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 Home > News & Policies > February 2002

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
February 26, 2002

Press Briefing by By Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Briefing Room

12:10 P.M. EST

MR. FLEISCHER:  Good afternoon.  The President this morning began his day by calling Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.  The President praised the Crown Prince's ideas regarding full Arab-Israeli normalization once a comprehensive peace agreement can be achieved.  The President also conveyed the United States desire to continue to work closely with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the pursuit of Middle East peace.  Both leaders reiterated their commitment to the important U.S.-Saudi relationship.

The President also this morning, spoke with Prime Minister Chretien of Canada.  The President discussed his recent trip to Asia, and the Prime Minister discussed with the President his recent trip to Russia and Germany.  The President reiterated the United States commitment to ongoing consultation with allies in the war against terrorism, and they also discussed some trade issues between the United States and Canada.

After that, the President convened a meeting of -- or received briefings from the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI.  And then, this afternoon the President will depart the White House to give a speech at St.  Luke's Catholic Church here in Washington, D.C. to announce a new welfare reform initiative.  The President's remarks will focus on the importance of requiring work, strengthening families and improving the lives of children, of providing flexibility to the states so they can encourage innovation in helping families who are on welfare, as well as announcing a reversal of policy from the previous welfare reform whereby legal immigrants who arrive in America who need to go on food stamps after being here for five years would now be permitted to.

The President will return to the White House where, this afternoon, he will meet with the Presidents of Botswana, Mozambique and Angola to discuss conflict resolution in the region, particularly Angola, as well as economic issues, trade issues, and development issues in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Finally, the President will enjoy a movie tonight in the White House theater.  He will welcome Mel Gibson and others to the White House for the screening of the movie, "We Were Soldiers."  And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

Q    Ari, does the President believe that the time is near that he should sit down with Yasser Arafat, one-on-one, and try to drive this peace process forward, himself?


Q    Was there any decision to follow up on Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal after their conversation?  And the President initiated the call, didn't he?

MR. FLEISCHER:  The President initiated the call.  Well, there's always follow-up, I think it's fair to say, through the State Department and through their contacts in the region.  The State Department, Secretary Powell is often on the phone looking for openings, looking for ways that the process can move forward.  There have not been many of late, although in the last week or so there have been the beginnings of security meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Q    Does the President consider this proposal valid as a starter?

MR. FLEISCHER:  The President believes it's just as I described it.  I'll refer you exactly back to what I said, in that he praised the Crown Prince for his ideas.

Here's I think what you may want to just take a look at with this. You know, there have just been so many negative notes coming out of the Middle East recently, and at least in this statement by the Crown Prince, it was a note of hope.  Now, it doesn't, in and of itself, change anything on the ground in the Middle East.  The situation remains a very complicated situation, and a very violent one.  And nothing has changed the President's fundamental belief that the Mitchell Accords are the best path, best process to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement that is agreed to by the two parties in the Middle East.  And the President continues --

Q    There's nothing to bring the two parties together.

MR. FLEISCHER:  -- to believe that Chairman Arafat has to do more to stop the violence.  That is the President's view.

Q    But the involvement of the leader of Saudi Arabia willing to engage with Israel on a resolution of this conflict doesn't change the facts of what's happening in the Middle East?  Is this a breakthrough?  Does the President see this as--

MR. FLEISCHER:  No, I've not heard the President use that word.  And you said to deal with Israel.  That's not quite what the statement is.  It's that they would recognize Israel after a comprehensive peace is achieved.  The President has called this-- has praised the idea that has come from the Crown Prince.

Q    And praising the idea, once again, is not endorsing it?

MR. FLEISCHER:  He's praised the idea.  It's a hopeful note.

Q    Ari, where is the administration on its deliberations on sending General Zinni back to the region?  There are some security talks going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  Does it now appear to be a good time to put him back on the ground?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I have not heard any new developments involving General Zinni returning to the region.  You might want to check with the State Department to see if they have additional updates.  Nothing has crossed my radar screen in the last 24 hours on that.

