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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
October 15, 2002
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:40 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. The President began his day with an intelligence briefing, followed by the FBI briefing. Then the President convened a meeting of the National Security Council. Later this afternoon, the President will depart the White House where he will participate in the White House Conference on Increasing Minority Homeownership, a priority for the President in addressing some of the issues that face people throughout our society to increase the number of minority Americans who own homes.
Then the President will return to the White House, and those are the public events for the President's day. And I'm happy to take your questions.
Q Negotiations with the French over a U.N. resolution seem to be deadlocked. How much longer is the President going to put up with this? Is he going to pull the plug?
MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, I would not characterize it as deadlocked. I think the fair way to describe it is the discussions are ongoing, they do continue. No breakthroughs have taken place to date, but the conversations continue.
Q How long is the President willing to let them continue? It's been going on now for weeks.
MR. FLEISCHER: Just as the President said at the United Nations when he announced that he wanted to go through the United Nations and propose a resolution, the President said then that he was content to wait for days and weeks, not months. It still is within that days and weeks time frame. It has not reached months. And we'll see, if it goes on for the period of time beyond what the President has said. It has not yet, Bill.
Q Did you get anything this morning on --
MR. FLEISCHER: I did. And I think what's going to happen is, it still remains a little unclear about what the precise date is that something will be tabled, because the conversations are continuing. At the appropriate time when something is tabled, I think you're going to receive a lot of information.
Q How soon?
MR. FLEISCHER: I would not want to guess what it is.
Q But do you think it's imminent?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I wouldn't want to make a guess on what it is. Because this is now, still, at the deep diplomatic level. The diplomats are doing what they do, and they're talking about and trying to finesse the language. And this is serious business. This is important business. And because it's serious and important, this does take time. The diplomats are working hard at it. There are understandings of areas in which we can try to find agreement and efforts are being made to do that. They have not yet reached agreement. And that's why the talks go on.
Q The President remains committed to going ahead on his own if necessary, right?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has made it clear that he wants to work through the United Nations and he's continuing to work through the United Nations. He's also said if the United Nations will not act, the United States is prepared to work with an international coalition. That's what the President said.
Q Ari, on the shootings -- not to detract from the police work being done at the local level, but is there at least discussion about the need for the FBI to take over the lead on the investigation, to bring all and every resource to bear to find the killer, or killers if that's the case?
MR. FLEISCHER: The investigation is a joint operation, a joint command. And by all accounts, I think, local law enforcement and the federal governments -- federal agencies are satisfied with the amount of work and the resources and the cooperation that is underway.
This is a very difficult case. This is a very trying case and a difficult time for the communities involved, the families involved. And law enforcement at the federal level and the state level are doing everything in their power to help resolve the crimes.
Q With so much on the President's plate, why is -- the fear that the sniper has instilled in this whole community and so forth, everything else -- why does the President want to go to war?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Helen, I'm not certain that there's -- I'm not sure I understand that connection between what you're saying -- and I also have to again dispute. The President does not want to go to war. The President wants to preserve peace. The President is going through the United Nations --
Q Why is he sending of thousands of soldiers and people to the Persian Gulf, including planes and tanks and carriers and so forth if he's not planning a war?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think if you take a look at the actions of Saddam Hussein -- he threw out the weapons inspectors in 1998. I think there would be absolutely no discussion by Saddam Hussein --
Q For 11 years he's been contained and everybody knows that. So why do you want to go to war?
MR. FLEISCHER: Are you opposed to having the weapons inspectors return?
Q No, no, I think it would be good to have them go back. But I don't keep you should keep threatening war every day.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think one of the reasons that there is even now talk of the weapons inspectors going back is because the President has been firm and tough. If the President had not been firm, there would be no discussion in the United Nations about the return of the inspectors. So one of the things the President believes is that the best way to preserve peace and to make certain that Iraq does what it promised to do, and that's to disarm, is for the United States to show -- and to mean it -- that we are resolute, we are determined to enforce the peace and make certain Saddam Hussein disarms.
