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Ari Fleischer Holds Press Conference

Aired December 13, 2001 - 12:14   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Ari Fleischer now live at the White House.



I have no opening statement, so I'll be more than pleased to take your questions.

QUESTION: President Putin just said that pulling out of the ABM was a mistake, once again reiterating that the treaty is a cornerstone of world security. What's your reaction to that?

FLEISCHER: I think there is much more to his reaction than that. I do not believe that you have all of it. And we will take a look at his reaction in its entirety as the government receives it. And so I will withhold on any reaction until his statement is received in its entirety, because there's much more to it than what you just indicated.

QUESTION: It doesn't change the fact he thinks it's a mistake.

QUESTION: Yes, first of all -- very good question.


And also, can I take from your answer that you knew ahead of time, the administration was given advance notice of what the president was going to say?

FLEISCHER: This morning in Moscow, when the official notice was delivered to the Russian foreign ministry, our ambassador (inaudible) delivered it to the acting foreign minister, and during that meeting the United States government was given some type of indication about what Mr. Putin might say.

So I'd refer you to his comments in their entirety and also note, of course, that Mr. Putin has said that the strength of our relationship, even on an area where we may disagree, like missile defense, remains strong in many areas and that those areas are constructive and important to both nations. The strategic mutual interests that we have will continue to guide our relationship beyond today's announcement. QUESTION: But, Ari, despite the fact that the president's taking great pain to portray this relationship as extremely cordial and warm and growing, it doesn't change the fact that the United States and Russia couldn't reach a deal -- through numerous meetings, they still couldn't reach a deal. So what went wrong? Where was the failure that led to the United States having to defy Russia and other allies, who support the ABM Treaty, and to unilaterally say, "That's it, we're out"?

FLEISCHER: A couple of points. One, the president has made it plain that the United States intended at some point to move beyond the treaty, and there were a series of discussions that were held to see if anything could be done to accommodate the president's desire to develop a robust testing system that would protect our country within the constraints of any type of agreement within the treaty.

And in the course of the discussions the United States had with Russia, it became clear that no arrangements could be reached that would be satisfying to both countries, because in order to properly test, the United States did not want to put itself in a position where it could be misinterpretations or disagreements about the exact nature of the treaty -- did this particular test violate the treaty, did that particular test violate the treaty -- even if the treaty had been somehow amended.

And so the president's judgment was that the most productive way to proceed to maintain good relations would be to proceed with clarity. And that clarity is to move beyond the treaty so that the United States will not be inhibited in any way of developing a robust testing system.

QUESTION: Can I follow, one point? Was one of the major sticking points that Russia -- to what you were saying -- wanted to be consulted in advance of each test, and that's something the United States was not willing to do?

FLEISCHER: Well, it wasn't a question of the United States not being willing to do. The United States is going to be very cooperative with Russia as we move forward in describing the test.

But the issue is, in order to test the technology, like missile defense, one test could lead to another test to a different type of test. This is impossible to, in advance, suggest to anybody, including Russia, here is the exact list of tests of we're going to take, because we could have test one through seven, for example, and as a result of what we learn in those tests have a different test, test eight. So it's impossible to lay out with the precision and clarity every step along the way or to anticipate if everyone of the testing regimes would possibly violate a hope for amendment to the treaty, for example.

So the president made the judgment that it is best to proceed with clarity and in a way that no one can misunderstand, and that way, we cannot violate a treaty, because we are no longer party to the treaty. And I think it's no surprise to anybody if the Russians would indicate that they would have preferred the United States to stay in the treaty. That's why I said that it's not unexpected, but you need to take a look at what Mr. Putin said in its entirety, because it was much more constructive and broad than that.

QUESTION: But it appeared for a time, before the president met with President Putin in Crawford, that a deal was possible under which the U.S. would be able to test with Russia's agreement that it didn't break the treaty. In other words, to bend the interpretation. Was the decision that that wasn't possible made in the meeting between the two men in Crawford or did it come later?

