Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:40 P.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me discuss the President's schedule today, and I have a statement about something, and then I'd be happy to take questions.
The President today again hosted a bipartisan meeting of the congressional leadership as part of his effort to work with the Congress to help the Congress to break the logjam that is present in the Senate right now on the economic stimulus. Following the meeting, the President had his regular rounds of briefings from the CIA, from the FBI, and he convened a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the latest information in the war effort.
Following that meeting, the President convened a meeting of his economic team, including Secretary O'Neill, Secretary Evans, Glenn Hubbard, Larry Lindsey, and others, to discuss the latest information about the state of the economy. The President remains deeply concerned about the number of Americans who are unemployed and the status of the economy and a potential recovery. And this is again why he is working as diligently as he is to help the Senate to figure out a way out of the logjam that they're currently in. And he urges and calls on the Senate again to pass a stimulus to help the economy to grow and recover.
Following that, the President signed into law legislation called the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act of 2001, which will provide health care and educational assistance to the women and children of Afghanistan.
The President this afternoon will have a meeting here at the White House on one of the signature issues of his presidency, and that is improving education particularly for those in public schools. He will meet with the leaders of the education issue in the Congress -- Congressman Boehner, Congressman Miller, Senator Kennedy and Senator Gregg.
And on that point, I want to read a statement by the President about the education conference agreement, which was entered into yesterday. And unless something -- the House is scheduled to vote on this this week; the President believes and hopes that the Senate will also vote so education reform can be passed into law.
The following is a statement by the President: The education of every child in America must always be a top priority. I commend the conferees for agreeing on a series of profound reforms to help provide our children the best education possible.
I also thank the bipartisan leadership of the conference chair, Congressman Boehner, as well as Senators Kennedy, Gregg, and Congressman Miller, for taking major steps toward improving education throughout our country.
The conference agreement will ensure that no child in America is left behind, through historic educational reforms based on real accountability, unprecedented flexibility for states and school districts, greater local control, more options for parents, and more funding for what works. I urge members of the House and Senate to act soon and send me this legislation, so that states and school districts can begin implementing these important reforms.
That is a statement by the President. I read that because I think it is an important reminder of, even in a time of war, where the President's priorities lie. And he understands the importance of education not only to uplifting people from poverty, in terms of helping improve the future of our economy, but also just as a simple matter of doing what he promised as a candidate and focusing on education. He is very pleased and thankful to the Congress for the actions they have taken this year.
One final point. In a similar spirit, the Senate Finance Committee just moments ago passed, by a bipartisan vote of 18 to 3, trade promotion authority. And the President is very grateful to the leaders of the Senate Finance Committee and the members who voted for this important action. The President thinks this also will help improve the economy long-term, that this is good for America's workers, and is helpful for developing nations around the world.
Finally, when you take a look at what is happening in the Congress on education and trade promotion authority, it's a clear sign that if there is a will there's a way in the Congress. And the President hopes that that same spirit on education, on trade promotion authority, where Congress is getting the people's business done, will be extended to the economic stimulus.
If ever there was an issue that proves that if there's a will, there's a way, it's the economic stimulus. If the will is there in the United States Senate, the votes are there. The President met last night with a group of Democrat and Republican moderates; clearly the votes are there to pass an economic stimulus and to help America's workers. The only question is, is the Senate leadership interested in following the will of the Senate to find a way to pass it. The President hopes so.
Q: Ari, on the tape, what are the translators doing now? What seems to be the delay? Can you describe that process? And will it, in fact, be released this afternoon?
MR. FLEISCHER: The tape of Osama bin Laden bragging about the killing in the United States is roughly one hour long. The audio and the video quality are not good. And as a result, to be thorough, to be accurate, before anything is released to the world, the Defense Department has brought in four translators from outside the government to listen to every word and to make certain that there is agreement on what is said on the tape. We're very comfortable with the translation that we already do have, but prior to its release, which we're all hopeful will still take place, the review is underway. So, literally, four translators are listening carefully to it to make certain that every word is an accurate interpretation of the Arabic language.
