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CNN Live Event/Special

Ari Fleischer Gives White House Briefing

Aired November 20, 2001 - 12:10   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush may be commander and chief and very much monitoring events on the ground in Afghanistan, but as the president, he also has a number of domestic responsibilities, and that's much of what his focus has been on this morning.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent John King.

John, hello.


Always a tradition here at the beginning of the fall and winter holiday season here for presidents to focus on the holidays and on a spirit of giving in the United States. That focus, that effort, taking on additional meaning her because of the tragic events of September 11th. President Bush venturing outside the White House today, visiting a local charity for the homeless, So Others May Eat. It provides food and shelter to homeless people. It is run through a religious organizations. The model for, President Bush says, for faith-based organizations across the country.

Mr. Bush discussing new federal grant money today to homeless organizations across the country. That money From existing programs. Also applauding Americans who gave money to the victims of the September 11th attacks, and urging Americans to dig deeper still, saying there is some evidence that charitable givings had gone down now that Americans had given in the wake of the attacks, but were now stopping. The president saying one way to combat terrorism here at home is to have strong communities.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In order to make sure the homefront is secure, in order to make sure that we don't allow the terrorist to achieve any objectives, Americans must give generously to programs like some community-based programs that help make their neighborhoods a better place for all.


KING: You will recall also in recent days the president has spoken of a new volunteer spirit in the United States, saying Americans can help their local police department, their fire department, the hospital, shelters for the homeless, by volunteering. The president and the first lady releasing here today at the White House a new public-service announcement to be aired on media networks across the country promoting just that spirit.


BUSH: This year, Thanksgiving will mean more than it ever has before.

LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY: So many have given their time, their talent.

G. BUSH:: Their bravery, their sacrifice and courage to keep this country strong. Some believe it's astonishing. I believe it's the American character.

L. BUSH: As your family gathers, give thanks and think of all that can be done in your community.

G. BUSH: Thanks for making such a difference. Thanks for giving.

God bless you, and God bless America.


KING: The president and first lady there trying to keep the nation's spirits up as the Thanksgiving season approaches, discussing and encouraging volunteers as well, and here at this hour at the White House, Judy, the president also though looking to potential new fronts on the war on terrorism overseas, meeting with the Philippine president here at the White House. She has already made a stop at the Defense Department. U.S. officials says President Arroyo has been a key ally so far on tracking down with the Abu Sayyaf terrorist network that if affiliated at times with Osama bin Laden, and has its home in the Philippines.

WOODRUFF: John, at the same time, we know the president today is making a significant gesture to reach out to a very familiar name in Democratic circles.

KING: He certainly is. The president will travel a bit from the White House to the Justice Department. He is remaining the Justice Department headquarters in honor of the former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Mr. Bush, in doing so today, not only will reach out to the Democrats, but will also draw a parallel, some criticism of the new powers the administration has sought to fight the war on terrorism here at home, new powers for law enforcement agencies across the country. The president will draw a parallel to current war on terrorism to Bobby Kennedy's war on organized crime back in the 1960s -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: John, how did that decision come about. Was that a difficult one for the White House, or was it already on track. KING: Well, there was an effort already underway in Congress, a bipartisan effort, but one lead by the Democrats, to rename the building in the first place, so there was a legislative effort in the Congress, so the president decided to take the initiative and just go forward and do this, and when you talked to Attorney General John Ashcroft, the conservative Republican, about the current war on terrorism, it is Mr. Ashcroft who more often than anyone else in the administration draws that parallel to Bobby Kennedy back in the '60s. So the administration, seeing what was going on in the Congress, decided this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.

WOODRUFF: All right, John.

We know that Ari Fleischer is about to give his briefing in just a moment. At a time like this, reporters must be thinking about at least one or two of them, about getting away for Thanksgiving, but work at the White House goes on, doesn't it?

