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White House Briefing

Aired June 20, 2002 - 12:25   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And that White House briefing is now underway. On the agenda, they are likely to be talking about the air space violation there, just what Miles has been talking about.

But most noticeably right now, the spokesperson, Ari Fleischer, has already said that President Bush has called Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel to offer condolences after the second attack in two days there involving several people who were killed.

Let's listen in to Ari Fleischer now.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... to the committees that are doing the investigation of events leading up to 9/11. And the information that was leaked was alarmingly specific.

And the president does have very deep concerns about anything that would be inappropriately leaked that could in any way endanger America's ability to gather intelligence information, and even that could harm our ability to maintain sources and methods and anything that could interfere with America's ability to fight the war on terrorism. The president was deeply concerned about these leaks.


FLEISCHER: We do not know who did it. The president earlier today asked the vice president to call the chairman of the committees that are doing the investigation. The vice president spoke with Congressman Goss and with Senator Graham to convey the president's concerns about anything that would be released that could indeed harm America's ability to gather information and to maintain access to that information. And the president, the vice president are satisfied that the chairman will address this issue.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) commission keep the secret better?

FLEISCHER: No, I have no reason to believe that. I think that it was just a case of this committee has important obligations. The president believes the committee understands that. The chairmen certainly do. As I indicated, the vice president spoke to the two chairmen, and the president is confident that it will be addressed, and addressed wisely and properly. QUESTION: Can you explain why these intercepts in particular, what was reported without confirming it, what we've all read about in the papers would be a threat to national security.

FLEISCHER: Let me try to walk this through as specifically as I possibly can, without giving you any way at all any indication about it ever has been leaked, is true or not true, because I won't discuss that.

The problem we have as a free society and a democrat society that places an important value on providing information to the press and to the public, is we are in the middle of a war. And one of the ways to prevent attacks on the United States and to win the war is to be able to obtain information from our enemies. And I'm not going to describe how we obtain information from our enemies. But common sense shows and says that if our enemies know with great specificity that we have means of obtaining things that they say, and all of a sudden they find out that something they say with specificity is known by our government, they are going to change their methods.

Sometimes people get lazy, sometimes people forget. It is not helpful to the cause to provide specific information that makes people take efforts to avert America's ability to defend itself and to protect itself.

And in 1998, as a result of unauthorized disclosure of intelligence information, it was revealed publicly that the United States had Osama bin Laden satellite phone. As soon as it was publicly revealed, we never heard from that source again. We never again heard from that satellite phone. That can damage America's ability to know important information that this government needs to protect the country. Public disclosure of that information can damage our ability to protect the country.

So the president does feel very strongly about it. He has concerns, and those concerns were conveyed. And the president is confident that it was well-received.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) information put out in a close meeting of the committee?


QUESTION: So everyone on the committee knew about this.

FLEISCHER: I think you have to ask that to the appropriate people on the committee. But, yes, it was put out in closed session.


FLEISCHER: And that's not confirming the specific information, but it was a closed session at which people apparently have said some things.

QUESTION: Isn't the implication the vice president's phone call led you to believe that this information came off the Hill? And if so, how do you know that? I mean, the sourcing on the story is, intelligent...

FLEISCHER: The reporters reported it yesterday. You can just look at the reporting, and the reporting says, "congressional sources."

QUESTION: There are a couple of stories in the Post and the Wall Street Journal today that quote intelligence sources, and one of them quotes a senior administration official commenting on the matter. So have you also taken actions to make sure that -- to determine whether there was a leak from the administration and...

FLEISCHER: The president is satisfied it's not coming from his administration. And again, I can cite you the news organization, if you're interested, that explicitly reported on the era in its TV report that their sources were from the Hill.

Wherever the source is, the point is the same. This is not to finger point. This is not to place blame. If it comes from the administration, it's wrong. If it comes from the Hill, it's wrong.

No matter where the source, no matter where it comes from, we are all in this together, and everyone needs to remember the delicacy of this information and the sensitivity of the information. And the fact that making specific information of this nature public does raise important concerns because it can harm our ability to continue to gather that information.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what happened last night in the evacuation of the White House? And why the president wasn't informed when some of us were hustled out into the street?

FLEISCHER: A little bit after 8:00 o'clock last night when the president returned to the White House from the president's dinner, the White House received information about a small aircraft that entered what is called the temporary flight restricted area of the White House. The aircraft did not enter the permanent space, closer to the White House. But it did enter the temporary flight restricted area.

As a result, the Secret Service took precautionary steps to protect the White House in case it was necessary. As the events turned out, it was not necessary to take any additional actions. The president was neither notified nor moved because the nature of the threat did not indicate that he needed to be.

