|The White House
President George W. Bush
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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 14, 2003
Press Briefing with Ari Fleischer
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:35 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. The President began his day this morning with a phone call to King Hamad of Bahrain. The King and the President discussed events in Iraq since the end of the combat phase, and they talked about efforts to bring stability to Iraq. The two also discussed the reform efforts that are underway in Bahrain, including giving women the right to vote, and working on the Bahrainian constitution. The President mentioned his high regard for the reforms that are underway in Bahrain. And the King said Bahrain was looking forward to hosting the judicial reform forum that Justice O'Connor will be attending. The President thanked him for hosting it.
The President, also today, called -- or spoke with Prime Minister Ervogan of Turkey. Prime Minister Ervogan expressed his condolences for the May 12th terrorist attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. President Bush expressed thanks to the Prime Minister for Turkey's strong counter-terrorist cooperation, particularly in Afghanistan. Both leaders welcomed unprecedented freedom of movement between the Turkish and Greek sectors of Cyprus in recent weeks, and noted their hope for a lasting Cyprus settlement. President Bush reiterated the United States support for a Cyprus settlement, based on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's fair and balanced plan.
The leaders stated their commitment to rebuilding a unified and prosperous Iraq, guided by the rule of law and where Iraq's natural resources belong to all the Iraqi people. Both leaders also noted the importance of advancing the Middle East peace process.
Then the President proceeded to have his normal morning briefings. And then this evening, the President will welcome the new President of South Korea to the White House for their first face-to-face visit. During the meetings and then the dinner that's following, I anticipate that they will talk about strengthening the United States-Korean alliance, an alliance that is already strong. I believe they will talk about -- I'm certain they will talk about North Korea's attempt to blackmail the region through its development of a nuclear weapons program. And they will also talk about bilateral economic ties that unite the United States and South Korea.
And with that, I'm happy to take your questions. Tom.
Q What about the comments this morning by Robert Jordan, the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia? He said that the United States tried futilely to get the Saudis to provide more protection to those residential compounds.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there are two things at play in what's happening now in Saudi Arabia. On the broad sense, we continue to be pleased with the cooperation we have had from Saudi Arabia in the ongoing war against terrorism and the actions they have taken, particularly since September 11th.
As with many countries around the world, the fact is that Saudi Arabia must deal with the fact that it has terrorists inside its own country. And their presence is as much a threat to Saudi Arabia as it is to Americans and others who live and work in Saudi Arabia. These bombings killed not just Americans, but Saudis, as well. So the Ambassador pointed out one of the items that is going to be investigated in terms of what took place, how it took place, what actions could have led up to this.
And you may want to note a statement that was made by the Saudi Foreign Minister at a news conference just a little while ago where he said -- and I quote him now -- "The fact that the terrorism happened is an indication of shortcomings, and we have to learn from our mistakes and seek to improve our performance in this respect." And that was a statement made by Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister today.
Q Is the United States reassessing its entire relationship with Saudi Arabia?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the United States continues to have strong relations with Saudi Arabia. The one thing the terrorists want more than anything else is to be able to attack the United States, to attack others in the region, and force us into changes in our policies. That will not happen.
Q The government of Saudi Arabia said it will go after these suspects, these terrorists. But at the same time, you've got three clerics who put out a fatwa, a religious warning urging believers to give them harbor. Is this a problem that the United States has to deal with, as we deal with the government of Saudi Arabia?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that's why I say that the Saudi Arabians have to deal with the fact that there is terror found inside their country. These are important issues that Saudi Arabia has been addressing and must continue to address. And we want to work with them to address these.
Q Ari, an FBI official says that the investigative team that the U.S. is sending to Saudi Arabia is held up now in Germany, that they haven't been given permission by the Saudi government to --
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I just got a report on that. I don't know -- it's not a question of permission from the Saudis, this deals with clearance times, as well as flight crew requirements for the amount of time they're allowed to fly. This is the explanation I literally just got before I came here, from the FBI. And so we do expect that the plane will be there tomorrow.
Q So they have been given all necessary clearances --
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of any problems on the clearance front. There was a window of clearance where they were allowed to come in. And then, as a result of the flight times, the amount of time a crew can actually operate an aircraft, it didn't coincide. That's the explanation I literally just received before I came here.
