THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
June 20, 2002
PRESS BRIEFING BY ARI FLEISCHER
[excerpts on leaks of NSA information]
MR. FLEISCHER: They talked generally, Ron.
Q: Has he talked to the NSA Director about the information that's flowed out of it concerning 9/11?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know that the President talked to General Hayden today. They do talk from time to time; I don't know if they talked today.
Q: What does he think about -- I mean, does he think the American people have a right to this information? Or is he so obsessed with leaks -- so-called leaks, which is information, that he doesn't think we should have this?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think your question is in regard to a report that was in the newspapers and widely on TV yesterday and this morning that had extraordinarily specific information that was provided under a promise of confidentiality to the committees that are doing the investigation of events leading up to 9/11. And the information that was leaked is alarmingly specific. And the President does have very deep concerns about anything that would be inappropriately leaked that could in any way endanger America's ability to gather intelligence information, anything that could harm our ability to maintain sources and methods, and anything that could interfere with America's ability to fight the war on terrorism.
The President was deeply concerned about these leaks. We do not know who did it. The President earlier today asked the Vice President to call the chairmen of the committees who are doing the investigation. The Vice President spoke with Congressman Goss and with Senator Graham to convey the President's concerns about anything that would be released that could indeed harm America's ability to gather information and to maintain access to that information. And the President and the Vice President are satisfied that the chairmen will address this issue.
Q: Would a blue ribbon commission keep a secret better?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I have no reason to believe that. I think it was just a case of this committee has important obligations. The President believes the committee understands that. The chairmen certainly do. And, as I indicated, the Vice President spoke to the two chairmen and the President is confident that it will be addressed and addressed wisely and properly.
Campbell. I'll come back, Helen.
Q: Can you explain why these intercepts, in particular, what was reported -- without confirming it -- what we've all read about in the papers would be a threat to national security?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me try to walk it through as specifically as I possibly can without giving you in any way at all any indication about whether whatever has been leaked is true or not true, because I won't discuss that.
The problem we have as a free society and a democratic society that places an important value on providing information to the press and to the public is we are in the middle of a war, and one of the ways to prevent attacks on the United States and to win the war is to be able to obtain information from our enemies. And I'm not going to describe how we obtain information from our enemies. But common sense shows and says that if our enemies know, with great specificity, that we have means of obtaining things that they say, and all of a sudden they find out that something they said with specificity is known by our government, they're going to change their methods.
Sometimes people get lazy, sometimes people forget. It is not helpful to the cause to provide specific information that makes people take efforts to avert America's ability to defend itself or to protect itself.
And in 1998, as a result of an unauthorized disclosure of intelligence information, it was revealed publicly that the United States had Osama bin Laden's satellite phone. As soon as it was publicly revealed, we never heard from that source again. We never again heard from that satellite phone.
That can damage America's ability to know important information that this government needs to protect the country. Public disclosure of that information can damage our ability to protect the country. So the President does feel very strongly about it. He has concerns, and those concerns were conveyed. And the President is confident that it was well-received.
Q: Was this information put out in a closed meeting of the committee?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes.
Q: So everyone on the committee knew about it?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that you'd have to ask that to the appropriate people on the committee, but, yes, it was put out in a closed session.
Q: Ari, is the implication of the --
MR. FLEISCHER: And that's not confirming the specific information, Helen. But it was a closed session at which people apparently have said some things.
Q: Isn't the implication of the Vice President's phone call that you believe that this information came off the Hill? And if so, how do you know that? I mean, the sourcing of the stories is "intelligence official."
MR. FLEISCHER: Reporters reported it yesterday. You can just look at the reporting, and the reporting says "congressional sources."
Q: I looked at that stories. There are a couple of stories in the Post and in the Wall Street Journal today that quote "intelligence sources." And one of them quotes a "senior administration official" commenting on the matter. So have you also taken actions to make sure that -- to determine whether there was a leak from the administration and --
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is satisfied it's not coming from his administration. And again -- I can cite you the news organization, if you're interested, that explicitly reported on the air in its TV report that their sources were from the Hill. Wherever the source is, the point is the same. This is not to finger-point, this is not to place blame. If it comes from the administration, it's wrong. If it comes from the Hill, it's wrong. No matter where the source, no matter where it comes from, we all are in this together, and everybody needs to remember the delicacy of this information and the sensitivity of the information, and the fact that making specific information of this nature public does raise important concerns, because it can harm our ability to continue to gather that information.