QUESTION: Can you spell out why the president wasn't notified or moved, but there were agents coming through this part of the building saying, "evacuate"?

FLEISCHER: And it's because of the precautionary nature of what the Secret Service is trained to do. And within that training, individual Secret Service agents are able to exercise their discretion in their immediate areas of watch. And so, the Secret Service went through its routine precautionary steps that they take. And again, there was never a threat to the president.

QUESTION: Just one more. We were told by the Pentagon that the F-16s that were sent from Andrews arrived here after the aircraft had left the restricted airspace. Do you think there are lessons to be learned about protecting the White House from...

FLEISCHER: Well, suffice it to say, after any type of action at the White House of a potentially serious nature, the Secret Service always goes back and reviews. It's part of what a good law enforcement agency always does; takes a look and learns lessons from real life incidents to see if there's anything that can be done better or differently. That's something historically they do. I anticipate it will be done here as well.

QUESTION: Because the F-16s were not in the air, but were on strip (ph) alert, and apparently could not have gotten here in time to intercept that aircraft had it had evil intentions, does this not raise a level of concern, and suggest that there is a security hole here, if someone wished to exploit it?

FLEISCHER: Suffice it to say, there are multiple levels of protection for the president that are somewhat redundant, that are overlapping. And I'm not going to be able to discuss each and every one of those.

But again, the Secret Service is extraordinarily good at what they do. The president has full confidence in them. And I think last night's events bore that out.

QUESTION: But let me just follow-up if I may. The president wasn't informed -- they didn't deem this to be of sufficient importance to inform the president or move him to a more protected place.

FLEISCHER: Correct; exactly right.

QUESTION: So, given the fact that this was potentially very dangerous, because it doesn't seem that the F-16s could have stopped it, had it been here -- had they been trying to do some damage -- it seems to be perhaps an error in judgment not to protect the president.

FLEISCHER: He was protected. There was nothing that threatened him. Let me remind you, and you all are aware of this, there are incidents that take place at the White House. You're aware of fence hoppers, you are aware of things of that nature that rise to the president's level of attention because it never put him in any physical harm.

And so things come up, unfortunately, in our free society. Last night's event as you all know did not -- again, as I pointed out in the beginning -- the plane entered the temporary, expanded, extended airspace around the White House. It did not enter the airspace closer to the White House. The Secret Service is ready, prepared to do anything they felt was necessary -- it wasn't necessary.

QUESTION: Was this a lateral violation, or an altitude violation?

FLEISCHER: You would need to check with the FAA or the Secret Service.

QUESTION: You know earlier, a few yards away from the residence (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: Again, the Secret Service, acting within their authority, has discretion in any one area. As well as the South Lawn, there were some staffers on the South Lawn helping set up this morning's event. They, too, were asked to leave. So again, the secret service uses it's judgment about where it's appropriate, where it's not.

QUESTION: Was the president upset about not being briefed until this morning? What if was watching the news last night and found about an attack on (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and said how come no one told me about it?

FLEISCHER: Because it didn't rise to his level. Like I said, the president could be watching the news and you could hear that there was a fence jumper at the White House.

That happens. When there is a fence-jumper at the White House, do you think they tell the president every time? Of course not.

QUESTION: In your view, isn't the president more important than the press? So why...


FLEISCHER: Oh, Elizabeth. That's a softball. I know it's exercise day here at the White House.


QUESTION: ... finally told the president. I mean, is he considered more safe in the residence -- is that the answer -- than the press is here? It's a little strange to me that you would not even tell the president and that you would get staffers out quickly.

FLEISCHER: Again, staffers, as I indicated, some on the South Lawn were asked to leave; not all staffers were asked to leave. And the Secret Service makes those judgments.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) considered more secure than other people at the White House?

FLEISCHER: I think it's obvious the president is always kept the most secure person in the White House.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) this morning about the incident?

FLEISCHER: He was notified by a staffer.

QUESTION: Ari, can I follow-up? You said the Secret Service always reviews these matters after something happens. Is it fair to say NORAD is reviewing it, as well about how quickly these F-16s were able to get into the air and whether any changes might -- is that under review.

FLEISCHER: I don't know. You'd have to check with DOD. I just don't know.

QUESTION: Isn't it also safe to say that someone made a serious error in judgment if one person decided to evacuate the press, and another person using the same information decided to keep the president put?

FLEISCHER: No. Again, Secret Service agents acting in their area of proximity exercised their discretion and their judgment, and they did so last night. And again, the Secret Service will take a look at everything. And that's where we are.


