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America's New War: Daily White House Briefing by White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer

Aired September 24, 2001 - 13:03   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: The White House briefing about to begin. This is Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman with his afternoon briefing.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon. I want to give you an update on the president's day.

Earlier this morning, the president called Thai Prime Minister Thaksin to discuss ways the United States and Thailand can cooperate in the war against terrorism. He signed an executive order last night for which he held a ceremony in the Rose Garden today with Secretary O'Neill and Secretary Powell in which he froze the financial assets of terrorist organizations linked to the Al Qaeda organization, or part or the Al Qaeda organization in the United States.

The president also held a meeting of the National Security Council this morning, and as we speak he is just concluding a luncheon meeting following his Oval Office meeting with America's good friend, the Canadian prime minister.

Immediately following that, the president will have a meeting with the families of passengers and the flight crew of Flight 93, which as you know went down in southwestern Pennsylvania. Later this afternoon, the president will have a meeting of the Domestic Consequences Committee to discuss domestic planning for how to help America recover from this attack.

Two foreign leader visits I want to bring to your attention -- the president will welcome Belgian prime minister, who also is the president of the European Council, Guy Verhofstadt on Thursday this week, the 27th; and he will welcome King Abdullah of Jordan to the White House for a working visit on Friday, September 28.

Finally, let me give you an update on several actions across the cabinet designed to help America. Secretary of Education Rod Paige today directed lenders in colleges and universities to provide members of the National Guard relief from their student loan obligations. These are members of the National Guard who have been called up to active duty service. Lenders will automatically postpone the student loan payments of borrowers during the period of the borrower's service.

Secretary Paige also announced that the Department of Education is providing $500,000 to Connecticut's Department of Education, and providing $250,000 to the District of Columbia's Department of Education and immediate assistance to help students and faculties and teachers directly impacted by the terrorist attacks.

There will be an announcement made shortly this afternoon by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Martinez along with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld concerning mortgage payment relief for Reservists who are going on active duty status.

The Department of Justice, General Ashcroft and several officials from the Department of Justice will be testifying before the House Judiciary Committee today, regarding a legislative proposal to give the government additional tools to combat terrorism. That testimony is scheduled for 2 o'clock.

And finally, at the Department of Labor, Secretary Chao has announced today that the Department of Labor will begin an education campaign for employers, as well as National Guard and Reserve units to ensure that civilians called up for active duty are re-employed in their previous jobs after completion of their military service.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Ari, what have we got in terms of the list of organizations and individuals who are being targeted to have their financial assets squeezed, but what about the issue of domestic fundraising, how much of a part does the White House believe that might have played in this terrorist network?

FLEISCHER: It's unclear. And I think it's one of the most insidious signs of what these organizations and front groups represent, because there may very well be elements to these groups that help people, that help children, that do work. And they can very well have received money from Americans or from others abroad who thought they were doing good for people who need relief.

FLEISCHER: But then there's another side of these organizations and that's why they're listed today as terrorist organizations. They took that money, they diverted portions of that money and used it to finance the war on -- their terrorist actions. And ...

QUESTION: Are you aware of...

FLEISCHER: ... that's one of the items that we're up against.

QUESTION: Are you aware of any specific incidents of domestic fundraising for the Al Qaeda group?

FLEISCHER: You'd have to talk to treasury for anything that involve specific examples, but in terms of these groups -- and that's why they call them fronts. They do raise money from innocent people who give for good reasons, but then, unknown to many of those people, they take that money and they use it for insidious purposes, including terrorism.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) was a known indicted terrorist when he came to office and the president and the campaign called terrorism one of the great threats of our times. Why wasn't this done seven months ago?

FLEISCHER: Well, if you notice, what was done today goes beyond anything that was previously done, and there had already been an executive order in place, signed by President Clinton. What this does is allow the United States government to go well beyond anything that was previously done. And the principal way it does that is by sending a message to foreign banks that they need to take action.

