THE WHITE HOUSE[...]
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY ARI FLEISCHER
October 9, 2001
Q: Can you tell us why the President decided to issue the memo to the key Cabinet officials on secrecy? What prompted it, what individual leak, if you will?
MR FLEISCHER: Let me read to you from the memo in question, which is a memo that the President has sent to his members of the Cabinet who would routinely brief Capitol Hill about matters relating to the military or relating to intelligence. And reading from that memo directly it states that, this administration will continue to work to inform the leadership of the Congress about the course of and important developments in our military, intelligence and law enforcement operations. At the same time, we have an obligation to protect military operational security, intelligence sources and methods, and sensitive law enforcement investigations.
And I think that says it all about the memo. It's an effort to make certain that Congress has the information that it needs, while making certain that nobody is put in a position where they inadvertently could give any information that could harm anybody's life, as a very sensitive military campaign is underway.
Q: Can you tell us what prompted the memo?
MR FLEISCHER: It's an overall concern to make certain that information is protected, to save lives, and not put anybody in danger.
Q: Was there -- in general, but was there not a specific incident?
MR FLEISCHER: Well, rather than focus on any specific incident, it's a reflection of the President's ongoing concern to make certain that nothing classified is released inadvertently that could put anybody's life in danger. Really, what's changed here since routine notification would go up to Capitol Hill, are we are at war. And the price of an error is now too high. And the President wants to make certain that all people in government are protected, so that nobody can make any mistakes and put anybody else's life in danger.
Q: Well, let me just follow up one more time. Was there not at least one incident where the President was upset by what was said by a member of the Congress who had received a classified briefing?
MR FLEISCHER: Rather than harken back to any, if there was, one event, I think it's best just to leave it as the President's overall concern. This is something you've heard the Secretary of Defense talk about very publicly as well. It's an ongoing concern from the administration to make certain that nothing classified is inadvertently released that could put somebody's life in danger.
Q: Has the administration opened an inquiry?
Q: Does the President believe that Congress --
MR FLEISCHER: No, the answer on that is no.
Q: What was her question?
Q: There's no inquiry on any leaks that might have already occurred?
MR FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q: Does the President believe that Congress in particular is at risk for leaking classified information?
MR FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, these warnings have gone out to everybody. This is what we in the White House staff have been instructed, by the President, this is information Secretary Rumsfeld has discussed it about his employees and others in government. This applies to anybody who could possibly have classified information.
The memo itself, of course, is directed at Congress. But you've heard this in other ways about other government agencies, including our own White House.
Q: So, does he believe that the Congress is not being well managed when it comes to maintaining the secrecy of classified information?
MR FLEISCHER: It's a reflection of the fact that our nation is now at war, and the rules have changed. It's a reflection of the reality that disclosure of information in a time of war is far different from an inadvertent disclosure at a time of peace. It could literally mean the loss of lives of people who are embarking on missions.
Q: But, Ari, the last paragraph of that memo says the President notified the leaders of the Congress of that decision. Those conversations have been described as angry, animated, and that the President did cite a specific thing he was very upset about. Do you dispute that?
MR FLEISCHER: As I indicated, rather than focus on any one event that may or may not have taken place, the President's concern is broad. That doesn't mean it wasn't specific, but his concern is also broad.
Q: Ari, does the release of information that there is certainty within intelligence communities of another terrorist attack, does that constitute putting people's lives in danger, or is that public information?
MR FLEISCHER: You know, I'm not going to go down any potential line of things that may or may not be classified, if that's what you're asking me to do. But I think again, the memo speaks for itself.
Q: Is that the kind of information you think should be classified?
MR FLEISCHER: I don't discuss classifications. I don't make the decisions about what information gets classified.
Q: Ari, can I go back to the other topic? The congressional leaders who are allowed to be briefed, are they being instructed not to share information with their colleagues on the Hill?
MR FLEISCHER: They've been clearly told about the importance of keeping information that is sensitive, treating it in a manner so it is not released.
Q: So that he's not sharing it with other members of Congress? Are they specifically being told that? Is it being limited to --
MR FLEISCHER: Keith, I haven't heard every conversation that's been had with every leader, so I can't answer that fully.
Q: So, Ari, what is the response from some members of Congress who feel that they're not being fully consulted, that they're being left out of the loop by this?
MR FLEISCHER: Well, as the memo makes very plain, it still is important to share information with the Congress, to discuss matters with the Congress, and that still will be done. The question is, discussion of any information that is of such a classified nature or is classified, that it would not be germane to members who are not listed as the Speaker, the Minority Leader, the Majority Leader or the chair of the ranking members of the Intelligence Committee.
Q: So this memo does have the effect of dramatically limiting the number of eyes, if you will, on Capitol Hill that can see this information?
MR FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q: What I was getting at really is that you're not -- just to follow on that, you're really not briefing Congress, you're basically just briefing about five or six select members of Congress.
MR FLEISCHER: It's quite clear, it's briefing the leaders of Congress.
Q: Ari, there are other members of Congress, certainly, who are cleared to receive classified information: the Chairman of the Foreign Relations and International Affairs Committee --
MR FLEISCHER: It's not a question of cleared to receive information, this is a question about how the administration is going to work with Congress in the dissemination of information that's classified.
Q: Why wouldn't, for example, the leader -- the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, ranking member -- Armed Services ranking member -- why wouldn't they be able to receive this information? Is there some --
MR FLEISCHER: Because the President has made the determination that at a time of war like this, he wants to make certain that every step is taken so that there cannot be a loss of life as a result of an inadvertent release of information. And therefore, the President has decided that he wants to make certain that the agencies that report to him provide information in a fashion that is a smaller circle to members of Congress.