Q How about the other countries in the Middle East? Are you willing to have them be inspected?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is for enforcing the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. That's why he went to the U.N.
Q All of the resolutions? Do you think no other countries violated them?
MR. FLEISCHER: Not like Saddam Hussein has, and not when it's a clear call for action by the U.N. to enforce disarmament. There are other issues, of course, in the Middle East involving Resolutions 242 and 338 involving Israel.
Q That have been violated.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, those agreements call for -- those resolutions call for political dialogue. That's not what the U.N. called for in Iraq.
Q There's a policy issue that emerges from the sniper attacks, and that's some gun control advocates are calling for a national ballistic fingerprinting system where every gun, before it was sold, would be test-fired, the ballistic fingerprint would be entered into a database, and law enforcement like Montgomery County and Northern Virginia and federal law enforcement could call on that. Does the President support that?
MR. FLEISCHER: There are a variety of technical issues involving the reliability and the accuracy of that program that bear looking into, and those issues will be explored. That would also, of course, involve an act of Congress and a determination of the will of Congress to make that happen.
But there are a series of steps that the President has taken that he believes can be very helpful and should be helpful on the federal level, principally involving giving local law enforcement communities and the prosecutors enhanced resources and more prosecutors so they can more quickly bring people who commit crimes with guns to account, hold them accountable, bring them to justice and try them before a court of law.
Q But on this issue, on ballistic evidence, the President has doubts about its reliability and accuracy?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there are experts who have questions that have been raised about its accuracy and reliability. And those questions are rather -- or those issues are rather straightforward. And that involves, over time, whether or not this tracing technology remains accurate. The more a gun is used, the less accurate the tracing can become. The ability of somebody who obviously is in the business of committing crimes, and therefore wants to figure out ways to protect his ability to commit a crime without being caught, to alter the barrel of a gun -- such things as a simple nail file put down the barrel of a gun can alter the amount of tracing that's on a bullet, and therefore change the accuracy of the fingerprinting, very unlike any fingerprinting of human beings. A nail file cannot alter the fingerprint of a human. A nail file can alter the fingerprinting of a weapon.
Q These are arguments generally raised by defense lawyers. Prosecutors rely on this evidence. And I went to the ATF website today, after you mentioned these concerns the President has about reliability and accuracy, and the AFT, on its website for the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, where guns that have been used in crimes are finger-printed, says, as each fingerprint is different, a firearm leaves unique, identifiable characteristics on expelled ammunition. Is the ATF wrong?
MR. FLEISCHER: If you keep reading on the same webpage, I think you left something out. That same webpage continues to say, though no investigative tool is perfect or will be effective in every situation, the availability of an open case file of many thousands of exhibits searchable in minutes instead of lifetimes that would be required for an entirely manual search provides invaluable information. And that's what it does, it provides information that is crime specific.
Q About guns that have been used in crimes. So guns that commit crimes are in this database, but the President doesn't want all guns in that database.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, that gets into the same issue as I got into with fingerprints. There is an issue about fingerprints, of course, as a very effective way to catch people who engage in robbery or theft. Is that to say that every citizen in the United States should be finger-printed in order to catch robbers and thieves. And these same issues are raised here. The President does believe in the right of law-abiding citizens to own weapons.
Q Fair enough, so it's about liberty and privacy.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's also about the other issues I raised, in terms of accuracy and reliability. These are all various factors of why this is not a simple solution or a simple matter. And certainly, in the case of the sniper, the real issue is values. And that's what is at stake here. The real issue is values. These are the acts of a depraved killer, who has broken and will continue to break laws. And so the question is not new laws; the question is the actions here represent the values in our society.
Q Ari, Congressman Gephardt is calling for a short-term economic stimulus, long-term budget responsibility, and says the President is playing politics with the economy. How do you respond to that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the congressman gave an interesting speech today. He called for $75 billion worth of tax cuts or rebates. He called for incentives for businesses, an interesting proposition. He went on and talked about several other issues that involve triggers and caps. And it's interesting that he's talking about tax cuts. The President does believe that the tax cut that was enacted into law, with the help of a great many Democrats, has helped bring the economy back to the point where it has come back from the recession that began early in the President's term, even before the President took office.
And so we'll take a look at what the President said. We want to work with Democrats and Republicans alike. We don't agree with everything that he said; certainly the political points of his speech we just don't pay attention to. But we want to continue to work with Democrats and Republicans alike on the substantive issues that are moving on the Hill.
Q So the $75 billion one-time tax rebate for working families is something the President might be able to support?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, there's always a need to take a look at the specifics. When it comes to somebody supporting tax relief, what exact tax programs are they talking about. But the idea of tax incentives to help stimulate growth is always an interesting idea. Not to say the President is willing to embrace everything Congressman Gephardt said, but he gave an interesting speech.
Q Ari, as the President has called for more accountability and transparency from corporate executives, does the President think it's wise policy for his top economic advisor to give a speech to a select few of these professionals and make it unavailable to the American public and the average investor by doing it off the record and dis-inviting the press who had already been invited?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of the event that you --
Q Dr. Lindsey is speaking at 1:00 p.m. on the economy. Here.
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not aware.
Q And there's no reason for it to be off the record.
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of the speech or the event. And so, I really can't give you any guidance on it.
Q Do you think that he should be allowed to make speeches off the record to small groups of professionals?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's always a mix in government of people who give remarks in private and people who give remarks in public. Obviously, not everything everybody inside the White House does is covered 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Q But a speech to a group -- shouldn't people be allowed to hear what the administration's views on the economy are, given that it has market value, these comments?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not familiar with who he's giving the speech to, so I can't really go beyond that.
Q Ari, has the President considered or would he consider going to dinner in the Virginia or Maryland suburbs or making some other trip to reassure people?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, the region is going through a terrible time right now with the sniper. Families are scared and the President, as he said yesterday, his heart goes out to these families. When a mom has to physically shield a child when they drop a child off at school, it's frightening for everybody in the region, and the President has tremendous empathy and care about what's happening.
I just have to resist the temptation to compare the President's travels or actions, because the President obviously travels in such a different security environment than an individual who takes a child to school. It's just hard for me to make that connection. So it's --
Q Does the President think that people should be reassured and go about their daily life? Or does he think at this point, erring on the side of caution is more advisable?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President, number one, has wanted to make certain that all the resources of the federal government have been made available through the ATF, through the FBI and through other agencies of the federal government, as well, to help the local law enforcement community. And that's been done. The President urges people to take all reasonable and prudent cautions that the law enforcement community indicates that should be taken.
Q On the question of federal resources when it comes to the sniper, there are conversations and local authorities have asked the Pentagon not only to go through their database of people recently discharged who might have this training, but they've also raised the possibility of perhaps assistance, maybe some surveillance people or other military assets to help the investigation. Has that been discussed with the President? Secretary Rumsfeld would have to apparently sign an order because of the limits on what the military can do in terms of domestic law enforcement.
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know. Let me take a look into that and let you know.
Q And at the stakeout today, Governor Ridge said he would like to have the department of homeland security obviously passed this week before Congress is supposed to go home, but he also made note of the fact that everybody assumes there will be a lame duck session and that maybe they could do it then, if they didn't get it done this week. Could it be done then and still meet the President's goal of having a new department up and running by January 1st?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, obviously the department of homeland security is an important priority for this administration. The President proposed it, and Congress initially said they hoped they could get it done by the one-year anniversary of the attack, September 11th. And that was not the case. We will continue to work with the Congress and hope that the remaining differences can be bridged so that it can be done.
I think the President very much wants Congress to do it before they go home. But I don't think it's a sure bet in anybody's eyes that there will or won't be a lame-duck session of the Congress. But even if there is, a lame duck is not the way to do the people's business. Lame ducks typically don't get a lot of work done. They typically are holding patterns to follow through on a few typically appropriate bills and then they leave.
I think right now Congress is approaching the great muddle at the end. And nobody really knows how Congress will get through this muddle. There are a tremendous number of issues that Congress has left unaddressed particularly in the United States Senate. That includes passage of the budget; passage of the appropriation bills; passage of welfare reform; passage of homeland security; passage of faith-based legislation; confirmation of judges; the Treaty of Moscow -- the reduction of offensive weapons hasn't even begun in the Senate. So there are a host of issues that have not gotten done -- terrorism insurance -- and we'll just have to see if Congress can work its way out of the end-of-the-year muddle.
Sometimes the end of the year provides an incentive for Congress to finish. The problem is, there's no indication from the Congress about when the end of the year is. There's no deadline for the members of Congress to work up against to give them incentive to get their business done.
Q Ari, as potentially as early as today a piece of legislation will come up in the House sponsored by Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy. It's a bipartisan piece of legislation --
MR. FLEISCHER: Sponsored by?
Q Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy. However, it does have Republican supporters, as well. It's clearly a bipartisan bill. This piece of legislation will provide more records aimed at explaining why people are rejected when they go through a background check for a weapon. Is this a piece of legislation the President would support?
MR. FLEISCHER: I would have to take a look at the specifics of it, and I'll try to let you know. I have to see specifically what it says.
Q Following up, has the President or anyone else in the White House heard from the NRA asking whether or not the President was going to hang tough in terms of not doing anything reactionary, jumping on legislation? Has there been any lobbying at all into this building from he NRA or any other groups, similar groups?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I'm typically not in a position where I would hear about every lobbyist in this town -- there are thousands of them -- and exactly what conversations they have. So I really couldn't tell you. I just know what the President feels and what the President thinks and his record of supporting tough enforcement of laws so that people who commit crimes do their time.
Q The McCarthy legislation specifically would help enforce existing legislation by explaining why people are rejected. Along those lines, what you're saying, does that mean that there might be some --
MR. FLEISCHER: I'll take a look at the specifics of the McCarthy legislation and let you know what the policy people say.
Q Ari, you've stated some of the reservations with the idea of fingerprinting, firing the gun and leaving a fingerprint. Would the President be willing to lead on a new effort to find a mechanism that will help identify people who use guns that can not be erased by a file, like -- a new formula, a new way?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not sure what you're asking.
Q What I'm asking, is you expressed reservations about this system that has been proposed. But if enough money is invested and enough scientists, maybe we can come up with a mechanism that can give us an answer by which we can identify each gun individually.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I can't speak for every technological innovation that could take place, but obviously to the degree that technology increasingly has helped solve crimes, the President is all for that. Technology has been a very important part and a constantly evolving part of how the law enforcement community gathers information about criminal acts that have taken place.
Q I have a question for you, excuse me. Again, going back to New Jersey, and I don't live in New Jersey, but is the President going to visit New Jersey to help Doug Forrester, who seems to be behind in the polls?
MR. FLEISCHER: We will, as always, keep you informed about the President's travel and the President's schedule. And he will go where he deems most appropriate and most helpful, and we'll keep you plugged in as the schedule develops.
Q The President tomorrow is going to meet with Sharon. Can you tell us what he wants to do with that meeting and what he -- what kind of assurances the U.S. is going to provide Israel in the case of a war with Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: One, the meeting will take place tomorrow afternoon, and so I'll endeavor after the meeting to give you as much of a read as I can about what actually transpired. I can tell you the President is looking forward to talking to the Prime Minister about the fundamental issues involving peace in the Middle East, with Israel and the Palestinians and making progress on the Middle East peace front. That's the reason the President is having this meeting, principally.
And on that front, it continues to be very important, in the President's opinion, for Israel to live up to its responsibilities to help promote peace in the Middle East, for the Palestinians to do the same, and for the Arab neighbors to continue to do the same. There has been less violence in the region recently, but there is still too much violence in the region. And the President wants to make certain that the path toward reform is continued. That's where he sees the best prospects for peace in the future.
As far as anything involving Iraq, given the fact that the President has not made any decisions about anything military, I think it's going to be premature to get into anything specific about anything that might involve any countries in the region. But we'll in all cases have close consultation with all our friends in the region as events move forward.
Q But I mean, has the President -- the President has plans on his desk. He has not chosen one of those plans, but he does have military plans on his desk. And clearly, whatever Israel does or doesn't do, if Iraq were to fire something at Israel would be an important thing to discuss in terms of planning what might happen. And when you say, clearly they will discuss --
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think that given the fact that we're dealing in hypotheticals, the administration will have close consultation not only with Israel but with all neighbors in the region as events develop. And it's impossible to predict how those events will develop.
Q Are you saying they're not going to talk about it tomorrow?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let the meeting take place tomorrow and I'll try to give you any more read that I can.
Q Back on the sniper situation, a top-ranking NRA has been noted as saying before that guns don't kill people, people kill people. Where does that statement fall in the midst of this sniper attack that is now classified as a form of terror? And also, if the President is not for the McCarthy proposal, what about another proposal to stiffen gun -- background checks for gun control?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President does believe that there can be changes in the law that are effective in combating crime, and that's why the President has supported an expansion of the instant background check system. That's why he has supported an increase in the minimum age at which somebody can own a handgun from 18 to 21. That's why he supports a semi-automatic assault weapons ban for juveniles. He supports volunteer child safety locks on handguns, as well as he has supported a ban on importation of high-capacity ammunition clips. Not all of these are positions popular with the NRA. The President took those positions because he thinks they're the right thing to do.
But when it comes to criminal behavior and people who use guns to commit murder, there's no amount of laws that is going to stop these people from committing these depraved crimes. The issue is the morality; the issue is their values. And they have broken the law, they will break the law. New laws don't stop people like this. What stops people like this is tough enforcement of the laws, the additional resources the President has provided to state governments so that if somebody commits a crime, they know they will be prosecuted for the crime and serve time.
Q But, Ari, you pointed out a bit about the fact that the President doesn't always stand lockstep with the NRA. But let's talk about that statement. Where does that statement fall in light of this?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think it's a real moral issue that people have wrestled with for years. But the fact of the matter is that there are depraved, sick people who commit these crimes, and that is really a matter of society and that individual's values more than it is a matter of any one law that could stop somebody from doing that. And this is where the President has talked about a culture that welcomes life, teachers and parents who teach right from wrong. These are the issues that people face, too.
Q Ari, aside from bills that the President is already pushing for like the energy bill and the terrorism insurance bill, does the President have any plan to come up with any new proposals a la Gephardt today for economic stimulus?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, he has never ruled it out. And so that is always an option for the President. Given how much time is left in the Congress, however, and given how little Congress has done on the existing proposals that they have pending before them does raise questions in the last few hours of the Congress being in town possibly. Will the Congress be able to act on anything new? So the answer is, no, he hasn't ruled anything out. But there is a lot pending before the Congress right he hopes they get to.
Q Thank you. By the way, you and the President are invited to my suburban home any time for dinner. I think it's safe out there.
On Iraq, are you able to list the countries which might come to America's aid, might help form a coalition? And do you have any statements to make for the members of the public in some of those countries who are nervous about the link -- the Bali bombing they feel was a result of their support of America's policies?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, I'm not certain that anybody has said that the bombing is a result of support for America's policies. What people have said around the world, that the bombings are acts of terrorists, and the terrorist act and the terrorists need to be condemned. Not America or support for America.
Two, I was asked a question last week about nations that the President talks about forming a coalition of the willing in the event that the United Nations does not proceed. And I think that
-- I'm not going to get ahead of events. Let's allow the United Nations to proceed. And then I think it will be appropriate if it comes to an alternative approach to a multilateralist decision that it will be clear at that time.
Q But they talk about 10 countries -- does that sound about --
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, really I'm not going to put my finger on a number of countries. I think it remains to be seen. But it will be a good number of countries.
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester.
Q The Associated Press reports that on Sunday in Middlebury, Vermont, where you gave a speech and were given an alumni achievement award, there were more than 500 protestors.
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, it was more than that. (Laughter.)
Q WVMT in Burlington reports that you thoughtfully pointed out that their protest banner was posted backwards and you also told them, "the hardest part of my job is knowing what not to say." And my question: How could you tell them this when you so often do not say with such evident skill?
MR. FLEISCHER: (Laughter.) Well, in keeping with the spirit of not saying anything, Les, let's go to Dave. (Laughter.)
Q No, wait a minute --
MR. FLEISCHER: And on the poster, I was just trying to be helpful.
Q When the chairman of The New York Times Pinch Sulzberger was asked at a shareholders' meeting --
Q Punch --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's Punch.
MR. FLEISCHER: Punch.
Q No, it's Pinch.
Q It's Punch.
Q Punch was the father. I'm a shareholder of The New York Times. He was asked, could you explain to us why you fired a renowned editor named Abe Rosenthal? And Sulzberger replied, "That is a personnel matter on which I will not comment." And my question is, since the Times refused to report this Salzberger refusal to provide information, do you believe it
was fair of this newspaper to report of you, "White House keeps a grip on its news"?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, given the fact that The New York Times is the next person I was about to call on for a question, we'll go right to The New York Times for a question.
Q A dodge. That's an evasion, Ari.
Q No, the evasion will be me. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: Do you have a question I can evade? (Laughter.)
Q I do have a question. John Bolton today referred to the process you'll have to go through in Iraq after Saddam is no longer in power as de-Nazification. I was wondering whether he was reflecting the White House's view of what could take place, whether you can explain a little more what kind of de-Nazification you have in mind? And tell us whether or not these comparisons which have popped up periodically with the Nazi regime and Iraq to your mind have the right tone to them?
MR. FLEISCHER: David, on that question, this is the first of what I've heard of what Secretary Bolton has said. And so allow me to take a look at what he has said in complete context and talk to him before I comment specifically on that.
There is an opinion, however, of course, about the Ba'ath regime and the nature of a regime that oppresses its people and engages in hostility against its neighbors. And that's why I think Congress, going back to the '98 Iraq Liberation Act, made regime change our policy. But I'll take a look specifically at what was said.
Q Can you get back to us today on that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me talk to him and see if I can.
Q Is the administration proposing some sort of compromise on terrorism insurance? And can you explain what it is?
MR. FLEISCHER: The administration continues to talk to the Hill about terrorism insurance, about the 9/11 commission, about homeland security, about faith-based legislation, hopefully about welfare reform. These are why I was saying there are many issues that remain in the great muddle on the Hill as they get ready to leave for the year, or leave until the lame duck.
On terrorism insurance, we do continue to talk to them about how to preserve jobs and make certain that people who own buildings that are hit by terrorists, if that would be the case, are not made liable for something they had no responsibility or no involvement in. And so these are ongoing discussions and we continue to hope that there will be agreements reached.
Q On homeland defense, we know about the letter and, obviously, the Cabinet heads. Is the administration only asking in homeland security for the same authority that it has in other Cabinet departments? I thought you were asking for somewhat broader authority?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the administration, when it proposed the department of homeland security, used the existing example of current agencies. And we thought it was an entirely reasonable proposal to say, treat the new department just like you treat the existing departments when it comes to collective bargaining, when it comes to hiring and firing. And hiring and firing, there are tremendous delays often in the existing agencies, particularly where it can take up to five months to hire some experts at a time when our nation needs to move quickly.
What's happened is the President's ability under current law to protect in the existing agencies is being stripped away from him as a price for the creation of the department of homeland security, and that's what we object to.
Q But you're saying you're only asking for the same authority that you already have in other departments, not broader authority and not the authority to classify a whole group of people under the national security waiver, rather than individuals?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is seeking the same authority. And the only question is, why, at time of war, won't Congress give it.
