THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE, DEVAL PATRICK, ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR CIVIL RIGHTS; JAMES JOHNSON, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY FOR ENFORCEMENT; AND BRUCE KATZ, CHIEF OF STAFF, DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT The Briefing Room
3:55 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Hello. I want to acknowledge my colleagues here who are going to respond to your questions -- Deval Patrick, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights; James Johnson, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement; and Bruce Katz, Chief of Staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
President Clinton and I have just concluded a very productive and heartening meeting with a number of governors from states where there have been burnings of houses of worship. We were joined in this meeting by several of the members of Congress in both parties who have been most active on this issue. Also, members representing the leadership of the Judiciary Committee and the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The dialogue which took place in the Cabinet Room just now was, if not unprecedented, certainly extraordinary. There was not a trace of any partisanship -- I want to add "of course," because the mood of the meeting was completely antithetical to any hint of partisanship. There was a very creative and productive discussion of a wide range of options for catalyzing a full fledged, nationwide all-out response to this issue.
The rash of church burnings and burnings of other houses of worship that has swept particularly across the south represents an affront to religious liberty and racial tolerance. I'm particularly saddened, may I say personally, and angered that so many of these cowardly acts have occurred in my home state of Tennessee. I was glad for the presence of and comments by Governor Don Sundquist of Tennessee.
It was heartening to hear leaders from both parties and from all across the nation find common ground in our shared determination to stop these crimes. Our first response was to intensify enforcement and to ensure the cooperation, completely devoid of competition, between federal and state and local authorities so that we can find out effectively and quickly what happened in each of these instances and, wherever possible, arrest and punish anyone who may be responsible. Hundreds of federal agents are now in the field working closely with state and local officials. I'm pleased that in an increasing number of these cases arrests are being made. Just yesterday an arrest was made in the burning of a church in Enid, Oklahoma last week.
Second, we have encouraged communities across America to come together to help rebuild the houses of worship that have been burned and desecrated. We're particularly pleased that groups ranging from the National Council of Churches to Habitat For Humanity, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Christian Coalition, the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'Rith and many others -- the Laborers Union -- are joining in this mobilization of conscience. We agreed that we will ask all Americans to redouble our efforts to help our neighbors rebuild. Part of the message coming out of today's meeting to anyone who would burn a house of worship is, you will not win.
The houses of worship will be rebuilt. And in each case, the community will become stronger in the process. The profession of faith by those who worship in these churches and synagogues and mosques will continue.
As important as enforcement and rebuilding are, it is of course far better to prevent these churches and other houses of worship from being burned in the first instance. As we discussed with the governors and members of Congress, and also state attorneys general who joined the President and his Cabinet for this discussion, we must turn our attention to prevention as the best and most lasting community response to these outrages.
Today, on behalf of the President, I'm announcing that President Clinton has directed James Lee Witt, the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with Attorney General Janet Reno and Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, to work with the governors to frame a national prevention initiative, state by state, using federal, state and private sector resources. We will help churches with surveillance, security, house of worship watch groups, and efforts to identify and spot risks.
The governors were uniformly enthusiastic about this initiative. We look forward to working closely with them in the coming days. And President Clinton's message is very, very clear: All Americans have the freedom to worship wherever and whenever they choose. We will not let people of faith be terrorized by practitioners of hate.
Now I would like to turn the podium over to Deval Patrick and James Johnson and Bruce Katz to answer any questions you have about the meeting and the National Prevention Initiative.
Q Vice President Gore, some of the governors were talking about a national day of worship. Was there any formal setting of a date for something like that or agreement on something like that?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I anticipate you will hear further announcement about that at a later time.
Q Vice President Gore, the three dozen black churches, is the common denominator racism?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: The investigation is still underway, and the question of organized conspiracies for some or any number of these churches and other houses of worship remains an open question. But someone was quoted in an article analyzing this situation this morning as saying the conspiracy is racism itself. My personal view is that there will be at the end of the day a number of different motivations found for different cases; but that for a very large number of them what you will find, ultimately, I predict, is that a common thread of underlying racism is present and individuals in different circumstances and with different additional motivations at times become a part of the larger pattern.
But let me stress that the investigation is still continuing and such conclusions are premature. I do feel on safe ground in saying that for a large number of them the quote I mentioned earlier is accurate, the conspiracy is racism itself.
