THE WHITE HOUSE[...]
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY ARI FLEISCHER
September 24, 2001
Q: Ari, yesterday Secretary Powell was very precise that he was going to put out a report on what we had on bin Laden that could be reported, and not classified. Today, the President shot him down -- and he's been shot down many, many times by the administration -- you seem to be operating -- he also retreated a question of putting out a report. No, I'm wrong?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think that there was just a misinterpretation of the exact words the Secretary used on the Sunday shows. And the Secretary talked about that in a period of time -- I think his word was "soon" -- there would be some type of document that could be made available. As you heard the Secretary say today, he said "as we are able," as it unclassifies.
Q: -- much more emphatic yesterday, I thought.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think he said the word "soon," as I was reminded today by a very knowledgeable official at the State Department, that's called "State Department soon." And so it's fully consistent with what the President has been saying and the Secretary said. You know, I mean, look, it shouldn't surprise anybody. As soon as --
Q: The American people thought "soon" meant "soon." (Laughter.)
Q: Is this a sign, Ari, that --
MR. FLEISCHER: Kelly, let me -- I was getting there, I was answering Helen. Helen, what I was saying is, it shouldn't surprise anybody that as soon as the attack on our country took place, the immediate reaction is the investigations begin. They begin with the intelligence agencies, they begin with domestic agencies, they begin with a regular law enforcement authorities. And they start to collect a whole series of information.
Some of that information is going to end up in the form of grand jury information, which of course is subject to secrecy laws. Others coming from intelligence services is by definition going to be classified, and will be treated as such.
Over the course of time, will there be changes to that, that can lead to some type of declassified document over whatever period of time? That has historically been the pattern, and I think that's what the Secretary was referring to.
Q: That's 50 years from now, if you're talking about a State Department white paper.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I'm not aware of anybody who said, white paper, and the Secretary didn't say anything about a white paper yesterday.
Q: Is this a sign, though, that allies, particularly Arab and Muslim allies, really want to see the evidence because they're concerned about any potential action in Afghanistan could lead to instability in the region, so they want to be certain that you have the evidence?
MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, in the course of the conversations that the President and the Secretary have been having with foreign leaders, their support has been very strong. And they also have information, they also have knowledge. And I remind you, it's not just the United States that collects information and knows that all roads lead to the al Qaeda organization. Other nations have similar means of collecting information.
Q: Ari, it does seem that across the board, on proving that these charitable organizations, non-governmental organizations, banks have links to terror; on proving that bin Laden is behind these acts; on what plans the administration has post whatever movement we make in Afghanistan; the answer is always, that's classified, trust us. Does that really serve the democracy well if all this information on which the government is basing its actions is classified?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the American people get it. I think they understand that as the nation moves from a peacetime footing to a wartime footing, the government's need to hold certain pieces of information closer is an important need. And I think the American people are accepting and understanding of that. And I think you all will be the judge if you believe the government has gone too far.
But I don't think there's any indications among the public, certainly, that that is the case. And I think it's perfectly understandable, as people hide in Afghanistan today, who know that if they were to start moving, the United States would take action.
The one thing they want more than anything else is, what information do we have that lets us know who they are and where they are and how quick do we get that information. And we are not going to provide that information.
Q: On the question of evidence, has the United States received information from other countries that have supported America's case against bin Laden?
MR. FLEISCHER: Ed, I think it's a safe bet to say the United States always works collaboratively with its best friends around the world. And when I talked about areas of cooperation that are available, you've heard the President say one of the areas of cooperation will be in intelligence sharing. You can always presume that's the case with our friends.
Q: Ari, I just want to make sure I understand the White House position in terms of evidence in general. And I realize you're saying that a lot of governments understand and share information privately. But is there any plan to present public evidence so that the average citizen, not just Americans, but people all over the world can understand the case against bin Laden?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think as Secretary Powell said, there is hope to do that, and to do so in a timely fashion, over some course of time. That's always important in a democracy. In a democracy it's always important to provide the maximum amount of information possible. But I think the American people also understand that there are going to be times when that information cannot immediately be forthcoming. And the American people seem to be accepting of that.