Q And the Associated Press was reporting also that the number of FBI investigators that were part of that team was scaled back because of Saudi concerns about a large American presence.
MR. FLEISCHER: I asked about that this morning, and I was told by the FBI that's not the case. There is an assessment team that is en route, and the assessment team includes bomb technicians, evidence response teams, intelligence officials from counterterrorism. Their purpose is to go in, work with Saudi authorities, work with the Americans there, and then the assessment team will make a fuller report about what next is required.
Q It sounds, by saying that Saudi Arabia must deal with the fact that there's terrorism in their own country, you're saying pretty loud and clear that they haven't done so.
MR. FLEISCHER: No. No, but around the world, nations are reacting to the threat of terrorism. And certainly, once a nation is victimized by terrorism, it does have the effect of making that nation reassess and reexamine everything it had done up to that point. Obviously, until they were hit, they thought what they were doing may have been at a sufficient level.
We're constantly working with nations around the world, including Saudi Arabia, to urge them to focus on the threat, to see what different things can be done. We're constantly working with nations around the world, for example, on the war on terrorism financing. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it's worth noting that it was in 1997 -- not until 1997, but the beginning of 1997 -- that the FBI was able to open up an office inside Saudi Arabia. That office is up and running. It's a liaison office. It works on evidence-sharing, on intelligence-sharing, on liaison and cooperation with Saudi officials. And that has grown in terms of our cooperation with the Saudis and their cooperation with us since 1997.
But, yes, we do make the point that it is important for Saudi Arabia to recognize that there is terrorism inside the country and it needs to be confronted. And we stand there as their allies to help them confront it.
Q But Saudi Arabia is a special case because it is the home of so much extremism and the peddling of extremism and the funding of extremism by members of the government. There are a lot of analysts of this relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia who have been saying this is a devil's bargain that has gone on for too long. Is that the kind of thing the President wants to see, the end of funding and support for extremism in Saudi Arabia?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think every nation faces its own individual or unique series of threats and circumstances from terrorists within. Since some nations, such as the United States, -- we work very hard, it appears to be minimal, but we had, of course, the indictments up in the Buffalo area recently. Other nations in the Middle East have much deeper internal problems that they need to confront. Yemen is a nation that is working very hard. They have difficult internal circumstances that they are working to confront.
And so I think you can go across the region -- Pakistan is another country that has a variety of problems that President Musharraf is facing. And so, from country to country, you will see different levels of activism from within that is terrorist in nature. What's important now is that Saudi Arabia continue its work with us -- which has been good work, which has been cooperative work -- to confront the threat from within Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are the target of it, as well. In addition to the Westerners who are there, the Saudis, themselves, are the targets of these terrorists.
Q All right. So the President is confident that the House of Saud, governing that country the way it has been, is capable of taking on this problem?
MR. FLEISCHER: We are. The President, particularly working with the Crown Prince, does have confidence that the Saudis will face this. But this is a matter of the utmost importance that Saudi Arabia is going to look at. And I draw your attention to the remarks by the Foreign Minister today. Those are important remarks to hear from a Saudi Foreign Minister at a news conference today where he publicly acknowledged these shortcomings -- he, the Foreign Minister, himself, in public.
You also look at what the Saudi Arabians did on May 6th, in terms of the seizure of the explosives that were found near one of these compounds. You also look at the actions they have taken on the financing front, where you see some successes. But, yes, we're going to continue to push Saudi Arabia to work with us to do more, and that's cooperative.
Q What more can they do -- devote more resources?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, on the financial front, we're always working with different nations. That's a very difficult challenge, particularly in areas where they don't have a banking system that is similar to ours, with all the prevalence of electronic banking, to do more work. We've been satisfied on the evidence and the information-sharing. But there are additional things that can be done and we'll continue to work with these nations. And typically, they involved the rounding up of people in various countries who we think are tied to terrorism.
Q Will the FBI be in charge of the investigation in Saudi Arabia?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have not heard who will be "in charge." Obviously, this took place in Saudi country, so I have not heard who is in charge.
