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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 17, 2002

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

12:50 P.M. EST

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I want to give you a report on the President's day and then I have two statements for you.

The President began with an intelligence briefing, followed by his FBI briefing. Then he had a meeting with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, where they talked about the legislative agenda for the upcoming session of the Congress.

The President met with the President of Moldova and they talked about the Transnistrian conflict as well as making progress on economic and political reforms in Moldova.

The President also signed into law the e-Government Act of 2002, which will help make the government more accessible to taxpayers and do so at a better cost and savings to the taxpayers.

And then the President will participate in the White House Children's Story Hour this afternoon -- this is an event that was canceled earlier -- to meet with a group of children here around Christmas time.

Two statements for you. One is a statement by the President concerning missile defense, and there will be additional information on this from Secretary Rumsfeld shortly, over at the Pentagon. This is a statement by the President:

"When I came to office I made a commitment to transform America's national security strategy and defensibilities to meet the needs of the 21st century. Today, I am pleased to announce that we will take another important step in countering these threats by beginning to field missile defense capabilities to protect the United States as well as our friends and allies.

"These initial capabilities emerge from our research and development programs and build on the test bed that we have been constructing. While modest, these capabilities will add to America's security and serve as a starting point for improved and expanded capabilities later as further progress is made in researching and developing missile defense technologies in light of changes in the threat.

"Throughout my administration, I have made clear the United States will take every necessary measure to protect our citizens against what is perhaps the gravest danger of all," the President's statement continues, "the catastrophic harm that may result from hostile states or terrorist groups armed with weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them."

And, finally, this is a statement by the Press Secretary regarding the Iraqi opposition conference that took place in London:

"We applaud the results of the conference that concluded today. This was a broad based gathering of free Iraqis opposed to the tyrannical regime in Baghdad. Free Iraqis came together in this conference to accomplish two objectives: to agree on a statement setting forth their vision of the future of Iraq; and, to form a follow-up advisory committee. They accomplished both of these objectives.

The conference represents a strong statement of the aspirations of Iraqis inside Iraq and throughout the world for a better future. We support these aspirations and we look forward to working together with all Iraqis to help achieve them.

And, with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

Q On missile defense, could you explain the timing a little bit? What prompted the President to make the announcement now?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the timing of the announcement is driven by the research programs that have been underway. The timing is really driven by the technology and the successful tests that have been underway that allowed the program to get to the point where it is today, where the fielding can begin.

Q It had nothing to do with North Korea's announcement that it's pursuing nuclear weapons?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the timing had nothing to do with that announcement. The timing -- not the timing, but the overall thrust of the policy, of course, is focused, as the President made clear in 1999 when he ran for office and promised to do what he is doing today, on threat assessment to the United States from potential hostile nations and from rogue states.

Q There have been -- just one more. There have been eight tests, I think, over the last three years. Three have been failures, five successes. Is that ratio acceptable to the President?

MR. FLEISCHER: Obviously, there have been improvements in the design and the technology that allowed it to get to the point where this step can be taken today to begin to field the system. Secretary Rumsfeld will be addressing that in specifics and in great detail. Obviously, sufficient progress has been made for this important constructive step to be taken today.

Q Even though the most recent test just last week was a failure?

MR. FLEISCHER: You have to look at it in the totality of all the tests which allowed them to take this step, of course.

Q Ari, did the President get the message, either directly or indirectly from Senator Lott, that if he was forced to step down from his leadership position, he would also leave the Senate?

MR. FLEISCHER: I can't speak to any messages that Senator Lott is saying. I don't know what Senator Lott may or may not be saying on it, so I don't know the answer to that. I'm not aware that there was any conversation between the President and Senator Lott about that, Bill.

Q Or from anyone representing the Senator?

MR. FLEISCHER: There's nothing that's been brought to my attention, no.

Q Has the President issued an unlawful order to the CIA to commit assassinations?

MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, are you saying has the President issued an unlawful order? The answer is, no.

Q Do you see a story on Sunday about assassinations?

MR. FLEISCHER: I heard your question about has the President done something that's against the law.