MR. PATRICK: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. We thought we would summarize briefly the different presentations we made and then take your questions, if you have any.
As co-chair with Mr. Johnson of the National Task Force, we briefed the governors on what our sense today is of the scope of the problem. We handed out a state-by-state breakdown of fires and desecrations in houses of worship over the last six years that have been investigated by federal authorities. There are 216 on that list, based on the information we've compiled so far, of which we have solved about a third.
The dramatic increase has occurred in the last 18 months. Half of that number of 216 have occurred in the last 18 months; 70 percent of those represent fires in the southeast of black churches. The investigation, however, is not limited to black churches; it includes white churches, synagogues and mosques, as well.
We talked about the number of resources we've dedicated to this, and some additional resources that we're intending to dedicate to it through some reallocation of resources in the Department of Justice. We emphasized the importance of cooperation with state and local law enforcement. That has been the case in many of the cases we've solved already, working through local task forces, through the United States attorneys, the state attorneys general, the DAs, state police, state fire marshals, ATF and FPI have all been working, really in many ways, in unprecedented cooperation at the state level. And everyone unanimously concurred with the importance of that, that we should put competition among the agencies aside and focus on cooperation to get to the bottom of these.
Q Mr. Patrick, could you speak in more detail about the national prevention initiative and what federal resources or assets might come to bear on it, if any?
MR. PATRICK: I'm going to let Mr. Johnson do that.
Q Mr. Patrick, I saw a quote attributed to you this morning in the paper talking about an extreme climate of racism. Can you elaborate on why you think there is this climate and what anybody, from the President on down, can do about it since it's been so deeply rooted?
MR. PATRICK: Well, I can tell you what I meant and what I said. We have -- I wish you could see what comes across my desk, droves and droves --
Q Okay. (Laughter)
Q That'll get you in trouble.
MR. PATRICK: -- of a public nature, scores, hundreds, thousands of complaints of genuine and real, personal acts of unfairness and intolerance against people because of who they are, what they are, what they believe.
And you could come away, if you were inclined, with a rather grim view of the state of, not just of American race relations, but of American citizenship. That, I think, is the real issue. And I think we have seen -- we have seen in some of the hysteria and extremism of public discourse on a wide variety of issues contributions to a climate which is not always conducive to the importance, I think, in America of seeing one's stake in each other's struggle.
I think that is an important civic ideal and has been for a long time in this country. Does that mean that there is no hope? Absolutely not. One of the goods that may come out of this current crisis, and we talked about it a great deal in the meeting with the President and the governors, is a real coming together, across all those differences, in the interest of rebuilding these churches and rebuilding communities. And that's what I was trying to --
Q You say that a lot of these cases have already been solved and there has been investigation. What has been the motivation from those who have -- you know, is there a trend, a pattern? What are they saying of why they did it?
MR. PATRICK: Well, in the -- and I should say we have solved about a third of those that have been investigated over the previous six years. We are just beginning to make progress in the spike in the last 18 months. They say a variety of things. Many, many face up to and speak on their own racist motivations. That is not always the case. There are many motivations.
And I want to emphasize that the investigation is considering all of the motives. We are doing this as, I think, professionals are supposed to do this -- by following all the leads and all the evidence, wherever they take us. But we are hearing attitudes in some of the cases where race is a motive, and that what stirs that attitude may have absolutely nothing to do with the particular congregation or particular location. It may be that, you know, they had a hard time on the job or lost their job or something has gone wrong at home and they have had too much to drink and off they go.
And what's underneath comes to the surface and they act on that in some of these cases. I think, though, we have so much work to do in solving so many of the open investigations that before we can make any fair generalizations about all of these cases as a class we probably -- I probably have said too much.
Q Was the word "denial" -- did that come up in your meeting, the word "denial"?
MR. PATRICK: No.
Q You mean, nobody is willing to talk about a racist society or that they themselves may be racist or that we have a heavy denial that we have to get through in order to look at the issues; did that not come up in this meeting?
MR. PATRICK: The question of -- well, the word "denial," first of all, did not come up. I'll tell you what did come up was the notion that it was very important to take what some of the teachers would call a teaching opportunity from these tragedies, to begin to find ways to bring communities together. And I think you're going to see that. There are efforts to galvanize volunteers, craftspeople and unskilled people to rebuild the churches. Contributions that have been expressed by private entities, private individuals to the White House, to the National Council of Churches and others has been unprecedented.
