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Daily White House Press Briefing

Aired March 20, 2002 - 12:34   ET

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


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Ari Fleischer at the White House, now briefing reporters. We will take you there live, and listen in and see what's on the minds of the president, by way of Ari Fleischer.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... international monitors as required under the Agreed Framework, waivers will be granted that will allow continuation for all the provisions under the Agreed Framework. But there's no question that the president has concerns. We have not been provided with sufficient information by the North Koreans and concerns remain about their compliance with the Agreed Framework. The United States will continue to comply with the terms of the Agreed Framework, and I will confirm that.

QUESTION: So when you're waiving certification, that means you cannot certify that they are abiding by the agreement?

FLEISCHER: The president will accept a recommendation -- has accepted a recommendation from the secretary of state not to certify; in other words, that North Korea, because of the concerns raised, because of the insufficient information provided to international monitors, as well as to the United States from the North Koreans, we will not certify their compliance with the three provisions required under law for the program to continue. However, in the national security interest, and because we will continue to adhere to the Agreed Framework, waivers will be granted, while for the first time all three items under law will not be certified.

QUESTION: What specifically have they not complied with?

FLEISCHER: Well, it deals with the three areas as set out by the statute.

FLEISCHER: They deal with demonstrated progress on North-South denuclearization, a joint declaration; Agreed Framework compliance; and also reducing the threats and exports of ballistic missiles. Those are the three areas that have to be certified under law. They will not be certified, but waivers will be granted.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: That's correct, all three, which is the first time.

QUESTION: So what's the bottom line impact? I take it there's no impact on North Korea...

FLEISCHER: It's a strong message to North Korea that they need to comply with their international obligations and agreements. The United States is complying, and this is a message to North Korea that it's important for them to do so as well.

QUESTION: Is there anything they won't get that they would have gotten if they had...

FLEISCHER: As a result of the waiver, which I mentioned, it does not change the United States' compliance with the Agreed Framework, which basically deals with the delivery of 500,000 metric tons of heavy oil fuel.

QUESTION: However, it does raise questions, though, about proceeding with a new light water reactor, does it not?

FLEISCHER: Well, the issue with the light water reactor is, under the Agreed Framework there is additional deliveries that are scheduled to be in 2005, but under the compliance regime that North Korea has agreed to, it takes some three to four years for the international inspectors to certify that North Korea is in compliance.

And time is running out, because if takes such a long time for the inspectors to come to their conclusions, they need access, they need to be able to spend a sufficient amount of time, three to four years, conducting the agreed-upon inspections that North Korea has said they would agree to, that in order for the deadlines of 2005 to be met, North Korea has got to begin to comply.

QUESTION: So if they do not begin to comply, then it would jeopardize the next stage in this effort to wean them away from nuclear power that could produce fissionable material.

FLEISCHER: Well, as I said, this was designed to send a signal to North Korea that they have obligations, and these obligations are important, these obligations help preserve the basic and fundamental notion that this power is provided to produce electricity and not for proliferation.

QUESTION: Is this a case where there's new information or that we're just reexamining what we've got and taking a different view of it?

FLEISCHER: Now, it's a combination of taking a look at all the information that is available, even given the lack of information provided by the North Koreans, and a recognition of the clock and the calendar. As I indicated, by 2005 there are agreed components that would be sent to North Korea. In order for those components to be sent to North Korea, under what the North Koreans themselves agreed to, North Korea has got to comply with the inspections. The inspections take from three to four years. So in order for that 3-4 year period to be met by 2005, North Korea has got to honor its obligations.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) there's no specific new information that leads us to find them in violation or noncompliance of some of the things that in the past we haven't...

FLEISCHER: Well, every year Congress sets as part of the appropriation process this process in place involving certification and potential waiver, so this is set by statute. And then what the administration does at the State Department is it examines all the information about compliance, about whether or not information is being provided from the North Koreans with an eye toward that important 2005 date and the timeline by which North Korea has got to provide access and information in order for the 2005 date to be met.

QUESTION: It's the calendar more than anything else?

FLEISCHER: It's the calendar and also a combination of North Korean actions to date and failure to provide information to date. We have concerns and we don't have sufficient information.