FLEISCHER: The decision that that would lead to further difficulties and points of confusion as lawyers wrangled about whether the test did indeed interfere with the amended treaty, that really became clear to both parties in the talks leading up to President Putin's meeting here in Washington prior to arrival in Crawford. I think that's when it then became clear that the best course was the course the president outlined today from President Bush's point of view.

If that path had been pursued, it was the president's judgment, it would have led to incessant wrangling about whether or not every component of every test honored this amended agreement. And one of the reasons the president's proceeded like this is because he thinks the United States relationship with Russia should be based on less wrangling, not more, and the ABM Treaty would stand in that way.

QUESTION: Let me just follow up. Did the president and Putin then agree to disagree when they met?

FLEISCHER: I think it was clear what course the United States was going to take. And I think it was also clear about the broad strength of the U.S.-Russian relationship, which has developed very strongly throughout the year, and that in fact grew even deeper and richer in the meetings in Crawford.

And the reason for that, there is so more to the U.S.-Russian relationship than a 30-year-old treaty. Russia is moving in the general direction of the West. The future Russia lies with the West, the prosperity of Russia does, and the United States welcomes that.

The president has repeatedly said that he welcomes a future role for Russia in the World Trade Organization.

As you know, NATO 20 sees a role for Russia in a consultative fashion. The president has proposed to the Congress that they eliminate the restrictions that have been posted on Russia as a result of the old Jackson-Vanik laws.

So there is so much more that is positive in the relationship between the United States and Russia, and I think the two leaders have agreed that that's where their focus should properly lie.

QUESTION: And on that, Ari, the president also said he wanted to formalize this new relationship -- the future relationship. Does that mean that he is aiming to get some kind of document -- treaty or otherwise -- that he and President Putin could sign which would encompass perhaps missile defense, size of nuclear stockpiles, joint defense planning, that kind of thing?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think on the topic of the reduction of offensive weapons, which is another area the United States and Russia share, the president has made a commitment to reduce the number of weapons in the United States nuclear arsenal to between 1,700 and 2,200. Russia has indicated that they are interested in a similar reduction. The president has always said that he is open to whatever form that would take, whether that is codified in some type of document or other, or whether or not that's something the United States will simply proceed and do. The president has always indicated an openness to the form.

QUESTION: Formalizing the relationship that he was talking about relates only to the size of the nuclear stockpiles, not some new agreement about missile defense parameters or not a new agreement about joint defense planning -- Russia's role in NATO?

FLEISCHER: Well, nobody's ruling out other documents that would be presidential statements or codifications in whatever form they take, about a variety of different issues in which the U.S. and Russia collaborate. Particularly on offensive weapons, I've indicated, he's open.

But on missile defense, no, I did not make -- that is not in the cards on missile defense. The president could not have been plainer in his remarks from the Rose Garden today.

QUESTION: One more. The president said he consulted obviously with President Putin extensively. Who else did he consult with? This is something that could damage the coalition arguably since there are a lot of nations that didn't want to see this. Did he talk in particular to China?

FLEISCHER: He did. The president this morning called President Jiang of China, as well. He has spoken this week with Prime Minister Blair, with President Chirac, with Chancellor Schroeder, with Prime Minister Koizumi.

The president has had a series of consultative discussions with the leaders around the world. In addition, the vice president, secretary of state had a series of conversations. The secretary of state, of course, met with many leaders in his recent travels.

And so the United States has done exactly what the president committed to do, which is to consult, to talk to various nations.


FLEISCHER: I'll let each nation characterize it for itself.



FLEISCHER: Well, I was getting to give you as much as I can give you. I don't speak for the other governments.


FLEISCHER: Phones work. You have reporters there.


FLEISCHER: Let me answer Helen's question.

The reactions vary from leader to leader, and again, I will leave it to them and their able spokespeople to give you more specifics.


FLEISCHER: Wait a minute.

The president, in his conversations -- number one, everybody appreciated the fact that the president had consulted with them. Two, in the case of China, for example, President Jiang said to the president, he looked forward to further high-level dialogue about this topic.

And other leaders just recognize that the president had always said he was going to do this, and they recognize that the president kept his word, did what he indicated he was going to do.

