For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
October 23, 2001
Transcript October 23, 2001
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
9:53 A.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good morning, gagglers. For those of you who have just returned from China, good evening.
The President this morning had breakfast with Speaker Hastert, Leader Daschle, Minority Leader Gephardt and Minority Leader Lott. I'll go into the agenda on that in just a moment. He's meeting with the National Security Council now.
At 1:40 p.m., Dr. Rice is going to have a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Peres. The President is going to do a drop-by of that meeting. I expect at that meeting the President will convey his condolences for the assassination of Minister Zeevi. He will also urge Israel to withdraw from Palestinian areas.
At 3:20 p.m., the President will have a meeting in the Cabinet Room with members of Congress to inform them on his Asia trip. We'll post the list of members. I believe it's either National and Foreign Relations Committee members, leadership who are coming to that, and actually, it's International Relations Committee, it's Appropriations Committee chairs and rankings, it looks like, and we will have that posted for you shortly.
That meeting will be pool, most likely at the bottom of that meeting. We're trying to work out the time on that right now. That's a little fluctuation right now. So you'll have coverage of the President at that time.
At the meeting with the congressional leaders this morning, they discussed a wide variety of matters. One was an update on the war effort, and two, then they shifted to the congressional agenda, and they spoke about the aviation bill.
The President again reiterated that he hopes that the House will be able to pass that bill. He prefers that route to an EO; and urged the House to be able to get an agreement and take action. He talked about the stimulus package and the need for Congress to move quickly on the stimulus to help the economy.
He talked about the counterterrorism legislation and urged the Congress to move swiftly on that matter. They talked about the appropriation bills, and also a little bit about judges and the importance of confirming judges. And that's the highlights of that meeting.
Q How about anthrax?
MR. FLEISCHER: They talked about anthrax as well. But, again, most of the meeting was focused on the update of the war in Afghanistan and on congressional agenda.
Q Why is it such a sidebar -- they talked about anthrax?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the purpose of the meeting -- well, first, to call it a sidebar -- they talked about theirs -- the President again committed that the federal government would do everything it could to help and a collaborative effort that's been underway involving the federal agencies and localities.
But much of the meeting was -- talked about the legislative agenda, because those are the trains that are sitting in stations ready to move.
Q Okay, but, Ari, was this like one of the top topics at this meeting was anthrax --
MR. FLEISCHER: These were all topics at the meeting.
Q No, but since this place was shut down and people have died, I mean, was this a top priority? Was this at the beginning of the agenda? I mean, this --
MR. FLEISCHER: It was one of the subjects that came up, yes.
Q What did he say about the war in Afghanistan? What was his report?
MR. FLEISCHER: That portion of it was just the principles that the Vice President, the President and members of Congress, and this has become a regular part of what they do. This is a part of the briefing that would be classified, where he gives them information about the war effort, and it's part of his desire to share information with the top congressional leaders to keep them informed.
Q Was he upset about the leaks as Rumsfeld is?
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, I did not ask specifically what they discussed in that portion of the meeting, so I really can't shed any light on it.
Q You were not there?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. The only people there for that were the President, the Vice President, the four leaders, and I believe Director Tenet came in for a portion of that as well.
Q Gephardt said afterwards that we have to quit parsing words, and call the anthrax up on the Hill, and in the post office, weapons grade material. Do you guys agree with that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Is that what Gephardt said? I thought I heard him talk about aerosolized --
Q He said it was weapons grade stuff.
Q I think we need to stop parsing words, and not calling it weapons grade is not particularly helpful. He was very clear.
Q But he was reminded that -- from this podium -- it was said that it wasn't. He said it's time to stop parsing.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes.
Q It's not helpful to --
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me go back and take a look at what he said before I comment on it.
Q Well, no, I'm not misrepresenting what Gephardt said.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I'd rather take a look, and see what he said, and I'll be back for the briefing.
Q Let me rephrase the question then. Does the White House believe this is weapons grade material?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's a scientific definition, based on the number of microns that are involved. Clearly, it's a threat to public health. It is something that is being used as a weapon to hurt people.
Q Have investigators been able to prove more of a link to September 11th with these anthrax cases yet?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, there's no new or any more hard evidence that's been developed since yesterday on that front.
Q Also, have top U.S. officials now, in the government, White House officials and other agencies, other U.S. officials, had their home mail -- is it now being checked for suspicious packages or letters?
MR. FLEISCHER: You said top officials where?
