DAILY PRESS BRIEFING
FRIDAY, JULY 19, 1996, 12:50 P. M.
(ON THE RECORD UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED)
Mr. Lambros, on the TWA incident?
Q Without violating the rules of the freedom of the press, as a U.S. representative, as a U.S. Government representative, could you please take a position on hundreds unacceptable and biased reports in the last two days by CNN, ABC, CBS and other American media against not only the Athens international airport but Greece in general -- presented Greece almost as an area of international terrorism, using this unfortunate and tragic event of TWA.
As an example, let me to quote only yesterday's Washington Post. "Athens is known as a base of terrorist." How do you explain this unusual phenomenon? Could you please comment?
MR. BURNS: I'm going to give Judd and Ralph -- where is Laura -- Laura, Betsy; Michael Dobbs and Tom Lippman are not here to defend themselves. You've just attacked all of my friends. These are the people I work with on a daily basis, Mr. Lambros.
Q We just quote the State Department.
MR. BURNS: They just quote State, and I haven't said anything like this, Mr. Lambros. To be serious for a moment, because Greece is a valued NATO ally of the United States. I don't detect in my personal, constant observance of the TV people here, of the networks in the United States, of our major papers anything like what you're talking about.
These are journalists doing their job. They're reporting a very important story to the American people and doing a fine job. I don't accept the premise of your question.
Q There's no question. I'm talking particularly of their context, and would like to know if you take a position, if you agree with whatever they say about Greece as an area of international terrorists?
MR. BURNS: We don't have to agree with everything that journalists say or write but do respect the fact that they have to do their job. I don't detect this kind of conspiracy that you seem to think is out there.
Q I'm talking about the context of the reports.
MR. BURNS: I'm sorry, I can't share your concern. I think the press is doing a fair job.
Q But why did they not focus more on JFK International Airport of New York City since this particular airport had the last word on security procedures prior to the takeoff of the tragic TWA plane?
MR. BURNS: All I can say on Athens airport is the following: There was a determination made in March of this year -- March 1996 -- by the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, that security at the Athens airport did not fully meet international standards.
Subsequent to that determination in March 1996, which we spoke about publicly, as you remember, the FAA worked closely, as I understand it, with the Greek Government to try to enhance and improve security at the Athens airport.
There was a subsequent FAA inspection of Athens airport in May of this year. The inspectors determined that the Athens airport was now -- was then in full compliance with international standards that are appropriate here. That is all I can say about the activities of the U.S. Government here.
It is true that there are airline flights that originated from Athens airport during the 1980s that were targets of terrorist attacks, and that I think provides some of the backdrop to the interest of some of the people in this room -- the journalists, your colleagues -- in this issue.
We have tried to work as best we can with the Greek Government, and the FAA has determined as of May that the standards of the Athens airport are satisfactory and effective.
Q But to answer my question, as far as JFK, I told you this particular airport had the last word on security procedures prior to the takeoff, and I would like your position on this.
MR. BURNS: I'm not in a position to judge what was done prior to the takeoff of the TWA flight. The plane then went to New York and became Flight 800, and I have very little else to say about this issue.
Q Do you know where this tragic TWA plane spent the night prior to the explosion?
MR. BURNS: I do not, but I'm sure that's probably publicly known at the time -- now. I don't, but ask TWA. I mean, that's a question for TWA, not for me.
Q So you don't know where the plane, this particular plane, spent the night prior to the takeoff?
MR. BURNS: We do not have a national airlines in the United States, point one. We don't have a national airline. These are all private companies. I would refer you to them. The FBI and the NTSB are looking into all aspects of this matter. I refer you to those two agencies to answer that question. I'm not competent to answer that question.
Q Do you have anything to announce on the status of the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia?
MR. BURNS: I do not have anything to announce about the status of our presence, except to say that we continue to be concerned by the security situation, obviously, that our people, our civilians, American civilians, diplomatic officials and our military people face. As you know, we issued a public statement last week, drawing the attention of all these people, the 40,000 Americans who live there, to the worsening of the security situation in terms of the number of threats that we are receiving. This is a very high priority.
The Secretary of State, Secretary Christopher, met this morning with, as you know, the Governor of Riyadh, and the basis of that discussion -- he was here on a private visit, by the way -- the basis of the discussion and the extent of it really had to deal with the Al Khobar bombing, with steps that the United States and Saudi Arabia can take together to improve security for the Americans there, civilians, diplomats, military officials.
