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White House Press Briefing

Aired March 26, 2002 - 12:34   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Now to the White House and Ari Fleischer, briefing reporters. Certainly this issue will come up. We anticipate that.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... thanks for the support in the war against terror that New Zealand has provided, as well as discussing areas of cooperation on counterterrorism, regional issues, as well as some trade issues.

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

QUESTION: Ari, a wire just cross that said Sharon has said on television that conditions are not right for Arafat to attend the Arab summit in Beirut. Have you spoken with him?

FLEISCHER: I cannot confirm that, and any information, as you know, that would develop during the course of my briefing I'll go back and take a look at. But I cannot confirm that. I inquired shortly before I came here.

QUESTION: So has the president spoken with Sharon since we heard from you this morning? Has there been any...

FLEISCHER: No, the communications were conducted at the level that I've indicated. The secretary of state and others through normal diplomatic channels made the position clear. The president has said it, I believe, publicly about what our position is, and so our position is clear.

QUESTION: Does the president think that Israel has the right to decide who makes a move in Ramallah? Is it under military occupation? Has it been annexed? What right does Sharon have to tell Arafat where he can go?

FLEISCHER: The president's position is simple and clear: The president thinks that...

QUESTION: Well, obviously, he has no power with the man.

FLEISCHER: The president's position is simple and clear, and we are dealing with a sovereign government and governments have the right to make determinations. The American position is clear: The American position is that Israel should seriously consider allowing Prime Minister Sharon to attend.

QUESTION: Have you had a chance to work up a response to Mubarak announcing that he is (inaudible)

FLEISCHER: No, I'm not entirely clear on that. I think that's something for Egypt to decide about a meeting that it wants to attend or not attend involving the Arab League. I don't know that it's an issue for the United States to enter into.

QUESTION: What concern is there if Mubarak doesn't go, if Arafat doesn't join -- how concerned is the administration if (inaudible) just fall apart?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president hopes that the meeting in Beirut will focus on ways to find peace as opposed to take attendance. The president believes that no matter who goes, the ideas that were advanced by Crown Prince Abdullah can be very helpful in creating a consensus among Arab nations that there needs to be a path to peace in the Middle East, and that path to peace has got to begin with a recognition of Israel's right to exist in security.

And the president has always said that the Palestinians have a right to a state, and the president believes that this summit in Beirut can help accomplish that goal of the Crown Prince's ideas.

QUESTION: There's another problem, which is that Crown Prince Abdullah's original proposal spoke of normalization of relations with Israel. That doesn't seem to be in the text of the resolution that's going to be offered in Beirut, and in fact, other nations have said they have no intention of normalizing relations.

QUESTION: What's the president's reaction to this watering-down of the original proposal?

FLEISCHER: Let me tell you what the president thinks and why the president -- the day that it was announced about the Crown Prince's ideas -- welcomed them they way he did.

The Mideast has been marred by violence and, in so many occasions, by a lack of hope. The Crown Prince's ideas broke with that and represented a gleam of light, ray of hope in a Mideast that has too much violence and not enough of a focus by people on how to stop the violence.

So what the president was encouraged by was a leading Arab nation coming out as Jordan has, as Egypt has, suggesting that there is a way to achieve peace in the Middle East through the recognition of Israel's right to exist.

And in the midst of all the setbacks and the violence along this came this notion the president wants to create an environment where the Crown Prince's ideas can be developed further.

So whatever the exact language -- and it will be important to see what the exact language will be -- the president wants to move the process forward. And that doesn't mean it all has to be done in one fell swoop, but it does mean, advance a good idea when a good idea is offered. And that's what the president hopes will happen in Beirut.

QUESTION: If I may follow-up? Doesn't it seem as if the process is in retreat, though, from the original proposal, which was bold -- a normalization of relations -- now stepping back and (inaudible) are more conditions being added? Doesn't it look as if this is not going anywhere?

FLEISCHER: The breakthrough in the Saudi original was the recognition of Israel's right to exist, whether that's in the formalization or any other form. It's a recognition of Israel's right to exist. And that is a centerpiece of the international effort, and that's the area that the president referred to.

What the president hopes will happen in Beirut is that, all the nations that are there, regardless of who is there, will put their shoulder to the wheel to try to achieve an environment for peace in the Middle East that involves the recognition of Israel's right to exist.

