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MR. BOUCHER: All right, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon, for those who care. It's a pleasure to see you. Glad to answer your questions. Let's just do it that way.
QUESTION: Anthrax update. First, on the victim in Sterling, and also, I understand that there are traces of something that you think is anthrax found in the embassy in a mail pouch in Vilnius, Lithuania.
MR. BOUCHER: I don't have anything particular about Vilnius. We have had various reports of white powders at embassies all over the world. I don't know, 40, 50 of them, maybe more by now. And we have checked all those out. None at this point have proved positive. All have tested negative, except there are some that are still being tested, and therefore results are pending.
So at this point, we don't have anything specific about Vilnius. I'll have to check on that one. But we have not have had any of these substances at our overseas posts that have tested positive at this point.
QUESTION: Except for Peru?
MR. BOUCHER: Except for the pouch in Peru, yes.
QUESTION: So this Lithuania is --
MR. BOUCHER: I don't -- I just heard it. I didn't have a chance to check it specifically, but we have checked out a lot of white powders. So far they have all tested negative. There are a few that still -- we are still awaiting results on.
QUESTION: Wait a minute. The guy in Sterling?
MR. BOUCHER: Our contractor in Sterling. He remains in stable condition, and he is being closely watched in intensive care.
QUESTION: There is a story in The Post today that 15 of the 19 hijackers obtained visas from Saudi Arabia. And there is some criticism that maybe there should have been some detection or way to sort it out before they got here. Do you have anything to say about that?
MR. BOUCHER: I think there is still a lot of confusion about visa programs and how they work, so if you can give me a moment, let me go through and talk about them.
Around the world at various locations, we do visa interviews in different ways, depending on the history of people from that country, depending on the history of applicants and overstays once they get to the United States, things like that. We have an active program where INS reports back to us people who change status and things like that. So we do have some data on the habits of people that we issue visas to.
And in many countries, we do interview by exception, it's called, where we will look at paper applications, where people answer all the same questions that they have to answer in an interview, including "Are you a terrorist" and "Are you otherwise ineligible for travel to the United States". And it's a standard form. It's the same questions that get asked at the interview. And we look at all the information available, and decide then whether or not to interview the person.
In many posts, they will interview third country nationals. In many posts, they will interview first-time applicants, people who haven't had visas before, or people that don't clearly and automatically -- clearly qualify for a US visa.
This kind of process is done at our posts in Saudi Arabia. It's called "Visa Express." Visa applications are reviewed without interviews, unless the consular officer decides that an interview is necessary. It's not an uncommon practice in countries with generally favorable visa histories, and a low rate of fraud.
In either case, whether the person is interviewed or not interviewed, we do a name check through the best available information that is in our Lookout System. The name check is done again when the person enters into the United States. And that is the area where we are now concentrating on.
The President has directed that agencies cooperate to better identify potential terrorists, to better identify applicants coming to the United States, to better track them, to better know whether they show up at the places they were supposed to show up in terms of schooling. And we are part of that interagency effort, and indeed we have improved the information sharing and gotten some legislation to help us do that from Congress. So we are in a position to have better information. The better the information, the better the name check. And every applicant, once again, gets checked, whether they apply in person or not.
As far as the current process, these processes of interview by exception are being maintained, but consular officers around the world have been instructed to be more careful, so they will likely call more people in for interviews than they might have before. They might investigate or look a little more closely at some of the applications and try, with a little more care, to differentiate people who need to be interviewed from those who don't.
But I think the essence of the system is based on the information we can make available, and a lot of that comes from law enforcement agencies.
Now, on those specific applications, there were, I think, 19 people identified as suspects, terrorists, in these hijackings. We know that 15 of them applied for visas in Saudi Arabia. I'm not sure about the other four at this point. We know that at least six of those people were interviewed. But, again, I would stress that all the names were checked against our best available information at the time, and the effort underway is to try to make sure we have better, more detailed, better and more improved information to check names against.
QUESTION: So it's safe to assume that the six that were interviewed, or the 15, nothing came up?
MR. BOUCHER: Yes, yes.
QUESTION: I know that one aspect of the Lookout System checks the countries' criminal records and information on the individuals. Could you comment on whether or not you think that Saudi Arabia was cooperative in this respect in providing all of the information that they should have provided in this process?
