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White House Press Briefing

Aired September 10, 2002 - 12:08   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to take you now live to the White House. Ari Fleischer has just stepped up to the podium, we will listen in on the briefing for the day.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... Thursday speech, called President Aznar of Spain and President Uribe of Colombia. He will later call President Fox of Mexico to continue the consultation process.

The president also this morning met with the prime minister of Portugal, where they talked about the war against terrorism and they also talked about the upcoming meeting in the Czech Republic dealing with NATO expansion.

Later this afternoon the president will depart the White House and make remarks at the embassy of Afghanistan and meet with a group of Arab and Muslim American leaders. The president will talk about the importance in our free society of tolerance and respect, particularly as the anniversary of the attack on our country approaches.

And finally, I want to draw your attention, there will be a 1:15 news conference at the Department of Justice involving Homeland Security Director Ridge and Attorney General Ashcroft to discuss the evolving security situation.

I'm not at liberty to get into any details about that in this briefing. They will have information for you at their briefing.

QUESTION: Can you confirm for us that the alert is being made to watch a high-risk of terrorism, specifically threats against U.S. embassies abroad?

FLEISCHER: Anything more specific than that will be given out at that news conference.

QUESTION: Do you have any idea what caused this raised level of alert?

FLEISCHER: Again, anything more specific than that will be coming from them. Let me just say that the government continues to monitor the security situation. Our ability has been enhanced since September 11 and through the efforts of the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies that work very hard, we are in a constant state of monitoring what we can learn about the intentions of any of our enemies to bring harm to the United States. Based on any of the information we receive, that's what determines the various levels of the color codes.

QUESTION: Are you confirming that it was raised?

FLEISCHER: I'm not.

QUESTION: Ari, I understand that Justice is going to talk about this (UNINTELLIGIBLE) a lot of people who are watching you now across the country who may be wondering, since this is the first time that the threat level has been raised, and with the anniversary tomorrow, what's the president's view of, from a safety point-of-view, people ought to mark 9/11?

Should they take specific actions or not take specific actions on such a solemn and potentially dangerous day based on this?

FLEISCHER: The president thinks the American people should absolutely take specific actions. And those specific actions are to live their lives, to honor the memories of those who were lost, to pay respects to the families and the loved ones of those whose families who were attacked and killed on September 11. The American people need to live their lives. That's the best thing the American people can do to send a signal to anybody who would do us harm.

The law enforcement community, the private sector that secures the infrastructure, they all are part of the developments in the Office of Homeland Security to continue to hardened America's assets to make us harder to hit. And the law enforcement community is in constant touch with the federal government at all levels. And so if there are any changes, that would be where people would expect to see any changes, is the law enforcement community steps up its protections of the country.

QUESTION: Ari, on Iraq. The prime minister of Portugal said that it's a global problem, requires a global response.

Prime Minister Blair in a speech today said that action will be taken against Iraq if he does not comply with U.N. resolutions.

Is this a clear indication that the president will be moving through the United Nations on any further action or future action against Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president will be giving an important speech to the United Nations on Thursday in which he will discuss his thinking about how to deal with the threat that Saddam Hussein poses to the United States and to others. And the president looks forward to giving that address. It'll be before a large number of ambassadors and leaders who represent the world.

QUESTION: Could you speak to Prime Minister Blair's comments this morning? You said that you would at this briefing.

FLEISCHER: The president welcomes Prime Minister Blair's strong leadership in the war on terror. Prime Minister Blair represents the thoughts of many who are concerned about liberty and freedom. And the president looks forward to giving a speech Thursday at the United Nations.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) I don't mean to monopolize your time, but Blair said this morning about action will be taken if Iraq continues to ignore U.N. resolutions. Is that a clear reflection of the president's thinking?

FLEISCHER: Just let me leave it where I put it, and the president will be speaking in his own voice on Thursday.

QUESTION: Ari, if I could just link the two subjects in a question that I don't like asking but needs to be asked. Can you assure the American people that this elevated threat alert is not part of the administration's effort to convince people that the danger is such that military action against Iraq is necessary?