Q Okay, the question is, has he issued an order on assassinations?

MR. FLEISCHER: I do not discuss any of the directives that the President may issue.

Q So you won't answer the question?

MR. FLEISCHER: I never discuss intelligence directives and whether or not they exist or don't exist.

Q Well, it would it be unlawful if it were an order on assassinations.

MR. FLEISCHER: I assure you the President would not do anything that is against the law.

Q Just a quick follow-up, does the executive order President Ford signed prohibiting the United States from assassinations stand?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, it does.

Q On Senator Lott, he said yesterday that he supports affirmative action across the board. Does the President support affirmative action across the board?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President supports affirmative access. The President thinks it's very important to reach out and to help people in our society so they can have every opportunity. And I think the best way to understand exactly what the President means by when he says that is to take a look at what he did as governor of Texas.

For instance, in the applications process for the University of Texas school system, the President made a change in policy so that the top 10 percent of students in all schools would automatically get entrance into the University of Texas school programs. That has actually resulted in a nice increase in minority participation and enrollment at universities and post-graduate studies. That's what the President has done and that's what he supports.

Q So he doesn't support what Senator Lott apparently now supports, which is affirmative action across the board?

MR. FLEISCHER: I can only report to you what the President supports.

Q Are you making a distinction between affirmative access, which is what you said, and affirmative action?

MR. FLEISCHER: I explained to you exactly as the President explains it. You've heard this statement from the President many times.

Q Well, it's not the same thing.

Q Is it the same thing?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to evaluate anybody else's proposals. I can share with you what the President believes on his.

Q You're calling it affirmative access.

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

Q Is it okay for the White House to wait until January 6th to decide the fate of Senator Lott? Would you rather move that up?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President feels very strongly about issues involving race relations in America and the need for all of us to work together to improve race relations in America. And that is why the President spoke out in Philadelphia and said what he said about Senator Lott's comments.

The President, and I reiterate, does not think Senator Lott needs to resign. Senators have indicated --

Q Why not?

MR. FLEISCHER: Senators have indicated that they are calling for a meeting on January 6, and the White House will not comment on that meeting or anything leading up to that meeting vis-a-vis anything these senators may or may not do or call for at a potential meeting.

The President's comments in Philadelphia and the President's comments throughout are focused on lifting up the nation to deal with issues pertaining to race, and I will not comment beyond that about a potential meeting on January 6.

Q So it doesn't trouble you that this could drag on another three weeks?

MR. FLEISCHER: The White House has no comment on a potential meeting.

Q Can I just follow-up. Does the President believe that Senator Lott is the right person to lead the Republican party in the Senate, given the agenda and the values that the President laid out forcefully in Philadelphia?

MR. FLEISCHER: I reiterate, the President differed strongly with the statement that Senator Lott made, and he said that what Senator Lott said was wrong and that Senator Lott rightly apologized. The President views Senator Lott as a friend. The President has respect for all senators, including Senator Lott. The President differed directly with the statement made by Senator Lott.

Q More than the statement --

Terry, we'll -- Terry, we'll come back.

Q His whole history as a --

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, we'll guarantee that. Elizabeth. Elizabeth. And, Lester, we'll come back to you as well. Elizabeth.

Q First question is, as the President, what has this administration done, what has President Bush done to meet the needs of minorities?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think when you take a look at the administration's record in helping minorities, it's very broad based and helpful, and I will cite for you several areas in which the administration has taken action. And it begins with helping all Americans, because we are one country and we are all in this country together. And that comes to improving the economy so that we would move from recession to growth, it comes from improving education.

But the President's educational bill particularly had a focus on those who would be left behind, particularly in some of our nation's urban schools where people need the most help. And the President has focused on what he has often called "the next civil rights movement," which is to improve education for all Americans, particularly those who have been abandoned by the system.