Q Prime Minister Sharon said that he doesn't foresee any freeze in settlements. He doesn't see the point in that. Is that helpful to the road map process?
MR. FLEISCHER: What's important, in the President's judgment, is that both parties take seriously their responsibilities, and to make progress with each other, which will lead to increased steps each party can take as they see -- the Israelis see the Palestinians taking concrete actions, as the Palestinians see the Israelis take concrete actions that can lead to more progress on implementation of the road map.
As you know, the Prime Minister will be here and will talk to the President next week. And the President looks forward to having these conversations, and he will stress the importance of following through on what the road map calls for.
Q Osama bin Laden apparently remains alive and at large. Al Qaeda representatives have been quoted as saying that this latest attack was carried out by cells that are operating in ways that American intelligence isn't able to penetrate. How much concern is there that al Qaeda is reconstituting itself in a way that will remain a threat directly to the American people in a big way all around the world?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the way the President looks at al Qaeda can be summed up by what he said from the deck of the Abraham Lincoln when the President said, our mission continues; al Qaeda is wounded not destroyed. And then the President continued, the scattered cells of the terrorist networks still operate in many nations. And we know from daily intelligence that they continue to plot against free people.
So al Qaeda does remain a threat, but it is a diminished threat. But, obviously, if this was al Qaeda -- and the suspicions are that it was al Qaeda, but we have not yet reached final conclusions -- but if this was al Qaeda, it does show that they, indeed, remain a threat. And that's why this administration is working so diligently to prosecute this war against al Qaeda everywhere.
Q If I can turn to another subject for a moment. The Senate is going to take up the tax bill, which contains about $70 billion in the Senate version of tax increases in order to pay for, among other things, the President's version, the President's proposal to cut the tax on dividends. Does the administration support those tax increases? And in particular, is it going to urge Republicans to vote to retain the provision that would raise taxes by $35 billion on Americans living and working abroad?
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, I want to remind you, particularly on the provision you just cited about Americans working abroad, that was not in the President's budget. It was not a proposal that the President made. And there are a variety of different ideas that are being circulated in the House and in the Senate as they work toward the final conference agreement on the tax bill, which is where the key decisions are going to be made.
The President's budget contained $11 billion worth of offsets over 10 years. Most of these were loophole closures, provisions that should not be in the tax code, they believe should be removed from the tax code. As to the specifics of it, we'll continue to work with Congress to see what is meritorious, what is, indeed, a loophole closure and not a tax increase. But the provision you just cited was not part of the President's plans.
Q Is that a signal, then, that Republicans should, when this comes up as an amendment, vote against keeping it in?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Republicans, Democrats alike will vote their conscience on every different provision as they see fit. The President's focus is on making progress and getting this bill into the House-Senate conference where these important decisions will be made.
Q Ari, first is a housekeeping matter. Will we hear anything in terms of readout on Korea this evening?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, you will. I anticipate that will be -- the meeting is in two parts. You have the meeting in the Oval Office; then the President and President Roh will go to the Rose Garden for comments and remarks; and then they'll have dinner afterwards. So I'm not sure which stage we'll get you a readout, but you get two parts of the meeting tonight.
Q Related to Dick's question, the President at most every stop has been saying that temporary tax cuts are not good because you can't do the planning you need. Now, it sounds like the White House seems to be lending some support to a notion of making the dividend tax cut temporary. Is that, in fact, so, and how can you --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well there's no question the President would prefer to have the tax provisions be permanent. But if that is not the case, then the President wants to make progress by, for example, accelerating the marriage penalty relief, accelerating the child relief. And as you know from the 2001 act, there were many provisions in there, such as the repeal of the death tax that was extended for 10 years, not in perpetuity.
So, yes, the President is continually pushing for the goal of making these permanent. But given the constraints that we must operate under, given the budget resolution, the President will work with what we are working with, and make the most progress possible and keep coming at it.
Q So temporary is better than nothing, if that's the choice?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, if somebody can get the child credit accelerated to $1,000 immediately, that's preferable, particularly given the fact that will have an economic boost in 2003, at a time the economy needs it the most. So there is sound tax policy to it, sound economic policy to it. It could be sounder, but it still is sound.
