth between Chechnya and Georgia into the Pankisi Gorge. And this was the case prior to September 11, as I indicated, and that's why the United States provided and you received notice helicopters were sent to the Georgian Republic to assist them in their dealings, to maintain their sovereignty over an area that has been hard to control as a result of the terrorist infiltration and the problems in Georgia.

In Colombia, the FARC is a listed terrorist organization. It traffics in narcotics, it attacks pipelines, it hijacks airplanes, it kidnaps presidential candidates and state senators. I think there's no question that the American people want to help the government of Colombia put an end to that type of violence.

In Yemen, Yemen is a country that has an area that also is very hard to patrol and to control, in the northern reaches of Yemen, and the administration is very pleased that President Saleh is helping the United States.

I think what's interesting here is one of the accusations that was previously launched against the president is why won't he work cooperatively with other countries. Here what you have is these other countries coming to the United States and seeking our support, and the president's pleased to provide it.

QUESTION: Is the administration asking those countries to bring evidence that these people are true terrorists in a form that the United States wants to commit itself to battle versus political dissidents?

FLEISCHER: Well, in the three issues I cited, there's no question about that there are terrorist issues in those countries.

QUESTION: What does the White House or what does the president think about this idea of sending out the certificates to Social Security recipients to guarantee (inaudible) to guarantee their benefits in perpetuity?

FLEISCHER: Yes, let me take a look at that, because I'm not aware what the White House position is on that at this time.


QUESTION: ... comment back and forth on the Hill about this today. FLEISCHER: Yes. No, I don't, specifically on that topic. You'll hear a lot from the president any minute now on what the president's approach is broadly to retirement savings.

QUESTION: In the administration's view, how serious is the danger of coordinated efforts between foreign terrorist groups and domestic terrorist groups? And are you taking the steps to combat the danger?

FLEISCHER: When you talk about domestic terror, you mean domestic to the United States?

QUESTION: Yes. White supremacists, black militants, so forth...

FLEISCHER: That's really something you would need to address more specifically to the FBI, which has a lot more experience directly in domestic terrorist groups. If you want to talk about any specific links, that's really the place for that.

QUESTION: You said the release of the 7,000 documents on energy is unrelated to the GAO suit against the Cheney task force.


QUESTION: Are you saying that, in all of that 7,500 pages, there's none of the material that others have been asking for from the Cheney task force?

FLEISCHER: No, what I indicated is the statute under which the court held that the Department of Energy needs to speed up their compliance with the FOIA request is a totally separate statute and is unrelated to anything the GAO is seeking from the energy task force.

Without my having any knowledge of what specific papers the Department of Energy has, I can't -- that would be an impossible question for me to answer.

WHITFIELD: You've been listening to Ari Fleischer, a spokesperson for the White House in what is usually a daily briefing, responding to questions there from reporters, talking a little bit about everything, from the GAO, which is now -- or from the Energy Department, which is now going to be bringing forth about 7,500 pages of documents on the Bush energy policy. Also responding to questions about what is the criteria in which the U.S. would respond to a country in need. He says any country that expresss a need that is threatened by terrorism. So once again, Ari Fleischer from the White House.




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