Beyond that, the President has moved very aggressively through the course of his administration to strongly enforce civil rights laws. And I cite for you the settlement of some of the most difficult disputes that have rankled the civil rights community and the government for decades, including the dispute over segregation in Yonkers, which has been successfully resolved by this administration; by the dispute in Cincinnati, where race riots broke out, and the successful intervention of the administration to work directly with the community in Cincinnati as well as the police to bring people together to enforce our laws, where the administration has moved very aggressively on all of those matters.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has moved aggressively in all kinds of housing and public accommodation cases. And the administration has also prosecuted, through the Department of Justice, 350 hate crime investigations and brought 80 state, local and federal charges on these matters.

Q Just one last question. There were a large number of black Republicans, today and yesterday, calling for Mr. Lott's dismissal, removal, resignation. Does that concern the White House at all?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I've commented on the matter to the degree I will comment, and you know where the President's thoughts are on this.

Q The President is not listening to those comments and taking them under consideration?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has commented on it very fully.

Q Ari, two quick questions. Now the administration will list two more countries on the list of 18 -- makes 20 -- that all the foreigners must register with the Justice Department if they visit the United States. Now, some scientists and some companies are worried also that when they have conferences here, they said that when they invite people that visas may not be issued so they might have removed their conferences out of the United States, and that will not serves the purpose of their conference.

And also some people are saying that as far as Muslims are concerned in this country that actually -- (inaudible) -- that they are being discriminated because of their religion. One person even said that he, being a Muslim in India, he was not even as (inaudible) as here in the United States. Where do we go from there?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think what you are saying, Goyle, is that the government is reacting very strongly to the events of September 11th to make sure that we do things. One is, respect the rights of immigrants and visitors to come to our nation. We are a better nation, in the President's judgment, as a result of having people visit the United States. We want to do so in a way that protects the American people and all those who would visit here. Terrorist actions don't only kill Americans on our soil, they kill foreigners who are visiting our soil or who are temporarily residing on our soil, as we saw on the attack on the World Trade Center. Many foreign citizens were killed in that attack.

And so we are taking actions to make certain that people come to the United States and that we welcome them to the United States, but we do so in a way that is protective of our citizens and our guests.

Q If you can confirm a report that President or administration has said that capture or kill any al Qaeda (inaudible), anywhere around the globe, that means also Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants and also where does that policy stand when President said "dead or alive"? That still stands?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course there's a battle in Afghanistan and the administration is -- the government and the American people are fighting this war in Afghanistan and throughout the world. And the President would like to bring to justice those who would do harm to the United States.

Q A couple of quick ones on the Lott issue. I know you don't like the tea leaves reading that is going on around town; the White House would prefer it not happen. But the Speaker of the House is here for a meeting with the President this morning to discuss the legislative agenda next year. Presumably, if the President doesn't think Senator Lott should resign, he at least thinks today that Senator Lott will be the Leader of the Republican Party.

Was Senator Lott invited to this meeting, or was it just a meeting with the Speaker --

MR. FLEISCHER: As you know, the White House is forever -- and previous White Houses have done the exact same thing -- have meetings sometimes that are bicameral, often that are just with the House, often that are just with the Senate. Yesterday's meeting with the House leaders, where the President discussed how to get prescription drugs to seniors and urged the House to take up legislation so we could work together to make that actually a priority that is carried out into law was just with the House. Today's meeting with the Speaker was just with the House. There will be additional meetings.

Q In the prior Bush administration there was a House leadership race in which the Bush White House at the time made clear that it favored Ed Madigan over a guy named Newt Gingrich. It didn't turn out the way the first Bush administration had hoped. Has that experience come up at all in the discussions in this White House about how to handle this one? There are a couple people around now who were around then.

MR. FLEISCHER: There's no conversation like that that I've overheard. I can just indicate to you, again, the President is not going to comment on any such meeting.

But I would be remiss if I did not, Elizabeth, remember a couple other initiatives you asked me about what the President has done. (Laughter.) And I do want to remind you that the President was in Philadelphia, of course, to meet with a group of faith-based leaders who were trying to do -- fill in many of the holes in the social safety net that have hurt those that are low income and people who have been left behind.

And, again, this applies broadly to many Americans. But it is a particular initiative that has found tremendous and welcome support in the African-American community. And I would also be remiss, of course, if I did not discuss something. I informed you the other day the President looks forward to going to Africa. And one of the pieces of legislation he has signed into law is the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which has been a very helpful way of improving the lives of people in Africa, which is also something near and dear to the heart of African Americans who call the United States their home.

So I wanted to share that with you in addition, of course, to the President's proposal to double funding for historically black colleges and universities.

Q Ari, are you suggesting that we have heard all we are going to from the President on this whole Lott business? And why shouldn't he exercise -- the President -- more leadership to get this controversy behind the country?

MR. FLEISCHER: Ed, I think you've heard something from the President that was very powerful and very on-point, and that was what a President should do. And that is focus on the bigger issue, here the bigger issue being race relations in America. And when the President went to Philadelphia and spoke, he spoke a message that the American people look to their Presidents to hear at times when there is information that has been said, that is disputed and is wrong. And the President addressed it, addressed it forthrightly and directly.

He said that Senator Lott -- what Senator Lott said was offensive and I think that was something that people look to their President to do, because it's the right thing to do. And the President was very pleased to say it, because the nation needed to hear it. It was the right thing to do and to say. And he said that Senator Lott apologized and rightfully so.

Now, if it moves beyond that and if there is -- as senators have indicated -- a potential meeting on January 6, that is not something the White House will comment on.

Q The Hastert meetings, did the matter of Senator Lott come up in those meetings? And if so, how would you characterize the conversation?

MR. FLEISCHER: I have not had a chance to talk to the President at any great length about the meeting -- and so I've talked to him about the policy things that came up, and that's what I know about it.

Q Have you scheduled any meetings with the Senate to talk about the agenda for next year? After all, it was quite important a couple weeks ago, and you had members of the Senate up here with members of the House to talk about what needed to be done early on. So what's the next step of --

MR. FLEISCHER: I would have to check with Congressional Affairs. But, as you know, as has been announced very publicly quite some time ago with the President's schedule, there are no meetings scheduled this week. The President will depart for Camp David, after that then will leave for Crawford, Texas, and will return early next year.

Q So you hope to have one before the President leaves for Africa, or is this -- or any meetings with the Senate --

MR. FLEISCHER: If you're asking me about the schedule for the President in the second week of January, I think it's a little early for me to give you any indications.

Q Okay, one quick question on Iraq. You talked about this being a success, the meeting of the opposition. As I understand it, though, some of the groups actually walked out, saying they were not represented and were not wanted. What can you tell us about that?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think if you take a look at what was done in the conference, that you will see that this conference represented a strong statement of Iraqi aspirations for a better future. We support those aspirations and we look forward to working with Iraqis both inside and outside Iraq to achieve those objectives.

Q The President had some success in Texas as governor implementing his affirmative access program. What's the status of his efforts to implement that, those type of changes at the federal level?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think when you deal with issues like education and things of that nature, these are inherently state issues. There is no University of the United States in that sense.

Q Is he using any executive orders, though, to implement that policy -- modeled on what he did as governor?

MR. FLEISCHER: What the President has done is taking a look at federal contracting. And the President has been very strong in his statements on contracting, that he does believe that is one of the purposes of federal contracts that they not be bundled the way they are, and they would be shared more so that people who come from minority communities have greater access to federal contracting. That's one way he sees that the administration and government can use its power to give opportunities to those who may not have the equal or fuller opportunities as others.

Q Some of this could be accomplished legislatively. Did he talk to the Speaker today about making affirmative access a legislative priority in the new Congress?

MR. FLEISCHER: He talked with him about Medicare, he talked with him about a number of other issues. I would have to take a look at the exact specific list of details on it.

Q Ari, when you said the White House will not be commenting on this January 6th meeting, is the message you're sending that Republican senators are free to either keep or get rid of Senator Lott, that the White House regards this as a matter for the Republican senators to --

MR. FLEISCHER: The message that the White House is sending is no comment means no comment, and we're not commenting on it. They're all said and summarized.