And we're going to work with foreign governments, so they can take action against anybody who -- any terrorist organizations or front groups that have assets in foreign countries that are beyond the immediate reach of the United States government. But the signal being sent is, "If you don't, we are prepared to take action against your financial interest in this country."

QUESTION: Why didn't this administration send that signal two, three months ago? Why did it take this tragedy to...

FLEISCHER: Well, I think what you're seeing across the board is, unfortunately, this tragedy has resulted in an increase of security, domestic, financial, diplomatic, political, across the board.

We were on a peacetime footing. The previous executive order had been in place, but this now goes beyond anything that was previously done.

QUESTION: It's on Canada, so let's...


QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that one question? Is it unprecedented then for this administration -- has an administration ever before this done where it says, "Foreign banks, if you do not, you know, stop the flow of money going to terrorist organizations, we will put sanctions on you. We will freeze your assets in the U.S." Was that ever done before?

FLEISCHER: I have no information about any precedence for it in all the briefings I've had. I mean, this goes beyond anything that was previously done. I believe, it is without precedent.

QUESTION: Ari, yesterday Secretary Powell was very precise that he was going to put out a report on what we had on bin Laden that could be reported and not classified. Today, the president shot him down, and he's been shot down many, many times by the administration (inaudible) indicating that he also retreated on the question of putting out a report. No, I'm wrong?

FLEISCHER: No, I think that there was just a misinterpretation of the exact words the secretary used on the Sunday shows and the secretary talked about that in a period of time -- I think his word was "soon," -- there would be some type of document that could be made available.

As you heard the secretary say today, he said, "As we are able, as it unclassifies," and...

QUESTION: Much more emphatic yesterday at the...

FLEISCHER: Well, I think he said the word "soon."

As I was reminded today by a very knowledgeable official at the State Department, that's called State Department soon. And so it's fully consistent with what the president's been saying and the secretary said.

You know, I mean, look, it shouldn't surprise anybody, as soon as...


QUESTION: ... the American people thought soon meant soon.

QUESTION: But is this a sign, Ari, that...


FLEISCHER: Let me -- I was getting there. I was answering.

What I was saying is it shouldn't surprise anybody that as soon as the attack on our country took place the immediate reaction is that investigations begin. They begin with the intelligence agencies, they begin with domestic agencies, they begin with the regulator law enforcement authorities, and they start to collect a whole series of information.

Some of that information is going to end up in the form of grand jury information, which of course is subject to secrecy laws. Others, coming from intelligence services, is by definition going to be classified and will treated as such.

Over the course of time, will there be changes to that that can lead to some type of declassified document over whatever period of time? That has historically been the pattern, and I think that's what the secretary is referring to.


QUESTION: ... from now, if we're talking about a State Department white paper?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not aware of anybody who said white paper, and the secretary didn't say anything about a white paper yesterday.

QUESTION: Is this a sign then that allies, particularly Arab and Muslim allies, really want to see the evidence because they're concerned about any potential action in Afghanistan could lead to instability in the region so they want to be certain that we have the evidence?

FLEISCHER: Actually, in the course of the conversations that the president and the secretary have been having with foreign leaders their support has been very strong. And they also have information, they also have knowledge.

And I remind you, it's not just the United States that collects information and knows that all roads lead to the Al Qaeda organization. Other nations have similar means of collecting information.

QUESTION: But, Ari, it does seem that across the board, on proving that these charitable organizations, nongovernmental organizations, banks have links to terror, on proving that bin Laden is behind these acts, on what plans the administration has, host whatever movement we may connect in, and the answer is always "That's classified. Trust us." Does that really serve the democracy well if all this information on which the government is basing its actions is classified?

FLEISCHER: I think the American people get it. I think they understand that as the nation moves from a peacetime footing to a wartime footing, the government's need to hold certain pieces of information closer is an important need. And I think the American people are accepting and understanding of that. And I think you all will be the judge, if you believe the government has gone too far, but I don't think there's any indications, from the public, certainly, that that is the case.

