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White House Press Briefing

Aired June 12, 2002 - 12:25   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to take you now to the White House, where White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer is beginning his daily briefing.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... physical fitness in our country.

The president had his usual round of briefings.


FLEISCHER: Oh, believe me, there's a press section of it.



FLEISCHER: Me? You guys run me around enough.


FLEISCHER: The president had his usual round of intelligence briefings, followed by an FBI briefing this morning. Then he signed into law legislation called the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Response Act to help protect America by increasing access and resources for public health services across the country and first responders in the event of a bioterrorist threat to our nation. This was bipartisan legislation the president was pleased to sign.

Then he attended a meeting of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. And later this afternoon the president will present National Medals of Science and National Medals of Technology to award winners who are coming to the White House.

And finally, the president will meet with members of Congress, the ranking members and chairs of the relevant committees of jurisdiction over homeland security, to continue to talk to the members of Congress about the importance of passing legislation to provide for a Department of Homeland Security.

This morning, President Bush spoke with Prime Minister Aznar of Spain, and they discussed several issues. They talked about agricultural and trade issues.

Both leaders expressed the hope that remaining issues concerning the resumption of the imports of Spanish clementines to the United States will be resolved promptly. And on the Middle East, both leaders discussed the urgent need to stop terrorist attacks and to develop a way forward -- to work on a development of the peace process.

Finally, and a heads up for you about several events next week which I think actually are very -- are somewhat notable. Nearly half of American adults report they do not exercise at all, and seven out of 10 do so infrequently. Each year approximately 300,000 deaths occur related to obesity.

In addition, five chronic diseases associated with obesity -- heart disease, cancer stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes -- claim more than 1.7 million American lives each year and account for more than two thirds of all U.S. deaths.

Next week, the president will unveil a comprehensive fitness agenda to help our nation become stronger and healthier. As part of the agenda, and I want to explain several of the items in it to you, the president is pleased to announce today that the Department of Interior will host a healthier U.S. fee-free weekend in our national parks the weekend of June 22 to June 23 to encourage Americans to hike, walk, or just visit our national treasures.

As part of what's called the Healthier U.S. Initiative, the president, on Thursday, June 30, next week will host a fitness expo in the South Lawn of the White House. At the fitness expo, the president will introduce new members of the president's council on physical fitness and sports and will discuss more details of his fitness initiative.

There'll be screening booths available for people on the South Lawn here at the White House who are invited.

On Friday, June 21, the president will travel to Orlando, Florida, where he will visit with seniors at a local senior center to discuss his fitness initiative and the value of age-appropriate physical activity to promote healthy aging.

On Saturday, June 22, an event that the president is very much looking forward to, the president and first lady will host the President's Fitness Challenge at Fort McNair for White House staff and Cabinet. At the Fitness Challenge, the president will lead runners in a three-mile run, and the first lady will lead walkers in a 1.5-mile walk. To participate in the race, participants must commit to donor hours of service or resources to the community or faith organization of their choice. That's in lieu of a typical registration fee that's collected usually at fun runs and runs of this nature.

And finally, on Sunday, June 23, the South Berkeley (ph) Little League Braves of Inwood, West Virginia, will play the Washington, D.C., Cal Ripken League Cardinals in the second game of this year's White House tee-ball season. So I just wanted to share all that with you as events for next week on physical fitness.

QUESTION: That fitness expo, did you say the 30th or the 20th?

FLEISCHER: Twentieth. So it's Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday of next week.


FLEISCHER: Well, we're trying to figure out if the press wants to run or chase or cover.


FLEISCHER: We will give you any number of options and see which categories you'd like to be in.


FLEISCHER: And which of those is it?


FLEISCHER: You dig? Oh, you dig. Yes, you do.


FLEISCHER: Let the digging begin.

QUESTION: Ari, you've addressed this before, but I'm hoping you can elaborate a little bit more on why Padilla was in custody for more than a month before the administration announced his arrest, especially given the degree to which Ashcroft underscored the threat, the sort of ominous warning that came from him the morning the announcement was made.

FLEISCHER: Well, the Justice Department can walk you through the particulars.

But as I understand them, the reasons are the following: He was detained on May 8, as a result of the information that the government had about him prior to arrival. And then, subsequent to his detention, the government built up additional information about him.

And there's also a judgment that the law enforcement community makes at times like this about how long do they want it to go for people not to know -- people who have sent him to this country -- not to know that he's been detained. There can be an advantage in not allowing the people who sent him here to have the information that he's been detained, to see if we can't find anything else out about whatever it is they may be planning.

There also was, in this case, a legal deadline of 30 days after the date of detention by which the Department of Justice had to make some decisions that entered into when this was going to become public as a matter of course, in any event, when he was transferred to DOD in connection with the habeas corpus hearing.

QUESTION: How do you now respond to critics who are trying to draw a link -- fair or unfair -- between the announcement of that arrest, the president unveiling his homeland security plan to the intelligence...

FLEISCHER: Look, these very few people who want to make such an outlandish political accusation represent the most cynical among the most partisan, and they're not to be taken seriously.

The fact of the matter is, our nation has a lot to be proud of by the fact that our law enforcement community worked well and worked together to protect this homeland from somebody who came here to do harm to our homeland.

QUESTION: Ari, can I ask you a question about the nature of the threat Mr. Padilla posed? On Monday, in this extraordinary urgent broadcast from Moscow, the attorney general said, quote, "Investigators had disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb." Yesterday, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz said, "I don't think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk." What is it?

FLEISCHER: I think it's also fairer to the attorney general to quote everything he said from his remarks from Moscow, and he went on to say, from the information available to the United States Government, we know that Abdullah al Muhajir is an Al Qaeda operative and was exploring a plan to build and explode a radioactive dirty bomb.

So I think you have to quote him in his entirety.

QUESTION: But he also said it was an unfolding terrorist plot.

FLEISCHER: Here's what we know, and that is that Mr. Padilla received training by the Al Qaeda in the art of radiological material and the art of detonation of bombs. He came to the United States to do harm to the United States in some form or other. He is trained in exactly what Attorney General Ashcroft described. And the actions that our government took are actions that I think most people realize are just what the government is looked to to do to protect us from people who come here to do us harm.

So you're fair to interpret what they said. But I think you have to be fair to what they said in the complete context, as well as the statements that Deputy Thompson and Deputy Wolfowitz made the same day as the attorney general, where they talked about the initial planning stages.

QUESTION: Fair enough. Here's why I'm raising the question. This contradiction in statements raises the question, given how much the American people are going to hang on every word about this kind of threat from the administration. Isn't it incumbent on officials to get the story straight and not to exaggerate?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's incumbent on people who cover people also to hang on every word. And that's why I walk you back through everything the attorney general said. The attorney general talked about he was exploring these plans, which is exactly what we have said.

But, you know, very often in the war on terrorism we are not going to have exact down-to-the-detail, precise information. We're going to have somewhat generalized information about people who have plans, intentions to bring harm to our country. In this case, because of his training and because of evidence we have that was brought forth by sources and methods, which I'm not going to discuss, we have strong reason to fear the worst. And you heard that articulated.

QUESTION: Is the White House satisfied with the way Attorney General Ashcroft described the threat as seriously and as ominously as he did?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that what you have heard from all the officials of the government is a fair description of what our government could have faced, what the American people could have faced. And again, I think this is one of these cases where the nation can breath a sigh of relief that our law enforcement people were vigilant outside our borders to apprehend people when they entered our country.

QUESTION: Was there any thought that he might have been a bit too dramatic (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: I think again it's fair to read in the entirety of the attorney general's statement, and the entirety of the remarks made by other officials who did their best to share information with the public and did so in an accurate and forthright fashion. The fact of the matter again is that a very dangerous man has been taken off of the streets of the United States where he will no longer be in a position to do harm to our citizenry.