So I think you will be able get additional reactions from the governments. They will most likely have public statements.

QUESTION: They didn't really like it is what you're really saying...

FLEISCHER: No, I think, again, different leaders say different things.

As you know, right from the beginning of the year, Europe was basically of several minds about this topic. The president has all along had widespread support for this from Spain, from Italy, from Hungary, from Poland. There have been many nations that strongly do support this.


FLEISCHER: They've always understood the United States statement about the need to develop missile defenses, and they've supported that.

QUESTION: What more can you tell us about the discovery of the tape? Who was it? Where was it found? And is it a recruitment video? Does bin Laden threaten more attacks in this video?

FLEISCHER: Well, you've seen the video in its entirety, so you can judge Mr. bin Laden's statements for themselves. But the tape was acquired in a home in Jalalabad. That's where it was found. It was subsequently brought to the attention of U.S. officials, and then it was sent to the United States.

QUESTION: Who found it, though? What's the chain of custody? Can you tell us who found it, and then...

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to be able to get into the specific means of who found it, what the chain of custody was.


QUESTION: ... U.S. officials did not find it. It came into their possession. So someone other than U.S. troops or U.S...


FLEISCHER: That's a fair inference.

QUESTION: And then did it get into the hands of U.S. military or CIA officers?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to get into all the details about the chain of command.


FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: The date it was found.

FLEISCHER: You may want to check with DOD about exactly when it was found.

I can tell you, the president was first informed of it on November 29. He first viewed portions of it on November 30.


FLEISCHER: Here at the White House during his morning intelligence briefing.


QUESTION: ... you mentioned that the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) got there that they sort of had an understanding of what was going to happen. Why then did weeks pass after Putin left that we're getting the announcement today from the president? I think some are kind of curious that in the middle of all this hoopla we -- you know, ABM at 10 a.m., tape at 11 a.m.; it gets sort of washed under the events. What took so long?

FLEISCHER: I find it bazaar to think there could even be a connection between the two. That doesn't serve any purpose.

The president, in fact, spoke to President Putin on Friday last week and informed he that he would be making the formal notification, and that's why the formal notification took place today.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) since they knew before he even got here that they were going to do this, why it wasn't sooner after the...


FLEISCHER: You know, there's no reason. I mean, you know, you have to pick a date. And I think, your question, no matter what date would be picked could be a similar question.

The president chose; this is the date. And the formal notification, as I said, was delivered this morning in Moscow.

QUESTION: Why did, then, the president told Putin before he told congressional leaders or the American public?

FLEISCHER: The treaty is with Russia.

QUESTION: Formal notification was given today, and why in formal notification three days before...

FLEISCHER: Because the treaty is with Russia, and the president thought the appropriate place to make the first notification about a future intent was with President Putin of Russia, the successor nation to the signatory of the treaty.

QUESTION: And a follow-up on the tape, you said the president viewed it in his intelligence meeting November 30. What was his impression then? Did he say then, "I think this is something the American public needs to see." Did that get the ball rolling toward releasing it?

FLEISCHER: The president wanted to make certain that the tape was authentic, to make certain that there could be no misunderstanding about anything that's in there, and that's what set the course of motion of the events you've seen in the last several days, where a determination was made that it was indeed authentic.

And then the process began whereas I've indicated publicly all week that the president wanted to share information with the country. This tape was of a different nature than the previous tapes, and nobody saw any intelligence concerns, sources or method concerns, that would be jeopardized by the release of the tape, and the rest of it was a DOD work on the translation.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) from the beginning he was inclined to release it if it met all those standards?

FLEISCHER: I think the president's approach all along has been: If it doesn't compromise intelligence, we're a democracy, the information should be shared, not only on this, but on all matters.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Can you share anything on that?

FLEISCHER: Well the president has known all along that Osama bin Laden has been behind this, and that's been clear from really the very first days after the attack took place. So it came as no surprise to the president that Osama bin Laden would be taking responsibility and having advanced knowledge of the attack, because that's consistent with other information.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) tell reaction...