FLEISCHER: I think any further questions on that would be addressed to the director of homeland security and the attorney general.

QUESTION: But you can assure us that the assessment is entirely...

FLEISCHER: Any follow-up questions to some of that I, myself, have not announced need to be addressed to the attorney general and to the director of homeland security, and any questions need to be addressed to those two individuals.

QUESTION: Do you have a readout on the reports on these meetings? Did the president hear what he wanted to hear from the prime minister?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president -- I'm not going to characterize the remarks of the prime minister. It's always the prerogative of the other nations that visit with the president to characterize their own statements.

The president welcomed the president of Portugal to the Oval Office. They have a very good meeting. The president talked about his concerns about the threat that Saddam Hussein poses. The president said that he was looking forward to giving his speech on Thursday at the United Nations and I think that Portugal, the people of Portugal and people around the world will have a very full and clear sense of what the president thinks after the speech is given.

QUESTION: Ari, first on the vice president. Can you tell us why he's been spending the night at a secure, undisclosed location? And is it precautionary or is it due to specific threats?

FLEISCHER: I will confirm that the vice president last night spent the night at a secure and undisclosed location, and as was the case last year, based on ongoing review of information that is received, as well as out of precautions, the combination of the two are what makes these determinations necessary. And so, I do confirm that. QUESTION: Is he there now?

Is he going to continue to work out of an...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Yes. Any further announcements about his schedule I'm not going to make, certainly in advance. And those are announcements that come from the vice president's office in any case.

QUESTION: Did you say he was here this morning?

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Did you say...

FLEISCHER: He was here this morning, as I was speaking this morning. But the question was -- the question was about where he'll be later today. If you're asking me where he is at this very moment, I don't know.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... confirming a one night over there, or has it been a few nights?

FLEISCHER: Any further information, you need to ask the vice president's office.

QUESTION: Can I just ask one Iraq, too? Do we view that the president will be issuing an ultimatum on Thursday to Saddam Hussein, "Either comply with resolutions or face the consequences"?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I think it's getting close enough to the time of the speech that you'll have all these answers very shortly. You'll be able to hear from the president himself. And I don't think it'll be my position to give his speech for him.

QUESTION: But the message in general, Tony Blair sort of put it out there. Is that a fair assessment that Saddam either -- this diplomacy, one last time, works, or there will be military action?

FLEISCHER: You can reflect on what Prime Minister Blair said today, and you'll be able to reflect on what the president says on Thursday. QUESTION: Two quick questions. One, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) he said that Osama bin Laden is not dead, and terrorists are -- Al Qaida terrorists are still in Afghanistan, Pakistan and why we are not getting them and why don't we get them? But Vice President Cheney said that I'd like to see him to be handcuffed, but I don't know where he is. Maybe he has moved out of the -- to another country...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: We continue to not have anything definitive. The president does not know if Osama bin Laden is dead or alive. Nothing has changed in that regard. It's a frequently asked question. But that doesn't change whether the president has any updated information.

He does not. We do not know.

QUESTION: Ari, now that the Office of Homeland Security's once again in the spotlight, how does the president want to weigh the view of the negotiations that are taking place in the Senate? Does he think there's being progress toward the president's position or is it still in the air?

FLEISCHER: The progress of the legislation can be summed up in one word, and that is slow. It is important that America know that it will have a new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security to protect the country. And this issue has been passed by the House of Representatives. It's moving slowly in the Senate.

And the president has been calling on the Senate to pass this for quite a lengthy period of time. And the president remains hopeful and will continue to help the Senate so they can get this passed. But the president would like the Senate to pass it. It still has to go to a conference committee. And there's not much time left in this Congress. So we'll continue to work diligently with the Senate to help them so they can get this done, but it's been slow.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the president's been on the phone speaking to world leaders about the situation in Iraq. Is he receiving messages -- I don't necessarily mean phone calls -- is he receiving messages from leaders around the world on the occasion of the first anniversary of the 11th of September?

FLEISCHER: He is. In many of the calls that the president makes as he talks about his speech on Thursday, foreign leaders offer on their own their thoughts and their sympathies for the American people as the one-year anniversary approaches. These messages are, in many ways, heartening to hear these leaders express their solidarity with the United States.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) diplomatic messages to the State Department arriving from other countries...