Q    Getting back to Helen's question and Terry's question.  This is probably the first major initiative Saudi Arabia has ever launched, with a definite proposal.  Doesn't this mean a breakthrough?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I can only characterize it as the President has.  You asked me what the President's reaction is.  I can only tell you what the President said.  He said it directly on the phone to the Crown Prince. That's the President's reaction.

Q    Ari, now that the civil war is heating up again in Colombia, is the President going to lean on the Congress to pony up the money for that new Colombia brigade?  And is the United States planning to send more than the 300 or so troops that we have now have in Colombia to aid that government in its fight with the FARC rebels?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Well, since President Pastrana began the peace process, some three years ago, the United States has repeatedly stated our support for his efforts, and sought to work with the international community to find a negotiated solution to Colombia's internal conflicts.  Regrettably, the goodwill of the Pastrana government and of the Colombian people has not been reciprocated by the FARC.  FARC terrorist actions, including the attacks that have taken place on civilians, the hijacking of airplanes, the kidnapping of a state senator, their use of the DMZ in Colombia for drug trafficking, all are a real affront to people who seek peace in Colombia.

The most recent event, the kidnapping of the airplane, clearly shows that the FARC is interested in continuing to pursue terror.  And that is why the United States has said, and I refer you to the statement made by the State Department last week, that the United States supports President Pastrana's actions and determination now to change the calculation in Colombia, and he has our support.

We're consulting with the government of Colombia in that process to determine where we can be helpful, how we can be helpful.  We are mindful of the legal constraints that are imposed on us and any actions we'll take will be in accordance with those constraints.

Q    Can we go back, just try to close the loop on the conversation with Crown Prince Abdullah?  Two quick points.  Did the President and the Crown Prince discuss at any point the Crown Prince traveling to Israel to begin to put his idea forward?


Q    And, secondly, did the two of them in the course of their conversation return to this question of what Saudi Arabia may be doing to deal with the extremists in their own midst, the 15 hijackers --

MR. FLEISCHER:  No, that was not a topic of their conversation.

Q    So they talked, but the terrorism subject never came up?

MR. FLEISCHER:  What you just asked was not part of their conversation.

Q    On the Colombia issue, and actually, on two leaders issue, Ingrid Betancourt was the senator who was taken from the airplane.  Is anything being done specifically to try -- is the American government trying to do anything to get her back, or to help the Colombians with that?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I would just refer you again to what I said; that's what the United States is doing, we are trying to explore what options we have to be helpful.  I'm not aware of anything beyond that.

Q    And, secondly, I asked you last week about Prime Minister Bhuto and Pakistan and what the President's position was about her perhaps returning there and not being arrested, to run for election.

MR. FLEISCHER:  Nobody got back to you on that?  Okay, we'll continue to pursue that.

Q    Two questions on Colombia were, are you urging Congress to increase money to the country?  And is there a possibility of sending more U.S. troops?  Do you have the answer to either one of those?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I don't have anything on that.

Q    Can you check on that for us?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Yes.  Ron, do you have anything further?

Q    Well, Terry is saying you are ruling out more troops -- that's not quite what you're doing?

MR. FLEISCHER:  No, I said I would follow up on your question.

Q    Ari, is there a meeting today about Colombia?  We heard that there is.  Is there one today?

MR. FLEISCHER:  There are various meetings of the foreign policy community here, the National Security Council principals and others.  And as a matter of White House practice, I don't cite what those meetings are.

Q    But, generally, Ari, can you address the state of play in Colombia right now?  It would appear to even the average, non-educated observer very perilous there.  Is the United States government, at its highest levels, at a higher level of concern about what's happening with the Pastrana government, about what's going on on the ground?  And are you treating with any greater sense of urgency what the U.S. government can do on the ground to assist Colombia?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Major, I think it's been perilous there for quite a while.  And that's why the State Department has listed FARC as a terrorist organization.  And that's why the United States has worked so closely with President Pastrana and his Plan Colombia.