KING: Work at the White House goes on, the president dealing with a number of issues. We heard today a reminder from the president, if you will, of how much his agenda has been forced to change by the events of September 11th. At that homeless event, we saw earlier today, the president recalling his so-called faith-based initiative. Think back to January, February and March. That was one of the president's top priorities. He called on the Congress again today to try to pass that legislation by Christmas.

We will probably here a plug as well from Ari Fleischer in just a few minutes, the legislation stalled in the Congress, the idea behind it, allowing federal money to go to religious organizations and others affiliated with churches and religious organizations. That was to be one of the great debates this year. Much of that put aside, or at least on the back burner, because of the events of September 11th. Mr. Bush obviously focusing on the military campaign overseas, claiming progress there, but also dealing the fallout here at home, whether it be the threat of continued domestic terrorism, or the obvious downturn in the U.S. economy that people tie to the September 11th attacks.

WOODRUFF: We are told that Ari is even less than a minute away, John. I know "faith based initiative," now that is a term we had not heard much about over the last few months. Education is perhaps another one.

I see some of Ari Fleischer's aides coming in, and here he is, the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer.


The president's schedule today: The president, this morning, had his round of intelligence briefings followed by an FBI briefing. And then he convened a meeting of his Homeland Security Council.

In mid-morning, the president visited a local charity, So Others Might Eat, where he encouraged Americans to give at this time to charities, a reminder to the American people that, at this time, as the holiday approaches, he thanked so many Americans who have given to the charities that have been helping people get through the disaster of September 11th, but he also wanted to remind Americans that there are many other charities who are in need, whose work is unrelated to the events of the 11th, who focus on help for the homeless and provide care and shelter for those who are in need and urged Americans to give.

He also announced a $1 billion program from the Housing and Urban Development Department to help the homeless.

The president, in early afternoon, will meet with the president of the Philippines, President Arroyo, to discuss ongoing collaboration in the war on terrorism.

And then, in mid-afternoon, the president will participate in the dedication of the Department of Justice building in honor of Robert F. Kennedy, our 64th attorney general. Today, of course, would have been Robert F. Kennedy's 76th birthday. And the president will look forward to that event. He'll be joined there by many members of the Kennedy family, staffers who work at the Department of Justice and the attorney generals office under then-Attorney General RFK, as well as many other people from the Washington community, the civil rights community and the law enforcement community will join the president for that event.

One other note and then I'll be happy to take questions.

The Department of Education earlier today released the National Assessment of Education Progress or NAPE science scores for 2000. This is a follow up to the previously reported math and reading scores issued by NAPE earlier this year. The report shows that there is no change in students' average scores for grades four or eighth since 1996. The scores are flat. It also shows that the only change in average scores occurred in grade 12, where scores declined.

The president is committed to making certain that every child in America receives a first rate education, and he believes that today's release of these tests show again the importance of Congress getting together in the Conference Committee and sending him an education bill that improves schools, public schools principally, for all children in America so all children can learn both in math, reading and in science.

He's pleased with the progress that's been made in the Conference Committee, and he is very hopeful that he'll be able to sign an education bill soon. It remains a top priority for the president.

With that, I'm happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Is there any reconsideration of the decision to keep tourists out of the White House, given the president's call for Americans to return to some sense of normality?

FLEISCHER: The president and the first lady both regret very much that, in the wake of the attacks on September 11, public access to the White House has been curtailed. It's been that way since the 11th, and the president wishes it was not so.

As a result of the security procedures that have been in place since the 11th, it will not be possible, even during this time of year of the holidays, to open the White House for public tours, which would include the holiday tours, which have always been a special part of the White House. It's a fact that the president regrets very much, but unfortunately, and the president noted this last night, "evil does not take time off for the holidays."

The nation still is at terrorist threat. And the White House is a target of terrorist activities, of course, and, therefore, the same precautions that have been put in place since the 11th remain in place.

