Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
4:21 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. The President, this morning, called United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, to congratulate him on winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The President told the Secretary General "what a magnificent honor" it was for him to have won the 100th Nobel Peace Prize.
In addition to congratulating the Secretary General, the President expressed his determination to carry through with the battle against terrorism. And he told the Secretary General that he thought the United Nations would have an important role to play in the future of Afghanistan.
The President will also, on a separate note, welcome the Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin, to Washington on November 30th.
And, finally, before I take your questions, an announcement just concluded by the Attorney General, he indicated that the federal government has taken action against Aviation screening firm Argenbright, Incorporated, for failure to do background checks on airline screeners. This action taken by the Attorney General underscores the President's determination to make certain that his proposal for aviation security is passed by the Congress.
If you recall, the President has proposed that the federal government will take over responsibility for all background checks for screeners at airports. The action taken today by the Attorney General is a reminder to the Congress the importance of taking action on that legislation so the President can sign it.
Q:I asked this question kind of awkwardly this morning. When did the White House and the President begin considering the idea of having the United Nations get involved in rebuilding a post-Taliban Afghanistan? And when did the President propose it to Kofi Annan, or Kofi Annan to the President?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in a conversation the President had with Kofi Annan yesterday, the President raised the issue of the United Nations' role in the future of Afghanistan.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yesterday. And Kofi Annan said the United Nations was interested in pursuing this subject. During the course of all the conversations in the Security Council meetings, in accordance with the Afghanistan declaratory policy, this has been a topic. And if you remember in the declaratory policy it says that "we do not want to choose who rules Afghanistan, but we will assist those who seek a peaceful economically developing Afghanistan free of terrorism."
Obviously, what the President is saying in his conversations with the Secretary General is the United Nations may be able to help as one of those groups, as the President said, to assist in creating such a peaceful developing Afghanistan, free of terrorism.
Q:But they are getting into any more detail, Ari? You said today, an important role. Is he going beyond that, are they beginning to talk about options?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, they're not. It's way too early. But it's wise to be thinking long-term, to be thinking ahead, about what to do, in context with the President's statement.
Q:Who initiated that call? And I have a follow up.
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know. Very often on these calls, both parties want to talk to each other, and staff sets them up. They both call each other at the same time.
Q:What can you tell us about a plan for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, that the administration is reportedly working on?
MR. FLEISCHER: I know nothing beyond what the President said last night.
Q:Ari, can I go on to nation-building? In the conversation then with the Secretary General yesterday, is that the first time that the President expressed the U.S. would like to see the U.N. have a role, and that the U.S. would take part as well?
MR. FLEISCHER: Is that the first time the President said it to the Secretary General?
Q:Or the first time the President sort of came forward with that.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President came forward with that in the Afghan declaratory policy.
Q:But the Afghan declaratory is more that we're going to assist -- U.S. will assist those who seek for a peaceful, democratic Afghanistan. It doesn't really talk about the U.S. playing a role or a U.N. playing a role.
MR. FLEISCHER: When it says, we will assist, that means the U.S. will play a role to assist.
Q:What about the U.N., it doesn't talk about a U.N. taking over --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's why it's an indication that the first group the President has cited, when he says we will assist those groups, is the U.N.
Q:So thinking about working with the U.N. is something that's been in the works prior to yesterday's call to Kofi Annan? Something that administration officials have been discussing as they've gained this out?
MR. FLEISCHER: I wouldn't be surprised if it's one of the topics that came up at the NSC meetings. That's what the President indicated to me, that it's the type of thing they've talked about in the NSC meetings.
But I think, Kelly, this addresses something you were driving at earlier this morning, involving military in peacekeeping, and playing a role in the future of Afghanistan. What the President could not have made any plainer during the campaign, which he repeats emphatically today, is the purpose of the military is to fight and win wars. The purpose of the military is not, as he said on October 12th, during the course of the campaign, to use troops all around the world to serve as social workers or policemen or, you know, school walking guards. I'm not for that, the President said.
That's the complaint the President had about the use of military in nation-building. Obviously, what's going on in Afghanistan with America's military is just the opposite. The military is being used for the purpose the President has said in the campaign: to fight and win wars.
After the military mission is complete, as the President said last night, then it will be appropriate to work with other nations just as we standardly do when we talk about foreign aid, when we talk about diplomacy, when we talk about things of a nonmilitary nature to help create stability in Afghanistan.
