White House Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer 21/5
For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 21, 2002
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:16 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the President's day, and then I'm happy to take whatever questions you may have. The President began this morning with his CIA briefing, followed by an FBI briefing. And then he participated for a half-hour, taking questions from a group of European journalists, leading into his visit to France -- Germany, Russia, France and Italy. And then the President will do some television interviews with European stations.
And then later this afternoon, the President will meet with a group of NCAA champion sports teams that are here at the White House: The University of Connecticut women's basketball team, the University of Maryland men's basketball team, the University of Minnesota-Duluth women's ice hockey team, as well as University of Minnesota-Twin Cities men's ice hockey team, all of whom won national titles.
And then the President will depart the White House approximately 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning for his visit to Europe. The President is very much looking forward to what he views as a historic meeting -- series of meetings, and to welcoming Russia more deeply into the West, as it begins the new era of relations with Europe, as well as with the United States. With that, I'm happy to take questions.
Q Ari, Secretary Rumsfeld said today, terrorists are certain to acquire eventually nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. What do you say to Americans who are alarmed by this increasingly troubling information?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has warned that that is terrorists' goal. As you've heard the President say, that one of the things he worries about is terrorists mating up with existing nations that sponsor terrorism, such as Iraq, and getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction.
One of the things that everybody saw on September 11th is our enemies will not hesitate to hit us if they have the means to do so. And that is why we're in the midst of a very important war, not only in Afghanistan, but to deny terrorists a base of operations to regroup -- to diminish their abilities to harm us.
Q Any words of comfort for Americans, in terms of the effort domestically to block such an attack here?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that the American people have seen a nation wake up on September 11th and mobilize. The American people themselves understand the vulnerabilities our nation faces. But, Scott, the fundamental fact of the matter is, we're a target because we're free. And because we're free, we're also strong. And that's been the history of our country.
This is not the first time we've had enemies who have sought to bring harm to us. As time moves forward and technology evolves, the risk is that it's a different kind of war, as the President has said, that it's a new type of war. It's no longer the type of war where a satellite can pick up a fleet leaving a port. It's a war now where you have terrorists, just -- ones, twos -- just small numbers of them, who have the means and have the desire to try to strike us. But every time there's ever been a threat to our country, our country has led the world in preserving freedom and in fighting. And we are in the midst of a struggle now.
Q On the August 6th memo or analysis report that the President received, is the reason that he doesn't want to release that to congressional investigators is that that he fears that Democrats will use the other secret contents of that report for political purposes, in an attempt to embarrass him?
MR. FLEISCHER: David, I don't really think it's anything, per se, about that memo, in and of itself, on the 6th as much as it is the overall principle about the President's daily brief, which is shared with such an extraordinarily small number of people who are in a need-to-know situation, a need-to-know position, so they can use that information to protect the country, to prevent the next possible attack.
I think that's what the President is concerned with. He's also concerned with the fact that if the presidential daily brief, which is a highly sensitized -- the most highly sensitized classified document in the government -- if that document were to be at risk of public reporting, public release, the people who prepare it will hold back and not give the President of the United States, the person who needs most of the -- the most information, they will be inclined to give him less, rather than more, because they fear it will get made public and that could compromise sources or methods.
Q If I can just follow up. Are there negotiations underway now that would allow the intelligence committees to review that report secretly or --
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think so. I'm not aware of any, David. Because the administration has strong thoughts about the presidential daily brief which have been conveyed --
Q If it gets --
MR. FLEISCHER: We'll continue to talk to Congress. I mean, this is an ongoing process and we're going to make this a process where we work well together. The nation deserves that Congress and the presidency to work well together on this type of investigation.
Q If it's subpoenaed -- if it's subpoenaed, will the President refuse to turn it over?
MR. FLEISCHER: David, that's a hypothetical that I really don't think Congress is going to put themselves in the middle of.
Q Ari, I was just wondering, just going back to Scott's question here, the President said in the Rose Garden a while ago that he would do everything in his power to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, biological and chemical. Did the Secretary of Defense's statement this morning that they're certain to acquire them kind of say, despite our best efforts and the efforts of the President, we're bound to lose this battle?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let me take a look at the Secretary's exact words. I haven't heard them until I walked out here. So let me take a look at precisely how he said it, because the Secretary knows what the President knows -- and that is that we're in a middle of a war to protect the country and to diminish the ability of any people who would do us harm from getting their hands on such weapons.
Q Is there some sort of heightened campaign on the part of the administration -- valid or not -- to raise the awareness? I mean, you have Cheney speaking on Sunday, someone else yesterday. Now we have Rumsfeld. And so is this to arouse the American people to a new danger? Do you have some new information?
MR. FLEISCHER: What you have is a consistent approach where the President has said -- and you've heard him say this many times -- that every day he begins his day with a review of what's called the threat matrix, which is a compilation of intelligence information about potential attacks on the United States, our allies or our interests abroad. The President begins his day looking at that information, then talks to his security team about the credibility of it, whether or not it's something that we can have any actionable steps taken to prevent it from happening.