Q Ari, sticking with the muddle, you're running up to a point where recess appointments are going to expire and some nominees are probably not going to be confirmed before the clock runs out on this session of Congress. How frustrated is the President that 21 or almost 21 months into his term, he's still without some key players?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it really has been a slowpoke year on confirmations. The pace of confirmations is far beyond the pace of confirmations of previous Congresses with previous Presidents in their first two years in office. That's particularly true for the judiciary. And it's really unfortunate. It's really not about whether it's the political thing to do, as much as it is about serving the country by allowing whoever a President is to put his or her team in place. And it has not been a distinguished year for the Senate, particularly this year.
Q What can the President do about it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President can only cajole, and that's what he has done. But it really is a sad reflection on how politics can invade so much of what happens in Washington these days where a President's historical ability to appoint people to positions in government is no longer honored the way it used to be.
Q House Ways and Means Chairman Thomas tomorrow is planning to mark up a pension reform bill that would have added to it UI -- unemployment insurance extension, small business tax relief and corporate inversion moratorium. Is the administration supportive of this proposal? And Daschle and Lott have indicated that they haven't ruled it out.
MR. FLEISCHER: I want to take a look again at the exact specific provisions that they are scheduled to mark up, and I may be able to help you on that a little more tomorrow when they see what the specifics are. But this is more part of all the various pieces that are moving around here at the end of the year. And we certainly would like to work with the Congress on promotion of things that are good for the economy, including the terrorism insurance bill, as I mentioned. So we'll keep working with the Congress and see.
Q With respect to the national ballistic tracing system, I wonder if you could clarify something for me. Under the U.S. Patriot Act, there are individual rights that are in question, because the provisions in there, at times, with respect to individual privacy, are superseded by protecting Americans. That seems to be the administration's argument for sometimes protecting us against terrorism at the expense of privacy or individual rights. So would you clarify for me why, if there are spent shell casings such as in the case that was found in one of the sites here, why the administration would be opposed to being able to trace that back to a gun purchaser? Are you concerned about the privacy rights of an individual gun owner, at the expense of the safety of Americans?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, it gets back to the exact point I was making before, and that is, there are law-abiding Americans, and then there are criminals. And just as if you were to fingerprint every single law-abiding American, it might give you a helpful clue to determine who engaged in a robbery or in a theft. Do you want to apply that across the board, for every instance. And the President does believe that law-abiding citizens have the right to bear arms. And what we must do is crack down on existing laws and enforce the laws we have, so that people who commit crimes, especially crimes with guns, will be fully prosecuted and serve time.
Q Following that point a little bit, the AFT study from May of this year that you cited a little while ago concludes that there have only been two cases in the investigators' study where weapons had been altered in an attempt to disguise the fact that it had been used in the commission of a crime, and the report concludes beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is, in fact, a very effective and useful tool, already in place in 160 different jurisdictions around the country. The reports argues it would make sense to do it nationally, and one day, under existing law, it will. With that being the ATF's stated position, why is it that the President can't say he supports this?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that you're mixing up two different provisions that are in operation with the ATF. One is what is currently being used to assist to make certain that this is how we know, by tracing the bullets, to see if the bullet that was fired in the first instance matches the bullet that was fired in the second or the third or the fourth instance, if those bullets match up. And if the bullets match up, then they have conclusive proof that it was fired from the same weapon, i.e., it's the same criminal conducting the acts. There's a difference between that and a program that would involve tracing the handgun itself, or any other weapon itself.
Q But the study does make clear that it, in fact, probably is more effective with rifles and semi-automatic weapons, like we have in these shootings in the Washington area, because shell casings are left behind. Handguns don't do that.
MR. FLEISCHER: But you were making the point about it being expanded to additional jurisdictions. That's the provision that involves the tracing of the bullets, to make certain that -- to see if the bullets were fired from the same weapon. That doesn't alter what I said before about the other issues involved in a nationwide program.
Q That was actually my question.
MR. FLEISCHER: Russell.