Q: Just to follow up, how can those committees and those committee chairmen do their proper oversight if they don't get the information?
MR FLEISCHER: I think they are able to do so, and that's why the information is shared with the Intelligence Committee, as well as the leadership.
Q: But Armed Services and Foreign Relations are directly responsible for oversight of armed services and foreign relations. How can they be of help if they don't have the information?
MR FLEISCHER: Because not every aspect of their job deals with having immediate information that of classified nature about what may be happening on a military operation on an operational sense.
Q: But Ari, connect the dots. A larger circle was being briefed initially. And now you've restricted it to the four leaders plus the chairmen and ranking members of the Intelligence Committee.
MR FLEISCHER: Correct. Exactly right.
Q: Was the assessment made that in the case of the Foreign Relations or the International Relations Committee and the Armed Services Committee that the chairmen and the ranking members or the other members could not be trusted?
MR FLEISCHER: John, it's not a question of people not being trusted, as you put it.
Q: Then why pull back?
MR FLEISCHER: It's a question of the determination made by the President that in a time of war, the usual rules do not apply, and that the President is going to err on the side of protecting lives, so that inadvertent information -- inadvertent release of information cannot occur.
Q: I understand that point completely, but they were being briefed at the beginning.
MR FLEISCHER: And that requires necessarily a tightening of the circle about who has access to all this information that I described. It does not mean that members of Congress will not continue to receive information; they will continue to receive information. And the President makes that perfectly plain in his memo to the agencies when he said that we will continue to inform the leadership in our critical military intelligence law enforcement operations.
But I remind you, even in peacetime, not every member of Congress had access to every bit of classified information.
Q: Yes, but you did pull back; that was John's point.
Q: Because the President was not happy --
MR FLEISCHER: Absolutely. I acknowledge it. It's plain as the memo reads --
Q: You pulled back because the President was not happy?
MR FLEISCHER: -- that the circle has been diminished, because the President is going to make certain that every step is taken to protect lives from the inadvertent release of information. That's correct.
Q: And the upshot of it is that the conduct of the war policy and its oversight is now being done by the Executive Branch and six members of Congress?
MR FLEISCHER: The information-sharing on the matters that are described in this memo will be available to six members of Congress -- actually, it's eight.
Q: Sorry -- the congressional role of its contribution to the war policy and its oversight is now going to have to fall into the hands of those eight people?
MR FLEISCHER: I think the President is very satisfied with the sharing of information and the decision he's made.
Q: Does this cover information about the possibility of threats of attacks on American soil, or is it just about overseas military?
MR FLEISCHER: It's information that is classified in nature. I can read it to you again, if you want -- consistent with --
Q: Any classified information?
MR FLEISCHER: Let me read -- I think you have copies of the memo, so you can take a look and read it for yourself. But the memo makes clear it's classified information.
Q: It seems to be any classified information. So that's anything that the White House decides should be classified and they don't want to share with Congress.
MR FLEISCHER: The classification decisions are made by the appropriate intelligence officials. And, again, the President is going to make certain that this information is provided to the Congress so the people who need to know it will have full ability to have it, and he wants to make certain that the circle is diminished, so that nothing inadvertent can happen.
Q: Isn't it a huge shift of power to the Executive Branch?
MR FLEISCHER: That's correct -- that's what the President has decided.
Q: Ari, is there any precedent -- did the White House Counsel's Office -- is there any precedent for limiting the circle in wartime to this small, in terms of briefing Congress?
MR FLEISCHER: I would have to check with some historians. I can't tell you of the top of my head.
Q: Gulf War, World War II -- any time when so few members of the elected leadership of this representative government have been informed of the operations of the Executive Branch?
MR FLEISCHER: I very much appreciate your desire to have a large group as possible of people who have this information, but I've said about all I'm going to say on this topic. The President has done this for a reason, the President stands by it, and it's the right thing to do, in the President's opinion. And that's why he's done it. He is aware of the types of questions you're going to ask about this, but the President has done it deliberately, because this is a time of war and in his judgment, this is the best way to save lives and protect lives of the people that he is putting in harm's way in the course of this war.
Yes, this is a determined decision by the President.
Q: It's very hard to argue with the idea of saving lives, but there's another principle at work here as well, as you're well aware. And that is the oversight that is usually provided by Congress.
MR FLEISCHER: I think we have exhausted this topic. This is about a half an hour briefing. We can spend all half hour on it if you like. I'll be here for that.
Q: You use the phrase so often, this is a time of war. Has there been a formal declaration of war? Is it necessary? How much further would American society change if there was a formal declaration?
MR FLEISCHER: There has not been, and I can't speculate about how much further it would change.
Q: Going back to this letter. Apparently, a lot of these congressional leaders, or the congressional persons, were given this information because many people in the White House and in the Cabinet felt that they had some kind of critical input. Now that the circle has been closed, the input has been stifled somewhat. Do you think that it could hurt the mission that you're trying to accomplish right now by closing the circle?
MR FLEISCHER: The President does not think that.
Q: But I know you say it's going to -- this inadvertent information that's going out and you want to prevent the loss of life, but those congress persons that were told in the beginning, they were told for a reason, for their critical input.
MR FLEISCHER: And they're still being told. The leadership is still being told. Q: But it was other than those eight, prior to.
MR FLEISCHER: You know, I'm not aware of exactly how widespread briefings were prior to it. But the President's memo speaks for itself on this topic and I think we've covered it extensively at the beginning of the briefing.
THE PRESS: Thank you.