So the President referred to this for a considerable period of time. Many people in government have. Governor Ridge, for example, has often talked about, in various forms with the public and with the press, the need for continued scrutiny, the alert system we have set up where we remain on yellow or elevated alert, thanks to the collaborative effort Governor Ridge put together.
Q There seems to be some sort of --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm getting to that. All of these are the background for what you have now heard in some greater detail over the course of the weekend.
I think, Helen, it was just more as a result of all the controversy that took place last week, just an effort by people who were on the shows to answer questions, because they're reflecting things about the generalized level of alert and concern we have that's been out there. And, of course, there has been a recent increase in the chatter that we've heard in the system, and that was reflected in what they have said. So I think they're doing their level best to answer questions that people have.
Q Aren't you also illuminating for Democrats what's at stake here, Ari?
Q Ari, last week the Democrats were talking about what did the President know, when did he know it. He was upset, you were upset. The Democrats seem to have changed their tone. Has the President detected a change in this tone? Is he pleased? And if you have detected that change, to what do you attribute it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think from the President's point of view he understands that there are going to be politics in Washington. But he's very grateful, there have been many people in both parties who work diligently, and the President is focused on keeping the country united and winning a war. He understands politics will occasionally flare up, but I think it's come and it's gone, from his point of view.
Q Let me be more blunt. Do you think the Democrats looked at some overnight polling and said, wait a minute, we better back off?
MR. FLEISCHER: I can't guess what motives people have. I know that -- there are many responsible people -- Senator Dianne Feinstien, for example, very, very responsible actions throughout all of this. There are some real leaders up on the Hill who we're going to continue to work very closely with because they know what the President knows, and that's we're all in this together. They want to work with us and we want to work with them.
Q Do you see a change from last week?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I think you have other analysts who can make those indications.
Q Ari, what's your position on the Hyde amendment to require an administration's explanation for -- of its plans for addressing the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan? And what's your response in general to critics who say the administration is ignoring a deteriorating security there and needs to be more?
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't gotten anything specific given to me on the Hyde amendment. But our position has been what I think you've seen reflected in our actions, and that is, as a result of the American military actions in Afghanistan, Afghanistan is now safer than it was before -- safer for the world, as well as safer for the people of Afghanistan. But this is a long-term effort to help rebuild the Afghani society that was destroyed through 20 years of Soviet domination and then Taliban oppression.
Q There are people who say you need international forces in the countryside, not just Kabul, that warlords, or whatever, are still ruling large areas, and that unless this is addressed, you can't really have security in Afghanistan.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President does think it needs to be addressed. And the President believes the best way to address it is by the training and the equipping and the working with the Afghani army, to develop an Afghani army. Afghanistan, as interim President Karzai understands, needs to take on its own identity, become a sovereign nation, that while it will have a lot of help from other nations, including the United States, because it's the right thing to do, and we're dedicated to it, Afghanistan will, as any nation that's going to develop on this Earth, have to take care of its own business. And we're there to help them to do so.
But in terms of the security situation, the development of a stable Afghani army is the best long-term proposal to deal with it, in the President's judgment.
Q Does he oppose a shorter-term expansion of the international forces?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the ISAF is there currently in Kabul, and is being very ably led by the Turkish. And our position is, we will continue to support ISAF, and we will train the Afghani army, so they can take on their mission to protect the Afghani people from warlordism.
Q Ari, thank you. How will the President counter anti-American sentiment in Europe? And is he or are you concerned about hostility or any danger to him or to those traveling with him?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, the President recognizes that Europe consists of democracies and there are many voices in democracies, and he welcomes them. And there's so much more that we have in common with our European allies. There is so much more that unites us than the occasional issue about which we or the people of Europe may differ.
But that's the spirit in which the President goes to Europe. He goes as an optimist. He goes as somebody who sees so much that we and Europe have done together to help protect the world, and so much that we have in common. Our trade relationship is $2 trillion worth of trade a year. That's massive, and that is another sign of the strength of our relations.
Q Ari, a couple questions. First, following up on Helen's point, U.S. intelligence officials have been saying that they've been seeing this chatter for a while now, over the past few months. But yet we're only hearing about it publicly from senior officials over the past few days. Is the administration in any way reacting to some criticism of how it handled such information before, deciding we're going to get much more out there now to the American people, so we're not criticized for potentially holding back on chatter or activity that we're seeing?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think if you go back -- just rewind the tape, look at October, look at November, look at all the series of alerts that had been put out, look at the notice we put out about suspension bridges along the West Coast, the banks in the Northeast, for example -- every time that we have information where the intelligence analysts look at it and say, this is an exact nature of information that's better off shared, the determination is made to share it.
There is always chatter in the system -- prior to September 11th, post September 11th. So long as we have enemies that want to hit us, there will still be some level of chatter. So it's always a judgement call about exactly what the nature of the chatter is, is it productive to share the information. And that's what's been done on a very regular basis.
Q Let me ask you about the FBI Phoenix memo. Has the President seen that memo?
MR. FLEISCHER: He's been briefed on it.
Q Okay, when was he briefed on it?
MR. FLEISCHER: In the last week or two.
Q And you asked -- were asked this this morning, does the President -- we know you said that immediately flight schools were being investigated. But does the President not see a problem that this memo was out there, that the FBI and the Attorney General at least were briefed broadly about these suspicions, and they were not communicated to the White House or to the President until a week or two ago?
MR. FLEISCHER: And what suspicions are you saying specifically?
Q The FBI and the Attorney General were told in the days after September 11th that the FBI agent had raised general suspicions that Middle Eastern men could be taking flight classes that could be linked to Osama bin Laden. The Attorney General was not briefed about the full contents of the memo until about a month ago. But the question being -- out there is, should not the President have been told even about these general suspicions months ago?
MR. FLEISCHER: Kelly, I don't think anybody needed memo after September 11th to know that there were general suspicions that people were in flight schools. Everybody knew it as a result of September 11th.
Q Did you mean to say that you put out that alert on suspension bridges?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?
Q Did you mean to say that you put out that alert on suspension bridges on the West Coast, that you just --
Q I thought that was Davis who did that.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, that was a notification to law enforcement community, up and down the West Coast. It went to the law enforcement community. It was an alert to law enforcement.
Q Ari, if I can follow up on an earlier question regarding the President's trip to Europe. How important does the President see it at this point to try to bring the Europeans closer on his -- towards his policy on Iraq, and for that matter, the Middle East? He seems to not have a majority of Europe yet on either issue, backing him on either issue. How forceful will he be, particularly in remarks in Berlin, on that subject?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that's going to be one of many issues that comes up. When they talk about security, I think they're going to talk about -- Iraq is typically a topic that comes up when security is raised. And the President's views on that are very clear about the region would be safer and the people of Iraq would be safer if Saddam Hussein was not running Iraq.
Q How important does the President think it is at this point to make progress on getting some public support from European nations for the Iraq policy?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's not -- the purpose of the trip is very broad. That's not an immediate focus of the trip. It's going to be one of several issues that I think are discussed.
Q Is Iraq a back-burner issue at this point for the United States?
MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, I think it's one of many issues that will come up.
Q Ari, can I just follow up on his point?
MR. FLEISCHER: Jacobo? We'll come back up.
Q Two questions. One has to do with the INS. I think there's a story out this morning that Mohammed Atta and one of the other terrorists had overstayed his -- had stayed in this country twice and he was not caught by the INS. Now you're going to split the INS into two different departments, you're going to put more inspectors on the borders. But it seems to me that you're going to need a lot of money to staff both new divisions with better people, better training. Where's that money going to come from? Because all people talk about is that splitting it up is going to solve the problems --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, the President just signed into law a border security initiative that does provide more tools to enable us to protect the borders. And the President did propose in his budget increased funding, exactly for those purposes.
Q Now, again, my point still happens to be that it's going to be -- a lot of more money is going to be needed than is being put out there if you're going to do a complete overhaul, and we keep hearing all these things -- okay, that's a statement.
I want to follow on Kelly's question. She said, why wasn't the President notified? You're saying, everybody knew after September 11th. The question is, there are a lot of people after September 11th, including the White House, kept saying we had no knowledge before. And it seems to have been some knowledge before --
MR. FLEISCHER: We had no knowledge of exactly what?
Q You know, these terrorists taking classes in school and the government --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, what we said is we had no knowledge of the --
Q -- the government having previous knowledge, let's put it that way.
MR. FLEISCHER: Knowledge of what?
Q Of what the agent from Phoenix sent up to his superiors, that --
MR. FLEISCHER: And what information was that? What specifically are you asking about knowledge?
Q He has suspicion about the fact that Middle Eastern people were taking flight school that could have been related to Osama bin Laden. So we kept asking the White House, you kept saying, we have no knowledge. There was knowledge out there, it was just not communicated --
MR. FLEISCHER: You need to make sure you're being precise. Administration said we had no information about people hijacking a plane to use it as missiles, as was done on September 11th. That's not the same as saying that people are in flight schools. People being in flight schools did not immediately lead to the conclusion that they're going to use those airplanes as missiles.
But the point is -- and this is what the President is now doing and has been doing -- is this is precisely why what Congress is working on is important. It is important for Congress to ask the right questions, to look into what was known prior to September 11th, and to do so in a way that the nation can say, Congress is looking at it expertly, Congress is looking at it thoroughly, and Congress is looking at it responsibly. That is the oversight role of the Congress. And it's an important one. And the administration is committed to working with Congress to get it done and to do it right, because it's important.
Q Well, shouldn't the President have been told about this memo, though?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think after September 11th you did not need a memo to know that people who attacked us on September 11th went to flight schools. That immediately became clear in the aftermath of the attack. Everybody recognized that.
Q Yesterday, Dr. Rice was talking about that there is a lot of diplomacy going on between India and Pakistan and the U.S. But the question is -- just this week fired the Pakistani Ambassador to India. And they have asked him to leave this week, and for good, and tell him to break diplomatic relations. That means that the diplomacy and the statement from General Musharraf will not work -- not work in the area. How much President Bush is worried because the two nations are at the brink of nuclear war, first of all, nuclear war in the area in Europe any time?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the situation between India and Pakistan has long been a concern of this President. It's something that he has worked on very hard and will consider to do so. As you know, Deputy Secretary of State Armitage will be leaving to visit India and Pakistan soon, as part of our ongoing diplomacy, to ease the tensions in the region. We call on India and Pakistan to work to resolve the current crisis peacefully and through dialogue that can eventually result in a permanent solution.
The President thinks it's very important that India and Pakistan take all steps they can to reduce tensions and to avoid a war that would destabilize the region and distract in the war against terrorism.
Q Is he worried about the tension this time, than in the past --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that the situation between India and Pakistan and Kashmir has always led to worries by United States Presidents, and that continues to be true.
Q Ari, how much was the President's threat matrix changed or heightened by this reported summit meeting in Beirut among Hamas and Hezbollah and al Qaeda?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, the threat matrix depends on exact information received. So it's not quite an event as much as it is what may get communicated beyond that. But the -- what you just cite is not a surprise, that international terrorists work together to bring harm to the rest of the world. And it's another worrisome sign about what the type of enemies we're up against are like. And it's another reason why it's so important that the free world join together in the cause of defeating terrorism. They do work together.
Q Are you saying that the threat has gone up materially because these three groups supposedly are collaborating with one another for the third -- for the first time --
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, the threats spike up and spike down, depending on a variety of events throughout the world. I'm hard-pressed to point to any one event, but they go up and down as a result of a series of pieces of information.
Q Do you all consider this a big milestone or a landmark or sea change?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, as I indicated, it's not a surprise to anybody in United States intelligence or in the United States government that these groups tend to work together. It's another cause for worry, it's another sign of why it's important that we fight a war against terror, because the terrorists are organized, they try to work together to inflict maximum harm.
Q Does the U.S. believe they got together, though? With Hamas and Hezbollah --
MR. FLEISCHER: Richard. Kelly, do you mind if anyone else gets in a first question, then we'll come back up.
Q I was following up.
MR. FLEISCHER: Richard.
Q Is the President concerned that neither his FBI Director nor his Attorney General informed him about this Phoenix FBI memo until it actually was reported in the press?
MR. FLEISCHER: And what exactly was it that was in the memo that you think the President needed to know?
Q Just the fact that this was seen as some kind of a critical element in the whole picture --
MR. FLEISCHER: What exactly was the critical element?
Q Well, obviously, what you said is we knew -- but, I mean, didn't you think he should have been --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's the point I'm making. That what's been described in here as a critical element is the statement that people were in our flight schools. That became instantly clear on September 11th. You did not need a memo after September 11th to know that.
What's important, though, prior to September 11th, is that pieces of information like that are looked at in their entirety by the Congress to determine whether or not there are things that took place prior to September 11th that we need to know so we can strengthen our ability to protect the country into the future. That's what Congress is in the middle of and that's what -- that's why what they're in the middle of is a serious and an important endeavor.
Q Ari, the FBI Director said this week that suicide bomb attacks on the United States are inevitable. That word was used, "inevitable." And today Rumsfeld said it's inevitable -- that word was used again -- that terrorist groups would get weapons of mass destruction. "Inevitable" is an incredibly powerful word. Why is the administration using the word, "inevitable"?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I have not seen what the Secretary of Defense said, so I'll be happy to take a careful look at his verbatim remarks.
Q Can you comment on the FBI use of that word?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that he is speculating about what the future could hold. And certainly --
Q "Inevitable" is not speculation.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think what he -- he doesn't obviously -- it's not a statement of fact as much as it is any one person in a position of real responsibilities and authority to judge what the future may hold. But I think the American people recognize that when you're in a war you have an enemy that is going to try to attack back.
We have, after September 11th, brought the war to the enemy. It does not surprise the American people that the enemy will now try to bring the war back to the United States. That's the definition of a war. And unfortunately, we are in one, we're in the middle of a war. Now, as the President said from the very beginning, it's a shadowy war, it's a different kind of war. It's not the type of war that our parents were used to or you could pick up the papers or read on the news that the invasion was planned and that the troops were retreating or advancing. It's a totally different nature of war. And what the enemy depends on is terror. And terror is the hardest to detect because it could be carried out by one person, by two people, by three people. But that is the very definition of the type of war that we're in.
Just go back to what the President said right after the 11th, about how the enemy is shadowy, they burrow into our society, they wait patiently in cells, then they reorganize at a moment's notice. And they are very cunning. They know how to move in, be quiet for extended periods of time, and then move out. Now, as a result of September 11th, Congress has given the administration more tools to take action to prevent another terrorist attack, as well as many reforms have been made to strengthen the FBI's ability to prevent attack, as opposed to its standard mission, which they've done very well, which was to build evidence after a crime was committed for the case of prosecution in a court of law.
Q Ari, can I just follow on that?
MR. FLEISCHER: We'll come back up. We've got a lot of people who haven't had any yet. We'll come back up. Elizabeth.
Q What was the President's reaction to being briefed only recently about the Phoenix memo?
MR. FLEISCHER: As I've indicated many times already in this briefing, the information everybody is discussing within this room is that it talked about whether or not there were people who were training in our schools.
Q What was the President's reaction? I don't want to hear about what was in it.
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's reaction is this is what we knew as a result of September 11th.