MR. BOUCHER: I'm sorry, the Government of Saudi Arabia doesn't do visas.
QUESTION: I know, you guys do visas. But part of the information that you check against, as I understand it -- and I could be wrong -- is information provided by the host government for these individuals. It's another trap that you run it through.
MR. BOUCHER: No, I think you're wrong.
QUESTION: That's not right?
MR. BOUCHER: That's not the usual process. There is, obviously, counterterrorism cooperation with foreign governments, to the extent that our law enforcement or intelligence people are working with a foreign government and collective, together with them, exchange information, identify potential terrorists. Then our law enforcement or intelligence people would put the names in the database.
QUESTION: Mr. Boucher, you are required, if you are applying for a visa from a foreign country, like a student visa or a long-term visa, to bring a note from the chief of police in the district where you live, asserting that you are not wanted or have not been convicted of any crime --
MR. BOUCHER: No, when you get -- that is part of the immigrant visa process. I am not sure which non-immigrant categories it applies to. But it is not tourist visas or business visas, and I think that's what all these people had.
QUESTION: Were you being serious, is the question on the application -- is there really a question that says, "Are you a terrorist?"
MR. BOUCHER: I forget exactly how it's worded but it lists a number of ineligibilities and it says, do any of these --
QUESTION: And you actually expect people who have bad intention to honestly answer these questions?
MR. BOUCHER: No.
QUESTION: So, in other words, it doesn't --
MR. BOUCHER: I mean, some people might, in some places, obviously. There are two reasons to do it. One is, some people are honest, to a surprising degree.
QUESTION: You mean, there have actually been visa applications where someone has checked "yes"?
MR. BOUCHER: Nobody is going to write, "I am a terrorist," but there are all sorts of ineligibilities --
QUESTION: Is this on there so you can get them for lying, perjury --
MR. BOUCHER: Can I finish my answer?
MR. BOUCHER: And the other reason is so we can get them for lying. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: On the 15 of 19 who applied for visas in Saudi Arabia, that doesn't necessarily imply, does it, that all 15 were Saudi citizens? They just applied there; is that correct?
MR. BOUCHER: That's right. I'd have to double check and make sure that -- I would have to double check and see if they are all -- if all 15 of those are Saudi citizens.
QUESTION: Could you, please? Because there has been -- I have done some checking and nobody, at least so far, has been able to tell me conclusively --
MR. BOUCHER: The other question is that I think the FBI has not yet resolved the issue of whether these are actually actual names of people. So if there were assumed identities, the assumed identity might have checked out better than the real. But that's another issue with these. So it is not definitive by any means. It is not definitive information on the whole process at this point.
QUESTION: Is that for some of them or all of them? I mean, has Saudi Arabia been willing to hand over the files of those that they have determined are actual people and not potential aliases?
MR. BOUCHER: Are you asking the same question? They are not involved in the visa process, Saudi Arabia.
QUESTION: No, I'm talking about the hijackers. I'm talking --
MR. BOUCHER: That is a law enforcement question. That is a question of law enforcement cooperation. I don't know what files the Saudi Arabian Government might have on individuals.
QUESTION: Richard, so where did things fall through the cracks? Did they fall through because law enforcement in this country was not sharing with the State Department?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't know that things fell through the cracks. The issue is always, how do you know, how do you find out. If somebody has a track record or a history, then hopefully your law enforcement, intelligence agencies, in cooperation with foreign governments, can give you some indication of who the people are that you need to keep out of the United States. But if people don't have a history, if you don't have intelligence information on them, it is very hard to find them.
The second issue is the one of assumed identity. We do fraud investigations around the world and we often find out things about people when they apply for visas by holding up the application, sending out investigators and things like that. But you can't always find out those things.
QUESTION: Richard, do you know anything about the rejection rate in Saudi Arabia for visa applicants?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't have anything. I don't have a specific number. It's very low. All I can say is it's very low, and that is one of the reasons why they don't interview everybody, is because most Saudis qualify for visas; they're traveling for pleasure, they're traveling for business, they have substantial assets or reasons to return to Saudi Arabia, they have no particular history; they may have good jobs, businesses, family situations, and therefore many, many Saudis qualify easily for visas.