QUESTION: But is there any sense on his part that he's sending a mixed message by telling Americans it's OK to travel again, they should go back to their lives, and at the same time upping the ante here at the White House (OFF-MIKE) fairly extraordinary measures?

FLEISCHER: It doesn't represent an increase so much as it's a continuation. It's not all of a sudden dropping guard because the holidays have approached and opening the White House, because it has been closed to public tours since the 11th.

But I think to answer your first question, I think you should go back and take a look at what the president said in his speech in Atlanta, where he talked about Americans getting used to both factors, which is an ongoing part of life today in war time, that the American people do understand the importance of going back to their lives, their normal routines. While at the same time, being on a heightened state of alert, being more aware and recognizing that not only the White House, but other federal facilities and important facilities around many people's communities have stepped up protections and stepped up security.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) actually saying it cannot secure the White House, given the fact that we can -- apparently, can secure airports and airplanes?

FLEISCHER: Well, there's a total difference between securing the White House and securing airports. So I think that the airports don't have high fences around the terminals the way the White House does, in recognition of the fact that the White House has always been a different type of target. And obviously, the terrorists who have sought to do harm to our nation, interested in continuing to do harm, government facilities such as the White House are some of their primary locations.

QUESTION: Do you have any proof of that statement?

FLEISCHER: That the White House is a object of attack? Helen, I think that goes without saying, when you take a look at the threats that have been faced at the White House and the nature of terrorism.

QUESTION: Are you saying it's a continuing threat? FLEISCHER: I think it's always safe to say, in this country, that the White House is a target of those who would do our country harm.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) a little state of danger to the White House with the president here, but the surprising fact seems to be that you cannot secure the White House. The Secret Service and the entire (OFF-MIKE) cannot secure what some people would argue is the most important building in the United States right now.

FLEISCHER: Well, I just want to remind you that the White House does have visitors, but the visitors are pre-cleared and pre-screened, as everybody in this room knows from personal experience. That applies to all of you in this room.

Reporters, for example, cannot just show up at the White House and report to work. They have to have provided the White House with a rudimentary amount of information and that then is cleared, so all visitors are cleared.

The distinction being opening up the gates of the White House to those who are not cleared, i.e. wide-open public tours. And the distinction there is the ability just do that informational review to make certain that people coming to the White House have passed that check, to make sure they don't have criminal... (CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... airports I mean, they don't go through security checks at -- background checks. The FBI doesn't give everybody who buys an airline ticket a background check. So if you can secure airports, presumably, why can't you secure this place?

FLEISCHER: Because the nature of the White House is different from the nature of an airport.

FLEISCHER: You can't compare the two. And it's not fair to say that the two are one in the same. They are not. And I think most Americans understand, as they go about their daily lives and live in their communities, we are an open society. There have been many federal facilities -- military bases, the White House -- that are not as open as general society, and that's always been the case in this country and I think people recognize that.

QUESTION: Did the president make the decision?

FLEISCHER: It was a recommendation by the Secret Service that was accepted by the White House, and I think this decision is made, frankly, at the staff level.

QUESTION: How long will it be in effect? Is this an ongoing closure of...

FLEISCHER: It is ongoing. And there's been no change since September 11. The question I was asked is, will the White House take down those security protections that have been put in place since September 11 because it's the holidays? And as the president himself said last night, evil does not take a break or take a rest for the holidays.

QUESTION: But, obviously, (OFF-MIKE) though, you know, the White House certainly is different, but in terms of people, visitors that come here normally for tours, they go through the metal detectors, they follow the same procedures that we all go through on the nation's airlines. But what's the difference there -- what's happening at the nation's airlines as to what would be happening at the White House to make sure people are not coming to the White House with any explosives or any dangerous substances?

FLEISCHER: Suffice it to say that it is the judgment of the professionals who are engaged in the security business of evaluating the unique risks that are posed at the White House with the nature of the threat to the White House that a security situation still exists in allowing uncleared individuals to enter the White House.