Q So he was not concerned about being told only recently that this memo existed?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President's focus is on, one, winning the war and making sure we can prevent the next attack, and two, that this is why it's important that we continue to work with Congress, so that all information about what existed prior to 9/11 can be looked at in full context.
Q He was totally pleased that this was coming to his attention only a few weeks ago?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I indicated to you that this is why it's important that the administration continue to work with the Congress, and Congress work with the administration.
Q What was his reaction?
MR. FLEISCHER: I just shared it with you. It was two parts --
Q -- not deny --
MR. FLEISCHER: Elizabeth, the President's reaction was two parts. The first part was that we have got to focus on fighting a war that we're in the middle of to prevent the next attack. The second piece of it was any information prior to September 11th -- that is why what Congress is working on is important. And the Phoenix memo was July. It was information prior to September 11th. So his answer -- the answer to your question is that's why what Congress is doing is important, and that's why Congress needs to do it with responsibility and expertise.
Q Ari, wouldn't he be concerned --
Q Can we just back up for a moment on the memo, and can you tell us when Mueller and Ashcroft learned of the memo?
MR. FLEISCHER: You'd have to ask them directly when they learned of it.
Q You didn't dispute the premise of Kelly's question.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you'd have to ask them when they directly learned of it. They're in a better position than I am to indicate.
Q Ari, questions on two different subjects. This wonderfully cooperative attitude that the White House takes toward the Hill probe into the events of September 11th -- a provision of 185,000 documents, the seeing of how important it is that they continue their job -- will that
extend to the President's time, himself, and will he be willing to answer investigators' questions himself if they should have any for him?
MR. FLEISCHER: James, we'll continue to cooperate with the Congress, and as Congress makes requests, the administration will always evaluate them.
Q Okay. The other question is that the INS, apparently in a sting operation, allowed hundreds of illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, India and the West Bank to enter the United States to track human smuggling rings over the last four years, but the INS lost track of as many as 100 of the aliens. This was called "Seek and Keep." Between 18 and 24 Syrians were allowed to enter the U.S. illegally sometime between '99 and 2000, were lost. Are you aware of this, and what is the President's view of the INS losing track of the people they deliberately smuggled in?
MR. FLEISCHER: Tightening up our borders and changing the way we keep track of people is one of the first lessons of September 11th that has been focused on. And we have a new system about -- that we have talked about, tracking people who come into the United States. A new computer system is going onto line to help the INS and law enforcement agencies to be able to do so. As you know now, we're working more closely with college campuses and universities, thanks to Congress passing the legislation. So that if somebody comes into the United States under a visa where they say they're going to be going to school, the school will let us know if they indeed show up. One of the first clues you can potentially have if somebody is coming to the United States for reasons other than which they stated, which could potentially be a problem, is that they say they're going to school when there's no evidence that they ever went to school.
So a series of changes have been made, and it's a big country, we're an open country, we're a free country, we always have to find that right balance between protecting people's civil liberties and cracking down so that we can enforce our laws.
Q May I follow up on that, though? I remember when the information arose about the provision of the visas to some of the hijackers months after September 11th, the President said it got him very angry and that it got his attention and he almost spit up his coffee reading about it. It would seem to me that a sting operation in which perhaps 100 illegal aliens were deliberately let into the country so we could track their movements and have now been lost would also get the President's attention, might also cause him to spit up his coffee, as it were. What is his reaction specifically to this --
MR. FLEISCHER: I will ask the President about his coffee. I don't know, let me ask. (Laughter.)
Q Would it fit the President's definition of democracy in Cuba if there was an up and down vote with Castro like there has been with Musharraf?
MR. FLEISCHER: So long as what the President asked for yesterday, which is that there are free and fair elections in accordance with the Cuban constitution, which, after all, they promised with their own people. What this President has said that I think -- the brand new initiative yesterday, is that even with Fidel Castro in office, the United States will trade with Cuba if Fidel Castro engages in the reforms that the President called for, which are reforms that everybody else in the hemisphere has made by now, which is freedom, democracy and free secret elections.
Q Would an up or down vote qualify?
MR. FLEISCHER: So long as it's free. So long as it's fair. That's what democracy is about.
Q Ari, what led to the timing of this briefing on the Phoenix memo? Why was the President briefed? Was it a direct result of the media exposures and reporting on the memo that piqued his curiosity?
MR. FLEISCHER: It was discussed in one of his morning meetings with the Attorney General and with the FBI Director. I believe they were both in the last week or two. And I don't know what led them to bring it up, but it was brought up.
Q Did he -- so they brought it up, he didn't ask --
MR. FLEISCHER: They brought it up.
Q And under your revised, you post-September 11th revised system of briefings with the CIA and FBI directors and so forth, would a Phoenix-type briefing be brought to the President's attention now? Would a field agent's briefing on something of that nature be brought to his attention more directly and quickly now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Here's how the process works. The FBI and the Department of Justice, when they come over to see the President they have a host of information the their disposal that's made its way up the chain. And what makes its way up to the chain, to the Attorney General, to the FBI, would presumably be the most important. And then they make a decision about what it is that they want to pass on to the President.