QUESTION: Ari, the regulations for the military tribunals are leaking out all over town. Presumably, you're not going to tell us what they are. But how deeply involved was the president in this whole process?

FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, the president made the fundamental decision months ago to allow for the creation of military tribunals in an effort to provide justice and to protect what needs to be protected as we fight the war on terrorism. He asked the Department of Defense to write the military tribunal rules and regulations, and the Department of Defense has done so. And this will be something that they will announce when Department of Defense is ready to announce. The president is very satisfied with the work that DOD has done on this.

QUESTION: Did he make any changes? Did he just basically sign off on what Rumsfeld sent over?

FLEISCHER: I'll let that all get briefed out when DOD makes this announcement.

FLEISCHER: Did you have a question on...

QUESTION: I have a question on?

FLEISCHER: Anything.

(LAUGHTER)

Are you stumped?

QUESTION: You know, some of us need to ask questions and others already have the information. Today, I already do.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: Very, very impressive.

QUESTION: Ari, that's we say when we know we're not getting on the air. (LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: The Fed yesterday said the economy appears to be expanding significantly. The president yesterday was not nearly so optimistic. And I'm wondering, first, is he looking at a different set of economic data or is he concerned that, though the economy may recover, there will not be sufficient job production to go along with it?

And along that, Arthur Andersen may lose 85,000 jobs, as a result of not only the indictment (OFF-MIKE). Is the president specifically concerned about Arthur Andersen's legal problems and the job problems that may result in that?

FLEISCHER: One, on the first question, which is a very, very fundamental and crucial issue that gets to the core of what our economy is about and the actions the president has taken through the bipartisan tax cut to help bring the economy back to life, you're going to see a continuing wave of statistics over the next many months, that are good indications about the health of the economy.

And increasingly, there are good signs about the strength of the recovery and the good timing of the tax cut last fall that's aided, in most economists' judgment, in creating this economic recovery.

From the president's point of view, he continues to be worried. We have unemployment at approximately 5.5 percent. In the Pacific Northwest, unemployment is even higher. Oregon, Washington state, has some of the highest unemployment in the nation.

And the president continues to be worried about the plight of people who have either lost their jobs or still work in industries where they may lose their jobs.

And so, the president is heartened to see some of the statistics coming back, but that won't change his focus from policies like he announced yesterday, with small business owners -- women small business owners -- that would help them to grow, prosper, create even more jobs.

So the president wants to make sure that we have a job-full recovery, not a jobless recovery. And I think that's what you'll continue to hear from the president, and he'll leave it to the experts to analyze statistics and make judgments about GDP, things of nature, but the president's focus will be a very human one.

On the question of Arthur Andersen, I'm not going to speculate about the future of any company. Obviously, jobs are created in reaction to the amount of work that is needed to be done. And so, we have a dynamic flowing economy, and there is a lot of demand for work.

QUESTION: Ari, I understand this morning you said categorically the president would not make an announcement about a consolidation between Customs, Border Patrol and Immigration. But is that still a measure under consideration within the various... FLEISCHER: Only yesterday the president received the recommendation from Governor Ridge about potential consolidation of the agencies to protect the borders. So it's just been received.

Yesterday, I indicated to everybody I would not make any conclusions or rush to any judgments, that it may come as soon as tomorrow. Today, I can affirmatively say to you that it will not come tomorrow.

QUESTION: But is it one of the options being considered? One of the proposals...

FLEISCHER: What the governor recommended to him?

QUESTION: Yes.

FLEISCHER: Of course it's being considered by the president. It was a recommendation; the president received it. And the president has not indicated what his decision is.

QUESTION: And can I ask you something on another subject? Vice President Cheney has gotten an agreement, I think, with Turkey, that Turkey will be leading a multinational force for peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan. Is that something the White House has been pursuing?

FLEISCHER: I think this has been long known. There was a -- Great Britain was the original lead nation in the peacekeeping force, followed by Turkey.

QUESTION: On the subject of the consolidation, does the president want to complete the bifurcation, if you will, of the INS before he completes the consolidation? He wants to separate enforcement from paperwork before he wraps it all in with Border Patrol and Customs?

FLEISCHER: No, I just think it's a question that the president received it yesterday and, you know, I understand everybody is on a trip tomorrow, in Aspen tomorrow, but nobody in the White House had indicated that was going to be the case. And now it's just...

