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Ari Fleischer Holds Press Conference

Aired June 10, 2002 - 14:00   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And now the press briefing at the White House is now under way. And let's go there now live.

QUESTION: Did he go all the way over to Sharon's way of thinking or am I reading too much into it?

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No, don't over- interpret. I think the president was indicating that, as you've heard him say many times before, he has a concern about security in the region. And the president thinks one of the most effective ways to provide for greater security is through the reform of the Palestinian institutions, particularly its security apparatus, to have a unified security apparatus for the Palestinian Authority, therefore giving Israel and the Israeli people a better guarantee that they'll be able to live in peace without suicide or homicide bombings.

The president continues to believe that it's important for security and political talks to go hand in hand. In fact, during the course of the meeting with the prime minister, the president did emphasize the importance of seeing the political horizon, of searching for and working toward political solutions. So he made that point.

QUESTION: But he seemed to indicate that the political horizon would come after the reforms. Is he saying unequivocally that you don't need to do the reforms first?

FLEISCHER: No. That's why I answered your first question the way I did. The president knows that the two go hand in hand; that it takes progress on the political front, as well as progress on the security front.

But you've heard the president reflect from time to time that it's easier to make progress on the political front if there's action taken on the security front.

So, no, that's why -- you raise a good question. Don't over- interpret what the president indicated, because he talked about both during the meeting.

QUESTION: So rather than Sharon's position, he sees parallel tracks?

FLEISCHER: The president does believe that you have to have progress on both the political front and the security front, and the two go hand in hand. And that's what the president discussed directly with the prime minister.

QUESTION: I want to pick up on a couple of things he said then. Why would he then say, first things first, and then talk about the meeting before the Palestinian Authority?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think maybe he was just talking about the order in which he was talking in the Oval Office. That's why I'm saying I recognize the words -- that I'm saying to you, don't over- interpret, because in the course of the meeting directly with the prime minister, the president encouraged the prime minister to see the political horizon and the president emphasized the importance of making progress on it.

QUESTION: And secondly, when he talks about no confidence in the emerging Palestinian government, what government is emerging there that he has no confidence in?

FLEISCHER: I think he's referring, again, to Yasser Arafat, whom the president has said has disappointed him. The president, as he indicated yesterday with President -- Saturday with President Mubarak at Camp David, the president indicated that he has high hopes for the talent in the Palestinian Authority. So I'd urge you to look at that.

QUESTION: Well, he was also -- or seemed to, when he talked about that in particular, to be setting conditions for this international conference or pre-summit, whatever we're going to call it, this summer. Are there specific conditions that he wants to see met before we make a commitment to this conference?

FLEISCHER: The State Department is still working on the exact date of the conference. No month is set yet. Still working on the exact modalities, as they say.

This conference, the president sees it and so does the secretary, as one piece in a multi-piece process that leads up to the point where it's easier for the parties to come together, the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the help of the other neighbors to achieve more progress on the political front. So the conference is one piece of that.

QUESTION: But he also said, not today but earlier, that he's going to have more to say about this after he met with Sharon, after he met with Mubarak.


QUESTION: Is it likely then that when they work out the modalities (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that that's what we'll be hearing from him, "Here's our next step"?

FLEISCHER: That's possible.

Here's where the president is now. The president has now concluded several meetings that he's had with leaders of the Arab nations that have been in the region; two of them at least who have recognized Israel legally, recognized Israel's right to exist, signed peace treaties with Israel.

The president has had very productive conversations with the Arab nations. The president has now had another constructive conversation with Prime Minister Sharon.

I think the president wants to do a little thinking. I think the president's going to talk to his advisers, and the president will think about if there is an appropriate time or moment to have any further reflections, and that's where he is. So I would have lead you to nothing immediate. That's where the president is.

And the importance of the president's April 4 address is something the president keeps bringing up in all the meetings he has. He did it with President Mubarak, he did it Prime Minister Sharon. Because the April 4 address in which the president impressed on the nation and therefore directly with the three parties, the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis, the importance of taking on their responsibilities, still is the cornerstone to the president's policy in Middle East.

And I think one thing you've seen, particularly in the last two months after the Passover massacre and Israel's lengthy operations in the West Bank, is the president's message seems to have been heard. The Arab nations are doing their part. They are working very productively in the president's opinion to try to positively influence reforms in the Palestinian Authority. The Israelis as well have listened carefully to what the president has said.

