White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer
White House Briefing Room
Washington, D.C.
September 24, 2001
1:02 P.M. EDT

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I want to give you an update on the President's day. Earlier this morning the President called Thai Prime Minister Thaksin to discuss ways the United States and Thailand can cooperate in the war against terrorism.

He signed an executive order last night, for which he held a ceremony in the Rose Garden today, with Secretary O'Neill and Secretary Powell, in which he froze the financial assets of terrorist organizations linked to the al Qaeda organization, or part of the al Qaeda organization in the United States.

The President also held a meeting of his National Security Council this morning. And, as we speak, he is just concluding a luncheon meeting following his Oval Office meeting with America's good friend, the Canadian Prime Minister.

Immediately following that, the President will have a meeting with the families of passengers and the flight crew of Flight 93, which, as you know, went down in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Later this afternoon, the President will have a meeting of the Domestic Consequences Committee to discuss domestic planning for how to help America recover from this attack.

Two foreign leader visits I want to bring to your attention. The President will welcome Belgium Prime Minister, who also is the President of the European Council, Verhofstadt, on Thursday this week, the 27th. And he will welcome King Abdullah of Jordan to the White House for a working visit on Friday, September 28th.

Finally, let me give you an update on several actions across the Cabinet, designed to help America. Secretary of Education Rod Paige today directed lenders and colleges and universities to provide members of the National Guard relief from their student loan obligations -- these are members of the National Guard who have been called up to active duty service. Lenders will automatically postpone the student loan payments of borrowers during the period of the borrowers' service.

Secretary Paige also announced that the Department of Education is providing $500,000 to Connecticut's Department of Education and providing $250,000 to the District of Columbia's Department of Education, in immediate assistance to help students and faculty and teachers directly impacted by the terrorist attacks.

There will be an announcement made shortly this afternoon by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Martinez, along with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, concerning mortgage payment relief for reservists who are going on active duty status.

The Department of Justice, General Ashcroft and several officials from the Department of Justice will be testifying before the House Judiciary Committee today regarding the legislative proposal to give the government additional tools to combat terrorism. That testimony is scheduled for 2:00 p.m.

And, finally, at the Department of Labor, Secretary Chao has announced today that the Department of Labor will begin an education campaign for employers, as well as National Guard and Reserve units to ensure that civilians called up for active duty are re-employed in their previous jobs after completion of their military service.

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

QUESTION: Ari, what have we got in terms of the list of organizations and individuals who are being targeted to have their financial assets squeezed? What about the issue of domestic fundraising? How much of a part does the White House believe that may have played in this terrorist network?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's unclear. And I think it's one of the most insidious signs of what these organizations and front groups represent, because there may very well be elements to these groups that help people, that help children, that do work. And they can very well have received money from Americans or from others abroad who thought they were doing good for people who need relief.

But then there's another side to these organizations, and that's why they're listed today as terrorist organizations. They took that money, they diverted portions of that money and used it to finance the war on -- their terrorist actions. That's one of the items that we're up against.

QUESTION: Are you aware of any specific incidence of domestic fundraising for the al Qaeda group?

MR. FLEISCHER: You'd have to talk to Treasury for anything involving specific examples. But in terms of these groups -- and that's why they call them fronts, they do raise money from innocent people who give for good reasons, but then unknown to many of those people, they take that money and they use it for insidious purposes, including terrorism.

QUESTION: Bin Laden was a known and indicted terrorist when he came to office. And the President in the campaign called terrorism one of the great threats of our times. Why wasn't this done seven months ago?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, if you noticed, what was done today goes beyond anything that was previously done. And there had already been an executive order in place, signed by President Clinton.

What this does is allow the United States government to go well beyond anything that was previously done. And the principal way it does that is by sending a message to foreign banks that they need to take action, and we're going to work with foreign governments so they can take action against anybody who -- any terrorist organizations or front groups that have assets in foreign countries that are beyond the immediate reach of the United States government.

But the signal being sent is if you don't, we are prepared to take action against your financial interests in this country.

QUESTION: Why didn't this administration send that signal two or three months ago? Why did it take this tragedy to --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think, Ron, what you're seeing across the board is, unfortunately, this tragedy has resulted in an increase of security -- domestic, financial, diplomatic, political -- across the board. We were on a peacetime footing. The previous executive order had been in place. But this now goes beyond anything that was previously done.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that one question? Is it unprecedented, then, for this administration -- has an administration ever before done this, where it says foreign banks, if you do not stop the flow of money going to terrorist organizations we will put sanctions on you, we'll freeze your assets in the U.S.? Was that ever done before?

MR. FLEISCHER: I have no information about any precedence for it, in all the briefings I had, this goes beyond anything that was previously done. I believe it is without precedent.

QUESTION: 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.

QUESTION: -- 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 --

QUESTION: The American people thought "soon" meant "soon." (Laughter.)

QUESTION: 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.

QUESTION: 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.

QUESTION: 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.

QUESTION: 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.

QUESTION: Ari, on the issue of Bush seeking power to lift the arms curbs. That's exactly -- these are countries such as, or they could be countries such as Iran, countries that we have formally, before, said that we are going to curb our arms sales. How different is that than what we actually did with the Taliban, because we supported a government that --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that if you didn't hear the President address that question today in the report that you are citing he indicated is wrong.

