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United Kingdom
Prime Minister's Official Spokesman
Lobby Briefing on the US Terror Attacks
September 13, 2001
@11:00 A.M. GMT

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised that the Prime Minister had spoken to Prime Minister Guterres and the Taoiseach last night. He was expected to speak to Prime Minister Persson and Prime Minister Aznar this afternoon. He had chaired COBRA this morning, followed by Cabinet. Needless to say, it had been a very sombre Cabinet. He had spoken at some length on a number of the different aspects flowing from Tuesday, namely the military, the political and diplomatic tracks, the longer term issues relating to tackling global terrorism and the huge practical arrangements in terms of British casualties and the ramifications that would have for communities across Britain.

In terms of the military aspect, the American Administration was considering its response. The Prime Minister had very strongly reiterated the view that this was a democratic world issue. Although this atrocity had been carried out in the US and against the US, the Prime Minister said it was against the whole civilised and democratic world, and from its response so too did the international community.

The Foreign Secretary had briefed Cabinet on the different diplomatic activities which had taken place in terms of the General Affairs Council, the NATO meeting yesterday and the UN Security Council Resolution. All of these were extremely important and all underlined the international solidarity and resolve on this issue. In that context, the PMOS advised that there would be a three-minute silence beginning at 11am (UK time) as part of the Europe-wide initiative.

In terms of tackling global terrorism, the Prime Minister had gone through some of the issues which would have to be looked at in 'slower time' - who founded these groups, where they were based etc.

In terms of casualties, the Prime Minister had repeated that it was very difficult to be precise about numbers and identities. Some were known, but many more were feared dead. The issue had been raised at the COBRA meeting this morning in relation to Britons in the US who had been affected by this appalling act and perhaps had no medical insurance. It had been made clear that the Government would meet the costs for those individuals. The Prime Minister had also asked Tessa Jowell to co-ordinate the arrangements for funerals and support arrangements for families around the country. He had made the point that if this event had happened in the UK with such a large number of individuals feared dead, one could only imagine the shock. This would be a tragedy which would touch every community here as the number of dead and their identities became known.

The Chancellor had briefed Cabinet on the financial situation. He said this attack had been an attempt to bring a halt to the global economic system. However, that had not been allowed to happen. The markets in Europe and London had remained open. Our understanding was that the bond market in the US would be opening and they were looking to reopen the stock market as soon as they could. The financial community and systems were resilient.

Stephen Byers had briefed Cabinet on the security arrangements at airports and the measures we had taken in relation to British airspace. The PMOS advised that Mr Byers would be attending a meeting of the Transport Council in Brussels tomorrow evening where the issue of Europe-wide aviation security would be discussed. Obviously this was an important issue both in Europe and beyond. My Byers had told Cabinet that we had moved to the highest alert in terms of personal searches at airports. We would look to scale this down as appropriate and would be kept under constant review. In the meantime, the no-fly 'box area' over central London which aircraft were banned from flying over would continue. City Airport, which was closed today, was likely to open tomorrow with changes to flight paths so as to redirect planes away from Canary Wharf. The restrictions on light aircraft and helicopters which had initially been put in place on Tuesday had been lifted overnight.

The PMOS said that the machinery of COBRA would continue around the clock, twenty-four hours day, seven days a week for the time being. He was unable to point to any further Ministerial meetings of COBRA at this stage. Obviously Ministers stood ready to meet as soon as and whenever it was necessary. He underlined that the vast majority of the Prime Minister's time was being spent on the issues flowing from Tuesday's tragic events, and that would continue.

Asked whether the Prime Minister had given any figure for casualties, the PMOS said that as Jack Straw had said this morning, we were in a position to identify up to 100 Britons who we believed, with a reasonable degree of certainty, were missing and presumed dead. However, we had to steel ourselves for the fact that the death toll was more likely to be several hundred. Asked whether we were close to releasing a list of names, the PMOS said we were still some way off from that point. Asked on what basis we had reached the figure of 100, the PMOS said that a handful were related to flight lists. Obviously calls had been received at Scotland Yard from concerned friends and relatives. Questioned further, the PMOS said that we could only estimate the numbers who might have been in the World Trade Centre at the time and who were still unaccounted for. It was impossible to confirm any British deaths in the World Trade Centre at this stage for the reason that only about eighty bodies had been removed from the wreckage so far. What we could confirm was that 100 people, possibly more, were unaccounted for and evidence suggested that they had been in the World Trade Centre at the time of the attacks and they had probably lost their lives. However, until such time as the bodies were recovered, we couldn't confirm anything. As the Prime Minister had been briefed at COBRA yesterday, we had to be prepared for current figure to rise significantly.

