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White House Press Briefing

Aired May 21, 2002 - 12:17   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Ari Fleisher is out, giving the walking orders for the day, a laundry list right now, of the president's day and his schedule, what he's done up to now and what is anticipated in the coming hours this afternoon. We are listening now. We anticipate reporters' questions to come at any moment.

To the White House now, and Ari Fleisher.


ARI FLEISHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... for his visit to Europe. The president is very much looking forward to what he views as a historic meeting, series of meetings, and to welcoming Russia more deeply into the West as it begins the new era of relations with Europe, as well as with the United States.

With that, I'm happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Ari, Secretary Rumsfeld said today, terrorists are certain to acquire eventually nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. What do you say to Americans who are alarmed by this increasingly troubling information?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has warned that that is terrorists' goal. As you've heard the president say, that one of the things he worries about is terrorists mating up with existing nations that sponsor terrorism, such as Iraq, and getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction.

One of the things that everybody saw on September 11 is our enemies will not hesitate to hit us if they have the means to do so, and that is why we're in the midst of a very important war, not only in Afghanistan, but to deny terrorists a base of operations, to regroup, to diminish their agilities to harm us.

QUESTION: In other words, it's comfort for Americans in terms of the effort domestically to coopt such an attack here?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that American people have seen a nation wake up on September 11 and mobilize. American people themselves understand the vulnerabilities our nation faces.

But the fundamental fact of the matter is, we're a target because we're free, and because we're free we're also strong. And that's been the history of our country. This is not the first time we've had enemies who have sought to bring harm to us.

As time moves forward and as technology evolves, the risk is that it's a different kind of war, as the president has said, that it's a new type of war. It's no longer the type of war where a satellite can pick up a fleet leaving a port. It's a war now where we have terrorists, just ones, twos, just small numbers of them who have the means and have the desire to try to strike us.

But every time there's ever been a threat to our country, our country has led the world in preserving freedom and fighting, and we are in the midst of a struggle now.

QUESTION: Ari, can I follow that? On the August 6 memo, analysis report that the president received, is the reason that he doesn't want to release that to congressional investigators, is that that he fears that Democrats will use other secret contents of that report for political purposes in an attempt to embarrass him?

FLEISCHER: You know, I don't really think it's anything per se about that memo in and of itself on the 6th as much as it is the overall principle about the president's daily brief, which is shared with such an extraordinarily small number of people who are in a need- to-know situation and need-to-know position so they can use that information to protect the country, to prevent the next possible attack.

I think that's what the president is concerned with. He's also concerned with the fact that if the presidential daily brief, which is a highly sensitized -- the most high sensitized classified document in the government, if that document were to be at risk of public report, public release, the people who prepare it will hold back and not give the president of the United States, the person who needs the most information, they will be inclined to give him less rather than more because they fear it'll get made public and that can compromise sources or methods.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up? Are there negotiations under way now that would allow the intelligence committees to review that report secretary or...

FLEISCHER: I don't think so. I'm not aware of any, because the administration has strong thoughts about the presidential daily brief which have been conveyed.

We'll continue to talk to Congress. I mean, this is an ongoing process, and we're going to make this a process where we'll work well together. The nation deserves the Congress and the presidency to work well together on this type of investigation.

QUESTION: What if it's subpoenaed? If it's subpoenaed, will the president refuse to turn it over?

FLEISCHER: That's a hypothetical that I really don't think Congress is going to put themselves in the middle of.

QUESTION: Ari, I was just wondering, just going back to Scott's (ph) question here, the president said in the Rose Garden a while ago that he will do everything in his power to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, biological and chemical. Did the secretary of defense statement that they're certain to acquire them, kind of say, Despite our best efforts and the efforts of the president, we're bound to lose this battle?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me take a look at the secretary's exact words. I haven't heard them until I walked out here. So let me take a look at precisely how he said it, because the secretary knows what the president knows. And that is that we're in the middle of a war to protect the country and to diminish the ability of any people who would do us harm from getting their hands on such weapons.

QUESTION: Is there some sort of heightened campaign on the part of the administration, valid or not, to raise the awareness? I mean, you have Cheney's speaking on Sunday, someone else yesterday, now we have Rumsfeld. And so is this to arouse the American people to a new danger, do you have some new information?

FLEISCHER: Well, what you have is a consistent approach where the president has said, and you've heard him say this many times, that every day he begins his day with a review of what's called the threat matrix, which is a compilation of intelligence information about potential attacks on the United States, our allies or our interests abroad.

The president begins his day looking at that information, then talks to his security team about the credibility of it, whether or not it's something that we can have any actionable steps taken to prevent it from happening.

So the president has referred to this for a considerable period of time. Many people in government have. Governor Ridge, for example, has often talked about in various forms with the public and with the press the need for continued scrutiny, the alert system we have set up, where we remain on yellow or elevated alert thanks to the collaborative effort Governor Ridge put together...


FLEISCHER: Well, I'm getting to that. All of these are the background for what you have now heard in some greater detail over the course of the weekend.

I think it was just more as a result of all the controversy that took place last week; just an effort by people who are on the shows to answer questions, because they're reflecting things about the generalized level of alert and concern we have that's been out there.

And, of course, there has been a recent increase in the chatter that we've heard in the system, and that was reflected in what they've said. So I think they're doing their level best to answer questions that people have.

QUESTION: Ari, last week the Democrats were talking about what did the president know, when did he know it. He was upset. You were upset. The Democrats seem to have changed their tone. Has the president detected a change in this tone? Is he pleased? And if you have detected that change, to what do you attribute it?

