The White House
President George W. Bush
Print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
September 13, 2001

Press Background Briefing by
A Senior Administration Official
the Roosevelt Room

5:22 P.M. EDT

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Thanks for coming.  I understand that our ground rules are BACKGROUND.

     I just wanted to start out by saying a couple of things.  It's been, what, about 60 hours now, something like that, and it's an extraordinary period of time and it's not business as usual.  I think we are obviously trying to get America back open for what it is we do as a country.  But it's not business as usual, and I think what the President has made clear is that this is a long struggle that we are embarking on now, not something that's going to be over in a few days.

     It's also the case, just from my perspective as somebody who spent, really, the first 24 hours just trying to deal with the consequences of what we were facing, trying to assess what had happened, trying to think about what we were going to do in those first several hours, that I don't have an answer to every question you might have.  Okay?  I just don't.

     And, in fact, there are a few that I really have to place off-limits. You're welcome to ask, I'm just saying up front I am not going to be able to talk about options the President may or may not be considering; I'm not going to be able to talk about operational issues around the world.  But I'll try to be as helpful as I can.

     Q    What options is the President considering?  (Laughter.)

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Ron, I knew that was -- that question.  (Laughter.)

     Q    Can you tell us, is there any evidence of any state sponsored terrorism here?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, we're assessing the complete situation.  We've got all of the assets of the U.S. government and, I might say, we're getting a lot of help from a lot of other countries, as well, to try to assess the information that we have on what happened, who was responsible.

     I think the President made very clear in his statement that we know that terrorism is not just a matter of the terrorists, but that there often are support networks, as well as others who harbor them and support them. And we're trying to get a sense for who it is and how to go about it. We're going to give opportunities to those who we might suspect of supporting to demonstrate that they're not being supporting.

     Q    The President suggested today that this was an opportunity to save generations of Americans by whipping terrorism.  You said that, remarking on something that's happened over the two days.  Does the President see this as a multi-year campaign, rather than an effort to retaliate against a series of terrorist acts?  Is this fundamentally different from all we've done in the past?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  This is fundamentally different from what we've done in the past because -- look, we will -- undoubtedly, over a period of time a number of things may unfold here.  But you cannot, in one action or even in several actions, begin to really cripple terrorism in the way that we hope, along with partners around the world, to be able to cripple terrorism.  So, yes, this is a long struggle, not a short one.

     Q    Can I clarify what you said?  When you said multi-year, were you saying that, yes, it will be a multi-year --

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  If it takes multi-year, we'll devote multi-year.  And I think it's probably a good thing to think that it probably will.

     Q    Can you clarify, you say that you are giving those countries that you may suspect of being involved in any kind of state-sponsored terrorism, to prove that they are not.  Can you flesh that out a little bit?  Would that include, for instance, saying to Afghanistan, produce Osama bin Laden? Is that --

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I'm not going to get into details. But you know, for instance, the Secretary of State talked about the fact that we talked to the Pakistanis today about the efforts that we would like to have them make.  We know that it is a difficult situation in Pakistan, but we have also been in long conversation with Pakistan about what they might be able to do to help in this effort against terrorism.  This goes back to the Clinton administration, having these discussions with Pakistan. I think what we're saying is it's time to step up.

     Q    What did you ask them to do?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Again, I don't want to get into specifics of what was said here.  You may want to refer this question to State, because State is the one that had this discussion with the Pakistanis.  But I can tell you we've asked them to do some specific things.

     Q    -- borders, cut off fuel, that sort of thing?


     Q    Stay the same?  Close the borders, cut off fuel supplies?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, there were a number of actions that they were specifically asked to take.

     Q    Are they taking them?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  It's not been three hours yet, John. We'll see.  But I think we're hopeful -- Pakistan, we have a long and good relationship with Pakistan.  It's been difficult, as you know, since Musharraf came to power by extraconstitutional means, but we do believe that Pakistan has reason to want to help us.  But we'll see if they do.

     Q    In conversations with other world leaders, is the President also making specific requests of countries like Saudi Arabia, or is he simply receiving condolences?  These are not, as an official suggested today, just good, you know, offers of goodwill that they're --

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, a couple of things are happening.  First of all, people are offering a lot of goodwill, and that's important at this point.  And I think the point that's been made repeatedly in all of the President's calls is that everybody who has called, in effect, says, it could have been us.

     There is an understanding that the United States was the target, but that terrorism targets freedom, terrorism just doesn't target the United States.  And so I think there is a kind of commonality of purpose that is emerging here.