Q: Does today look improbable, then?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have to rely on DOD to inform you about it. The process is that the President has asked for the advice of his advisors about the release of the tape, and the President and his team will make the final decision about whether it should be released or not.
But, clearly, the President hopes that information can be shared with the public. The only thing that would stand in the way is if there is anything from intelligence or security that could be compromised. That's not looking like it's likely, so it really is just a matter of being diligent, thorough and accurate prior to releasing something to the world.
Q: Ari, is it just a matter of it's taking so much time for these four translators to go through this, or is there some disagreement among the translators about what they hear on the tape?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have not heard anything about any disagreements. I think you can presume it's the usual conversation you would have with four translators about, do we hear it exactly right, is that syllable exactly right, and they're just going to be thorough and careful.
And we recognize that as soon as the tape is released, you all are going to take it to your translators, too. And I think you'll be, at that point, satisfied that the government diligence in preparing it will match the diligence that you bring to it, too.
Q: If I could just follow up on that. The fact that the White House is going to sanction the release of this bin Laden videotape after counseling various and sundry news organizations to be very careful about what they air, does that lead you to want to be extra careful to make sure you've dotted all the 'i's and crossed all the 't's before you put this out there?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. Because this videotape does not fall in the same category as the prepackaged, prerecorded videotapes that Osama bin Laden, himself, distributed as a way to communicate with the world. Clearly, this was a tape that was left behind in Afghanistan with no intention of being released, and it does not fall into the same category. That's why the White House does, indeed, look at this very differently from the category in which Condoleezza Rice called the networks and asked them to exercise their judgment and discretion.
Q: But certainly, you can see the issue there in the inherent appearance, at least, of a contradiction in that.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I can't, because I see the tapes as totally different. And I think most observers agree with that.
Q: Ari, reaction to the violence in the Middle East today?
MR. FLEISCHER: The embassies on the ground are collecting the facts about the most recent violence in the Middle East. It took place shortly before this briefing, in terms of the reports coming in.
The latest violence underscores the need for Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to take every step possible to reduce the violence and bring an end to the terrorism that is plaguing the region.
Ambassador Zinni, or General Zinni remains in the region, committed to helping the parties find a way to begin the security talks, and the President remains hopeful that the talks can begin.
Q: Ari, is there any doubt now that Arafat can't control the violence?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that this is a process that can't be measured in a day or two, this is a process that will be measured over time. But it is imperative that Chairman Arafat take every step possible to stop the violence, to stop the attacks. It's hard to imagine how a peace process can be fruitful and take hold if there is no peace, if there's killing.
Q: Why are we condoning the bombing of his headquarters and police quarters and so forth? I mean, is that helpful to the Palestinians?
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, as you know, after the series of suicide attacks took place in Jerusalem and Haifa last week, the President has made it clear that he understands Israel has a right to defend herself.
Q: They are trying to get Arafat, aren't they? I mean, would that be helpful?
MR. FLEISCHER: The United States has not seen any indication that Israel is trying to get Yasser Arafat.
Q: Ari, if I could reclaim my time. On the tape, a couple questions. Is it clear from the tape that bin Laden is aware he is being taped? Or is it the assessment of those who have seen it that he is not aware that he is being taped? And that is the central distinction that goes to what John's question was about, that it's not a propaganda machine, because he doesn't know he's being taped. And secondarily, as the translators go over this, are they debating the meaning of certain words, or is it just very hard to hear the words and it's the difficulty of hearing that's slowing it down?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you need to ask that to DOD, itself. I did not ask that question to DOD. I know it's a matter of the audio quality, means you really have to play the tape over again, listen to it, listen to it over again to be certain about the words. But that's a DOD.
On the first question again?
Q: Is he aware, based on those who have seen it, and does that make it essentially different from something that he was clearly aware --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, it appears he was aware. It's hard to imagine somebody was in the room without him seeing.
Q: Can I just follow up on Helen's question? Does the President believe that the specific response of Israel to the suicide attacks has been helpful, has been productive of a climate in which peace can take hold?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think the President looks at things in literally the light that you raise it. I think the President looks at it as a matter that, given what took place in Israel, Israel had a right to defend herself. And the President understands that.