Q Are you -- can you give us any idea when the President might be --

MR. FLEISCHER: I will keep you informed about any future statements that the President or anybody else in the administration may make. As you know, we always do keep you advised about that. We look forward to hearing descriptions about the Iraqi declaration from others we've been working with on this. And many people I think have something to say, and the United States looks forward to having its say about this, as well.

Q When? Maybe Friday?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'll let you know as soon as we have something to announce.

Q Ari, can you make any comment on whether or not members of the White House staff are participating in discussions with Republican senators about the fate of --

MR. FLEISCHER: I can assure you that the President's instructions are simple and clear, as always, that anybody in the White House speak for the White House -- anybody in the White House will speak for the President.

Q Will speak for the President?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. Any statement that is made by White House staffers will be reflective of the President and not to freelance or say anything else, other than what the President thinks. That's why we're here.

Q Ari, I'd like to come back to something that you said earlier about outreach -- you mentioned faith-based initiative. Well, as it turns out, a lot of the criticism today about Senator Lott is coming from African American clergy at this point. If you feel that the President has said what he is going to say, he made those comments in Philadelphia, yet we still have some questions from black clergy over the issue of Senator Lott, does that mean that perhaps the President might want to go back again and make his feelings clear? Simply because there are still some questions left out there on the issue.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has spoken very directly about the matter and the President's remarks -- I don't remember, Ken, if you were there -- but the President's remarks were extraordinarily well received because I think it was the judgment of a group of Americans that were heavily represented by African American clergy, that the President did and said the right thing. So I don't think that those comments are aimed at the President.

Q Since actions have taken place, events have taken place since then, it seems that the message perhaps that the President put out there -- after having listened to it and going back now on several occasions -- it would seem that maybe there is a call, or at least a --

MR. FLEISCHER: I reiterate what the President said. You've heard it before, the President's message remains valid today.

Q Can I do an unrelated follow-up, please? (Laughter.) There have been some whispers on Capitol Hill about the nomination of Thomas Pickering to the court. Now there's a letter that's been sent from one of the senior members of Judiciary on the Democratic side, Senator Schumer, who is outright asking the President not to put forward this nomination. It is actually within the context of some of the things that's going on with Senator Lott's -- some of the questions of race and comments and past behavior, et cetera.

Will this do anything to hurt -- is the White House prepared to --

MR. FLEISCHER: -- long-standing policy of the White House to not speculate about potential personnel announcements, and that won't change.

Q Is he still under consideration?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate about this.

Q Since there seems to be a lot of dissatisfaction with the "no comment" on the January 6th meeting, can you explain why --

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, a lot of dissatisfaction? From whom?

Q There's been several questions --

MR. FLEISCHER: We haven't left this room. How do you measure whether there's dissatisfaction -- (laughter.)

Q Can I ask on behalf of the reporters if you could explain simply why the White House won't comment on a debate over who might lead the President's party in the Senate?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has a great deal of respect for all senators, including Senator Lott. And the President views this as a matter of he will speak out to help the nation make progress and the issues dealing with race. He will continue to advocate the policies that I walked through earlier, to help advance racial relations and improving some racial relations in the United States, just as he did in Texas, similar to what he did -- and I recall, I believe it was in 1996, when he spoke out about the need for the Republican Party, immigration, to be a nation that welcomes immigrants to our country. I know there were some in the Republican Party who spoke about the need to shut our nation's borders to immigrants.

The President will continue to focus on the policies that he thinks makes America a richer and better place. And that's why he said what he said. And beyond that, the President is not going to comment on a matter that is -- a matter that numerous senators have indicated that they want to take a look at. There are prerogatives that are available to the Senate to pursue and the President respects the senators who have ideas and he respects Senator Lott -- Senator Lott is a friend. And I leave it at that.

Q I understand the White House has made some comment saying that they still support a strong dollar, but the market is still very concerned about Treasury Secretary nominee John Snow and what he thinks about it. Do you expect that he will support that, and when will we be able to hear those words from him, himself, instead of from a White House spokesman?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course any Secretary-designee that -- process, will await Senate confirmation before it is properly that nominee or any nominee's place to speak. And all of these will be questions, perhaps, that come up at a nomination process. You are familiar with the process, and you know that that would be the opportune moment.