Asked if the military discussion in Cabinet had included the question of who might be responsible, the PMOS said that as journalists would appreciate, he was unable to go into any detail about military issues or intelligence issues. That said, work was ongoing as a matter of urgency to identify those who were responsible. No firm view had been reached at this stage and he was not going to speculate. Put to him that the military discussion must therefore have been theoretical, the PMOS repeated that no decisions in terms of those responsible had been made yet. Asked whether Cabinet had looked at proposals concerning an early military response, the PMOS said that it was pointless for journalists to go down that route. It would be for the US to decide what appropriate action should be taken against those responsible. Questions which flowed from that concerning Britain?s locus would be discussed at the appropriate time. He repeated that over the last twenty-four hours we had seen the international community coming together, showing that it stood behind the US and shared its horror at what had happened. Asked whether Cabinet discussion had focussed on US or British military, the PMOS repeated he was not going to get into discussions about military issues. Put to him that he was the one who had advised that Cabinet had discussed military action, the PMOS said that didn?t mean he had to go any further. He had pointed out that there would be a number of issues raised as a result of events in the US. One of them would be military issues. He repeated that it would be for the US to decide on an appropriate course of action. As indicated by conversations which had taken place within NATO and the UN, there was an ongoing dialogue with allies. Asked how long it might take, the PMOS said he was not going any further than what he had said.

Put to him that the implication of the NATO Resolution was that we would be obliged to offer support if the US requested it, the PMOS said that it was the first time that Article 5 had been invoked since 1949. The terrorist attack was viewed as an armed attack on the US. This therefore invoked the fundamental obligation of the Alliance to come to the aid of a member state. The next step would be for consultation within NATO. We were not at that point yet. As Jack Straw had underlined this morning, Article 5 wasn?t a blank cheque. Exact support would be a matter for national determination by national Governments and Prime Ministers. Questioned further, the PMOS said he was not diminishing in any way, shape or form the significance of the declaration by NATO. As the Prime Minister had said, this had been an attack on the whole civilised and democratic world. As the different declarations from the EU, NATO and the UN had shown, that was how the international community viewed it as well. Put to him that by stating our support for the US we had already given the President a blank cheque, the PMOS said that any level of support the US might ask of us could be discussed at the appropriate time. The Prime Minister had indicated from the outset that the US was not alone in this - as demonstrated by all the activity over the last twenty-four hours. This was not just an outrage against the US. Britain also had an interest in what had happened in terms of individuals based at the World Trade Centre but also the wider issues of global terrorism. As the Prime Minister had said, we stood shoulder to shoulder with the US at this time. Asked if it would be fair to summarise our position as acknowledging that it was up to the US to decide on the appropriate response but that we hoped and believed they would do so in consultation with Britain and other allies, the PMOS reiterated that it was for the US Administration to decide on what action to take. In the last twenty-four hours, they had already indicated that they were in discussion with their allies.

Asked to clarify the range of different issues which had arisen as a result of the attacks in the US, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had said from the outset, there would be a whole raft of issues which the international community would have to look at to deal with this new threat. Questions included where these organisations were based, how they were funded etc. Each issue would have to be looked at very carefully by the international community as a whole. Obviously some would have to be looked in 'slower time'. In terms of others however, action was already being taken, for example the Transport Council was meeting tomorrow to discuss aviation security.