And these are the steps that need to come together, and they have, and now it's important to move beyond that in the president's judgment to the political component, which is the toughest.

QUESTION: Why is the president afraid to talk to a Palestinian who should have some say in their fate? And they might have productive conversations with Palestinians...

FLEISCHER: If you're suggesting again that the president should talk to Yasser Arafat, there's been no change in the president's position about talking to Arafat. If he does so, I'll let you know.

He dispatched Secretary Burns...

QUESTION: He is the leader of the Palestinian people whether you like it or not.

FLEISCHER: And the president always enjoys talking with people who have shown the president that they are capable of exercising their leadership to get the job done to bring peace to the region.

Secretary Burns, at the president's direction and Secretary Powell's direction, traveled to the Middle East just recently, and he met with Yasser Arafat. Director Tenet did as well.

QUESTION: Then what's the problem?

FLEISCHER: I think the president enjoys talking with people who have earned his faith and trust.

QUESTION: On another subject, When did the president become aware of the case of Mr. Padilla and Mr. Abu Hajir (ph), and what were the factors that went into his decision to remove him from civilian custody to military custody?

FLEISCHER: As Attorney General Ashcroft said earlier today, he had been -- Mr. Jose Padilla or the other -- had been tracked by the United States as a result of concerns we had about him. The attorney general said that publicly this morning. So upon his entry into the country on May 8, the United States government had information about him. And during the course of events since May 8, additional information has been obtained about him.

And throughout that process, the president was kept informed. Last night, the president received the recommendation of the Department of Defense, the attorney general and others, that custody be changed from the attorney general -- or from the Department of Justice, I'm sorry, from the Department of Justice to the Department of Defense for the detention of Mr. Padilla.

QUESTION: So he now joins a fair number of people who are in a, sort of, legal limbo who, because of their perceived dangerousness and the circumstances under which they were captured, obviously don't have access to American civilian courts, which apparently the government has no intention of charging. Is it fair to say Mr. Abu Hajir (ph) and the others are going to be detained for the duration of the war?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think those determinations will be made by the lawyers involved, by the people at the Department of Defense, people at the Department of Justice. The president does not make those determination.

The president concurred on the Department of Defense's position that Mr. Padilla is an enemy combatant, and that's why the president took the action -- or concurred in the action, and took it last night.

QUESTION: But he has set up a system which now encompasses several hundred people who are beyond the reach, once again, because of the perceived dangerousness of American protections of law, and for whom there seems to be absolutely no plan except to hold and interrogate them. Is that fair to say?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think you have to make a distinction between an American citizen and people who are not American citizens, and when you say several hundred, I am not aware of several hundred Americans who are being held, and that's a very important distinction.

But for example, the case of Yasser Hamdi, who is being held, he's an American citizen from Louisiana, his case is being adjudicated through the court systems, and so, even with these steps that are taken to protect the American country, there are legal protections, legal rights that are afforded.

QUESTION: Does this president see a future for a Palestinian government with Arafat in charge? FLEISCHER: The president does not think it is the job of the United States to pick the leader for the Palestinian people.

The president, as he's said many times -- and said it again to President Mubarak and said it to Prime Minister Sharon -- has been disappointed in Yasser Arafat's leadership, or lack of it. And the president thinks that the Palestinian people are the ones who suffer most, because it's the Palestinian people who deserve a state. But in order to have a state, it's important to have leadership that can create a state. And the president does have hopes, though, that the Palestinian people will have the leadership necessary to have a state.

QUESTION: Deputy Secretary of State Mr. Armitage now came back from the Indian subcontinent and he said that the tension may be defused, but not the crisis.

Now, secretary of defense will be in the area, and if president has a different message for him, for Secretary Rumsfeld, when he meets with the leaders in India and Pakistan?

FLEISCHER: I think that's a very description, what the secretary gave of the situation there. So long as there are two sides who face off over a disputed area, a territory like this, tension will remain at varying degrees and at varying points.

Suffice it to say there's been a substantial amount of American diplomacy from the presidential level to the diplomatic level, and now Secretary Rumsfeld will go as well. This is a region of the world that will require ongoing monitoring, ongoing assistance to keep tensions at the level they are now down to, and that's important and it will be ongoing.

QUESTION: Is the presidential trip to India and Pakistan still on?

FLEISCHER: There was never any one announced or scheduled.