The President is also calling on all the parties to work with General Zinni. General Zinni remains in the area for the express purpose of helping the two, Israel and the Palestinians, to find a way to begin the security dialogue once again that they both still say they are committed to.
Q: And is the President looking for Israel to take any steps? Because it may be that it's not just Arafat's inability or refusal to control violence, but that there are other factors which contribute to these attacks -- the crackdown, continued crackdown in Palestinian areas, which many people say sponsors some of the frustration which leads to this.
MR. FLEISCHER: The President understands that the ability of the parties in the conflict to take the next steps first depends on the ability of violence to be reduced. It's very hard to begin a political dialogue when people are still being killed in the streets and wounded in the streets on an almost regular basis. And that's why the President has focused so strongly on calling for Chairman Arafat to reduce the violence, to take responsibility.
And it's also important to recognize for the future of the region that these are attacks on Chairman Arafat's authority, himself. These attacks undermine his ability to be a leader in the Palestinian cause. And that's important to recognize as well.
Q: Is the President that American arms are used?
Q: Ari, has Arafat taken any steps that you can see as positive?
MR. FLEISCHER: The Chairman has made several statements which are positive statements. The Chairman has arrested individuals, although still there is the issue of after arrests are made, people are frequently returned right to the streets. So it is a difficult situation for one and all, but that does not change the responsibility on a leader of a would-be state to demonstrate that he is capable of demonstrating the leadership required to end the violence.
Q: Ari, why wasn't the President able to close the deal on a stimulus during the breakfast he had with congressional leaders this morning?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I don't think that when it comes to Congress scheduling a vote, it's something the President controls. The determination of when to schedule a vote is uniquely an issue or a decision made by the Senate leadership.
The President, as he said today, had a very productive meeting with enough senators last night in both parties to put this over the top. So the House of Representatives has shown its ability to pass a stimulus; the President has shown his ability not only to propose a stimulus, but to then subsequently modify it in an effort to break the logjam. The only group left in town that has shown no ability so far to pass a stimulus is the Senate leadership.
There is enough votes to pass it. If there's a will, there's a way. And that's the only question that remains now -- will the Senate show the will to find the way.
Q: If I could follow on that, is the President still insisting that speeding up the tax cut passed earlier this year must be part of the stimulus plan?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President feels very strongly that it must be stimulative. And he is heartened to see that there are a majority of senators in both parties who agree. Senator Breaux was eloquent last night on the point of supporting an increase in the acceleration of the marginal income tax rate from 27 percent to 25 percent.
Clearly, the majority of the Senate agrees with the President that we have a need to do two things, stimulate the economy and protect unemployed workers. And the President just cannot imagine that the Senate would leave town without addressing both those important priorities. And there's still time for it to be done, and he hopes that it will be, but much of this is up to the Senate leadership.
Q: Ari, what else is the President doing today in and the next day to get this through? Is he making calls today? Is he meeting -- having other meetings?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President has brought it to the point where it is very close to getting done. Keep in mind that a stimulus was originally the President's idea. He proposed it during the summer. The House passed it. The President then has worked with the Senate, modified it. I don't know what more a President can do, other than to meet with the leadership as he did this morning, to meet with the bipartisan group as he did last night, the statement the President made this morning again calling on the parties to get together. But at the end of the day, it is still the Senate that governs itself. And this is a real test of the new leadership of the Senate.
You know, I just remind you that it wasn't so long ago that the Senate was led by Senator Lott, with a very close margin. And there still is a very close margin in the Senate. But that doesn't change the responsibility of the leaders of the Senate to, in the end, deliver for the American people.
Q: There has been a decline in contributions to Muslim charities in the United States. Do you have any -- does the White House have any reaction to that? I think there's a fear that these charities are somehow fronts for terrorist organizations.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has addressed this before, when he's called on groups to continue to donate to charities. And the President would hope that donations would continue to all charities that do good works, and that, of course, includes Muslim charities.
