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White House Press Secretary Briefs Reporters

Aired March 19, 2002 - 12:54   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: As promised now, to the White House and Ari Fleischer, now there to brief reporters. We'll take you there live.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... extending a welcome by recognizing that families should not have to be split up when they are in this country already in order to go back to their country for immigration status.

And this is what's called 245(i). This measure includes some very stringent provisions dealing with border security. And they include requiring personal identification documents to be more tamper- resistant and secure, enhancing the alien application screening process to eliminate entry of unwanted individuals. And this legislation also requires monitoring of foreign students and exchange visitors to ensure they maintain their status.

So as the Senate leaves town, the president thinks it's very important for them to take this action to, one, protect the border, and to, two, welcome immigrants into our country in the finest traditions that have made us a great and free nation.

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

QUESTION: Do you know if Abu Anas Al-Liby, one of the people on the most wanted list is in custody in Sudan?

FLEISCHER: I have nothing to discuss on that topic.

QUESTION: Why not, Ari? I mean, why can't you...

FLEISCHER: Because anything on this would necessarily involve intelligence, and that would involve either a confirmation or denial of something, which I'm just not going to be able to do.

QUESTION: But at the same time, the administration -- you know, when you released this list of 22 most wanted, you were asking the public and all of us to try to help find these people. And now that there have been reports -- television, newspapers -- saying that he is in custody, you can't confirm or deny it?

FLEISCHER: There's no information I have that I can share with you on that topic, I'm afraid to say.

QUESTION: Is he still somebody who we want to get in custody? Is he still on...

FLEISCHER: That would answer the question if I were to answer that question.

QUESTION: Can you acknowledge if there is confusion if the person in custody -- whether he happens to be the person on the most wanted list or someone else who just happens to have the same name?

FLEISCHER: I'm afraid this is just a road that I'm not going to travel down. This is a matter that involves intelligence information which I'm just not going to discuss in any way, shape or form. And don't take that to confirm that it is or is not the person in question.

QUESTION: Can you tell us whether you're pleased with the Sudanese cooperation of late?

FLEISCHER: I'm just not...


I think you're defining as late as in the last day or so.


I appreciate this. I understand the questions. There are sometimes matters that I'm just not going to be able to provide you any information on. This is one.

QUESTION: So the reports out there, the newspaper and television reports out there to the American people, your response to those reports are...

FLEISCHER: That there is no information on that topic that I can share and that shouldn't be taken as an indication that it is true or it is not true.

QUESTION: You mentioned 245(i) and also (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: 245(i) includes two provisions in there. There's one that makes the nation more welcoming to immigrants while, at the same time, appropriately, toughening up the borders.

QUESTION: ... did not mention Andean trade, which was another issue that was sort of on the burner this week. Obviously, the Senate only has a couple of days left. It's still dealing with campaign finance reform. What is your priority, in asking? Have you chosen border security over Andean trade?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that the Senate can take action on a host of these issues and debt limit is another one. The nation is approaching the date at which will hit its debt limit, and the Senate has serious work to do. Now, on these issues, for example, on the question of making the borders tougher and welcoming immigrants, that passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 275 to 137 -- widespread bipartisan support. Another example of the House taking action, while the Senate has not.

The president hopes that the Senate will be able to take action, not only on this legislation on border security and immigration 245(i), as well as debt limit, as well as Andean trade preferences.

The Senate is, of course, taking up an important piece of legislation, campaign finance reform. The president welcomes this, although the timing is interesting because, of course, debt limit is immediate. We're about to hit it. 245(i), toughening up the borders. We need to do that quickly.

Campaign finance reform, despite the president's request, won't even be effective until after the election. The president thinks it should be effective now. Congress disagreed. Nevertheless, they want to pass it now. There's a lot on the Senate's plate, and it's important that the president hopes the Senate will be able to turn to it.

QUESTION: On the debt limit question, the White House believes that this must be acted upon right now in spite of the fact that you're about to get a lot of the revenues from manual collection of income tax?

FLEISCHER: The Treasury Department informed Capitol Hill again yesterday that the date upon which the nation will hit its debt limit, a statutorily congressionally imposed limit, will be either at the end of next week, or the week after.

Congress is running out of time. And if they recess at the end of this week, which they say they will, Congress will have run out of time, forcing the administration to take extraordinary measures which the administration should not be in a position to take because Congress has a responsibility to fulfill. And the president has called on Congress to pass this and has made that case for more than a month. Congress has had fair warning this is coming up.

QUESTION: Now have you passed the message on to House Republican leaders that you want a clean debt limit bill, because there's some resistance there?

FLEISCHER: The president has stated his case publicly and privately. He wants to be able to sign something. He has called for something clean. That includes something that he'll be able to sign of course.

QUESTION: So he's saying anybody who blocks such a thing would be irresponsible is what he's saying?