QUESTION: Ari, to go back to Arafat's role, the president was asked directly whether or not he should, in fact, be expelled from the region if these homicide bombings continue. The president did not answer the question. He said rather that Arafat was not the issue.


QUESTION: What is the position of the administration?

FLEISCHER: No. The position of the administration is that that is not an answer to the problem in the Middle East. Expulsion is not an answer.

But the president, as he indicated, does not see this as an issue surrounding one person. The president sees this as an issue fundamentally that comes down to the integrity, the reliability and the honesty of institutions, which are important institutions for the world to have faith and confidence that a nation that may be born will be governed and governed well and governed in peace. That's the issue to the president.

QUESTION: And on the dirty bomb suspect, for weeks, for months, the administration says it's been concerned -- the growing tension between India and Pakistan over the dispute on Kashmir would not allow Pakistan to focus on going after al Qaeda cells. Is this a situation? Is there a concern for the administration that, in fact, this suspect was, in fact, in Pakistan, met with al Qaeda operatives, was trained there? Is Pakistan not doing...

FLEISCHER: Yes. No -- I've heard no connection between the recent events involving Pakistan and India and this case. I remind you this person is an American citizen.

QUESTION: Are we concerned that, in fact (UNINTELLIGIBLE) not doing enough to make sure guys like this aren't trained at that point?

FLEISCHER: No. Again, I've not heard any connection between those.

I mean, we all know that al Qaeda has trained people. That is prior to September 11. And these people received training, and that training, no matter what steps are taken now, can carry forward, even if they were no longer in the region the training they've received, despite Pakistan's best efforts -- and the president is satisfied Pakistan has taken strong efforts to help stop terrorism. But the training they received prior to September 11 is still knowledge that they've acquired.

QUESTION: Was there any cooperation between the countries in terms of capturing him in the United States?

FLEISCHER: You might talk to DOD or Justice about that. I don't have that. It's possible, I just don't know.

QUESTION: Ari, early when you asked...

FLEISCHER: I do want to say, because I think is -- that the Customs Department, the FBI, the CIA -- this is a case of a government whose actions worked and worked well. And that is why on May 8 he was apprehended upon entry to the United States.

QUESTION: Ari, earlier, when you were commenting on Yasser Arafat, you used the phrase "emerging government" in your comments. Is that tantamount to the White House saying that it's disappointed with the cabinet reshuffled that Arafat...

FLEISCHER: No, not tantamount to that. The position on that is there are many things that the president will wait and see to see if the Palestinian institutions are going to form in a way that gives faith to the president and to the neighborhood that a viable government can be formed there.

I think what's so important in this, from the president's opinion, and such a departure, is you now for the first time have a president of the United States who has held out that distinct possibility of the creation of a Palestinian state. Having done so, this a chance for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian leadership to say, "We want to seize this moment. We see now an American president who will work to help us get a state."

And now it's important for the Palestinian institutions to rise to that challenge, and for people who are concerned about the integrity of the Palestinian institutions, and therefore the future of the Palestinian people, to seize that moment and to act because the possibility of a state is something the president has held out.

QUESTION: Ari, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the president be using the phrase, "rebuilding institutions first" or "building institutions first." Now you've identified...

FLEISCHER: We're building...



FLEISCHER: ... of the institutions is probably more clear.

QUESTION: You've identified security apparatus as one of the key institutions, obviously. Can you give us an idea of some of the other institutions?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely. The other institutions the president thinks are just vital are the things that people would naturally thing if they're going to live in a country and that country represents their concerns.

An education system that provides hope and education to the children of Palestine. A health system, an agricultural system. You know, if you travel to the region, you'll see a border and on one side of the border it's green and on the other side of the border, it is brown. The land is the same. It's the infrastructure that allowed one side of the border to be green while the other side is brown. These are all types of things that governments create for their people.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) seems to be the third person that was born in the United States that had an (OFF-MIKE) combating the United States one way or another. If he was determined to be an enemy combatant, are the other two also in that category or it's just a new category just for Mr. Padilla?

FLEISCHER: You may want to check with the lawyers on that. I don't know what the other classifications are for John Walker Lindh or for Yasser Hamdi. You'd have to check to get the legal term from the people involved.

QUESTION: My second question, Ari, yesterday there was some skepticism expressed by some legislators about the president's proposal creating this Superministry of Internal Security. Is the president willing to work with these people, because they seem to...