Q But this is the dividend thing, in particular, that -- a temporary is better than nothing on that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, on the dividend thing, the President is going -- the dividend thing -- on the dividend exclusion, the President is going to continue to push to get 100 percent dividend exclusion, and we'll see what duration that may be and how that can be worked. There are a variety of different ways on a tax bill to forge agreements.
Q Ari, given the fact that there have been increased alerts to potential terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, doesn't it concern the President that his Ambassador asked for extra security around that complex and didn't get it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that's one of the things that has to be looked into. There are a great many compounds that house Westerners or foreigners in Saudi Arabia, and this -- on May 1st, as you know, the State Department did issue a warning that urged citizens to defer non-essential travel to Saudi Arabia. Information indicates this is from the alert that terrorist groups may be in the final phases of planning attacks against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia. And the travel warning continued to say, "There is no information regarding a possible target."
So there was a collection of information that was rather threatening, but broad in terms of where the threat would take place, or the potential attack could take place. There are a variety of compounds there, and again, I note what the Foreign Minister said about the shortcomings. And we want to continue to work with Saudi Arabia on this.
But make no mistake; Saudi Arabia continues to cooperate with us. And we will continue to push Saudi Arabia for additional cooperation as we work together. But the people who carried this attack out are the ones the President is focused on. These are the terrorists who did this. These are the ones who look for places to carry out their attacks on innocents. And that's why this is a war against terror by the groups responsible for the attack. And that's where the President is focused, as he works with friendly nations to fight them.
Q One quick thing looking ahead to tonight's meeting. The South Koreans have made it pretty clear that they would prefer the United States would explicitly take military action off the table with regard to North Korea because they think it poses a threat to them. Presumably, President Roh will bring that up with President Bush tonight. Is that something that he is going to say is a nonstarter?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we'll give you a report specifically after the meeting. But it is the longstanding policy of the United States not to take options off the table. And that continues to be the case here.
Q Ari, also on North Korea. Have you yet made a determination of whether North Korea is, in fact, reprocessing at Yongbyon or one of the other facilities?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, it's just as I said last week; we continue to evaluate information and no hard conclusions one way or another.
Q And do you have any reaction to the reports out of China of a new batch of North Korean defectors in recent weeks and months, including high-ranking military officers?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it comes as no surprise to the President that people want to flee the tyranny of North Korea and the hunger, the starvation, and the prison camps of North Korea. North Korea is one of the most despotic, miserable places left on the Earth. And it is so because of the government of North Korea and the system of tyranny they've imposed on their own people.
All you need to do is compare South Korea to North Korea, which, after the Korean War they basically started out at about the same level, and look at the huge democratic, economic, cultural successes of the South and compare it to the North. And you're talking about family members. You're talking about people who are the same. What's only different is the form of government.
And from the President's point of view, it's a stunning reminder that freedom and liberty promote human good. And in North Korea, freedom and liberty have been crushed. And that's why you see a difference between the South Korean people and the North Korean people in terms of the food, their health, their education, their medicine, and all their ways of life.
Q In terms of the defectors, is there -- first of all, so are you confirming that, in fact, there have been these defections?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, there have been defections in the past. We've all watched them on TV as people ran to freedom in the various embassies in Beijing. In terms of the specific reports, I've seen the reports. I don't have anything to confirm about them, but it would not be surprising.
Q What can we expect from the two leaders when they come into the Rose Garden?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you're going to see a statement much along the lines that I've said, about the strong ties that exist between the United States and South Korea; the determination to make certain that there is a denuclearized Peninsula; and the strength of our economic ties.
Q On the question of whether or not we should be taking things off the table or exempting North Korea from a preemptive policy, is this something that the South Koreans have actually asked the United States to do? Or is this just a debate in South Korea? How would you characterize the nature of this discussion?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'd say let the meeting take place. This will be the first time that President Roh has gotten a chance to meet face-to-face with President Bush. They spoke on the phone shortly after he was elected -- I think the election was in December of 2002, if I remember, it was late last year, and they spoke shortly thereafter. And we'll see if they raise that or not; I don't know.
Q On the question of troops, that's something that's been kicked around for years about either the numbers or the location of troops. What is U.S. thinking now about any changes in the placement or numbers?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the Department of Defense is conducting a review worldwide of our force structure. And the review is conducted with a goal of making certain that our forces are configured the best, the most optimal way to provide for the defense of whatever region they are in. And that is underway in South Korea.
I anticipate that will be something that is discussed. There will be a joint statement from President Bush and President Roh following the meeting, and so you may find more specifics on the joint statement. I refer you to that, and it will be coming out after the meetings.
Q But can you say one way or the other whether the U.S. is inclined to reduce its troops in South Korea in any way, or move them in any strategically significant fashion?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the fair thing to do is let the meeting take place and then you'll be able to take a look at the joint statement and get answers to your questions.
Q Staying on this meeting tonight, will the President forcefully lobby or try to get South Korea to get more on board in terms of sanctions or taking other steps to pressure North Korea?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think you should let the meeting take place. And the President feels very strongly that for the good of peace on the Peninsula, it's important that North Korea not be allowed to continue its pursuit of nuclear weapons. After all, they entered into agreement saying they would not pursue nuclear weapons, and they violated their agreement. And the President wants to talk to President Roh about his approach to it, and that will be part of the topic tonight.
Q Well, in terms of -- we've discussed kind of bits and pieces of what they might discuss, topics they might discuss during these various meetings. But looking at this meeting in a broader picture, what does the President hope to accomplish in this meeting?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President hopes to accomplish in the meeting the continued cooperation between the United States and South Korea on the nuclear issue that North Korea has presented, and continue to make progress on our economic relations.
Q But does he feel like he begin to establish a personal rapport here --
MR. FLEISCHER: Sure. Sure. Sure.
Q Can I have more than "sure"? (Laughter.) This is a newspaper; something a little bit -- (laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: I forgot, it's a newspaper. Open quote -- (Laughter.) No, the President looks forward to meeting for the first time in person with the new President of South Korea as part of solidifying and strengthening the United States's ties to South Korea. South Korea is a partner of the United States, an ally in the region. And South Korea faces threats from the North and we want to work together on how to deal with these threats.
Q First of all, just a housekeeping --
MR. FLEISCHER: Close quote -- sorry. (Laughter.) Dash-30-dash.
Q Will the two Presidents take questions in the Rose Garden?
MR. FLEISCHER: We'll see. We'll just see what the President's mood is when he gets there and see how well-behaved the press is, if you comport yourself with manners, politeness, we'll see. It's up to him. Obviously, if it's pouring down rain, the President will definitely invite the press outside for a news conference. (Laughter.)
Q On the Saudi bombing, has the Saudi government offered us any explanation, either before or after the attack, about why they turned down the request of increased security at the complex?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. I think this is all going to be part of what is investigated now.
Q Have we asked them for such and explanation?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think this is all part of what's going to be investigated as we look at what happened, what circumstances led to this, on the compound, itself.
Q So when the request was made by the Ambassador, they just said "no," with no explanation?
MR. FLEISCHER: I do not have any additional details, beyond what the Ambassador said this morning.
Q You quoted the Saudi Foreign Minister talking about shortcomings. Do you think he was referring to this -- to that, specifically, to the failure to comply with that request?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, he quote was, "the fact that terrorism happened is an indication of shortcomings and we have to learn from our mistakes and seek to improve our performance in this respect." I don't speak for him; I can't add to that. That's his statement.
Q Yes, but other shortcomings beyond this one?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm going to leave it just as I said it earlier.
Q Ari, how would you characterize the state of play in the tax cuts on the Hill right now? And does the President still expect a bill by Memorial Day?
MR. FLEISCHER: The timing does look good. Despite the Senate Finance Committee's action to go back into committee yesterday, they are moving forward. In fact, it's worth noting that this is an important week in the Senate. They are making progress on two major pieces of domestic legislation. One is a growth package, which looks like it will be voted on before the week is through. And the second is AIDS legislation -- to follow the House, which has already passed the President's proposal from the State of the Union, for a $15-billion AIDS initiative to help the people of Africa and the Caribbean. These are two major domestic initiatives, both of which are moving forward rather nicely this early in the year.
It's also worth noting that in Moscow today the Duma ratified the Treaty of Moscow for the offensive reductions in nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia.
