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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
November 19, 2001

Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer

  1. President's schedule
  2. Iftaar dinner
  3. Natsios briefing on humanitarian aid
  4. Journalists killed in Afghanistan
  5. Future government in Afghanistan/Northern Alliance
  6. Taliban/treatment of women; drugs
  7. President's directive on military trials
  8. Saudi participation in coalition
  9. Saddam Hussein
  10. Osama bin Laden whereabouts/Pakistan
  11. Airport security/when will changes be noticed
  12. Mexico/immigration
  13. Economic stimulus package

1:05 P.M. EST

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me give you a rundown on the President's day. I have no further announcements, so we'll get right to questions.

The President this morning had his usual round of briefings, intelligence briefings, and then convened a meeting of his National Security Council. He, earlier this morning, signed the Secure Transportation of America Act 2001 into law. Shortly, the President will pardon the Thanksgiving turkey. I urge you to pay close attention to his remarks; they are rather humorous.

And then the President will convene a Cabinet meeting later this afternoon, at which U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios will make a presentation about all the humanitarian efforts that have been made to bring relief to the people of Afghanistan. And I believe he will be also going to the stakeout afterwards, so he'll be available to answer questions from you all.

And then this evening, the President will have an Iftaar meal with ambassadors from Muslim countries. This is a traditional breaking of fast meal during the month of Ramadan. And the President will be joined by more than 50 ambassadors, representatives from various Muslim nations around the world.

Q Is he fasting today?

MR. FLEISCHER: President Bush? No, he's not.

Q What's he serving?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's a traditional meal. I know they'll have dates. And the President, in his remarks, is going to talk about the importance of faith, the importance of tradition. He will note how important the month of Ramadan is, and the importance of respect for all.

Q May reporters come to partake?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President's remarks are open at the top.

Q I meant the food.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the reporters will be denied food. Your fast will go a little longer.

Q Did you find out if any women will be there?

Q Will he be saying anything new tonight?

MR. FLEISCHER: His message will be what I just described -- the importance of faith, tradition, respect.

Q Ari, I asked you this at the gaggle this morning. How much is this event, the Natsios briefing, highlighting what the humanitarian efforts, kind of a way for the administration to say, look, even during Ramadan, while the military campaign is ongoing, we're doing everything to help the people of Afghanistan?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that's a very good take, Kelly. I think what you're going to see tonight --

Q Thank you. (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: What you're going to see tonight from the President, he's going to talk on this Thanksgiving week here in America about how, as families gather on Thursday to set tables at home, to serve their families their meals, that here in Washington and around the world, in Afghanistan, the White House is setting a table not only for ourselves, domestically, but for other nations, for the people of Afghanistan, for the starving and the hungry of Afghanistan.

Tomorrow the President will visit a charity here in Washington called SOME -- So Others May Eat -- talking about the importance of setting a table for Americans who are needy to have food, the importance of charitable giving at this time of year. So I think the President is going to tap into that uniquely powerful American tradition of bringing help to those who are suffering, and will do so not only domestically, but internationally. And it does coincide with Ramadan, as well.

Q But not an effort to sort of stem any criticism, even from American Muslims or American Arabs who might be disappointed that the military campaign is continuing during Ramadan?

MR. FLEISCHER: Kelly, I think most American Muslims want to defend this country, too. It's their country, as well. And they're very pleased to see that the President has been resolute in taking action to protect this country.

Q There have been suggestions from some Taliban leaders that they may surrender in exchange for free passage, safe passage of non-Afghan fighters out of the theater of war. Does the administration have a response or a policy on any kind of surrender talks with the Taliban authorities?

MR. FLEISCHER: You can talk to DOD about that.

Q Is Natsios going to have an announcement about new assistance today?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think what he will do is present to the Cabinet and to the President a report summarizing what has been done to date in the delivering of humanitarian aid. As events change on the ground, it's become much easier to get aid into the country, although there are many obstacles that still remain and the situation is still dangerous.

Let me try to give you a summary of some of the things that's happened on the humanitarian food front. The United States has provided more aid than any other country to Afghanistan. This goes back for decades. Since 1979, the United States has provided over $1 billion of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. According to U.N. estimates, there were over 1 million displaced people in Afghanistan prior to September 11th. And the United States and its partners are working around the clock, literally, to move food and release supplies into Afghanistan from surrounding countries, positioning it where it will be needed most as the harsh winter weather approaches.

Administrator Natsios just returned from a week in Central Asia. He was reviewing humanitarian operations in the region, as well as in the staging areas where the aid is stockpiled for the purpose of getting it onto site and helping the people who need help the most.

The United States has supplied more than 80 percent of all food aid to vulnerable Afghans through the United Nations World Food Program. Last year, the United States government provided over $178 million that year alone to aid the Afghan people, and the United States government has provided $237 million in aid to Afghanistan thus far in 2002.

One more example on that. The U.S. has airlifted 20,000 wool blankets, 100 rolls of plastic sheeting, 200 metric tons of high-energy biscuits, and 1 metric ton of sugar to Turkmenistan for distribution in Afghanistan.

So what you will see is, the United States, as events on the ground change and make it easier for relief to get into the country, the United States and other nations around the world are poised to get the food to those who need it most.

Q Is there a dollar figure since September 11th of how much aid -- a dollar figure for --

MR. FLEISCHER: Since September 11th? I just have the fiscal year figures.

Q Ari, is there a way that they are working with the Northern Alliance to get the food to people who are in remote places? Is there negotiations going on?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think he'll be better able to address the direct questions of who he exactly is involved in. But I can tell you, for example, that in the north of the country there still is concern about mines on the major bridge that would be required to bring food in. But there are barges that are going across, and it still is a dangerous situation on the ground and it still is some levels of difficulty in getting food to the people who need it most. But the amount of food has been increased dramatically with the passage of time.

Q On Afghanistan, do you have any comment or update on the journalists who were killed, and any statements on President Rabbani -- does the administration believe he will have a coalition government at some point?

MR. FLEISCHER: On your first question, I cannot confirm any of the reports you may have heard about the status of the journalists. That is being looked into actively by the United States government, but I have no confirmation on any of that at this moment.

On the second question, the future government of Afghanistan is a very important matter that the United States is going to work very diligently with the United Nations and others on. Fundamentally, it remains a matter for the people of Afghanistan to choose who their leaders will be. But it's vitally important, the President believes, that the future government of Afghanistan be broad-based and be representative of all the people of Afghanistan. And that is the message that the various factions will hear when they meet with the United States under the U.N. auspices. And that meeting should be coming up shortly.

Q Some of those leadership positions are already being assumed by Northern Alliance officials in the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry. Should the Northern Alliance be doing that? Should they essentially be taking over what counts as the instruments of government?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is very pleased about the status of events on the ground in Afghanistan beyond the military point of view. There are security concerns that remain, and it is important to provide an environment of stability and calm in Afghanistan. But the President is very heartened by the reaction of the Northern Alliance to calls, for example, for a conference to determine the future of Afghanistan that will take place on neutral territory. The Northern Alliance has agreed to that, and the President is pleased by that.

It's a difficult situation in Afghanistan, and always has been. And putting together this government presents a whole series of challenges. But those are challenges that the President believes are vital to securing a peaceful Afghanistan that's free from terrorism and that represents all.

Q Just a quick follow-up. So he's confident that if the broad-based government that might result required these Northern Alliance to relinquish power at the Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry, he's confident they would do so?

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, again, the exact determinations of who will be in charge and in what areas will be up to the people of Afghanistan to decide. And working with the United Nations, the President sees a role for the United States and others of helping to create a government that is broad-based. But, fundamentally, this is an opportunity for Afghanistan to move the clock forward, while for so much of their past the clock has moved backwards in terms of respect for human rights, respect for individuals, respect for women. And this is an opportunity now for the people of Afghanistan to have a government that serves them broadly and multi-ethnically.

Q Are you saying -- are we supporting a referendum there for -- we want the people to decide?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, Helen, it will be up to the people of Afghanistan to decide the exact mechanisms for their future.

Q But we are promoting certain mechanisms, aren't they, and would we call for a vote?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there will be an upcoming meeting under the U.N. auspices that's going to bring all the parties together. And the parties have agreed to come together in what I think can be called a cooperative fashion, which is a helpful way to begin this. That has not always been the past in Afghanistan. There has been many rivalries among many different factions.

Q Ari, what's the administration's preference for the site of that meeting of the factions? Last week, we heard United Arab Emirates; this week, it's --

MR. FLEISCHER: I have not heard that there's any one nation that's preferable. It's -- a neutral area is preferable, and the preference also for the meeting to take place sooner rather than later -- shortly.

Q There's been a lot of attention lately in terms of the PR campaign on the Taliban's treatment of women. The First Lady talked about it this weekend; the President has mentioned it here and there. And there is this briefing with Powell today. Is he planning anything major, a big speech or anything to highlight this? And following up on Helen's question, are there going to be any women at the dinner tonight?

MR. FLEISCHER: Helen asked me that earlier, and I looked at the list that I have. It's all a list of nations, so I don't have the names of the representatives of each of those nations. I think we're endeavoring to get that, and whatever we have, we'll make available so you will be able to -- and you will be there. Reporters will -- the pool will be there to observe.

I can tell you, I looked at the list of the people from the White House staff who are going -- there will be many women: Dr. Rice, Karen Hughes, of course, representing the United States in this dinner.

You had a second part.

Q Anything planned in terms of the effort to have the President focus more on --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President obviously kicked this off. The President, in his remarks, has regularly talked about the horrific treatment by the Taliban of women in Afghanistan. And I just looked up a few things before I came out here, and in Afghanistan, under the Taliban, women were forbidden from going to school if they were over the age of eight. So schooling for women shut down and stopped at age eight. The Taliban shut down the women's university in Afghanistan. Women were flat-out banned from working. And the number one nation, the worst nation in the world in maternal mortality is Afghanistan. One-quarter of the children of Afghanistan don't live to be -- make it to age five.

Now, this contrasts with an Afghanistan prior to the Taliban, going back even a number of years before then. In the early 1990s, 70 percent of all of the schoolteachers in Afghanistan were women; 50 percent of government workers were women; and 40 percent of the doctors in Kabul were women.

So obviously, the reign of the Taliban has been horrific for women. And that is something the President thinks is important to be taken into account when the future Afghanistan is discussed. The United States won't dictate what that should be, but it's part of America's values and America will say that.

Q You guys have pulled together all these statistics to make that case. Are you doing the same thing with drugs, in terms of the drug trade in Afghanistan?

MR. FLEISCHER: There is no question that the drug trade also presents a series of problems that have to be addressed. Shipping the drugs from Afghanistan -- all areas of Afghanistan represents a major problem.

Q But is there something specific in terms of the PR effort that's underway? Are we going to be hearing more about that?

MR. FLEISCHER: On drugs? I think you might be hearing some more on drugs.

Q I'm following up on Campbell. Are there going to be women at the negotiating table at the talks for the future government, and where will those meetings be held?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, it's the position of the United States that it is entirely appropriate for the future government of Afghanistan to be broad-based. And that includes the role of women, and that women deserve that role.

Q Are you going to insist that women be --

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the United States is not in a position, and neither is any one nation -- in any position to dictate the future of Afghanistan. Sometimes, the best way to be successful in these types of diplomacies, is to make the point, to focus on the importance of it in terms of the values it represents and the future stability that can come from the decisions that only the Afghans can make.

Q On that, Ari, you talk about the Taliban, the treatment of women. The Northern Alliance, though, have not necessarily treated women so well. Are you concerned, A, about the rebels, and their past treatment of women? What is the administration doing to encourage them to adhere to giving women rights and freedoms?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly, if you look at what's happened in Afghanistan since the Taliban fell from power in the areas in which they have and were replaced by the Northern Alliance, the reaction from women has been very encouraging. There is a new day of freedom for those women and men throughout Afghanistan in the areas that have fallen into Northern Alliance hands.

So this is an abiding American value, treating women well and treating women with respect, and a recognition that there is a stability that comes to those nations that treat women well. And so that will be part of something the United States continues to say, but it will not be something that can be dictated. It's often counterproductive to try to dictate to other nations how to behave. It's often productive to engage in diligent diplomacy to convince others about the stability that can result. But, again, these decisions must be made by the Afghani people.

Q There is a question, I guess some have been commenting about the First Lady's campaign kicking off. Why not talk about other countries which don't afford women rights and freedoms, such as Saudi Arabia? Why -- is this campaign going to extend to other countries beyond the Taliban --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, I don't think you can find another nation in the world that had a government that was as repressive to women as the Taliban were. Different nations have different cultures and different traditions, but no one has done what the Taliban has done. And to answer your question directly, that is a message of the United States diplomacy. That is a message that deals again with America's values and America's values are universal. They apply to all nations of the world. And that does get expressed.

Q Ari, to preface a question, the President might hear about this at the dinner tonight. I'm wondering if he has any reaction to the negative reaction from what seems to be both ends of the political spectrum regarding his order a week ago about the military trials.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President actually -- I mean, he's aware that there has been some criticism of it, of course. But the President believes that this is something that the American people see the wisdom of, because this is one option for the President. This is not necessarily the way events will go, but it does help win the war by giving the President one more option that he can exercise if he sees fit. And the President thinks the American people recognize the precedent that was created in World War II, for example, when German saboteurs who entered America's shores were dropped off in submarines dressed in civilian attire, came onto our shores for the purpose of doing harm and damage to our country.