Despite the best and most peaceful intentions of the Colombian people and of President Pastrana, the FARC have decided to pursue an alternative means, and that led to last week's hijacking, last weeks kidnaping.  And the FARC has not accepted the goodwill and the good intentions of President Pastrana.  And the United States supports what President Pastrana is now doing.

Q    It's no more perilous in Colombia this week than it was, say, four weeks ago?  Even though the FARC is now destroying dams and electricity-generating complexes?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I said it's always been perilous in Colombia.  I don't know that, when you live in a region like that, that you characterize one week as being any more or less perilous than the previous region-- week.  When you live in an area in which terrorists are doing the things that you just said, I don't think the people living there make gradations; they just want it to stop.

Q    Does the administration consider FARC a terrorist organization of global reach?

MR. FLEISCHER:  The administration considers FARC a listed terrorist organization by the State Department.

Q    Ari, can I add something?  The plane, though, that was kidnaped had a Senator aboard.  Ingrid Betancourt is a presidential candidate. There are two different things that have happened -- first was the kidnaping of the Senator and a few days later a kidnaping of a presidential candidate.  I just wanted to bring that up because it seems that--

MR. FLEISCHER:  Yes, I'm aware of that.

Q    Ari, can you shed any light on this incident in Salt Lake City with the Vice President where, apparently, Secret Service agents lost the play book on protecting him?  Is that accurate?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I saw the wire story.  I have not talked to the Secret Service, so I have no more information about it other than what I read on the wire.

Q    It hasn't come up besides that?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I have not had any information provided to me on that.

Q    You're not confirming or denying; you just don't know?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I've seen the wire story.  I think this is something you should really just address directly to the Secret Service.

Q    The wire story points out that Secret Service is not commenting.  Can you try to get us an explanation of what happened?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Let me see if there's anything on that I can find out.

Q    Do you have an update on the discussions by the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan on the extradition of the main suspect in the Pearl case?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Yes, Ambassador Chamberlain has met again with President Musharraf and made our point clear again about the United States desire to have Omar Sheik sent to the United States.  It is being worked through the Pakistani process.  The Pakistanis, as a sovereign nation, have thoughts, too, about how to bring justice to Omar Sheik, and that's where the matter stands.  So there are continued conversations and I anticipate there will be continued conversations for some period of time now about this.

Q    Ari, while you said in response to an earlier question that the idea of Abdullah traveling to Israel did not come up in the conversation, does the administration think it would be helpful for face-to-face talks, for Israelis to travel to Saudi Arabia if that's conceivable, or if it's conceivable for Saudis to travel to Israel to further this process?

MR. FLEISCHER:  The President believes that any contacts between the parties in the Middle East that are mutually agreed upon would be beneficial.  And that's a step that would need to be taken by the parties, themselves, of course, and the United States would support that if that was something the parties, themselves, agreed to.

Q    Is the administration directly encouraging either side to take that step at this point?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Throughout the process, the United States has made it clear to all parties concerned the importance of finding solutions to the vexing problems of violence in the Middle East that have been present for decades.  And I think it's not a surprise to either Israel or her Arab neighbors that the United States hopes the parties are able to get together and talk.  That's a common approach.

Q    What beyond the statement you've given today is the administration doing to encourage this Saudi track?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Again, I refer you to the State Department.  I said that they're always in contact at the State Department with the various governments in the region and conveying the messages from the President and from the State Department -- Secretary Powell, himself, is often on the phone with the parties.

Q    Did the Crown Prince ask the President to get more involved, to do something else?

MR. FLEISCHER:  No, the Crown Prince -- I won't speak for him, but I think he appreciated very much the President's message.

