For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
October 25, 2001
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
Listen to the Briefing
12:45 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I'd like to give you an update on the
President's day, make a couple of announcements, and then I'll introduce
The President this morning spoke with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The President called the Crown Prince to thank the Kingdom for its support in the international war against terrorism. The President noted that he is very pleased with the Kingdom's contributions to the efforts, and he said that press articles citing differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia are simply incorrect.
The President also reaffirmed his view that Islam is a religion of tolerance, and that the struggle against terror is not a struggle with Islam. The two leaders also reviewed the situation in Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli situation.
Following the phone call, the President had a briefing with the CIA; he had a briefing with the Attorney General and the Director of the FBI, as he does each morning. The President, at 9:30 a.m., convened a meeting of the National Security Council to review the latest events in the war.
And then, as you know, he went to the Marshall Extended Elementary School in Washington to talk about a new program that he announced of sharing information between children in America and children in the Muslim world, exchange programs, exchanges of information, email programs, to have a better understanding between American children and Muslim children about the lives children live in both nations -- in both regions.
The President, at 3:40 p.m. this afternoon, will meet with the Crown Prince of Bahrain to talk about the important bilateral relations between the United States and Bahrain, as well as cooperation in the war against terrorism. And even prior to that, I should have mentioned, the President will meet with members of Congress, along with Governor Ridge, to discuss homeland security.
The President will, also this afternoon, meet with Republican members of the Governors Association who are in town.
Two other announcements. The President will welcome Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Asnar for a working visit on November 28th. And the President will also welcome to Washington Nigerian President Obasanjo for a meeting on November 2nd.
One final update I want to give you concerning the trace of anthrax that was found at the remote mail facility for the White House. As of this morning, 294 individuals have been tested at the remote facility, as well as in the mail room here at the White House. And there have been no positive anthrax cultures found as a result of these 294 tests. Some of them remain preliminary, and so we will keep you informed as the tests develop.
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1:15 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Let's keep this to a briefer length today. I'd be happy to answer
questions. Obviously, I'm not going to be able to go beyond what you've just
heard from the various experts involved, but I'd be happy to try to help.
Q Two questions. One, what can you tell us about reports that there is a female reporter who is under treatment for potential anthrax? And kind of off the beaten path, are you still asking American children to send a dollar to the Afghanistan program? And where does the money go, and is that mail being washed, as well?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm aware of the reports about a reporter. I have made one phone call to try to investigate that, and I am not able to confirm that. But I am going to admit there are additional inquiries that are outstanding by other people in the government beyond myself, so I'm aware of the reports and I have to leave it at that.
The mail for the Afghan children, the program, the mail for that program is received at the same facility, the remote facility. And I have no reason to think that any mail, just like mail that comes to the White House, people are sending mail, mail will arrive. It is being held at that facility, and it is not being disseminated beyond that.
Prior to this, the mail that was sent there went through the same security precautions at the White House mail, and then it was sent to a vendor hired by the Red Cross. And that vendor also had some precautions put into place. And then it was provided after that point to the Red Cross, only after that point.
The vendor, as a result of being -- having mail received as a result of coming through the remote facility, was environmentally tested; all the environmental tests came up negative.
Q So right now, anything that's coming in now and anything that's come in since this incident, is piling up at the remote facility?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. And to be precise, whether it's physically inside that remote facility, or if it's moved to another remote facility, I don't have that literal bit of information. But there is no reason to think that people have stopped sending letters.
Q Do you know how much money has been raised by that project, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, we did not get a dollar amount. The last count I had is the figure that the President announced when he visited the Red Cross, which I recall was something like 160,000 or 180,000 pieces of correspondence.
Q And on another subject, what's the President's response to Israel's partial pull-out of Palestinian territory?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that Israel's partial pull-out is a positive step. The President continues to urge Israel to lower tensions, withdraw its forces from all Palestinian-controlled areas, and to exercise restraint.
Also, the President continues to call on Chairman Arafat to make a 100 percent effort to reduce the violence in the Middle East and to bring to justice those responsible for the assassination of Minister Zeevi.
Q Would the administration support a Security Council move to make a statement on the situation in the Middle East, calling on Israel to pull out, and also calling on Arafat to arrest the terrorists?
MR. FLEISCHER: I've heard no discussion on that point, so I'm not able to address that.
Q Ari, in terms of the President's conversation this morning with Crown Prince Abdullah, what was it about the articles that the President said were inaccurate?
