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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 10, 2001
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
Listen to the Briefing
1:45 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Before I take your questions, I want to discuss two items on the President's domestic agenda that relate to his travel tomorrow. Tomorrow, the President will travel to North Carolina where he will talk about education, a visit to the Concord Middle School in Charlotte, a reminder that education remains the President's top priority in terms of the domestic agenda.
Later on tomorrow afternoon, at East Carolina University in Greenville, the President will give remarks focused on budget and taxes, and he'll talk about some things he is focused on in terms of controlling the rate of growth in federal spending, and providing meaningful tax relief for the American people.
Both those events will be in North Carolina tomorrow.
Q What time does he take off?
MR. FLEISCHER: Do we have the time of takeoff?
MS. BUCHAN: It's 7:50 a.m., I think --
MR. FLEISCHER: We'll get you the time of the press charter takeoff that's different from his, of course, and those notifications, if they're not out already, will be coming out this afternoon.
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has expressed his thoughts before about the fact that diplomacy takes time. And the more time this takes, the more damage it can do to U.S.-Sino relations.
He is concerned about the fact that our servicemen and women remain in China and have not been brought home. The diplomatic exchanges continue, and that's what the President is referring to.
Q That's the first time he's used that word. Is there any -- anything that can be read into that?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think the talks are continuing at a variety of levels, and that's what the President is referring to.
Q In the President's formulation in the Oval Office today, he seemed to suggest that it was up to the Chinese to settle this.
MR. FLEISCHER: Clearly, given the fact that it is the Chinese government that has our men and women on their land means that it is in their power to release them. The United States cannot bring them home; they must be released. And so it is in the hands of the Chinese to resolve this matter in accordance with the diplomatic procedures we have put in place.
Q Does that imply that the United States is not willing to negotiate in any sense here?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, of course the negotiations have been going on since the incident began. And they continue, as I mentioned earlier. But it's a statement of the obvious, frankly, to say that the United States does not have the power unilaterally to just bring them home; they have to be released. The Chinese are the ones who can do that.
Q Ari, at the end of last week, we were told that there was progress, we were told that the text of a letter had been agreed on at the foreign ministry level, and then things stopped. Has there been any movement, real movement since then, and how would you describe it?
MR. FLEISCHER: There has been movement since then, Terry. And if you recall on that same day that I talked about progress and others in the administration discussed progress, I also said that it is the nature of these types of accidents where, unfortunately, diplomacy moves forward, not forward; it starts, it pauses, if I recall -- I think that's the exact phrase I used to describe what is a delicate diplomatic moment. And that moment has continued.
It remains just as sensitive, just as delicate as it did then, but indeed, progress has been made. As you get to the end of these issues, there always remain the most difficult issues to resolve, and the President and his negotiators are continuing to work to resolve those.
Q Why can't we know more about what the hangup is? I mean, why can't the American people be more apprised of what's going on?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Helen, I think that this is a classic issue that democracies face, frankly. The President would like to be able to discuss everything in full length with the American people. But the sensitivities, the necessities of diplomacy sometimes mean that to be the most productive, the less has to be said. And I think most people understand that, and that is the situation we find ourselves in.
Q Ari, the State Department is saying that there have been no diplomatic meetings today in Beijing between U.S. and Chinese officials, as well as here in Washington. What should we read into that? A, is there a concern that for the first time in a number of days, there have been no direct meetings, and, two, are the Chinese -- is the U.S. waiting for the Chinese to sort of take the Americans' final or best offer that --
MR. FLEISCHER: Kelly, I believe what the State Department says is that there were no meetings with Ambassador Prueher last night. The last time the Ambassador met, of course, was yesterday morning. So that's a statement about Ambassador Prueher having direct meetings.
There have been other contacts, other levels of discussion. There have been a whole series of interlocutors involved in the government-to-government contacts, and as you know, also General Sealock met this morning with our 24 servicemen and women.
The President spoke with the General early this morning. The General reported to the President that our servicemen and women are in superb condition. As the General said, he talked about the fact that there were servicemen and women who were receiving their e-mails from their families. They're able to get messages back to their families through General Sealock.
