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White House Briefing

Aired February 26, 2002 - 12:10   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We go now to Washington D.C. and the daily press briefing at the White House.

Here is Ari Fleischer.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president also conveyed the United States desire to continue to work closely with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the pursuit of Middle East peace. Both leaders reiterated their commitment to the important U.S.-Saudi relationship.

The president also this morning spoke with Prime Minister Chretien of Canada. The president discussed his recent trip to Asia, and the prime minister discussed with the president his recent trip to Russia and Germany. The president reiterated the United States commitment to ongoing consultation with allies in the war against terrorism. They also discussed some trade issues between the United States and Canada.

After that, the president received briefings from the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI.

And then, this afternoon, the president will depart the White House to give a speech at St. Luke's Catholic Church here in Washington, D.C., to announce a new welfare reform initiative. The president's remarks will focus on the importance of requiring work, of strengthening families and improving the lives of children, of providing flexibility to the states so they can encourage innovation in helping families who are on welfare, and as well as announcing a reversal of policy from the previous welfare reform whereby legal immigrants who arrive in America who need to go on food stamps after being here for five years would now be permitted to.

The president will return to the White House, where this afternoon he will meet with the presidents of Botswana, Mozambique and Angola to discuss conflict resolution in the region, particularly in Angola, as well as economic issues, trade issues and development issues in sub-Saharan Africa.

And finally, the president will enjoy a movie tonight in the White House theater. He will welcome Mel Gibson and others to the White House for the screening of the movie "We Were Soldiers."

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions. QUESTION: Ari, does the president believe that the time is near that he should sit down with Yasser Arafat one on one and try to drive this peace process forward himself?


QUESTION: Was there any decision to follow up on Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal after their conversation? And the president initiated the call, didn't he?

FLEISCHER: The president initiated the call.

Well, there is always follow-up, I think it's fair to say, through the State Department and through their contacts in the region. At the State Department, Secretary Powell is often on the phone looking for openings, looking for ways that the process can move forward.

FLEISCHER: There have not been many of late. Although in the last week or so, there have been the beginnings of security meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials, so.

QUESTION: But does the president consider this proposal valid as a starter?

FLEISCHER: The president believes it just as I described it. I would refer you exactly back to what I said, and that he praised the Crown Prince for his ideas.

Here's, I think, you may just want to take a look at with this. You know, there have just been so many negative notes coming out of the Middle East recently, and at least in this statement by the Crown Prince, it was a note of hope. Now, it doesn't in and of itself change anything on the ground in the Middle East. The situation remains a very complicated situation and a very violent one.

And nothing has changed the president's fundamental belief that the Mitchell accords are the best path, best process to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement that is agreed to by the two parties in the Middle East. And the president continues to believe that Chairman Arafat has to do more to stop the violence. That is the president's view.

QUESTION: The involvement of the leader of Saudi Arabia willing to engage with Israel on a resolution of this conflict doesn't change the facts of what's happening in the Middle East (inaudible) is this a breakthrough? Does the president see this...

FLEISCHER: No. I've not heard the president use that word. And you said to deal with Israel, that's not quite what the statement is. It's that they would recognize Israel after a comprehensive peace is achieved. The president has called this -- has praised the idea that it come from the Crown Prince.

QUESTION: And praising the idea, once again, is not endorsing it? FLEISCHER: He's praised the idea. It's a hopeful note.

QUESTION: Ari, where is the administration on its deliberations on sending General Zinni back to the region? There are some security talks going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Does it now appear to be a good time to put him back on the ground?

FLEISCHER: I have not heard any new developments involving General Zinni returning to the region.

FLEISCHER: You might want to check with the State Department to see if any additional updates. Nothing has crossed my radar screen in the last 24 hours on that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) I think probably the first major initiative Saudi Arabia has ever launched was a definite proposal. Doesn't that mean a breakthrough?

FLEISCHER: I can only characterize it as the president has. You ask me what the president's reaction is. I can only tell you what the president said. He said it directly on the phone to the Crown Prince. That's the president's reaction.

QUESTION: Now that the civil war is heating up again in Colombia, is the president going to lean on the Congress to (inaudible) up the money for that new Colombian brigade? And is United States planning to send more than the 300 or so troops that we now have in Colombia, to aid that government in its fight with the FARC rebels?

FLEISCHER: Well, since President Pastrana began the peace process some three years ago, the United States has repeatedly stated our support for his efforts, and sought to work with the international community to find a negotiated solution to Colombia's internal conflicts.

Regrettably, the good will of Pastrana government and of the Colombian people, has not been reciprocated by the FARC. FARC terrorist actions, including the attacks that are taking place on civilians and hijacking the airplane, to kidnapping of a state senator for use of the DMZ in Colombia for drug trafficking, all are a real affront to people who seek peace in Colombia.