Secretary Christopher has given very clear instructions to our Embassy in Riyadh to take whatever steps necessary to protect our diplomats. Given the fact that the United States has been the target of two bombings in Saudi Arabia -- 24 Americans killed since November, hundreds wounded -- you would expect us to do what the Secretary is doing and Secretary Perry is doing, and we'll continue to be concerned about this.
Q Is there any consideration to recommending dependents leave or anything of that kind?
MR. BURNS: Nothing to announce at this point, Judd.
Q Nick, have you all further evaluated the letter, or statement, which you received yesterday, which would seem to further threaten U.S. people?
MR. BURNS: Yes, we've looked very carefully at a -- it's not a letter, just to be precise. It is what I would describe as a political tract. It's from a group called The Movement of Islamic Change, the Jihad wing in the Arabian peninsula.
It's a political manifesto that was delivered apparently on July 16 to the Al-Hayat newspaper chain in London. The London offices of the Al-Hayat newspaper. The United States Government obtained this political tract yesterday morning, July 18, at around 10:30 in the morning. We were given this letter, this tract -- it's not a letter -- by a major American news organization.
We gave the letter immediately to the FBI and to other agencies of the U.S. Government. It was a copy of a typed Arabic script letter. We had it translated here in the Department by our professional Arabic linguists -- native speakers of Arabic, professional translators --and I've got the letter -- the tract -- in front of me. I shouldn't say "letter." I can tell you it is a general fulmination against the American military presence in Saudi Arabia and against the Saudi Government.
At the end of the letter it talks about the prospect of an attack on the United States forces, we believe, in Saudi Arabia. This seems to be a very general threat against our forces in Saudi Arabia. I know there's been some talk about the specific language at the end of this tract, whether or not it refers to some kind of imminent threat. We do not believe it does.
The Arabic word for "tomorrow" is "bukra." The word used here is the Arabic word for "dawn," which is a very different word. It has very general meaning about the future, and we don't believe that this particular tract at this point -- there's nothing in it that would lead us to believe it's connected with the tragic incident concerning TWA Flight 800.
Q Are you aware of any other such statements as this out there that threaten U.S. citizens or military and diplomatic people, either in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the Middle East that could possibly be linked to TWA?
MR. BURNS: I am not aware of any specific threat before it happened, before the accident occurred, against TWA Flight 800. I am not aware of it. We are aware of this piece of paper which we don't believe bears any reference to the tragedy of the TWA flight.
We have had specific threats against our installations in Saudi Arabia, and we've talked about that publicly. We issued a public statement on that last week. But I'm not aware that the United States Government received any threats against TWA, against the air route, New York to Paris, before the accident occurred.
I am not aware of any subsequent threats since July 17 -- the last two days -- I'm not aware. Now, other agencies of the U.S. Government may have received warnings that we're not aware of. I doubt it, but I'm not aware of it. Really, on this, you know, I think your ultimate authority will continue to be the NTSB and the FBI.
Q Are you ruling out any possible involvement in the TWA bombing by this group?
MR. BURNS: What we are doing, Sid, is very clear. The FBI's, I think, underlying public message is, "We're not ruling anything in. We're not ruling anything out." You can never speak with 100 percent certainty in these matters, and we certainly don't presume to be doing so. But we've been asked by all of you to give you our best assessment of this political tract, and our best assessment is, this is a threat against the United States and the Saudi Government but the United States in Saudi Arabia.
It is consistent with the many threats that we have received from organizations like this, and from this particular organization, about our presence in the Middle East; not about civilian air traffic elsewhere in the world, such as here in the United States.
Q You report that there was a worsening situation in terms of number of threats in Saudi Arabia? Could you please give us an idea how many threats are issued a day, and are they all from the same organization or from this organization?
MR. BURNS: I'm not going to be specific, but I will refer you to the public announcement made by the State Department last week about the very great concern we have for Americans in Saudi Arabia. We wanted all Americans who live in Saudi Arabia to be aware that we think the security situation is of concern; that they should take all appropriate measures to protect themselves; that the private Americans -- they'll have to make their own decisions about whether they want to be there, but we'll give them all assistance that we can give them, and I'm thinking of the corporations now -- Mobil and ARAMCO and others -- to help them.
It's our obligation in situations like this to be as open as we can with the American public about things that we understand diplomatically and through other means.
Q I understand that other European countries received threats in Saudi Arabia. Are you coordinating with our allies in Europe about these threats?
MR. BURNS: We're coordinating very closely with the Government of Saudi Arabia, which has primary responsibility to protect American citizens in Saudi Arabia. I know that we are talking to a number of other governments about this situation. I don't know if we've taken any steps to coordinate with them. We're coordinating actively and physically -- through physical measures to protect people in Saudi Arabia -- Americans.
