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White House Briefing

Aired May 14, 2003 - 12:36   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go over to the White House. Ari Fleischer, the press secretary, is beginning to answer reporters' questions. Let's listen in.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: What about the comments this morning by Robert Jordan, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia? He said that the United States tried futilely to get the Saudis to provide more protection for those residential compounds.

FLEISCHER: I think there are two things at play in what's happening now in Saudi Arabia. On the broad sense, we continue to be pleased with the cooperation we have had from Saudi Arabia in the ongoing war against terrorism and the actions they have taken, particularly since September 11.

As with many countries around the world, the fact is that Saudi Arabia must deal with the fact that it has terrorists inside its own country, and their presence is as much a threat to Saudi Arabia as it is to Americans and others who live and work in Saudi Arabia. These bombs kill not just Americans, but Saudis as well.

So the ambassador pointed out one of the items that is going to be investigated in terms of what took place, how it took place, what actions could have led up to this. And you may want to note the statement that was made by the Saudi foreign minister at a news conference just a little while ago where he said, and I quote him now, quote, "The fact that the terrorism happened is an indication of shortcomings and we have to learn from our mistakes and seek to improve our performance in this respect." And that was a statement made by Saudi Arabia's foreign minister today.

QUESTION: Is the United States reassessing its entire relationship with Saudi Arabia?

FLEISCHER: No. The United States continues to have strong relations with Saudi Arabia. The one thing the terrorists want more than anything else is to be able to attack the United States, to attack others in the region and force us into changes in our policies. That will not happen.

QUESTION: The government of Saudi Arabia says it'll go after these suspects, these terrorists. But at the same time, you've got three clerics who put out a fatwa, a religious warning, urging believers to give them harbor. Is this a problem that the United States has to deal with as we deal with the government of Saudi Arabia?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's why I say that the Saudi Arabians have to deal with the fact that there is terror found inside their country. These are important issues that Saudi Arabia has been addressing and must continue to address, and we want to work with them to address these.

QUESTION: Ari, an FBI official says that the investigative team that the U.S. is sending to Saudi Arabia is held up now in Germany, that they haven't been given permission by the Saudi government...

FLEISCHER: Yes, I just got a report on that. I don't know. It's not a question of permission from the Saudis. This deals with clearance times, as well as flight crew requirements for the amount of time they're allowed to fly. This is the explanation I literally just got before I came here, from the FBI. And so, we do expect that the plane will be there tomorrow.

QUESTION: So they have been given all necessary clearances...

FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of any problems on the clearance front. There was a window of clearance where they were allowed to come in. And then, as a result of the flight times, the amount of time a crew can actually operate an aircraft, it didn't coincide. That's the explanation I literally just received before I came here.

QUESTION: The Associated Press was reporting also that the number of FBI investigators that were a part of that team was scaled back because of Saudi concerns about a large American presence.

FLEISCHER: I asked about that this morning, and I was told by the FBI that's not the case. There is an assessment team that is en route. And the assessment team includes bomb technicians, evidence response teams, intelligence officials from counterterrorism. Their purpose is to go in, work with Saudi authorities, work with Americans there. And then, the assessment team will make a fuller report about what next is required.

QUESTION: It sounds, by saying that Saudi Arabia must deal with the fact that there's terrorism in their own country, you're saying pretty loud and clear that they haven't done so.

FLEISCHER: No. But around the world nations are reacting to the threat of terrorism. And certainly once a nation is victimized by terrorism it does have the effect of making that nation reassess and reexamine everything it had done up to that point. Obviously, until they were hit, they thought what they were doing may have been at a sufficient level.

We're constantly working with nations around the world, including Saudi Arabia, to urge them to focus on the threat, to see what different things can be done. We're constantly working with nations around the world, for example, on the war on terrorism financing.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, it's worth noting that it was in 1997, not until 1997, but then beginning in 1997 that the FBI was able to open up an office inside Saudi Arabia. That office is up and running. It's a liaison office. It works on evidence-sharing, on intelligence-sharing, on liaison and cooperation with Saudi officials, and that has grown in terms of our cooperation with the Saudis and their cooperation with us since 1997.

But, yes, we do make the point that is important for Saudi Arabia to recognize that there is terrorism inside the country and it needs to be confronted, and we stand there as their allies to help them confront it.

