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United Kingdom
Prime Minister's Official Spokesman
Lobby Briefing on the US Terror Attacks
September 17, 2001
11:00 A.M. GMT

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) went through some of the arrangements for the week ahead. He said that the Prime Minister was continuing to talk to a range of world leaders, following conversations he had had last week and throughout the weekend. Today he would be meeting Prime Minister Berlusconi and would be speaking to General Musharraf of Pakistan, amongst others.

On the domestic front, Tessa Jowell would be meeting voluntary groups and counselling personnel today. DCMS had made a variety of arrangements, including ensuring that every family who had suffered a bereavement would be visited by a trained police family liaison officer. However, the main focus of the Department was to continue to talk to the relatives of the victims and listen to what they wanted. So far that had entailed making arrangements for them to fly to New York if they so wished and to pay for the flights and accommodation. Ms Jowell would also visit some of the bereaved families today as well as some of the investment banks in the city which had been heavily affected.

Asked if the Prime Minister would speak to President Chirac before the latter flew to Washington tomorrow, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had spoken to President Chirac on several occasions, including on Saturday. We remained in contact with the French Government, as we did with all other Governments.

Asked the Prime Minister's view on Israeli action over the weekend in light of his wish to build and maintain alliances, the PMOS said that obviously we understood Israel's desire and need for security. However, we also believed that dialogue was the way to build for the future. Prior to last week's events, we had been strongly supportive of reinvigorating the Middle East Peace Process. As the Prime Minister had indicated in the house last Friday, we remained of that view.

Asked what the Prime Minister might say to General Musharraf, the PMOS said he was not going to get into detail about a conversation which had yet to take place. That said, of course we would listen to what the President had to say. Questioned further, the PMOS said that we welcomed Pakistan's condemnation of last week's events and also the co-operation that the country had indicated it would be willing to give, which had also been recognised by the US Administration. Like virtually every other country around the globe, Pakistan had lost some of its citizens in the attack. We therefore had a shared interest in responding to the events in the short, medium and long term, to make sure that the networks of terrorism, which had made such an attack possible, were no longer able to operate. That interest applied around the world, no matter what country or religion.

Asked whether there was a British equivalent of the US's Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Centre - and if not, whether we would establish one, the PMOS said that we would need to look right across the range of policy - both domestic and international - to determine what measures we would need to take. That would include looking at what other countries were doing and seeing whether we needed to make any necessary changes. In order to fight global terrorism, countries needed to review their own legislation. We had said we would do that on a variety of issues, including extradition. We also recognised that terrorists were able to exploit loopholes and gaps found in the legislation of individual countries as well legislation on a country-to-country basis.

Asked for Britain's response to the tough language Vice President Cheney had used over the weekend and how this would square with Jack Straw's recent criticism of Israel using such expressions, the PMOS said the important thing was what we did, not the language that might be used. In that the Government was absolutely clear. We needed to respond to the events of last week by rooting out those who were responsible and bringing them to account. However, we also needed to recognise that last week's attack had only been possible because of terrorism networks which had been built up over many years and which operated in different ways in different countries. Asked if he was implying that the Vice President's use of the phrase 'dirty tactics' was now acceptable in a way that it might not have been prior to the attacks, the PMOS said that it would be wrong to talk about a specific response before we had carried out a full assessment. We needed to assess how the attacks had happened and who was responsible and then look at the options in terms of how we should respond. Despite all reports to the contrary, that was being done in a calm and measured way in this country, in the US and internationally.

Asked what plans were being made in relation to civil defence, ID cards and stepping up measures to prevent illegal immigration, the PMOS said there was a constant process of threat assessment, as you would expect. That process was continuing. For obvious reasons it would not be helpful to go into detail. Questioned further, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary last week had recognised that the attack had consequences for how we approached a variety of issues. We had to look at those issues in the same calm and measured way that we were looking at how to respond internationally to the attack. We had to assess what impact last week had had on the essential balance at the heart of any democracy - the balance between the right to movement and the civil liberty of citizens not to come under attack from terrorism.

Asked how many conversations the Prime Minister had had with President Bush so far, the PMOS said two. However, there was constant contact between the British Government and American Administration as part of the non-stop conversation we were having with world leaders, including EU, Arab and other leaders, such as President Musharraf. Asked about future plans for meetings and conversations, the PMOS said we were taking each day as it came. Whatever meetings and conversations we needed to have, we would have. Asked if we believed that the Americans were holding genuine consultations with the British Government as to what they should do, the PMOS said it was a continuing conversation, just like any conversation between two people. Yesterday the Prime Minister had said quite clearly that he was delighted with the level of consultation which was going on. To talk of 'blank cheques' and 'vetoes' was to completely misrepresent the nature of the discussions taking place. It was a genuine consultation process.

Asked about the Prime Minister's conversations with Arab leaders, the PMOS said the Prime Minister had talked to many Arab leaders. However, he was unable to go into detail. That said, we remained in discussion with opinion right across the board. Asked about reports of a change of policy towards Iran, the PMOS underlined that our policy on Iran had not changed.