QUESTION: Richard, speaking of people like that, did you see the piece that Prince Alwaleed wrote in today's New York Times talking about how he understands why his donation was rejected and calling for an improvement of Saudi-US -- for this to be an event -- the tragedy to be an event to bring the Saudis and the US together?
MR. BOUCHER: Did I see the piece?
MR. BOUCHER: Yes.
QUESTION: And if you did, what do you make of it?
MR. BOUCHER: I leave that to you guys. I think we left that whole matter between him and the City of New York.
QUESTION: On Saudi Arabia, can you say that Saudi Arabia is abiding by UN Resolution 1373 concerning the area of suppressing financing of terrorist activities?
MR. BOUCHER: There is a UN committee that was established to track compliance and cooperation with UN resolutions. What I would say is what we've said before: We have very good cooperation with Saudi Arabia against terrorism; we're cooperating with Saudi Arabia in any number of areas -- law enforcement, finance, as well as other areas. I leave it to them to describe the specifics, but our cooperation with Saudi Arabia remains very, very good, and they have continued to agree to everything we've needed from them.
QUESTION: On this issue, can you get -- I asked the question a few days ago about a joint Treasury-State Department team that I understand was supposed to go over or is planning to go over to Saudi Arabia. Do you have anything on that?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't think we -- I'll double check again. They weren't immediately forthcoming.
QUESTION: Didn't the United States seek to interview the people who were accused of bombing the Khobar Towers, and didn't the Saudis behead them, without allowing the US to interview them?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't know.
QUESTION: You don't know?
MR. BOUCHER: But that's not a question about current cooperation, is it?
QUESTION: Well, it's about -- you said that they have given us everything that we needed from them.
MR. BOUCHER: In this current situation. I haven't gone through every bit of history in the past of the US-Saudi relationship. We have been asked repeatedly, are we cooperating, are the Saudis cooperating with us, are we working well with them; and the answer is, yes, absolutely.
QUESTION: Richard, how will the visa check (inaudible) applications, or whatever be changed? Obviously, it's kind of a sieve. And if it's because you have family in the country and you have plenty of money behind you and you might go home, bin Laden certainly qualifies under those kinds of characteristics. So what will change so that you know who you're giving them to?
MR. BOUCHER: I think there are several things that change. First of all, our consular officers on the ground who talk to people or look at these applications, are exercising already more scrutiny to make sure that anything that is unusual or suspect gets looked at before people get visas.
So they are being more careful and following up on things that may have seemed incidental in the past. But you can't rely on that sort of indication. You can't rely on talking to somebody to know whether they are a terrorist or not. I mean, most terrorists are not likely to say, Hi, I'm a terrorist, I want to go to the United States.
So you have to use your other resources, and the other resources are the information that we can generate, together with out foreign colleagues and with our domestic colleagues in intelligence and law enforcement. And so the goal is to further improve the system that we have for getting information on terrorists, what they might be up to, who might be traveling, and to use that to deny people entry into the United States, so that either we, when people apply for visas, or the INS, when they apply for entry, can identify people, can know who they are really, and can find out if they have any history or any indications of evil intent.
QUESTION: And so how did that change, besides being more careful? I mean, what are you doing?
MR. BOUCHER: It means -- better than -- what is more important than "be more careful" is "get better information." And that is where the resources of the US Government will be applied especially.
QUESTION: When you reject somebody because you suspect that they are a terrorist, do you tell them that?
MR. BOUCHER: Not always.
QUESTION: Is there an appeal process?
MR. BOUCHER: No, not really.
MR. BOUCHER: Okay, one more on Saudi, and then he gets to change the subject.
QUESTION: Did the Saudi Government send this government a letter suggesting that both governments might want to part ways on certain areas of cooperation?
MR. BOUCHER: I haven't heard of anything like that. You would have to ask the Saudis.
QUESTION: Your Ambassador to Greece --
MR. BOUCHER: Our esteemed Ambassador to Greece.
QUESTION: Yes, still. Still, I don't know. But he's still ambassador anyway -- opened the front with the Greek Government regarding November 17 terrorist organization saying, who in the US arrested terrorists for September 11 attacks, and wondered why not you for November 17. The Simitis government, in the meantime, answered promptly today, we are not going to arrest anyone without evidence or hard indication. Could you please comment?
MR. BOUCHER: My first comment is that I want to check out exactly what our Ambassador said, because I have had things quoted to me in the past which were not entirely accurate. I would be glad to look into it.