Q Within the government.
MR. FLEISCHER: I can't speak for all of the government. At the White House, obviously, anything like that dealing with security arrangements that are being made are things we don't typically talk about in all cases. I'd have to refer you agency by agency on what anybody else might be doing.
Q Ari, Gephardt also said that -- he said we all suspect that the September 11th attacks and the anthrax outbreaks are linked. Is that now the operating assumption of the White House, of the --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's been the operating suspicion of the White House for a considerable period of time, that terror is behind this, terrorists are behind it, and that they may be linked. But that remains a suspicion. Hard evidence is still being gathered and developed. And suspicion is the right word for it.
Q And given the scope of this, once again, is there an assessment that now that post offices in New Jersey and Washington and Florida are involved, that it is some kind of milled and aerosolized product, is this something that a lone crackpot in a basement would be capable of, or is this evidence of a greater organization, perhaps state sponsorship?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, investigators haven't ruled out either one. Investigators have not ruled out the possibility that this could be a lone person. They haven't ruled out the possibility that it could be state-sponsored.
Q Is there any assessment that it's more likely to be one than the other?
MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing that I've heard.
Q Is there any frustration at not being able to nail this?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that investigators have a history of dealing with issues not exactly like this, but similar, and they understand that it can be painstaking, that it takes time, that they have to be thorough, they have to gather evidence, analyze the evidence. And the people who do this don't often take actions that lend themselves to easy discovery.
And so this is part of what investigators deal with throughout their careers. And I think everybody in the government would like to get this investigated, resolved, and wrapped up as quick as is possible. And no effort is being spared to get that done, but it is taking time.
Q Is the President frustrated at all about the fact that these postal workers weren't tested sooner? After all, you had in New Jersey at the end of last week a couple cases of possible skin anthrax in mail handlers. Is he frustrated? Is he asking questions of Tom Ridge and others, and is he doing any internal assessment about how to make sure, lessons learned here, that this doesn't happen again?
MR. FLEISCHER: Kelly, I think it's fair to say from the President's point of view, he's saddened that any one person anywhere would be victimized by an anthrax attack, whether it's a worker at the AMI facility in Boca Raton, or whether it's people at news organizations in New York City, whether it's congressional staffers, or whether it's people in the postal service or elsewhere along the chain of events. I don't think the President distinguishes. He thinks that any attack that affects anybody is a cause of concern.
And that's why the President, through Governor Ridge and all the federal agencies, have been working very collaboratively with local officials and health officials to move as quickly as possible, to follow scientific leads and evidence, and take action.
Q But, Ari, the question is, did they drop the ball?
Q Should these workers have been tested before? I mean, when there was a scare on the Hill, everybody was tested, boom, right away. They were on the Cipro. And yet, as the government has explained, with the postal workers, there needed to be an evidence chain that was followed. Why wasn't there a lightening-quick reaction all the way up and down the line?
MR. FLEISCHER: That was a question you asked yesterday of Governor Ridge and the Postmaster General and the President of the Postal Letters Union of Letter Carriers, and they responded by saying what they did in the case of the anthrax attack here in Washington, D.C. is they followed the same protocol that was in place in Boca Raton and in the New York City, AMI facility in Boca Raton, NBC up in New York, and the other news agencies in New York. The same procedure that was put in place in those cities was the same procedure that was put in place in Washington. And that's based on scientific knowledge about how best to treat each of those incidents, and you learn from each incident.
What took place in Boca Raton helped shape what took place in New York City; what took place in New York City will help shape what took place in Washington. Clearly, the government wants to move as quickly as possible and prevent the spread of this anywhere it takes place.
Q But it didn't seem to follow the same protocol as on the Hill. There was an enormous reaction on the Hill, and then the reaction followed, as you said, this chain to the Brentwood facility. If the letter that came to the Hill came through the Brentwood facility, why wasn't the same level of alarm raised?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think the same procedure was followed. For example, in AMI, once it was determined that there was anthrax
Q No, I'm talking about the Hill.
MR. FLEISCHER: -- in the mail room there, the people who worked there were given nasal swabs, and then they were given Cipro as a treatment. Same thing happened at NBC up in New York, same thing happened in anyplace where a delivery was found. Same thing happened in Senator Daschle's office and on the Hill.
The people in the affected areas were instantly given nasal swabs just like at AMI, just like at NBC. And the same is true with Senator Daschle's office. And then they traced it backwards through the Postal Service.