Questioned repeatedly as to whether we were at war, the PMOS said that being 'at war' were words which had a legal and technical force. He reiterated that the Cabinet had discussed some of the military issues flowing from the attacks in the US. It was for the US Administration to decide on the appropriate action to take against those responsible. Over the last twenty-four hours we had seen the strongest possible support from the international community and a display of unity in sharing the horror of what had happened. Asked whether the Prime Minister had used the word ?war?, the PMOS said not as far as he was aware. Asked whether we had ever formally declared war on the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, the PMOS said journalists could look that up in the history books just as well as he could. Pressed as to whether we were actually at war, the PMOS repeated that it was for the US Administration to decide what action to take. As we had seen over the last twenty-four hours, they were approaching this by involving their allies, talking to them and discussing the issue in all the international fora. If there were any consequentials for us, they would be considered at the appropriate time. The threat of global terrorism faced us all. Asked if he was saying that this dialogue was desirable, the PMOS pointed out that we had already had dialogue with the US Administration and there had already been a meeting at the North Atlantic Council. In the end, however, it was for the US to decide on its response. It was a quite unimaginable situation for them to be dealing with. The Prime Minister believed that the President and the American people were showing great resolve and strength in what were very difficult circumstances. Asked whether Parliament would need to be informed first if the UK decided to become engaged in some form of military action, the PMOS said that all these consequentials - should we need to address them - would be addressed at the appropriate time.

Asked if Cabinet had discussed whether any action would be taken against people with subversive views who were based in this country, the PMOS said that the Home Secretary had responsibility for internal security. As we had pointed out, security had been heightened in this country. The Prime Minister had said that we had to be vigilant and that we had to put in place the appropriate precautionary measures. Clearly, if we were dealing with the phenomenon of people who had no compunction in blowing themselves up we were dealing with a wholly new threat. To that extent, and as the Prime Minister had said in recent days, this was an issue which confronted us all. We were all at risk from the threat of global terrorism. Pressed as to whether any action would be taken against some of the more 'unsavoury characters on the fringes of the Muslim community', the PMOS said that wasn't a decision for him. He added that, as had been underlined several times during cabinet today, it was important to recognise that the attacks had been an act of terrorism against the world. That included the Muslim faith. As the Prime Minister had pointed out yesterday, these acts went against the proper teachings of the Islamic faith. We were determined not to let the terrorists succeed by setting different religions against one another. The response we had seen from the Muslim Council and which there had been through letters from other representatives of the Muslim community which had been published in some of the papers today was felt to be extremely valuable. Asked why several members of the Muslim community who belonged to proscribed organisations would appear not to have been apprehended or expelled from the country, the PMOS pointed out that appeal procedures could be put in place in terms of extradition. As Jack Straw had stated this morning, obviously we would have to look at a large number of different issues flowing from Tuesday's events.

Asked if the Prime Minister was worried about attacks on the British Muslim community, the PMOS repeated that it was important for everyone to recognise that what had happened went against all the proper teachings of the Koran and the Muslim faith. People had seen and heard the condemnation from Muslim communities around the world. They shared in the horror of the attack - which was just as much an attack on them as it was on us. It was very important for that point to be underlined. Extremists should not be allowed to use this as an excuse to foment their own racial hatred.

Asked about the logistics of flying identified bodies back to the UK given that flights in and out of the US were restricted, the PMOS said this was one of the issues to be looked at by Tessa Jowell. It was likely that we would be able to provide some police support, such as body identification experts. This would be arranged as soon as we possibly could. There was a whole raft of logistical issues which we were addressing as a matter of urgency. Asked whether there might be a mass airlift of British bodies to the UK, the PMOS said we would want to make sure that the dead returned to the UK with as much dignity as possible. Asked if this would be paid for by the taxpayer, the PMOS said that it could be assumed help for those that needed it would be given. He repeated that the British Government would pay for medical insurance.

Questioned about the debate in the Commons tomorrow, the PMOS said that it was due to begin at 9.30am. It was felt important for our seat of democracy to be given the opportunity to address the issues arising from the attacks. Asked if the three-minute silence would be observed during the debate, the PMOS said yes.

Asked about the Chancellor's remarks to Cabinet this morning on the economic impact, the PMOS said that as the Chancellor had said yesterday, it had been an act which had been aimed at doing as much damage as possible to the global economy. However, the resilience which had been shown here, in Europe and in the US had not - and would not - allow that to happen.

END


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Crown copyright material reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO.