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Ari Flesicher Conducts White House Press Conference

Aired October 29, 2002 - 11:52   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We've got some major developments unfolding right now as far as the sniper suspects are concerned.
Our national correspondent Bob Franken is standing by.

Bob, tell us what you've got.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they have just handed out the crimial complaint, which has been signed by special agent Christopher Abraga (ph), the Federal Bureau of Investigation and special agent Scott Riordan, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, will be heard, we're told at 3:00 Eastern, which will put it about 2 1/2 hours from now, in front of Charles Day, who is the magistrate, federal madgiste here, in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Now what they've charged in a complaint is 20 different allegation, 20 different counts to support charges, federal charges, which would allow the federal government to be in a position where it would be able to seek the death penalty in the prosecution of these charges. The charges include conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States, which in generic terms will be called a terrorism charge; conspiracy to affect interstate commerce by extortion and threats of violence -- and I'll explain why these other charges are being charged in connection with the murder -- affecting interstate commerce by extortion and threats of physical violence -- that's the logical outgrowth of the conspiracy charge -- interstate transportation and the aid of racketeering, discharging a firearm in a school zone -- of course that has to do with the shooting on october 7th in Prince George's County, in which a student, a 13-year-old student, was wounded -- and use of a firearm during commission of a crime of violence causing death of a person.

Federal law is quite restricted in the capital punishment area. There has to be proof under the Hobbes act that other crimes were committed, in addition to the shooting occurring at the same time. Obviously The case is being built by the charges that were made here, that in fact there were these other crimes committed. Now these federal charges join charges that have been made in other states.

Now the question becomes which one will hold the first trials in this case, and that is a question that will be ultimately decided by the attorney general, because the men here are in federal custody. As a matter of fact, John Muhammad, the adult in this case, has already been brought to this court house in Greenbelt, Maryland, where we are told the hearing is going to be an arraignment hearing, where he will get to plead at 3:00 Eastern, we're told a little less than two and a half hours from now. Greenbelt, Maryland, is the venue, by the way, because it is in Maryland where the bulk of the charges have been made.

As we know, Montgomery County, Maryland, has already filed its six murder charges. That of course was the largest number.

But again, a 20-count complaint has been filed against the two in connection with the preliminary legal efforts that are going on now to begin the process that will ultimately result in trials, and the question of whether they committed the murders, and as a result, would be eligible if they're found guilty for capital punishment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Bob, I just want to be very precise, because John Lee Malvo is a juvenile, 17 years old, unless there's some better information, as far as that is concerned.

The federal government, I believe, is barred from discussing his particular case and the charges against him because he's a juvenile. On that piece of paper that you have, is there any specific reference to John Lee Malvo, or simply to John Muhammad?

FRANKEN: These are -- and it's a very good question, Wolf. These are charges relating to John Muhammad, because the hearing on John Malvo at this particular point, since he is considered to be 17, would be in secret as it was the other day in Baltimore. I would also point out that under federal law, there could be no capital punishment meted out for somebody who was 17 years old. So that is one of the questions that has to be resolved. This is the 20-count complaint against John Muhammad.

BLITZER: All right, Bob Franken, thank you very much for all of that report. And I just want to make sure that we will do the next thing.

All right. Ari fleischer, our -- the White House press secretary is speaking on these issues right now.

Let's go to the White House.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: ... and court cases are typically things that are decided by prosecutors and professionals and not decided by the White House. And so this is a matter for the Department of Justice to enter into their professional judgment about how justice can best be served.

QUESTION: The facts are that the president was made aware, blow by blow, what was happening in the investigation -- he spoke about this publicly -- but now he's not prepared to talk about why the federal government has to step in and take a case away potentially from the jurisdiction in which the crime was committed?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's an obvious separation for the president to be kept informed about what is happening as a sniper is on the loose and to make certain that the federal government is doing everything it can to catch them, but once they are caught, the president understands and it should be delegated as far as the decision making about professional Justice Department decisions on how to prosecute a case. QUESTION: One more. Does politics play any role in the decision made to have a Republican U.S. attorney and a Republican Justice Department take it away from local Democratic officials?

FLEISCHER: Well, given the fact that you've got so many jurisdictions involved with Democratic and Republican officials alike, I think you can obviously see...

QUESTION: The biggest jurisdiction is the Democrat...

FLEISCHER: Obviously, this is being done on the basis of what the law enforcement professionals think is the appropriate way to proceed.

QUESTION: Ari, the president's U.N. resolutions spells out clear deadlines for Saddam's Hussein and a clear timetable for inspections that could lead to war. The president, in every campaign stop across America, clocks in a hypothetical fashion what should happen if that U.N. resolution failed, he'll lead a coalition to disarm Saddam.

QUESTION: What are the deadlines and timetables for the backup plan?

FLEISCHER: The president has not indicated there are hard deadlines, as such. I think that, clear from listening to the president speak, that the end is coming near.

The United Nations is still hard at work on this matter. They have made some progress. And it still is unclear about what the ultimate outcome will be in New York.

QUESTION: Perhaps, I wasn't clear. My question was: What are the deadlines and timetables for his backup plan, that is acting with either congressional authorization or existing U.N. authorization?

FLEISCHER: Again, the president has not established any hard deadlines. And again, let's see what the United Nations does before I'm prepared to discuss anything that could be an alternative.

QUESTION: Would they be similar to U.N. deadlines, which is seven days to comply, 30 days for a full list of weapons of mass destruction, 45 days for inspectors...

FLEISCHER: The president is still working through the United Nations. Let's see if the United Nations is able to get the job done or not.

QUESTION: Does the president think that it was right for Putin to gas his own people? And do we know what kind of gas was used?

FLEISCHER: We still do not have any information yet about the exact nature of the gas that was used; Embassy Moscow is working to ascertain that information.

As for the president and his thinking about all of this, the president feels very strongly that responsibility for this rests with the terrorists who took these people hostage and put them in harm's way in the first place.

FLEISCHER: That's where the president believes the fault lies.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) then therefore it was OK to use gas?

FLEISCHER: No, the president...

QUESTION: I mean, at any cost.

FLEISCHER: The president abhors the loss of all life in this instance, and the president makes no mistake about who is to blame for this. The people who put people in harm's way are the terrorists who took the lives.

QUESTION: I'm not asking who's to blame. Does he think it was right to use gas or does he think there were any possible alternatives?

FLEISCHER: The president understands that in this circumstance you had terrorists who had proven that they were going to kill, who had already killed, who were deadly serious about killing more, who had 700 hostages, who had the theater booby trapped and were prepared to take mass quantities of life. The president views this entire matter as a tragic one, but it's a tragedy that was brought on as a result of the terrorists who put people in the way.


FLEISCHER: No, I'm addressing it as the president approaches it.

BLITZER: And so Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, answering questions on a whole bunch of issues, ranging from the sniper suspects to the situation with Iraq to the Russian use of gas to try to free those hostages in Moscow. The other day, more than a 100 of them were killed in the process.


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