QUESTION: Also, not just what the attorney general said, but where he said it and how he said it. Is there any sort of looking back that this could have been handled better, not having the attorney general in a sort of a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) as opposed to just having the two deputies of Justice and Defense coming out and bringing the story out of that point in time? Any looking back and saying it could have been handled better?

FLEISCHER: You know, I'm not in the second-guessing business. I'm in the business of explaining to you what the administration did, why we did it. And again, I think the administration looks as this as an issue where the country was protected, and that's what we're focused on.

QUESTION: Ari, coming back to the point that you made about our obligation at this rate. Within that realm, can you help us understand where exactly this Al Qaeda operative sort of -- you know, was ranked, if you will, in that organization? Are we talking about the Muhammad Ata type figure here, or are we perhaps talking about something much, less than even a shoe bomber? Is there a way to categorize where -- what kind of threat he posed, and where he stood in the organization?

FLEISCHER: I have not heard any discussion about it in that sense. Muhammad Ata has been described as a chief operating officer -- one of the most senior planners. Richard Reid, I've heard him described as somebody who was really a foot soldier.

The point is, all of these people, whether they are the orchestrators, the planners, or the foot soldiers, have one goal in mind, and that is to bring the war to our soil, and to kill Americans once more. But I have not heard anything about him being in an operational or an organizational top of a structure.

It's much more that he came here in another capacity.


QUESTION: Does President Bush endorse the remarks made by Secretary Powell today to Al-Hayat? In particular, that the administration is working to set up a provisional Palestinian state, and, in fact, calling the Palestinian authority a government, and categorically saying that Arafat should be worked with and not ignored?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has been receiving advice from any number of people. And many of these people give him multiple pieces of advice about the Middle East. And the president is, frankly, very gratified by the fact that people are now focused on the next steps, involving political solutions and are offering a variety of ideas about what that next step toward a political solution is.

This is a dramatic improvement from when events in the Middle East were defined by whether tanks were pulling out and suicide bombings or homicide bombings were diminishing. So the president is still in the process of listening to the variety of people who have some thoughts to share. He has another important meeting tomorrow with the Saudi Arabian foreign minister. And then the president may, if he chooses, to have something further to say.

QUESTION: What about those remarks, though, from Powell? They're quite different than what has been coming out of the White House in recent days.

FLEISCHER: Yes, and I think it's reflective of a variety of pieces of advice that people in the government are paid to listen to, from whatever source they may originally derive.

QUESTION: So he agrees with them, or does not?

FLEISCHER: He is listening to a variety of the pieces of advice he gets from many, many sources. And these sources -- you know, it depends on the people that the president met with.

I illustrated one example. Advice that the president welcomes that's 180 degrees apart, that he received in a 24-hour period. And that was the advice that he got from President Mubarak about the importance of the '67 borders, and the advice he got from Prime Minister Sharon about the impact that the '67 borders would have on future viability of security.

So welcome to the Middle East. This is the situation where people get variety of information, a variety of advice. And if the president has anything further to indicate, he will.

QUESTION: Ari, is the White House satisfied that the tensions between India and Pakistan seems to be lessening?

FLEISCHER: The White House, the president is pleased with recent developments in South Asia. Deputy Secretary of State Armitage has returned from a successful visit to the region. Secretary Rumsfeld is there now. And the president welcomes indications that the tensions are being reduced between India and Pakistan.

But make no mistake, there still is tension between India and Pakistan. So there has been positive developments. The president is fully engaged in making certain that the trend continues in the right direction. Because unfortunately, the history of the region is sometimes these trends get interrupted and return again to a wrong direction. Hence, Secretary Rumsfeld's presence in the region as we speak.

QUESTION: Ari, getting back to the Middle East. Are you still expecting -- I think you said yesterday the international conference would take place at the ministerial level. Do you all have more or less a date in mind? Will it be this summer come rain or come shine?

FLEISCHER: It is still the date the State Department originally announced, which is this summer. They're still working through some of the preliminary issues that are typically required to make a large gathering of people from many countries successful, so that it turns into a conference that is productive.

