Skip to main content /TRANSCRIPTS


White House Press Briefing

Aired May 17, 2002 - 12:18   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Meanwhile, to the White House and Ari Fleischer walking into the room, the briefing now getting started.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the president's day, and then I also have the week ahead.

The president this morning had his usual round of briefings, and then he met with the prime minister of Slovenia, where they discussed bilateral issues between the United States and Slovenia. They discussed the upcoming Prague summit about NATO expansion, as well as the broader regional issues involving Bosnia, Serbia and bringing peace and stability to the region. And the president, as you know, president the Commander in Chief's Trophy to the United States Air Force Academy.

Later this afternoon the president will deliver what he considers very important remarks on the importance of helping senior citizens get prescription drug coverage as part of Medicare. The president is determined to help strengthen our nation's Medicare system for our seniors while getting them prescription drugs and affording seniors more options and more choices as part of their Medicare plans.

And then the president will make remarks on Asia-Pacific American Heritage Month in the East Room. And then he will depart the White House for Camp David where he will be for the weekend.

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

QUESTION: Ari, I'm wondering how can you and other White House people cry foul or accuse the Democrats of playing politics with this issue when on Tuesday you were up here defending the Republicans' right to sell a photograph of Bush on 9/11 as a fund-raising tool and when Karl Rove in January said Republicans should use the president's handling of the war on terrorism to their political advantage.

FLEISCHER: Number one, that's not what Mr. Rove said.

Number two, the administration, and I think the American people recognize that that photo represented the president doing his job on behalf of the country. The president did not criticize the opposition party, the president did not intimate or hint that the opposition party had prior knowledge of the attack on September 11 and then try to say the opposition party had information that they should have done something about. It's a totally different measure.

QUESTION: No, but the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of his performance has been masterful.

FLEISCHER: It's a different question.

QUESTION: Two questions: First, Dr. Rice laid out yesterday what the administration was hearing and concluding about threats to the U.S. and U.S. interests overseas during the course of last summer. And it seems there was a lot of urgency within the administration.

Granted that hindsight is 20/20, does the president believe that he and his administration communicated to the American public effectively enough the kind of urgency that Dr. Rice described was in the administration during the weeks leading up to September 11?

FLEISCHER: Let me draw your attention to a series of things that the president said publicly and the actions that the president took. In fact, you can begin by going back to the president's speech as a candidate at the Citadel on February 23, 1999. If you recall, that's a speech that the White House handed out to all of you in the aftermath of September 11, because, in many ways, it showed the priority that this president was bringing to office about the need to fight terrorism.

And he said in that speech at the Citadel, "And there is more to be done preparing here at home. I will put a high priority on detecting and responding to terrorism on our soil."

In March -- on March 4, 2001, when the president went to participate in the christening of the Ronald Reagan in Newport News, Virginia, the president said, "Our present dangers are less concentrated and more varied. They come from rogue nations, from terrorism." And he went on.

And finally, the president, on May 8, in a statement that you all have, issued a statement about domestic preparedness against weapons of mass destruction. And that was a warning from the president about protecting America's homeland and citizens from the threats of weapons of mass destruction as one of our nation's most important national security challenges.

Beyond that, in the realm of action, this is why -- one of the reasons why, once our nation was hit in this attack on September 11, we were able to respond so quickly.

In the events leading up to September 11 and over the course of the first year or the first nine months of this president's administration, the president came to Washington determined to do something more fundamental about terrorism because of the threats that it poses to our interests abroad, as well as to Americans here at home.

And as a result of a process that involved the CIA, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the National Security Council, a national security presidential directive was developed and prepared throughout 2001 that was approved by what's called the Principles Committee, which is essentially Cabinet-level officers involved in national security, on September 4, 2001. That document was then finalized on September 10; it had not yet gone to the president.

That national security presidential directive was a comprehensive, multi-front plant to dismantle the Al Qaeda. It involved a direction to the Pentagon to develop military options for the dismantling of Al Qaeda. It involved action on the financial front to dry up their resources. And it also involved working with the Northern Alliance in an attempt to dismantle the Al Qaeda.

The president was aware that bin Laden, of course, as previous administrations, has been well known that bin Laden was determined to strike the United States. In fact, the label on the president's PDB was "Bin Laden Determined to Strike the United States."

And in another piece of this was just something that, as well known to you all, is that the creation of the Office of Homeland Security was something that was planned even before September 11, as Senator Feinstein has reminded her colleagues.

QUESTION: Why has the White House persistently tried to delay any major investigations so that the American people and everyone else can get to the bottom of what the cause was? It'll be Monday morning quarterbacking, fair enough, but at least we'll know what the truth is.

FLEISCHER: With all due respect, that's two out of three mischaracterizations of what the president has said.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) tried to stall it, haven't you? You don't deny that, do you, surely? Daschle has said repeatedly that he's been asked -- he's been asked repeatedly, "Do not go ahead with an investigation."

FLEISCHER: Let me remind you of the words of the vice president, what he said last night, because...

QUESTION: Last night is a different story.

FLEISCHER: Helen, let me tell you what the vice president said...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the story broke...

FLEISCHER: Helen, we all know you have opinions on these matters.

QUESTION: I don't think that's very fair. I know your opinion, too, OK?

FLEISCHER: I'm entitled to have opinions.

QUESTION: And so am I. FLEISCHER: Helen, let me answer your opinionated question. The vice president said last night in his speech up in New York that, "We believe that a thorough investigation of the events that led up to September 11 is entirely appropriate, and at the president's direction I have worked with the leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to ensure that they get the necessary cooperation from the executive branch."

