- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

The White House yesterday took a more aggressive stance to dispute press accounts that imply the administration is somehow guilty of wrongdoing in the collapse of Enron Corp.
President Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, accused the media of embarking on "open-ended fishing expeditions" by demanding a comprehensive list of all contacts between the bankrupt energy marketer and the White House.
"No one has made any specific allegation of wrongdoing, yet there still is this yearning in the press to know every communication, every contact," Mr. Fleischer told a combative White House press corps yesterday.
"And that's the line the White House is walking: To be helpful, to answer inquiries, without going down this trail that any contact with anybody for any reason is a suggestion of something that was done wrong," he added.
Mr. Fleischer challenged reporters to come up with specific accusations of wrongdoing, rather than vague requests for contacts between administration officials and Enron Chairman Kenneth L. Lay, who made campaign contributions to many Republicans and Democrats, including Presidents Bush and Clinton.
"That's a rather novel way of managing a crisis," one reporter told Mr. Fleischer during yesterday's press briefing. "Nobody is interested in who called Enron in this White House?"
"If you have any suggestion and no one has of any wrongdoing, I urge you bring it forward, present it, ask it to me," Mr. Fleischer shot back. "Ask it to me on the record, ask it to me on background, ask it to me wherever you like, and we will do our best to track it down to find out.
"But if you're asking if the White House is chronicling any contact with anybody in this administration and anybody at Enron over anything, I think that's such a broad request that it's characterized as a fishing expedition," he added. "That's exactly what the question is."
"I'm talking about when the company was in trouble, calls they made or did not make to the White House or the senior staff or the Cabinet," the reporter protested. "You're telling me you don't even want to know those calls that might have been made?"
"Calls about what?" Mr. Fleischer demanded.
"For anything," the reporter said. "I don't I can't I don't even know if the calls "
"And again, there you go," the spokesman replied. "You're asking me: Are we doing something that you can't even define. You're asking me: Are you gathering information about any contact with Enron about what? Ask the question."
"Any communication," the reporter said.
"Exactly," Mr. Fleischer concluded dismissively. "Any communication."
Yesterday's acrimonious press briefing echoed a similarly charged exchange a week ago, when reporters learned that Mr. Lay had called Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill as the company was collapsing in October. The Cabinet secretaries rebuffed overtures for a government bailout.
In the interim, Mr. Fleischer has adopted a more defiant posture toward the press. Yesterday, he revealed that Larry Lindsey, chairman of the National Economic Council, met with other White House economic advisers to discuss whether Enron's imminent collapse would negatively impact broader markets.
"If the economic team at the White House, having seen what was happening to Enron, reading about it in the papers every day, did not ask the question, 'Does this have an impact really on the economy?' they wouldn't have been doing their jobs," Mr. Fleischer said.
Mr. Lindsey, who once did consulting work for Enron, was not contacted by Mr. Lay during this period. After several weeks of monitoring various markets, Mr. Lindsey and the rest of the economic team concluded there was nothing the administration could or should do on behalf of Enron.
To reporters who implied there was something sinister in Mr. Lindsey's scrutiny of Enron, Mr. Fleischer said: "I think if the administration didn't look at that, you would be asking: 'Why wouldn't you look at that?'"
Journalists were not the only people unhappy about the White House's tough new stance. Attorney Larry Klayman of the legal watchdog group Judicial Watch said the presidential spokesman's credibility is "now close to zero and he should consider resigning."
"The American people have a right to know all the facts," he added. "If the Bush administration is not hiding something, then why is it stonewalling Judicial Watch's legitimate document requests, forcing the public interest group to file four lawsuits to date?"
Although reporters deluged Mr. Fleischer with questions about Enron, they did not bring up the topic during a question-and-answer session later in the day with Mr. Bush, who was meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit in the Oval Office.
Mr. Bush encouraged Turkey's offer yesterday to lead peacekeeping in Afghanistan. He rejected the notion that American troops might be part of a peacekeeping force there. "I've made it clear that our troops will be used to fight and win war. And that's exactly what they've done," Mr. Bush said.
"I think there is ample support from around the world to provide troops to help stabilize Afghanistan so the government can eventually take over its own defense," Mr. Bush said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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