The difference is in Washington, it turned out that the Postal Service here was indeed affected. In Boca Raton and in New York or in Trenton, it was much less so when they've traced it back.
Q So is it fair to say that should there, God forbid, be another one of these, the protocols would change and people in the post office would get tested and protected right away.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let me put it to you this way. Prior to September 11th, we were a nation at peace. Since September 11th, we're a nation that's been mobilizing on multiple fronts. And with each mobilization, information is gathered and information is learned. And I think it's fair to say that every incident, whether it's taking place in Afghanistan that can lead to better results on the ground in Afghanistan on that front of the war, or whether it's information that's gathered here domestically if more attacks take place, will be put to use to help prevent future attacks or mitigate future events. We are a nation that is mobilizing. We have not had to deal with this the way we have before.
Q Let's try it one more time. Knowing what you know now, knowing the lessons that you've learned now, should the post office employees have been tested and treated sooner?
MR. FLEISCHER: Ron, again, you know the reasons why it was done the way it was, and --
Q Knowing what we know now, if this happens again, will the post office --
MR. FLEISCHER: Those are determinations that will be made by the appropriate health officials and the law enforcement officials on the ground.
Q Well, why would there be mysteries?
MR. FLEISCHER: And that will be the collaborative effort of the CDC, of local health officials, et cetera. And I think it's fair to say that we will always try to move as quickly as possible in all cases to do as much for everybody who may or may not have handled it.
Q The President is satisfied with how quickly the officials acted in this case, he's satisfied?
MR. FLEISCHER: Like I said, the President thinks that any one case is a case for concern and is saddened by any one case.
Q Is he satisfied, though, with the reaction of the government and health officials in this case?
MR. FLEISCHER: He's satisfied that, given the state of knowledge about how what was handled in Boca Raton and New York City was handled, that they did everything they could based on what they knew. I don't think it's fair to say that the President will ever be fully satisfied until the people who have done this are caught.
Q But what I'm confused about is why you're not prepared to say definitively that the protocol should change now if, based on what we've seen in the Washington case, that evidence chain could ultimately lead some people --
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't rule that out, but that's a determination that you should expect to hear from the proper scientific authorities. So if I don't answer it myself, it's because I'm not the proper scientific authority to make that determination. I don't rule out --
Q Do you know if the President has said the protocol should change, based on what we know now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Things are being looked at now, conversations are being held. Governor Ridge is leading that collaborative effort, in terms of coordinating with all the agencies. So it's a very fair question. There's a reason I don't answer it, and again, that has to come from the proper scientific authorities.
Q Will we hear from them today, from this podium, do you think?
MR. FLEISCHER: Actually -- did I bring it with me? Let me tell you who is briefing today. I know that General Ashcroft is going to be out following a meeting he's having with the German Minister of Interior. That's mid-morning. I don't have the time with me. And I know Richard Boucher -- I'm briefing at 12:30 p.m., Richard Boucher is briefing at 1:00 p.m., and I believe Torie Clark is briefing at 1:45 p.m. Those are the briefings we currently have for the day.
Q We don't expect to see Ridge today, here?
MR. FLEISCHER: Those are the briefings we currently have for the day. We'll see if anything changes.
Q Ari, people just use their common sense -- I mean, after this now, yesterday, and especially the gentleman who went to -- who lived in Clinton, Maryland, he went to the doctor, he was sick, they sent him home. Will the federal government tell doctors now to start looking for different things, not just look at the flu -- look at different strains, and just let people follow their common sense, instead of relying on the federal government, who is following procedure, and this procedure did not work in this case?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, obviously people primarily listen to their doctors on all these cases. That is the first line. And what has been put in place is a system where the Centers for Disease Control, working through emergency rooms throughout the nation -- I believe it's every eight hours they have a reporting procedure, where the CDC will receive any changes in behavior of people coming into emergency rooms, detecting patterns. That's one of the ways that first warnings are given to the federal government about what doctors in emergency rooms or other places are seeing.
Q Every eight hours?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's something like that. That's right, Terry.
Q Has that been instituted since September 11th, or --
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?
Q -- has that always been in place?
MR. FLEISCHER: I got briefed on that yesterday. I didn't get briefed on when it began.
Q -- recent --
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. That's how CDC helps monitor events.