There was some discussion earlier this year, at the time that the Congress was wrestling with how to begin an investigation into what took place on September 11. Congress itself debated in what form this investigation should take place.

That's not a surprise. Any issue involving jurisdiction on Capitol Hill, in terms of who gets to investigate what, is typically one of the most contentious issues within the members of Congress themselves. There are a variety of different viewpoints expressed by Democrats and Republicans on the Hill. Some wanted a blue ribbon commission that involved people who are not serving in the Congress. Others wanted a broad investigation which would create a super- committee that would allow people off the Intelligence Committees to investigate. And others wanted to keep it limited to the Intelligence Committees, which have expertise in working with the very issues presented.

The final determination made by the Congress, supported by the administration as we talked with them earlier this year, was precisely what's happening now, that the vice president expressed our support for.

QUESTION: Are you denying that the administration -- are you saying the administration did not try to delay any investigation?

FLEISCHER: The administration made it clear to the Congress that we supported an investigation so long as it was done in a responsible way by people who had the expertise to know how to handle it. The administration made clear to the Congress that we are a nation at war, and that they key participants from the Central Intelligence Agency, from the FBI and from the military have vital ongoing missions to protect our country. And we wanted to make certain that those who were doing the investigation were expert enough and cognizant of the fact of the current war-fighting duties of the personnel involved, so that this did not become a fishing expedition or another endless waste of taxpayer money in an open-ended congressional investigation.

QUESTION: You did try to...

FLEISCHER: And we worked -- we worked together to get a satisfactory result.

QUESTION: In fact, Senator Daschle did say yesterday that on several occasions -- on more than two occasions that the vice president asked him to delay or block any congressional investigation. He said on one occasion that the president asked him to do that at the breakfast meeting. Are you now saying that they weren't asking to block an investigation, they were just specifying what kinds of investigation they wanted. And if so, how many times did they make that...

FLEISCHER: What I made clear -- what I made clear is that there were discussions with Congress about the need to make certain, particularly in the early stages of the war, that the people who are engaged, whose 100 percent attention need to be on fighting the war, that their efforts would not be distracted at that point, at that moment, in an investigation that could take them away from their immediate duties.

We've made it clear that we support investigation, so long as it's done by the responsible people, and done in manner that would be -- allow for the experts to have access to the information.


FLEISCHER: We always work with Congress, and we continue to work with Congress on what they are working on. And the method that the Congress has set up right now we believe is the appropriate method, and we're working very well with them. About -- I think it's fair to say Congress doesn't know how it feels about all these matters. Congress is still grappling with it. There are difference of opinions in the Congress.

Again, I spent a lot of years working on the Hill. One of the most controversial issues for members of Congress themselves to face is who gets to sit on what forum because they all want to sit on the forums, and it's a jurisdictional issue where they typically disagree with each other. And that's why the Intelligence Committees are working productively, and that probably is the best way to ascertain the information that the American people are entitled to.

QUESTION: Are you willing to work with Congress enough to turn over the FBI memo from the Phoenix office?

FLEISCHER: We are aware there are questions. Congress will continue to talk with them about it. And I anticipate that talk will continue.

QUESTION: Could you answer yes or no to that?

FLEISCHER: I say I anticipate talk about those things will continue.

QUESTION: Could you follow-up on this memo -- this presidential directive? Granted it was only the ninth month in office, but if that memo and that plan had been able to be carried out a month sooner, two months sooner, could it have potentially prevented 9/11? And on the same token, if the attack had taken place in October or November, instead of September, and the plans were put in place, could it have stopped it?

FLEISCHER: That's a hypothetical; there's no way I can give you an accurate answer to a question like that. I wish I could; it's a hypothetical. I think everybody wishes the attack could have been stopped or prevented, and the lives could have been saved.

QUESTION: In hindsight...

FLEISCHER: In both parties.

QUESTION: ... if it had been possible to have that plan in place a month, two months sooner?

FLEISCHER: It's a hypothetical. And the fact of the matter is, the administration moved very quickly and thoroughly in a very thorough way involving the military to dismantle the Al Qaeda, which was a fundamental change, the issue of dismantling Al Qaeda.

QUESTION: Without suggesting that it could have been preventing, but we are talking about things that may have fallen through the cracks. And I believed you were asked about this this morning; I wanted to follow up. This study that was done by the Library of Congress, are you familiar with the one I'm talking about?

FLEISCHER: I was made aware of it about two hours ago.

QUESTION: OK. It was at the request of some government agency. But there's a very clear sentence here where it talks about Al Qaeda's retaliation to cruise missile attacks against training camps in Afghanistan, and says, quote, "Suicide bombers belonging to Al Qaeda's martyrdom battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives into the Pentagon, CIA headquarters or the White House."

FLEISCHER: OK, what Campbell (ph) is referring to, which came to my attention and to the White House's attention just two hours ago or so, is a September 1999 psychological and sociological evaluation of terrorism. It's an unclassified document that's been available on the web for years -- apparently been available on the web. At least it was prepared years ago, and it's available on the web.

And it gets into how terrorists think. I don't think it's a surprise to anybody that terrorists think in evil ways, in unimaginable ways, and it describes several of the ways.

It was not -- the way this document...

QUESTION: It predicts what happened.