QUESTION: Ari, has anybody thought of going half-way such as limiting the number of tickets so you don't have as many people in line, but half the number of tickets or a third the number of tickets where people give their Social Security number that cleared 24 hours in advance like they do for Christmas parties here, so that some members of the public can at least get some pictures?

FLEISCHER: Well, yes, and there will be members of the public as far as invitations to -- and I think you heard this, it was in the newspaper this morning about the firemen, the policemen and others who were involved in the activities surrounding New York, to try to make the White House as welcoming as possible, to as many people as possible. That will be happening.

QUESTION: Is the director of Homeland Security going to look at this issue? And by ongoing, does this mean now that the public can expect there to be no public tours for the entire time President Bush is in office?

FLEISCHER: The matter has been settled. The matter has been decided. And, again, this is something that the president regrets very much. The first lady regrets it very much. No one wants to be in a position where the public is not welcomed in the people's house.

This building does belong to the country. It belongs to the people. But I think the people are also the first to recognize that these are extraordinary times. Our nation is at war. There are people who would do damage if they could. And this is a balancing that society is going through in protecting peoples' rights to open access with ongoing security concerns.

QUESTION: Ongoing means for the rest of the time President Bush is in office.

FLEISCHER: Until further notice.

QUESTION: And the Homeland Security Office is not...

FLEISCHER: And the president hopes, of course, that as quickly as possible the White House, as well as other entities throughout society will be open to the public on a much more readily available basis. But so long as we are in a war situation, so long as the threat assessment remains high, this is the condition for the time being.

And again, this is something the president regrets very much. If you recall what he did on opening day here at the White House: He greeted visitors as they arrived through, shook the hands of as many people as he possibly could, opening the White House to the public, which is a White House tradition. He regrets very much that at a time-honored tradition has to change in times of war.

QUESTION: Ari, there's a very tight bubble that seems to be here. And for the public tours, Secret Service are all throughout -- they are the ones who are conducting the tours. Why is it if the president is not anywhere near when those tours are happening? He's either away, over here in the West Wing or up in the residence, the public does not see him. Why is it that the American public still cannot go through with Secret Service there, with the checks of magnetometers and things of that nature, organic and metal detectors, why can the public not come through here?

FLEISCHER: And you're re-asking the question that we've been discussing for 10 minutes. I've shared all the information I can on the topic.


QUESTION: ... can't staff it or you don't have the personnel in the White House to actually do this job...

FLEISCHER: There are a variety of factors, and staffing, of course, is one of the factors. As you note that the perimeter of the White House has been pushed out greatly as a result of the time of war. Public traffic on streets around the White House has been eliminated. And in the case of one major street behind the White House, following Pennsylvania Avenue, of course, that creates additional security perimeters. And there is a staffing issue, but it's something that the White House and the president, particularly, and the first lady regret very much.

QUESTION: Ari, I wonder if you could better explain the president's rationale for renaming the Justice Department building in honor of Attorney General Kennedy. This is a person, obviously, with some undeniable accomplishments, but also, a record, as attorney general, of certain abuses, including the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, abuse of the IRS and so on.

FLEISCHER: Well, as Attorney General Robert Kennedy successfully led the Department of Justice in important struggles that have come to symbolize the department's capacity to do good, and the president thinks that it's fitting to name the building in honor of the former attorney general whose work, whether it was against organized crime or for civil rights, stands out as singular achievements in American history.

QUESTION: And did he consider the abuses, like the wiretapping of Dr. King and so on, in making his decision?

FLEISCHER: I think the president's naming it after RFK for the reasons I just mentioned.

QUESTION: Over the weekend, there were reports in the British press that a catastrophic error by U.S. Air Force bombers killed 150 Afghan civilians. Do you have -- does the administration have any numbers on how many civilians have been killed by U.S. bombs, since the bombing started?