And I think that the people gathered around the table wanted to think about ways to use these tragedies to try to begin the kinds of conversations that are so difficult for so many people to have in American communities today.
Q Can we really deal with this if we're not going to talk honestly and openly about racism and all of our parts in it? I mean, is there much hope for this unless we get down to that level?
MR. PATRICK: No. And I think we will get down to that level. I think in a lot of communities we are getting down to that level.
Q Mr. Patrick --
MR. PATRICK: I'm not going to leave. I just want to give Mr. Johnson a chance to talk about the prevention.
Q Can I ask you about your answer about the state of citizenship in this country? In this meeting was there any suggestion about any linkage between Oklahoma City and the church bombings and the rise of militia and the general state of hate in the country?
MR. PATRICK: No.
Q Is there any connection?
MR. PATRICK: Did we discuss that in this room? No.
Q Would you make any connections?
MR. PATRICK: These are open investigations, so, no, I wouldn't make any connection publicly.
Q Any differences or debates about anything -- the extent of the problem or how best to solve it? Or was it total unanimity about everything?
MR. PATRICK: You're not looking for controversy, are you?
Q Only if it's there.
MR. PATRICK: No, it's not there. There is unanimity about the importance of prompt resolution of the cases, finding the perpetrators and punishing them. There was unanimity about beefing up both the federal and the state legal tools. To do that there is a bill that passed unanimously in the House yesterday that strengthens one of the most important tools we have in the civil rights area to address these. It's in the Senate now.
There was some talk about the importance or the likelihood of having to take similar kinds of steps on the state level. There was a lot of talk about cooperation and then also the kinds of conversations that I was alluding to earlier about my word, my term, teaching opportunities.
Q But is there some difference about whether there is a climate at the core of all this or whether these are more isolated acts?
MR. PATRICK: No, I don't think -- first of all, I have been clear, and everybody in that room was, that none of us is in a position to draw a straight line from any particular hostile conversation, any particular incident of or expression of division to any particular fire. But that the intolerance, out of which some of these incidents arise, has to be addressed and can be addressed as an act of leadership.
Q Mr. Patrick, a number of young people have been arrested and some --
Q Could we hear something, please, about the prevention effort which is, I think, the news of the day?
MR. JOHNSON: Sure. What we talked about in terms of protection was an effort that's being undertaken by the Church Arson Task Force to get out information that churches can use to help protect themselves. The ATF has prepared a booklet, which we're in the process of distributing to churches in the southeast primarily, at least as a first step -- which goes through 15 specific steps that they can undertake, depending on the appropriateness of their circumstances, to protect themselves and to prevent these fires.
Two of the steps were particularly pertinent to the governors that were gathered, and those were the formation of, or the joining of, of neighborhood watches in the effort to protect the churches. The second thing that was important to the governors -- we felt, and the governors agreed -- was having churches and church members ban together to go by their churches on a random basis to make sure -- as you know, many of these churches are in very rural areas -- to make sure that there is proper attention paid. In many of the fires, churches were burned and it wasn't discovered until two, three, four days later that there had actually been a fire.
What we want to do is encourage people to make it known that the churches will be watched so that the people who engage in these acts -- and these are usually done under cover of darkness by people clearly not willing to make their faces known -- to let them know that they will be monitored.
Q Mr. Johnson, what kind of particular federal resources could be brought to bear in that effort? Would there be money? I mean, you're putting out the booklet -- would there be visits by ATF agents, counseling folks on how they might undertake this effort?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, our strategy has a couple of components. There would be, in certain circumstances, consultation between the ATF, the United States Marshal Service and local law enforcement. The key element here is the cooperation and partnership between the federal law enforcement officers and local law enforcement officers. Any strategy or plan designed to protect the churches will not work without the full cooperation and participation of local law enforcement.
And what came out of this meeting was a clear commitment for the federal and local law enforcement officers to work together. The President discussed the role of FEMA and we will be consulting with FEMA to help us coordinate the local responses. We cannot, from Washington, decide on a strategy that's going to be appropriate -- we could, but it wouldn't be the best thing for us to do to decide on a strategy that's going to be appropriate in one of the southern states. It's much better to get the states involved, and we received those commitments today in developing these strategies.