FLEISCHER: ... this document was described, it is not a piece of intelligence information, suggesting that we have information about a specific plan or that they are going to. It describes -- the title of the report, if I recall, is "The Psychology and the Sociology of Terrorists." So it describes their evil -- their thinking.

It was...

QUESTION: Who requested (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: I don't know who requested it. I know it's a Library of Congress report, so obviously this is...

QUESTION: Which is generally requested by government...

QUESTION: Are you familiar with the person who wrote it?

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't know who requested it. But the point I was going to get to is, I think this is -- over the last two days, we've seen increasing signs of how much information was available to members of Congress. It's a Library of Congress report from...

QUESTION: But it's also available to the White House.

FLEISCHER: ... 1999. It's exactly right.

QUESTION: But, Ari, her point -- there's a broader point here. No matter who this document -- the document is based on, if you look at the footnotes and the attachments to it, on existing government documents, existing government testimony, public records about what is known about these organizations.

You have from the podium, and Dr. Rice yesterday quite forcefully from the podium, said hijacking before September 11 meant a different thing than hijacking after September 11.


QUESTION: But there is public record, from investigations overseas, investigations in the United States, analysis, including this one by government employees, that people knew, and Dr. Rice herself said these people were training to hijack airplanes, and the United States government knew that.

No one around the -- people find it incredulous that no one around the president, when the word hijacking appears in an analysis report, said, "I wish we knew more because, you know, these lunatics have talked about flying planes into buildings." And you say no one brought that up?

FLEISCHER: I think you're again applying, in the post-9/11 world, the reality...

QUESTION: No, this is pre-9/11 material.

QUESTION: This is 1999, and they're predicting exactly what happened.


QUESTION: ... nobody -- nobody -- either in the president's CIA briefings or in a Principles Committee said, "You know what? These lunatics have talked about flying planes into buildings."

FLEISCHER: Campbell's point is exactly right. This report in 1999 about the thinking of the sociology...


FLEISCHER: Wait a minute. Let me get to the point I'm making. Campbell's making a very valid point here, that this report from 1999 about the thinking, the psychology of terrorism was available in 1999 to members of Congress, the previous administration. It existed in some form which did not come to the attention of this administration when we took office on January 20.

And I think what it shows is this information that was out there did not raise enough alarms with anybody that it suggested, because it was not intelligence information, it was their thinking of sociology/psychology, that the people in 1999 didn't see this and bring it to anybody's attention, people on the Hill didn't, and as I indicated, the White House didn't.

QUESTION: It wasn't just thinking and psychology. There's testimony in criminal cases brought by the United States government and brought by other government against suspected terrorists. My point is not was this specific report brought to the attention of the president. Your position is that no one in any period of time before September 11 in any discussion of Al Qaeda said, "You know, there's a lot of evidence out there that these people have talked about flying planes into buildings."

FLEISCHER: That is absolutely right. I have not heard anybody indicate that to me, and you've heard that from the president himself.

QUESTION: Just on that, wasn't there a widely read book -- I forget the name of the novel -- which described just such a thing? Had nobody in the White House read that book?


QUESTION: Is the president, at least, concerned or disappointed that nobody could have thought of such an idea?

FLEISCHER: I think Democrats and Republicans and everybody around the world is saddened and disappointed that we were unable to prevent an attack that took place on our country. Nobody can dispute that.

But as the president said today, that if he had specific information that terrorists were planning to use those airplanes to attack our country, he would have taken the same action that any Democrat or Republican in the White House would have taken. Those are the facts.

QUESTION: You're indicating that your welcoming an investigation, and yet the president today talked about this being a town of second-guessers. Vice President Cheney last night apparently said that some Democratic criticism was thoroughly irresponsible in the time of war, and we're going to be in a time of war for quite some time. Are you simultaneously trying to chill an investigation, at the same time you say that you welcome it?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely not. But there are relevant points to be made about the professional manner in which the investigation should be conducted. And on that point, I want to bring something to you attention that illustrates some of the language in the statements that were used or to suggestions by members of Congress yesterday that the administration might have possibly have had information that it did not use or the president did not use.

There have been several responsible, many responsible things said by Democrats, Senator Bob Graham of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Lieberman, Senator Feinstein. Senator Feinstein in July of 2001 on CNN on Wolf Blitzer's program said, and I quote, "Intelligence staff have told me that there is a major probably of a terrorist incident within the next three months." She continued, "The vice president, when he spoke to the Democrat Caucus, mentioned that the administration was going to be working on the issue of homeland defense around that particular issue." The point being, the administration prior to September 11 has shared with the Democrats, was already moving on the homeland security front. But the point I'm making vis-a-vis the statements by these Democrats yesterday that the president may not have acted on information that he had, clearly if Senator Feinstein, a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, was aware of this, the question arises, what did the Democrats know and why weren't they talking to each other?

QUESTION: Who said these things? Who are you talking about on the Hill? Who acted in a manner, as Vice President Cheney said last night, "unworthy of national leaders in a time of war"? Who are you talking about?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that anybody who made insinuations or suggestions that this president had information that could have prevented the attacks and did not act on them is asking questions in such a way as to create an impression that the president could have and should have done something that he didn't do.


FLEISCHER: Oh, I think it's fair to say that individuals in the Democratic leadership -- and let me also bring your attention to something that should be reflected on when it comes to the politics of this. And you can draw contrasts of how leaders act and leaders respond to something like this.

When there was a suggestion that Bush knew about this in print, Bush knew about 9/11, Mayor Bloomberg of New York said that suggestion was ridiculous. He contacted the White House, he listened, heard what information the White House had. He called it ridiculous, he united New York City and he led.