Q    Ari, my sense is that you see the Saudi plan as sort of phase two, after you get through some of the initial confidence-building measures, and so forth.  Is that an accurate description?  I mean, you can't really get to the peace agreement until you've ended the hostilities or at least reduced them to some extent.

MR. FLEISCHER:  Well, what I've indicated previously is the Saudi statement, which the President welcomes, is a statement about the final result; that Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel at the end of the day when there's a comprehensive peace process or peaceful solution agreed to.  That is a result.  To get to that result it requires a process.  What the President has said is the best process to arrive at that result is the Mitchell agreement, the Mitchell Accords, which begins with security talks between Israel and the Palestinians, that would then proceed into talks of a more politics nature about negotiations in the region to achieve a more meaningful lasting peace, discussions ultimately about the settlement policy, and then, hopefully, a comprehensive peace.

That's the outline of what the Mitchell process agrees to.  To have Arab nations weighing in now, with additional thoughts that are reflective of the will of the region to create peace is a helpful part of the process.

Q    And do the Saudis embrace essentially the same sequence?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I think there's no question that the Mitchell Accords were welcomed by all parties at the time that they were announced last year.  So, again, there is an agreement on what the process should be.  This just proved to be very difficult, given the violence.  And when it comes to the violence, the President's message remains the same, that Chairman Arafat still needs to do more to stop the violence.

Q    Coming back to the Pearl situation, you said that this is now being worked out through the Pakistani legal process.  Does that mean that eventually the United States will have a chance to try Saeed?  And if not, how much pressure is the U.S. willing to put on Pakistan, given his internal political concerns?

MR. FLEISCHER:  No, it means the process is ongoing.  And as you can imagine, this is -- Pakistan is a sovereign state, they have their own laws.  A crime, a murder was committed in their country and they have their own ways and laws of dealing with it.  It's not atypical at a time like that, when another nation makes a request, for that request to be considered, and it takes time.

Yesterday I discussed that if there had been, God forbid, reverse the situation, a murder in the United States, where an American citizen was held for the murder of a foreign visitor to the United States, I don't think it would surprise anybody if the United States said, we have our courts, we have our laws, we have our ways of dealing with this, as we worked cooperatively with any other nation that was making a request.

And that's the process.  And it's not something that necessarily lends itself to instant resolution.  And the United States will continue to make its case to Pakistan.  Pakistan has received the case well, but it is part of a process.  They are a sovereign government, and we'll continue to talk.

Q    The Pentagon said this morning that apparently out of 494 detainees, apparently not one appears to qualify for the military tribunal.  What are the President's thoughts about that at this point?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm not aware of the Pentagon's statement, so I can't characterize it.

Q    The distinct impression you're leaving today, which is different from yesterday, is that the United States would be open to seeing Omar Sheik and others prosecuted under Pakistani procedures.  And then, after that has achieved a resolution, there could be a movement of the suspects to the United States -- elaborate discussion of their judicial --

MR. FLEISCHER:  No, the United States continues to want to have Omar Sheik sent to the United States.  There's no change in our policy from yesterday.  I've used the same words as I used yesterday in describing int.

Q    But you've been more descriptive about a deference to Pakistani judicial proceedings, more so than you were yesterday, more elaborative describing them.

MR. FLEISCHER:  I think I said basically the same thing yesterday as I did today.  There's no change --

Q    -- open to the fact --

MR. FLEISCHER:  There's no change in what we're seeking.

Q    But is it open to the idea that Pakistan would prosecute them their own way first, and then leave it to the United States to handle the case thereafter?

MR. FLEISCHER:  We're open to continuing to have a conversation with Pakistan.  Yesterday I said the same thing, that Pakistan is a sovereign government that has its own courts and procedures.

Q    Given the way those courts have treated this man in the past, is the administration confident that justice could be done in this case by the Pakistani justice system?