FLEISCHER: Let me make two points on that: One is I don't think you'll ever witness a nation that has worked so hard to avoid civilian casualties as the United States has. It is part of the training, part of the mission, part of the professionalism of the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces, that they work so hard to conduct a war that works so hard to protect innocent lives on the ground. If you're asking any more specific operational questions, including numbers, you need to talk to DOD.

QUESTION: Second question, in his book, "Veil," Bob Woodward reported a couple of years ago that a CIA-sponsored car bomb killed 80 innocent civilians in Beirut. When you talk about terror and the war on evil, is the war on terror and evil, does that include U.S.- sponsored terror and U.S.-sponsored deaths, civilian deaths?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm just -- I'm not going to accept the premise of that question, if you're talking about the United States acting in self-defense -- and I'm not referring this to the question of anything that was written in Mr. Woodward's book. But if you're suggesting an equivalence between the United States protecting itself and the war on Afghanistan and terrorism practiced against the United States, I don't accept the premise of that question and the moral equivalence that you're suggesting.

QUESTION: Ari, a couple of quick (OFF-MIKE) on President Arroyo visit. She's meeting with the president later. She's already met with the Defense Secretary, meeting later with the Secretary of State. Seems to be getting sort of the royal treatment, high-profile visits with the president on down.

Are you pointing, showing her as an example of those who help the U.S. in the fight against terrorism comparing to others who are not?

FLEISCHER: Well, the Philippines is a very important country. And the Philippines has been very helpful to the United States in the war on terrorism. The Philippines have their own unique problems presented by terrorists, the Abu Sayyaf that operates in the Philippines, for example.

And President Arroyo is committed to working very hard to protect her people from the terrorism that is found in the Philippines as well as making in-roads and working cooperatively with other groups to ensure stability within the Philippines.

But she is going to be welcomed here in Washington, and the president will be pleased to receive her. She is meeting with others, which is not unusual, too. Many visiting heads of state receive a similar level of visits.

QUESTION: What's the U.S. team in the Philippines doing to help the country deal with Abu Sayyaf?

FLEISCHER: I think it's been widely reported that there has been a team sent there to help train and work with the Philippines military to help them so that they can prevent future acts of terrorism against a nation that's experienced a lot of acts already.

QUESTION: What about the American hostages in the Philippines?


QUESTION: United's mechanics have rejected arbitration. Does the president plan to intervene to avert a strike?

FLEISCHER: The National Mediation Board last night recommended to the president that he create a presidential national emergency board. And the president is deeply concerned, especially at this time of year, about any disruption in airline service to the travelling public. He's also concerned about any negative impact a strike would have on the economy.

And so therefore, the president is prepared to do whatever it takes to protect the traveling public during the holiday season.


QUESTION: What about the American (OFF-MIKE)?


FLEISCHER: We'll come back.

QUESTION: And I don't take this one to the Pentagon, because it's a question of policy. Why have we got no casualty figures on our side or anybody's else's side in this war so far?

FLEISCHER: Well, actually I know that Secretary Rumsfeld has been given the casualty figures for the Americans. He was asked that yesterday, and that has been something that he's routinely provided, absolutely.

It was the Pentagon who announced the crash of a helicopter and the servicemen who were injured in that.


QUESTION: Overall? Since the start of the hostilities?

FLEISCHER: In terms of who, the Americans?

QUESTION: And the..

FLEISCHER: He has been providing that information.

QUESTION: How many? Do you know?

FLEISCHER: You'll have to check with DOD.

QUESTION: What has been the reaction to Secretary Powell's speech yesterday, and does White House believe that terrorism would diminish if the Israeli-Palestinian problem were solved?

FLEISCHER: On the reaction, the president is heartened to see reaction both in Israel and by the Palestinian Authority to Secretary Powell's speech.