Sometimes conferences, if they're not -- if the groundwork isn't laid carefully for these type of international conferences, particularly dealing with the Middle East, sometimes the conferences can have a harmful effect, because it brings people together to fight, not to agree. And so there's a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid. But the timetable remains just as advertised, which is this summer.

QUESTION: Ari, back on the al-Hayat issue. Does the president appreciate his counselors sharing their advice with al-Hayat?

FLEISCHER: Again, I think if you ask the secretary, he would say to you that he is reflecting on some of the things that we've heard from different people around the world. And it's no surprise to you, people from around the world come here and just share what they think should be done with the president or the secretary of state.

QUESTION: If I could just follow that? His comments didn't seem to be reflecting what was going on. They seemed to be, "This is what we're thinking about doing."

FLEISCHER: Again, the president receives advice all the time. That's part of our process. And as you know, if the president has something to say, you all in this room will be among the first to hear it.

QUESTION: Ari, going back to Indian subcontinent, the president also said yesterday that the risk of war is still there, maybe tension's defused. So what I'm asking is that how he's going to control that there is no war in the future, like Cargill (ph) three years ago, in 1999, same situation comes back every year or two years.

And number two, when he meets with the Israeli prime minister here, does he talk about India and Pakistan conflict, because both (UNINTELLIGIBLE) similarity in many ways because same bombing, same type of people are bombing in Israel and India?

FLEISCHER: On number two, no, the topic of India-Pakistan did not come up in the president's meetings with the prime minister.

On the first point, about the ongoing or continued volatility in the region, that is exactly why the president has dispatched the secretary of defense to the region. This is going to require continual effort, continual work.

But I think that many nations can take pride in the fact that their diplomacy has led to a trend that is moving in the right direction and not the wrong direction, and the world needs to keeps it shoulder to the wheel to make certain that it keeps turning in the right direction.

QUESTION: Can you shed some light about the possible deployment of American troops on the Line of Control?

FLEISCHER: I have nothing new to indicate on that.

QUESTION: What message does the president intend to deliver to the committee chairmen who are coming here today on homeland security? And would he be supportive of a kind of super committee that might streamline their purview over the issue?

FLEISCHER: The president's message is that this is for the nation and we need to do this together. The president is going to thank the members of Congress for their initially good reaction to the president's proposal, and I think you will also recognize that this is a difficult issue for Congress to wrestle with.

There are 88 committees and subcommittees of the Congress which are set up under the existing system, all of which have pieces of jurisdiction over homeland security, and many members of Congress have worked a long number of years and have built up expertise in issues, and they want to be able to continue to lend their expertise to issues involving homeland security.

Nevertheless, the president's opinion is there needs to be a way found so that the nation knows that we can have a department of homeland security that's created that puts the nation first, recognizing the jurisdictional issues that members of Congress do legitimately focus on. So the president is going to issue a call to put the nation first, to work together to get the job done.

QUESTION: Yes, but I'm just wondering if you'd be more specific?

FLEISCHER: On the Congressional Committee?

QUESTION: Yes. (OFF-MIKE) about how to do that.

FLEISCHER: It's not the habit of the president to tell the Congress how it needs to structure itself: one, in terms of how to receive this proposal; but two, whether the Congress itself needs to change its committee jurisdictions and appropriation or other committees and subcommittee jurisdictions if and when this department is created. That's a matter for the legislative branch to deal with.

In 1947, when there was a restructuring on the federal level to react to the Cold War, Congress, I believe at that time, did change its committee structure. But those are calls that the legislative branch makes, not the executive.

QUESTION: This morning the president said that possibly the allies in East Timor are constraining finances of terrorists. He hasn't mentioned that in a while.

Was there something in the Padilla case or some recent development that prompted him to raise that issue?

FLEISCHER: Nothing in Padilla that comes to my mind.

I can tell that in terms of the war on terrorism, the president has always talked about the multiple fronts in the war, and the financial front remains a very important front.