Q:You won't be any role, then, after the military operation is over for U.S. troops with other countries to keep the peace, to make sure that any kind of UN structure is in place? Isn't it possible that U.S. troops would be involved in that way with --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think if you want to ask me what's possible, one, two, three, four, who knows how many years from now, it's an appropriate question at that time. At this time, it's very premature.
What the President has said, again, is that we will assist those who seek a peaceful, economically developing Afghanistan free from terrorism. That's obvious. Of course, we're going to do that.
Q:This is a country that's been at war for years, I mean, more than decades. And you're basically saying that when the U.S. military pulls out, there's going to be no need for any sort of peacekeepers or military presence there, that this sort of government is going to rise up and exist without something there to ensure stability. I mean, are you ruling out that we would play a role in that sense?
MR. FLEISCHER: Campbell, you're asking me to predict the future in one, two, three, four years from now. I think it's a fair question at the appropriate time.
Q:But it may not be that long. We may be talking about six months.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's a good question six months from now. But I think it's important to first let the United States military fight and win this war.
Q:Can I ask something about something that's happening right now? There are a lot of groups and individual warlords staking claim to power in Afghanistan. Does the President consider the Northern Alliance troops who are fighting the Taliban to be allies of the United States in this military operation?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me remind you what this military operation is about. Our country was attacked and the President is going to defend this country. And the best way to defend that country is to take military action, as well as political action and financial action and diplomatic action, against Osama bin Laden, his lieutenants, the al Qaeda organization and the Taliban. That necessarily means the actions that you are seeing in Afghanistan now are underway and will remain underway until the mission is complete.
During the course of that, the United States will work with a number of groups throughout Afghanistan and the region who have an interest in helping to secure an Afghanistan that is free of terrorism.
Q:Is that a yes, that we are working militarily with the Northern Alliance?
MR. FLEISCHER: You're asking me operational details about what we're doing with various groups and I won't do that.
Q:Does the President consider them to be allies in the war on terror in Afghanistan?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has indicated that he will work in a number of ways with different groups that are interested in securing an Afghanistan that is free from terrorism.
Q:One more on this. Does the President believe the Northern Alliance should have a prominent place at the table in the reconstitution of a peaceful government there?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President would like to first see the military fight and win this war, then I'll be happy to consider any of the implications for, as he says in the declaratory policy, how to work with others to get a peaceful Afghanistan.
Q:Ari, last night the President said that he is willing to give second chance or kind of amnesty to the Taliban. What prompted or -- have you got some indications that they are willing to settle the issue or hand over Osama bin Laden to the United States?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's always a sign that if somebody wants to sue for peace by doing everything that the President asks for, that would be a satisfactory result. They have to do everything the President asks for.
Q:Is there any indication that they're willing to do that?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, we have not heard that. The President has not received a positive response to this message.
Q:Isn't there some kind of, Ari, some kind of negotiation when the President last time said we are not going to negotiate at any cost?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President reiterated what he said to the American people in his speech to the Congress about what they would have to do.
Q:Ari, the President said in his news conference last night that al Qaeda is believed to be operating in 68 different countries. You've said that this war is designed to protect the American people from al Qaeda, wherever it may be operating, that the President will, that this administration will root out those terrorists wherever they're operating.
Do the American people deserve to know which of those countries are harboring, playing active host to al Qaeda, and will you ever tell us if not which exact nations are hosting them, how many?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the reason that I've deliberately not answered that question, as you've been asking me to for weeks, is because the President has said that this is phase one of the operation. Phase one begins in Afghanistan with the al Qaeda. The President has put other nations on notice that if they continue to harbor terrorists that they, too, shall meet the same fate as the terrorists.
But phase one is focused on what you have seen before you today, which is Afghanistan. And I'm not going to get ahead of the President and indicate that there may or may not be any actions taken against any other nations.
I appreciate your asking for a list of nations that may or may not be next. I'm not prepared to go down that road.
Q:On airline security, how long is the President willing to wait for the House to bring their bill to the floor before he decides to take executive action and fill in the gaps?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I was just talking to the President about that. He just completed a meeting reviewing a number of domestic issues that are pending in the United States Congress. And the President said that he wants Congress to be able to get this done. He'd like Congress to be able to figure out a way to do it. He does have broad authority, and his goal is exactly as he announced, if you will recall, when he went to Chicago and announced an airline security package that would have safer cockpit doors, providing air marshals. Obviously, some of these things he does have the ability to do on his own.