These are not American citizens. This is a time of war. And this is a time when we need to protect the national security in extreme cases. And therefore, the President thinks it is something, frankly, most Americans would support.

Q Well, most Americans do have faith in our courts. You don't think that our courts can handle these situations?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, there was a precedent in World War II. Most Americans at that time had faith in our courts; they also had faith in the military.

Q -- on a lot of things we did in World War II, including the internment of the Japanese and so forth.

MR. FLEISCHER: That's not what the question is.

Q Ari, is the President still -- does the President still believe that the Saudis are carrying their weight as members of the coalition?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, he does.

Q What are they doing? What's --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I'm not going to get into every aspect that Saudi Arabia is engaged in, but Saudi Arabia has been helpful across the board in areas dealing with financing, in areas dealing with some of the arrangements. So the President is very pleased with the cooperation of the Saudi government.

Q Ari, Condi Rice yesterday said that we didn't need September 11th to tell us that Saddam Hussein was a bad man. Is that a signal that we might be heading into Iraq at some point?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's actually something Condi has been saying on a regular basis. Condi has frequently said that. I've heard her say it many times before yesterday's shows, and she reiterated it yesterday, and I think properly so. What Dr. Rice is indicating is that Saddam Hussein presented problems for the United States prior to September 11th. Saddam Hussein has been someone that we have kept a careful eye on before September 11th, as well as after September 11th.

But this campaign, as Condi added also on the show, is still on phase one, is dealing with what we need to do, which is not yet complete. There still is a mission to be carried out, and that mission is the destruction of al Qaeda and the Taliban so they can no longer harbor terrorists or bring the terrorist attacks to our shores or to other nations.

Q Should we expect Iraq to be phase two or phase three? Should we be preparing for that at some point down the road?

MR. FLEISCHER: If there is any indication of that, you will hear from the President. And I'm not leaning one way or another on that, but the President is involved deeply in phase one.

Q The Northern Alliance spokesman in the U.S. today expressed concern that Osama bin Laden might sneak across the border into Pakistan. What understanding does the U.S. have, does the administration have with Pakistan if that happens?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as part of the more than $1 billion in aid that the President announced for the government of Pakistan, $73 million of that is to increase their security along the border, their ability to detect movement of people into Pakistan. It's a very long border; it's difficult to police the entirety of the border. I believe it's some 900 miles. So Pakistan is being very diligent. I don't think they want Osama bin Laden operating on their land. No country does, or virtually no country does.

So it is a concern about any movement back and forth across the border. Pakistan is doing everything it can to be helpful to arrest any movement back and forth across the border. Having said that, there's no indication that Osama bin Laden has moved across the border.

Q How does the administration propose to bring him to justice if he is captured?

MR. FLEISCHER: One way or another.

Q Ari, when will travelers start to notice changes in airport security, the provisions contained in the bill he signed today? And has he decided who he'll nominate for the new under Secretary position?

MR. FLEISCHER: On the personnel side, no decisions yet. On the question of how will people know, I think people have already detected a real increase in security. Now, there is more to do, but I think people recognize that their bags are much more likely to be personally inspected now. They recognize that even upon going through the screeners, they're liable to get a separate inspection at the gate, a random inspection at the gate. And there's a whole series of measures that the Department of Transportation and the FAA have put in place to identify people, for example, one-way tickets that could arouse suspicions.

So there have been a series of steps put into place to protect passengers, as well as the marshal program. I think people understand that there's an increase of presence of marshals on their flights, and that will continue and that will now actually grow under the legislation that the President signed into law today. So those are several specific examples.

Q Do you expect the new screeners to be phased in over a period of time that would start relatively soon?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the Department of Transportation is now going to review the legislation. It's very detailed legislation when you get down to it. One of the areas that the President is very pleased with, with the compromise that emerged out of the conference is the Department of Transportation will have jurisdiction over this program, not the Department of Justice. Under the Senate provision originally, it would have been the Department of Justice's job to implement this.

They don't have experience in transportation of this nature, so the President thinks that was an improvement, and the Department of Transportation is working on that now. They will be announcing their own timetable for what will happen and when it will happen. The bill is now several hours old, and the President has directed the Secretary of Transportation to move rapidly to put the law in place. There is a one-year transition period.