MR. FLEISCHER:  The President has said publicly that he has confidence in President Musharraf and has been grateful to the President for his reactions and his comments in this matter.  So I'm not going to speculate about any hypotheticals, but that's what the President has said.

Q    But isn't it implicit in what we want to do that we may have some mistrust of the Pakistani judicial system?  Isn't almost implicit?

MR. FLEISCHER:  The President has not said that, no.

Q    Ari, on another note, President Bush has a nominee, Gerald Reynolds, for the Education Department Civil Rights Office, and this man is being opposed by at least two dozen groups, including the NAACP, and he's set for a hearing today.  What's the White House's thoughts about Gerald Reynolds and the opposition from many of these civil rights groups?

MR. FLEISCHER:  The President respectfully disagrees.  The President, obviously, made the nomination based on his qualifications and will continue to support him.

Q    Ari, in your criticism yesterday of Pat Robertson's disagreement with the President's claim that Islam is a peaceful religion, since Islamic youth are being told by Islamic parents and teachers that they can become Islamic martyrs as suicide bombers and go straight to Islamic paradise, my question is, can you name even one Islamic religious leader in the Eastern Hemisphere who has spoken out publicly against this suicide bombing of non-Muslim civilians?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Lester, I think many Arab nations have spoken out and have said--

Q    I mean, religious leaders.  Muslim.  Can you name one?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I think that in many cases, you're talking about one in the same.  Certainly, many of these nations are Islamic republics, and--

Q    Can you just name one?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I think, again, I would say to you that many of the political leaders in those areas have spoken out and have decried the violence and the martyrdom, and have talked about the need to work with the United States, because they know what we know, that Islam is a religion of peace.

Q    Are you and is the President prepared to contend that in the Koran there are no passages calling for death to infidels such as Christians and Jews and no jihads, as well, for people like Salman Rushdie?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Les, I've said what I've said on the topic.  I think you should--

Q    Do you think that's peaceful, when they--

MR. FLEISCHER:  -- I think you should address your question to people who study Koran or the Bible or things of that nature, and you'll find all the theology you'd like to find.

Q    You're very studied, Ari.  I mean--

MR. FLEISCHER:  Mr. Holland.

Q    Ari, what about the Pickering nomination?  It seems to be in trouble up on the Hill.  Do you still stand by it?  Are you thinking about withdrawing him?

MR. FLEISCHER:  No.  If you recall, the last briefing I gave when the Senate recessed as the President was preparing to depart for Asia, I said at that time that the President believes in Judge Pickering and will fight for Judge Pickering, and that is exactly what he intends to do.  The President has utmost confidence in Judge Pickering.  And I think what you're seeing is an unfortunate part of the politization of the way judges, circuit court judges are picked in this country.

Judge Pickering received a well-qualified rating from the American Bar Association, and that is something the Democrats, who like to follow the judgments of the American Bar Association, have said previously was a gold standard, that they would review -- that they would use in reviewing judicial nominations.

So the President continues to have every bit of confidence in Judge Pickering, and will continue to support him and urge his passage.

Q    What does the fight for Pickering mean?  What does that fight mean?  Is the President going to pick up the phone and call people and say, look, this is my choice, stand by him?

MR. FLEISCHER:  April, I think he'll just make an assessment at the appropriate time about what that means, or what level of activity he will personally engage in.  He'll just make that call as it gets closer.

Q    I want to quote the President directly yesterday, when he was talking about the environment.  He said, "And you cannot sue your way to clean air and clean water and clean land."  And I'd just like to contrast that with an Alabama jury's decision on Friday of just last week, against Monsanto, dealing with a case in Anniston, Alabama, where residents there for decades were exposed to PCBs, and legal remedies will now not only compensate them, but see that that PCB-laden ground will be clean.  That is a legal pursuit of clean land and compensating victims of pollution.  Does the President consider that something that's not appropriate?

MR. FLEISCHER:  The President's statement is --

Q    -- proof that what he said yesterday isn't accurate, that you cannot sue yourself to clean land?