I have to say with disappointment that Mrs. Clinton, having seen that same headline, did not call the White House, did not ask if it was accurate or not. Instead, she immediately went to the floor of the Senate, and I'm sorry to say that she followed that headline and divided.

QUESTION: Ari, what is the mood of the president right now about all this? It sounds like he's angry. FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that the president understands that in Washington, D.C., second-guessing is second nature to a lot of politicians. The president also understands that there are a lot of responsible people in the United States Congress; I've just cited many of them. And the president is going to continue his efforts to unite this nation to work in a bipartisan way, because that's what the American people expect from their leaders in Washington.

He has a war to fight. He's going to continue to fight it in a way that brings people together.

QUESTION: His mood this morning in the Oval Office in his early meetings?

FLEISCHER: His mood?


FLEISCHER: He's focused on his business. As I indicated, he has an important speech just after this about getting prescription drugs to senior citizens.

QUESTION: Ari, recently I met the president of Sri Lanka at New York at the United Nations, and her country's also fighting terrorism, a group which is being banned by President Bush. And for the last two years, last year and this year, she has been trying to meet President Bush or coming to the White House since we had so many prime ministers and presidents here, but she was told twice that it's too late.

FLEISCHER: Who are you referring to?

QUESTION: The president of Sri Lanka. And she said that this year also she called, that she wanted to stop by the White House, but she was told that too late, and last year also same thing. And what I'm saying is really that since she's also fighting against terrorism and she is part of the coalition against terrorism and President Bush banned the group (UNINTELLIGIBLE) country.

FLEISCHER: This is the first I've heard of that. I'll be happy to look into it.

QUESTION: And second question on (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Indian ambassador here in Washington or the U.S. is a little upset at a number of few congressmen, like Edolphus Towns and Congressman Dan Burton, that they're inserting misinformation about India in the Congressional Records on the regular basis, and this time -- first time that Washington Times and India Globe reported that they have taken this step, because this issue has become in the Indian parliament and also across Indian-Americans. If president is aware of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and want to stop, because he's calling on everybody...

FLEISCHER: I can only describe to you what the president has done here, and as you know, the president called the prime minister of India to express his condolences about the recent attacks. They have a very good relationship. I cannot speak about anything involving members of Congress in this regard.

QUESTION: Ari, I have two questions for you. The first one has to do with the Office of Homeland Security. You have said it from the podium, Dr. Rice said it yesterday, it's one of the positive steps the White House has taken after September 11 to combat terrorism. My question is, is the president going to do something to reinforce the role of Governor Ridge? I know he sits in at all the major meetings and be involved, but this is a city of turf battles. Is the president going to create a Cabinet job for Mr. Ridge, or what is the president going to do to give him more...

FLEISCHER: One, the president is very pleased with the job that Governor Ridge is doing. He has a very difficult job involving the coordination of the various agencies and he believes he's doing it very, very well.

Congress has some different ideas about the possibility of creating a Cabinet post, and we're looking at those ideas.

Regardless of whether a Cabinet post of homeland security is created, Congress will get itself right back into the same issues about what entity will get removed from what existing agencies and moved to other Cabinet-level homeland security. And I predict to you that will be no easy matter for the Congress to wrestle with, because they'll find how difficult it is to move an entity from one place to another, particularly given the jurisdiction of the Appropriations Committees on the Hill where they don't like to give things up. But we'll work with Congress to try to get that matter explored to protect the country.


FLEISCHER: When you talked about Governor Ridge I was thinking about the issue that has come up in some time here about the question of alerts. And as you know, we remain a nation on an elevated alert status because there are terrorists, including Al Qaeda, who are still determined to hit us if they possibly can.

It's been asked here earlier, why didn't the administration put out some type of alert prior to 9/11? And as a sign -- how difficult it is to wrestle with these notions of alerts. Now particularly in this case of the August information, which you now understand, was generalized information -- and actually the May information, the August summary, was generalized information about hijacking and any number of other things.

I want to draw your attention to the bipartisan difficulty that everybody in this town has deciding exactly when you do you put out an alert because it can help deter an attack and it can get the security people on higher guard and when does it no longer serve a fruitful purpose.

Here are some of the statements that were made by members of Congress, again in both parties wrestling with this, after alerts went out in the last several months. This is October 12, 2001, quote, "I would not have warned the American people of a general threat of an attack. I don't think that does anybody any good," that was Senator Biden on CNN.

This is Senator Shelby on October 31 as alerts went out in the post-9/11 atmosphere. Senator Shelby said, "The administration had to make a judgment call," his words, "about what to do with intelligence that it received." But he asked, quote, "How many times can you cry wolf if nothing happens?" And Senator Dodd, also October 31, also expressed frustration over the alert. Quote, "It's crazy to make these kinds of statements. Imaginations run wild."

And this is in regard to when the administration received information that we shared with the country, we shared with the public. You remember the alert about suspension bridges on the West Coast. These are very difficult judgment calls to make. And I think it's fair to say that on a bipartisan basis people are wrestling with them. Even in the post 9/11 environment, even when we had more specific, at least, information, then that generalized notion of hijacking back in the summer period of 2001.

QUESTION: The Phoenix report, is there -- and we asked Dr. Rice. She said she was going to look into it. When we will find out when the White House received the report of the agent?

FLEISCHER: Once I have an update I will share it.