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, what did you call it? The Superministry of Internal Security? Which country is this?


You mean the Department of Homeland Security?



FLEISCHER: I'm sorry; I couldn't resist.

QUESTION: Whatever the terminology, it is going to have a Cabinet post -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and there's some skepticism that too many agencies are being consolidated under one roof while the intelligence agencies are practically being left as they were. Is the president willing to work with Congress in coming up to something that -- because they have to approve after all.

FLEISCHER: Well, the president, of course, is going to work with Congress. This is increasingly going to become Congress' job to do. Now that the president has proposed, it will become Congress' job to consider.

And it's not a small task, and it will be a difficult task. So, of course, the administration is prepared to work with Congress.

The plan that the president proposed was proposed because of the desire to bring together those agencies that are most involved in the protection of our homeland. Not in the intelligence gathering of information -- that is a different function -- but in the protection of our homeland. There'll be an analysis of intelligence information within this agency. But those were the reasons that the president proposed it.

QUESTION: Ari, one quick one on the arrest and then I want to get back to the Middle East. Was the president told May 8 -- is that when he first...

FLEISCHER: Around that time. The president has been aware of this for weeks.

QUESTION: So he was told that this person would come into the country...

FLEISCHER: Around that time. I don't have exact date.


FLEISCHER: And that information developed in the course of his detention.

QUESTION: Right. And the president was given regular updates...

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: ... on the tracking of this guy? OK. On the Middle East, you've said the president wants to think things through. Can you give us an idea of, kind of, what is he thinking about? Is he thinking about time frames? Or you also said -- or specifically is he thinking about how the United States can help to rebuild...

FLEISCHER: Well, think about this. Take the most recent example. You had President Mubarak, who has played role. You had Prime Minister Sharon, also a key piece of securing the future.

President Mubarak comes and visits the president at Camp David and says the negotiations must begin with a definition of the '67 borders. Prime Minister Sharon writes an op-ed in the New York Times saying the '67 borders is not an acceptable beginning. So the president is receiving opposite advice from two of the key people, both of whom have stated their support for moving forward and making progress.

As is often the practice, it's the United States' focus to try to bring people together in a case like this. And in doing so, diplomacy takes time, communications takes time. There's a way to constantly work with the parties directly, somewhat quietly sometimes, to help bridge gaps so that when things are possible to move forward, they'll move forward in an atmosphere where people who previously staked out positions will be a little more willing to listen to each other.

And so therefore the whole diplomatic effort, the whole effort about when it's appropriate, if it's appropriate for a president to do or say anything additional is a matter of time, takes time, takes thought, takes deliberation.

QUESTION: When you said that the president -- that the Palestinian people should seize this moment, that they see an American president who's willing to help them create a state, are you talking about anything concrete or is it just the political rhetoric of helping them create a state?

FLEISCHER: No, it is concrete in the sense that the Palestinian people deserve a government that is worthy of themselves, which means a government worthy of creating a state.


FLEISCHER: The United States does provide aid to non- governmental organizations. No, it's not a question of financial aid as much as it is a question of Palestinian reformers, people who are representative of the Palestinian people, making the case inside the Palestinian Authority that we can do better; there are steps we can take to actually represent our people, and therefore enter the world community.

QUESTION: Why are we being told now about this suspect, Mr. Padilla? If the president was informed on May 8, obviously you've known about this guy for quite some time. Can you explain the timing?

FLEISCHER: Right, because as I indicated, that information was developed during the course of his detention, and then once the decision was made to transfer from the Department of Justice to the Department of Defense it became the most opportune moment.

QUESTION: You didn't want to wait until the completion of the Department of Homeland Security? I mean, this had nothing to do with the timing?

FLEISCHER: That's correct, it did not.

QUESTION: On Friday, the administration announced that it was going to exempt some of the products -- steel products from its tariffs in an effort to appease the Europeans. It didn't work. They've today announced that they are going to retaliate.

Has the president asked his advisers to have negotiations over compensation and try to avert a trade war? Or we are headed toward a trade war?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think you need to take a careful look at the action the Europeans took, because that's far more complicated than your question indicates, and let me try to post an answer in a little more detail, but your question says only one half of the story out of the EU.


FLEISCHER: The president views this as a matter that should be settled through the dispute mechanism of...

HARRIS: And we're going to step away from the daily press briefing. There's Ari Fleischer there continues.




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