FLEISCHER: I think from the president's point of view, you know, he understands that there are going to be politics in Washington, but he's very grateful there have been many people in both parties who work diligently. And the president is focused on keeping the country united and winning a war. He understands politics will occasionally flare up, but I think it's come and it's gone, from his point of view.

QUESTION: Let me be more blunt. You think the Democrats looked at some overnight polling and said, "Wait a minute, we better back off"?

FLEISCHER: Listen, I can't guess what, you know, motives people have. I know that there are many responsible people, Senator Diane Feinstein, for example, very, very responsible actions throughout all of this. There's some real leaders up on the Hill who we're going to continue to work very closely with, because they know what the president knows, and that's we're all in this together. They want to work with us and we want to work with them.

QUESTION: Do you see a change from last week?

FLEISCHER: You know, I think you have other analysts who can make those indications.

QUESTION: Ari, what's your position on the Hyde amendment to require an administration explanation of its plans for addressing the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan? And what's your response, in general, to critics who say the administration is ignoring a deteriorating security there and needs to do more?

FLEISCHER: I haven't gotten anything specific given to me on the Hyde amendment. But our position has been what I think you've seen reflected in our actions, and that is, as a result of the American military actions in Afghanistan, Afghanistan is now safer than it was before; safer for the world, as well as safer for the people of Afghanistan. But this is a long-term effort to help rebuild the Afghani society that was destroyed through 20 years of Soviet domination and then Taliban oppression.

QUESTION: But there are people who say you need international forces in the countryside, not just Kabul, that, you know, warlords or whatever are still ruling large areas and that unless this is addressed you can't really have security...

FLEISCHER: Well, the president does think it needs to be addressed. And the president believes the best way to address it is by the training and the equipping and the working with the Afghani army to develop an Afghani army.

Afghanistan, as interim President Karzai understands, needs to take on its own identity, become a sovereign nation, that while it will have a lot of help from other nations, including the United States, because it's the right thing to do and we're dedicated to it, Afghanistan will, as any nation that's going to develop on this Earth, have to take care of its own business. And we're there to help them to do so.

But in terms of the security situation, the development of a stable Afghani army is the best long-term proposal to deal with it, in the president's judgment.

QUESTION: Does he oppose a shorter-term expansion on the international forces?

FLEISCHER: Again, the ISAF is there currently in Kabul, and is being very ably lead by the Turkish. And our position is, we will continue to support ISAF and we will train the Afghani army so they can take on their mission to protect the Afghani people from warlordism.

QUESTION: How will the president counter anti-American sentiment in Europe? And is he or you concerned about hostility or any danger to him or to those traveling with him?

FLEISCHER: Well, one, the president recognizes that Europe consists of democracies. And there are many voices in democracies, and he welcomes them. And there's so much more that we have in common with our European allies, there is so much more that unites us than the occasional issue about which we or the people of Europe may differ. But that's the spirit in which the president goes to Europe. He goes as an optimist, he goes as somebody who sees so much that we and Europe have done together to help protect the world, and so much that we have in common. Our trade relationship is $2 trillion worth of trade a year. That's massive. And that is another sign of the strength of our relations.

QUESTION: Ari, a couple of questions.

First, following up on Helen's point, U.S. intelligence officials have been saying that they've been seeing this chatter for a while now, over the past few months, but yet we're only hearing about it publicly from senior officials over the past few days. Is the administration in any way reacting to some criticism of how it handled such information before, deciding, "We're going to get much more out there now to the American people so we're not criticized for potentially holding back on chatter..."

FLEISCHER: No. I mean, I think if you go back, just rewind the tape, look at October, look at November, look at all the series of alerts that have been put out, look at the notice we put out about suspension bridges along the West Coast, the banks in the Northeast, for example, every time that we have information where the intelligence analysts look at it and say this is exact nature information that's better off shared, the determination is made to share it.

There is always chatter in the system, prior to September, post- September 11. So long as we have enemies who want to hit us, there will still be some level of chatter. So it's always a judgment call about exactly what the nature of the chatter is, is it productive to share the information, and that's what's been done on a very regular basis.

QUESTION: Let me ask about the FBI Phoenix memo. Has the president seen that memo?

FLEISCHER: He's been briefed on it.

QUESTION: OK. When was he briefed on it?

FLEISCHER: In the last week or two.

QUESTION: The last week. And you were asked this this morning; does the president -- we know you said immediately flight schools were being investigated. But does the president not see a problem that this memo was out there, that the FBI and the attorney general at least were briefed broadly about these suspicions and they were not communicated to the White House or the president until a week or two ago?

FLEISCHER: And what suspicions are you saying specifically?

QUESTION: The FBI and the attorney general were told in the days after September 11 that the FBI agent had raised general suspicions that Middle Eastern men could be taking flight classes that could be linked to Osama bin Laden. The attorney general was not briefed about the full contents of the memo until about a month ago. But the question being out there is, should not the president have been told even about these general suspicions months ago?

FLEISCHER: I don't think anybody needed a memo after September 11 to know that there were general suspicions, that people were in flight schools.

Everybody knew it as a result...

HEMMER: Want to listen to this answer, very critical question from Kelly Wallace. We apologize. Here is the State Department and Colin Powell.

FLEISCHER: No, there was a notification to law enforcement community up and down the West Coast. It went to the law enforcement community. It was an alert to law enforcement.





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