But what you're seeing around the world when it comes to the arrests that are being made, the terrorist warnings that are being issues, is a world that faces the same issues that we do.

Fortunately for the rest of the world, they have not suffered the same attack that our nation took. But you're seeing, around the world, a tremendous cooperation. It varies from nation to nation, but for the most part, the president can say he's very satisfied with the actions that people have taken.

QUESTION: Yes. And typically that is what he said, is that he's very satisfied, until today, a little bit bit different. So was there any reason for...

FLEISCHER: No. There's nothing that crossed my radar that would lead them to have any type of specific information about something that would make him say that. And I think that's -- you're just seeing him return to someone that he talked about frequently at the beginning at the beginning of the war, particularly about multiple fronts.

If there's anything further, I'll see. There's nothing that I was aware of before he said it.

QUESTION: On hate crimes legislation. What's the president position on it, and also is there anything the White House is going to do to get it back on track?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that all violent crimes are crimes of hate that should be prosecuted vigorously and that criminals who commit them should be punished to the full extent of the law.

The president is deeply concerned and troubled by any crime that's motivated by prejudice or contempt against any groups of citizens or individual citizens in our country.

The Senate has taken the action that it has taken. There are number of issues that the Senate and the House are still focused on. It's not easy to get 60 votes in the Congress. There's an important vote coming up on death taxes in the Senate, for example, that may or may not be able to reach 60 votes.

Along the lines of progress, however, I can report that tomorrow the Senate Finance Committee is going to be taking up legislation on one of the president's key initiatives, which is the Care Act, or the faith-based initiative, that at long last looks like it will move in the Senate, at the Finance Committee, and so the president is pleased to see action on that part of his domestic agenda..

QUESTION: Ari, on the comments you made a few minutes ago about Secretary Powell and the Middle East, it almost sounded as though you were making the distinction that he was speaking for himself as opposed to the administration.

FLEISCHER: No, I think actually, if you ask Secretary Powell, and I have a strong sense that reporters have asked the secretary today on his airplane about the very same things you're asking me, what the secretary indicated to them is that he was sharing with the magazine or the newspaper that asked him this question about some of the advice that he is receiving from other leaders.

QUESTION: On that, I mean, because you were talking before about how the president's receiving all these competing views, I mean it almost sounds like you're distancing yourself from what Powell is saying.

FLEISCHER: No, that's why I just walked you through what the secretary himself is saying about where he is receiving his information from as well, because he receives information and advice from foreign leaders who have different thoughts about what they would like the president to say. And so the secretary from time to time will reflect on the advice that he gets and do so publicly, which is his prerogative, of course.

QUESTION: Ari, what can you tell us about these reports of Americans or people claiming American citizenship detained on the Pakistani-Afghan border?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I was asked that this morning. I've been looking into it ever since then. And I have not been able to come up with anything that would substantiate the statement about Americans, people of American origin being returned here. I'm digging into it and haven't found anything to confirm it. (CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... detained there?

FLEISCHER: Even so, people of American origin or Americans, I followed up from this morning's question, and I have not been able to obtain any information that would lead me to confirm it.

QUESTION: On another subject, could you give us a sense of what the advisory council the president convened today will be responsible for? How broad is their portfolio? Are they focused just on the department itself? Are they going to make recommendations across the breadth of government in matters affecting domestic security?

FLEISCHER: Under the executive order that set up the homeland security council, it contained a call for an advisory panel to be established for just what its name would imply, advisory purposes. It assembles some of the sharpest minds in the country who have expertise in areas involving homeland security.

And in this case, the president asked them to help out in talking to members of the Hill and lending their expertise so the Congress can fashion legislation to create the department the president requested.

QUESTION: So is there function more to lobby members of Congress than to advise the president?

FLEISCHER: No, it's both. In this case the president has asked them for their help in getting this passed. But it's also to provide advice, and Tom Ridge receives advice from them on a regular basis.