FLEISCHER: The president understands that this is not a time -- in a time of war -- it's never a time to mess with the nation's credit limit, especially in a time of war. QUESTION: Would he support tapping federal employee pension funds in order to keep the government running if the Congress does not address it at all?

FLEISCHER: It's not a topic that the president wants to get into, because Congress still should do its job.

Congress is in a position to prevent pensions from being tapped into. Congress will create conditions where the government has to go to extraordinary steps if Congress doesn't fulfill its mission to pass a debt limit prior to the debt limit expiration. And this is an issue that's important for both parties in the president's opinion.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) president signed off on a plan to merge three agencies that deal with border security, and if he hasn't signed off, has he been presented with that option?

FLEISCHER: This morning at a meeting at the Homeland Security Council, the president was presented with a recommendation on how to enhance security at the nation's borders. The president has not made any decisions yet. The matter is under review.

The president is very satisfied that his administration is moving forward to present good ideas about how to protect the border. Some of those ideas of course involve consolidation.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) decision?

FLEISCHER: The president did not indicate what the timing would be.

QUESTION: Is the recommendation merging INS and U.S. Customs?

FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to go into the specifics of the recommendation that was shared with the president at a private meeting.

QUESTION: Wasn't Governor Ridge pushing for something broader, merging not just INS, Customs, other parts of inspection service, agriculture, so why not go even more...

FLEISCHER: As part of the governor's mission to protect homeland security and to work in a coordinating fashion with all the agencies that have operational responsibility, the governor has been looking at a series of ideas for how to enhance security along the border, and that's the charge the president gave him.

And as I indicated, there was a meeting this morning. The president had received a recommendation, because the nature of, you know, a meeting where the president receives these recommendations, until the president has something to say, I'm not going to discuss the specifics of it.

QUESTION: Why does the White House continue to resist the idea of making the office of Homeland Security a Cabinet level department with its own budgetary authority and its own responsibility to Congress?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that the office of Homeland Security under Governor Ridge is working extraordinary well. It is fulfilling the exact mission that the president set out for homeland security when the president announced it, in the wake of the attack on our nation.

If you remember the president's speech to Congress on September 20 announced that for the first time, the White House will have a office of Homeland Security that really is parallel to the longstanding, bipartisan tradition of the office of National Security. It's a coordinating entity that works with the operational agencies. The president believes that Governor Ridge is doing a superb job at it, believes Governor Ridge is an excellent adviser to him and that the governor does a very important function for the president and the White House by coordinating the various agencies, just as the national security adviser does in her capacity.

QUESTION: But if we're talking about consolidating all of these agencies, why not create a Department of Homeland Security, as many lawmakers have suggested? And rather than take Customs, Border, whatever, and put it all under DOJ, why not bring it all under the auspices, under one umbrella of homeland security?

FLEISCHER: The reason for that is if you take a look at how the federal government is set up across the myriad of agencies -- there are more than a dozen agencies, many of which have components that deal with homeland security in one form or another -- I'm not aware of a single proposal on Capitol Hill that would take every single one of those agencies out from their current missions and put them under homeland security.

So even if you took half of them out and put them under a Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security, the White House would still need, in the president's estimation, an adviser on how to coordinate all that myriad of activities the federal government's involved in.

So creating a Cabinet office doesn't solve the problem. You still will have agencies within the federal government that have to be coordinated.

So the answer is, creating a Cabinet post doesn't solve anything. The White House needs a coordinator to work with the agencies wherever they are.

QUESTION: So why then is the Lieberman bill a bad idea?

FLEISCHER: The Lieberman bill? I don't speak here specifics. You want to define the Lieberman bill?

QUESTION: Well, he would take a lot of those agencies that you just talked about and put them under the auspices of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

FLEISCHER: Yes, for the exact reasons I mentioned, that even if you had a Cabinet-level office, the White House would still need somebody to help coordinate the entities that, whether they're in a Cabinet agency or wherever they are, they still require coordination, just like the national security adviser has proved to be, over decades, a very informative and helpful way for the Congress and for the president and for the people to have national security coordinated. Homeland security, whether it's under a Cabinet agency or whether it's elsewhere, still needs coordination, and that's what the president's getting out of the homeland security adviser.

QUESTION: So you're saying even if you had a Department of Homeland Security, you'd still need a homeland security adviser to advise the president?

FLEISCHER: That creating a Cabinet-level post doesn't solve the issue of how do you coordinate all the agencies that are involved.

QUESTION: Ari, the president and first lady will do a stopover in El Paso on the way to Monterey. He said, he'll be talking about the importance of border security. Will he make any definite proposals that day about some of the measures he's considering or will he just speak on broader terms?

FLEISCHER: We'll see exactly what Thursday events will be. Today's only Tuesday, so we'll see exactly what the president has on his mind to talk about on Thursday.