But his preference is for Congress to be able to figure it out, work together and get it done.
Q:So we know what the red lines are in Congress; how does he help to bridge the difference?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as always, he's going to keep talking to Congress, have the bipartisan meetings. Obviously, there is a dispute between the Senate and the House on this. I think it's fair to say when the President urged the country to go back to normal, Congress itself has gone back to normal, too.
Q:Well, is that the end of bipartisanship?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. It's regular order in Congress, and it's a sign of things are returning to normal. And it will be accompanied by a heavy dose of bipartisanship from the President.
Q:The leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus has been complaining last week that they've been trying for about two weeks to get the President's ear, and his attention to bring forward their -- what they think about this crisis and issue, that bombs and bullets alone will not gain the victory that the United States seeks.
And they've tried in vain to reach the President. Is he ignoring the Congressional Black Caucus? Does he think that -- what views that they might be able to share of diplomacy, that they might be able to advise, is not helpful in this situation?
MR. FLEISCHER: Obviously that's a message the President agrees with. As the President made clear, our actions in Afghanistan involve a heavy element of humanitarian assistance, $320 million, to be specific. We have military planes that are dropping food into Afghanistan to help feed people who are starving. And as I indicated, the President wants to work with the United Nations on a way to create a peaceful Afghanistan. So the President agrees with that message.
Q:The President last night said that he believed that the attacks helped build his case for a missile defense shield. How so, given that a missile defense shield would not have helped prevent what happened on September 11th, nor would it have helped prevent some of the threats that we're now talking about, with bio-terrorism?
MR. FLEISCHER: What the President was referring to was the very sad fact that we have now seen proof positive that there are people, if they can get their hands on a weapon, they will show no hesitation about using it against the United States of America and its cities. And it's only a matter of time, given technology, until some of these nations or some of these rogue groups try to acquire nuclear weapons that they may be able to deliver to the United States. And that's why the President believes that from this we have learned the motives of those who would do harm to the United States, making it even more important that the United States be able to protect itself from accidental missile launch or a deliberate one if it ever got to that point.
Q:But we don't have any indication at this point that any of those groups or states possess nuclear technology now.
MR. FLEISCHER: I hardly think that's a good reason for the United States to do nothing. That's why the President has proposed what he's proposed.
Q:Last night, the President when he asked himself the question about why do they hate us -- basically, that question. He said he was amazed that they didn't understand the goodness of Americans and so on. We can do more, he said. What's more?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, part of it is the humanitarian effort in Afghanistan. Part of it is also through the actions of the Agency for International Development, the Voice of America, reaching out to different nations around the world, particularly in Afghanistan, to the people of Afghanistan, so they hear the facts, the truth. Many of these people live in -- in Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban regime does not provide information to its people; it's totally Taliban controlled, they don't hear another side of the news. So Voice of America's ability to present fair and factual information -- all of that is part of what the President is referring to.
Q:A number of news organizations have done some very in-depth reporting on why they hate us -- if you want to use that phrase. And it's not just they don't understand our goodness. I mean, you hear a lot of policy issues -- troops in Saudi Arabia, our Israeli policy, Iraqi women and children -- you know, you hear those things over and over again. The President in his response to his question did not mention any of the policy things that some Muslims have problems with. Is there any reexamination of our policy going on right now?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the policies of the government remain the same and it's important to communicate those policies to people around the world.
Q:If I could go back briefly to this question of the U.N. and so forth. Confine this question to a narrow time period, not six months or a year out. The President said last night that the lesson from the previous engagement in the Afghan area was we should not simply leave after a military objective has been achieved.
Clearly, your concern is that once the Taliban collapses, there's a power vacuum, and you don't want a free-for-all to go into that. Can you tell us, has there been any planning underway for a temporary administration of Afghanistan that may well precede getting in the United Nations protectorate or anything else like that, something you might have to do over the very short-term?
MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing that I'm immediately aware of, David. But I know that there are many smart people who work on future contingencies. So I wouldn't be surprised if somebody may be doing some thinking about that topic. But there's nothing that I can report to you today.
Q:The events of today have brought bio-terrorism back to the fore as a concern. Yet, the United States, for anthrax vaccine, is depending on a company called BioPort in Michigan, which has numerous problems, which I won't go into. For smallpox, we're depending on a Danish company, I believe.