QUESTION: Ari, back to the Library of Congress report, for a second. You said a little while ago that the information that was out there in this report and others didn't raise enough alarms. What steps has the president taken or ordered to make sure that intelligence agencies that do come across these kind of things have raised the proper alarms from here on out? You know, bring it to his attention or to someone's attention that...

FLEISCHER: Everything has changed since September 11. The fact of the matter is, we are a nation that was a peace nation, that was on a peacetime footing, and that was reflected in the very briefing the president has in the morning, which was a CIA briefing. And as a result of the attack that took place on our country, we are now on a war footing. And as a result of that and in addition to the creation of the Office of Homeland Security, as you know, the president now at his morning briefings is joined by the director of the FBI, as well as the head of the CIA.

And the director of the FBI, who only assumed his post some week or two before the attacks -- the director of the FBI is working very hard to change and strengthen the FBI. And the president sees the excellent job that he is doing bringing those changes to the FBI to make it more proactive on preventing the country from being attacked while the previous mission was much more oriented on arresting people who have committed domestic crimes, such as kidnapping.

FLEISCHER: The very fact that Congress itself recognized a weakness in the intelligence agency's ability to fight terrorism was reflected by their action in passing the Patriot Act, which gave the intelligence agencies more power. Congress deserves credit for that.

These are all the changes that have taken place since September 11, reflecting the fact we're a nation that's shifted to a war footing.

QUESTION: So if a report similar to this one came out today, the president is confident that the proper alarm bells would be sounded?

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that everybody is much more focused on the mission of fighting terrorism than they were prior to September 11. As I indicated, the mission of the FBI was a different mission prior to September 11.

QUESTION: Can you help me with the definition -- when does a legitimate question about what the administration, what the president knew, become an incendiary or irresponsible suggestion?

FLEISCHER: I think that any time anybody suggests or implies to the American people that this president had specific information that could have prevented the attacks on our country on September 11, that crosses the lines. I don't think that's a fair thing to say.

And I think that the American people will be very leery of any politician who seeks to turn the sorrow of victims into their own political gain.

QUESTION: You're implying that there's no way that any president of the United States -- not just this one, but any president of the United States is capable of making an error in judgment, or that his administration or her administration is incapable of making an error in not funneling information up; that it's improper to look back and say, "Hey, can we learn from that mistake?"

FLEISCHER: That's exactly why there's a congressional investigation. We are working with the Intelligence Committees of the Congress, so that they can pursue it.

QUESTION: According to the position that you just laid out, congressional inquiry is second-guessing the president and implying...

FLEISCHER: Congressional inquiry is a gathering of all the information, is the exact forum that Congress has set up for itself to answer the very questions that the American people deserve answers to.

But when Congress has already got an entity that it created to answer those questions, and the members of Congress say, "We need answers to the questions; we have created the very entity to answer those questions," they understand. They have done that. And that entity is working on a through and complete investigation, and we await its report.

QUESTION: Ari, can the American people be confident that this president, who prides himself on being plain-spoken and direct to admit a mistake if he felt he had made one?

FLEISCHER: I think the American people know that this president is determined to protect this country, and this president is determined to find out everything that can be found out. So this country has the full protections. And that's why we're working with the Congress.

QUESTION: Hindsight is 20/20. But has the president himself expressed some level of frustration or anger, "If only that report had moved to my desk much more quickly; if only..."

FLEISCHER: Which report?

QUESTION: The one that was sitting on Condi's desk for final sign-off. "If only this information had been presented to me in a way that perhaps said this is a much bigger threat." Is he saying any level of frustration...

FLEISCHER: This president is a realist. He deals with events as they are.

QUESTION: Ari, you said that for the most part the threat -- or the information that the president got was very general. But the FAA did issue eight separate warnings to the airlines that summer. So why weren't the airlines giving any more a specific directions or instructions on how they should react?

FLEISCHER: And those notifications to the airlines reflected all the information about the nature of what was known, which was generalized information.

QUESTION: So you're saying it's the fault of the airlines that no specific steps were taken, because the airlines say that, you know, the warnings that they got were of no particular substance.

FLEISCHER: The airlines are stating that the information they got is exactly as Dr. Rice described it yesterday: generalized information about hijackings, which, of course, is nothing new. The fact that there are terrorists who seek to hijack airlines in the pre- 9/11 traditional sense is not new. We had...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) breakdown though...

FLEISCHER: You're asking me the exact question about if the information was so general, how could the United States government, the president have possibly known the September 11 attack was going to take place? Your statement is valid. The information available to the government was general. That general information was shared with the carriers.

QUESTION: But is that normal, to issue eight warnings?

QUESTION: Does that really suggest that it was really a general threat if you have eight warnings?

FLEISCHER: Yes, as general information is made available, the law enforcement community makes notification, and has done so for years, to the relevant entities in the private sector, in this case the carriers. QUESTION: Ari, a question about the draft presidential directive that may have been on Dr. Rice's desk on September 5 -- September 10. Who specifically requested that that directive be drafted? What specifically prompted the drafting of that directive? And did it have any connection with the threats throughout the summer of 2001 that you and Dr. Rice (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: This was driven by the president's determination as a candidate for office to do more about terrorism. If you recall, you've heard the president say that it appeared as if we were swatting at flies and he wanted to dismantle Al Qaeda because of the threat it posed. The work on this actually began during the transition. It's a reflection of the president's desire to take more fundamental steps against terrorism.