The president has long held that the best way to achieve a peace in the Middle East is by the parties seizing the moment and coming together, particularly in the wake of September 11, which is a reminder to the nations in the Middle East about what violence and terrorism can do, and how the only answer can be through a political solution and through peaceful negations.

The president has been heartened by the reaction. As for the question of whether or not peace in the Middle East will eliminate all terrorism, certainly, peace in the Middle East can have a stabilizing influence on the region and throughout the Middle East.

But I think it's also fair to say that, when you take a look at people like the Al Qaeda organization, Osama bin Laden, even if a beautiful peace broke out in the Middle East tomorrow, there would be terrorists who would seek to continue their evil practices the day after tomorrow.

So there are some who, it doesn't matter what takes anywhere in the world, their intent is to do evil and to inflict terror on people even with the peace in the Mideast.

QUESTION: Last week, President Bush and President Putin pledged to take steps to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists, but critics have said that that pledge was not accompanied by concrete steps, an outline of actions that would lead to that result. What's your response?

FLEISCHER: Well, it is a top priority for the administration, and the administration's been working very diligently with Russia, for example, in our support of the Nunn-Lugar legislation that would help Russia to dismantle many of their existing nuclear weapons, therefore keeping out of the hands of terrorists; aid to the economies of the world, so that people who are involved in nuclear science can have opportunities to make a living without being subjected to the opportunities that some terrorists have sought through bribery and through other means to induce them to work for terrorist organizations, are all part of that.

So it is a top priority for the president, for President Putin.

And, of course, on the question of biological and chemical weapons, Undersecretary Bolton addressed that yesterday in his speech in Europe in which he named several nations that have been seeking to acquire biological and chemical weapons in contravention, in some cases, to the very treaty they themselves signed pledging not to see such weapons.

QUESTION: On the economic stimulus package, does the administration believe that the centrist coalition plan under development would be an acceptable compromise or just a good foundation for (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Secretary O'Neill had a very fruitful conversation the other day with a group of Senate Democrats who are willing to think differently about taxes and spending. And the president is very pleased by the possibility of making progress with a group of centrist Democrats who think that the best way to have an economic stimulus package is through tax cuts, not spending increases.

The president understands that there will be some, out of deep heartfelt belief, who think that the best way to stimulate the economy is through more spending. And the president simply disagrees with those Democrats.

But the president does look forward to working with all Democrats, but principally those who will be willing to work in a bipartisan way to pass a stimulus that provides tax cuts to get the economy moving again.

So I think what you've seen is one piece of ongoing conversations that will continue to take place between this administration at the president's direction and senators who want to pass a bipartisan tax cut, so that the economy can get a shot in the arm; the economy needs one.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) understanding is it does have spending in it, but just a less spending level than the Senate Democrats have proposed.

FLEISCHER: And the package that the president proposed to the Congress also had a level of spending, but it was very reasonable. The president's package was primarily a stimulative package to help get the economy going again, because the president believes that it is important to spend money, as he has proposed, for national emergency grants to help people get access to health care, that he's proposed extensions of unemployment insurance, so people who lose their jobs can get unemployment checks. But the president thinks that the American people, first and foremost, want paychecks not unemployment. And that's the focus of a stimulus package.

You had a question about the Philippines. I will try to advise, after the meeting takes place with the president about what topics come up. And we'll just see if that topic comes up, but I would not be surprised if it does.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Ari, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are predicting horrendous outcomes Haiti. Two weeks ago, they wrote the president requesting a meeting with him concerning Haiti policy.

Last week and this week, they've been speaking on the House floor complaining about the United States blocking loans that were already approved by the Inter-American Development Bank for Haiti, that are being blocked by the United States.

At the same time, AP is reporting that boat people have begun to attempt to come back. And at last count, there were about 115 people missing, presumed drowned, who left Haiti October 31.

QUESTION: Is the president willing or considering meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, or as some of them suggest, the United States is too preoccupied with Southwest Asia to consider events that are going on in the backyard?