QUESTION: And do you know if they are going to proceed with a list of suspects, the process which was started by the Clinton Administration, and characterized by the entire Greek press, totally fabricated?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't know. I will have to look into it.
QUESTION: And the last one. I'm wondering why you do not criticize the effectiveness of various very advanced US federal intelligence agencies like CIA and FBI, which already are functioning free in Greece with full cooperation with the government to arrest the criminals November 17, but so far succeed in nothing to this effect.
MR. BOUCHER: I don't think our people have arrest authority in Greece.
QUESTION: Did you instead ask Turkey to send any troops or military special forces --
MR. BOUCHER: I'm afraid that's the kind of question we haven't been answering about any country -- what we have asked or what they have offered. We have left it to individual countries to describe what they are willing to do. Turkey is obviously a partner in NATO, as well as a good ally. We have been cooperating with Turkey in many, many ways, as well as through NATO, but on specifics of military matters, I think I'll leave that to the Turkish Government.
QUESTION: The Government of Pakistan today said that they believe that the demonstrations against the US presence and against the war in Afghanistan are decreasing. Is it your view that the Government of Pakistan has sort of weathered the worst of this crisis?
MR. BOUCHER: I haven't gotten reports on the exact numbers. I suppose they would know a lot better than we do, so I would take their word for it.
QUESTION: Do you have more details about a Colombian citizen who were revoking their visas, and what kind -- what are their names or --
MR. BOUCHER: No, we put up an answer yesterday, I think, that we are not in a position to describe those people or to give their names.
QUESTION: Do you know what kind of visa they -- if they are in the United States or some more information about who they are?
MR. BOUCHER: No, I'm not able to do that. We are prevented, I think, by law from doing that.
QUESTION: Were you able to check on what's going on in terms of people applying for passports from the US Government?
MR. BOUCHER: Yes. Our passport offices have generally stopped taking in mail. Some of them, I think, are still --
QUESTION: All of them?
MR. BOUCHER: Yes, stopped taking in mail. Some of them may still be doing a few things under controlled circumstances. They are, I think, open generally to the public, to people who come in to present their applications in person. And we are working with the Postal Service and others to try to get this back up and running as soon as possible because most passport applications are handed in at the Post Office, and so once you see it there you can put it in an envelope and know it's safe. So we are going to try to work to get that back up and running very, very quickly.
QUESTION: Do you know specifically whether that is true of the Kentucky center that handles the millions of visa applicants?
MR. BOUCHER: The diversity lottery program, none of that mail comes through the State Department or through the Sterling, Virginia, facility, so that mail has been going in by the millions. Today, actually I think about an hour or two ago, was the last moment to get in one's application for the 2003 diversity visa lottery, and the letters are being opened carefully.
QUESTION: So when you say the agencies have stopped taking mail, you mean the passport agencies that are in other cities, that are in San Francisco and Houston?
MR. BOUCHER: Yes. They have generally stopped taking mail and so they have not been able to process applications submitted through the mail.
QUESTION: Isn't that a problem, wouldn't you think? I mean, people need to travel.
MR. BOUCHER: It is a problem, but travelers who need to travel urgently can go down to the local office and do it. It is obviously inconvenient. It's not as convenient as going to your Post Office.
QUESTION: Well, there are only 16 of them.
MR. BOUCHER: But we are trying to get it up and running again as soon as we can.
QUESTION: Do you have any numbers on the number of people who have applied for the lottery?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't think we have numbers yet. Some years, it is as many as 10 or 12 million. But I don't think we have numbers yet this year, no. An incredible volume of mail.
QUESTION: Can I ask something on a different subject?
QUESTION: Can we stay on the lottery for one second? Are people undergoing more stringent background checks before the lottery? Or do they -- do you do background checks if they win the lottery for the visa? How does that work?
MR. BOUCHER: It works with -- anybody can send in a request, an application. And then if you are chosen, then you have to meet all the requirements of an immigrant visa, and that means health checks, that means police records, it means a lot of careful scrutiny for anybody who intends to immigrate to the United States.
QUESTION: Can I ask just quickly on Ukraine, do you have any comments from the meeting yesterday with the Prime Minister, anything to say?