So on the domestic front and on the foreign policy front, this can be an important week. It has already been an important week in foreign policy with Russia; two major bills pending in the Senate. So I think you know I've spent a lot of time on the Hill; it's unusual to have this much legislative action being done this early in a session. It's unusual for the tax bill to be considered this early. Remember in 1997, when a tax bill was agreed to, and it was signed by then President Clinton, that wasn't agreed to until July or August of 1997. So they're ahead of schedule, and that's good for the economy because it means you can deliver more boost to the economy earlier, which is good for people who are looking for work.
Q Ari, a new subject. The House Republicans have apparently broken with the President over the issue of the assault weapons ban. Is reauthorizing assault weapons ban a priority enough for the President to do some of his own arm-twisting to try and get the House to allow a vote?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the President's position is clear and the President supports the reauthorization of the current assault weapons
ban. We are working right now with the Congress on the issues that are on their plate, that they're focusing on right now, and then Congress, of course, is going to leave for the Memorial Day recess. I mentioned the AIDS initiative and the tax cut, the growth initiative that are pending on the floor this week. The President doesn't set the congressional calendar or schedule. We'll continue to work with the Congress, and they know the President's position.
Q Does the President believe that the bill -- excuse me, the law that's on the books right now has taken steps to alleviate crimes?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there's a study underway to determine that, and the study is still pending. The President said in the 2000 campaign that he supported the assault weapons ban because he thought it was reasonable. He stated then that he would support the reauthorization of it, and he states that again today.
Q What exactly is the reason for not ruling out the use of force against North Korea -- if I can press you a little further. You say it's longstanding policy, but does that mean that the President is not persuaded by the argument that this increased -- by leaving that option on the table, that raises the risks in South Korea, in particular?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that if you talk to policy-makers in both parties, academics, you'll find that one of the things they will tell you is that removal of that option has consequences in achieving good results. And that is always a part of America's options, and it is not to be taken off the table. However, the President has made clear in this situation with North Korea that he is pursuing a diplomatic course. He believes -- and continues to believe -- that the diplomatic course is the best course.
Q Ari, can I briefly follow up Ken's question on the assault weapons ban? Please dispel my cynical notion that the President is delighted that Tom DeLay took the assault weapons ban off the table and saved him the trouble of getting into a fight with the NRA.
MR. FLEISCHER: Whatever position the President holds, people across America know it and they'll form their judgments about what the President thinks based on their knowledge of the President's position. So if anybody takes umbrage to the fact that the President supports the current assault weapons ban, that is known and stated. If people support him for doing it, it is known and stated -- regardless of what happens in the Congress.
Q We're not to expect that the President is actually going to go out and campaign for this, are we?
MR. FLEISCHER: -- I think you have every opportunity to ask the President questions about it, and he'll tell you today exactly what he told you when he was asked about it in 2000, which is just what I've shared with you here. His position on it is taken because he thinks it's reasonable.
Q Responding to questions on it is one thing, and actually campaigning for it is another. You do not expect a campaign for the assault weapons ban, do you?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you're talking about the reelection campaign? The President hasn't even declared reelection.
Q I'm talking about holding public events, traveling across the country like you see for tax cuts.
MR. FLEISCHER: Stay tuned. We never announce all our events this far ahead of time, so I'm not saying he will or he won't. But he's focused on the bills that are currently pending before the Congress.
Q Ari, another issue of benign neglect is the U.S. currency. The Treasury Secretary has come out and made some indisputable economic statements which are then followed by press aides who come up with undefinable statements saying that the U.S. is in support of a strong dollar. A lot of people say that this is a way of weakening the dollar without saying they're weakening it. Is the President happy with the Treasury Secretary's statement?
MR. FLEISCHER: I remind you exactly what the Treasury Secretary said on his Sunday shows, where he reiterated -- I think it was on the Fox show -- his strong support for a strong dollar.
Q What is the strong dollar policy?
MR. FLEISCHER: A strong dollar as a result of a strong economy; an economy that grows creates a strong dollar.
Q So he's happy with these statements that he's coming out with, and then having to get clarifications by his press aides shortly thereafter?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the Treasury Secretary said the policy exactly as it is; the United States continues to support a strong dollar.