QUESTION: Thank you. Another question, and this has to do with Zacarias Moussaoui, who is going to be -- I don't know if he's going to be asked for the death sentence or not, but at Justice Department, they're conversant that that might be the case. He seems to be the only surviving member of the terrorist group that took over the plane. At least that is the accusation. Would the president back a death penalty request from the Justice Department for Zacarias Moussaoui if he's found guilty of the charges?

FLEISCHER: That's not a determination the president makes. The matters of justice, matters of the charges that should be brought in courts of law are matters that the president delegates to the professionals in the Department of Justice to decide.

I can share with you that when the president made the determination that Mr. Moussaoui would not be tried in a military tribunal, that he would, indeed, be tried in civilian court, he was aware of the possibility that one of the charges could be brought included a death penalty. But this was a decision made by the professionals at the attorney general's office. The president is not involved in that process.

QUESTION: I would assume that a case of this significance and well-known case would be a discussion between the president and the secretary of justice...

FLEISCHER: No. I just indicated otherwise.


FLEISCHER: I just indicated otherwise. And I think that's an important part of protecting justice in America. Those decisions -- and this is the way the president's leads -- get delegated to the professionals who have responsibility for reviewing the facts as they see them that are gathered by the Department of Justice. And decisions about at what level people should be prosecuted should be made by professionals and not the White House.

QUESTION: Some senators are hard on this 245 because of the bluntness at the INS or they had already made up their minds that they do not want to go through with the president.

And number two, I have just returned from India, and President Bush is very popular in India, including on the borders in Kashmir. But what they're saying is, really, that this is the first president ever publicly and officially came out against terrorism, but he should go beyond Afghanistan to fight terrorism against India or in India. And also, that President General Musharraf said that war in Afghanistan is over. Does President Bush share his views?

FLEISCHER: Number one, welcome back.


Let me remember all the questions.


FLEISCHER: Well, 245(i), anybody who properly points out that there are problems with the Immigration and Naturalization Service should vote for this bill, because this bill involves and includes enhanced border protections to protect Americans.

And I went through the list -- more tampant resistant and secure identification requirements, enhanced screening processes. So the lesson to be learned from happened with the INS is vote for this bill. It's a way of enhancing border security.

As far as the war on terrorism is concerned, the president as you know has been working very hard with India and Pakistan to relieve any of the tensions that have occurred there as a result of the terrorist attacks that have taken place -- and with some success. I think the tension has eased in the region in great part because of the president's role that he played -- and Secretary Powell's role -- they played on working direct with Indian and Pakistani officials.

It's an important area that continues to be a priority of this administration, and so too, as you know, is the war against terrorism. The vice president's trip to the region is a part of that.

And I think anybody who pays just a little bit of attention to what the president has been saying as he travels understands how clearly the president feels it is important for us to carry on this war against terrorism to protect our country. And the next phase has already begun, and that is denying sanctuaries to would-be terrorists.


QUESTION: If I could return for a moment to the homeland security meeting this morning. During the steel decision, you managed to give us a pretty good texture of the debate and the trade-offs that were involved without prejudging the president's decision. Can you do that in this case? Can you give us some sense of what the pluses and minuses would be if...

FLEISCHER: If I recall, I did that after the decision was made. I want to share that information with you, but until...


FLEISCHER: No I don't think so. I think I'll wait until after the decision was made, and that's what I would do here again. I'd be more than happy to try to provide you insight, but right now, the president's received the recommendations, as I indicated. I think it's only fair to let him consider it.

QUESTION: Colombia. Does the president see helping Colombia fight the FARC as part of his global anti-terrorism campaign?

FLEISCHER: It's a little bit different. The situation with the FARC involves a group that is listed by the State Department as a terrorist group. I don't think it's fair to say that FARC has global reach, but it is clearly a significant problem for the government of Colombia and for the region.

But, nonetheless, terrorist attacks are a serious threat to Colombia's democratic institutions, and that is why the administration has gone up to the Hill and has asked for additional authorities to be able to help the government of Colombia to counter the FARC. But it's not quite the same (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

QUESTION: Ari, under what conditions would the president ask Vice President Cheney to meet with Arafat, even if it means returning to the region once he returns here?

FLEISCHER: Well, as the vice president said this morning in Israel, General Zinni is on the ground and has made substantial progress, and we are very hopeful that as a result of the talks that General Zinni has had with the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, that a cease-fire will be able to take hold. The vice president has indicated directly that he will be willing to return to the region, he even indicated could possibly be next week, if Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority put in place General Zinni's plan to create a cease-fire.

So the ingredients are there, and it's very important now to see what the events are on the ground. As you know, the president measures these matters in results. The president is very realistic. He's less interested in talk and more interested in results. And that's the next step that the president is looking to, and he'll be listening carefully to General Zinni's thoughts.