QUESTION: But isn't the administration concerned that if Arafat isn't there that becomes more the focus and criticism of Israel more likely because Arafat is not allowed to attend the summit?

FLEISCHER: Clearly, the president thinks the best course is to focus on peace. And that can easily be accomplished if Chairman Arafat is there.

QUESTION: (inaudible) concern no question that if he's not there, that it will be harder for the countries to focus on moving forward and...

FLEISCHER: I'll just reiterate the president's position. I think you're familiar with it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Secretary of State Powell talked to Sharon.

FLEISCHER: You have to address that to the State Department. I don't know.

QUESTION: Wouldn't the White House know if there's conversations on...

FLEISCHER: Believe it or not, the White House does not keep track of every Cabinet secretary's call. The State Department will be briefing later, and they'll be able to answer that.


FLEISCHER: You'll have a chance to ask the State Department in just over an hour -- under an hour.

QUESTION: Let me ask you this question, again on attendance. You have said to people from this podium that this is a very important meeting, that you hope the Beirut Arab League meeting focuses on peace. But everybody seems to be aware that they're going to be focusing on who is there, who isn't there, if Arafat doesn't...

FLEISCHER: Again, the president believes that no matter what decisions are made vis-a-vis attendance, this should not be a lost opportunity for those who are there. Because they should still focus on how to create peace in the Middle East, regardless of anything involving attendance.

That still remains the core purpose of the summit in the president's opinion, and so again, regardless of what happens involving any attendance of any officials, the president still hopes that the leaders who do gather will focus on how to create an environment for peace in the Middle East.

QUESTION: The Northern Virginia Muslim community is complaining about the raids on their businesses and homes, especially the Pakistanis and Saudis. At the same time, according to the reports, 15 of the 19 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia. And also money may be flowing from Saudi Arabia. So how are you dealing with these raids in Muslim communities, and also what message are you going to send in dealing with Saudi Arabia since all these reports are going on for their support for Al Qaeda?

FLEISCHER: Your question deals with law enforcement. And when it comes to that, the president knows that justice is blind, that justice will go wherever they have evidence and reason to believe that they can protect this country.

And I would refer you to the Department of Justice for any specifics of the law enforcement actions they have taken, but that's an important part of protecting our country and to do so in a way that focuses on evidence while protecting the rights of all American citizens.

QUESTION: Earlier, I had asked about Sharon's comments. He was quoted as saying that he regrets promising President Bush that he would not harm or expel Arafat. Are those statements helpful?

FLEISCHER: The president continues to believe that the peace process that's in place in the Middle East began with the Oslo accords, to which Chairman Arafat is a signatory. And the president, through General Zinni, is working very hard to bring the parties together, and that includes the Palestinian Authority and Chairman Arafat, with Israel and Israel's leaders in an effort to create peace. Those talks are ongoing, the security talks have begun, and that's the process that the president believes in.

QUESTION: Does the White House have any words to Sharon about such comments as that?

FLEISCHER: The White House will continue to focus on the process that I just outlined, which is with Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, through General Zinni.

QUESTION: Part of the interest in that statement is that Sharon is saying that a promise was extracted from him in his talks with President Bush that he would not harm Arafat. Did the president ask Sharon to make a pledge not to harm Arafat in his talks with him?

FLEISCHER: Again, the president believes that, as a result of the process that has been set in place through Oslo, as well as through the Mitchell path to peace, that discussions should be carried out with the Palestinian Authority, and that includes Chairman Arafat. I will not get into any of the private discussions the president may have had in the Oval Office, but that's what the president believes, and that's been made clear.

QUESTION: What is the White House's next course of action then? What happens for the rest of the days? Is the president going to talk with Sharon? What is your plan?

FLEISCHER: I'll keep you updated if there are any phone calls from the president.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) some action. You can't just let this sit there.

FLEISCHER: I will keep you updated if there's any action from the president.


QUESTION: Does the United States want to pressure Israel to return to the pre-1967 border? Is the Arab proposal -- the Saudi proposal -- up for negotiations? And the Arab foreign ministers are asking for $55 million a month to support the Palestinian Authority. Will the U.S. help with that kind of money? Does it support that?

