print-only banner
The White House Skip Main Navigation
In Focus
News by Date
Federal Facts
West Wing

Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
November 12, 2001

Monday's Press Briefing with White House Press Secretary
Press Briefing Index

12:08 P.M. EST

MR. FLEISCHER:  Good afternoon.  This morning, as the President was convening a meeting of his National Security Council to go over the latest developments in the war against terrorism, he received a note handed into the meeting at 9:25 a.m, informing him of the crash of an American Airlines flight at JFK Airport in New York City.  That flight, of course, turned out to be Flight 587, from New York's JFK to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

At that point, Governor Ridge came down into the Situation Room and immediately began a conference call with the Attorney General, with the Director of the FBI, with the Secretary of Transportation, with the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, with officials from the Department of Defense, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration, to monitor events, to receive the latest information, to begin putting in plan the actions the federal government will shortly take.

The President called Mayor Giuliani and spoke with Governor Pataki, and the President expressed to both of them his deepest sympathy for the people of New York to be enduring any other such trauma at a time when New York has already gone through so much.  The President said to both that the federal government will do everything it can to help, and he informed them both that the government was sending up teams as they were speaking.

The President also praised the precautions taken by the Mayor and the Governor, concerning the actions they took on the ground.  Specifically, the federal government has done the following:  the National Transportation Safety Board has a team of investigators on site already, and they have an additional go-team of a larger number of investigators that are en route. The National Transportation Safety Board is the lead investigating agency.

The Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation out of New York City is already on site; and the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, Joe Allbaugh, is en route to New York, will be arriving there later this afternoon.  The New York Disaster Team Office remains open in New York, and Director Allbaugh has stated that four urban search and rescue teams are on standby and are available, in the event that officials in New York seek their assistance -- they will respond, if requested.

That is the status of the information we have at this time.

Q    The fact that the NTSB is the lead on this, is this an indication that you believe that it was an accident as opposed to a criminal act?

MR. FLEISCHER:  John, I want to be very cautious about any conclusions at this early time about what is the cause of this.  As you know, first facts are often facts that are subject to greatest change.  But the National Transportation Safety Board is the lead government agency doing the investigating.

Q    Is there any evidence of terrorism at this point?  And was there any reports of trouble from the cockpit, or smoke from the cockpit?

MR. FLEISCHER:  There were no unusual communications with the cockpit. We have not yet discovered the black box; authorities believe they will find it in this case.  It has not been found at this moment.  There will be additional communications that will be searched to see if there are any other communications, but at this moment all communications were normal prior to the crash.

Q    Is there any evidence of terrorism at this point?

MR. FLEISCHER:  On the question of whether there's any terrorism, as I indicated at the beginning, first information is always subject to change. We have not ruled anything in, not ruled anything out.  But as I mentioned, the investigation is being headed by the National Transportation Safety Board to try to determine the cause of it.

Q    You can't say what other officials have said on background, that there is no evidence of terrorism?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I'm aware of what the other officials have said and I understand why they're saying it.  Just simply, from the White House point of view, where we always maximize caution at a time like this, the White House will continue to gather the facts to review the information.  The President is aware of the statements that have been made by other officials.  There is understandable reason why they said what they've said, and I leave it at that at this moment.  Obviously, the White House, as events unfold, as information becomes available, will make all information available.

Q    You're not disputing that information?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Not disputing anything.

Q    Ari, was there, in fact, an explosion on board, and is that being investigated as something that may be purely related to a mechanical failure at this point?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I saw a report on the news earlier that indicated a government official had said there was an explosion on board.  I've been informed that there was no government official who gave any such indication.  The government continues to gather the facts to ascertain information.  There have been, according to eyewitnesses, information that an engine was seen being detached from the plane, and that it landed separately from the main body of the airplane.

Q    Let me just follow on a different point.  Has the government received any credible threats that coincided with this morning that would --


Q    Nothing that would lead it to point it toward terrorism?


Q    Only the New York airports were shut down.  Is that a positive sign, you didn't shut down the nation's entire air system?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I don't want to characterize anything as positive or negative in this light.  But, clearly, the facts speak for themselves.  And the four airports in the New York area, including Westchester County, were ordered closed by the FAA, the airspace.  The FAA is reopening the airspace.  And I think that you can expect that the shutdown of the airports will be of a limited duration.