Q Could these citizens who are involved in the watch programs be endangered in any way, in going out to these rural places at night?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, one of the things we emphasize in our pamphlet is that they are not to actively engage in protecting the churches, but simply to watch the church; and if they see anything that's amiss, that they should report it to local law enforcement. We have consistently emphasized that no one is to take the law into their own hands, because what that would do is take a bad situation and make it much worse.
Q Was there anything agreed upon or announced today that goes beyond what the President announced in the State of the Union address or the speech down in South Carolina? It doesn't sound to me like there is, that this is all things that have already been announced.
MR. JOHNSON: The role of FEMA is an added element of our strategy and they will be important in assessing and gathering federal resources to respond to the particular localities' problems.
Q And again, Mr. Johnson --
MS. GLYNN: Can we also send Bruce Katz talk about CDBG --
Q Can I ask one question first?
Q I realize that you're not going to dictate from Washington how this happens, but would you envision that the churches would set up things like telephone trees to set up rotations of people who might drive past a church, that's the kind of thing you'd envision so that if the church is in a rural area, then people take responsibility for Wednesday afternoon going past, and Thursday morning and someone else on Thursday? Is that type of --
MR. JOHNSON: Clearly, that's the sort of thing that can happen and could be more helpful. The more eyes you have watching these churches, the better it is to maintain the church's security.
Q During the civil rights movement, local law enforcement used to be intimately involved in a lot of these attacks, even leadership elements in racial attacks. Is it better now dealing with local law enforcement? Do you find the problem is better now than it was during the civil rights movement?
MR. JOHNSON: We have local and federal law enforcement, still some hurdles to overcome in terms of the perception of sensitivity to racial issues. And we've learned that from the ministers who visited Washington about a week and a half ago. But what we also have found on the ground is that there has been tremendous cooperation between and among federal officials and state officials in many, many of these cases. So I would say that it's significantly better than it was years ago.
Q Mr. Johnson, you have stressed cooperation repeatedly here. Did any of the governors express any concern that your federal efforts might somehow supersede local law enforcement?
MR. JOHNSON: No. One of the goals was -- there was an expression of concern, but the commitment that came out of the meeting was that we would work together. In fact, the Attorney General made clear that to the extent that there are local task forces already in place working on these problems, that the federal task forces would not compete with or replace them. The only way that we're going to get on top of this problem is that if we all work together. And that was a clear commitment from all participants in the meeting.
Q A concern was expressed by someone?
MR. JOHNSON: The question was raised.
Q By a governor?
MR. JOHNSON: Was it a governor?
MR. PATRICK: I don't think so.
MR. JOHNSON: I don't think it was a governor, but there were also -- there were also state and law enforcement representatives there.
MS. GLYNN: How about saying something, Bruce Katz --
MR. KATZ: Let me talk briefly about the third component of the response to the church bombings, which is the effort to rebuild the churches. The Secretary -- Secretary Cisneros briefed the governors. I'm Bruce Katz, Chief of Staff at HUD.
Secretary Cisneros briefed the governors on the efforts that are underway to date. As the Vice President has mentioned, there's been a huge outpouring of private support, which has basically taken two forms. There is effort to raise donations to rebuild the churches being spearheaded by the National Council of Churches, which has set a goal of $4 million. There is also an effort to engage the volunteer network of Habitat, of many religious institutions, of many unions to also help rebuild the churches.
In terms of the federal role, the administration is seeking to establish a national loan guarantee fund. This fund would enable the Department of Housing and Urban Development to guarantee up to $10 million in private loans that would be provided to these institutions that have been damaged by arson or terrorism. There would be no new appropriations sought to capitalize this fund. Rather the department would basically reprogram existing funds, which are no longer necessary.
So the effort to rebuild has basically combined public-private sector effort with principal focus on donations and volunteer efforts. And where we will be needed, the federal government will help back some of the private loans that may be necessary to help rebuild these institutions.
Q Is the loan guarantee program, is that the only monetary commitment that the White House made today?
MR. KATZ: That would be the only commitment that was made in regard to the rebuilding effort.
Q Okay, what about the other efforts? Has money actually been committed?
MR. KATZ: I think on the -- you might want to talk to the prevention task force.
MR. PATRICK: One of the responsibilities of FEMA in joining the task force is to identify existing federal resources that may be available to support local law enforcement in prevention. For example, there is a concern, naturally, that there might be requirements for overtime pay by local or state law enforcement. And there may be resources that are available now that could be brought to bear to support that. We have to identify those, make sure we deal with all the legal issues that may arise and then act. But our charge is to get on with it and resolve those issues as quickly as possible.