MR. BOUCHER: Outcomes. It was a very good discussion with the Ukrainian Prime Minister yesterday that the Secretary had. They talked clearly about the campaign against terrorism, and the Prime Minister expressed full solidarity and support. They talked about areas where Ukraine can cooperate with the United States or cooperate with other NATO governments. They also talked about the economic progress of Ukraine and the progress of Ukraine in terms of becoming a more open, transparent society. The Secretary, once again, emphasizing the need for openness and transparency as well as the rule of law and especially anti-corruption efforts as they go forward.
QUESTION: Did you get anywhere in terms of getting an FBI team in there to help with the Gongadze investigation?
MR. BOUCHER: That wasn't discussed -- the FBI team kind of idea wasn't discussed in specifics. I would have to check on where we are on that. The Secretary did raise the issue of the Gongadze investigation, as well as the missile shoot down, the airplane shoot down as examples where it was important to be open, to be transparent, to issue as much information as possible so that the public could understand exactly what had gone on in these situations.
QUESTION: Is that -- relating to the shoot down of the plane, is that the only thing that was discussed?
MR. BOUCHER: Yes, that was --
QUESTION: Just tell the truth and tell it quickly? Is that basically it?
MR. BOUCHER: Yes.
QUESTION: China? (Inaudible) to Taiwan on Tuesday, 288 million. Can you comment on that?
MR. BOUCHER: No, I wasn't aware of that going up. I will have to check on it.
QUESTION: One more. A congressman has invited the Taiwanese President to come to Washington, DC. Do you know about that?
MR. BOUCHER: I wasn't aware of that particular invitation. I am not aware of any visa applications, though.
QUESTION: The Taliban education minister said today, "Afghans do not want to fight with America." That's the message to Americans. "We do not want to fight; we will negotiate, but talk to us like a sovereign country. We are not a province of the United States to be issued orders to. We have asked for proof of Usama's involvement, but they have refused." Why?
MR. BOUCHER: Does he want to come and ask me himself? I think this is the kind of stuff we've heard before. Everybody knows the United States is not the only one that has a problem with their harboring foreign terrorists. They say they don't want to fight with the American people, and yet they harbor and support people who killed 5,000 Americans and people from 80 other countries. It is ridiculous to say things like that. They have been under UN order for years to turn over Usama bin Laden, his leadership and dismantle the networks. There is abundant information on the network's responsibility for the attacks on the embassies in Africa, and all one has to do is watch television to find Usama bin Laden claiming responsibility for the September 11th bombings.
There is no question of responsibility. There is no question of the responsibility of the Taliban. And there is no question of what they should do.
QUESTION: Richard, is there something -- I mean, yesterday you said he "virtually" claimed responsibility. Is that what you meant to say just now?
MR. BOUCHER: That is what I said just now. I would have to go back over the exact language. It was "virtually." It was about as certain as I could make out. I'll say "virtually."
QUESTION: There was some new -- I just wanted to know if there was some new appearance of him on television.
MR. BOUCHER: No, there is not a new piece of information. I am describing the same interview that we saw before, where he virtually, or I would say in fact admitted responsibility.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Russians prepared to send their troops as a part of the NATO operation in Macedonia. This came out after the visit of Macedonian President to Moscow this week. What is your comment and position?
MR. BOUCHER: I wasn't aware of the news. I don't think I'm going to comment on any particular offer from Russia. But certainly we have tried to work with Russia, as well as others, in Macedonia. What happens in Macedonia is very important to us, and we continue to look to the Macedonian parliament, actually, to continue moving forward with the constitutional changes. That seems to be the operative question right now.
QUESTION: Richard, on Russia for a second. Is it too early to have anything back yet from Mr. Armitage? I don't even know if these meetings have begun. It's too early for that?
MR. BOUCHER: Yes, he is meeting today and tomorrow.
QUESTION: Okay, can you give us just a very brief preview of what you expect the Secretary and Foreign Minister Ivanov to talk about tomorrow?
MR. BOUCHER: The Secretary and Foreign Minister Ivanov will meet tomorrow. I don't have exact times yet, or length of meetings. But I expect they will have extensive discussions of all the issues in the US-Russia relationship, especially the strategic framework issues of offensive missiles, nonproliferation, defensive systems, and continue their work on the strategic framework.