FLEISCHER: On the question of the borders, that's the exact reason that General Zinni is there. He is to begin the process so that the types of political questions that involve boundaries and borders and settlements can begin in earnest, so that the Palestinians and the Israelis can have talks over just those issues to bring a lasting peace to the Middle East. That's exactly what the Mitchell Accords are all about -- without making any judgments about what those borders should be. That's something that the parties need to decide and needs to be decided in a way that Israel can live in peace and security, while the rights of the Palestinian people are recognized, and that's exactly what the president has called for.

But to get to that point, it all begins with a reduction of the violence and that's part of the reason that General Zinni has been working so hard with the Palestinians and the Israelis to allow the political talks over such issues that are important, as boundaries, et cetera, to begin. That is a long process, and it begins with a cessation of the violence, a reduction of the violence. So that's where that matter stands.

QUESTION: The money -- $55 million a month?

FLEISCHER: I'm not familiar with that.

QUESTION: That's the figure that the foreign ministers have proposed today in a draft. FLEISCHER: Yes. We'll let the meeting take place, and we'll see what finally emerges from the meeting.

QUESTION: Do you know if the Saudis are willing to negotiate their proposals?

FLEISCHER: Again, the summit will begin. As all these type of international gatherings do, there are drafts that circulate, and then we'll see what the ultimate document is.

QUESTION: Ari, Sharon is now quoted as saying that the U.S. must guarantee Israel's right to refuse to allow Arafat to return from the Beirut summit as a condition for letting him go there in the first place. What is...

FLEISCHER: I think we said earlier if there are any statements that have been made as this briefing began, I'm going to have to go back and evaluate anything that just broke, because obviously I haven't heard it. I'm standing here. I'm not familiar with that specific statement.

QUESTION: Let me ask you another question on the same topic then. Do you feel that, perhaps, too much faith is being put in this Saudi proposal? Is there another vehicle that the administration is counting on now? So much of the emphasis seems to be on it. And as was pointed out in a couple of other questions, the interpretation of it or the wording of it seems to have changed from its introduction to getting to the table in Beirut.

FLEISCHER: Here's what the president thinks needs to happen next, and this is why he thinks the Saudi proposal, the Saudi ideas were so helpful. He believes that all nations in the area, including the Arab nations that are going to gather in Beirut, need to seize this moment and find a new path to peace. There can be no alternative to peace in the Middle East. And that is why he believed that the Crown Prince's statements were so helpful.

As I said earlier, the Middle East has been beset with violence for decades. The situation has gotten to a very, very violent point in the last -- little more than a year. And that is why the president thought the Saudi statement was so helpful. For an Arab nation that has not yet recognized Israel to say for the first time that they'd be willing to recognize Israel's right to exist and live in security, the president thought was a very helpful statement.

The president would like to see other Arab nations make similar statements. He understands that there is going to be discussions, that it's going to take time to iron out all the terms of this. But that was not a statement that had been made before, and that was a statement that the president welcomed. The president thinks that the Beirut summit offers an opportunity for other nations to do the same.

And that's the best way to start the process in earnest to achieve peace in the region.

QUESTION: Yes. New documents show that the secretary of Energy, Abraham met almost exclusively with industry representatives in coming up with the -- his recommendations on the Energy task force. Doesn't this just seem to support what environmental groups are saying, that they were cut out of the process?

FLEISCHER: No not at all, because as the energy report showed, it had 105 recommendations in total, and 42 specific recommendations are aimed at conservation and the environment. And in formulating those, there were a great number of people who met with a variety of stakeholders including conservation groups, including environmental groups.

So people are focusing on one person as opposed to all the people who were part of the energy plan. The Environmental Protection Agency for example, Governor Whitman held a meeting with a number of environmentalists.

As you all know from watching the White House -- that's what I said, she held a meeting with a number of environmentalists. As you know from watching the White House, the vice president had a meeting with a group of environmental leaders who gathered right here at the microphones and on the TV cameras following their meeting here at the White House with the vice president.

So there have been a series of meeting. But what it comes down to is what did the administration do, and what do the administration recommend? And in there, there were 42 recommendations specifically at environmental issues.

QUESTION: But you only had one meeting. Is there any way you can release the list of all the people that were met by administration officials on this energy task force?

FLEISCHER: Much of that information is coming out now in the process of these FOIA requests.

QUESTION: Another name that pops up on Secretary Abraham's meeting list over there is Karl Rove. Can you explain why the president chief political guy was involved in the development of energy policy?