The most recent event, the kidnapping of the airplane, clearly shows that the FARC is interested in continuing to pursue terror. And that is why the United States has said -- and I refer you to the statement made by the State Department last week -- that the United States supports President Pastrana's actions and determination now to change the calculation of Colombia.

And he has our support. We're consulting with the government of Colombia in that process to determine where we can be helpful, how we can be helpful, and we're mindful of the legal constraints that are imposed on us. And any actions we take will be in accordance with those constraints.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) money from Congress?


QUESTION: Just go back briefly -- just try to close the loop on the conversation with Crown Prince Abdullah. Two quick points, did the president and the Crown Prince discuss at any point the crown prince traveling to Israel to begin to put his idea forward?

And, secondly, did the two of them, in the course of their conversation, return to this question of what Saudi Arabia may be doing to deal with the extremists in their own midst, 15 of the hijackers?

FLEISCHER: No, it was not a topic their conversation.

QUESTION: Did they talk -- the terrorism subject never came up?

FLEISCHER: What you just asked was not a part of their conversation.

QUESTION: Ari, on the Colombia issue and actually on two leaders issue, Ingrid Betancourt was a senator who was taken from the airplane, is anything being done specifically to try -- is the American government trying to do anything to get her back or to help the Colombians with that?

FLEISCHER: I would just refer you again to what I said. That's what the United States is doing. We are trying to explore what options we have to be helpful. I'm not aware of anything beyond that.

QUESTION: And, secondly, I asked you last week about Prime Minister Bhutto and Pakistan and what the president's position was about her perhaps returning there and not being arrested, to run for election?

FLEISCHER: Yes. Nobody got back to you on that? OK. Let me look at -- we'll continue to pursue that.

QUESTION: Two questions on Colombia: One is, are you urging Congress to increase money to the country, and is there a possibility of sending more U.S. troops? Do you have an answer to either one of those?

FLEISCHER: I don't have anything on that.


FLEISCHER: Hold on. Ron, did you have anything further?

QUESTION: Terry's (ph) saying you are ruling out more troops. That's not quite what you're doing?

FLEISCHER: No, I said I'd follow up on your question.

QUESTION: Ari, is there a meeting today about Colombia? We heard that there is. Is there one today? FLEISCHER: There are various meetings of the foreign policy community here, the National Security principals and others, and as a matter of White House practice, I don't cite what those meetings are.

QUESTION: But generally, Ari, can you address the state of play in Colombia right now? It would appear to even the average, noneducated observer very perilous there. Is the United States government, at its highest levels, at a higher level of concern about what's happening with the Pastrana government, about what's going on on the ground? And are you treating with any greater sense of urgency what the U.S. government can do on the ground to assist Colombia.

FLEISCHER: I think it's been perilous there for quite a while, and that's why the State Department has listed FARC as a terrorist organization, and that's why the United States has worked so closely with President Pastrana on his Plan Colombia.

Despite the best and most peaceful intentions of the Colombian people and of President Pastrana, the FARC have decided to pursue an alternative means, and that led to last week's hijacking, last week's kidnapping. And the FARC has not accepted the good will and the good intentions of President Pastrana, and the United States support what President Pastrana is now doing.

QUESTION: So it's no more perilous in Colombia this week than it was, say, four weeks ago, even though the FARC is destroying dams and electricity-generating complexes?

FLEISCHER: I said it's always been perilous in Colombia. I don't know that when you live in a region like that that you characterize one week as being any more or less perilous than the previous week. When you live in an area in which terrorists are doing the things that you just said, I don't think the people living there make gradations, they just want it to stop.

QUESTION: Does the administration consider FARC a terrorist organization with global reach?

FLEISCHER: The administration considers FARC a listed terrorist organization by the State Department.

QUESTION: Ari, can I just add something? Because the plane that was kidnapped had a senator aboard. Ingrid Betancourt is a presidential candidate.


QUESTION: It's been two different things that have happened, first with the kidnapping of the senator, and a few days later the kidnapping of a presidential candidate. And I just want to bring that up, because it seemed...

FLEISCHER: Yes, I'm aware of that.

QUESTION: Ari, can you shed any light on this incident in Salt Lake City with the vice president, where apparently Secret Service agents lost the playbook on protecting him? Is that accurate?

FLEISCHER: I saw the wire story. I have not talked to the Secret Service, so I have no more information about it other than what I read on the wire.

QUESTION: It hadn't come up besides that?

FLEISCHER: I have not had any information provided to me on that.

QUESTION: So you're not confirming or denying, you just don't know.

FLEISCHER: I've seen the wire story. I think this is something that you should really just address directly to the Secret Service.

QUESTION: But the wire story points out that the Secret Service is not commenting. Can you try to get us an explanation of...


FLEISCHER: Let me see if there's anything on that I could find out.

QUESTION: Do you have an update on the discussions by the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan on the extradition of the main suspect in the Pearl case?