FLEISCHER: It's consistent with other information the president has through other sources, methods, and means.

QUESTION: What about the laughing and you know, the sort of comparing this to a soccer match...?


FLEISCHER: I think the president expressed that himself when he was asked about the tape on Monday this week, and you heard the president say that this is further proof that this is a just cause that the United States is engaged in. He referred to Osama bin Laden as a murderer who would seek to destroy civilization if we didn't stop him, and what an evil man Osama bin Laden is -- that was the president's reaction throughout it all.

QUESTION: Ari, can I just (OFF-MIKE) as officials have said if, by releasing the tape, it could put to rest any doubts that might still exist in the Arab and Muslim world. Is the president calling on moderate Arab leaders to play the tape and to speak out about it?

FLEISCHER: I think this tape is going to be an instance in which different people will come to the conclusions as they see fit. The tape speaks for itself; people will be able to watch it and listen to it for themselves and form their own judgments. It won't surprise me if some people come to differing judgments about it. But people will come to their own.

QUESTION: Ari, is the White House feel any more favorable to Senator Daschle's proposals on the stimulus (UNINTELLIGIBLE) tax holiday, reducing the 27 percent bracket to 26 percent? (UNINTELLIGIBLE) more favorable to that today than you were yesterday?

FLEISCHER: Well, there was a very lengthy meeting that was held on Capitol Hill last night about the stimulus, and the president is pleased to see that members of Congress are talking and attempting to find a way out of the gridlock that has met the stimulus discussions on the Hill. The president has made a proposal that he believes can break the gridlock.

But what really this comes down to now is leadership, particularly in the Senate. After all, if the House of Representatives was able to pass a stimulus, why can't the Senate?

So it still remains to be seen whether or not the Senate will decide to take action.

QUESTION: The Israeli government has announced a decision not to have any dealing anymore with Yasser Arafat. Where does it leave the American efforts? FLEISCHER: The president is aware, of course, of these statements, and the president believes very strongly that Chairman Arafat needs to demonstrate his desire to achieve peace in the Middle East. And the president believes that it is incumbent on Chairman Arafat to demonstrate in actions and deeds, and not just words, that he will bring the killers to justice. And that is what the president is waiting to see.

QUESTION: What will happen to the Zinni mission?

FLEISCHER: What will happen to? General Zinni is actually going to meet with Prime Minister Sharon at approximately 1:30 this afternoon Eastern time, and so he is continuing to have discussions, to talk to Prime Minister Sharon about the ramifications or the meaning of the recent statements made. And so until that meeting takes place, we will wait to have any further evaluations.

QUESTION: Back on the treaty for a moment and the conversation with President Jiang. The Chinese obviously have a much smaller nuclear fleet than the Russians do. In the course of the conversation, did the Chinese at any point suggest that they would respond to this by building up the size of their nuclear fleet? And if they do increase the size of their arsenal, do you believe that a decision to build a system that might be able to defeat the current size arsenal in China would be responsible for...

FLEISCHER: These are issues that came up directly between the president and President Jiang Zemin, the president's meeting there in Shanghai this fall, and the president made it clear at that time, as he has done previous times on the phone, that the development of an American missile defense system is not a threat to China, that this is designed entire to protect the United States and the people of the United States from a launch that would come in the form of a terrorist attack if they were to get their hands on ballistic missiles or a rogue nation that would seek to harm the United States. Those launches would come in the forms of one or two missiles. That is what the missile defense system is designed to counter.

A nation like China that has the ability to launch many numbers of missiles at the United States could not be stopped as a result of a missile defense program. This is not aimed at China. This is aimed at the rogue nations, the terrorist nations of the world that would do harm to the United States in much smaller launches than China would ever be capable of doing.

QUESTION: Can you respond to the question whether President Jiang indicated that he would respond to this by building up a sizable nuclear fleet?

FLEISCHER: The reaction from President Jiang this morning was he looked forward to more high-level dialogue with the president about this.