And because you've raised it, I would remind people that the President's legislation that is still pending in the Senate for the Armies of Compassion initiative does provide incentives for people to give increased money to charity; that does find a role for Muslim groups, for Islamic groups, for groups of all religious denominations to receive federal funding for their charitable efforts and their social efforts in the way to alleviate poverty. And that would, of course, include Muslim, Islamic groups.
Q: Ari, you said this morning that the Pentagon was handling the videotape. You just told us that four independent translators were working on it as an advisory panel. My question is, will the President make the final call whether the tape will be released or not?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. Ultimately it is the President's decision. The President will make the decision in concert with his security team.
As I reviewed earlier, the only criteria he is concerned with are, is there any intelligence that would be compromised, or national security implications to releasing the tape? It's fair to say with each passing day there appear to be fewer and fewer things that are imaginable like that. But again, the President will make that final determination, and then if that determination is made, the release will come from the Department of Defense.
Q: Can I ask you another question? On the free trade, you said the Senate Finance Committee has approved 18 to 3. When do you expect the whole Senate to vote on it? The House has already approved it.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's a question that can only be addressed to the Senate leadership.
Q: Well, do you think you might get it this year?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President would be delighted if he could get it this year, because the President believes very strongly in the power of trade to improve the lots of people around the world, to provide products for the American consumer, and to provide high-paying jobs for American workers.
Q: Ari, back on the tape, is there concern about body language, as well, other than the phrasing and the wording of bin Laden? Is there concern about his body language? I mean, you're talking about coding with words, possibly, but what about the body language?
MR. FLEISCHER: In terms of coding, there's nothing that has been brought to my attention on that, April. So, again, that's why I said that with each passing day as it's reviewed, there are fewer and fewer concerns about the security implications of it. In terms of Osama bin Laden's body language, he appears -- if you can believe it -- happy, comfortable, and joyous with the fact that he was able to take lives.
Q: So you have seen the tape?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have been briefed on the tape. I will watch it later. And I've read the entire transcript, though.
Q: Another question about September 11th, real quick. Apparently, one of the 19 hijackers was stopped in the state of Maryland by a state trooper and was let go because they did not know about the fact that he was on the CIA terrorist watch list. Why is not there an interface system right now in place, and why was there not a system in place at that time, for someone to be a major criminal, or a major threat to the United States, for no other state entity or local government to know? There was a major -- it seems like there was a major mixup or a problem --
MR. FLEISCHER: April, I'm not aware of the facts in the case you're citing, so I'll be happy to take a look at that. But, clearly if a police officer pulls somebody over, it's not as if there's one central computer database for the entire country that runs every highway stop into a system.
Q: But do you think there needs to be now, especially since this guy could have been stopped before --
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me take a look at the facts in this particular case. You may also want to address it to DOJ or to the local authorities who may have been involved in this stop. Because I don't have any information on that.
Q: Is the White House recommending that they use the --
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, we'll come back to you.
Q: Why did the President consider but then reject the idea of having Moussaoui go before a military tribunal?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President, two days ago, discussed with Attorney General Ashcroft during an Oval Office meeting what the best venue would be to bring Mr. Moussaoui to justice. And as the President said when he created the military tribunals, he wanted to have the option of a military tribunal for those limited number of cases where the national security of the United States or our ability to continue to obtain intelligence information without compromising sources or methods would be achieved as a result of going to a military court as opposed to a civilian court.
So during his meeting with the Attorney General, the President asked a series of questions about civilian versus military trial, and asked if this were to be decided in a civilian court, a civilian criminal court, would national security be in danger, would sources or methods be compromised. The President was satisfied that the answers to those questions were no. The Attorney General recommended that this go to a civilian court; the President concurred. And so, that's what took place.
Q: And is that final? Is that a final decision?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I should add one caveat, and is it's based on all the information that has been received at this time. If subsequent information were to be received in the course of developing facts and information, the President's options remain open. But you clearly have heard an announcement by the Attorney General, you've received the indictment from the Department of Justice. This case is proceeding in criminal court on the civilian side.
Q: Let me follow up, though. The President also asked whether there's any concerns about security at the courthouse, which is another reason for --
MR. FLEISCHER: Clearly, I don't have every question the President asked, Ron. But I think it's fair to say that if there had been sufficient concerns raised about security, another decision could have been made. No such decision was made.
Q: Ari, on the tape, how long have these four interpreters been at work? And how long did it take the administration to produce the transcript? If one exists, it would seem that it wouldn't take as long as it is taking for the new people to review what already is in print. Could you please talk about that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I believe -- and you'd have to check with DOD to be final -- but the interpreters at DOD started working on it yesterday or the day before, one of those two days. And as I said at the top of the briefing, we are comfortable with the translation that we currently have, that it's accurate. The question is, before something is released to the world, and so people can see it and read a translation for themselves, we're dotting every 'I" and crossing every 'T' in the interest of thoroughness. And if it is exactly as I indicated, that there are no intelligence, no security concerns brought up, it's just a matter of time. As soon as they're done with the due diligence. And then the world will have it and the world will form its own judgments. And I think you'll be satisfied that the diligence that we brought to the translation was productive, and that way people can say this is, indeed, authoritative, accurate, and represents what people can view. Because this is Arabic and we want to be careful and accurate.
Q: The young Taliban -- American Taliban fighter has apparently been debriefed and is suggesting that he had some knowledge of the next phase in the terrorist attacks against the United States. One, what is he saying to U.S. authorities? And two, how much credibility do you assign to this young guy, who did not seem to be in the senior al Qaeda leadership?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it is hard to imagine how somebody who was in a position that he was, how somebody in that position could obtain information that is credible or reliable about a future action. As you know, clearly in the case of the September 11th attacks, that information was extraordinarily limited in the number of people that the al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden informed ahead of time. So that's the answer in terms of the question about Mr. Walker.
It does remain a concern, of course, for the government. This is why you've heard Governor Ridge and others urge vigilance, urge people to maintain the alert status because of the general threats that we have received about anything that may be potential in the future. Risks do remain, unfortunately.
Q: On the tape from bin Laden, I gather that he makes clear that not even some of his most senior lieutenants were aware of what was going to unfold on September 11th.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q: So, making it even more difficult to believe that some guy in the middle levels or at lower levels of the Taliban --
MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, it is hard to imagine how Mr. Walker could be in possession of such specific information or knowledge. But having said that, beyond him, the government does have concerns, and that's why alerts have been made and the nation does need to continue its vigilance.
Q: Ari, is the President willing, on ABM, to give Russia until January 1st before formally starting the six-month clock? And secondly, if Russia did jointly withdraw, would that give them a greater role, perhaps at least in terms of consultations when it comes to shaping a missile defense shield?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me say, in terms of consultations, the consultations with Russia on the topic of missile defense have been strong. And I think you've all seen that with your own eyes in the course of the many discussions the President has had with President Putin throughout the year. The whole dialogue about a missile defense has taken an interesting turn where, at the beginning of the administration, people reacted and said that this will lead to a resumption of the Cold War, this would be a monumental mistake, said the critics, to a real diminution of those type of arguments now, as the President has quietly and patiently made his case to European leaders and to other leaders.
As for the timing, I'm not in a position to make any predictions. When the President has something to say, he'll say it.
Q: I was just wondering if there was any motivation for them to jointly withdraw, because that would give them something to have where they can say, well, now we are a partner in this and we are going to shape or at least be consulted more on missile defense. Or, is it the President's position that he would like to consult with them regardless of whether they withdraw?
MR. FLEISCHER: Bill, I'm not going to make any predictions about what the future will hold, other than to say that that the President has made it abundantly clear throughout the year that he thinks that the best way to preserve peace and to promote it is to move beyond the ABM Treaty.
Q: Two follow-ups. First of all, on the tape. Is there any arrangement for people who want to translate it from Arabic to another language to hear the tape, or will they have to take it from the English? And on the ABM Treaty, do you have any indication whether Russia will go along with the abrogation of the treaty?
MR. FLEISCHER: The tape, if and when it is released, will be released in Arabic and with an English translation. And then at that point it will be in the public domain, and translators will be free to translate it.
And I cannot presume to speak for Russia. I would remind you of what President Putin said in Crawford, when he was asked a question by a high school student about if the United States were to unilaterally withdraw from the treaty, what his reaction would be. He said at that time that the United States' relationship with Russia is a very broad one, that there are many constructive avenues that we will continue to pursue in all cases, no matter what the President does or decides to do. But I do not presume to speak for what he would do, given any hypothetical thing that the President would do in the future.
Q: Ari, has the President talked to Putin in the last couple days about this, or does he plan to talk to him before he makes any public statement?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is Wednesday; he has not talked to him in the last couple days.
Q: A couple of questions on the speech the President gave today at the signing of that Afghan women and children's measure. He said, "We learned our lessons from the past. We will not leave until our mission is complete." What was the reference to there? Is he talking about the Persian Gulf War? Vietnam? What's on his mind when he says that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think what's on his mind is the previous lesson of Afghanistan, and perhaps elsewhere in the world. And as you know, in recent years the United States has been the number one donor of food to the people of Afghanistan, even before September 11th. The United States will continue to be, even during this war and after the war, the number one provider of food and economic assistance to the people of Afghanistan. The President has always said that we would be engaged in the political future of Afghanistan, helping Afghanistan to find security and also protect, so they don't engage in terrorism.
And it's clear from the actions the President has taken in sending an ambassador to the region, and the discussions that have been held under Secretary Powell's leadership on reconstruction of Afghanistan, that the United States takes its commitment seriously to a future of Afghanistan once the war is won.
Q: Are you saying that was not a military reference, "getting the job done"?
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, no, it's not a military reference. The President
has been crystal-clear on military. Nothing has changed his views that the purpose of the military is to fight and win wars. Having said that, the President understands there are many other things that you can do to help achieve stability once the war is won, through aid and through diplomacy and through politics.
Q: He also said that we won't rest until we bring these people to justice. What's the level of concern here about the number of Taliban and al Qaeda leaders who have escaped already, they've gotten away from there?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we don't know. We don't know, Secretary Rumsfeld has said, how many people have or may have escaped. No hard way of knowing. But the President's message is clear to the world: Wherever there are people who are engaged in terrorism which would threaten the lives of people in this country, or terrorism that has a global reach, the United States will take whatever action is required on a host of fronts -- on economic fronts, on political fronts, perhaps on military fronts. He's not ruled it out.
Q: The House is supposed to be taking up the Ney-Hoyer election reform bill today. Is this legislation that the administration supports? And also, I'd like to know what, if anything, the White House is doing to try and get some election reform enacted before the next elections.
MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that the Ney-Hoyer election reform legislation is a positive step forward. In July, the President announced a series of principles that he supported for election reform. And if you remember, President Carter, President Ford, came out with a series of principles that they believed needed to be carried forward in order to secure accurate elections. The President met with President Carter in the Oval Office and with a representative of President Ford to discuss those.
Since then, the President's staff has been discussing with the House of Representatives and the Senate, election reform issues. The President's principles remain clear, and this is why I said it's a positive step forward, that the federal government has a responsibility to provide limited, but effective assistance and help to state and local governments in elections; that state, county, local governments remain and must remain the primary method of conducting elections in this country, and their primary role has got to be respected by the federal government. He's pleased with the legislation on that front.
The President wants to make certain that we have a system that respects the rights of everyone to vote, including minorities, including members of the military, and that's why I said this is a positive step forward.
Q: Do you want to see something enacted this year?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think if that were doable, the President would be pleased. But realistically now, when you start to take a look at all the various items, I'm not even aware that there's discussion in the Senate that they might be able to do that. But if they could, the President would be pleased.
Q: Back on the stimulus, is the President ruling out a payroll tax holiday as a substitute for the accelerated tax cuts?
MR. FLEISCHER: What the President is ruling in are things that can pass. And there obviously is a bipartisan majority that can pass a reduction in income tax rates. Why would anybody pursue something which lacks the votes? There are more than 50 senators who are willing to vote for a reduction in marginal income tax rates on an accelerated basis, from 27 percent to 25 percent.
You heard Senator Breaux and the other Democrats here say that last night. You heard Senator Breaux and some others give some reflections about whether there is the will in the Senate to change the payroll taxes. There are other issues that are presented when you change payroll taxes involving Medicare and Social Security. There are senior groups that have some concerns about that. So the President's focus is on what can pass, not what can hold up a project.
Q: Secondly, does the President need Senate approval to withdraw from the ABM Treaty?
MR. FLEISCHER: No.
Q: Ari, regarding the Middle East again, General Zinni's plan was, he called now yesterday I believe, for 48 hours of quiet in order to get security talks moving. There were talks Friday and Saturday between some of the parties. And the Israelis responded with these night attacks, targeting Arafat's intelligence and security forces. The head of public security, Uzi Landau, made the statement saying, "They can talk about security all they want, but it's forbidden that these talks will prevent us from taking more action against the terrorism of Arafat. We must strike all the time at the infrastructure of terrorism." Aren't they really thumbing a nose at the efforts of Zinni and others to try and get discussions going on the security precautions?
MR. FLEISCHER: Really, there's nothing I have to change what I said previously on the topic.
Q: Tom Daschle said this morning that he was told by the President that the President had actually decided to withdraw from the ABM. We had been told previously that he had been thinking about it, that he thought it was outdated. Can you confirm that that decision has actually been made now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, what I can confirm is the President has been saying publicly for a number of years that the United States needs to move beyond the ABM Treaty. Beyond that, the only thing I can offer you is that when the President has something to say publicly, he'll say it.
Q: Can you acknowledge Tom Daschle was told that this morning?
MR. FLEISCHER: I can just simply suggest to you once again that when he has something to say publicly, he will.
Q: On the technology advisory panel, is the President going to meet with that group today? And what kind of initiatives is the White House putting together to help deploy technology?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me check on that and try to get back to you on that topic.
Q: Ari, in light of Congressman Armey's retirement announcement, would the President prefer a new GOP leader in the House with the conservative credentials of somebody like Armey, or somebody who is more moderate?
MR. FLEISCHER: As you know, internal elections in the House are matters for the House to judge, not for the Executive Branch.
Q: If the remaining logjam to the stimulus package is the individual rates -- acceleration of the individual rates, why doesn't the administration offer to remove that from the table? Wouldn't that move the process forward, and wouldn't you end up with a stimulative bill --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's clearly not the logjam. Clearly, there is a bipartisan majority of senators who support the proposal the President has made. The logjam is in the Senate leadership, which needs to schedule a vote rather than obstruct the bipartisan majority of the Senate.
So the will is there. The number of members is there. The question is does the Senate leadership want to find a way to match the will? And the President believes this is a classic issue of where there's a will there's a way, and he is doing everything he can to help the Senate to help itself.
Q: But I thought the next step rested in this negotiating -- and to decide on one of these proposals.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the discussions are ongoing. People are continuing to talk. But obviously, when you have a bipartisan majority ready to take action, the time has come, either action can be taken or reasons will be found to stop the action from moving forward. But the President is hopeful, as he said, that the Senate will agree and move forward. There will be continued conversations with the Senate about that.
Q: Ari, did the President talk to Dick Armey about his decision? And what is his reaction to the retirement?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President will have a statement -- I will have a statement out from the President a little later today about it.
Q: The Pentagon, Ari, has just confirmed that an Air Force bomber has gone down in the Indian Ocean. This is somewhat of a late-breaking story; I'm not expecting you to be aware of it now. But I was curious if, in fact, you had heard anything coming down here about it. And do you know if in any way the President has been informed? If you don't know, can you promise to get back with us on those details today?
MR. FLEISCHER: We will get back to you on that.
Q: Did you know anything about it?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. First I've heard.
Q: Back on ABM withdrawal for a moment. Despite the statement that you quoted, that President Putin made in Crawford, the critics of this decision say that it will undermine President Putin and strengthen the hardliners in Moscow, who are very skeptical about his whole policy of improving relations and cooperation with the United States. They also say this is the first time a major nation has ever withdrawn from a major arms control treaty, and that it will open the door on other nations doing the same thing. Could you respond to those criticisms?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's fair to say that the President has long believed that the best way to promote and protect the peace is by allowing the United States to develop a missile defense system that can protect itself from accidental or rogue nation launch of an individual or two nuclear weapons. And given the events of September 11th, the President believes in that even more strongly, given the fact that we have seen that our enemies, when they can get their hands on a weapon, do not hesitate to use it.