The General also reported some light moments of conversation in which they were talking, for example, about Troy Aikman's retirement, the fact that Michael Jordan might be coming back. That was the subject of the conversation that General Sealock had with the troops that he related to the President in the Oval Office this morning.
Q I just want to follow up, because I believe the senior official was talking to reporters on background, and so indicating, I guess, the fact that there was no meeting between the Ambassador and Chinese officials. But there was a sense from this official that right now, the Americans are waiting for sort of the Chinese to respond to kind of the latest presentation from the administration in terms of resolving this. Is that fair?
MR. FLEISCHER: I thought it was a fair statement.
MR. FLEISCHER: Secretary Powell, as you know, spoke with Reverend Jesse Jackson this morning, who informed the Secretary that he would be available, if so desired, and we have had, frankly, many people in the private sector, many people of sound, good reputation as well.
Jesse Jackson has had a fair share of experience in foreign policy matters. Many people who have had a fair share of experience in foreign policy matters contact the United States government to offer their services. And our response to all of them has been the same, that this administration is very appreciative of their offers, and we are going to continue to handle this matter through diplomatic communications.
Q Yes, but Jesse has a record of bringing a lot of hostages back in previous years, we have had -- a lot of people have -- experience in foreign matters, but not too many people --
MR. FLEISCHER: Is there a question here?
Q Yes. Not to many people -- I'm saying he's a little different than your normal person with expertise in foreign affairs.
MR. FLEISCHER: Right. Well, again, I related to you the conversation he had, and that is the position of the United States.
Q Ari, has this begun to affect the President's schedule? How much of his time each day is he devoting to it, and has he considered, for example, not going to the ranch this weekend in order to stick with this issue?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's affected his schedule to the degree that, of course, the intelligence briefings, the national security briefings in the morning, of course, talk about this matter in an effort to make sure that it can be resolved.
In terms of the President's travel schedule, the President has made it clear from the beginning that the government has other serious business, and the business of the government, the business of the President will go on. He has made that clear from the beginning. That's part of keeping this incident at a level where it does not evolve into a crisis. And I think, frankly, that's helpful to the American people and to the families of those involved.
Q Ari, a week ago you said, and others in the administration said, there will be continued intelligence flights along the Chinese coast. The Pentagon reports to us that, in fact, there haven't been any of these EP-3 flights since this incident occurred. How are we supposed to read that? Are you suspending the flights right now to allow your diplomacy to go on? Do you intend to start these up again?
MR. FLEISCHER: What I indicated was this flight took place in international airspace, and other flights, of course, take place in international airspace. The United States will always reserve the right to fly in international airspace as we decide to do. And that was my answer then; that's the answer now.
Q Ari, I'm not sure that's entirely responsive because, obviously, you said these are routine flights at the time that this occurred. And the routine seems to have been broken since this event, by the government's own description. So can you tell us, are you planning to return to the routine?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, these flights are routine, and part of the routine of these flights, of course, is that we do not discuss the operational details of our flights to confirm them or to deny them.
Q But the Pentagon has already confirmed that these have not taken place since this incident.
MS. COUNTRYMAN: Can I help?
MR. FLEISCHER: Go ahead, Mary Ellen.
MS. COUNTRYMAN: I believe the Pentagon spokesman's office also said that there were not any EP-3 surveillance flights scheduled during the last week and a half. That's why there haven't been any.
MR. FLEISCHER: The answer to that question was, the Pentagon also indicated that there were no EP-3 flights scheduled during the last week and a half, and that may explain the answer you've gotten.
Q Do you plan to resume as soon as the schedule calls for it?
MR. FLEISCHER: David, as I indicated, we always reserve the right to fly in international airspace.
Q Ari, since President Bush is thankful and appreciative for the support from private sector persons, why did it take so long for the White House -- White House officials to get back, or someone in the Cabinet to get back to Reverend Jackson, after he made that Friday call? And today is Tuesday. Why did it take so long, and is there concern that if Reverend Jesse Jackson gets involved with this, the diplomacy that the White House is working on could be affected in a negative light?