Q There are two filibusters by Democrats in the U.S. Senate, and now a walk-out by Democrats in the Texas legislature. Would you comment on what appears to be the beginnings of an obstructionist movement?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in terms of Texas, the President already addressed that yesterday. He was asked about him, and he expressed his confidence in the Governor of Texas. And he's sure it's going to all work out one way or another. So I won't go beyond what the President said.
Q Ari, in the wake of the attacks in Saudi Arabia and statements by critics like Senator Graham and Senator Feingold, why should the American people have any confidence that the administration is successfully carrying out the war on terrorism?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the American people do have tremendous confidence in the manner in which this administration is carrying out the war on terrorism. I think the American people also understand that there's a presidential election underway for the Democratic candidates, and they're going to say things involving Democratic presidential primary politics that are far removed from the realities of international relations.
Q But what do you say to bolster that confidence, make sure that -- I mean, what evidence do they have that there is actually something going on?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you might want to ask Khalid Sheik Mohammed what it feels like, ask him if he thinks the United States is making success in the war against terror. You may want to ask Abu Ali Harithi. You may want to ask Rahim al-Nashiri. These are all some of the leading al Qaeda operatives who have been arrested. Dana, you're welcome to visit them. (Laughter.)
Q Oh, are you making them available?
MR. FLEISCHER: When you get to Quantico, let me know how it feels. (Laughter.) Or wherever they are.
Q Ari, one more on the assault weapons ban. You talked about the way the public can judge what the President's positions are, what his priorities are. And you do judge those -- on the tax cuts, for example, he's been out day after day over the last few weeks pressing that point. As you say, we don't know yet whether he'll have a similar event on the assault weapons ban. But heretofore, he hasn't. Why shouldn't America --
MR. FLEISCHER: There are hundreds of issues that come before the Congress. And the President of the United States does make it his job to prioritize what is the best way to help the country, broadly speaking. And when it comes to the economy, when it come to job creation, there is nothing that is more important than that.
The President, in the State of the Union, decided two principle priorities: economic security, national security. So I think you are going to continue to see the President invest his time in those broad priorities. And that's why the President is travelling across the country making the case, campaigning for job creation and growth. That is clearly where his priorities lie. You can expect him to continue that.
Q So it's fair to say that the assault weapons ban is a lower priority?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has many priorities. And he judges each one as it comes up. Right now, he is clearly focused on job creation, given the fact that the important decisions are getting made on Capitol Hill now about the package in the Senate, and as it approaches the conference.
Q On Korea, the South Korean President said yesterday that he did not have any rash expectations that the North Korean nuclear problem can be resolved right away. Does President Bush share that feeling?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, by the actions that North Korea has taken, no one can expect it to be resolved right away. This is part of a diplomatic process, and diplomacy takes time. That's why the President was heartened by China's involvement, and Japan's thoughts about this situation, and South Korea's thoughts. This is the nature of diplomacy; it does take time.
Q Does the President have any thoughts on this annual report by the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, saying that Saudi Arabia was the top violator? I'm reading from The Washington Times.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there are numerous reports that come out from government agencies, and they speak for themselves, about tolerance, and freedom of religion. And the President believes that around the world, freedom of religion and tolerance are important and they should be pursued.
Q Is the United States pressing Saudi Arabia for greater freedom of religion?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you can assume, through State Department's contacts this is a constant issue that comes up. It's something the President does care about.
Q Ari, Presidential Envoy Jerry Bremer, has he issued orders to shoot looters on sight in Iraq? And if so, are these his orders, or do they come from the President? And if so, or either way, to whom are the orders given? Are they given to the civilian police there, or to the U.S. military? And if they're given to U.S. military, the question is who's in charge of the military on the ground over there, Bremer or still the U.S. --
MR. FLEISCHER: Ivan, the policing with the situation in Iraq, including Baghdad, is a matter for the forces that are on the ground, to use their discretion as they work together with the Iraqi police to enforce security. And Ambassador Bremer just completed a news conference earlier today where he was asked similar questions. His remarks were public and on the record. So take a look at that.