Q: But I really am talking even bigger. You're talking about actions in other parts of the world. And certainly you want the support of as many people around the world as possible. I guess it seems as though you're asking everyone to trust you, but without supplying information to show why you should trust -- I mean, to go to a point and then stop.
MR. FLEISCHER: Two points. One, again, many of these nations know what we know. And they are working with us, because they know a lot of the things that we know. There are many conversations that take place between the United States at the state level, at the presidential level, with foreign leaders, that if there were to be a transcript of that conversation, for example, it would be classified, because they discuss secrets. There is a sharing of information. You're presuming that there's no such sharing of information in private. There can be, and there is.
That's not the type of information that can always be publicly shared. And I think the country has an appreciation for that. But you just have to gauge the reaction of nations around the world for themselves. They are working with us, because they believe us. They're working with us because of things they know, and because of the trust they hold in the United States government.
Q: Let me try one more. Once more, if I could, on the proof issue, I think the picture that we all have in our minds is of Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations, passing around previously classified photographs of missiles with the understanding that America could, within days, if not hours, be the target of those missiles. What's the difference between then and now, in terms of publicizing information that would point the court of public opinion directly toward those who we think are responsible?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, you can't compare what's happened in the past with what's happening today with the instant communication age. Don't forget, anything that is said here in this White House today can be broadcast and be watched by terrorists around the world, as it's said. There is a huge difference in terms of the instant transmission of information and the ability, therefore, of people to take advantage of it for wrongful purposes.
But as I indicated, in the democracy, there still remains an always important goal of sharing as much information as possible with the public. And the President, Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld, all remain committed to that. And I think you will just be the judges over time about whether that balance is struck. And I submit to you it has been struck, and struck well.
Q: The differences is, like, the 24-hour news cycle and the availability of communications?
MR. FLEISCHER: And it's also just the means of how information is collected. And every administration makes a different determination about how to protect that means of collection of information.
But, you know, again I remind you, I understand the frustration that journalists feel in this regard. And we're going to continue to do the best as an administration in providing information. But I also remind you that nations of the world are not passing this message on to the United States; the message has been one of cooperation and trust. And the administration will continue to work hard to keep it that way. And every sign points that it's going that way.
Q: I think some of the confusion over this was caused by a couple of reports that there was a white paper and some other reports that there was going to be evidence in a couple of days and that it would be put out before you moved militarily and that sort of thing.
I just want to see if I can be clear in my mind. Are you saying there is some specific effort underway now to provide a -- to work up a nonclassified document that can be shared with the public, here and abroad, and other governments, or is it just a general intention to do so?
And on another track, is there some other effort to come up with a classified document just for use by government officials so that everyone knows you're on the same page?
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay. On your first question, I cite Secretary Powell's words today. As the Secretary said in the Rose Garden, as we are able and as it unclassifies, which clearly implies it is a classified document that is not unclassified.
Q: Say that again. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: It's a classified document that is not unclassified. The Secretary said, as we are able and as it unclassifies -- those are his words and he's right, and that's accurate. So he's indicating then there will be, over time, different issues will be looked at with an eye toward whatever can possibly be publicly shared. But as we speak today, and as the Secretary said, as we are able and as it unclassifies.
Now, of course, right from the beginning, as I indicated in the top of the briefing, as soon as the attack was launched, the investigation began. That investigation, of course, compiles documents, assembles information, and does so in a manner that will reveal how do we know these things, by what sources, by what methods do we know and have received that information. Of course, that's a classified document.
Q: The point is, what I'm trying to figure out is, is a group of people somewhere being tasked with coming up with a document that can be scrubbed of classified material so that you can lay out the case? Is that an effort that's now underway? Is that just an intention somewhere down the road?
MR. FLEISCHER: It remains a classified document; a series of classified documents, to be more precise.
Q: Ari, do you know if classified documents are being supplied to the grand jury that's looking into this in New York?
MR. FLEISCHER: You need to talk to the Justice Department about anything dealing with grand juries.