Q    Ari, who wrote the note that was passed to the President, and how did the White House learn that information?

MR. FLEISCHER:  There is a routine functioning here at the White House, a 24-hour Situation Room, that was manned by some very good experts who have developed a long history of monitoring events around the world, of all types, whether they turn out to be accidental or whether they turn out to be something otherwise.  And the President was in the one area of the Situation Room, in the middle of his National Security Council meeting, with the Pentagon and other officials.  And a captain, who is in charge of the Situation Room, brought a note in and that's how the President heard about it.

Q    Ari, what can you tell us about the President's reactions -- words, or other reactions in the hours since then?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I was with the President when he spoke with Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki.  And the President was concerned.  He was very concerned that New York has to endure any other accident or anything else that this may or may not be.  He just has heartfelt concern for the people of New York and for the victims of this flight.  There are some approximately 250, 255 people aboard the flight.  The appropriate FAA, or NTSB agencies will be having more specific information on that later.  But the President has deep concern and sympathy for the families here, for the community in which the plane crashed and, of course, for the people of New York, generally.

Q    Was there any consideration given to a nationwide shutdown and is that no longer on the boards now?

MR. FLEISCHER:  There is no such consideration at this time.

Q    Was there?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I think it's fair to say that any time something like this happens, the government asks a series of questions about how best to handle this.  And, again, the facts speak for themselves.  The FAA ordered the action it took at the four airports.  It's fair to say they considered other action;  the action speaks for itself, though.

Q    Does the President still plan to meet President Putin?  Still plan to go to Crawford?  Has his schedule changed at all because of this?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Absolutely, he still plans on that.  In fact, the President -- he had gotten to the Oval at about 6:58 a.m. this morning, and spoke with President Jiang Zemin, of China, and congratulated China on its accession into the World Trade Organization, the WTO.  He talked with him about the cooperation in the war against terrorism.

The President also had a meeting of the Domestic Consequences Committee in the Oval Office, where he discussed the importance of Congress passing the economic stimulus package, as well as the aviation security bill.  He talked about the farm relief bill that is being considered in the Senate.  So the President has been monitoring events, talking to officials on the ground, directing the government agencies, as well as conducting other business of the government.  He spoke with Prime Minister Blair, as well.

Q    Ari, any new precautions because of the environment we live in? You have the domestic team, obviously; Governor Ridge into the Situation Room right away.  But are there any new steps that are taken in these situations because of the environment we live in -- say, the passenger manifest immediately given to the FBI or anything like that?

MR. FLEISCHER:  I think it's safe to say that as a result of government protections and other programs and plans that were in place prior to September 11th, as well as those that have been beefed-up since September 11th, there are a series of steps that have been taken.  I think you'll hear additional information about that from the appropriate government agencies.

Q    You said that there was no unusual communications from the cockpit.  Can you tell us what your understanding is of the nature of those communications?  And are you aware that the pilot declared to ground controllers that he had a mechanical?

MR. FLEISCHER:  No, that's what I mean by no unusual communications. There were no communications in the cockpit -- first reports -- and, again, I want to caution everybody, first reports do change, and we will be looking for additional tapes, any other information that is available.  But by all first reports, there were no unusual communications between the cockpit and the tower at JFK or the New York facility that is handed over communications after the plane is departed from the airport area.

Q    So not even an indication that the pilot declared an emergency?

MR. FLEISCHER:  By all first reports, there were no unusual communications between the pilot and communicators either at JFK or at the New York facilities that monitor traffic after it has taken off.

Q    Will the President speak about this publicly, do you think, today?

MR. FLEISCHER:  We'll let you know if he does.

Q    Ari, as a follow-up to that thought, what does the White House make of the idea that the FFA said that at 9:17 a.m., they lost radar and radio contact, which is not -- which is unusual?  So even if there was no unusual communications, the fact that they lost contact is unusual.

MR. FLEISCHER:  Well, that clearly happened, and that speaks for itself.  An airplane crashed.  And when airplanes crash, they go below radar ability to see them, and so that you do lose contact.  The question was, was there any unusual contact, not lost contact.  Clearly, contact was lost.  But were there any conversations between the pilot and any of the towers or the communications facilities that would indicate any trouble that the pilots were aware of?  The answer to that, based on all preliminary reviews, is no.

Q    Ari, where was, and where is the Vice President today?  And is his location -- has his location changed because of this event?