And I think it's perfectly understandable, as people hide in Afghanistan today who know that if they were to start moving, the United States would take action, the one thing they want more than anything else is what information do we have that lets us know who they are and where they are and how quick do we get that information. And we are not going to provide that information.

QUESTION: Ari, the issue of Bush seeking power to lift the arms curb. That's exactly -- these are countries such as -- or they could be countries such as Iran, countries that we have formerly, before, said that we are going to curb our arms sales.

QUESTION: How different is that than what we actually did with the Taliban...


FLEISCHER: I think -- if you didn't hear the president address that question today in the report that you are citing, he indicated is wrong.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) A lot of former Clinton treasury people who worked on this somewhat have said that one of the big problems was technology, especially in the Middle East, in terms of their banking system. It doesn't exist -- it's nothing comparable to what we do here. So how do you trace, how do you actually implement what you're trying to do when transactions are being made almost word-of-mouth?

FLEISCHER: There's no doubt that, in some nations, this will be easier, and in other nations, they will have more hurdles. But what has changed fundamentally in the world, including many of the nations you've cited, is recognition that this is entirely different from anything that anybody has faced before and that the nations of the world are going to war with terrorism. That has lead to a much higher level of cooperation, much more interaction between nations.

I think you'll have to develop and watch it over time. The United States is looking for good allies to help in this effort to shut down the financial sources of the terrorists, and the cooperation from nation-to-nation may be different.

But make no mistake, the world is beginning to turn its sights on it in a way that has never been done before.

QUESTION: But there's a fundamental problem in that the countries that are likely to be the most resistant to providing you with the information you want are the very countries where the technology doesn't exist and it's easy for them to say...

FLEISCHER: Perhaps, there's also evidence that that's not the place where many of these terrorists like to put their money.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to the Swiss and the Cayman Islands and other governments where places where money is usually -- large amounts of money are usually stashed and they have strict rules about giving out information to law enforcement.

FLEISCHER: As I indicated earlier, we're going to continue to work with all nations around the world and we're going to continue to see what the level of cooperation is with each nation. But make no mistake, what is so different about the executive order the president signed last night is now, the United States is prepared to take action against nations that don't take action themselves.

QUESTION: But the U.S. -- is it willing to take action against the Swiss?

FLEISCHER: The United States is prepared to take action against nations that don't help in this cause.

QUESTION: How does that process work? For instance, you identify one of these groups and you go to a foreign bank and say, "We want you to freeze the assets of this organization." Will the U.S. just attest that this is linked to terrorists, will they supply some sort of detailed information? How do you do that and avoid using sources and methods?

FLEISCHER: Well, every case is going to be different. And again, the president signed this last night. He announced it today in the Rose Garden. I think these are good questions, but you may want to address these to different foreign nations around the world. I can't be in a position of being the spokesperson for every bank or foreign nation around the world. We'll see what they do to cooperate. But as I indicated earlier, the cooperation around the world has never been better.

QUESTION: No, but I'm asking you what the administration intends to do, not what they intend to do, what you intend to do to give them information to convince them? I mean, if someone come to a U.S. bank and said, "By the way, lock up this account because we think these guys are terrorists." You would have to go through some legal procedures, you couldn't just say, "Oh, the Swiss...

FLEISCHER: I think the Treasury addressed that this morning. The Treasury is going to be the preeminent authority, of course, and with State also, in working directly with those nations.

So if you want to know what the government is doing with a specific nation -- and as you point out, in accordance with laws -- those would be the most appropriate places to go.

QUESTION: On something we talked about this morning, will the government -- will the administration be asking courts for more leeway if challenged by organizations or banks for evidences to why these charitable organizations or banks are suspect on...