Q You've said the President wants regime change in Iraq, by which I take it to mean the President wants to overthrow the government in Iraq. Why don't you just say the President wants to overthrow the government in Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: Russell, I think you need to address your question to the hundreds of members of Congress who in 1998 voted for regime change as America's policy under President Clinton, who signed it into law.
Q If I could follow up, Ari.
MR. FLEISCHER: Go ahead.
Q You use the term regime change. Why don't you just say, we want to overthrow the government of Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because I describe the law as the law was described when it passed and as it's been commonly referred to.
Q Okay, the second question, Ari.
MR. FLEISCHER: Third.
Q Second. That was a follow-up. If India adopted the Bush administration's policy on preemptive attack, vis a vis let's say Pakistan, or if China adopted the Bush administration policy on preemptive attack, vis a vis Taiwan, would you consider that a lawful policy under international law?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think what's different is the unique history of Iraq and the irrationality of Iraq. Different policies work in different regions of the world, and different doctrines work at different times and in different regions because of the local circumstances. Policies of containment work more with a rational figure than with an irrational one. That's why the policy of containment worked vis a vis the Soviet Union.
Iraq, on the other hand, given its military history, given the amount of weaponry that Iraq has acquired that they have actually used to invade their neighbors, to attack their neighbors, to launch missiles against their neighbors, has not been deterred by such policies in the past. Given the fact that an irrational leader who has a history of military force and military use and military aggression and domination may acquire a nuclear weapon, the question is, should it be the policy of the United States to do nothing, and allow such a leader to acquire a weapon that he could then use to blackmail the world and blackmail the region, and even use it to harm us.
Q Ari, is French opposition to a single resolution in the Security Council now so rigid that a U.S. single and stronger solution is now impossible? Will the President go ahead with plans to disarm Iraq without U.N. approval?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that was Bill's question earlier in the briefing, and we continue to work through the United Nations. The amount of time that the President indicated he was prepared to give on this matter is still within the limits that the President had established when he went to the United Nations on September 12th. So we will continue to work through the United Nations to make the case, to work with the French, to work with the Chinese and the Russians and the British, as well as the other members of the Security Council. So it remains in the hands of the diplomats.
Q In a new Congress will the administration be interested in getting behind a broad tax reform push? And if so, does the President have any sort of broad philosophical principles that he would bring to bear in that debate?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's too soon to say. The issue of tax reform is an always important issue. The President does think the tax code is too complicated, that it could be made simpler. But it's too soon to say whether or not that's going to result in any type of action or not. It's a major issue, often a difficult issue. And the more you dig into it, the more complicated it gets. So the President will be looking forward to listening to different ideas that different people have.
Q Does he have any baseline preferences, base broadening versus -- in return for lower rates, a value-added approach?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think the present approach is the issue from a position of being willing to listen, to being open minded to various ideas, while understanding the complexity of it.
Q Ari, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel delivered a letter to Sharon a couple of days ago, urging restraint in the Palestinian areas. Is there anything you can tell us about why the President wanted to deliver that message at this time?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, and, of course, that's a follow-up to the statements that have been made publicly here in the White House about the need to protect civilians. And as the President has repeatedly said, all parties have a responsibility. And the protection of civilians is an important priority, an important issue. The President has a lot of humanitarian thought and feel toward the legitimate needs of the Palestinian people. And he wants to continue to impress that message on Israel. It's important for Israel to hear that message.
Q If I could ask one more question about Prime Minister Sharon. He's made quite clear that unlike the Gulf War, Israel will not be holding its fire this time around, should push come to shove. Is that helping or hurting the administration's coalition-building efforts, or is it a matter of indifference?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think that this is going to be an issue that if it becomes appropriate, we'll be in close consultations not only with Israel, but with others in the region. Saudi Arabia, for example, was the victim of Scud attacks in 1991 by -- launched by Iraq. And we will continue to consult closely with Israel and other nations there. But if you're asking in the context of tomorrow's meeting, I will do my best to report tomorrow. I can't predict everything that's going to be discussed tomorrow today.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.
END 1:20 P.M. EDT