So what you really have is information and the tip of an iceberg, so to speak. That, as you can imagine from the more than 50 field offices across the country there is tens of thousands of investigative leads. And that as it moves up, it becomes the most important. Those are the judgments that the professionals make in the law enforcement community and in the case of the CIA and the intelligence community.
I can't presume to know what it is about each judgment that they make to bring to the President. That's their decision about what it is that they're working on, in their estimation, needs to go to the President.
Q -- how the President thinks. You speak for him. Do you think he would now, after all the uproar over this, would want to know about that kind of information more directly and quickly?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's impossible to answer your question in the context of what you're seeking, in terms of the Phoenix memo. But I do think it's fair to say, as a result of the change made to have the FBI Director and the CIA Director in one place for one briefing, it does lead to better shared information and more of a focus that's interactive, because the President can say, do you guys have that, too? So he can turn to the FBI if the CIA says something and say, do you guys have that? He can look at the CIA and say, do you guys have that? So it does lead to a better system, which was a change made as a result of the attack in our country.
Q Ari, you've been talking about how important it is for Congress to conduct a thorough investigation of what happened before September 11th and how information was used and shared. But how can they possibly do that if you will not give them -- maybe even just a selected group of people, members of the intelligence community -- a look at the briefings and what President Bush was actually told before September 11th. How they can have a thorough review?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is something that will be worked out with the Congress in terms of their ability to get the information they need to do their jobs. While at the same time, I think Congress would be the first one to tell you that they don't want to compromise anything as a result of an investigation. So it's a classic piece of balancing between the legislature, the executive and national security. And it's been done before in our history and I think it can be done this time, as well.
Q But how? I mean, what -- I mean, can't you just give some of the -- you know, just a couple of the -- maybe the chairman of the committees of what these briefings -- or will you not even do that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, we will continue to work this out. But I don't think Congress is asking for every piece of every iota of every single detail of classified information. They will -- they're expert there. They will work to get the information that in their judgment they need to carry out their investigation, and we'll work with them on it.
Q Ari, given that the memo may have pointed to a shortcoming at the FBI that the President might wanted to have fixed post-September 11, is it -- why isn't he concerned that his own advisors may have been withholding something from him that might have proved embarrassing to them?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, the focus here by the President is on fighting and winning the war and preventing the next attack. And he is fully satisfied that he has the people at his side who will help get that done to protect our country.
The President has always known, as well, that we have a Congress that is working to take a look backward, to take a look prior to the 11th. And so the President can say that Congress is doing its job by taking a look at events prior to the 11th, and this administration is in the middle of a war and we will continue to do our job to protect the country.
Q So he's not at all concerned that his own advisors may have kept something from him that could have led him to initiate an action that could have changed things at the FBI earlier, or taken some steps to improve things? He's not at all concerned that they might have withheld something --
MR. FLEISCHER: The President understands that Congress is taking a look at that and that's the proper way to do it, again, in full context.
Q But not Congress, what about his own internal administration?
MR. FLEISCHER: Sarah.
Q Thank you. Is it necessary for Castro to agree to all the new initiatives in order to get the sanctions lifted? Or would it be enough if he allows free elections to the Cuban National Assembly next year?
MR. FLEISCHER: What the President has said is that he is calling on Fidel Castro to have free and fair elections to the National Assembly next year. The President laid out all his criteria in the speech yesterday, but that is the central component of it.
What's wrong with free and fair elections? What's to argue with that? Fidel Castro can bring trade to Cuba if he so desires. All the President is asking for is to do what everybody else in the hemisphere has done, which is have free and fair elections, let the people have their say.
Q Ari, a domestic policy question. The President a few weeks ago set Memorial Day as a goal for passage in the Senate of his faith-based initiative. With that date fast approaching, any sense if that's going to happen on time?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there continue to be a number of important initiatives that are languishing in the Senate, and that is one of them. The President has received very good words from Senator Liebermann about faith-based initiative. He hopes that the Senate will find time to schedule this, because he understands how important it is to bring help to people who are low income, to bring help to people in our cities who suffer. And he believes that this is one of the best and most innovative ways to fight poverty in America.
The trade promotion authority is another issue that the President called on Congress to enact, and to do so some time ago. And failure to pass it means for the Andean nations that preferences will go back into effect, which is not helpful to the cause of free trade.
There are several important deadlines and time is running out in the Senate. The budget resolution is very important, for the Senate to pass a budget resolution, which the House was able to do more than a month ago. So there's a series of actions that are unfinished business by the Senate, and trade promotion authority is an immediate one.
Russell and then Les.
Q Ari, two questions. First, does Israel have nuclear weapons?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that's a question you have to ask to Israel.
Q Do you know, does the administration know --
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't personally know.
Q Second question. Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, is a member of the Green Party in Germany. The Green Party is going to be demonstrating against the President when he goes to Berlin. And in today's Times of London, there's a report that says, President Bush risks sparking a new row with Europe this week when he calls for Europe support for expanding his war on terror to include Iraq -- Saddam Hussein. And they cite a poll from Der Spiegel, which says that 65 percent of Germans believe that the United States is pursuing its own national interest by taking part and planning wars around the world. So the question is, do you agree that the President risks sparking this row with Europe by calling for --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think, again, the President goes to Europe in the spirit of Europe being a democracy, Germany being a democracy. And when people take to the streets to peacefully protest, they're doing exactly that which unites us, even if it's over a point of contention. That is fundamentally why democracies get along so well, because we have a way for the people to express themselves -- even if it's in opposition to the views of the President of the United States.