FLEISCHER: I think anything arriving at the State Department, you need to ask the State Department about.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: You know, correspondence is correspondence. I can just report to you on the president's phone calls and what he's thinking about these issues.

QUESTION: Can you talk a bit more about what the point of the speech at the Afghan embassy is and what (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: The speech at the Afghan embassy is really going to be about tolerance, tolerance and respect in the United States. If you remember, the attack on the United States took place on September 11, and then on September the 17th, six days later, the president traveled to the Islamic Center in Washington to make certain that all Americans heard the message that Arab Americans and Muslim Americans love our country just as much as anybody else, and that's an important message, and the president wanted to sound it again here on the day before the anniversary.

QUESTION: Ari, can you comment on the reports that surface-to- air missiles have been deployed at various locations in and around Washington?

FLEISCHER: Well, sure, there's a news release that went out. This is very public as part of the training exercises for Clear Skies II (ph). If you recall, there was similar Clear Skies I (ph) training exercises that took place earlier this year. And I'd refer you anything beyond that to the Pentagon. But this is all very public, well announced, and it's exactly as I indicated it would be.

QUESTION: Ari, the Senate overwhelmingly passed nearly $6 billion in drought aid today. I'm wondering is the White House going to accept that or what's the view on that?

FLEISCHER: The president very much would like to help those people who have been affected by this drought. The drought has been severe, and many people need help, and the president is dedicated to getting them the help they deserve. And so the president will work with the Congress to pass help for these farmers.

He believes we can do it and should do it in a way that is within budget limitations and that does not bust the budget.

QUESTION: OK. Is that $6 billion within -- would that bust the budget or not? I mean, do you support what the Senate did today?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president will continue to work with Congress. This is one body's action on it -- on this matter. Ultimately, it'll get settled in a conference committee.

But the president wants to make sure that we can do two things: One is help those who need help; and two, do so in a matter that's fiscally responsible.

QUESTION: Yes. What are the president and the White House doing right now to bring along members of Congress, particularly Democrats, on Iraq policy?

FLEISCHER: Well, Dr. Rice and Director Tenet of the CIA went up and briefed Hill leaders today. As you know, the vice president went up and briefed Hill leaders earlier. And so there will constantly -- there will continually to be a flow of information to the leaders on the Hill.

And I think Thursday's speech will be informative for many members of Congress. Even though they won't be at the U.N., they certainly will hear what the president has on his mind. And the administration will continue to listen carefully to the voices in the Congress. And we welcome the hearings with the Congress will shortly begin on the topic of Iraq. Of course, Senator Biden's committees will be a continuation of the hearings he's already began. QUESTION: Ari, what are the chances of a news conference with the president to build on Thursday's remarks? They were thinking Friday?

FLEISCHER: No, I would anticipate one this week.

QUESTION: Well, how soon will we get a chance to ask him some questions about Iraq?

FLEISCHER: You'll have a chance this afternoon. The president's going to have a press pool this afternoon.

QUESTION: So what period -- after his speech this afternoon?

FLEISCHER: I'm not sure how you can judge that's a preemption. But the president frequently takes questions from the pool, as you know. And he'll continue to do that.

QUESTION: What about a news conference to build on Thursday's remarks?

FLEISCHER: As always, anytime there's a news conference, we'll let you know.

QUESTION: Is it under consideration?

FLEISCHER: News conferences are always under consideration.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: The president has now talked with congressional leaders, and also made phone calls to a number of world leaders. Is the president encountering any difficulties in making the initial case here against -- on his pose with Iraq, when, as you've said repeatedly he has yet to decide how he's going to act?

FLEISCHER: Well, the purpose of the calls is to touch base with these foreign leaders. He stresses to each of them that he intends to consult along the way. And we'll constantly be in reach and in touch at all levels of government. And when he invites them to listen carefully to his remarks on Thursday, there are a variety of ways that the president reaches out to foreign leaders. And one is of course to react on the phone. Others are through the president's public, statements particularly in the more notable settings with the more important speeches such as Thursday's speech.