QUESTION: Some civil rights groups are arguing that holding Jose Padilla incommunicado is a violation of his constitutional rights. Will he be allowed to have a lawyer, and when?

FLEISCHER: The actions that were taken, of course, were taken as a result of the advice that the president received from the attorney general and the Department of Defense, from the White House where all the legal issues were, of course, looked into and the president concurred in the recommendation he received.

But in this instance, where somebody has been declared an enemy combatant, I want to draw your attention -- and I'm going to be belligerent -- I want to draw your attention to the underlying Supreme Court case which took place in 1942 involving U.S. citizens who were Nazi saboteurs, which is the precedent for the action that was taken. And in that court case, the majority ruled in '42 and a ruling that is still binding today.

Quote, "Citizens who associate themselves with the military arm of the enemy government and with its aid, guidance and direction enter this country bent on hostile acts are enemy belligerents within the meaning of the Hague Convention and the law of war." And that is the legal underpinning for the actions that were taken. And the president's view on this is, as a result of these legal underpinnings the United States is now safer because somebody who came here to do us harm is off the streets.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that? In that case, that American citizen was tried and convicted and executed under the established military commission.

Does the president believe that -- and his advisers believe -- that the Constitution allows for an American citizen to be declared an enemy combatant and then held indefinitely, without charge and without any access to (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: According to the lawyers, under the statute, this can last for the duration of the war; that's correct. That's the word from the attorneys. Correct.

QUESTION: You said a while back that many nations could take pride in the diplomatic efforts that walked India and Pakistan apparently back from this brink. Perhaps you've addressed this in other briefings and I just missed it, but could you fit into that diplomatic mosaic where China would fit in? And did China play any kind of a role? Was Beijing asked to...

FLEISCHER: Let me answer that specific question because I have not been briefed on any information particular to China. I was referring specifically to Britain and the efforts of Jack Straw. The European Union's been involved, and President Putin, of course, and Russia played an important role.

QUESTION: Given China's historic role in the region and its longstanding alliance with India, it would be interesting to know what our strategic thinking might be on the kind of role that China could play.

FLEISCHER: We'll follow up. We'll get that. I'll see.

QUESTION: Ari, there's talk on Capitol Hill that Senator Brownback will now push for a two-year moratorium on human cloning instead of an outright ban because there's discussion that there's not enough votes to pass the outright ban. Would the president welcome that moratorium period?

FLEISCHER: The president thinks it's high time the Senate passed what the House passed with an overwhelming bipartisan vote. The president thinks that the issues that are presented involving human cloning are very important, and this is the time for us to draw an important ethical line, which should not be crossed, so that the developments of science can proceed where human cloning is, as it should be, banned.

QUESTION: Given that as the president's position, would he welcome a two-year moratorium, if they can't muster up the other votes?

FLEISCHER: The president supports the Senate doing what the House easily did in a bipartisan way.

QUESTION: Who recommends a transitional Palestinian state? The Palestinians have always been suspect of that. They want a state. And they view anything short of that as a half measure. And Prime minister Sharon has said he doesn't even want to consider the issue of statehood until there's no violence and no Arafat. If the secretary is recycling advice, where does it come from?

FLEISCHER: As you know, it's my long-time habit to speak for the president. And if he receives advice from other people in closed sessions, it's not my position to share with others what other people's advice is.


QUESTION: ... is recycling advice, where does it come from?

FLEISCHER: Again, you are asking me to indicate to you who was sharing advice in private consultations with the administration. The purpose of them coming here is to consult and to give us their thoughts. And I have to respect their privacy.

PHILLIPS: White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer giving his daily briefing there at the White House, hitting on a number of important issues today -- questions targeting the threat posed by Jose Padilla, also known as Abdullah Al Muhajir. He was the one, as you know, who was arrested or taken in for the terrorist plot, the alleged terrorist plot to unleash a dirty bomb on the U.S. -- also making comments about India-Pakistan, feeling that the administration's trip to South Asia has been successful and that tensions there are being reduced.




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