MR. FLEISCHER:  No.  Prior to this, the Vice President was already at an undisclosed secure location.  And the Vice President also has been monitoring events.  He spoke with the President.

Q    Ari, you said that it's way too early to talk about the cause, there's no unusual communications.  But do you have -- has the White House received any details beyond what the eyewitnesses, what we've heard the eyewitnesses say?

MR. FLEISCHER:  No.  Again, I've shared with you as much as I can, and we'll continue to monitor events, monitor facts and report as we know.  I just caution everybody, first reports typically are the reports that change the most.  I think you are hearing from people on the ground who are faithfully reporting what they know at this time, what they had seen, what eyewitnesses have reported.  And we will continue to update information and provide it as it becomes available.

Governor Ridge, by the way, has also spoken with Mayor Giuliani, just now.  So you can anticipate throughout the day that the White House and federal agencies will stay in very close touch with the people of New York.

Q    Ari, the President, in his conversation with Giuliani -- Giuliani made reference in New York to requesting air cover as a precaution.  Can you outline for us what decision making was done on that, at this end, and whether the military alert status changed at any time?

MR. FLEISCHER:  And I think the Mayor alluded to this, as well.  Air cover had already been in place over New York and Washington.  There were a series of precautions since September 11th across the country that have been in place and remain in place.  So that was already present.

Q    He indicated he had asked for air cover.  So this was not an additional --

MR. FLEISCHER:  It was already present in New York.

Q    All right.  Now, was the military alert status changed at all because of what happened in New York today?

MR. FLEISCHER:  There were -- as a result of this, the military -- and you may want to talk to them -- does have defense crews, fighter capability that they will change the level of, in regard to any particular needs.  And they did take appropriate defensive measures as quickly as they received word about this.  But, again, I mentioned that that's something you've also seen since September 11th, across the country.

Q    Has the President, Ari, ordered any other actions to take place outside of New York, involving air travel, involving any other security measures in the wake of this crash?

MR. FLEISCHER:  No.  As you know, the actions taken by the Federal Aviation Administration apply to the three New York City airports and the Westchester County Airport.

Q    Ari, assuming that the President ultimately makes those calls -- right, based on recommendations from the FAA?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Which calls?

Q    Whether to close down additional airports or do anything --

MR. FLEISCHER:  Those are decisions that are made by the FAA.  That is within their authority and they act upon their information to take those actions.

Q    Does the President feel comfortable with those decisions, given that what you seem to be saying is that they're based largely on an absence of information?  In other words, no threats that have come in or you're not disputing what other --

MR. FLEISCHER:  That's why I indicated to you that the President said to Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki that they took appropriate precautions in the actions that they took.  The President feels the same way about the plan that the federal government took.

Q    After September 11th, the President made a great effort to talk about the airlines being safe and encouraged people to fly.  What is his message after today?

MR. FLEISCHER:  That the President continues to believe that.  I think, again, it's important to wait to see exactly what the facts are and as they develop.  But prior to September 11th, accidents took place.  We don't yet know what the precise cause of this is.  But prior to September 11th, events took place and the public still traveled; accidents took place.

And the President continues to believe that people need to travel, the American people need to get on with their lives.  And I think the American people have responded to that.

Q    That was my question:  Given the economic difficulties of the airlines, is he concerned it's going to be a turn away from the airlines even more?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Well, actually, the facts bear out just the opposite, that the American people are increasingly traveling, increasingly flying. Obviously, this just took place a few hours ago and we'll see how the public responds.  But the President's message to the public is that they should still travel, they should still live their full lives.

Last question.

Q    Ari, if there was evidence of terrorism, you probably would have closed down the airspace already, wouldn't you?

MR. FLEISCHER:  Again, I'm not going to speculate beyond anything that I've indicated.  And, again, the reason for that is because it's always important, from the White House point of view, at a time like this to exercise maximum caution as first facts are ascertained and reviewed.

Information will continue to be shared throughout the investigation as events warrant.  You will continue to hear from other government agencies. There will be a series of other briefings today.  National Transportation Safety Board is going to brief.  I know that American Airlines is going to be speaking shortly.  So you're going to continue to receive information and the White House will continue to provide it, as well.

Thank you very much, everybody.

THE PRESS:  Thank you.

END                   12:23 P.M. EST