QUESTION: Ari, bear with me a second on this, regarding the vice president's trip to the Middle East. If it weren't for the prohibitive word "if," I would ask that in his talks with the Arab leaders, particularly Crown Prince Abdullah and those in Kuwait, if the United States went back into Iraq to dump Saddam Hussein, would the U.S. be denied bases and ports in the Middle East. But since I can't ask that, I will ask...


I will ask you, under what conditions in the talks...

FLEISCHER: If there was a jury here, I'm sure you'd instruct them not to pay attention.

QUESTION: Disregard that.

But based on the vice president's talks, again, under what circumstances would the U.S. be denied bases in the Middle East?

FLEISCHER: That's not a question that I can answer. I think there are too many hypotheticals built into your premise, even based on "ifs."

QUESTION: Just generally, why would you need to reorganize any agencies if you have somebody who is effectively coordinating the activities of agencies?

FLEISCHER: Well, one of the things that the president asked Governor Ridge to do when he came on as homeland security adviser is take a fresh look at how the government is doing its business. Obviously, the government in any issue, whether it's homeland security or anything domestic, has been doing it a certain way and doing it for a long time. And you just reach a point in government where people stop asking the question, "Is it effective?" and they continue to say, "Well, that's the way it's always been."

So Governor Ridge's challenge and charge was to come in and take a new look and a fresh look at government agencies with an eye toward what can and should be improved learning the lessons of September 11. And that's his mission, and that's what he is working on.

QUESTION: Do you feel, though, that any -- nothing's more difficult than trying to reorganize the bureaucracy...

FLEISCHER: That's true.

QUESTION: ... that any proposal that you might forward is going to he jeopardized or made less likely because you continue to refuse to let Mr. Ridge go to the Hill to testify? And I know you say it's tradition, but traditions are often broken. Why not?

FLEISCHER: No, I don't think there's any sense that there should be a connection between what is the right best policy for the country based on substance and a totally unrelated issue that's a much more process-related issue that involves changing a longstanding successful bipartisan tradition that Congresses have honored going back decades.

QUESTION: But you know it's not unrelated. I mean, it is very related...

FLEISCHER: I think that if somebody were to say that this is a good -- that if the president were to act on this recommendation, and say on the Hill, "This is a good idea, but we're going to oppose a good idea because we don't like the process," I think that the American people want the focus to be on substance and on the quality of ideas, and that's where the president is going to focus his thoughts and his attention.

The other issue is something that you've heard the president talk about directly. Now the president feels very strongly about it, and I don't see that changing.

QUESTION: Ari, last week the president said that he was going to work with his friends in relation to the situation in Zimbabwe and Mugabe. And today Nigeria and officials from South Africa are dealing with the issue of the elections in Zimbabwe. What are the thoughts of the administration, and what are the options that are on the table for dealing with these elections?

FLEISCHER: The United States is continuing its conversations with allied nations about what the proper response should be to the fraudulent election in Zimbabwe. The president's concern remains about the violence that took place leading up to the election, and including on the election, and his concern about the importance of democracy as the best way to help people who suffer around the world, and that includes in Zimbabwe.

So those conversations will continue, because the president wants to make certain that no decision be rushed, that whatever decisions are taken will be constructive in improving conditions for people on the ground.

Having said all that, I think it's also fair to point that the president is disappointed that some Africa nations that profess their support and practice for democratic values, nonetheless have been willing to turn a blind eye to what happened in Zimbabwe and the abuse of those values, which the president thinks are important everywhere. So that is disappointing.

QUESTION: Also back home, in New York we're hearing reports about the Pentagon looking to change the air patrols -- combat air patrols. This morning you said that there will always be a robust presence, but how can you say there will be a robust presence when it will take 15 minutes to deploy aircraft to fight whatever terrorist attack may come?

FLEISCHER: On that question, this is an issue that will always be reviewed to provide the greatest protection for the America people wherever they are. And that's based on intelligence information. It's based on threat analysis. It's based on a whole series of items, including the fact that since September 11 domestic security, as any traveler can tell you, has been changed. And that involves the strengthening in cockpit doors, for example. It involves the presence of federal air marshals on an increased basis. It involves changes that have been on the ground, in terms of procedures when people board airplanes.

So a series of enhancements to security have taken place since September 11 across the nation. And any decision about operational matters involving CAPs will be based on intelligence and other items, as I indicated. And there will continue to be security measures that includes CAPs on a changing basis, depending on what those threats and analyses show.

HEMMER: Going to leave the White House here for a moment. Ari Fleischer these continues his briefing with reporters. We've run the gamut once again today.

But one thing in there we found most critical is what happening right now in the Middle East, Ari Fleischer saying the president, President Bush, in his words, is interested in results.




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