QUESTION: So it predated even his taking office?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's why I gave you the Citadel speech in 1999 as the first example of where the president put his finger on the growing threat the United States faced as a result of terrorism.

QUESTION: So, a specific task to draft a directive, an action plan to go after Al Qaeda, actually predated...

FLEISCHER: A plan on what to do about terrorism began in its earliest stage during the transition. And then as -- after January 20, 2001, it went through the normal National Security Council process, which begins with deputies and other people at the working levels of the agencies and makes its way up through the more higher- level officials in the approval process.

QUESTION: At what point did it focus on Al Qaeda? At what point was the decision made to focus this directive on Al Qaeda?

FLEISCHER: I think it was focused on Al Qaeda from the very earliest days.

QUESTION: Ari, what was it that was -- we know there were some previous presidential decision directives on terrorism, for instance, one in 1998 that even authorized the U.S. to go after and kill, if necessary, Osama bin Laden. What was it that this particular directive did or addressed that was not addressed in previous presidential decisions?

FLEISCHER: Well, I can't speak to the previous ones; I'm not familiar enough with their details. But as I indicated, this presidential directive would have directed the Pentagon to come up with military options, which could have included boots on the ground, to take action on the financial front, to work with the Northern Alliance. Its purpose was to dismantle Al Qaeda.

QUESTION: What is it -- how long would this have taken? In other words, there is some attention here to the fact that it was ready but not signed by the president and not put into effect. How long would it take to implement this plan? FLEISCHER: That really would have depended on the military options that the Pentagon came up with, so it's an indeterminate period of time.

QUESTION: But you're suggesting it's clearly something that would have taken months to implement, if you're talking about military...

FLEISCHER: The direction to the Pentagon was to develop military options for the purpose of dismantling Al Qaeda, not for the purpose of, as the president put it, swatting at flies. That would suggest a time period of some length, an indeterminate one.

QUESTION: You said, as we all still know, we're still under threat. Intelligence is very important at this point. Is it appropriate, then, that CIA Director Tenet is so involved in the Middle East at this point, given the burden of responsibility he has within his own organization?

FLEISCHER: They're all important. And they both are involved in successfully winning the war against terrorism.

There are terrorist threats in the Middle East. The prospects for eliminating terrorism worldwide will be enhanced as a result of bringing peace to the Middle East. The prospects for creating peace in the Middle East will be enhanced as a result of a worldwide effort to dismantle terrorism. The two go together. And Director Tenet's involvement has been very, very successful and helpful.

QUESTION: A few minutes ago, you mentioned the sorrow of victims. Yesterday several of the -- not all, certainly -- but several of the family members of the victims said critical things about the president. Assuming you don't ascribe partisan motivations to them, can you say how much concern that causes? Has anybody at the White House made any effort to talk to any of the family members?

FLEISCHER: I'll have to find out about it, if anybody has talked. It's a big -- what? Can I answer his question?

It's a big White House.

But, you know, I think that for the families of what took place, if anybody were to suggest to them that this administration had information that could have prevented it, well, of course they're going to feel that way. It's totally understandable.

But the administration, the president did not have that information. And so I think that as they hear and realize -- and many of them have not said those statements -- but as they understand the exact facts as you now know them, I think they recognize that we are all in this as one nation, in it together. And that we are a nation of Republicans and Democrats who shares their sorrow.

QUESTION: What consideration was given over the past eight months to proactively putting this information out to the public?

FLEISCHER: Well, what information?

QUESTION: What's come out in the last 24 hours.

FLEISCHER: Could you be more specific?

QUESTION: Specifically, the information Dr. Rice gave us yesterday about the analytic, and what the general nature of the threat and how it was assessed, how it was processed, how the decisions were made.

FLEISCHER: The administration will share information on a regular basis that helps keep the country informed about events that took place. It's always a balance between information that is classified, information that deals with sources and methods. And I think we've leaned as strong as we can in the direction of getting information out about our administration's efforts to fight terrorism.

QUESTION: But I mean the information that came out specifically yesterday. In other words, what consideration was given over the last eight months to saying, "Let's put the national security adviser out to tell the American people what we did know, however general, however non-specific, and how we processed it"?

FLEISCHER: Rewind the tape to the other night when a leaked document was selectively provided to a news organization that covered one snapshot in a misleading way that left out other information, such as the information that was shared with security officials at carriers alerting them to notify them of the generalized notion of hijacking. In the wake of a select leak of classified information that was misrepresentative of what the president was doing, what the administration was doing, we made the decision, as I indicated to you yesterday, to provide you with the answers to all your questions. So that's...

QUESTION: So there was not a consideration made or a decision made or a discussion had previous to that?

FLEISCHER: I think the American people know that this administration has a lot meetings that take place at classified levels where intelligence information is reviewed, where threats are -- the president himself talks every morning -- talks often about what he sees every morning involving the threat matrix. I think the American people understand it. That's why every morning I say to you, the president had a CIA briefing and FBI briefing. I'm not at liberty to discuss every morning what is in a CIA briefing or FBI briefing, but I think the American people have a general sense that the process the president uses to obtain the information he needs to protect our country.

QUESTION: What level of concern has been expressed around here in the last 24 hours at the staff level or by the president himself, that the president may have in some way been damaged by the way that this has been handled, by the way it's come out?

FLEISCHER: You know, I think the real damage that can get done in something like this, when somebody selectively leaks a misleading piece of information without providing all relevant information, is it sends a terrible signal at a time when we should be a united nation. And that's the damage done by selective leaks of classified information that are not representative of a full story and a full picture. And that's where, I think, that it's a very difficult issue for you all to cover, because you recognize that you're getting a selective piece of information, not a full story.