And there'll be other ways through other administration officials. For example, the president's already said that he'll be sending teams of people out to various capitals around the world to continue the consultations.

So it's going to be ongoing at multiple levels and I think that the reaction has been from these leaders that they welcome this type of consultation.

QUESTION: The streets around the White House seem (UNINTELLIGIBLE) quiet. Do you sense fear and concern on the part of the people? And how do you reconcile the two advices, to live a normal life, but to be vigilant at the same time?

FLEISCHER: Well, no, I don't think the president detects that all in the American people. I think, in the American people, the president detects what has always been found in our people, and that is a fantastic, wonderful strength that has made us the strongest and the freest nation.

And we have had attacks on our country, and every time, after an attack, the United States responded in a fashion that represented justice, and we brought more freedom to the world. Because, as the president has said, particularly vis-a-vis Afghanistan, we did not go into Afghanistan to conquer; we went in to liberate, which is exactly how the people of Afghanistan reacted when they had their cities and their towns returned to them.

And so, the president sees in the American people -- and he'll talk a little bit about this in his remarks -- a fantastic, internal strength. And the American people, when they hear information about threats to our country, particularly going back to the aftermath of September 11th, they've shown a resiliency and ability to understand that two things go on at once; that the American people can and will live their normal lives and that security people and police are paid to take care of the security situation, and they've done a masterful job at it and will continue to work hard to do so.

QUESTION: On drought-related problems, I thought the administration's position was that the new farm bill -- that mammoth farm bill had money in it to deal with drought relief and that you did not want to pursue drought relief through emergency spending.

Is the administration now talking about...

FLEISCHER: Well, there are a number of ways to do this in a manner that both helps the farmers, which is important, and also does it in a fiscally responsible manner. The farm bill does have plenty of funding in it to handle many different issues. And the president will continue to work with Congress to see what the most appropriate way is to bring this help to people who need it.

QUESTION: Are you contemplating supporting emergency spending measures for drought relief or would you prefer to see it all come out of the farm bill?

FLEISCHER: Well, there are various different ways, as I indicated, of working to get something that's final result is fiscally responsible in the president's judgment. And he'll continue to take a look at what the Congress is working on. I don't think we've heard the last word from the Congress on this issue.

QUESTION: So you're open to emergency spending for drought relief?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has said it needs to be done in a fiscally responsible way. QUESTION: What was the White House reaction to Prime Minister Blair's speech? And was there any coordination with his timing?

FLEISCHER: I've already given a reaction to the speech.

On the coordination of it, I think it's fair to say, when the president met with the prime minister, that they had a good exchange of ideas. They strongly understand each other's positions. And there were no surprises.

But it's really at that level. It's not as if Tony Blair hands a copy of his speech to President Bush or that President Bush hands a copy of his speech to Tony Blair prior to giving it. But you can assume that the two have a very clear understanding of each other's positions.

QUESTION: When the president, as he put it, started a process last week, he was explicit about gaining congressional approval. Now you're talking about members of Congress hearing the president's ideas at his speech on Thursday. Has the importance of the U.N. in this process grown?

And can you characterize the importance the president attaches to the U.N. as he pursues his objectives in Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that the people around the world will reach their own conclusions about the importance of the United Nations, given the fact that the United Nations has passed many resolutions that call on Saddam Hussein to disarm, to get rid of the weapons that he has, to abandon the pursuit of the weapons of mass destruction, especially the chemical, the biological, and the ballistic missiles. And that judgment is still out, about whether the U.N. has done a good job in enforcing its resolutions.

QUESTION: What about (OFF-MIKE) the president and the White House think?

FLEISCHER: What does the White House think?

QUESTION: Yes.

FLEISCHER: You'll get that Thursday when the president gives his speech.

QUESTION: Ari?

FLEISCHER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I know parts of my question was already asked, but I have another one. The defense (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is now conducting an air defense exercise in and around Washington, using Avenger surface-to-air-missile launcher that are not equipped with missiles. On the eve of 9/11, is this very smart?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, the answer is that this is an exercise. And this is a drill that is being carried out. There are numerous ways that the Homeland Security Office, the Department of Defense have to protect the American people. Caps (ph) are one of those ways.

And so there are various ways. But this is in a different context. This is, as the Pentagon indicated, a drill.

QUESTION: Yesterday, the prime minister of Canada said, after discussing the Iraqi situation with the president, that the president hadn't offered him any new evidence or proof that Hussein is currently or doing anything new in terms of pursuit of these weapons. And some members of Congress who have had briefings, closed-door briefings from administration officials like the defense secretary, CIA director, have emerged from those meetings to say the same thing.

Does the president have new information, new evidence, gathered within the last six months, or is he simply content to press the case...

PHILLIPS: And you know it wasn't long ago we learned the government's terror alert code was stepped up from yellow to orange, and here at the White House briefing with Ari Fleischer, he telling us, basically for more information on this change, that we'll have to wait for that news conference, 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. We will bring it to you as soon as it happens.

Meanwhile, I understand we have information coming from the White and our John King. There was specific -- a specific threat, John, that led to this change?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, let me walk you through how this happened and the official announcement of the elevation of the raising of the terrorist threat will come in at 45 minutes from the Attorney General John Ashcroft and the homeland security director Tom Ridge.

We're told by several senior administration officials that at a senior level meeting here last night at the White House, the CIA director George Tenet told the president, told the vice president and other top members of the national security team, there was a significant uptick in what the intelligence community calls chatter. Now we also are told that there are some specific threats in that chatter against U.S. installations overseas.

Mr. Tenet's concerns, we are told, was that he could credibly, and he believes beyond any reasonable doubt, take this chatter, the source of this chatter, back to the Al Qaeda network. And if you will remember, one lesson we learned after September 11th last year is the administration said, there was a significant amount of chatter. They believe it was focused on U.S. installations overseas. That was where the threat was directed. Of course, you had the strikes here at home.

Because of that, we are told, the president decided this morning, he wanted to consider this information overnight and get more information. The president decided this morning to elevate the terrorist threat here at home from this status of elevated to a high terrorist threat.

Again, we are told the specific information in the threats deals with U.S. installations overseas, but because of what happened last year, and because director Tenet said he is beyond any doubt that this chatter is coming from the Al Qaeda network, they have decided to raise the level here at home.

And as the president was pondering this decision, this is one of the reason, we were told, that new security measures were put in place for the vice president last night, and instead of going to a public event last night, he instead went to a secure undisclosed location.

They stress here at the White House, no specific threat against the president or the vice president, no specific threat against any of the September 11th commemoration events, but we are told by senior administration sources, those events and the scheduling of those events are being discussed on what the CIA and other intelligence sources consider to be conversations involving terrorists and suspected terrorists.

PHILLIPS: And, John, what else are you hearing with regard to what we should be doing. A reporter addressed that question. Ari Fleischer, he said, you should take specific action, and that is to live your life as you would any day. Very general response. What are you hearing from there? Is this something that all of us really need to be concerned about?

KING: That is the dilemma, we are told, the president wrestled with overnight, in that he has said Americans should go about living their lives, that they should be out in public, that by the tens of thousands, Americans are expected to turn out, in New York, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon tomorrow for these commemoration events. That is one reasons that we're told there was a tough decision here at the White House to elevate the terrorist threat here at home day the day before the September 11th anniversary, because of the political and the psychological ramifications of that.

But again, we are told the president, as he said repeatedly, if he was going to make a mistake here, he would make it on the side of caution, that the evidence. Director Tenet of the CIA said was coming from Al Qaeda, that there these talks of these threats. Again, we should say the specific threat are to U.S. installations overseas. We have seen State department respond to that, but the president, we are told, felt that he should make the safe judgment here and elevate the threat level. We will hear from the attorney general, and we will hear from the director of homeland security, and we are likely to hear from the president himself.

At about 2:00 this afternoon, he will take some questions during an here in Washington, and that is the White House understands the challenge the president now faces in telling Americans to be more vigilant, but telling them also, once again, go about your daily lives.

PHILLIPS: All right, our John King at the White House. Thanks, John, we will continue to follow up with you.

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