But I think that very often you hear an overstatement about how serious some of these issues are. I remember very similar critics saying that when the President announced early in his term that he would move beyond the ABM treaty, very many of the same critics said that this would lead to a renewal of the Cold War and would spark an arms race. Well, in fact, just the opposite has happened, as we will see when the President signs a reduction of the number of offensive weapons in Moscow next week.
So I think the reality often is far different from some of the heated, rhetorical statements. Lester.
Q Can I just follow up on --
Q The Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer writes, "The Israelis are repeatedly advised about the futility of fighting terrorism by military means. This is odd, coming from the United States, which is doing precisely that in Afghanistan." And my question, is the President giving any consideration to changing this oddity and recognizing that Israel has no alternative?
MR. FLEISCHER: We've been -- we've done this one many times before, Lester.
Q Not the same one. (Laughter.) Krauthammer wrote it just last week. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: The principle and the point remains the same. And that is, the President has said that Israel has the right to defend itself. And the difference between what we are doing in our war in Afghanistan and the situation in Israel is that there is a peace process in the Middle East that Israel is a signatory to, that others are a signatory to. And that at the end of the day, it is still important to find a solution, a diplomatic solution to events in the Middle East. Israel does have that right to defend itself and the President has said so repeatedly.
Q Newsweek refers to Governor Ridge as "the incredible shrinking czar." Could you refute this by telling us precisely why this is erroneous and what specifically Governor Ridge is doing and how he is growing and not shrinking? And has one-half a question -- because you're going to be gone a long time -- what was your reaction to the Washington Post Magazine feature --
MR. FLEISCHER: You only get two questions, Lester.
Q -- said you're heading the Bush spin machine.
MR. FLEISCHER: You only get two.
Q All right.
MR. FLEISCHER: Which one would you like to take back? (Laughter.) I'll take one back for you. Let me answer your question --
Q -- that was a pretty good article.
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me answer your question about Governor Ridge. The President created the Office of Homeland Security in the aftermath of the attack on our country, knowing how vital it was to immediately set up an office prior to Congress even being able to think about anything statutory, because that was what our nation needed.
And I think if you want to find the success of the Governor's Office, which in the President's eyes is many, one of the first and best places to look is in local law enforcement. The local law enforcement people who Governor Ridge has worked very long and hard and directly and personally with will be the first to tell you that while no system is perfect, the system that we have now about the elevated series of codes, and the color codes, has been very helpful to them.
The combined work that the Governor Ridge has done, involving bringing the domestic agencies together, has made life easier for state and local governments, for disaster preparedness people. Governor Ridge's efforts led to increases in the budget for many of the homeland security agencies that are the first responders, that are the first line of defense, police, firemen, ambulance services, biomedical training in the communities. Governor Ridge has brought much of that together.
It is a very difficult job, because the threat is very difficult. And Congress will find this as well, if Congress turns to something that we're working with them on, which is, should there be statutory authority for Governor Ridge? I predict, just wait until Congress decides they want to seriously move legislation. They will find themselves mired in all kinds of jurisdictional issues involving who should get what sub-committee, and whether this should move from one government agency to an independent agency. Governor Ridge has done a superb job on no-moment's notice, coming into Washington and organizing that office.
Q Ari, can I just --
Q So Newsweek is wrong?
Q There are three facts about our European allies that are beyond dispute. One is that almost all European countries have condemned U.S. policy for the Middle East conflict. Almost all have announced preemptively that they would not support any military aggression against Iraq led by the United States. And almost all countries called upon have -- except Great Britain -- have expressed reticence about contributing to an international security force in Afghanistan. Given these facts, are you saying that the President is not worried about these issues, that the Europeans will ultimately come around? Or does he have something specific in mind to say to them, to apply some kind of pressure to change --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, many of those European nations have troops in Afghanistan, either actively militarily fighting or --
Q The security force is different.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, they do have troops actively fighting. The Germans lost some soldiers; Britain is fighting side by side with the United States. And they have security forces, as well.
Q Security force is after we pull out.
MR. FLEISCHER: And they have security forces, as well. Which is a reflection of our relationship where we each have burdens to share. And Europe is doing a very good job in the security arena. They are focusing on that, the nations that are uniquely working on security, while there are other nations that are working as well on the combat side of it. But in all the meeting
But I've -- in all the meetings I've been in with the European leaders, David, I have yet to hear somebody who criticizes or condemns the United States military involvement in Afghanistan. They thank us for it, because they understand that it helps diminish the ability of terrorists to attack and hit them, as well as they are the ones who joined in invoking Article 5, which was one of the underpinnings in the legal sense for the war that we're now in the middle of.
But whatever differences there are in relationships, those are exactly why you hold summits. Nobody's saying that Europe is or should be a carbon copy of America; no one's saying America is or should be a carbon copy of Europe.