QUESTION: I just want to ask you, did Mr. Clark, as quoted in The Washington Post today, of the NSC, say in July that something really spectacular was going to happen here? Is that accurate?

FLEISCHER: I'd have to ask him.

QUESTION: Well, if it's on the front page of the paper today, I mean...

FLEISCHER: I know, but I don't ask...


FLEISCHER: I do not receive a daily briefing on his verbatim quotes.

QUESTION: But, I mean, that's -- you must have anticipated you would be asked about that.

FLEISCHER: As Dr. Rice indicated yesterday, and as the president said in his interview with The Washington Post, that the reporting that we had over the summer, in the early moments of the summer, did show that there was something building, mostly focused on somewhere foreign.

QUESTION: Well, according to the same story, George Tenet had been nearly frantic, is the quote, with concerns since June 22. I don't recall that kind of thing being that...

FLEISCHER: Well, let me just walk you through the facts of what Dr. Rice briefed yesterday in terms of the timetable.



FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to tell you whether somebody's verbatim quote like that.

QUESTION: But I'm trying to gather what the mindset was in July or June. You didn't...

FLEISCHER: Obviously, people were taking these threats seriously.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on the presidential directive and Clark's role actually? Because based of what Condi told us yesterday, he was very much involved in these working groups and, sort of, bringing all the pieces together that presumably led to the directive winding up on her desk.

But he was also part of the Clinton administration's counterterrorism team. He was there at the end of that administration. They had also been working on a plan for dealing with bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

So would it be fair to say that -- I'm assuming where there was the transition, that he would have said to Dr. Rice, "Look, here's the deal, here's the plan we've been working on. This is serious, we need to pay attention to this."

Was there a delay because of the change of administration, where she said, "Wait a minute, we're going to have to take our time here, we're new at all this, and figure out what's a priority and what's not"?

FLEISCHER: I think just the opposite. As I indicated, the planning began during the transition period, and the goal shifted to the dismantling of Al Qaeda.

QUESTION: Ari, is there any indication that Al Qaeda may have gotten wind of this process, this directive, and that may have played a role in the assassination of Massoud (ph) shortly before the September 11...

FLEISCHER: Nothing that I've heard, no.

QUESTION: Can I return to this issue of the notifications over the spring and summer to the airlines -- through FAA to the airlines and the airports?

We talk a lot in here about lessons learned since September 11. Is there any concern and have there been reforms in that process?

Because even though, as you say, the information was very general, I assume you don't put out these warnings, these alerts or notifications, whatever you call them, to have nothing happen. And, you know, you don't just send them out so the airlines go, "That's nice," and not do anything.

Now, they say it was so general they didn't know what to do. You say you only had general information, you were doing the best you could in putting them on some notice. The effect is nothing happened. They got these, they read them, and they said, "Oh." And based on anything you say to ask the airlines, no increased security, no notification of the pilots, the flight attendants, apparently. Is there any reform in that process to make sure that, "Even if it says we don't know what, do something"?

FLEISCHER: There was a major reform. It was a new law. It was the security act that Congress passed, that the president signed that fundamentally revamped and had a federal takeover of security at airports. The creation of...

QUESTION: Security on the perimeter. FLEISCHER: More than the perimeter. It's the creation of new security officials, security managers at every airport, the federalization of the work force. As you know, the changes made on board airplanes, the reinforcement of cockpit doors, the changes in what you can carry. As anybody who has traveled since September 11 will tell you, there's been an entire revamping of what they go through when they walk through the metal detectors.

QUESTION: But if they received the same document tomorrow that said, "The administration has some general information that this might happen, we don't have anything else..."

FLEISCHER: General information is general information. When the United States government has specific information, we share those specifics, as you know.

QUESTION: I'm not faulting the information, I'm just saying, if they got a notification tomorrow...

FLEISCHER: We always...

QUESTION: ... just like then, are they now required under this new law to do something?

FLEISCHER: It's idiosyncratic. It depends on the nature of the information. If the information lends itself to simple and direct actions, you can expect that simple and direct actions will be taken. If it's generalized information, then it's generalized, and that is what makes it harder for people to react to.

QUESTION: But is this system generalized?

FLEISCHER: The system is to provide information about generalized threats, and that was done.


QUESTION: ... to do anything.

FLEISCHER: Well, the changes that were made are what's been done.

QUESTION: A quick question on a different subject: Chairman Arafat has said he will run for office. He will hold elections, perhaps within six months. Palestinian officials say, however, it would be very difficult to achieve this, which is something the administration wants, unless Israel lets up some and allows for the free movement of people. What's the administration's reaction to Arafat's statement?

FLEISCHER: Reform of the Palestinian Authority should be done because it's the right thing to give hope to the Palestinian people. That should not be contingent on any other matters. It should be done because the Palestinian people deserve a better future with economic opportunity. It's the right thing to do in any case.

And the president will be focused more on the result and less on the process. He wants to see that they reform.

QUESTION: Can I ask you on another question, too? President Bush will be making a major statement on the Cuban policy on Monday. Will the trip that ex-President Jimmy Carter took to Havana play any role in his statement on Monday?

FLEISCHER: I would urge you to listen carefully to the president's speech on Monday, and you will be the judge.

Thank you.


QUESTION: ... week ahead.