QUESTION: But Saudi Arabia is a special case because it is the home of so much extremism and the peddling of extremism and the funding of extremism by members of the government. There are a lot of analysts of this relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia who have been saying this is a devil's bargain that has gone on for too long.

Is that the kind of thing the president wants to see, the end of funding and support for extremism in Saudi Arabia?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think every nation faces its own individual or unique series of threats and circumstances from terrorists within. In some nations, such as the United States, we work very hard, it appears to be minimal. But we had, of course, the indictments up in the Buffalo area recently. Other nations in the Middle East have much deeper internal problems that they need to confront. Yemen is a nation that is working very hard. They have difficult internal circumstances that they are working to confront.

And so, I think you can go across the region. Pakistan is another country that has a variety of problems that President Musharraf is facing.

And so, from country to country, you will see different levels of activism from within that is terrorist in nature. What's important now is that Saudi Arabia continue its work with us, which has been good work, which has been cooperative work to confront the threat from within Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are the target of it as well. In addition to the Westerners who are there, the Saudis themselves are the targets of these terrorists.

QUESTION: So the president is confident that the House of Saud, governing that country the way it has been, is capable of taking on this problem?

FLEISCHER: We are. The president, particularly working with the crown prince, does have confidence that the Saudis will face this. But this is a matter of the utmost importance that Saudi Arabia is going to look at.

And I draw your attention by the foreign minister today. Those are important remarks to hear from a Saudi foreign minister at a news conference today where he publicly acknowledged these shortcomings, he, the foreign minister himself, in public. You also look at what the Saudi Arabians did on May 6 in terms of the seizure of the explosives that were found near one of these compounds. You also look at the actions they have taken on the financing front where you see some successes.

But, yes, we're going to continue to push Saudi Arabia to work with us, to do more, and that's cooperative.

QUESTION: What more can they do? Devote more resources?

FLEISCHER: Well, on the financial front we're also working with different nations. That's a very difficult challenge, particularly in areas where they don't have a banking system that is similar to ours, with all the prevalence of electronic banking, to do more work. We've been satisfied on the information sharing. But there are additional things that can be done, and we'll continue to work with these nations, and typically they involve the rounding up of people in various countries who we think are tried to terrorism.

QUESTION: Will the FBI be in charge of the investigation in Saudi Arabia?

FLEISCHER: I have not heard who will be, quote/unquote, "in charge." Obviously this took place in Saudi country, so I have not heard who is in charge.

QUESTION: And Prime Minister Sharon said that he doesn't foresee any freeze in settlements, he doesn't see the point in that? Is that helpful to the road map process?

FLEISCHER: What's important, in the president's judgment, is that both parties take seriously their responsibilities and to make progress with each other which will lead to increased steps each party can take as they see -- Israelis see the Palestinians taking concrete actions, as the Palestinians see the Israelis take concrete actions that can lead to more progress on implementation of the road map.

As you know, the prime minister will be here. He will talk to the president next week. And the president looks forward to having these conversations and he will stress the importance of following through on what the road map calls for.

QUESTION: Osama bin Laden, apparently, remains alive and at large. Al Qaeda representatives have been quoted as saying that this (UNINTELLIGIBLE) attack was carried out by cells that are operating in ways that American intelligence isn't able to penetrate.

How much concern is there that al Qaeda is reconstituting itself in a way that will remain a threat directly to American people in a big way all around the world?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that the way the president looks at al Qaeda can be summed up by what he said from the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, when the president said: Our mission continues, al Qaeda is wounded, not destroyed. And then, the president continued: The scattered cells of the terrorist network still operate in many nations, and we know from daily intelligence that they continue to plot against free people.

So al Qaeda does remain a threat, but it is a diminished threat, but obviously if this was al Qaeda, and the suspicions are that it was Al Qaida, but we have not yet reached final conclusions, but if this was al Qaeda, it does show that they indeed remain a threat, and that's why this administration is working so diligently to prosecute this war against al Qaeda, everywhere.

QUESTION: If I can turn to another subject for a moment, the Senate is going to take up the tax bill which contains about $70 billion in the Senate version of tax increases in order to pay for, among other things, the president's version or the president's proposal to cut the tax on dividends.