QUESTION: Ari, back to the list. A lot of former Clinton Treasury people who worked on this somewhat have said that one of the big problems was technology, especially in the Middle East, in terms of their banking system -- it doesn't exist, it's nothing comparable to what we do here. So how do you trace, how do you actually implement what you're trying to do, when transactions are being made almost word of mouth?

MR. FLEISCHER: There is no doubt that in some nations this will be easier, in other nations it will have more hurdles. But what has changed fundamentally in the world, including many of the nations you cited, is the recognition that this is entirely different from anything that anybody has faced before, and that the nations of the world are going to war with terrorism.

And that has led to a much higher level of cooperation, much more interaction between nations. I think you'll have to develop it and watch it over time. The United States is looking for good allies to help in this effort to shut down the financial sources of the terrorists. And the cooperation from nation to nation may be different.

But make no mistake that the world is beginning to turn its sights on it in a way that has never been done before.

QUESTION: But there is a fundamental problem in that the countries that are likely to be the most resistant to providing you with the information you want are the very countries where the technology doesn't exist, and it's easy for them to say, we don't know.

MR. FLEISCHER: Perhaps, Campbell. There is also evidence that that's not the place that many of these terrorists like to put their money.

QUESTION: -- the Swiss and the Cayman Islands and other governments, places where money is usually -- large amounts of money are usually stashed and they have strict rules about giving out information to law enforcement?

MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated earlier, we're going to continue to work with all nations around the world and we're going to continue to see what the level of cooperation is with each nation.

But make no mistake, what is so different about the executive order the President signed last night is now the United States is prepared to take action against nations that don't take action themselves.

QUESTION: So the U.S. is willing to take action against the Swiss?

MR. FLEISCHER: The United States is prepared to take action against nations that don't help in this cause.

QUESTION: How will that process work? For instance, you identify one of these groups and you go to a foreign bank and say, we want you to freeze the assets of this organization. Will the U.S. just attest that this is linked to terrorists? Will they supply some sort of detailed information? How do you avoid -- how do you do that and avoid using sources and methods?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, every case is going to be different. And, again, the President signed this last night, he announced it today in the Rose Garden. I think these are good questions, but you may want to address these to different foreign nations around the world.

I can't be in a position of being the spokesperson for every bank or foreign nation around the world. We'll see what they do to cooperate. But as I indicated earlier, the cooperation around the world has never been better.

QUESTION: No, but I was asking you what the administration intends to do, not what they intend to do -- what you intend to do to give them information to convince them? I mean, if someone came to a U.S. bank and said, by the way, lock up this account because we think these guys are terrorists -- you would have to go through some legal procedures, you couldn't just say, oh, the Swiss told --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the Treasury addressed that this morning. You really -- Treasury is going to be the preeminent authority -- and, of course, with State, also -- in working directly with those nations. So if you want to know what you're doing, what the government is doing with a specific nation -- and as you point out, in accordance with laws -- those will be the most appropriate places to go.

QUESTION: On something we talked about this morning. Will the government, will the administration be asking courts for more leeway if challenged by organizations or banks for evidences to why these charitable organizations or banks are suspect or on this list?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, under domestic laws, these laws have been on the books and the President has invoked his authority under the books, as you see in the executive order he signed -- he gave the citations for the laws that were written by the Congress, signed by previous Presidents, allowing the administration at a time of emergency like this to enact these measures.

So, of course, it is always going to be done in accordance with those authorities.

QUESTION: But it will also be litigated, undoubtedly, and there have been cases in the past where judges and courts have said, unless you give us the evidence, we're throwing out the case.

MR. FLEISCHER: Now you're into hypotheticals, and that's why I also indicated that the President signed it last night. He announced it today. I think you need to let it unfold.

QUESTION: The Treasury -- the response from the Treasury Department to that this morning was, we will act like responsible adults. I think those were the words he used, even. I mean, you're really asking people to trust the government on this. And without being more specific, do you intend to be more specific soon?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think what you need to do is talk to these foreign governments and talk to the foreign banks and get their point of view. I think you are surmising what their point of view may or may not be. And what's happened in the world since September 11th is the levels of international cooperation have never been so good. These nations recognize that they have terrorist threats, as well. They share an interest with us in drying up the assets of those nations that practice terrorism or those organizations that practice terrorism.

And so it's beginning with a fresh cooperation that is unparalleled or unprecedented. That's the context in which this action begins. And we'll see where it goes over time.

QUESTION: 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.

QUESTION: A couple of these trust funds that were outlined in the executive order today are administered through the State Bank of Pakistan. Has Pakistan agreed to freeze the accounts on these -- freeze the money in these accounts?

MR. FLEISCHER: We've reached out to many of the governments, or in the case of Pakistan, talked to Pakistan about this action. And they've been very supportive of what we are doing.

QUESTION: Is this going to create any sort of diplomatic briar patch situation with coalition members, since a lot of these banks --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, and that's why I indicated also, it's not just American citizens who may have given money to a cause that they believed in, that turns out to have an insidious dark side, that took their money and diverted it to terrorists. That happens abroad, as well. And many of the people abroad who participated may not have known about the darker side of some of these organizations.

But certainly now is a chance for all nations around the world to stand with us -- and all people around the world to stand with us, as they realize more information, thanks to the information the United States provided this morning.

QUESTION: 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.