FLEISCHER: Oh, sorry. Thank you. Thank you for continuing the pain.

This afternoon the president will depart for Camp David where he will spend the weekend.

Monday morning at the White House, the president will make remarks on democracy and freedom in Cuba. That afternoon the president will travel to Miami, Florida, to make remarks on Cuba Independence Day. The president will also attend a Republican Party of Florida dinner before returning to the White House that evening.

On Tuesday, the president will participate in a photo opportunity with the NCAA champions on the South Lawn of the White House.

On Wednesday morning, the president and Mrs. Bush will travel to Europe, where he will visit Germany, Russia, France and Italy to mark the new era with Russia and to talk with our allies in Germany and France about the exciting future that lies ahead between our nation and European continent. We will provide you more detailed information on the exact schedule and itinerary of the Europe trip later this afternoon.

QUESTION: NCAA champs basketball?

FLEISCHER: Multiple sports.


FLEISCHER: Multiple sports. We'll get that information to you.

HEMMER: And in a matter of minutes, the president expected in the East Room of the White House for a Medicare event. We will monitor that for you as well, but a lengthy briefing today, a briefing that we had anticipated would go long, with numerous questions again coming out and coming to the White House about what has been revealed in the past 36 hours, what information was known about the possibility for an attack on the U.S. prior to 9/11, and what was done about it.

Now, in that briefing, a little more of the story coming forth now. About two years ago, this report now in September of 1999, this report coming in that apparently warned the executive branch of the possibility that members of the al Qaeda terrorist network may try and hijack an airliner and then crash it into a federal building like the Pentagon or the CIA. We are going to get to the White House in a moment for more on that.

Also today, it appears more than likely right now that Congress is going to have a roll in this. The White House saying an investigation is -- quote -- "appropriate," so long as it is done in a responsible manner. The words of Ari Fleischer a short time ago, "we will always work with Congress," so says Ari Fleischer.

To Kelly Wallace on the front lawn. And, Kelly, certainly the questions continue again today.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Bill, they certainly do, and they will be continuing really for the weeks and months ahead, as Congress goes forward with hearings and an investigation, talking a little bit about that 1999 report. As you heard discussed during that briefing, it was psychological and sociological report on terrorism requested by an agency during the Clinton administration.

The significance here is this administration is having a very difficult time explaining why the president, his top aides, when there was discussion about the possibility that there could be al Qaeda hijacking of an American plane, no one thought about the possibility of that hijacking turning into suicide mission. You had that report from 1999. As we reported throughout the day yesterday, you also had a 1995 plot. Investigators in the Philippines telling the FBI of a plot to take an airliner and ram into the CIA.

So lots of questions about why this administration did not even consider that possibility. You know the president was not saying anything at all yesterday. We know behind closed doors he was said to be very, very angry indeed. And so today during an event in the rose garden with the Air Force Academy, the president took the opportunity to talk about the controversy and, again, say he and his team did nothing wrong.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know what's interesting about Washington, it's a town -- unfortunately, it's the kind of place where second-guessing has become second nature. The American people know this about me, and my national security team and my administration. Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people.


WALLACE: And there is something else going on here. We know behind closed doors President Bush Senate Republicans he thought Democrats were trying to kind of play politics with all of this. White House aides have suggested that, Vice President Cheney in a speech last night warning Democrats not to seek political advantage by all of this.

Ari Fleischer, during the briefing, even suggesting that Democrats were aware last summer that there could be the possibility of a terrorist attack and questioning why Democrats were not sharing that information with each other. Democrats responding vigorously saying they simply have a right to ask questions about what the administration knew and what it did with that information. Here's how Fleischer responded when reporters asked why Democrats should not be able to ask those questions.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that anybody who made insinuations or suggests that this president had information that could have prevented the attacks and did not act on them is asking questions in such a way as to create an impression that the president could have and should have done something that he didn't do.


WALLACE: And, Bill, there's one other development. For the first time, the administration talking publicly about a game plan that was put together to try to dismantle the al Qaeda network. The understanding from senior officials I talked to is the president requesting this late Spring, early Summer, out of concern of what the al Qaeda network could be up to. And that that plan, which included military plans, diplomacy, terrorist financing, freezing terrorist financing systems, that that plan was sitting on Condoleezza Rices' desk, the president's national security adviser, on September 11, but that it never made it to the president

Fleischer and other aides talking publicly about that now to show what this administration was doing to try and stop the terrorist threat -- Bill.

HEMMER: Kelly, we're seeing the president coming in the East Room. Let's continue our conversation here. There are many who have worked in the White House in previous administrations who will tell you the worst thing on stories such as these, if the drips and drabs continue to drip and drab for a long time. Has the White House addressed that possibility?

WALLACE: Well that is a very, very good point. And that is in part why we saw Condoleezza Rice the president's national security adviser, come out and brief reporters yesterday afternoon since she is someone who sits in on his daily intelligence briefings. And we'll watch the president, of course. He's there talking or expected to be talking about Medicare and prescription drugs, and we will see if he adds any comments about this controversy.

So that is in part why they put Dr. Rice out there yesterday. You had Ari Fleischer at the podium today. The big question, Bill: Will the president make himself available to take any questions? Not clear right now. This administration is saying that it's been very forthcoming, that it has put the facts out there and that it is working with congressional investigators. But is also saying there is a concern about classified information getting out there and affecting the ongoing campaign against terrorism, Bill.

HEMMER: Kelly, thank you -- Kelly Wallace on the front lawn.




Back to the top