FLEISCHER: Yes. Ambassador Chamberlin has met again with President Musharraf and made our point clear again about the United States desire to have Omar Sheik sent to the United States. It is being worked through the Pakistani process. The Pakistanis, as a sovereign nation, have thoughts, too, about how to bring justice to Omar Sheik, and that's where the matter stands. So there are continued conversations, and I anticipate there will be continued conversations for some period of time now about this.

QUESTION: Ari, while you said to response in an earlier question that the idea of Abdullah traveling to Israel did not come up in the conversation, does the administration think it would be helpful for face-to-face talks, for Israelis to travel to Saudi Arabia, if that's conceivable, or conceivable for Saudis to travel to Israel to further this process?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that any contacts between the parties in the Middle East that are mutually agreed upon would be beneficial. And that's a step that would need to be taken by the parties themselves. Of course, then the United States would support that if that were something the parties themselves agreed to.

QUESTION: Is the administration directly encouraging either side to take that step?

FLEISCHER: Throughout the process, the United States has made it clear to all parties concern the importance of finding solutions to the vexing problems of violence in the Middle East that have been present for decades.

Now, I think it's not a surprise to either the Israel or her Arab neighbors that the United States hopes that parties are able to get together and talk. That's a common approach.

QUESTION: What, beyond the statement, you've given today is the administration doing to encourage this Saudi trap?

FLEISCHER: Again, I refer you to the State Department. I said that they're always on contact and that the State with the various governments in the region and conveying the messages from the president, and from the State Department, Secretary Powell himself is often on the phone with the parties.

QUESTION: But did kind of first ask the question to get more involved, to do something else?

FLEISCHER: No. The Crown Prince -- I won't speak for him, but I think he appreciated very much the president's message.


FLEISCHER: We'll come back to you.

QUESTION: Yes, Ari. My sense is that you see the Saudi plan as sort of phase two after you get through some of the initial confidence-building measures and so forth. Is that an accurate description? I mean, you can't really get to the peace agreement until you've ended the hostilities or at least reduced them to some extent.

FLEISCHER: Well, what I've indicated previously is the Saudi statement which the president welcomes is a statement about the final result, that Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel at the end of the day when there's a comprehensive peace process or peaceful solution agreed to.

FLEISCHER: That is a result. To get to that result, it requires a process.

What the president has said is the best process to arrive at that result is the Mitchell agreement, the Mitchell accords, which begins with security talks between Israel and the Palestinians that would then process into talks of a more political nature about negotiations in the region to achieve a more meaningful lasting peace, discussions, ultimately, about the settlement policy, and then, hopefully, a comprehensive peace. That's the outline of what the Mitchell process agrees to.

To have Arab nations weighing in now with additional thoughts that are reflective of the will of the region to create peace is a helpful part of the process.

QUESTION: Maybe the Saudis embrace essentially the same sequence. FLEISCHER: I think that there's no question that the Mitchell accords were welcomed by all parties at the time that they were announced last year. So again, there's an agreement on what the process should be. It's just proved to be very difficult, given the violence. And when it comes to the violence, the president's message remains the same, that Chairman Arafat still needs to do more to stop the violence.

QUESTION: Ari, coming back to the Pearl situation. You said that this is now being worked out through the Pakistani legal process. Does that mean that eventually the United States will have a chance to try Saeed? And if not, how much pressure is the U.S. willing to put on Pakistan, given his internal political concerns?

FLEISCHER: It means the process is ongoing. And as you can imagine, Pakistan is a sovereign state. They have their own laws. A crime, a murder was committed in their country, and they have their own ways and laws of dealing with it. It's not atypical at a time like that, when another nation makes a request, for that request to be considered, and it takes time.

Yesterday, I discussed that if there had been, God forbid, reverse the situation, a murder in the United States, where an American citizen was held for the murder of a foreign visitor to the United States, I don't think it would surprise anybody if the United States said, "We have our courts, we have our laws, we have our ways of dealing with this," as we worked cooperatively with any other nation that was making a request. And that's the process. And it's not something that necessarily lends itself to instant resolution.

And the United States will continue to make its case to Pakistan. Pakistan has received the case well, but as part of a process. They are a sovereign government, and we'll continue to talk.

KAGAN: We have been listening in to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. That latest question talking about the efforts to get one of the kidnapping, killing suspects, murder suspects, in the case of "Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh yesterday. Ari Fleischer saying that the U.S. would very like to get its hand on the man to bring him back to the U.S. and prosecute him for the murder of Daniel Pearl.

Today, Ari Fleischer saying that the Pakistani justice system is still working its way through this crime first, but the effort and hope does stay out there. Also talking about Mideast peace and the efforts to achieve that with the help and ideas of a Saudi prince and the relationship with Colombia.

Ari Fleischer also letting us know that the president will be giving us a welfare reform speech later on today. And tonight, looks like a fun time at the White House. Mel Gibson will be there for a screening of his new movie. "We Were Soldiers."




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