Asked why Jack Straw had abandoned the rule that Ministers should not talk about intelligence matters by saying this morning that the UK had independently established that Bin Laden was the prime suspect, the PMOS said that people wanted to know who we believed to be responsible for the attack. The Foreign Secretary had indicated that Bin Laden was the prime suspect. Yes, we did make our own independent assessments which we then shared with the US, as you would expect. Bin Laden was indeed the prime suspect. However, it was important to recognise that this was not about one individual. It was about a network of terrorism which had been built up over many years. As the Prime Minister had put it yesterday, we needed to dismantle the machinery of terror. It was not going to be something which would take one week or one month. It was a process. Asked if we had hard evidence, the PMOS said it was a matter of coming to a decision based on a process of continual assessment and the accumulation of detail.

Asked to what extent the Prime Minister was conscious of the fact that if we pushed Afghanistan too hard they might 'fall' to a more fundamentalist Islamic regime and to what extent we were putting 'parallel' pressure on Israel to behave in a more sensitive manner towards the grievances of the Palestinians, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had made clear from the outset that this was not a conflict with Islam or one religion with another. It was a conflict with people who did not recognise the sanctity of human life. The Prime Minister had been in contact with a range of Arab leaders from around the world, all of whom, like the Muslim community in this country, had expressed condemnation of the events of last week and their willingness to support action to respond to them. That remained the case. In terms of the Middle East Peace Process, he repeated that prior to the attack - and since - we had strongly advocated the reinvigoration of the peace process. We believed that these events gave added point to that process. We supported dialogue between the two sides because it was only in this way that we could address the fundamental questions which lay at the heart of the problem. The problem we were facing as a result of last week's attack was dealing with people who were not interested in dialogue but simply terror. Asked why we were putting pressure on Pakistan, the PMOS said we were not. We were talking to General Musharraf and listening to what he had to say. We welcomed his condemnation and his offer of co-operation. Questioned as to whether we recognised reports that the Pakistan initiative had until Thursday to succeed, the PMOS said that as the Foreign Secretary had said this morning, we were not going to get into days, weeks or timescales of any type. Discussions would continue at their own pace.

Asked for a response to Clare Short's comment that innocent civilians should not become victims of any military action, the PMOS said that Ms Short had been saying that we wanted to minimise the deaths of any innocent civilians. Nobody wanted innocent casualties. That was right and was the Government's position. It was what distinguished us from those who carried out the attack on the US. It was also why we were pleased with the calm and measured way in which countries around the world, particularly the US, had responded to last week's events. That said, we needed to bring those responsible to account because of the horrific act that had been committed and also to prevent further atrocities. That meant there would be a response. In turn, this was likely to lead to difficult decisions and difficult choices. However, as in Kosovo, this Government and the Cabinet would remain united. Asked whether we accepted that a response might mean innocent people could be killed, the PMOS said that the whole point of the calm, rational, measured way with which we had approached the matter since last week had been to target whatever action was taken as carefully as possible. He had no intention of pre-empting the nature of that action or discuss possible consequences. Obviously we did not want to see innocent casualties. Equally we did not want further innocent civilians from any country around the world to die in the way they had in the US last week. Asked if Clare Short had been asked to desist from making similar comments in the future, the PMOS said we never commented on discussions between the Prime Minister and his Ministers. Asked whether any discussions had taken place, the PMOS repeated that he would not get into any detail about discussions between the Prime Minister and Ministers. Asked if any Cabinet Minister had questioned the Government's policy, the PMOS declined to get into detail of Cabinet discussions.

Questioned about what action we were taking against reported meetings in Birmingham which supported the terrorist attacks against the US last week, the PMOS said that any action that could be taken under law was a matter for the police. As to whether the events of last week meant that we had to change the law, we had already said last week that we were prepared to look at a number of issues - in particular the issue of extradition proceedings. Asked what we were doing to prevent illegal immigration, the PMOS said that if he was being asked about the problems with the Channel Tunnel, David Blunkett had met his French counterpart last week to discuss the matter. Those discussions would result in further meetings and subsequent action. Asked whether the JHA Council on Thursday would be a decision-making convention, the PMOS said he did not want to pre-empt the meeting. That said, it was useful to have a forum in which to compare notes and discuss the need for common action. We would await the outcome of the meeting before commenting further.

Asked if he was indicating that an announcement on action was imminent or whether it was far away, the PMOS said that when we said that we would look at a range of measures, it meant we would look at a range of measures. We would then make an assessment and decide what to do. This would be followed by action. The precise nature of that action would depend on the assessment. He repeated that the assessment would be made in a calm, measured way.

Put to him that it might be argued that a number of statements which had been over the last few days could be interpreted as incitement to racial hatred and violence under existing legislation, the PMOS said it was a matter for the relevant authorities to look at any statements which had been made. One of the positive aspects of our democracy was that there were people and organisations who could do that.

BERLUSCONI

Asked about the Prime Minister's meeting with Prime Minister Berlusconi today, the PMOS said that it had been a pre planned meeting. However, it would give them both an opportunity to compare notes on the events of last week.

OTHER BUSINESS

Asked if there was any other Government business this week, the PMOS said that normal business was continuing. However, for obvious reasons, the primary focus would continue to be on the fallout from the attack last week.

Asked when the new BBC Chairman would be announced, the PMOS said we were expecting an announcement soon. A process was under way. An announcement would be made once the process had been completed.

END


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