MR. FLEISCHER: April, as far as the timeline, I spoke to Secretary Powell this morning, and I don't think that Jesse Jackson had any problems with the timeline of getting a return phone call.
Q Wait a minute, you didn't answer the other question.
MR. FLEISCHER: Go ahead. What is the other?
Q The other question was, do you think that Reverend Jackson, going to China, if he does, could that affect the diplomacy that you're working on in a negative way? And also, did President Bush has to talk with Colin Powell before he talked with Jesse Jackson?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President did not discuss that with Secretary Powell prior to calling Jesse Jackson.
Q Ari, Ari, on that?
MR. FLEISCHER: But let me answer her question. I've made clear what the President's position is on this, vis-a-vis the many private sector Americans who have offered to help. That is the President's position.
Q A follow to David's question, we've reported that the government is actually considering holding off -- continuing to hold off on these flights until this is resolved. Can you address at all -- I realize there haven't been any scheduled in the last week and a half. And secondly, what message does it send, the fact that we're not flying there, but that the Chinese have continued their reconnaissance flights in that area?
MR. FLEISCHER: I would ask you to consider the sensitivity of the very question you raise. You're asking me to announce what our future plans are for military operations, for military flights, and to do so from this podium. And that's something that no spokesman can do.
Q We're asking you if your policy has changed.
MR. FLEISCHER: No.
Q When the President was asked about Jesse Jackson, he said, we are now handling this in an efficient way. Is he suggesting that multiple voices would be an inefficient way?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think what the President is saying in that answer -- and he means that about the whole handling of this matter since it began -- in a way that the President views is efficient, is productive, and is the best way to get our men and women home. That's what the President meant when he said that.
Q Ari -- the suggestion seems to be that it would be inefficient if you had half a dozen different people with half a dozen different positions suggesting to the Chinese that if they hold out, they might be able to somehow curry favor with one group or another.
MR. FLEISCHER: Jim, the President does believe it's important for our diplomatic communications to continue. Those communications are the one voice of this country, and those communications are the way the President believes is the best way to resolve this.
Q I guess you kind of got -- but I mean, you really have not answered the specific question. You say you answered it, but you have not answered the specific question about whether or not -- it's a very simple, direct question -- about whether or not Jesse Jackson should go to China, or not.
MR. FLEISCHER: I've given you the answer that the Secretary gave to the Reverend Jackson, and that expresses the President's views. That's the President's answer.
Q Ari, I heard a network report this morning that I thought was extremely articulate and gracious. It said that you said that Jesse doesn't need to wait by his phone. And I'm wondering, in that connection, if that isn't true. Isn't it true that the President, if he were inclined to ask any member of that family to go to China, it would be Mrs. Jesse Jackson, who has been made to suffer for so long, and who would surely not take with her an entourage of 40, including Louis Farrakhan, like Jesse did? And I have one follow-up. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: I thought you would. I really do want to -- no, I didn't say that. I really do want to -- I want to broaden this, because there is an important issue here, and that is the role of private sector citizens at a delicate moment of diplomacy. And, Keith, this is why I reiterate what I said to you earlier. The President is appreciative of these efforts -- the phone calls that have been coming in to the United States government from a variety of well-meaning, good-intentioned citizens, some of whom have had a fair share of success in foreign policy.
But the point remains the same: That it is the conclusion of the President and his national security advisors, that the best way to bring this to a close with the Chinese officials is for it to be handled through diplomatic channels.
Les has a follow-up.
Q The Washington Post reported that Scott Evertz, quote, said he had a life partner of seven years. Is the President glad that Mr. Evertz is a monogamous, rather than a promiscuous cruiser? And does the President want him to speak out against man-to-man promiscuity that the CDC reported this morning is, by far, the leading cause of HIV, and AIDS in the United States? Does he support his --
MR. FLEISCHER: Les, the President hires people for jobs based on the skills that they bring to the job. And that is the case in this hiring.
