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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

James Oberwetter's Press Conference

Aired June 19, 2004 - 09:17   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAMES OBERWETTER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SAUDI ARABIA: She was surrounded by...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaks in foreign language)

OBERWETTER (through translator): I spoke also with the rest of his family in America. The foreign ministry and the embassy are working with the family and the son of the victim have said they're very grateful for those who stood with them at this hard -- at these hard times. And he said, Please convey my thanks to the Saudi government and to the Saudi people for their support and their attempt to save the -- his father.

The son of Paul wants to tell you that -- knows that this is not a Saudi action, not part of the Saudi people, but from a few of them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (speaks in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaks in foreign language)

BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you. Sound from Al Arabiya television, which is where we're getting this live shot from, which is why you're seeing a bit of a delay. But, of course, we are getting a translator, and we want to listen in right now to James Oberwetter, who, again, is the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

OBERWETTER (through translator): These security forces in Saudi Arabia have done the whole operation and have provided us with information. And regrettably, they were not able to save Paul, but Riyadh is a big city of 3 million people. It's as big as Chicago in area, and the nature of the town here is different from American states -- American cities. There is security everywhere in the town.

NGUYEN: Again, this is a live picture from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We understand Paul Johnson was beheaded yesterday, and we're listening to James Oberwetter, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He is taking questions from reporters. There's a bit of a delay here, because all of these questions are having to be translated. So we do apologize for that. We are getting this live from Al Arabiya television.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The ambassador said that the security forces have tried to find Mr. Paul before he was killed, within the 72-hour ultimatum. But regrettably they couldn't, because the houses in Riyadh are all fenced. Every house has a fence around it. Different than the nature of houses in our cities. OBERWETTER: Every source of information to me confirms, without any question in the matter, that the Saudis did everything they could to save Paul. The Saudi government was in total operational control, but it sought the advice and assistance of U.S. law enforcement agents. The FBI, which currently has an office in the U.S. embassy here in Riyadh, has expertise in dealing with a variety of criminal acts. Our advice was sought, our advice was given, and our advice was well received. The cooperation between our governments was excellent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaks in foreign language)

NGUYEN: Again, this is a press conference with James Oberwetter, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He is taking questions from reporters there in Riyadh. We are getting this live from Al Arabiya television, which is why we are having to wait a moment for the question to be translated to Mr. Oberwetter, who will then respond in English.

OBERWETTER: In the results of the shoot-out last night, let me add my commendation to the Saudi government for removing from their most-wanted list several of the worst al Qaeda terrorists on the peninsula. These terrorists' uncivilized act are being met by the civilized world's only remaining option to deal with them, force. And at this point it is now clear that more action will be needed to give our words and our dialogue and our concerns real meaning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaks in foreign language)

NGUYEN: James Oberwetter is receiving a number of questions from reporters there surrounding the Paul Johnson beheading, which we learned of yesterday. But he has responded saying the Saudis have done everything they could to save Paul. But he just mentioned, as you heard, that it is clear that more action needs to be done in that region.

OBERWETTER: This has been a rough year for Americans in Saudi Arabia. It has been tough on the relationship between our two countries. We appreciate what Saudi Arabia is doing to address the immediate problem.

But there is a longer view as well, which must be considered. For nearly 70 years, average Americans who work for a living have been working here to help advance the interest of Saudi Arabia. Their work benefits the average Saudi citizens in many ways every day. Those from abroad who are guests of Saudi Arabia must rely both on its leadership and on the average Saudi citizen for protection, so that good relations can exist between our two nations.

GRIFFIN: And that stern announcement comes as the State Department this morning issues yet another warning telling foreign workers, specifically American workers, to get out of Saudi Arabia.

James Oberwetter has been the ambassador since November of 2003, when his friend George Bush appointed him to that position. He's an oilman from Hunt Oil Company in Texas, holding a news conference live this morning in Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. NGUYEN: He spent 28 years with the Hunt Oil Company, very familiar with the region there. And as you just mentioned, Americans have been working in Saudi Arabia for nearly 70 years, contributing to the structure there, dealing with oil. Says that the latest actions by terrorists in Saudi Arabia have been very tough on relations between America and the Saudis.

OBERWETTER: And Miss Kalen (ph) will call on you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Ambassador, yesterday in a statement, you confirmed the death of Mr. Johnson. My question is, have you been able to recover the body, you or the Saudi authorities? If not, how did you -- how were you able to confirm his death?

OBERWETTER: The -- how should we proceed?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Could we translate that question (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaks in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), could you repeat the question again?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in Arabic?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaks in foreign language)

OBERWETTER: As you know, every U.S. embassy has to deal with family situations such as this one, when it arises around the world. We wish to respect the privacy of the Johnson family, and that comes first.

Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaks in foreign language)

OBERWETTER: As yet, we have not seen the body of Paul Johnson. However, our consular section confirmed his death by observing the Web site information last evening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaks in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) just a statement (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

OBERWETTER: It wasn't really more than a statement. And the individuals at our consul knew of his appearance, what he looked like, and were able to confirm on the basis of those pictures.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaks in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can we have a question on this side (UNINTELLIGIBLE)? Yes, sir.

NGUYEN: All right, we have obviously lost that signal. That was Al Arabiya television bringing us live the news conference. There it is back again. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, we have the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Oberwetter, fielding questions from reporters there, dealing with the situation surrounding Paul Johnson's beheading.

He has made it very clear that while everything was being done to help find Paul Johnson, the Saudi government needs to do more to protect Westerners in that region and that has put a strain on U.S.- Saudi relations.

GRIFFIN: I think it's interesting, he also said, he called on the Saudi citizens to do their part as well to protect foreign workers who have helped Saudi Arabia develop its oil fields and technology.

NGUYEN: For 70 years now, a big part of the problem, even though 15,000 Saudi forces fanned out across the country trying to find Paul Johnson, the problem was actually finding where these terrorists were hiding him. And that's why they're calling on local Saudi Arabians to help in the search, help protect Westerners in that country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaks in foreign language)

NGUYEN: Again, we apologize for this brief break. We are having to get the questions translated, and then James Oberwetter will respond, of course, in English, but it takes a little time to have the questions translated to us. This is coming again to you live from Al Arabiya television.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The question is whether the threat of al Qaeda is still on.

OBERWETTER: Our view of this is that a great deal was accomplished last evening. But we also believe that much more remains to be done. The Saudis are doing an excellent job of working on their most-wanted list, and working people off of that list. But not everyone who is a threat has been removed from the list, and there may be many more. That is why the warnings that we have given to Americans, strongly urging them to leave, will remain in effect for the foreseeable future.

In May of last year, it became obvious to all that there was a serious problem here. That is when we knew that the Saudis (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the threat to Western...

NGUYEN: Again, we're losing our signal there with Al Arabiya television.

OBERWETTER: Since that time, cooperation has grown. Communication has improved. Strategies and tactics that the Saudis have put into place are resulting in positive actions, including the removal of many people from the most-wanted list. So while we are pleased with what occurred last night, we believe much more remains to be done. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you just said that more has to be done, and more action will be needed (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in Saudi Arabia. However, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), (UNINTELLIGIBLE) cooperation (UNINTELLIGIBLE), (UNINTELLIGIBLE). What is your comment?

OBERWETTER: We're pleased to receive the comment, and note that the cooperation between our two governments has been good since last May, and continues to get better. We are getting better at gathering intelligence on threats to Americans and to Westerners and to Saudis.

And we believe in and we do share information concerning threats, direct threats. We believe in sharing information concerning direct threats. This is an ongoing process that requires constant attention. And we listened carefully, and we work carefully with members of the law enforcement community in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Steven Gray (ph) from the Sunday "London Times." Two questions, firstly on al-Muqrin. Could you please just characterize for us what you believe -- what kind of man he was, and the threat that he actually did represent to the Saudis and the foreign citizens here?

Secondly, you said that you have provided with some details of how Saudi Arabia carried out the search for Paul Johnson. And I wonder if you could be a bit more detailed on the kind of operation that was conducted in order to try at least to find him.

OBERWETTER: With respect to the individual removed from the list, he was among the most vicious of the current al Qaeda crop on the peninsula. He was involved in a number of activities against Americans and other Westerners. Investigation by the Saudi authorities will reveal the full extent of these terrorist activities that he conducted. I would say that he is one of the most uncivilized of the terrorist groups, and the civilized world has acted accordingly.

And with respect to the particulars regarding the incident last evening, I must refer you to the Saudi authorities. My reference was the Adel al-Jubeir news conference in Washington, where he outlined the specifics of the case. Our forces were not involved in operational matters last evening.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) question here (UNINTELLIGIBLE) go to here, this gentleman, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I have the chance to meet with Mrs. Johnson (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Many people, when they heard about the killing of Paul Johnson, they were really touched by it. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to the family and asked me to (UNINTELLIGIBLE). () operation (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And that the American media realize that the Saudi people has no link to such acts, exactly the same as the American people has no link to what has happened in Abu Ghraib prison (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

OBERWETTER: First, let me say that I totally agree with your assessment of her televised appearance, I thought it was exceptionally done, a great grace, under terrific pressure, as she appealed for the return of her family. This has been noted around the world. I've talked to a number of reporters from around the world. All of them have given her great credit.