QUESTION: Ari, can I ask about executive privilege since the president's exerting it in terms of the oversight of prosecutors? Previous presidents, not always cheerfully, but previous presidents have allowed these documents to go to Congress so they can exercise oversight of the prosecutors. What's changed that this president doesn't think that's right?

FLEISCHER: Well, actually, I differ with that premise. Previous presidents -- President Reagan three times exerted executive privilege, President Bush two times exerted executive privilege and President Clinton four times. So it is not uncommon.

The reason President Bush in this case exerted executive privilege was to protect the effectiveness and the deliberativeness of the justice process. In this case, after the administration had already turned over 3,500 pages to the House Committee in question, they continued to pressure the administration to obtain very specific, prosecutorial, decision-making memoranda that are the heart of the justice process, the heart of the deliberative process that contains uncorroborated, raw information, raw data that prosecutors weigh to decide whether or not to bring a case forward.

And often, especially when a case is not brought forward, release of that information could be harmful to the people in question, when a decision was made never to proceed with the prosecution.

And so as a desire to protect the privacy of these conversations, the president viewed an attempt to obtain these documents as an attempt that would inhibit the candor necessary to have an effective process of deliberation, as well as a risk to politicizing internal, important judicial Justice Department decisions, because if the Justice Department is required to turn these documents over to Congress it can apply political pressure to a process that should be guided only by law, the rule of law, and prosecutors recommendations.

QUESTION: Both Republicans and Democrats on the Hill are saying that this makes oversight of prosecutors impossible now.

FLEISCHER: And that's why I pointed out to you that 3,500 pages have been provided. But there has been a precedent, and it's well established, about protection of certain documents that should not be politicized and deserve to be kept private.

I would turn that exactly around and say that, if documents like this were to be provided by Congress, it would have a chilling affect on the Justice Department's ability to carefully weigh matters of prosecution to decide, in which cases prosecution should be or should not be brought.

QUESTION: On the Middle East. Some Palestinian spokesmen are now saying that this is open war between Israel and the Palestinians; is it? And in the past, when there has been war, the United States has come to Israel's assistance. Would this administration do so if needed?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has always made it plain that the United States has a very close, special relationship with Israel, but I'm not going to get into any hypotheticals. There has been violence in the Middle East for a considerable period of time. QUESTION: Bin Laden talks about (inaudible) how the attacks bolstered Islam -- there's shots of the downed U.S. helicopter, and some others on the tape talk about how they're feeling very comfortable where they are. Doesn't look to you like that something that was intentionally left behind, in that bin Laden wanted this to be viewed by the public?

FLEISCHER: We have no indications of that. In fact, if anything, the manner in which the tape was acquired would suggest that people were leaving the house in a real big hurry and left it behind.

QUESTION: Two questions. As the tape is concerned, he said one time that the messages of congratulations were pouring in. Where they were from, number one?

QUESTION: Number two, two weeks ago India Globe carried the whole thing, and where he said that in the article that he is behind the attacks in the U.S., and also, another article he said that jihad will continue after his death.

And second question is that India has been hit, and this time the target was India's parliament. And Indian authorities blame the Taliban (UNINTELLIGIBLE) . Now, do you think India should do same think what Israel is doing?

FLEISCHER: Number one, let me just announce to you that President Bush this morning also called Prime Minister Vajpayee of India to condemn the attack and to express the condolences of the American people to the prime minister, to the families of those who were killed and to all the Indian people. The president also offered the assistance of the FBI and of the State Department counterterrorist teams if so desired. So I just want make sure you're aware of that.

QUESTION: And the Taliban...

FLEISCHER: We have no indication of who is responsible.


QUESTION: You think you are going to provide the tape to Al Jazeera, they should play this tape, because they have been playing the hatred messages against the United States?

FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, we do not see this tape in the same context as the previous tapes, because, again, this is not a prepackaged tape that Osama bin Laden clearly on the other tapes indicated he wanted to be distributed. He was the man responsible for their distribution. So the Department of Defense has released it, it is available to everyone. I can only presume that Al Jazeera, among other media outlets, has acquired it.

QUESTION: Ari, you in effect today placed this tape...





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