Q But Ari, a follow-up to that. This goes back to the same situation almost on 9/11, when the people in the World Trade Center were told by the Port Authority to stay there, everything is fine. The people at Brentwood were told, keep on working, you know, everything is fine. Is it a point now, don't rely on the federal government, don't rely on government, just go for yourself -- if there is a situation that you're hearing about, and it could affect you, use common sense, don't always rely on us to wait for us to tell you something?
MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, April, I think if you take a look at most measures of what the public is thinking, the public is increasingly turning to the federal government -- and with confidence -- about the things the federal government is doing and saying.
Q -- Brentwood -- federal government --
MR. FLEISCHER: People should always use their common sense, but I think this has been a time when the American people do think the federal government is acting wisely, is acting well. And the government is going to continue to make every effort to help protect the citizenry.
Q Ari, one of the messages the President said from the beginning was for the public to be vigilant. Would it be prudent of postal workers in mail sorting rooms at post offices nationwide to be checked, and for those rooms to be checked since, as Congressman Gephardt said today, you did not anticipate the effect of these machines and how they can spread anthrax simply by pressing the envelope.
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, those are decisions that the Postal Service will be making, along with the Postal Union. And I think one of the things you saw yesterday is that management and labor are working very closely together on this. But those will be decisions that the Postal Service will be making as events warrant.
Q Ari, since September 11, the President has visited numerous federal agencies that he has described as being either on the front lines or working intensely behind the front lines on the war on terrorism. Obviously, now, we have two casualties -- from the Postal Service. What kind if gesture, if any, is he planning to make? Is he going to visit Brentwood? Is he going to visit some postal carriers? What is he going to do to show support for them?
MR. FLEISCHER: As you know, yesterday, the President met with the Postmaster General and met with the President of the Letters Carrier Association in the Oval Office, where they discussed what the federal government can do to help postal workers. And, obviously, always stay tuned to the President's schedule -- I'm not indicating there's anything on it of that nature, but he did have such a meeting yesterday.
Q A couple things, now that you've called on me. (Laughter.) The administration's entire -- the President has seemed incredibly focused on the war overseas. And, obviously, there is something going on here. With all the different statements of different folks -- from Ridge to the CDC to Tommy Thompson and everyone else, and the Postmaster General -- there doesn't seem still to be a concerted voice from this administration. And it leads to folks on the ground saying, wondering about the credibility of this administration's effort.
You consistently this morning have said, go to the Postmaster, go to the Postal Service, go to the CDC -- at what point does the President actually come out and say he's looking into everything that's going on and is concerned and is going to put his full focus on this front, as well as the overseas front? And can you tell us his personal reaction, in addition to, one, he's concerned about all the workers, the people exposed. But can you --
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay. Well, you have heard the President talk about this on a --
Q Can I finish my question?
MR. FLEISCHER: Please. (Laughter.)
Q What was his personal reaction to hearing about --
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, you've asked that already? Yes, you asked me that. I was about to get to it.
MR. FLEISCHER: You've heard the President talk virtually every day about the anthrax attacks on the country. And he will continue to speak out about it. The President is, as I indicated earlier, very concerned about it. The President was concerned with the first case of it. And he will remain concerned about it. I wouldn't be surprised if you hear the President talk more about it.
Q Is he worried about his administration's credibility on this, though?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President at all times wants make certain that the government is giving the public all the information that the public needs. And I think if you look at what the public's reaction has been, the public has been supportive of the federal government's actions in this regard.
What you're dealing with in anthrax also is an uncomfortable and bad set of facts. And that's part of what happens in this case, as Governor Ridge put it yesterday, when the war has two fronts. There's the more familiar front, that is the foreign front. But what's happening here, for the first time in some 200 years, with the exception of one day in 1941, is our nation is being attacked domestically. And if this is tied to the foreign terrorists, it's even more of a cause for concern. We don't yet know, concretely, who is behind it.
But there is a bad set of facts any time the nation and its people are under attack as a result of anthrax mailings. And I think people are dealing with that. And that's why I think one of the reasons you see such cause for concern. But I think also, the public does believe that the federal government is doing everything it can.
Q What do you mean a bad set of facts?
MR. FLEISCHER: A bad set of facts meaning that the country is receiving anthrax attacks, people are receiving anthrax in the mail. That's what I mean.
Q Well, what's bad facts?
MR. FLEISCHER: The facts themselves are bad. There's an anthrax attack.
Q You're not saying it's inaccurate, you're saying it's bad news.
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh yes, that's right. Bad, not in terms of accurate or -- that's a press focus. No, the facts are bad.
END 10:10 A.M. EDT