Does the administration support those tax increases? And in particular, is it going to urge Republicans to vote to retain the provision that would raise taxes by $35 billion on Americans living and working abroad?

FLEISCHER: OK. I would remind you, and particularly on the provision you just cited about Americans working abroad, that was not in the president's budget, it was not a proposal that the president made, and there are a variety of different ideas that are being circulated in the House and in the Senate as they work toward the final conference agreement on the tax bill, which is where the key decisions are going to be made.

The president's budget contained $11 billion worth of offsets over 10 years. Most of these were loophole closures, provisions that should not be in the tax code, that he believes should be removed from the tax code. As to the specifics of it, we'll continue to work with Congress to see what is meritorious, what is indeed a loophole closure and not a tax increase. But the provision you just cited was not part of the president's plans.

QUESTION: Is that a signal then that Republicans should -- when this comes up as an amendment -- vote against keeping it in?

FLEISCHER: Well, Republicans, Democrats alike, will vote their conscience on every different provision as they see fit.

The president's focus is on making progress in getting this bill into the House-Senate conference where these important decisions will be made.

QUESTION: Ari, first is a housekeeping matter. Will we hear anything in terms of a readout on Korea this evening?

FLEISCHER: Yes, you will.


FLEISCHER: I anticipate that'll be -- the meeting is in two parts. You have the meeting in the Oval Office, then the president and President Roh will go to the Rose Garden for comments or remarks, and then they'll have dinner afterwards. So I'm not sure at which stage we'll get you a readout, but you've got two parts of the meeting tonight.

QUESTION: Related to Dick's (ph) question, the president at most every stop has been saying that temporary tax cuts are not good because you can't do the planning you need. Now, it sounds like the White House seems to be lending some support to a notion of making the dividend tax cut temporary. Is that, in fact, so? And how can you...

FLEISCHER: Well, there's no question the president would prefer to have the tax provisions be permanent. But if that is not the case, then the president wants to make progress by, for example, accelerating the marriage penalty relief, accelerating the child relief. And as you know from the 2001 act, there were many provisions in there, such as the repeal of the death tax, that was extended for 10 years, not perpetuity (ph).

So yes, the president is continually pushing for the goal of making these permanent, but given the constraints that we must operate under given the budget resolution, the president will work with what we are working with and make the most progress possible and keep coming at it.

QUESTION: So temporary's better than nothing, if that's the choice?

FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, if somebody can get their child credit accelerated to $1,000 immediately, that's preferable, particularly given the fact that that'll have an economic boost in 2003 at a time the economy needs it the most. So there is sound tax policy to it, sound economic policy to it. It could be sounder, but it still is sound.

QUESTION: But this, the dividend thing in particularly, temporary is better than nothing on that?

FLEISCHER: Well, on the dividend thing, the president is going -- "the dividend thing" -- on the dividend exclusion, the president is going to continue to push to get 100 percent dividend exclusion. And we'll see what duration that may be and how that can be worked. There are a variety of different ways on a tax bill to forge agreements.

QUESTION: Ari, given the fact that there had been increased alerts to potential terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, does it concern the president that his ambassador asked for extra security around that complex and didn't get it?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that's one of the things that has to be looked into. There are a great many compounds that house Westerners or foreigners in Saudi Arabia. In this -- on May 1, as you know, the State Department did issue a warning that urged citizens to defer nonessential travel to Saudi Arabia. "Information indicates" -- this is from the alert -- "that terrorist groups may be in the final phases of planning attacks against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia," and the travel warning continued to say that there is no information regarding possible the target.

So there was a collection of information that was rather threatening, but broad in terms of where the threat would take place or the potential attack would take place.

There are a variety of compounds there. And again, I note what the foreign minister said about the shortcomings, and we want to continue to work with Saudi Arabia on this.

But make no mistake, Saudi Arabia continues to cooperate with us, and we will continue to push Saudi Arabia for additional cooperation as we work together.

But the people who carried this attack out are the ones the president is focused on. These are the terrorists who did this. These are the ones who look for places to carry out their attacks on innocents. And that's why this is a war against terror by the groups responsible for the attack, and that's where the president is focused as we works with friendly nations to fight them.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to monitor Ari Fleischer's press briefing, get back to it if there's some significant developments.

Of course, keep you updated on all the latest developments. We're going to continue to watch everything that's going on at the White House.


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