MR. FLEISCHER: There's been a suggestion that Saudi Arabia is not acting as a good partner with the United States; and the President could not more strongly disagree. The President is pleased with the cooperation that he is getting from Saudi officials, and that's why I conveyed what I conveyed on behalf of the President.
Q But isn't it true that they haven't fully stepped up to the plate, and that's causing some frustration among the people who are trying to carry out this operation? It's not offering the United States all of the options it would have liked to have had?
MR. FLEISCHER: When you say "fully stepped up to the plate," I'm not sure how to interpret that. As has been said repeatedly by the President, different nations are going to cooperate in different ways. Some nations are going to cooperate militarily, other nations are going to cooperate diplomatically.
The President is pleased that everything that has been requested of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia has worked with us productively on.
Q I just have one other question on that front. Was the subject of Bin Talal's $10 million brought up at all?
MR. FLEISCHER: I can only share with you the information I have. That was my readout from the National Security Council on the meeting.
Q And if I could just follow that, I'm sorry -- what was the President's response to Bin Talal's statements after giving the $10 million to Mayor Giuliani?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's not a topic that I brought up with the President, so I couldn't --
Q You don't know if he thought Bin Talal was out of line or --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think that was a matter between him and Mayor Giuliani, and I have not heard the President comment on it.
Q Ari, does the President believe that Saudi Arabia is doing everything it can in Saudi Arabia to find members of the al Qaeda cells or any other terrorists -- not just what they're doing to help with the --
MR. FLEISCHER: I would just repeat to you what I've said at the top of the briefing, that the President is satisfied with the actions Saudi Arabia is taking on all things we've asked.
Q Ari, Governor Ridge said that information was shared with the Hill and with others about the potential lethality of the Daschle anthrax. Yet, very different steps were taken. Those on the Hill, swabbed and given Cipro very quickly. Postal workers were not.
In reviewing this, is the President in any way displeased with either the sharing of information or the actions taken in these two episodes? And last night, was there a discussion about improving both the flow of information and speed of actions to protect people who might be threatened?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is satisfied with the cooperation, with the actions taken, with the collegial way the agencies are working together to fight this war, both on the international front and here at home.
The President always knows there is room for improvement, and that's one of the reasons he's brought Governor Ridge aboard, is to work with all the various agencies, to make sure they're coordinated, to make sure that they're doing everything they can.
Imagine, if you will, how many agencies are involved. There is a real need to have somebody to work closely with each of the agencies to make every effort to make sure that all information is shared.
It was a topic discussed last night. People did talk about information-sharing, and I think you will see the government continue to make every effort possible to share information among agencies and continue the cooperation.
Q Did the lack of sharing lead to the death of two people?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm going to keep moving. Mimi.
Q Given that, if all the agencies are sharing information with Governor Ridge and he is the one voice now, when he says he doesn't know what countries are capable of doing what with respect to this anthrax, are we to take that he doesn't know, or that the administration is saying no one in our government knows the answer --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think he made it very plain that that's information that everybody would like to know -- depends on subsequent tests, subsequent investigations. He's not saying he doesn't know and he's not going to tell anybody. He made it very plain that the ability to determine that information is --
Q I just didn't know whether he was speaking for himself or for our government.
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, he's speaking for everybody involved. He gets his information based on the scientists who review the tests, who review the analysis. The meeting last night, the purpose of it was to review the various analyses and tests that have been done to bring the scientists and the federal officials together at the same table so everybody can contribute their knowledge to what the tests show, what the analysis shows. And, therefore, Governor Ridge could then come out this morning and inform the American people.
Q I wonder if you could clarify something from the earlier part of the briefing. Is it true, in fact, that there was a difference in the electrostatic charge between the two samples of anthrax -- the Daschle sample and the earlier samples? And, if so, does that partially account for the fact that the Daschle sample is more easily airborne and --
MR. FLEISCHER: As you heard him say, that there was not sufficient material left behind at NBC or at Boca Raton to conduct a test of that nature.
Q The Daschle sample, was there a difference in the electrostatic charge?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'd have to ask some of the scientists that and try to get back to you on that.
Q Can you take that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I'd be happy to.
Q Anthrax was discovered in post offices prior to the Brentwood postal workers getting sick. Someone had become -- at least one person had become sick with the skin form of anthrax before the Brentwood incident. Why, then, is the President satisfied with how that was handled, with regard to that facility?