Q But you expect him to express that support at the nomination process?

MR. FLEISCHER: The position of the administration on the dollar is unchanged. The administration supports a strong dollar. And growth is one of the best policies to help create a strong dollar.

Q Is he going to say that to them?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't put words in anybody else's mouth. That's the position of the administration, and people in the administration and nominees know that of course, as well.

Q I just have a follow-up on the meeting with Speaker Hastert. You said the White House has meetings all the time with different people. Do you remember the last time the President met with a member of the House Republican leadership, not on a specific issue, but of the overall House Republican leadership without having the Senate Republican leadership was there.

MR. FLEISCHER: He meets with Speaker Hastert often.

Q Alone? Alone?


Q When was the last time, do you remember?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, actually, Andy Card was there. Probably within the last month or two. He meets with the Speaker of the House often. I think that should be expected.

Q Thank you, Ari. A few questions on Iraq. Why won't the President release the executive order about foreign assassinations if he feels so strongly about it? Also, is there a particular Iraqi opposition group or leader the White House thinks is best fit to serve? And, thirdly, will the President make a speech this week about Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: On the third one, I addressed that earlier. I said if there is anything to be reported on timing, I will advise you. On the first, the President has said repeatedly that we're making progress in the war on terror.

And the President is confident that his administration has the tools necessary to carry out the mission of bringing to justice those who would inflict harm on the United States, those who are still actively plotting and planning to kill Americans, to engage in bombings around the world. And the President believes that he has the tools necessary to do the job.

Q What about opposition groups? Any particular opposition group that he thinks is the strongest?

MR. FLEISCHER: I summarized it in the statement. There is a committee that will continue to make progress, in terms of working as a unified Iraqi opposition.

Q Did the White House share with either Senator Mitchell or Secretary Kissinger any information or -- that would be considered confidential, or how would you characterize the information that was shared with them before they resigned?

MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I really think that -- if you're asking did they get classified information, things of that nature, I don't know the answer to that. But I've heard no issues or concerns raised about any information that could have been shared prior to this.

Q Could you find out if classified information --

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not really sure that it's an issue. In any case, any information provided would have been provided because they were authorized to receive it. And just as anybody who was in government service, even if it was part time commission service who has a clearance, one day leaves the government, they're always obliged to follow the same procedures with handling of classified information. No matter what, no matter how long you were in the government, whether it's one day or whether it's almost a lifetime, when you leave, you may not divulge or talk about any information you received, no matter whether you're in a part-time post or not. So I really don't know that it's an issue.

Q Ari, you've highlighted the President's record in pursuing policies aimed at benefitting the African American community. Does the President think the Republican Party has a problem in gaining support, in building credibility within the African American community?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President thinks that it's important for our country to reach out to all. And that means all Americans, from every walk of life. And that's why the President focuses on the policies that help all Americans. His primary focus is on national security and on economic growth. National security and economic growth protect one and all. The attack on the World Trade Center didn't kill anybody of any one race or gender or background, it killed all Americans. It didn't make a distinction.

So, too, with the President's policies. Now there are policies that I walked through that bring particular amounts of help, because the President does think it's appropriate to recognize people who government is here to help. And he's proud to be a different kind of Republican in that sense, and to offer these proposals.

Q Is he satisfied with his own support within the African American community?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that those judgments get made by analysts, those judgments will ultimately be made by the voters. I don't think I'm in an exactly objective position to give you an interpretation of that. The President would like to have as much and widespread support from Americans everywhere.


Q I'm taking a pass, thanks.


Q Ari, two questions. The first one, you won't comment on individual nominees for a judiciary vote. But can you tell us how soon after the new Congress comes into office the President will start submitting names again?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think you will see the President move quickly. There is a judicial vacancy crisis in the United States. And the President's position on it is unchanged. He thinks it's very important for the American people to have access to courts that move with dispatch so that cases don't sit and languish for months or years.