QUESTION: No, I'm not saying tomorrow; I'm just saying, in general, does he want to complete the split of the INS into paperwork- enforcement before he takes the enforcement side and puts it in with Border and Customs?

FLEISCHER: Not necessarily, not necessarily.

QUESTION: So -- I'm sorry -- would he split that off later, after the consolidation had already been accomplished?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to be able to take the second part of your question, because the president has not made a decision on that recommendation.

So, the president is committed to following through on what he proposed and what the attorney general announced, which is to create a more efficient Immigration and Naturalization Service by splitting it in two.

That is something the president believes and had proposed because he believes it will help properly split up INS's responsibilities so one part of the INS focuses on our immigration, helping people come here legally, the paperwork part of it; the second part focuses on enforcement.

QUESTION: On the foreign aid increase, to pick up from this morning, if it was a miscommunication by the White House and Treasury, why did it take you five days to tell us that? I mean, after the president made his speech on Thursday?

FLEISCHER: Yesterday afternoon, the information came to light, and we very quickly let people know that there was confusion about the way the original announcement was interpreted. And I think it's one of these classic cases where, you know, welcome to the world of budgets and budget baselines and $5 million over three years can get interpreted in different ways.

QUESTION: The stories reported that very clearly the next day, saying it was a 15 percent increase each year over three years.

QUESTION: I mean it was all out there in print.

FLEISCHER: Actually I haven't seen stories that said 15 percent increase each year over three years.

QUESTION: The New York Times actually.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: 15 percent in the first year.

QUESTION: No, I know what I wrote.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: I know what I read.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: And also the Washington Post had...

FLEISCHER: They had the $5 billion figure which was an accurate portrayal of what the president said.

QUESTION: This had nothing to do with the criticism in Monterrey about what many development experts perceive as inadequate...

FLEISCHER: No, I think this -- I've heard this line of thought before that the administration announced a proposal and this line of thought, which just doesn't hold water, is that -- criticize the administration proposed more.

Keep in mind how much criticism the administration has had on other issues internationally, and this administration, when it announces something, sticks to it. When the president says, "This is the right policy," that is the policy that is pursued.

Global warming for example, there has been criticism internationally of the president's position on global warming. Did that lead to a change? No. The president stands on the merits behind what he proposes. Same thing here.

This was a proposal that was clear from the beginning, but was, I think, not portrayed as accurately as it should have been when it was announced last week. I've acknowledged that publicly. I've acknowledged that privately.

Thank you for bringing it up publicly.

I don't think it was handled as well as it should be in terms of its initial portrayal from the White House. It led to a confusing set of statistics and dollar amounts that is the very nature of budgets and budget baselines. And it can be a confusing topic. Any time somebody has some confusion, we do our best to explain it, which is what happened yesterday.

QUESTION: Is the administration now looking for some middle ground on Ridge's briefings to members of Congress? Specifically, has the White House offered to have him -- if you don't want to use the word testify, tell me what word you would use -- talk to members of the Senate behind closed doors?

FLEISCHER: The administration will continue to make all its Cabinet members and others available to answer questions from the Congress on a regular basis.

In fact, this is how much consultation this administration has done: The president himself has met with members of Congress on 124 separate occasions in separate meetings, especially given the fact that Congress has been in session only 166 days since the president took office, the president has met with members of Congress almost every day that Congress has been in session.

Governor Ridge himself has met with members of Congress 33 times in 33 separate types of meetings since he became a member of the president's staff on October 8, just a few months ago. And that doesn't include all the meetings that Governor Ridge has attended with members of Congress down here at the White House, alongside the president. So, Congress has had a lot of meetings with both the president, with Governor Ridge, and with other officials.

And the administration will continue to provide that type of assess. We have offered Congress an opportunity -- for all 100 senators -- to meet with Governor Ridge.

What the president feels very strongly about that will not change is Congress' attempt to compel testimony in a dramatic break from the longstanding traditions that Congress has previously upheld vis-a-vis the executive branch.

I think what you really have here is a classic executive- legislative struggle over information. While the information is flowing and flowing freely from the executive to the legislature, sometimes it's never enough for a legislature. I don't know how the president could have any more meetings with Congress.