Q Mr. Patrick, could you address a hotline -- state hotlines? Is that something that the federal government has suggested, too, or is that something states are doing on their own?
MR. PATRICK: Many are doing it on their own. There is a national hotline, which is -- I think you said today they've received, as of the time of the meeting, over 700 calls -- information and leads concerning the incidents. That's important.
We obviously have to make that information available to our state and local counterparts who are working with us to solve these crimes, and the same thing in the reverse -- that we have to have access to the information that is gathered by the state.
Q Is that new? The hotline, the national hotline, is that something that has recently been started?
MR. PATRICK: The President announced that a week ago, 10 days ago.
Q How would you characterize race relations in this country?
MR. PATRICK: In a word?
Q No, a sentence.
MR. PATRICK: We have made extraordinary progress in this country in my short lifetime, 40 years. We have some distance to go, and we are not going to become the country we have dedicated ourselves to become unless we bear down and express in tangible ways and symbolic ways our determination to go the rest of the distance.
Q Mr. Patrick, I understand a number of young people have been arrested or are suspects in some of these cases, these church burnings. If so, what do you think that that says, and is that going to be a problem at all in prosecuting them? I know Congress is proposing legislation to crack down, to increase federal involvement, taking these cases to federal court. But if they're juveniles, what will that mean?
MR. PATRICK: Well, there have been juvenile arrests. I won't say anything more about the facts of those arrests because they're juveniles. But in general terms, in all of these prosecutions we are making a judgment in cooperation with the state and local law enforcement about what is the best form to deal with that case, what is in the best interest of that case. In some cases, this is not a generalization, in some cases it is going to be more effective and more prompt and more to the point to deal with the juvenile matters in the state courts rather than the federal courts, but we're making that judgment on a case-by-case basis.
Q What does it say to you if growing numbers of young people are actually responsible for this?
MR. PATRICK: That adults have to work harder.
Q Are you confident, Mr. Patrick, that you are on top of the problem now, that it is going to subside, this problem? It seems to be growing in the last few weeks.
MR. PATRICK: I'm very concerned about the continued rise. I have been concerned about that rise for almost two years now and this is the largest federal civil rights investigation going and one of the largest criminal investigations of any kind and that has been true for more than a year now.
I'm not going to be satisfied, and I don't think citizens and communities are going to be satisfied until we get to the bottom of more of these cases.
MS. GLYNN: Last question.
Q Mr. Patrick mentioned some numbers earlier -- 216 fires over the last six years. It's hard sometimes to reconcile the numbers of investigations that the ATF has been doing -- 36 in the last 18 months versus what sounded like from you many more. Is there a way for us to help readers understand these numbers and how they differ?
MR. PATRICK: Sure, yes. I can say a couple things about the numbers. First of all, because the agencies have had different responsibilities, the ATF and the FBI, different responsibilities for different kinds of investigations -- straight arsons versus civil rights, for example -- there have been different tallies. Many, many of the fires are never even reported to the federal authorities.
The numbers I quoted earlier are part of a blending of the information between the ATF and the FBI, together with the information we have in the Civil Rights Division, where we have traditionally worked mainly with the FBI. So the church arsons task force, one of our jobs in getting a handle on the scope of the problem is trying to -- is just that, is trying to make sure that we have one focus on all of the matters that have come to the attention and been investigated by the federal authorities.
Q Our all 216 of those black church burnings, or is that everything?
MR. PATRICK: Absolutely not. No, no. No, that is -- first of all they're not just fires; they're fires and desecrations, okay? They're not just in the southeast; they're around the country. They're concentrated in the southeast, but they are around the country, as far-flung as Washington state, upstate New York, Chicago. They are black churches, white churches, synagogues and mosques -- all of the suspicious fires and desecrations in houses of worship that have been under federal investigation in the last six years.
And we are now, through a survey that the FBI is helping to lead as a part of the task force, trying to get a handle on what other matters may be out there that have not been reported, that have been handled exclusively as a local matter but that may bear on the investigation.
Q What is the breakdown on the 216?
MS. GLYNN: Can we wrap up the briefing? Maybe you can ask him individually --
MR. PATRICK: Thank you.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 4:28 P.M. EDT