FLEISCHER: Karl is a senior adviser to the president, and provides his guidance and consul on a number of issues.

Karl has a very broad portfolio that includes, as you know, the office of public liaison, which is a group in the White House that has outreach and talks to a variety of different groups. That falls under Karl's rubric. So Karl is a senior adviser to the president. The president values his advice.

QUESTION: Ari, I would like to know, on the same subject, what was the criteria for the omissions and blackouts in the paperwork that was released yesterday?

FLEISCHER: Well, that is..

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) FLEISCHER: Well, I think it should go without saying, I don't accept the premise of that question or that specific word. This is a well-known body of law dealing with FOIA requests, and the whole purpose of the FOIA program, the Freedom of the Information Act program, is for the public and the press to have access to information from the government.

It's set out in a law written by Congress, passed bipartisan, and reinforced by Supreme Court rulings. In those -- in the law and according to the Supreme Court, the government, while it provides this information, also has to protect the rights of the government to have deliberative meetings and to be able to fully serve the public by having the best guidance provided through officials.

So let me read to you actually from a Supreme Court case upholding the FOIA law as was cited. Terry, this is the Department of Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs vs. Klamath Water Users Protective Association, decided March 5, 2001. And this is a reference in there, and this deals with precisely the question you ask about the information that's redacted under the Freedom of Information Act law.

Quote, "The deliberative process privilege rests on the obvious realization that officials cannot communicate candidly among themselves if each remark is a potential item of discovery and front- page news and its object is to enhance the quality of agency decisions by protecting open and frank discussion among those who make them within the government."

Now, there's a big group in Washington, D.C. that is expert in obtaining information from the government through FOIA, many researchers, many academicians, many journalists. And there is a series of guides for what can and cannot be obtained under FOIA.

The ACLU has issued its own statement about what can be obtained. It makes clear in the ACLU's papers that materials involving advice, recommendations or opinions which are part of the process of government decision-making are exempt from FOIA under this law, as upheld by the courts.

The Society for Professional Journalists, in their instructions to journalists on how to apply for FOIA information, also makes clear the exemptions under the law which were covered last night in the material that was released.

So this is in accordance with the law, designed to get the public and the press information, while allowing the government to have a process that serves the public by providing for good deliberation in the decision-making process.

QUESTION: I have an arms control question. What's the condition of the president's arm? Is his control any better than it was a year ago at this time? And can we expect to see him at some opening day or some early season game?

(LAUGHTER) FLEISCHER: Well, I would like to report for the record that the Yankees will be in Baltimore next Monday. The briefing will probably be early that day, as the Yankees prepare to win on opening day.

I also regret to inform you that I'm not aware of any opening day plans for the president to participate. You may await tee-ball on the south lawn.

QUESTION: Ari, can I just go back to the previous question about the blackouts? Are you saying that it's the Justice Department under those laws that actually physically does that or is it in consultation with the White House?

FLEISCHER: It's each agency. It's each agency. And they worked with the Justice Department. Each agency has counsels. They worked with the Justice Department. The Justice Department helped each agency to make certain that the law applied uniformly throughout each agency.

QUESTION: Then what's the White House Counsel's Office's role in all that?

FLEISCHER: Yes, the White House Counsel's Office played a general role in just being generally aware of what the court case was, of course, where the agencies were obligated under a judge's order to release the information last night that set out the timetable for the release of the information.

But the decisions about what information gets released, et cetera, the decisions about the application of the law are made at the agency level by their attorneys, as well as with the Department of Justice.

QUESTION: Ari, during the Hispanic roundtable last Thursday, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt said that Democrats in the House are reviewing the democratic principles that they rescinded last summer. And hopefully, they will have legislation when they come back from the break on immigration reform. Where is the White House standing right now when it comes to immigration reform?

FLEISCHER: Well, there are a series of issues involving immigration reform, some of which have been passed by the House that are awaiting action in the Senate.


FLEISCHER: 245(i) is the principle one, but there are other issues that deal more broadly with the topic. But the president hopes that the whole issue of guest-worker program will be something that can be a focus of the government. 245(i) is the beginning of that process. The president would welcome any ideas that Congressman Gephardt has. He thinks it's a very important issue for our country. And that's where it stands.

QUESTION: Two questions on Latin America: Besides what President Bush and President Fox says about Cuba, the government of that island says that Fidel Castro was not very happy in Monterrey, because it was a direct request from the U.S. government to the Mexican government, and says Washington is lying about it.