FLEISCHER: Well, under domestic laws -- these laws have been on the books and the president has invoked his authority under the books as you see in the executive order he signed. He gave the citations for the laws that were written by the Congress, signed by previous presidents, allowing the administration in a time of emergency like this to enact these measures. So, of course, it's always going to want to be done in accordance with those authorities.

QUESTION: But it will also be litigated undoubtedly and there have been cases in the past where judges and courts have said, "Unless you give us the evidence, we're throwing out the case."

FLEISCHER: Well, now you're into hypotheticals and that's why I also indicated that the president signed it last night. He announced it today. I think you need to let it unfold.

QUESTION: The response from the Treasury Department to that this morning was, "We will act like responsible adults." I think those were the words he used even. I mean, he's really asking people to trust the government on this. Without being more specific here and...

FLEISCHER: Well, I think what you need to do is talk to these foreign governments and talk to the foreign banks and get their point of view. I think you're surmising what their point of view may or may not be.

And what's happened in the world since September 11 is the levels of international cooperation have never been so good. These nations recognize that they have terrorist threats as well. They share an interest with us in drying up the assets of those nations that practice terrorism or those organizations that practice terrorism.

And so it's beginning with fresh cooperation that is unparalleled or unprecedented. That's the context in which this action begins, and we'll see where it goes over time...

QUESTION: The question of evidence, has the United States received information from other countries that have supported America's case against bin Laden? FLEISCHER: I think it's a safe bet to say the United States always works collaboratively with its best friends around the world. And when I talked about areas of cooperation that are available, you've heard the president say one of the areas of cooperation will be in intelligence sharing. You can always presume that's the case with our friends.

QUESTION: A couple of these trust funds that were outlined in the executive order today are administered through the state bank of Pakistan. Has Pakistan agreed to freeze the accounts on these, freeze the money in these accounts?

FLEISCHER: We've reached out to many of the governments. In the case of Pakistan, talked to Pakistan about this action. And they have been very supportive of what we are doing.

QUESTION: And then as a follow-up, is this going to create any sort of diplomatic briar patch situation with coalition members since a lot of these...

FLEISCHER: No. And that's why I indicated also it's not just, you know, American citizens who may have given money to a cause that they believed in that turns out to have an insidious dark side, that took their money and diverted it to terrorists. That happens abroad as well. And many of the people abroad who participated may not have known about the darker side of some of these organizations.

But certainly, now is the change for all nations around the world to stand with us, and all people around the world to stand with us as they realize more information, thanks to the information that the United States provided this morning.

QUESTION: Ari, I just want to make sure I understand the White House position in terms of evidence in general. And I realize you're saying that a lot of governments understand and, you know, share information privately. But is there any plan to present public evidence so that, you know, the average citizen, not just Americans, but people all over the world can understand the case against bin Laden?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think, as Secretary Powell said, there's hope to do that and to do so in a timely fashion over some course of time. That's always important in a democracy. In a democracy, it's always important to provide the maximum amount of information possible.

But I think the American people also understand that there are going to be times when that information cannot immediately be forthcoming, and the American people seem to be accepting of that.

QUESTION: But I really am talking even bigger. I mean, just you know, you're talking about actions in other parts of the world. And certainly, you want the support of as many people around the world as possible. You know, I guess, it seems as though you're asking everyone to trust you but without supply information to show why you should trust. I mean, to go to a point and... FLEISCHER: Look, two points. One, again, many of these nations know what we know, and they are working with us because they know a lot of the things that we know. There are many conversations that take place between the United States -- at the state level, at the presidential level -- with foreign leaders that, if there were to be a transcript of that conversation, for example, it would be classified, because they discuss secrets. There is a sharing of information.

You're presuming that there is no such sharing of information in private. There can be and there is, it's just that's not the type of information that can always be publicly shared and I think the country has an appreciation for that. But you just have to gaze the reaction of the nations around the world for themselves. They are working with us, because they believe us. They're working with us because of things they know and because of the trust they hold in the United States government.