The President is worried that it is only a matter of time and technology before terrorists or others are able to get their hands on a weapon that they would use. And the President is determined to protect this nation, to protect the people of our country, as well as others, from that eventuality. And so the President believes very strongly in this, and he does so because he believes it protects the peace.
Q: Could you respond to the specific criticism that doing this now will undermine Putin and strengthen hardliners --
MR. FLEISCHER: The President does not share that view.
MR. FLEISCHER: Because the President believes that anything that protects the cause of peace protects people around the world who are dedicated to peace.
Q: Ari, people say that the opposition forces in Afghanistan are offering a deal to the al Qaeda, surrender Osama bin Laden and go free. Is such a deal acceptable to the President?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has made it very clear that this is about much more than Osama bin Laden. And this is about the destruction of the al Qaeda in its entirety, so they cannot engage in terrorism anymore, or that they cannot flee Afghanistan to find safe harbor in another nation, to create a new cell that could engage in terrorism once more. This is about protecting America from those who would do us harm.
Q: If your initial translation of the tape was good enough to have the Vice President talk about it publicly and then show it to members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees and have them talk about it publicly, why do you need to go through it one more time? And secondly, if the White House is trying to show that it's not trying to enhance in any way, editorially, this tape, why even provide a translation? Why not just give it to us and have our people go through it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President -- I mean, the Vice President, of course, was asked about it on a show. The Vice President went on the show to talk about a number of issues, and the topic came up. He responded. He did not provide a translation of the tape, he gave his impressions of what the tape showed, based on the translation -- which I said, the translation is an accurate one, we're comfortable with it. But again, this is a matter of verbatim, and to be completely thorough before we hand out a verbatim transcript that the world will review. Again, I just think this is really -- this is a matter of time, and --
Q: Well, why even provide a transcript? Why help in the editorial process, as opposed to just giving us the raw tape?
MR. FLEISCHER: You are under no obligation, if and when it's released, to accept the translation. I just think the administration's point of view is that it's best to provide information that can be understood, rather than providing something in another language.
Q: In that context, does the White House hope that the networks will show the whole thing, the hour-long program, or is there any caveat on the use of the tape once they get it?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's a decision that the networks will make, and other stations will make.
Q: So they're free to --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, they always have been. Again, this is a totally different tape from the one that Dr. Rice called the networks about, a totally different type of tape because of -- it is not the prepackaged, preprogrammed tape that they wanted to get out deliberately, especially the one immediately after the September 11th attack -- or the United States retaliation after the September 11th attack.
You recall in that context, what happened was the United States took action against Osama bin Laden, the military campaign, the bombing began, and low and behold, all of a sudden, a prepackaged tape comes out that could have been viewed -- was viewed, likely -- by many people around the world to see what Osama bin Laden had deliberately wanted to get out to the world in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. I mean, you couldn't have asked for a more prepackaged, prepositioned tape. This is not that type of tape.
So it is different. But even in that phone call, these are decisions that news organizations make, not the government. Dr. Rice asked the networks to exercise their discretion. She raised her concerns about what could be on those tapes. But the decision is made by the government.
Q: You don't think they were intimidated at all?
MR. FLEISCHER: I know those people. They're hard to intimidate. But they are reasonable, and they do listen to the government's point of view, and then they make their judgments.
Q: Very quickly, on al Qaeda leadership escaping Afghanistan, is the administration seeking basing rights in Somalia, particularly in the port of Berbera?
MR. FLEISCHER: You would need to talk to DOD about anything operational.
Q: Are they considering any kind of blockade or screening of Somalia?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let me just say broadly on the question you're asking, this remains focused on phase one, and I'm not going to get into anything along the lines of speculating about if other phases may take place.
END 1:20 P.M. EST
George W. Bush, Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/271847