And the second question is, Democrats on the Hill said that President Bush went to Latin America with empty hands and are returning with empty hands, in terms of trade and other issues. What is the response of the White House?

FLEISCHER: Well, on your first question, and that question was asked to the president directly and he answered it. And I think that the world knows that any time they have a choice between what Fidel Castro says and what anybody else says, you can believe anybody else.

On the second question about trade, you know, it was interesting, because one of the criticisms that was made of President Bush early on in 2001 was from the Senate and many Democrats in the Senate who called him unilateral.

Well, if you take a look at the Senate dragging its feet on the passage of trade promotion authority, which has been passed in the House, 245(i), which has been passed in the House, there are a series of very important steps that are concrete that can help the developing world, that can help Latin America and Central America, South America in trade and promoting their democracy and promoting economic strength, and the Senate is sitting on these issues.

The president will continue to work with the Senate and hope that the Senate is able to take up trade promotion authority and pass it. The House could; the Senate should. The House passed 245(i), including its border protections. The Senate can do the same thing. Unfortunately, they have not.

Another issue which came up was the Andean trade preferences act. The Senate has taken no action on that, which is a very important way of developing the Andean economy. And when people talk about how to help people who are in poverty, trade has been one of the key promoters of growth in Central and South America. And there was a lot of frustration on behalf of the Andean leaders as they discussed it with the president in Peru about the lack of passage of the Andean trade preferences act.

I think one of the presidents said that the Senate is -- his words "manana-ing this to death." And it would be very helpful if the Senate would pass that legislation.


QUESTION: A nonprofit group who wants to preserve English as the only official U.S. language has filed suit against the administration.

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, say it again. I couldn't hear you.

QUESTION: A nonprofit group that would like to preserve English as the only official U.S. language has filed suit against the administration of the president's Executive order regarding the English language. Do you have anything on that or how the administration might respond to it?

FLEISCHER: The first I've heard about it so I'm going to take a look.

QUESTION: Do the health appointees being announced today by the president, do they share the president's ethical concerns on a rein of issues, including human cloning and stem cell research? And how important are the views of these appointees, given the advances in science?

FLEISCHER: The president will be making an announcement shortly, and he'll be sharing a lot of that information with you. But suffice it to say, these are administration appointees, they serve the president, they serve his policies, and I don't think you would expect the president to appoint people who held widely different views than he does.


QUESTION: When the president urged Prime Minister Sharon to allow Mr. Arafat to attend Beirut, did he have in mind a one-way ticket out of Ramallah?

FLEISCHER: I think there's -- we're going to take this in turn, and again, I'm not going to comment on anything that is breaking while I am in this briefing. But let's see what the events are on the ground in the Middle East before I give a direct answer to that question. If and when he goes, I'll be have to give the answer to that, but again, I don't deal in hypotheticals. But let's see what the facts are on the ground first.

James has patiently waited.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) has patiently waited.


FLEISCHER: I understand. Well, let's not use the word patiently but -- James?


QUESTION: Director Ridge has made what is being termed a compromise offer to meet with lawmakers and answer their questions about his budget.

Already, there are indications from Senate Democrats, including Senator Byrd, that his compromise offer is less than what they're looking for. Could you explain the administration's rationale behind the so-called compromise that he offered, and what do you make of the criticism of the compromise?

FLEISCHER: Well, this is one more example of how Governor Ridge and this administration have provided and will continue to provide a free-flow of information to the Congress to answer any and all questions they have about homeland security. QUESTION: Why not do this in the committee structure then?

FLEISCHER: That's an old issue that the president has dealt with directly. And the request by the Congress, even though they're already receiving the answers to their questions, to change the traditions which have worked very well between the Congress and executive on testimony by assistants to the president, is a request that cannot and will not be honored.

The president has made that clear. I think what's so unusual here is the Congress is receiving all of this information. Governor Ridge has made another effort to provide information to the Congress, but the president hopes that the Congress' message back will not be, "My way or the highway. We'll only do it our way."

And this administration will continue to work closely with the congress, to work with the leadership, to work with Senator Byrd, to work with Senator Stevens, and we're hopeful that a good accommodation can be reached.

HEMMER: Ari Fleischer, the White House's daily briefing there, with reporters.




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