Q Could you clarify a couple of points that you've just touched on, on this TWA bombing -- excuse me, TWA crash -- and we hope it's that.
Nick, the group that claimed responsibility for the bombing in Riyadh of the American facility, is that the same group as this Movement of Islamic Change?
MR. BURNS: I believe that this group is one of the groups that claim responsibility, but, of course, we don't know if that was a credible claim. This particular group has claimed responsibility for lots of different incidents in the Middle East. It's been a very activegroup, Xeroxing statements that they distribute to news organizations. That seems to be one of their main activities.
Q Another point, is this the only tract that has been received by the Department of State and analyzed, regarding this TWA disaster? Did it specifically mention a surprise and a particular time frame for this event that they were warning about?
MR. BURNS: Again, I don't believe that this political tract -- we don't believe that it refers to the TWA disaster. It is the only political tract that I'm aware of that we've received here in the last couple of days, here in the Department of State in Washington.
Our Embassies sometimes receive various manifestos and threats. That's commonplace for Embassies. Again, Bill, I've already covered this, but I would just note that we don't believe that there's anything specific in terms of timing about this general threat, and we don't believe it's specific to the TWA crash. We believe it is a general threat against Americans in Saudi Arabia.
Q Two days ago, Secretary Perry announced that the U.S. Government is planning new measures with several countries where there are U.S. forces and also U.S. missions. He counted several countries, which include Bosnia and Turkey. Did you get any threats against your missions in Turkey and against your forces in Turkey?
MR. BURNS: We don't always talk about all the threats that we receive, because it is an unfortunate fact of diplomatic life that nearly all of our Embassies and Consulates overseas at some point face public or private threats from various groups.
We take them all seriously, and we look into all of them, and we do everything we can to protect our diplomats overseas – our Embassies and our Consulates and the lives of our people and their dependents, and we'll continue in that fashion.
Some threats are higher alerts than others, and the Saudi ones are getting particular attention these days from the senior leadership here at the State Department.
Q Given the scrutiny you're giving these threats as they relate to Saudi Arabia, do you have anything to say about the newspaper in London, Al-Hayat, failure to hand this threat over to any identifiable government officials, whether it be the United States or other countries?
MR. BURNS: It would be unfair for me to comment, because I'm not aware of the circumstances under which this political tract was given to Al-Hayat. I'm not exactly aware of what time of day it was. Did it come over the fax at 4:00 in the morning and no one was there? I don't know.
So absent the kind of knowledge that one would have to have to make a credible statement on this, I think I'm going to punt on that one.
Q You say they haven't come forward since then to explain?
MR. BURNS: I just don't know. Again, we have a very large diplomatic establishment around the world. I can't know what all of our diplomats are -- who they're talking to, what they're saying. I just know that we've looked at this very carefully from a linguistic point of view and from a political point of view.
We have people in this building who have lived in Beirut and Riyadh and who are Arabists, who speak the language, understand the culture, who know these organizations and have had experience with them. Our best guess, our best analysis, is that this does not have an impact on the current investigation. But, nonetheless, we've turned it over, and we'll let the FBI make the final judgment on that.
Q You said the linguists looked at this, and you have experts from different parts of the Arab world. Did they make any determination what dialect this -- because you can tell in Arabic whether it's the Gulf or --
MR. BURNS: Oh, yes. We have Arab speakers who speak North African dialects, who speak Levantine dialects, who speak Egyptian Arabic -- which is the classical Arabic, as you know -- and we have made sure that a variety of people have looked at this six different ways. This is an important document that we had yesterday, and we looked at it with great seriousness. And I've said about all I can say on this issue.
Mr. Lambros, is this again on this particular issue? Are we going back to the Athens airport?
Q Yes, that's it exactly.
MR. BURNS: That's unfortunate. Is there a new angle that you have that you want to try out on us?
Q May we have the State Department's assessment today for the Athens international airport?
MR. BURNS: The State Department is not competent to address security at the Athens airport. That's not part of our job. The FAA is competent and issued a statement in May, which I think speaks for itself. It used the word "effective." The FAA said it thought that the standards were "effective." The FAA speaks for the United States Government in these matters, not the State Department.
Q And as far as you're concerned, that statement stands?
MR. BURNS: The FAA is the competent federal agency. We must respect the views and the competence and the professionalism of the FAA.
Q And as far as you're concerned, that FAA statement still applies today to the Athens airport?
MR. BURNS: That is the current U.S. analysis of the safeguards at Athens airport, yes.
Still on this issue?
MR. BURNS: Thank goodness, we're
going to leave this issue. Very good.
(The briefing concluded at 2:50 p.m.)