MR. FLEISCHER: Keith, for the same reasons I've been saying for the last three days, since everybody has been asking that question -- and as Governor Ridge just indicated -- the decisions that were made were based on all the case science that were known up to this point.
Q But I'm giving you the science.
MR. FLEISCHER: With each new case of case science, the government and everybody in our country will continue to learn more and react accordingly. That's why.
Q But people were infected. People were actually infected at other post offices before. So why weren't precautionary steps taken at a post office which is known to handle mail that goes to the Capitol?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because they moved backward down the stream as quickly as they could, developing where it came from. And as Secretary Thompson has said, if this were to happen again, they're going to move quicker to the post offices. Let's hope it never does happen again.
But the reason was is because that was the protocol, as established by the previous cases of anthrax.
Q They didn't know right away, then, after the letter was received in Daschle's office? What you're saying is that people didn't know right away that that mail had come from Brentwood. Is that what you're saying?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, obviously, what happened at Brentwood was not repeated at post offices across the country in the previous cases with Boca Raton and NBC.
Q Two on Afghanistan. Does the White House agree with Secretary Rumsfeld's assessment that bin Laden might not be caught? And, also, do you have any update on the stories that the Taliban might have been poisoning the food that was dropped from the United States?
MR. FLEISCHER: The Defense Department has information that would lead them to that judgment, that it is possible that -- the United States, I'm sorry -- I thought you said the Taliban for the food for the Afghan people. That's a separate issue. The Defense Department has addressed that issue, suggesting it is possible that the Afghani people will be poisoned as a result of the Taliban's seizure of food that's going to Afghanistan. I'm not aware of any information about that in the United States -- it's a different topic.
Q It's not the food that was dropped, it's the food that's coming from the trucks, you're saying?
MR. FLEISCHER: It can be both. Any food that is American food that is sent to the people of Afghanistan -- if it goes through the Taliban on its way to the people of Afghanistan, the Defense Department has indicated there may be a risk to the people of Afghanistan.
Q What do you advise the people to do?
Q What about bin Laden?
MR. FLEISCHER: And on the question there, how did you phrase it, how did you attribute what Secretary Rumsfeld said?
Q Only by the interview, that he said it might be impossible to capture bin Laden.
MR. FLEISCHER: Because there was a front page news story today that had a headline that was totally unreflective of what the Secretary said. The headline claimed the Secretary said something that the Secretary did not say.
What the Secretary said -- and let me read you his words -- in an interview yesterday with USA Today. "Question: The President said that one of his goals was to get bin Laden, dead or alive. Are you confident that you will achieve that goal?" That was the question to Secretary Rumsfeld.
Here is his answer. The Secretary said, "Well, it is a very difficult thing to do. It's a big world. There are a lots of countries. He's got a lot of money. He's got a lot of people who support him. And I just don't know whether we'll be successful. Clearly, it would be highly desirable to find him and stop him and his key people, and there are a lot of them. We're not looking for one person; we're looking for a whole crowd, and that's our intent and our intention. How can anyone know what the outcome is going to be, until you get there?"
So I think the Secretary is stating something that's fairly obvious, you don't know what the outcome is until you get there. And he's also stating the desire, the intention of the government. And, clearly, if you look at the actions the Department of Defense is taking, it is the desire of the government to do just what the President said, as executed by the Department of Defense. So I don't see any difference.
I'm going to come back to the front, but I've promised people who have been telling me that not enough questions go to the back. I'll start asking the back.
Q Can you describe a little bit more about the meeting last night? And you said that it was brought up, that there was a lack of communication or a lack of information flow. What are you guys going to do differently? How is the CDC going to get information from the FBI? What's going on in terms of what changes would be made?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't believe I said that there was a lack of. I think what I said, it was discussed how to continue to share information, and that's an ongoing --
Q What's the new protocol?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's an ongoing process for all the government. But as I indicated, there is satisfaction at the highest levels about the manner in which it's being done. But there is always going to be room for agencies to continue to talk to each other. There are numerous conference calls or meetings like last night.
One of the reasons the Governor called the meeting is as he's on various calls, as he receives his information from individuals, it's a very productive thing to bring all these people together at one table. I wouldn't be surprised if the Governor does that again. So there are a series of actions, conference calls that are inter-agency, where people get information and share information, and that will continue to take place.