Q He's happy he's monogamous, isn't he?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President does not ask people questions about their private lives of that nature. The President hires people because they're well-qualified to do the job, and that's what he's done.
Q He's opposed to promiscuity, isn't he?
MR. FLEISCHER: Campbell?
Q The President was also asked this morning if he had considered contacting the President in terms of indirectly, and he didn't answer the question. Given it's gone on now for more than a week, what does he think he's risking by picking up the phone now and calling him directly?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think as you know well from the conduct of international affairs over the many years, often, the most fruitful negotiations are carried out by the negotiators. And if it becomes necessary at the very end for a phone call to be made, sometimes it is, sometimes it's not necessary; negotiators can carry out the work. Other times phone calls at the top lead to no further action, and a phone call at the top is a phone call that was unproductive. And it's the judgment of the President and his national security team, but the President's judgment is to allow the negotiators to do their work and that's the best way to solve this incident.
Q But if he's already saying now that we're on the verge of damaging relations with China, why not take that step before it gets to that point?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because the President's judgment is the manner in which he is handling this, through diplomatic channels, is the most productive.
Q Ari, has the President directed anyone in the United States government to study the options for using military force in this situation at all?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes this will be, and should be, handled through diplomatic channels.
Q Is anyone studying the use of military force, even on a contingency basis?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know that's a question I'm not going to answer, but the answer to this question that you've asked is, the President believes that the answer to this incident will come through diplomatic channels.
Q Some reports are saying that China is testing the waters and the strength of the United States and of this administration, how long President Bush can go on this, and this is going like 20 years ago, U.S. diplomats in Iran. And also, if you can say, where are our U.S. friends that the United States is giving billions of dollars of aid around the world? Why are they not speaking out on this issue?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in terms of our allies around the world, I would leave it to you to talk to them to get their position on this. I only speak for the government of the United States. And give me your first question again?
Q That China is testing the strength.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think what took place was an accident. And now in the wake of that accident, both nations are involved in a delicate diplomacy, so that our men and women can come home. I think that's what's going on in the ground in China. I think it's a complicated situation on the ground in China. And that's where the matter stands.
Q What do you say, following up on this, to people in the public, in Congress, and some in the military, who say you look weak up here, talking about sensitive moments in diplomacy.
MR. FLEISCHER: Can you give me the name of somebody who has said you only look weak?
Q When China is testing --
MR. FLEISCHER: I just have to dispute the premise of that. The President believes that the course he has outlined is the best and most productive course to bring our men and women home, to do so in a fashion that focuses on diplomacy. Frankly, I think the support the President has received from the American people, from others with whom he has been in touch, has been very solid.
Q So once again there will be no laying out of any consequences for China for continuing this course of conduct, except to say, at some uncertain point, relations might be damaged?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has spoken to that point directly, and said the longer this goes, the more damage will be done. Our focus remains now on getting our men and women home.
Q The President was also asked this, and he didn't directly sort of answer it, which was, how much by you saying that diplomacy takes a little more time than some people would like, the President said that, is it preparing the American people for something that could be drawn out even longer, that may not be resolved in days, it may go into protracted negotiations?
MR. FLEISCHER: Kelly, this could get resolved very quickly. It could get resolved in a matter of time. And when the President says diplomacy takes time, he is giving an accurate reflection about the status of negotiations that are now sensitive and have been sensitive for a period of days. So it's an accurate reflection of what the President has given about the status of events on the ground.
Q Is there concern -- you know the CNN/USA Today Gallup Poll was saying that 55 percent of the American people now think the crewmembers are actually hostages. Is there a concern that the American people are starting to grow more concerned about this?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President thinks the American people have every good reason to be concerned. They should be concerned, and we are a nation that's concerned about this, which is another reason that China needs to help resolve this matter as quickly as possible so the concern doesn't turn itself into permanent damage to the U.S.-China relationship.
MR. FLEISCHER: No. What happens is, the family members send the e-mails to General Sealock's unit, to General Sealock. The General then takes the e-mails with him. They are then distributed to the men and women via the Chinese officials, and then the men and women pass messages back to the families directly through the General.