Q But that's not my question. I mean, certainly we're dealing with differences of opinion that are pretty stark with our Arab allies as well, and that's troublesome, that's difficult diplomacy.
MR. FLEISCHER: The President doesn't look at differences of opinion as troublesome. He looks at them as diplomatic. That's exactly what diplomacy is for. And not every nation on Earth sees things the same way the United States does.
Q So he's not worried about anybody in Europe?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. We're going to have a series of diplomatic discussions over in Europe. There are disputes that we have, obviously, on steel.
But there's so much more that unites us when it comes to trade. That's why I said at the beginning, we have $2 trillion worth of trade. That's $2 trillion worth of agreements.
Yes, we have differences on steel. But this all fits into a broader context, very deeply, long-seated, ingrained good relationship between the United States and Europe. When there are problems, we talk to each other and work them through. And the problems will come out in the trip, and we'll talk about them as friends.
Q Yes. Has the President asked to see the FBI Phoenix memo? Isn't he curious to see it?
MR. FLEISCHER: He was briefed on it, and that sufficed.
Q But -- one more, one more, if I can. Also -- just -- so he has not asked to actually see the memo?
MR. FLEISCHER: He was briefed on it, and that sufficed, he said.
Q Okay, okay. Final question. On -- you talk about how Congress is investigating and that's important. But why wouldn't this President want to have known sooner about the existence of this memo to make sure that his administration -- his FBI, his Justice Department -- that they are instituting changes to make sure this information doesn't slip through the cracks? Not Congress. Why wouldn't the President be a little bit frustrated that "Why am I only finding out about this memo now? And if I found out about it sooner," perhaps he could make changes to make sure this does not slip through the cracks.
MR. FLEISCHER: And what is it in the memo that is so critical that you say the President needed to know about? Can you be specific?
Q Yes. This memo, Ari, as you know, came out in July. And had it gone to the right places in July, potentially other things could have happened. So the question being said, this President, who's here trying to make sure that all his agencies are doing the right thing, wouldn't he be a little upset that he's only finding out about the existence of a memo that came out in July only in the last week or two?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that's exactly why Congress is taking a look at all events up to the 11th, with the support of the President.
Q Doesn't he want to check and do his own investigation with his own agencies to make sure that --
MR. FLEISCHER: Kelly, I think it's also possible you may be overstating the impact of the memo, if you're suggesting that this memo in and of itself could have prevented the attack.
Q No one is saying that.
MR. FLEISCHER: The fact that people who are familiar with the memo, including people who are familiar with the memo, have said that it was broad, about flight schools across the country. It did not even name the specific people who were aboard the planes, who did the hijacking.
Q Ari, back to Helen's question, is the administration concerned that Americans have grown complacent about the nature of potential threats? Do Americans need reminding that these various attacks are inevitable? Is that in part behind --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think what the President would say on that, Randy, is no, the American people have not, because I think the American people have a realistic understanding about what it means to be a nation that's at war, and to have an enemy that's determined to try to hit us. No one hopes that that could ever happen, but people are realistic about understanding that it might.
But the President has said, repeatedly -- he said it right away in September and October -- that there will come a time when people grow complacent. There will come a time when, because we have been able to prevent attacks, that people will assume that none are coming. But he will never grow complacent.
You've heard the President talk about if the United States were ever to go to sleep in this war, the rest of the world will follow us. And that's why the United States will never rest, the United States will never stop fighting this war until, in the President's judgment, it's victorious.
Q Ari, can we get back to the question --
MR. FLEISCHER: John?
Q Can we go back to the question of inevitability? I got the impression from your long, extended answer, that the President, while realizing all the dangers, does not necessarily feel that another massive attack, at least, would be inevitable; that he feels it could be prevented. And if it was inevitable, wouldn't we be on the highest level of alert all the time?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, from a general point of view, you are hearing the speculation that we have enemies who want to hit us. And that's why we have the elevation system.
And let me give you an example on the elevation system, and why I think what you'll find is the color-coded system set up by Governor Ridge has been met with good reviews by particularly state and local law enforcement people.
Right now, as you know, we are on an elevated state of alert, or yellow. If we were to raise it up one notch, that would take us up to orange, or a higher state of alert. And here, among the things that would happen, you would see happen in our society -- it would go up to that level if we had something more specific, something more targeted, something that was more actionable as opposed to generalized, that keeps us on our toes right now.
But as a result, if an alert went up to orange, it would involve the cancellation of public events in the region that we thought would be affected. It would involve an order to disperse work forces. It would involve orders that essential personnel only should report to work.
We have a general level of alarm. We have a general level of alert, as a result of the information we have. And that is exactly why we are on an elevated alert -- which sends a signal to law enforcement locally, stand watch, stay on guard, make sure you have enough personnel to be able to maintain monitoring and maintain observation at an elevated level. And that's what the color-coded system has done.
Now, if we received specific, geographic, more targeted information, it gets passed on and we act on it.
Q Well, but the question of inevitability, the President still hopes that any other attack could be prevented, right? He doesn't accept it as inevitable.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President and this administration are working very hard to prevent it from happening. But the President also is a realist and understands we have an enemy who, if they could, is desirous of hitting us.
Q Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.
END 1:08 P.M. EDT