There is any number of areas of cooperation against terrorism that the US and Russia will want to discuss. But the whole meeting should be seen in the context of expanding cooperation, working together in all these areas, as well as economically, and looking to feed that process into the meetings the President will have with President Putin next week in Washington and Crawford. So it is really working on all these issues and trying to move them forward towards the President's meeting next week.
QUESTION: I know this isn't your bailiwick, but does Secretary Rumsfeld's trip to Moscow also play into this?
MR. BOUCHER: That is certainly part of preparing for the President's meeting with President Putin next week, but I will leave it to Defense to describe it. Two weeks. Thank you. Two weeks from now.
QUESTION: Following up on this? You said "economic issues." Are they discussing -- have they discussed and are they going to be discussing pipeline issues or oil issues? The United States has long tried to block pipelines --
MR. BOUCHER: No, we have long supported the diversity of routes, a number of different routes, to bring oil out of Siberia and the Far East, Kazakhstan, Caspian areas. We have always supported multiple routes, and that has been part of it.
Generally, when the Secretary has talked -- he always talks with the Russians, with Foreign Minister Ivanov through their eight or nine meetings about economics, about economic relationships -- generally have been on two sides. One is the issue of sort of the investment climate in Russia and how to improve the investment climate, including issues like rule of law and anti-corruption policies, as well as more information and openness. Media information is part of it.
And then the second part has been to look at sometimes specific opportunities where there might be American companies involved, or where there are sectors that are undergoing privatization or such things.
QUESTION: On the question of oil pipelines, has something changed since September 11th regarding the US views towards the diversity?
MR. BOUCHER: No, we have always supported multiple pipelines. That remains the situation now.
QUESTION: Will the Secretary and Foreign Minister Ivanov discuss an arms arrangement -- I guess it was completed about a month ago -- between Russia and Iran?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't know they'll discuss a specific arrangement. Clearly, the issue of nonproliferation and Russian arms sales to Iran has been on our agenda. It is something we have discussed, I think, just about every time they have gotten together, so I would expect they would have an opportunity to talk about it tomorrow as well.
QUESTION: Has the State Department been given -- has the Secretary been given assurances from the Russians that the latest, I guess, manifestation of this arms deal does not involve any new contracts, which has been the Russian line since they sort of backed out of the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement, that it's only completing old contracts and that no new agreements have been made?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't remember the exact nature of the announcements that Russia and Iran made at the time, but I would leave it to them to announce what is involved. Clearly, our concerns about the kind of weaponry that might be sold and our concerns about nuclear cooperation and things like that have not diminished, and we will continue to raise those.
QUESTION: Well, if I could just have one more on US concerns about these kinds of issues. Is the US concerned about Russia simply making good on old contracts that it had with Iran or --
MR. BOUCHER: For us, it's not so much a matter of contracts; it's a matter of what is sold. We think we have always said that nuclear cooperation with Iran is inadvisable because we think it leads to other potential nuclear developments, and that we have always said that the sale of advanced weaponry is not in Russia's security interests, nor is it in ours.
QUESTION: So nuclear power technology is just as bad as nuclear --
MR. BOUCHER: We think nuclear cooperation with Iran is ill-advised.
QUESTION: Any nuclear cooperation. Okay.
QUESTION: Nuclear cooperation is what?
MR. BOUCHER: Ill-advised.
QUESTION: On Iraq, I suppose you expect that to come up as well.
MR. BOUCHER: I don't want to -- I mean, I could do a list of 25 likely topics, including the UN resolution on Iraq. That has been something they have discussed, they discussed a bit in Shanghai, they'll want to discuss more and more as the time approaches for the renewal of the UN resolution, yes.
QUESTION: Earlier this morning, apparently, Under Secretary Bolton talked to a group of writers in town. According to an AP story, he says that he said that if the terrorists had had nuclear weapons, they would have used them on September 11th. Is that the official Administration view?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't know. It sounds speculative to me. I would have to check and see if we want to do that, but I don't have any way of saying yes or no on that.
QUESTION: Can we go back to anthrax for a minute? Have you received the results of the remaining --
MR. BOUCHER: I've got Vilnius, by the way.
QUESTION: Pardon me?
MR. BOUCHER: I'll talk about Vilnius, but answer your question first.
QUESTION: Oh, I'm --
MR. BOUCHER: Of which test?
QUESTION: Of the remaining samples in this building.
MR. BOUCHER: Let me see if we've got them all in. I'm not sure we have them all yet, but none of them have -- nothing has shown up positive. Nothing more has shown up positive.
QUESTION: In regards to some of the concerns expressed yesterday in the town hall meeting by a number of employees who asked that the whole building offices, including offices that receive mail from all of the mail rooms, be tested and perhaps that the entire building be shut down for cleaning, have there been any new decisions made on that?
MR. BOUCHER: I think there have been a number of things that come out of listening to our employees yesterday. The first one is that we will be sampling more broadly in the building, that we will be looking not only in mail facilities but we'll be looking in other offices as well, other offices that might get small amounts of mail or otherwise randomly be sampled. So there will be random sampling in the building.
And also, we're looking to make this a continuous program to monitor our mail system especially, so that we do have a good idea at any given moment if there is any exposure.
In addition to that, listening to the questions yesterday, it was clear that our employees have a lot of concerns and a lot of questions that needed to be answered, and there wasn't time to answer them all yesterday. So I think there are six question-and-answer sessions being scheduled for today and a few more tomorrow, where the medical staff will be out trying to take care of everybody and answer all the questions they might have.
QUESTION: So that is a change in policy. The doctor said yesterday and you had told us that there would be no further environmental sampling done. So that is something you are completely changing?
MR. BOUCHER: Yes. The decision originally was not to do further sampling of mail rooms and facilities, just put everybody that might be exposed on antibiotics. And that certainly is going ahead for all the employees, even the ones who aren't specifically in those mail rooms, but all the employees who handle any large amount of mail.
But we have decided in addition to that to do random sampling around the building, and then to do it --
QUESTION: Is that a scientific decision or a decision just based on public opinion in this building, because the doctor said that they had already gone beyond CDC standards, the CDC said no further sampling needs to be done --
MR. BOUCHER: I think we have probably gone even farther beyond the specific recommendations. It is both. As the doctor said, very low levels of spores may be in this building outside the mail room, not in a hazardous way, very small amounts that wouldn't be a hazard for inhalational anthrax. But people want to know and we want to test to make sure. And so a random sampling program is one way of finding out, just making sure that it is not spreading anywhere else.
QUESTION: But this is only being done because of the concerns expressed yesterday, and not because you suspect that there is -- there are deposits of anthrax elsewhere in the building that could get people sick, right?
MR. BOUCHER: That's right. It is being done because of the scientific assumption that few spores, minor quantities, can spread farther. But also because of the concerns of the employees that we have listened to, that we do testing to make sure.
QUESTION: Can you do Vilnius now?
MR. BOUCHER: Let me add on Vilnius -- here is the deal in Vilnius. We were informed by the microbiology laboratory of the Vilnius Public Health Center that preliminary results showed trace amounts of what appears to be anthrax present in two of five mail bags that were sent to the laboratory for examination. Because other bacilli resemble anthrax, a final determination can only be made when the samples are cultured, and that will require 48 to 72 hours.
So they have sealed the embassy mail room, and embassy employees have been informed, and antibiotics are being provided to any of their employees who think -- who will want to take them.
QUESTION: Was there any suspicious mail found there?
MR. BOUCHER: I think they tested the mail bags. I'm not sure if they have gone through the mail at this point. So not that I'm aware of.
QUESTION: So the antibiotics will be taken by people who --
MR. BOUCHER: Who wish to take them.
QUESTION: Who wish to take it?
MR. BOUCHER: So presumably already, as at all embassies, employees who work handling mail were already being given those antibiotics.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) section this week that I'm sure you have seen. The only remaining smallpox risks are in laboratories in Russia and the United States. Do you know whether Secretary Powell and Foreign Minister Ivanov will be discussing protection of that, since it's no longer unthinkable? And according to The Post --
MR. BOUCHER: I don't know if they will be discussing that. I really -- I just don't know if it will come up or not. We'll see. Ask me tomorrow.
MR. BOUCHER: Ask him tomorrow.
QUESTION: I had one before we switched over to Vilnius I just wanted to clear up. Can you say that there is no consideration being given to cleaning up the entire building?
MR. BOUCHER: The decision at this point is to clean all those areas which handle bulk mail. That is not the entire building, but that's all the areas where it's possible that there would be any significant concentration, any concentration beyond a few spores or a very small amount.
QUESTION: Can you say (inaudible) for example air vents in all those rooms been sealed completely?
MR. BOUCHER: Those rooms, the mail rooms, have been completely closed off.
QUESTION: Are you at all concerned that by increasing the scope of the environmental sampling, you could be adding to a kind of anthrax hysteria, given what Dr. Dumont said yesterday, which was that there could be anthrax, but it's in such a low level that it wouldn't have an effect. There is anthrax in the soil in Texas, after all.
MR. BOUCHER: Well, we work here, you work here, our people in the building want to know. If it's found in small quantities, we will tell them it's found in small quantities; it can't hurt you. If it's found in larger quantities, we want to know that, too. What they want to know is what -- as much as the facts as we can get for all of us, and that's what we are going to try to do.
QUESTION: But didn't the CDC -- I mean, I know this isn't really your bailiwick, but isn't the CDC now saying that it's not clear how many spores you would need to get infected, and they're learning new things every day. So, I mean --
MR. BOUCHER: So we are going to learn new things every day, too. We are going to find what concentrations there are. We're going to track this.
As you all know, most -- almost all the cases -- I think the CDC has said this -- of inhalational anthrax have occurred in people who worked directly with bulk mail and mail sorting equipment, places where there would be higher concentrations, not somewhere three or four steps down the chain of distribution.
Nonetheless, we do want to go beyond specific recommendations and make sure we test widely so that we know as much of the facts as we can.
QUESTION: Is there any thought being given to putting all the employees on the floor where the mail rooms were found to have anthrax on antibiotics? I mean, this woman that died at a Manhattan hospital, everybody, even patients that visited the hospital for an hour now are on antibiotics.
MR. BOUCHER: I mean, right now, we are standing on the floor -- on the same floor as a mail room that had found traces of anthrax. But it's a quarter mile away -- maybe not that far -- 300 yards. And so it is going to vary from building to building. It is going to vary, depending on the building, depending on the ventilation system, depending on how things move around in the building.
And I think doing random sampling throughout our building and making the antibiotics available to employees, every employee in this building who has any concern can go into the medical units and talk to people and see if a regimen of antibiotics is appropriate.
QUESTION: Richard, was the decision to expand the testing made yesterday or was it made today? Do you know?
MR. BOUCHER: I believe it was made yesterday afternoon.
QUESTION: Can I ask, the amount that was found in the mail rooms, is the assumption that that particular amount is not dangerous?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't think we have any specific assumption about that at this point. I'm not sure that -- I don't think they actually know concentrations at this point. They just know existence of spores at those two locations. So they are not able to make a judgment.
QUESTION: The Secretary said yesterday that the State Department operations would be moved elsewhere if the building is found not to be safe. Is a search going on for an alternate site if worse comes to worst?
MR. BOUCHER: We have contingency plans for being able to operate in alternate locations, should we not be able to operate here. We have always had those for any variety of contingencies, and we would use them if we had to.
QUESTION: Can I ask one Middle East question? Has there been any contact between the Secretary and anyone else lately? And do you have any reaction to the apparent rumblings that there are now that Sharon has said that he is willing to talk with the Palestinians, and the Palestinians replying somewhat favorably to that?
MR. BOUCHER: I haven't seen the apparent rumblings. I saw actually quite different rumblings, so maybe I'm not up to speed. But I would say that the --
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Very early this morning. I mean, overnight.
MR. BOUCHER: Well, we may be reading the same things differently. But in any case, no, I don't have comments on rumblings.
I can tell you the Secretary spoke with Prime Minister Sharon this morning, and they had a good discussion. They will continue to talk as he continues to stay in touch with the parties. Ambassador Kurtzer and Consul General Schlicher, of course, are working with the parties in the field and reporting regularly back to Washington.
So we're working very closely with people out there to see if we can't find a way for both sides to take steps against the violence. Clearly, we want to see the Israelis withdraw completely and we want to see Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to take immediate steps to identify and to bring to justice those responsible for the violence.
QUESTION: Was part of the message to encourage him to take part in a peace process that Norway is offering again to host?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't know. I don't know if that came up or not. I don't have any particular comment at this point.
QUESTION: About the Norwegian Government offer?
MR. BOUCHER: Yes. Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:47 P.M.)
Released on October 31, 2001
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