Is there going to be any move by the government to harness the U.S.' pharmaceutical industry, which is the best in the world, to help tackle the issues of supplying vaccines or ramping up production or doing anything? Because at the moment, it doesn't seem like much is coming off the production lines.
MR. FLEISCHER: Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, has said that the United States, and he has given the specific numbers about the amount of medication we have, the anti-bodies for anthrax, for example, to combat other types of illnesses. I think he's indicated that he has the resources, the ability to go beyond that, and acquire more, if necessary. But that's a question really HHS is handling.
Q:Back on post-war Afghanistan for a moment. Without trying to predict the future, can you share with us the current thinking of the U.S. policymakers on questions like, for example, the one Campbell was pursuing earlier? Will there be a need for a follow on force, under whose auspices would it be done, would the United States be willing to -- simply the current thinking of U.S. policymakers on --
MR. FLEISCHER: Ken, it really is too early. The military action in Afghanistan has been underway for five days. And as the President indicated last night, it could go on for a length that is uncertain and unclear right now. So I appreciate an attempt to look ahead into a crystal ball, but I'm not able to do that right now.
Q:I'm not asking you to look into a crystal ball, I'm asking you to share with us whatever the current thinking is of U.S. policymakers on this question?
MR. FLEISCHER: You're asking David Sanger's question in a different way, and my answer is the same as it was to Mr. Sanger.
Q:How does the March of Dimes program work, Ari? The monies collected here are turned over to the Red Cross, and you send it to NGOs, or how does it work?
MR. FLEISCHER: The checks will arrive at the White House. And the checks will be turned over to the Red Cross. The Red Cross will be responsible for the administration of the program, for public reporting on the program, for the audits of the program. The Red Cross has a long and good history of dealing with the receipt of financial donations, to provide for charities around the world. And so this is a very helpful program, in the view of the Red Cross. And they'll be able to provide you updates, as well as how much has come in.
Q:Ari, could you tell us a little bit about that, where the idea originated, to the Red Cross --
MR. FLEISCHER: Wait a minute, I did promise Kelly after Ken.
Q:Let me just ask you, Ari. The President talked today about the latest incident of anthrax in New York, and he said that the federal government working closely with local agencies to respond quickly, he said, our nation is still in danger. Was he referring to the alert from yesterday, or was he referring to a concern about more and more incidents of anthrax?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President was addressing his broad concern about given the fact that our country was attacked on September 11th, that we need to remain on alert. The President was reiterating the same message he was saying there.
Q:Can I just follow that? One other concern is he said the federal government is doing everything it possibly can. But we're certainly hearing that federal resources are certainly starting to feel a little strapped, trying to follow up leads connected to September -- is there any sense that federal --
MR. FLEISCHER: I have not heard either the director of the FBI or the Secretary of Health and Human Services indicate that.
Q:What about a concern about -- the President tried to address this -- about people just getting scared? Calling their doctor for antibiotics; every package that comes in, calling their local law enforcement authorities -- what to do about that?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is why the President has done everything he can to be forthright with the American people. And that's why when the President heard this morning about the case at NBC News, the White House asked officials to make sure they shared information with the public. And that's why you saw Secretary Thompson, Attorney General Ashcroft give all information to the public today to address it directly.
I think this is a time where the American people say to the government: tell us the facts, we want to know what is going on. And the American people will, in their own way figure out how to move forward and deal with this and, given the history of our country, they're going to figure it out and move forward well.
And I think people are also becoming sensitized to the fact that there are going to be false alarms out there. There are going to be instances such as what took place at the State Department with the talcum powdery substance, which for moments in this room, of course, prompted many questions to me about what could be going on. We're going to answer those questions.
But I think the American people want a government that remains vigilant; but they want to live their lives. They don't want terrorism to win, they don't want to alter what they do. But they do want to be vigilant, they want to be alert and they're entitled to the facts.
Q:Can you please tell us how this idea originated? Did the Red Cross come to the White House and say, this is a good idea? Did somebody here in the White House think that the President wanted to reach out?
MR. FLEISCHER: The idea came up in the speech-making process for the address to the Congress, where the President has heard the message of a lot of the American people, what can we do. And so the President -- actually, it was the President's idea about helping the children of Afghanistan. I think that's something that he and Mrs. Bush had talked about. And then I don't know which particular aide in the White House thought about or came up with the idea of the Red Cross. But that's the genesis of it.