QUESTION: I just want to follow on the Pakistan question. Without getting too much into fine details of this, one of the groups that's on the list is the Harikat al Mujahedin (ph), which provides a lot of funding for the resistances in Kashmir, the rebels in Kashmir. Do you have a commitment from Pakistan yet to cut off funds -- or if by freezing the assets of that group, you will cut off funding to the rebels in Kashmir? Has Pakistan signed on to that idea?

FLEISCHER: You know, I'm not in a position to go down the list of each organization and tell you what the international commitment is to take action on each of the 27 groups that were listed today. You may want to refer that to the Pakistan officials.

QUESTION: A statement broadcast today -- apparently, a fax from Osama bin Laden -- in which he called on Muslims in Pakistan to, quote, "fight the American crusade."

A, does this administration believe the statement is credible? And do you have any reaction to it?

FLEISCHER: Well, there have been so many different statements coming out of the Taliban, that I think the only statement that the president is looking for is a statement of action. And those words that were issued today by the Taliban are a chilling reminder about how serious and real this is.

The words of attack that they have launched against freedom- loving people, Christians and Jews, around the world, it's consistent with the statements that Osama bin Laden has made in the past urging people to rise up and kill Christians and Jews. And it is a chilling reminder of how serious and real this is.

QUESTION: Ari, a lot of nations, foreign nations, that have weak banking laws also serve to create off-shore tax havens for corporations. And the OECD has been going after tax havens for a while; the Bush administration hasn't shown a whole lot of support for that effort. Is today a sign that that might change; that the administration might be supporting... FLEISCHER: I think you should not confuse the two issues, one deals with domestic laws in dealing with tax consequences and tax dodges or tax evasions; this deals with terrorism.

QUESTION: Forgive me. Once more, if I could, on the proof issue.

I think the picture that we all have in our minds is of (inaudible) the United Nations passing around previously classified photographs of missiles with the understanding that America could within days, if not hours, be the target of those missiles. What's the difference between then and now in terms of publicizing information that would point -- to clear the public opinion directly towards those who we think is responsible?

FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, you can't compare what's happened in the past with what's happening today with with the instant communication age. Don't forget, anything that is said here in this White House today, can be broadcast and be watched by terrorist around the world, as it said.

There's a huge difference in terms of the instant transmission of information and the ability therefore -- people to take advantage of it for wrongful purposes.

As I indicated, in a democracy, there's still remains an always important goal of sharing as much information as possible with the public. And the president, Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld -- all remain committed to that. And I think you'll just be the judges over time about whether that balance has struck. And I submit to you it has been struck and struck well.

QUESTION: The difference is like the 24-hour news cycle and the (inaudible) communications.

FLEISCHER: And it's also just the means of how information is collected and every administration makes a different determination about how to protect that means of collection of information.

But, you know, again, I remind you, I understand the frustration that journalists feel in this regard and we're going to continue to do the best in this administration in providing information. But I also remind you that nations of the world are not passing this message on to the United States. The message has been one of cooperation and trust, and the administration will continue to work hard to keep it that way and every sign points that it's going that way.

QUESTION: I'm afraid some of the confusion over this was caused by a couple of reports that there was a white paper and some other reports that there was going to be evidence in a couple of days and that it would be put out before you moved militarily and that sort of thing.

I just want to see if I can be clear in my mind where it is here. Are you saying there is some specific effort under way now to work up a nonclassified document that can be shared with the public here and abroad and other governments or is it just a general intention to do so? And on another track, is there some other effort to come up with a classified document just for use by government officials so that everyone knows they're on the same page?

FLEISCHER: OK, on your first question, I recite Secretary Powell's words today, as the secretary said in the Rose Garden, "As we are able and as it unclassifies," which clearly implies that it is a classified document that is not unclassified.

QUESTION: Would you say that again?