Q Which are then sent from the military unit?
MR. FLEISCHER: Those are oral messages back to General Sealock, which he then conveys to -- e-mails are on the way --
Q One of the families talked about receiving an e-mail. One of the families talked today about receiving an e-mail. That's why I asked the question.
MR. FLEISCHER: From one of the servicemen and women there?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't have information on that.
Q Or at least in their name.
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't have any information on that.
Q When the Ambassador calls, does he call the President directly? Is Powell on the line? I mean, when you're giving marching orders?
MR. FLEISCHER: When the General calls, Secretary Powell has been on the line. There have been occasions where the Secretary has been in the Oval Office, there have been occasions where it's just the President and the General.
Q I wonder if we can clarify --
MR. FLEISCHER: The National Security Advisor was there for all those calls -- Condoleezza Rice.
Q Just to get this right, do you know whether or not Sealock and his colleagues are orally telling the family what the crew said, or are they typing it out?
MS. COUNTRYMAN: No, they're e-mailing.
Q The diplomats are e-mailing to the families?
MS. COUNTRYMAN: Right.
MR. FLEISCHER: But it's not as if our servicemen and women have computers in their rooms in China that they're able to directly e-mail out. But they are able to read hard copies of the e-mails sent from family members to them. Those are delivered in hand, just the way you or I would receive an e-mail.
Q In the Oval Office, the President said we look forward to getting an agreement one way or the other out of our Congress on a free trade agreement with Jordan. Does that include adding labor and environmental --
MR. FLEISCHER: It indicates that the President wants to work with the Congress, because he does believe it is important for the stability of the Middle East and for our relations with Jordan, that a free trade agreement be agreed to. He's a strong supporter of a free trade agreement with Jordan.
Q So if the Congress went along with that, he would be willing to sign that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there are always limits when a President says one way or another for the President to define what those one ways and anothers are. But he has indicated the importance of getting this done and sending a signal to Congress.
Q So they're just writing out messages, giving them to diplomats, who are then going back and --
MR. FLEISCHER: To General Sealock.
Q Yes, and then going back and sending them by e-mail to the families.
MR. FLEISCHER: You're talking about the messages that are being returned from General Sealock to the families?
MR. FLEISCHER: I didn't hear that spelled out by the General on the phone this morning. So we can get to the exact way that works.
Q But that's the only way it could work, if they don't have computers themselves. They're giving the messages --
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, the servicemen and women are giving the messages orally to the General, in the course of a meeting. I think that's fairly plain to understand how that would work. The General meets with all the servicemen and women. They say, my son has a birthday, we convey birthday greetings, et cetera.
Q So they're not actually handing him notes they've written out that the Chinese have allowed them to write down.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, that's not my understanding.
Q If private citizens' activism here shows national unity in this area, does the President encourage that internationally as well? Does the activism of our allies show international unity? Has he spoken to the leaders of Canada or Britain about this topic? Has there been any conversation about them expressing to China a desire to have our servicemen and women released?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's a course of action that the President may decide to take. And let me try to get you some further information about any potential phone calls.
Q Following April's prior question, you said before that the best way to resolve this is through diplomatic channels. Should we conclude that it follows from that if Reverend Jackson were to go to China on his own and set up his -- some sort of independent channel, that this would be seen as counterproductive?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, I'm not going to deal with hypotheticals. But two, Reverend Jackson did not discuss that possibility with General Powell -- with Secretary Powell. He said he would be available to go. He did not say he was on his way.
Q On television recently, he sounded as though he was floating the idea that he would go on --
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't been watching much TV recently. I did hear what he said to Secretary -- I did hear what Secretary Powell said he said, however.
Q Did Farrakhan say he was going to go, too? Ari, did Farrakhan?
Q Can I finish? Ari, since President Bush supports this private sector support, is the State Department open to Jesse Jackson and anything he needs to get over to China?
MR. FLEISCHER: What I said is, the President is appreciative of the many people in the private sector who have offered their support in a variety of ways. And you're asking the same question over and over again. The answer remains the same.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you everybody.
2:11 P.M. EDT