FLEISCHER: The president has met with the Black Caucus before, and the president is very attentive to the concerns raised by individual members of the Black Caucus and will continue to have conversations with different members to talk about topics of interest.

Certainly, the stability of Haiti is an important part of America's foreign policy and will continue to be one.

QUESTION: You talked earlier about the education conference, and before, the president talked about the need for compromise on the faith-based initiatives. What hope -- what concrete signs does he have that Congress will be able to focus on these other domestic priorities after Thanksgiving, particularly when there's so (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Well, there's no question that Congress still has a job to do domestically, and the president is here to help.

There are many issues that are still pending in Congress. In many cases, the House of Representatives has passed legislation, and everyone is waiting for the Senate to do the same. The president is hopeful that the Senate will do the same, and he's prepared to work diligently with the Senate.

The question of faith-based legislation that you raised, that's another one where it passed with a healthy -- not an overwhelming -- but a healthy bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives, and the president is looking forward to seeing the final product that comes out of the Senate.

But in the conversations that the administration staff has had with Senator Lieberman and with Senator Santorum, it looks like there is a very good product emerging from the Senate which gives optimism to the possibility of getting a faith-based agreement done that may or may not be able to get signed into law this fall. It depends on the Conference Committee, and it depends on whether the Senate schedule is for a vote.

But there are other examples. The House of Representatives, for example, has passed energy legislation to help make the country more energy-independent. We're still waiting for the Senate to take up that legislation. The stimulus: The House has passed an economic stimulus. It's important for the Senate to follow suit.

Terrorism insurance: That's another issue where it's important for the Senate to take action to help protect Americans and consumers and companies so they have stability and reliability in the insurance market in an atmosphere now where insurers are questioning whether they will issue insurance given the terrorist risks and threats to our country.

So there's a series of items, and education is one where progress has been made. There has been several pieces of good news coming out of the Conference Committee, and I think it's just important to keep an eye on Congress to see what they do, and the president will continue to work closely with them. Even in a time of war, Congress has a job to do on the domestic agenda.

QUESTION: Ari, several Mexican officials are here in Washington, D.C., meeting with their U.S. counterparts at the State Department as we speak, apparently resuming the immigration clause. What has been discussed today?

FLEISCHER: You have to ask State. If it's a meeting between Mexican officials and State, you need to ask State.

QUESTION: I want to follow up on a few questions if I can. By my count, the president has met with the Congressional Black Caucus once.

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Is it going to be more than an annual affair? Are we, in fact, blocking loans to Haiti? If so, why? And are we witnessing an increase in the attempts of Haitians to get to this country? And what are we doing about it?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me try to get back on more of the substantive details on that question, and I'll try to post that later in the day on that.

QUESTION: As far as the international community is concerned, where do we stand (INAUDIBLE) affairs? And also, is the president is still behind that bill he sponsored, the Immigration Bill 245i -- 245? We've got a lot of international tourism -- tourists and businessmen are still (INAUDIBLE) like we are here in this degree.

FLEISCHER: Right. No, there's been no change as far as I've heard on anything dealing with the 245i status.

The president continues to know that America is a nation that must welcome immigrants. Immigrants have been a part of America's history. They always have been, in the president's opinion, and always will be.

And it's often from the immigrant community that many of the answers to some of the most vexing problems that Americans have faced has been found, thanks to people who arrived on our shores recently as well as people who have been here for many a generation.

FLEISCHER: It is a question also of enforcing the nation's laws, so that people who come to this country for opportunities, students who come here, who swear on a visa application that they're coming here to go to school, they do go to school.

That's part of the balance in making America honor its traditions of being a welcoming nation while making certain that people who come here don't take advantage of America's openness, that don't come here for reasons and then lie and then go on to do other things and, particularly, if it can affect the security of our country.