QUESTION: Well, their question then -- this particular instance -- isn't about the president, and they only started talking about compelling testimony when the White House refused to send him up. The question that members of...

FLEISCHER: He's met many times.

QUESTION: Yes, in briefings.

FLEISCHER: Right.

QUESTION: Their question, both Republicans and Democrats, seems to be that, he comes up and talks to them or talks to the caucuses, but that they don't have an opportunity to ask him questions in the detail that they want to. So is this offer you're now making an effort to meet...

FLEISCHER: Anybody who has attended those private caucuses and the meetings in members' offices knows that members of Congress don't sit there very long to hear speeches. They ask a lot of questions, and that's their prerogative, and that's what they should do, and that's my point.

Governor Ridge has answered all the questions that have been put to him in multiple sessions, in multiple forms and 33 different times and different meetings. The president has done the same thing.

Congress is asking for us to go beyond what they've historically and traditionally received, and that's the surprising development, that Congress would push for something that they have never pushed for before, particularly when they've been given so much assess by the president and Governor Ridge.

QUESTION: So what is it you're offering to do now?

FLEISCHER: Governor Ridge was prepared to go up and meet with all 100 senators, the Senate leadership declined.

QUESTION: Because he wanted to do it in private and in secret, is that why?

FLEISCHER: He was offering to meet in a session outside of a committee's sworn testimony.

QUESTION: Explain to us what the difference is between testifying and going up and meeting with all 100 senators in closed session, I gather?

FLEISCHER: Well, testimony is reserved for Cabinet secretaries -- for operational officers of the United States Government to go up before the multitude of committees that Congress has to explain their budgets, to explain their operational programs. That's what Cabinet secretaries' responsibility is under the Constitution and under good government to do for the Congress.

Presidential aides, presidential advisers are in a different capacity and in a different context. They talk to members of Congress all the time, often on the phone with members of Congress, but it is not their job to go up in sworn testimony as it is the job of Cabinet officials.

So the information is flowing, the information is flowing freely. It's just that Congress, as congresses do, always want more.

QUESTION: So he can go talk to them, he just wouldn't be a sworn witness in the same way that a Cabinet secretary would.

FLEISCHER: Testimonies for a congressional committee is not the purview of the homeland security adviser, the national security adviser, the counsel to the president, chief of staff to the president. They're White House staff; they, traditionally, have not been asked to go up and testify. This is a dramatic break with the way Congress usually does its business.

QUESTION: Campaign finance is getting ready to pass the Senate. Will the president sign this piece of legislative bill?

FLEISCHER: When and if it passes the Senate, and I anticipate that it will, you'll have a written statement by the president answering that question.

QUESTION: Does the White House have an assessment on the ties before Al Qaeda and Iraq? And also, how much support will the White House give for the Iraqi opposition Congress meeting here in Washington?

FLEISCHER: I think Director Tenet answered that question yesterday in his testimony up on Capitol Hill regarding ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq; I don't have anything to add, beyond what he said.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) opposition leaders?

FLEISCHER: I don't have the financial figure in front of me, but that is the law of the land to provide assistance for the Iraqi opposition. And the United States will continue to comply with that law.

QUESTION: Will there be White House meetings with them or White House officials, actually, participating?

FLEISCHER: I'd have to check with the NSC or the other appropriate parties. There's nothing on the president's calendar, but I'd have to check with the appropriate parties.

QUESTION: Ari, where is the oversight over the expenditures of the homeland security director?

FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, the homeland security director does not have expenditures other than his immediate office here in the White House, just like any other aide to the president has funds to oversee his immediate staff.

The people who have operational oversight and who have actual money in the billions to spend are the attorney general, is FEMA, the government agencies that have the operational responsibility for homeland security. Attorney General's Office, the various border agencies, all those are the entities that are tied into homeland security.

It's kind of like asking if Dr. Rice controls the defense budget. She doesn't. Defense does and that's why Defense testifies on the Hill. Same thing with Governor Ridge.

QUESTION: But Governor Ridge is building up quite a team, if you will -- more than 100 people working for...