MR. FLEISCHER:  The President's statement yesterday was addressed to the broad issue of the Superfund, which has failed to clean up as many sites as it was originally intended to clean up, because it's become a haven for lawyers.  It's a way for lawyers to end up in court, and not as a way for pollution sites to get cleaned up.  That's been the unfortunate history of Superfund.  Superfund was enacted with very good intentions, but it really has become more of a bonanza for trial lawyers than it is a way to clean up the environment.  And that's what the President was referring to.

I cited yesterday some of the successful precedents involving brownfields legislation, which Congress agreed to on a bipartisan basis with the President, as a way to go to address legal concerns, because there are legal aspects, there will be suits involving cleanup.  But if these suits become just a forum for lawyers to get themselves into court, without cleaning up the land, they won't be productive.  And that's why the brownfields precedent is a very helpful one for Superfund.

Q    If I could ask you a question about welfare reform.  I know we had a briefing this morning, but I'd just ask you a couple things here on camera, if I may.  Does the White House have any second thoughts at all about a sharp increase in work requirements at a time when many of the states have fiscal problems and you also have a relatively soft job market?

MR. FLEISCHER:  The interesting history about welfare reform is that even in previous recoveries, previous economic booms, the welfare rolls still went up.  Only after concurrent with the welfare reforms that went into effect in 1996 did the welfare rolls drop as much as they did.  And even now, with the recession that began last March, the welfare rolls have not dropped the way people thought they would, or actually the number of people on welfare has not increased.

So let me try to put it a little more succinctly for you.  The President is confident that one of the reasons welfare reforms works is because in good times and in bad times it tells people that the aid they get under welfare will only be temporary and that people can find work, they should be able to find work, and the government has programs set up to help them find work.  And that's the success of the welfare program in good times and bad.  And that has fundamentally led to improvements in the lives of low-income Americans, by taking away the trap that the old welfare state used to be, and replacing it instead with a focus on work and self-sufficiency.

Q    Governors, both Republican and Democrats, have asked for additional money, either-- and an "inflation adjustment" or additional money to do these various things, including additional money to help cover the costs of child care for all of these people that the President would like to now see working more.  Is the administration sympathetic in any way to those requests?

MR. FLEISCHER:  You are correct, the governors have asked for additional money.  And, at the same time, there are many members of Congress who are suggesting that the amount of the TANF, or the Temporary Aid to Needy Families block grant be reduced.  So you have governors asking for more, you have members of Congress, particularly on the Republican side, asking for less, and the reason they say that is because the number of people who are on welfare has dropped so dramatically from 1996, while the amount of money available for everybody on welfare has remained the same.

And so there has been a tremendous per capita increase in the amount of money available to help welfare, the families that remain on welfare.  That extra money now has been used for child care, for transportation, to help people get cars so they can go to jobs on the other side of town, if that's necessary.

So the President's view is that the right answer is to leave the block grant exactly as it is.  It should not be cut, even though the welfare rolls have dropped dramatically.  But neither does he think it needs to be increased.  The President thinks the amount is just right.

Q    Ari, several thousand steelworkers are going to be at the White House, or in front of the White House on Thursday.  Is the President considering letting a few of them in to hear their views on Thursday?

MR. FLEISCHER:  The people has heard the views of many people on this topic, and I think he will continue to.  He's heard the views of the steelworkers.  And, as you know, he has until March 6th to make his decision about steel and steel imports.  He has not made any decision yet.

Q    That's a no?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm sorry?

Q    That's a no, basically?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I'll take a look at the Thursday schedule on Thursday.  But as I said, the President is sensitive to their-- sensitive to their concerns and he hears their voices.

Q    -- that decision will be on March 6th, or the President will make --

MR. FLEISCHER:  There's no indication yet on what time it will be.

Q    Thank you.

MR. FLEISCHER:  Thank you.

END  12:37 P.M. EST