Q Second question has to do with Venezuela, Ari. The situation in Venezuela still is not resolved. Venezuela is one of the main oil suppliers to the United States. So is the United States looking for alternative sources until this crisis is solved?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we're following the events in Venezuela very closely when it comes to the energy situation, Venezuela being a major exporter to the United States. The Department of Energy has been monitoring this to observe whether or not there are any negative impacts on oil supplies that could be due to a prolonged disruption in Venezuelan oil exports. It is a concern.

Q You aren't looking at possible other --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that can come in many forms. As you know, the Department of Energy on Friday announced last week that it would temporarily defer the return of oil that had been scheduled for delivery to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in December and January as a result of the situation in Venezuela.

Q Ari, there seems to be an outbreak of streptococcus A at a Marine training base in San Diego. Is the President concerned that this could be the work of terrorists?

MR. FLEISCHER: Sarah, nobody has brought anything like that to my attention. I think the appropriate place to ask some of these questions to is the base authorities out there for their particulars of their local situation.

Q Ari, last week I asked why is the President appointing convicted criminals like Elliott Abrams to policy positions at the White House, and you said that you disputed the premise of the question. What part of the question do you dispute?

MR. FLEISCHER: Did you call him a war criminal?

Q No, I didn't.

MR. FLEISCHER: That's right, you called Henry Kissinger, the Nobel Prize winner, a war criminal.

Q Convicted criminal.

MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, you didn't call him a war criminal?

Q I did not. I said, why is the President appointing convicted criminals like Elliott Abrams to policy positions at the White House?

MR. FLEISCHER: Russell, we can go round and round. I know if you were President, you would not have appointed Mr. Abrams. The President believes that Elliott Abrams is a superb choice for this position. He has tremendous faith and confidence in Elliott Abrams. And the President, I think, is going to be proven correct as Elliott Abrams has worked to improve democracies.

Q Why?

MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, I know you and Russell are on the same ticket. (Laughter.)

Q Why? He's already been accused of lying to the American people.

MR. FLEISCHER: We've gone through this before. Russell, you have a follow-up?

Q I have a second question. The LA Times today --

MR. FLEISCHER: Is it softer than your first? (Laughter.)

Q You have to judge that. The LA Times today published a poll that found that 72 percent of Americans, including 60 percent of Republicans, said the President has not provided enough evidence to justify starting a war with Iraq. Is the President losing the public relations battle here in the United States?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, I think that I'll just state what is well known. The President will not make any decision about war and peace and the possibility of putting some of our nation's best men and women in harm's way on the basis of a poll. He will do it on the basis of his judgment as Commander-in-Chief and what it will take to save and protect American lives in the event that he reaches the conclusion Saddam Hussein will indeed engage in war against the United States or provide terrorists with weapons to engage in war against the United States, just like on September 11th with the attack. And if he reaches that judgment, he will do so because the information he has and the judgment he makes suggest that, not because of a poll.

I think it's also fair to say that when you take a look at a variety of ways to measure public opinion, you will see different things out there in the public. The Pew Research Institution has done work on this topic and has come to very different conclusions. So the President will not make judgments based on polls, he'll make judgments based on what he believes is right.

Q In light of the situation in Venezuela and elsewhere in the region, is the White House moving with any sense of urgency to fill that position -- Otto Reich's position, and what is the status today of Otto Reich?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course with the Senate being in recess, there is nothing to appoint. We have to wait for a new Congress to return so that the Senate can fulfill its constitutional responsibilities of advise and consent. So as I indicated, I'm not going to speculate about personnel.

Now, Mr. Reich has been appointed to a State Department position, which you know reports directly to the Secretary. And that has been announced.

Q Yes, Ari, despite President Bush's good and effective announcement that he intended to be vaccinated because our armed forces are being vaccinated and he is their Commander-in-Chief, his Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told CNN he will not be vaccinated.

And my question, isn't this similar to Commander-in-Chief Clinton's refusal to have the armed forces required AIDS test?

MR. FLEISCHER: I really don't know what one has to do with the other.

Q Do you have any record that Clinton ever had the AIDS test that all armed forces --

MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, I have no information --

THE PRESS: Thank you.

MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.

END 1:44 P.M. EST

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