     I think a second thing that I'd say about these phone calls is that the President is listening to the people that he's been talking with on their ideas about how to further rally the globe against terrorism.  There are a lot of things that he can do internationally, with partners -- intelligence, of course, support to military options.  You can also do a great deal on the financial side.

     But there are a lot of things an international coalition can do, the different members of a coalition can do.  But the President has been largely rallying folks who understand, I think, that they've got a stake in this, too.

     Q    Let me ask you, we've asked the Pakistanis many times before to help us with Osama bin Laden and in dealing with the Taliban.  How confident are you now that they are going to cooperate and what are the incentives?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, Pakistan -- ever since we've been here, the Pakistani government has been coming in to see all of us and tell us they don't want to be isolated from us; that they want to resume a normal relationship with the United States; that they understand that there's a lot at stake.

     And I think what we're saying is that it is not possible to have any of that if we can't get cooperation on things that matter to us when there's been an attack on the United States.  I think I would say that there's a new resolve to make clear to Pakistan that it's time to step up.

     Q    -- have pretty good connections to Osama bin Laden --

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I'm sorry, you mean responsibility? Is that what you're saying?  John, we are going to assess the information. I think that we are doing that rapidly.  We are also, we're sifting out this  information that we have, but we are getting a lot of help from other people.  And we don't want to be premature in determining who might have done it, because there might have been not just one but multiple organizations that were involved in this.  And so we're not going to go out there before we're ready.  But we will be ready, eventually, to tell you what we know.

     Q    Can I just follow up to that?  Other administration officials have said that -- information of connections with bin Laden --

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think that right now what we need to do is -- as I said, again, this happened 60 hours ago.  We don't want to be premature, not because we don't want to name or finger someone, but because we want to make sure that we understand all the connections, not just a connection.

     Q    When you talk about a coalition, are you talking about some kind of formal instruments that would bind nations into cooperating in economic and military ways?  Because they're already, everybody -- all nations are basically against terrorism and say the right things.  What will turn it into practical action?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  There are a lot of ways that partners can help in this war on terrorism.  Again, underscoring that everybody has a strong interest in doing something about terrorism.  I don't think there is a country on the globe that's not concerned, and there are some that are more concerned than others.

     And intelligence cooperation is extremely important, for instance. Cooperation on financial assets is extremely important, for instance.  So there are a lot of different things that different partners might be able to do.

     I just want to note that there are a couple of formal organizations that have stepped up.  Of course, there is a U.N. Security Council resolution; and, remarkably, NATO, for the first time in its history, with an Article 5, saying an attack against one is an attack against all.  So there is a lot of support out there.  I don't really want to try to speak to, you know, how formal, in what groupings, because, as I said, it's been 60 hours.  We'll get there.

     Q    The administration has said that -- want to reach out to him, has ways of reaching out to Afghanistan.  Have we been able to do that?  And what are your expectations there?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch the first part of the question.

     Q    One of the other governments that you wanted to reach out to was Afghanistan, in conducting this investigation.  Have you been able to do so, and what are your expectations if you have yet to speak with them?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, we do have ways to contact the Afghan government.  I think that's well known.  But there obviously are issues concerning Afghanistan and terrorism, in general -- I mean, not just this incident, but terrorism in general.  Afghanistan has been branded as one of those countries, so we know that there is something there.  We'll see.  We have not yet reached out to them.

     Q    And your expectations?  What will you be asking of them?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We're asking the same thing, essentially, of everybody, which is that if you're doing anything to help terrorists, stop doing it.  And we're going to be watching, and we're going to be assessing whether people are really doing it.  So we're essentially asking the same thing of everybody.

     Q    Why have you not reached out to them?  Because you know that they are --

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  It's just a matter of time.  We have to get our planning underway.

     Q    What's the state of this international coalition in, sort of, concrete measurable ways, be it financial cooperation, a promise to support a military action, or shared intelligence?  In other words, what's the state of that coalition beyond a sort of shared value system?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, again, I wouldn't focus so much on the international coalition.  As I said, what we believe is that there are a lot of states out there that understand the seriousness of what we're facing and are ready to sign up to try to deal with the scourge that we're all facing.

     Obviously, different countries bring different assets to the struggle. And I think that one thing that we are going to be assessing and talking with people about is what can different countries best do in support of a long-term effort?

     What we don't want to do is to have a quick burst, while everybody is focused on what happened, and then lose sight of the fact that it's going to take some time to root out terrorism.  It took some time for the world to get itself into this situation; it's going to take some time for us to get out of the situation.  And so this has to be sustainable.

