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US Dances Around Censorship of Media

Q Can you tell us about the discussions the White House has had with the networks about their coverage?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor, this morning called a group of network executives to raise their awareness about national security concerns of airing pre-recorded, pre-taped messages from Osama bin Laden that could be a signal to terrorists to incite attacks.

It was a very collegial conversation. At best, Osama bin Laden's message is propaganda, calling on people to kill Americans. At worst, he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks. Dr. Rice asked the networks to exercise judgment about how these pre-recorded, pre-taped messages will air. She stressed that she was making a request, and that editorial decisions can only be made by the media.

Q And what was their response?

Q Ari, do you have a sense for what it is, whether this is propaganda, or do you have suspicions that they may, in fact, be trying to convey something?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, people are analyzing that now. There are no easy conclusions to reach, but I think it's rather plain to have these thoughts, these suspicions about what it could include. That's why, as Dr. Rice indicated, at best, it's pre-taped, pre-recorded propaganda, but propaganda of a most insidious nature. At worst, it could be actually signaling to his operatives.

Q Do you know of a real message, or a subliminal message? And what was the response of the networks?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, there is no hard indications, Helen.

Q Are you just guessing that it's --

MR. FLEISCHER: It's a specific level of concern.

Q But, I mean, on what basis?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's fairly obvious. The means of communications out of Afghanistan right now are rather limited. One way to communicate outside Afghanistan to followers is through Western media.

Q Do you have the actual message that you're objecting to?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, as I said, it's an expression of concern.

Q But I mean, should people -- should we all operate on your impressions? Do you have concrete --

MR. FLEISCHER: Those are decisions that the media makes every day.

Q And what was the response of the --

MR. FLEISCHER: I won't speak for the network executives. That will be their determination to make and to share with the public.

Q Does bin Laden -- does the administration know whether bin Laden has a track record of doing this? Is that part of the basis on which this request is made?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I can't speak to track records, I don't have any indication on that. But the concern, again, is communicating outside of Afghanistan right now is difficult business. While one way to communicate, though, is by taking advantage of the ease of communication -- and, again, what Condoleezza Rice was talking about was pre-recorded, pre-taped messages that are played in their entirety. She did not ask for no airing at all. I think it's appropriate information that you all will make the judgments about how much to air.

So the request really focused on how it's pre-taped, pre-packaged; you don't know when it was done and you don't know the sequence in which these things were done, if there is a sequence. And that's why Dr. Rice thought it was important to make the call. And I just want to indicate it's also fair to say, Helen, that the network executives, who are zealous defenders of First Amendment rights, also just acknowledge that this is a time of national responsibility and that they are going to look at this in a very responsible way.

Q It seems to me that you also will be well-informed if you're able to analyze these message and so forth. It would redound to your good to know what the hell is going on.

MR. FLEISCHER: The issue is not whether or not analysts are able to see these messages, the issue is whether or not terrorists are able to see these messages.

Q What specific suggestions did the administration make to the networks? What would you like to see aired and not aired, or how --

MR. FLEISCHER: Condi did not get at that level. She just made the networks aware of the potential security implications. But these judgments are for the networks and for the media to make.

Q Ari, I'm told that the President made a similar request to the Emir of Qatar regarding Al Jazeera broadcasts of al Qaeda messages. Is that correct? Did you raise the issue Qatar, and are they going to do anything about it?

MR. FLEISCHER: I would have to go back and check and see.

Q Ari, you used the term "no hard indication." So this is a suspicion, not information based on, say --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

Q -- interviewing anybody who is in custody who might be asked about --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

Q Some analysts say that one issue with the tapes bin Laden -- the airing of them -- is that he is able to sort of continue to create fear in the United States and a sense of insecurity, even if they can't pull off an attack. Are you saying that the White House, that that isn't part of it, this sort of propaganda side of this that he -- he is still trying to put fear in the United States through those tapes, and the administration is not reacting to that at all?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, Dr. Rice didn't indicate anything about fear. She indicated exactly what I said, that at best, that this is a forum for pre-recorded, pre-taped propaganda, inciting people to kill Americans would find a public vehicle. And at worst, that it could actually be the sending of signals. That's what Condoleezza Rice said.