Q If I could follow on that. If it were just a matter of the security improvements already put into place, you wouldn't have needed the bill. The President called on this thing to be passed so that improvements could be felt by the holiday travel season. Would you expect that to happen? Would you expect an increase in the current level of security by the Christmas holiday travel season?

MR. FLEISCHER: One of the things the bill provided that nothing else could would be funding for many of these initiatives. And that enables the marshals program, for example, to expand and grow, as I just indicated, and to do so on a permanent basis. That's a source of ongoing protection for the public that will immediately begin and grow in an enhanced way from what it would have without a signature on that bill. Obviously, the presence of the Guard that's at the airports now is helpful, as well.

What this bill fundamentally does is, beyond the cockpit protections, beyond the presence of the marshals, things that are already understood by the public, it provides for higher standards to be established for the screeners, which is the first point of vulnerability. That's the first point of security. That's where people enter airplanes, and the system is designed to make certain that they can't carry anything on airplanes that could be used to harm or damage anybody. By setting higher standards, by paying people more -- that will take place over time -- the President believes it will protect the traveling public.

Q Ari, Governor Ridge today is meeting with Mexican officials. What is the status of the U.S.-Mexico immigration talks? Are they getting back on track?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, the two principal people who are involved with the discussions the President initiated with President Fox, following his visit to Mexico last year, earlier this year, are Secretary Powell and General Ashcroft. They are the two who were singularly charged with the review of Mexican immigration policies as a way to having new guest worker program of some nature that allows more Mexicans into this country, or gives some type of legal status to those who are here.

As a result of the war that has not been moved as long, as fast as the President would have hoped, but it is still a priority for the President. I have not talked to Governor Ridge yet about his meeting today, so I don't have any information about what that covers.

Q What is the President going to do to jump-start the negotiations over the economic stimulus package, Ari?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President, number one, is very concerned if the Senate were to fail to pass economic stimulus. The President remains very concerned about the strength of the economy and the number of American people who have lost their jobs. The President thinks it would be a grave mistake for the Senate to leave town without passing an economic stimulus. He earlier said he wants the Senate to get it done and sent to him by the end of November. He reiterates that call.

So the President will continue to work with the Senate. I think you can anticipate a series of discussions between administration officials and Senate leaders. But this is also a real test of the new Senate to see whether they can pass legislation and make it to the conference committee. The House of Representatives has passed the economic stimulus; now, it's time for the Senate to do the same.

Q Ari, does that mean -- just to follow -- that you're opposed to the idea of just starting negotiations, even though the Senate hasn't passed a bill? There's been talk about the Ways and Means and Finance people getting together and talking.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the administration was prepared to do that. The administration is prepared to have -- work together with the tax writers in the House and the Senate to help jump-start negotiations in the Senate. But at the end of the day, it still remains the Senate's job to pass legislation on behalf of the American people. The House did it, and the Senate needs to do it, as well. It's never easy; both bodies have their unique sets of difficulties that they have to present and overcome. But it's vital for the Senate to do so. It's a real test of the new Senate.

Q Ari, does it ever come to a point where the President would consider calling for a summit just between the principals in the House and Senate meeting with the President, or would you rather just blame this on the Democrats if it dies in the Senate?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, there's no need to blame anybody; there's just a need to have action. And that's why the President is engaged and will continue to be engaged. But the President thinks the best route to take is what I just indicated. The tax writers of both the House and the Senate to work together to get this done. That's not a summit. The President will continue to meet with the four leaders as he has been doing to talk about a wide range of issues, and the leaders of the Senate have made it clear that they want to get it done.

There are a series of challenges that are faced in the Senate, but that's always the case. It's a close Senate. It was very close under the previous Senate when it was Republican-controlled; it was very close under Democrat control. But it still has to be done to get a stimulus passed. That becomes even more important when you take a look at how weak the economy is. Most of the private sector forecasters who are projecting growth in 2002 have baked into their growth forecasts Senate passage and congressional passage of a stimulus package. Failure by the Senate to pass an economic stimulus package will result in a further decline in the American economy, according to the private sector economists.

Q So it has to be done in the regular order of business? There's no way the President would consider --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, the President can't sign anything until the Senate passes it.

Q I mean, in terms of the President's involvement in limiting this just to the leadership hammering out an agreement, which has been done in the past in budgets when there has been an impasse.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I just indicated that tax writers need to get together, and the President supports that.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END                            1:32 P.M. EST