       And different countries are going to bring different assets.  And I think part of what the President is beginning to do is to get an assessment of what kinds of assets different countries bring --

     Q    The Secretary of State, yesterday, said that one of the issues behind the NATO action was possibly overflight rights.  Is the United States going elsewhere in the world looking for overflight rights?  And, specifically, have you asked that of Pakistan?  And as a follow-up, the United States already had a massive counterterrorism campaign and effort going on.  What is going to be different about what you're doing now?  Is it just going to be more -- just more, bigger, different rules of engagement?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Let me take the second question first.  Again, it's been 60 hours -- let me just say, we came in with a focus on counterterrorism.  We came in with a strong view that we needed to look hard at how we needed to organize the government to deal with counterterrorism, and how we needed to organize the government to deal with consequence management should something happen.  I think you know, the Vice President had begun to work on exactly these issues.

     None of us expected to be trying to put this into play because we experienced this particular incident.  But it's not as if we haven't thought about how you might get a more robust effort against counterterrorism, by mobilizing others and the assets that they have; by making certain that the entire government is functioning on one page as to how to deal with the counterterrorism threat; and by -- what we've gotten, though, is a kind of new energy to this out of the horrors of an attack of this magnitude on the territory of the United States.

     And things are going to change.  It's the President's goal to change them in a way that matters; to take advantage of what is a horrendous situation to mobilize the world to really take this on, and to be successful at it.

     But as I've said, you have to have a sustained focus.  One of the concerns that everybody has to have is that after we get through the first phases here, that everybody just kind of goes back to doing what they were doing.  This President is committed to not doing that.  He's going to keep a sustained focus until we make some significant progress on this issue.

     Q    My first question, though, about --

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I'm sorry.  I can't get into what we have requested of anyone.  But, we'll see.  We're not at that level of operational planning.

     Q    You said you've given the Pakistanis a chance to prove themselves.  Are you also giving the Taliban the chance to prove themselves, or are they just so complicit with past horrors committed by bin Laden that it's really just too late for that?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We'll see.  But our view is if you tell everybody, at this point -- when the President said, we're going to make no distinctions between those who perpetrated the crime and those who harbor -- that's a very powerful and differently important statement. Because it says you can't be on both sides of this struggle.  You can't harbor terrorists and wink at terrorists and let terrorists use your territory and let them use your financial networks and do all of those things and, at the same time say, we're a friend of the United States.

     Q    Are you confirming, then, that you're putting the same amount of pressure on the Taliban that you are on Pakistan, or any pressure -- maybe not equal -- but is there any pressure being applied?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  There will be a concerted effort now, some in concert with others, some by the United States alone, on anyone that we think may have harbored terrorism related to this event, but related to the terrorist threats to the United States --

     Q    So that includes the Taliban --

     Q    -- a couple of things.  One, you said there could have been multiple organizations.  Is that your suspicion?  And, two, when you talk about the coalition you seem to be saying it's a different kind of coalition than the one Bush 41 built in the Persian Gulf War.

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, that's a very good point, Jim, because as the President has been saying in some of his briefings, this is a different enemy.  It doesn't have a capital.  It doesn't have marching troops.

     So the kind of coalition that you have to put together, the kind of partnerships that you have to put together have to bring different kinds of assets to bear than we're accustomed to in kind of building an alliance if you're about to go out and fight a traditional enemy.  So, yes, it is different than what we did in the Gulf War.

     You had another point, though.

     Q    When you said multiple mobilization --

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I'm just saying we're checking out everything before we decide to say, okay, it was this.  We're checking out everything.

     Q    In your conversations with the Russians, have they made any suggestions they would be helpful to you if you went into Afghanistan?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The Russians were the first to call. The Russians -- the President had already had some discussions with Putin about whether or not there was anything in counterterrorism.  We will -- I think that they will try to be helpful.  But, again, different countries are going to bring different assets.  We've not gotten to the point yet of trying to assess exactly what comes from whom, but I think the Russians will try to be helpful.

     Q    Because they know Afghanistan like no one else, obviously. (Laughter.)

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  That is true.  We'll see.  But the Russians have pledged cooperation, and we'll certainly try to take them up on it, we'll see what that means.

     Q    Under the heading of holding accountable those who harbor terrorists, Paul Wolfowitz as much as suggested that you were prepared to remove from power any government that continues harboring terrorists.  Is that the policy of this administration?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The policy of this administration is to make certain that we do not do what is so often done, which is to make a distinction between whoever we find out perpetrated this exact crime and the people who supported them in various means.