GRIFFIN: Watching a bilingual news conference held by James Oberwetter.

OBERWETTER: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that the family back in New Jersey also went on television, and also did a superb job under the most difficult of circumstances, asking for the return of Paul.

GRIFFIN: He is the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. This is being carried live in Saudi Arabia, where everything he says is translated into Arabic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (speaks in foreign language)

OBERWETTER: I believe that there is humanity in anyone. They need to listen to these appeals. And those who reject appeals like this are really outside of the civilization that we want to know.

I think for a long time, the American people did not understand that Saudi Arabia also had a problem and a threat from al Qaeda. While the Americans are the subject of the last six incidents here, especially targeted because they are American or Westerners, or because they look like me, they are learning of the sacrifices of the Saudi people, including the military officers and the law enforcement officers and other security forces that are losing their lives and being wounded.

GRIFFIN: This is the top U.S. official in Saudi Arabia speaking directly to the Saudi people through a translator.

OBERWETTER: We understand the sacrifices of blood. And it makes us stronger in our desire to overcome the terrorists. And in the end we will prevail.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) two more questions. I'd like to take one from the international press and one from the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

NGUYEN: U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Oberwetter taking questions from reporters there. You're watching this via Al Arabiya television is how we're getting this live picture that you see now from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

He's dealing with a number of topics, one with Paul Johnson's beheading and the search for other terrorists in the area responsible for and connected with that murder. He's also talking about what Saudi Arabia is doing to combat terrorism in the region, speaking specifically about Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, who was killed yesterday after Paul Johnson's murder, and he said, quote, about al-Muqrin, that "he is one of the most uncivilized of the terrorist groups, and the civilized world has acted accordingly."

But, of course, James Oberwetter also stresses that it is very clear much more needs to be done in the Saudi Arabian area so that Westerners, Americans, all those helping in that region are protected.

GRIFFIN: He also made it clear, Betty, the warning again issued this morning by the State Department will stand. Americans should get out of Saudi Arabia because it's just not safe.

NGUYEN: But in speaking with our military intelligence analyst, Ken Robinson, who we'll go back to in just a moment, it's a bit of a double-edged sword, because you want to protect the lives of these Americans working in that region, but at the same time, if they leave, many say terrorists win.

OBERWETTER: The situation in Saudi Arabia remains dangerous for Westerners. The United States State Department has issued warnings and repeated those warnings, including yesterday.

Concerning the nature of the threat here, good work is being done by the Saudis. And we are cooperating with them in the efforts to overcome the terrorist threats here. But it will be some time before we achieve a comfort level that the situation has returned to normal. We look forward to that day, but it's some time away.

I reject categorically any insinuation that the terrorists are winning. They may achieve some small victories over and over individuals, but they will not prevail over the force of civilization.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And now from our last question, please, from the local press, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). If there are women reporters in the room, (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

NGUYEN: It appears this is the last question directed at James Oberwetter, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Of course, if you're just joining us, we're getting this via Al Arabiya television, so these questions must be translated to Mr. Oberwetter, who would then answer those questions, and, of course, this apparently is the last one.

We've been following this story for the past 37 minutes, this live news conference out of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a lot of it dealing with the situation surrounding Paul Johnson, who was beheaded yesterday, and the attack on those terrorists involved, namely Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, who was killed by Saudi forces shortly after we learned of Paul Johnson's death.

OBERWETTER: The State Department has a process by which it carefully examines terrorist or other type of threat situations in given countries.

In April of this year, we issued a specific threat directed at citizens living in Saudi Arabia. It was based upon our assessment of what was happening here, and a number of incidents that had been occurring, information that we were gathering in many ways, including through the media. The arrows began to point to an emerging threat, greater than what we had seen before. And we raised our warning from urged to leave Saudi Arabia to strongly urged to leave.

Events have proven that warning, unfortunately, to be all too accurately, all too accurate. The secretary's comments are unfamiliar to me. I'm sure what he was saying was much like what I said in the statement, that we have had people here for over 70 years, just average people working at their jobs to provide better opportunities for Saudis.

Our warning still stands. Even though our heart may say otherwise, we must take care, and I urge American citizens and Westerners still in the kingdom, if they intend to remain here, to take every precaution.

I want to thank the ladies and gentlemen of the press for their time this afternoon and for the messages that you carry to the people.

There is one remaining point that I would like to make, and that is that we deeply appreciate all of the information that the Saudi people are providing to their law enforcement agencies regarding terrorist threats. It's actions like these that will be understood by the American public and will help to keep the bonds between our country, our countries, very strong.

Thank you for your time.

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