Q One of the reasons that the President and Governor Ridge had to have the meeting with lawmakers yesterday -- and I assume that you're having a meeting today -- is because there is concern that this office is not coordinating things, or is not able to coordinate things as well as it should. So are you concerned about that, that you --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, actually the concerns of the lawmakers were much more on paper concerns. They were concerned about -- and they all have various proposals that they offered in legislation about creating a Cabinet level Office of Homeland Security, for example; ideas that they've had even before the President announced Governor Ridge as the Homeland Director.
I would simply refer you to the people who came for the meeting yesterday. And I think they'll be able to best address whether they still have those same concerns they had prior to the naming of Governor Ridge now that they've heard the President speak directly about how the office is operating, how much authority Governor Ridge has.
Also, the members expressed this clearly in the meeting yesterday, how much confidence they have, regardless of party, in Tom Ridge.
Q Then that is, in fact, the purpose of today's meeting as well, right?
MR. FLEISCHER: Same purpose today, because this meeting this afternoon was supposed to take place yesterday, but it was canceled because of votes.
Q And are you confident now that you will not have to worry about somebody on the Hill trying to push through a bill over, say, the next couple of weeks?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know that I would say we're confident. The President will keep his eye on developments on the Hill. He's going to continue to talk to members. Members have various ideas, it's important to listen to the members. And I think we will have to watch how it plays out. But I think you might want to -- we put out the list yesterday, the people who spoke with the President, who met with him. We'll do it again today. You might want to follow up with the people who came here. They're the best judges of whether or not they're going to seek to push any legislation. The President has clearly stated that he does not think it's necessary.
Q I wonder if you could tell us if the President is at all frustrated that this investigation isn't moving more quickly -- the domestic investigation -- and if there's any concern in the White House that if it drags on, that people's concerns may outweigh their support for this whole operation?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me tell you exactly what the President thinks. The President places the blame, full square, on the terrorists who are sending anthrax to American citizens. Whoever is behind this, the President knows, are the people who are to blame. And the President is satisfied that the United States government is dedicating every resource it has to finding these people, to bringing these murderers to justice, and to stopping this from happening. And the President is satisfied with the actions the government is taking. He will always continue to push the government to do more, to be vigilant, and to remind the American people to be on alert. But the President places the blame full square on the terrorists responsible.
And the President has also said that he believes the actions taken by the federal government have saved lives. If you look at how quickly the federal government has moved in the cases of where the anthrax has been received, to immediately get help to the people affected, whether it was at NBC, whether it was on the Hill, whether at the other entities up in New York.
The President regrets very much that anybody has lost a life, whether it was Mr. Stevens, who was the first person whose life was lost in Florida, or whether it was the postal workers at Brentwood. He's very concerned, and shares the grief of the families. But the President has full faith and confidence that the government is doing everything it can. And he holds only one group to blame.
Q Has the President been given any kind of a time line about these additional tests, that is, that we'll know maybe in a week or 10 days where this came from?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President has not said anything about that. The President understands that this needs to be done well and done right. And that's why you heard Governor Ridge say, tests will be done. And that's also the protocol you will see from the government. As we have information to share, it will be shared. As things are inconclusive, we will tell you it's inconclusive, and there's nothing to base anything on, other than hypotheticals.
Q Can you tell us more about these tests at the mail facility, the mail splitter, the additional tests? How many of them came up negative, how many there were -- kind of broaden what you said this morning?
MR. FLEISCHER: What happens typically on these type of tests is there's something called a fast ticket, which is a very fast way to measure for the presence of anthrax, and it very often leads to false reports, either false positives or false negatives.
The most reliable tests are culture tests. And culture tests take time. That's where they place the sample in what I believe is a petri dish, or put it under a microscope, and then they analyze it to see what grows. That's a period of time to determine whether it grows. That is the most reliable test. That test was taken by the Secret Service. That test came back conclusively positive -- that test came back conclusively positive showing trace amounts of anthrax on the slitter. I've said that repeatedly. There's no change in that, it's trace amounts.
Q Ari, there have been any number of reports today quoting administration officials as saying, we haven't handled this right --
MR. FLEISCHER: That we have what right? I can't hear you.
Q That we haven't handled this right, the domestic problems, the anthrax problems. Granted that the President is satisfied with what public health people are doing, does the White House feel it has handled this situation properly?
MR. FLEISCHER: Deb, I really have nothing to say to people who don't use names. There are unnamed people who are saying things. Obviously, if they thought they were right, they'd put their name to it. The President has put his name to it. He is satisfied that the government is taking all actions.
END 1:32 P.M. EDT