Q Ari, you said on April 10th, about weapons of mass destruction, "That is what this war was about." On Sunday, The Washington Post reported that the group directing U.S. search efforts for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is winding down operations without finding proof that Saddam Hussein kept clandestine stocks of outlawed arms.
MR. FLEISCHER: Efforts aren't winding down, efforts are cranking up. As Dr. Rice said in an exclusive interview with Reuters, we are sending in additional teams of people and increasing the amount of inspectors, the amount of people who go through documentation, people who are more expert, to continue to go in. And nothing has changed from what I said on April.
Q If I could follow up on that. Let's -- hypothetically, these weapons are --
MR. FLEISCHER: You're beginning a sentence with the wrong word. (Laughter.) You just hurt your cause.
Q -- Washington Post report is correct. If The Washington Post report is correct, and weapons that Secretary Powell said are there, are not there, I'm wondering if -- what are the chances that you were misled?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think that you've heard it from enough officials to know that you should not begin a sentence with a hypothetical. We remain confident in all the statements we've made about it.
Q Ari, I have heard you, as the President's chief spokesman, repeatedly denounce the extensive lying of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. But I've never heard you express any such criticism of the four years of lying, published with the consent of two editors in The New York Times who will not resign -- and my question: Surely you don't mean to suggest that the President believes that lying is wrong in Iraq, but all right in New York, do you, Ari? And I have a follow-up.
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, I don't think it's responsible to make a connection between those two. I think --
Q And then my follow-up. (Laughter.) Washington Post -- Richard -- The Washington Post's Richard Cohen writes of this, "the answer appears to be precisely what the Times denies, favoritism based on race." And my question: Would the President disagree, or does he see this in The New York Times disaster more illustration of what his amicus brief said in the Michigan case?
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, I think it's important to deal with this in a serious fashion. I think that people --
Q I feel it's very serious. I'm a shareholder in that newspaper. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: So why didn't you sell? Lester? Surely, Lester --
Q -- questions at shareholders' meeting.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, okay. I think that The New York Times is wrestling with a very difficult issue, and this is a matter that has troubled many people, including people at The New York Times and readers of The New York Times. And they are dealing with this. And I will leave it to The New York Times to explain it; they are doing so. And I have no intention of saying anything beyond that. But this is a serious matter, they have taken it seriously and it should be taken seriously.
Q Senator Graham inferred that there was a problem because of the war and that this somehow had made it easier for al Qaeda, whoever did these, to act.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's why I indicated that's not a serious statement, based on understanding of foreign policy; it's much more a statement based on somebody who was involved in Democratic presidential primary politics who is trying to carve out a name or an issue for himself. And by evidence of this, I submit to you that take a look at what happened prior to anything happening in Iraq, in terms of the strike in Bali, the attempted attack in Karachi.
What we are up against is terrorists who continue to organize, despite the great efforts we have made as Americans and as partners around the world to combat and fight these terrorists. And we had terrorism before Iraq. As the President indicated, the fight will continue. And we will also have campaigns that took place before Iraq and after Iraq. And I think this can be seen in the context of somebody who was involved in a campaign after Iraq.
Q Ari, in the aftermath of the suicide bombings, let's talk about what's happening here. Some national security experts are saying that Americans should not be lulled into the fact that -- in hope that there will be no attacks here after the war or during the war. Talk to us about the possibility -- and they're saying there will be something. Talk to us about -- is that something just a hypothetical, or is that real?
MR. FLEISCHER: Of course not. We continue to worry about the potential for attacks in the United States. And that's why you see the agencies of the federal government shift their emphasis from September 11th to prevention of attacks. The FBI has changed its mission to one of prevention against attacks. The manner in which the briefings that the President receives, the creation of the TTIC, The Threat Integration Center, that combines the work of the analysts at the CIA, the FBI, so we constantly can connect the dots and be guided by the best information -- all this is a reaction to it -- the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security -- for the whole purpose of protecting the American people.
Because make no mistake, as diminished as al Qaeda is, if they can attack us, they will attack us, they want to attack us. And this government is doing everything possible to prevent that from happening. But it is -- it does remain a concern.
Q Is this inevitable?
MR. FLEISCHER: I can't say it's inevitable, but it is an ongoing concern. And that's one of the reasons that the threat level remains at the level that it is.
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