QUESTION: On another security matter. Has the source of the bullet found at the speech last night been identified?

FLEISCHER: I have not conclusively heard. That's a question you may want to address to the Secret Service?

QUESTION: What was that about? What?

FLEISCHER: The question addressed, a reporter, last night, found a bullet in a garage where the president was. And the press pool last night knew about this. From all indications, it was a law enforcement official who simply dropped a bullet.

QUESTION: That's very reassuring.



FLEISCHER: No. It's fair to say if you take a look what happened with the Federal Reserve last night, with this and then with the airplane, these things come in threes, and we had three false alarms that never rose to any higher level than that.


FLEISCHER: I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Is that agent now in Florida?


QUESTION: Getting back to the (OFF-MIKE) did the president place the call to Prime Minister Sharon? Did he speak to any Palestinians? And is there any date for the president's Middle East speech?

FLEISCHER: Secretary Powell has made a series of calls to Arab leaders today. And I think the State Department has already given some information about that. The president is not, as he indicated this morning, giving a speech today. And we'll keep you informed about the timing of anything the president decides.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) place the call to Sharon, I assume?

FLEISCHER: In this case, actually the prime minister placed a call to the president.

QUESTION: Ari, first on the speech. Did the president hope to give this speech before he goes to Canada for the G-8?

FLEISCHER: The president doesn't look at the trip to Canada as if that is an event that would dictate the timing of when to give the speech. The president will decide when to give the speech based on his sense of when the speech will do the most good to help the parties in the region. And so it could be before the trip to Canada. It could be after the trip to Canada. That will be a judgment the president makes.

QUESTION: So in other words, he's looking for the right set of circumstances when both sides might be receptive to his message...

FLEISCHER: The president is looking for the right circumstances when all sides will be most receptive to his message.

QUESTION: Ari, can I ask you just one more question on the plane? I mean, clearly the concern here is that you had a small plane which could have been, if you worry about worse case, loaded with explosives, and yet the president was neither told nor moved.

FLEISCHER: Correct. And the reason the president was neither told nor moved, was because the judgment was made accurately so that the plane did not pose a threat. I think it's fair to say that if the plane had continued on a different course or taken any different action from what the Secret Service knew it was taking, the Secret Service would have done differently. Of course, so the president would have been moved, the president would have been notified. But because of the path the plane was on, because of what the Secret Service knew, that did not rise to that level.

QUESTION: There was sufficient time, given the speed of the airplane, that they would have had time to move him, is that what you're suggesting?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: And I assume that there is extensive action that could have been taken here. Nevertheless, the president could have been exposed if, in fact, that plane had gotten close enough.

FLEISCHER: Again, as I say, the president has full faith in the Secret Service in the judgments they make, in the resources they have and in the soundness of their discretion.

Yes, sir? QUESTION: And one of the differences between us and between the president is that it's easier to move one person to safety than to move a large group of people to safety. Is that part of the consideration here?

FLEISCHER: Again, I leave it as I explained earlier.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: There was a story in The Washington Post this morning about European participants in the international security and assistance force in Afghanistan signing an agreement with the Afghan government basically giving European participants in that force immunity from prosecution and arrest and to any international court -- for example, the national criminal court. Some people say that Europeans speak with a double tongue. They make a fool of themselves. What's your take on this?

FLEISCHER: Well, the United States is very concerned about U.S. forces on U.N. peacekeeping missions and that they may be subject to politically motivated prosecutions by the ICC. U.S. forces on peacekeeping missions already enjoy immunity from prosecution in the countries that they are assigned to. We want to assure that these immunities are extended so that U.S. peacekeepers are not subject to ICC jurisdiction. And so, that's the reason the United States has taken the actions its taken, vis-a-vis, the ICC.

QUESTION: Did the vice president, in his conversation with the chairman this morning, suggest in any way that the White House is considering the amount of information and the kind of information it shares or that it would like that information to be shared with a smaller universe of people on the Hill?

FLEISCHER: No, not that I'm aware of. I talked to the vice president about his phone call. He didn't mention anything about that to me. So I don't believe so. What the vice president said is that he and the president -- and I talked to the president about it -- they both have confidence in the chairman's desire to address this issue.

WHITFIELD: The White House's Ari Fleischer responding to questions from reporters as it pertains to two stories that were both broken by CNN, one on the intelligence leaks about translations that were done the day after September 11, and, on the other front, on the airspace threat that took place, and that F-16s would not be able to be in the White House in time -- those responses coming from the White House at this hour.




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