So it's a question of finding that balance, but the president understands clearly, as somebody who was a border governor, for example, and worked so closely with Mexican officials about how American benefits from immigrants coming to our shores, but he wants to make sure it's done properly and legally.

QUESTION: Robert Novak reported in his column recently that Andrew Card had told a public gathering that he is not going to remain in his job much longer. And Novak reported that this was the result of Card having said, in advance, the president would sign the aviation bill, regardless of whether it -- what provision it contained about the screeners and that there was unhappiness at the White House about Card sort of committing the president in that. Does Mr. Card have the full confidence of the president and is he going to remain in his job?

FLEISCHER: Two points, one, obviously, the chief of staff spoke accurately for the president when he said that. The president just signed it.

But two, I think with all this got started -- remarks that the chief of staff gave up in a speech in Boston where, perhaps, the person who wrote the story heard it for the first time, what everybody in this White house has heard going way back, even to the transition. Chief of Staff Card gave us all a speech at transition headquarters, before he even entered, the White House at about January, I think it was 16th or 17th, in which he told all of us that the average tenure for a White House staffer is about 18 months to two years. That's just the history of how the White House works for all staffers, it seems. And he just used that as an indication of historical tenures in the White House. I don't think he -- he was not addressing that at anybody in particular, including himself.

QUESTION: Or yourself?

(LAUGHTER) FLEISCHER: Can't get rid of me that easy.


QUESTION: Do you believe the Nevada report the (OFF-MIKE) a Maryland state police, saying that two U.S. military jets escorted a helicopter of out restricted airspace over Camp David?

FLEISCHER: That's the first I've heard that report.

I'll try to see if I have anything for you on that.


QUESTION: Ari, back on faith-based legislation, has the White House decided to postpone part of the president's faith-based initiative in order to help the Senate get through the tax cut for charities the president was talking about?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president's faith-based initiative had several programs in it. One piece of it was expanding the charitable provisions that allow taxpayers to take a deduction for giving to charity. That would impact an estimated 84 million taxpayers; that was one component.

But one of the main components that remains a centerpiece to the plan, and something that Senator Lieberman has spoken out very powerfully in support of, is eliminating federal discrimination against entities that do charitable work that are faith-based. There have been many provisions of federal law that make it merely impossible for many faith-based organizations to qualify for federal grants. And the legislation moving through the Senate will eliminate that discrimination against faith-based groups from the government. And that has always been a core component of it. Mentoring of children and prisoners has been a core component of it, that remains in there as well.

But the president wants to get an agreement that can be signed into law. And he's going to work with Congress diligently, both House and Senate, to accomplish that goal.

Thank you.

WOODRUFF: White House spokesman Ari Fleischer literally doing a tour of the world with those questions today, everything from the war in Afghanistan, the casualties there, to the president's faith-based initiative.

I would say that the first third of this briefing was taken up with questions by reporters with the announcement by the White House that ther will of no holiday parties -- I'm sorry, no public tours at the White House opened to the American public. This has been a long- standing tradition at the White House that Americans who were in Washington could tour the White House and see the Christmas decorations, the holiday decorations, but the White House continuing with the extraordinary security, as Ari Fleischer put it, since September 11th. He said, we are not going to change it, we are not going to lift the security measures that are now in place, but reporters kept coming back to that, and asking in particular, if you have magnetomers, you have devices to check whether people coming into the White House are in any way armed or have anything on them that could be dangerous, and Ari Fleischer says, unless we do a background check, a thorough background check on people, and for other reasons, he would not go into, we can't let them in.

It is a new era, when those White House tours that have become a staple of visits to Washington are gone. One other point I would make is Ari Fleischer was emphatic in saying that the president will step in if there is a strike at United Airlines or even the threat of a strike. He said that the president believes very strongly that the American people need to be able to travel over the holidays, and he talked about a process that is being set in motion, that could be enforced, wherefore 30 days, the employees would be required to work while the two sides sat down with the federal mediator to try to work out their differences.