     Now, I don't think we're going to get into a discussion of what "hold accountable" does or does not mean, but it just means that they are not -- shouldn't consider themselves -- if they've been a sanctuary for terrorists, we will not consider their sanctuary --

     Q    So you're saying this time, prove yourself innocent.  Those of you on our suspect list, you have a chance, prove yourself innocent before we go forward.


     Q    Any other countries you're looking at as harboring terrorists -- people involved possibly with this incident or other ones besides Afghanistan?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We are assessing the entire situation.  We're looking at everything at this point.  But as we find out who actually perpetrated the crime, as we find out who they were connected with, as we find out who could be considered harboring them, I think it will come clear.

     But I do want to say something that Jim Angle brought up and asked about, don't assume that this is a single-pronged, one-time event.  This is going to have to be a multi-pronged event over a period of time.  So the questions about, is it this person or is it that person, is it this group or is it that group -- we're trying to do something more comprehensive here, and that's really --

     Q    If I could just follow up to that, because how is the administration sort of dealing -- you see, obviously, tremendous anger on the streets of New York, everywhere in the country.  Is there any pressure of this administration feeling to act quickly?  You talk about this to be a multi-pronged, sustained campaign, but isn't the administration facing pressure to do something rather soon?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The President is going to do something at a time of his choosing.  And he wants to do something that matters, but he understands that doing something that matters may not mean just doing something that matters once, or not just doing something once that matters.  So I believe that he's spoken clearly to the American people about the fact that this is a long struggle, and we'll kind of see what unfolds here.


     Q    You were the first person to bring word, to see him Tuesday morning.  Many of us were with him all of last year, and he talked about the need for -- the military and the importance of foreign policy -- (inaudible) -- and he had some very clear domestic priorities -- and this morning in the Oval Office he said essentially, this has become the issue of my presidency, which I take as a sea change.  Can you walk us through any of the -- without getting into the operational side -- any of the thoughts or observations he's made over the last 60 hours that indicate that kind of a shift?

     DR. RICE:  This is a transforming event for all of us, for the country, for any of us who were going through it, and clearly for the President of the United States.  We've always known that something like this could happen on American soil.  We've all had it as a nightmare.  But you couldn't watch those planes go into the World Trade Towers, you couldn't go out to the Pentagon like we did yesterday and see the side of the Pentagon cratered, you couldn't go through the moments when we didn't know how many planes were still in the air, what else was next on the list, and not be transformed by it.

     It is, in many ways, the toughest moment, I think, for a President of the United States, to see the country suffer in that way.  And it's a defining moment also, at which the President steps up and says, I'm going to use this terribly painful moment to try to make the world better the next time around.  That's what America has always done -- whether it was after Pearl Harbor, where it committed the United States in ways it had never been committed to the international system.  I think that was the sense of what I got from the President.

     And it was, in many ways, almost immediate.  The interesting thing is that, you know, we were all trying to deal with the immediacy of the situation, we were all trying to deal with the consequences of the situation, we were all trying to assess what was happening, But in his very first statement to his National Security Council he said:  this was at attack on freedom and we're going to define it as such, and we're going to go after it, and we're not going to lose focus; and we're going to minister to the country and deal with the horrors that people are experiencing and the consequences; and we're going to get through our period of mourning, but we're not going to lose focus and resolve on what happened here and what this means for the United States of America in its leadership role to mobilize the world, now, to deal with this scourge.  And I think it was much quicker with him than it probably was with any of the rest of us.

     I'll just close by saying that it was pretty remarkable, those first few hours -- coming out of the Situation Room and being told that there was -- we heard that there was a second plane into the World Trade Tower, and then, as we were coming out, that something had hit the Pentagon, that something was likely headed for the White House.  To get down then to the secure facility and hear the code name for Air Force One, there's something headed for Air Force One -- I don't think that you can underestimate, at that moment, that you're sorting lots of information and you're trying to deal with the consequences, but you recognize that something's changed forever in the way that the United States thinks about its security.

     The other thing the President has been very focused on is that even though we are going to be vigilant, we're going to make sure that we do everything we can in terms of security measures and so forth, we're not going to let the terrorists win by changing our way of life.  And I think he has said that very effectively to the congressional leaders that he has had down here, to the families, to the young rescue workers who are at the Pentagon.

                             END         5:52 P.M. EDT

Return to this article at:

Print this document