Q:You mentioned the State Department. Has there been anything like that, with a package or anything sent here, anybody -- any suspicious incidents or anybody testing -- being tested, or anything like that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I've not been told about any incidents involving any mail here that raised those questions.
Q:Has the President received an anthrax vaccine?
MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, on any type of question involving how or if the President is taking any steps to protect himself, from a security point of view, obviously if I were to answer questions like that, I could be indicating what he has or has not been protected from, which is information somebody else might want to get. So matters dealing with the security of the President are things I'm not going to answer.
Q:Fair enough. Just a follow-up on a different topic. He was very spirited today in his remarks. He was also very emotional, as he has been in recent days. Have you noticed any greater degree of emotionalism? Is he wearing his heart on his sleeve in these days at all?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you know, I only go back two and a half, three years with him -- Governor Bush and now President Bush, two years. And I can tell you from my time with him, I've always known him to be compassionate. He is a person who cares deeply, and it shows visibly every now and then. That's the man that I see.
Q:Ari, has there been any change in the level of threat that the government is assessing? It's been more than 24 hours now since that threat was issued. Has that changed at all? Has it gone up? Has anything changed?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the current notice that went out yesterday remains in place.
Q:Have any specifics changed in that, though? Have you received any more information that would suggest anything over the weekend?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. Nothing that's been brought to my attention, and nothing that I'm aware of. So, no.
Q:I'd like to go back to the President's statement last night that the United States has to do a better job of making the case that this isn't a war against Islam. Is that an acknowledgement that that issue is straining the coalition?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. I think, actually, when it comes to the coalition, not at all. As the President indicated, the 56 nations that make up the organization of Islamic Conferences, the OIC, came out with a statement that condemned the terrorist attack on the United States and expressed to some degree a level of support for the United States.
I think it's a reflection of the fact that no nation around the world is loved by 100 percent of the people around the world. The United States, though, if you take a look at how many people want to come to our country for a better way of life is probably loved more than most. And that's a very good thing. That's one of the strengths of our country.
Look at how many Arab Americans have come to this country because they enjoy the freedoms and the liberties that this country provides. So that's a reflection of the rich melting pot that we are. We all come from somewhere else, so many of the people here who are the immigrants, and I think that's what the President's reflecting on.
Q:Well, then, flip it around. If it's not hurting the coalition to be callus about it, why should we care? Why do we need to make a better case, if the case we made has convinced our allies to stick with us?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because it's always important for sovereign nations to continue to know that their nations support the activities of the United States. And as I've indicated many times from here, different nations are going to do different things for different reasons, and to the degree that their country supports the United States' efforts, it will give those nations more flexibility and ability to work with us.
Q:Since September the 11th, has there been a single agency or individual that reports to the President in which, or in whose performance he has been less than satisfied? And is there anything he, himself, would have done differently if he had the events since September 11th to do over again? (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: Gordon, Sean, Claire, Scott, Ari. (Laughter.) The President has not expressed any thought like that to me. And I think the President is focused on the mission ahead of him and I have just not heard any thoughts like that from the President.
Paula and then John. Well, this is my attempt to get everybody at least one new question in before we go to the repeaters.
Q:Ari, on an ordinary day, the fact that the House Ways and Means Committees put together a $100 billion stimulus package would draw a response from the White House. And I just wonder if you have a response today?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. The President is pleased that action is beginning in the House on a stimulus package. The measure before the Ways and Means Committee includes many of the items that the President has proposed. And the President is very pleased by that.
The President urges the House to take action, and he hopes that the end product will be a very bipartisan product. He wants to work closely with the Democrats on this. The House includes some items that the President did not ask for. It was a little broader in the Ways and Means Committee than that which the President asked. But the President understands this is the beginning of the process, and he's pleased that the House is beginning to take action, and that it includes a package to help the country get the economy going again.
Q:At the risk of engaging in some unfortunate alliteration, has there been any thought given to the idea of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan after this is all over?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, this is Mr. Sanger's question, Mr. Fireman's question, now the Roberts version thereof.
Q:No, no, no. They were talking about government; I'm not talking about rebuilding the government, I'm talking about rebuilding the infrastructure.
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the military effort is five days old, and I think this is premature.
Q:-- done a lot of damage in five days. There's a lot to rebuild.
MR. FLEISCHER: There's a little more work to do.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
Q:Week ahead? Week ahead?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is going to China next week.
END 4:45 P.M. EDT
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/271729