FLEISCHER: It's a classified document that is not unclassified. The secretary said, "As we are able and as it unclassifies." Those were his words and he's right. That's accurate. So he's indicating that there will be, over time, different issues will be looked at with an eye toward whatever can possibly be publicly shared. But as we speak today, as the secretary said, as we are able and as it unclassifies.

Now, of course, right from the beginning, as I indicated in the top of the briefing, as soon as the attack was launched, the investigation began. That investigation, of course, compiles documents, assembles information and does so in a manner that would reveal, how do we know these things, by what courses, by what methods do we know and have received that information. Of course, that's a classified document.

QUESTION: But Ari, you're asking...


QUESTION: What I'm trying to figure out is, is a group of people somewhere being tasked with coming up with a document that can be scrubbed of classified material so that you can lay out the case?

Is that an effort that's now under way? Is that just an intention somewhere down the road?

FLEISCHER: No, it remains a classified document. A series of classified documents, to be more precise.

QUESTION: Classified documents are being supplied to the grand jury that's looking into this in New York?

FLEISCHER: You'd need to talk to the Justice Department about anything dealing with grand juries.

QUESTION: Ari, is the U.S. analyzing the possibility of supporting the return of King Zahir Shah to Afghanistan and maybe create another government?

FLEISCHER: As Condoleezza Rice said yesterday, the United States will continue to be in contact with numerous parties. And that's the position.

QUESTION: Can you confirm the possible landing of two American planes in Uzbekistan as preparedness for the operation over there?

FLEISCHER: And to follow on with I know is a difficult series of questions for the press, where you want these answers, I will not get into any operational details of missions.

QUESTION: Ari, what are the benefits of Rudy Giuliani staying as mayor of New York in this terrorist situation?

FLEISCHER: That's not a matter for the White House, and so there's nothing for me to indicate on that.

QUESTION: Has the president talked to him recently about this possible...

FLEISCHER: Not to my knowledge. I don't believe he has.

QUESTION: Ari, are there any nominations that you have now or are pending that you think are especially urgent for Congress to pass as a result of these terrorism acts?

FLEISCHER: Well, interestingly, in the meeting that took place with the congressional leadership on Wednesday, September 12, the day after the attack, a couple of the nominations were brought to the attention of the Senate, and the Senate immediately took action. U.N. Ambassador Negroponte, for example, the Senate confirmed him. The president was very grateful to the Senate for taking such swift action.

I'll have to take a careful look at a more detailed list to see if there are any other pending nominations that need to be expedited. I'll take that question and see if I can't get back.

QUESTION: The president this morning again said this is the primary focus of his administration, but you clearly want to move ahead on some of your domestic agenda. At this point you obviously can't do everything. Besides education, what are your main priorities (inaudible) really want to see get done this year?

FLEISCHER: The president's domestic agenda has not changed. Despite the fact that the nation's increasingly shifting to a war footing to deal with the international crisis that has hit home, it still is terribly important, in the president's opinion, to have public schools that serve our children, to have a patient bill of rights so patients can continue to get the protections they need in their dealings with HMOs.

It's now more important than ever to get energy legislation passed to help protect and promote American energy independence. It remains important in the president's opinion for the faith-based initiative to pass and move forward, because there still are millions of Americans who are in need, who can find solutions to their problems through some of these more community- and faith-based solutions.

So the domestic agenda continues. And part and parcel of that, too, is always in the need, both in war and peace, to keep a careful eye on taxpayer dollars. So while the domestic agenda will certainly not have the prominence it was going to have, it still remains of importance to this president.

QUESTION: Ari, on Canada. And, can you, because it is a border state and because there are separate concerns as far as Canada...

BROWN: White House spokesman Ari Fleischer in his daily sparring with reporters. His message pretty clear: International cooperation has never been better, but in terms of much detail on how -- this freezing of assets in foreign countries would go, almost none, and certainly no operational detail on the military side.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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