Q And is there a concern that there might be some kind of prearranged set of language or something like that, that he would state that would supposedly trigger --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's a possibility. And I do want to note, right before I came out here, I saw one notification put up by one cable station announcing a new policy as far as airing this. And so I think the media already are coming to their own conclusions and making up their mind about how to proceed.

Q If I can just -- one more. You said the analysts -- it's not a concern that the analysts see these tapes. So has the United States intelligence community, are they ensuring that they still see these tapes, either through foreign sources obtaining the tapes if the networks are not going to show them here, or are the networks providing them to the government? How are the analysts getting the tapes?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's obvious that anything that's broadcast from al Jazeera on TV, which is how this is first made public, is available to analysts.

Q Ari, if there is there is this level of a concern, why was this a request and not a demand? And was something stronger than a request considered at the White House?

MR. FLEISCHER: I appreciate the opportunity to say that we are in a position to make such demands, but we're not. The media makes these decisions for themselves. That's part of the job of the media and the responsibility of the media. And that's why it is literally a request.

Q So that type of censorship is not under consideration? I mean, you're saying this is a war and in previous wars there has been censorship. You're saying that type of thing is not now under consideration at the White House?

MR. FLEISCHER: Keith, that is not censorship. This is a request to the media, and the media makes their own decisions. And I think a reasonable request.

Q No, you said that you're not in a position to demand. In effect, this government is in a position to demand if it wants. Are you guys considering --

MR. FLEISCHER: Okay. If you're asking the legal questions about prior restraint, we haven't gotten -- that's not been discussed.

Q It's not a legal question. We're asking if real censorship -- I understand this is just a request -- we're asking if real censorship is under consideration, demands and not requests.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, there's nothing that I'm aware of like that. This is why I'm telling you what Dr. Rice did, because I think you have a right to know. It was a request, and I've shared with you what she did.

Q Ari, I'm just wondering, is this request only to American media, and therefore, the American public, or are you saying that you wish media all around the world would stop --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I've reported to you what Dr. Rice did in a phone call this morning, and so you have that --

Q I'm asking this request --

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm getting there.

Q Okay.

MR. FLEISCHER: And so I reported that information about what Dr. Rice did, in fact, pick up a phone and ask for this morning among the people she called. But this is a request that, obviously, the concern here is not allowing terrorists to receive what might be a message for Osama bin Laden calling on them to take any actions. So by virtue of the fact that I am saying it here, others will hear it. I don't know if there will be any other formal communications to anybody else -- I don't rule that out. But it will all be in the same vein, that requests will be made. And I think people are going to take very seriously their responsibilities as they think through whether they want to air pre-recorded, pre-taped messages of Osama bin Laden, given this environment.

Q You would like to see this same kind of thought about restraint, anyway, in the rest of the world?

MR. FLEISCHER: Larry, what we would like to see is an environment in which terrorists are not able to receive messages because Osama bin Laden is in a position where he can't send them through routine means, most likely picking up a phone, et cetera. And we want to make certain that terrorists are not advantaged by receiving information from Osama bin Laden, wherever that source may be. We live in an open society, we live in a free society. These are requests.

Q Let me follow up. You told us that you made this request of the American networks. Why can't you tell us what countries you've made this request of, as well?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not aware that we have done that, of any other countries. I can just tell you that Dr. Rice made this phone call this morning.

Q Can you find out, though, if we have made the request of any other countries?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'll be happy to.

Q And, if not, why not?

MR. FLEISCHER: Listen, I will be -- Ron, I will be more than happy to share all the information about who any such requests are conveyed to. It's an important issue. I think people are going to very quickly realize it and think about it for themselves, and come to conclusions without even being asked. The more the word gets around, the better. But I'd be more than happy to share information with you, but there's just nothing to report right now, to give you a literal answer. Dr. Rice made the phone calls just hours ago.

Q Can I clarify one thing? I believe you said that Condi was suggesting that we not run them in their entirety, not that nothing be reported from them or --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

Q -- no pieces of sound be used.

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

Q And is a similar request going to be made to newspapers not to print these things in their entirety?

MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, I think there is a good possibility there may be follow-on conversations, but I don't have any to report to you.

Q Who decides that part to run --

MR. FLEISCHER: The media. Helen asked me who decides what part is run; and the answer is the media.

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