FLEISCHER: The budget that he controls is his staff, and that's in excess of, I think, just somewhat over 100 people, many of whom have been detailed to Homeland Security. Same structure setup as the national security adviser, who also has some more than 100 people, I believe -- or approximately 100 people on the staff of the NSA. There's really no structural difference.

QUESTION: So you see no role for congressional oversight of what he does, all the many things he does?

FLEISCHER: Well, this is congressional oversight and that oversight extends to the areas of homeland security, and that's why the attorney general is up testifying, that's why all the heads of the agencies are up testifying.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) attorney general, I was asking about Tom Ridge. No congressional oversight over him directly?

FLEISCHER: The oversight over any presidential adviser who was not confirmed by the Senate is by the president of the United States.

Now, it is Congress' right to ask questions and to get information, and that is provided. But it comes in a different form. And this will be ongoing.

But there is a major difference between an operational Cabinet officer who is confirmed by the Senate and has an obligation to go testify to the Senate or to the House, and a presidential aide, an adviser, who does not have operational control over any budgets except for their own staff budget.

And in that case, the Congress clearly has oversight over the budget of the White House itself, and that's exercised through the operations of the White House Executive Office of the President, who speaks for all the financial matters of the White House that are funded by the Congress.

QUESTION: You referred to sworn testimony...

FLEISCHER: No, I said "testimony." I didn't say "sworn," because not all committees require you to be sworn. The point is the same though, testifying before a Congress. I didn't say "sworn." Some committees swear you in and some committee don't. That's not the issue; it's testimony.

QUESTION: But, Ari, you've all but indicated that he does have operational control of these budgets, because the White House has repeatedly said that the president would basically follow Ridge's suggestions on spending for homeland security.

QUESTION: So doesn't that give Ridge a unique obligation to go to the Hill and explain spending decisions, since the White House itself has emphasized that he has some de facto control over them?

FLEISCHER: It gives him no different authority or no different advisory capacity than Dr. Rice does who also talks about what the appropriate level of funding should be for the agencies that she advises the president on: State, DOD, CIA.

Governor Ridge does play that advisory role for the president in helping these agencies to set the budgets, but he is not the operational person in charge of those budgets. As I indicated, there are many others who do, and those are the people who properly do testify up on Capitol Hill.

But make no mistake again, Governor Ridge is up on the Hill answering these questions often. This is only a matter of what exact setting, what exact room does Congress want Governor Ridge to answer the questions he's answering. He's answering the questions plenty. Congress just want to put him in a different room to answer the same questions all over again.

QUESTION: Well, the room that you want to put him with 100 senators, would it be closed to the public or open?

FLEISCHER: I think that's something we could figure out with the Congress.

QUESTION: You wouldn't mind him talking to Congress in front of the...

FLEISCHER: Well, the governor's taking questions all the time from the press and has events in different settings. So I don't know that that's a specific issue.

QUESTION: What was the offer, to have him come before Congress -- or all 100 members of the Senate in public or in private?

FLEISCHER: It was to meet with all 100 senators. I don't have all the details about it. And it was declined, so I don't even have the details beyond that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the White House wouldn't have a problem with him talking to Congress, or 100 senators in public?

FLEISCHER: We've been always willing to work out with the Congress various means of having Governor Ridge talk to them. But the president has drawn a strong line about testimony. It's not appropriate for somebody who is an adviser to the president.

QUESTION: Published reports shows a clear link between the Al Qaeda and Iraqi Kurds loyal to Saddam Hussein. Since the president has declared a worldwide war on terror, will the U.S. now invade Iraq and go after Saddam Hussein?

FLEISCHER: I think the president has answered that question in multiple ways multiple times, and that he has not made any decisions about that phase in the war on terror.

QUESTION: You criticized Conrad's budget this morning as, effectively, a tax increase. As I understand it, it assumes that the current -- last year's tax cut expires in 2011, which is when the president assumed it would expire. So how is Conrad's proposal a tax increase?

FLEISCHER: The president's budget that he submitted to the Hill did not assume that it expired. It called for it to be extended. The budget that the Senate leadership under Senator Daschle and Senator Conrad are considering at the moment would terminate the president's tax cuts, the bipartisan tax cuts.

In other words, if you're a married couple, it would reimpose a marriage penalty on you. If you have children, it would diminish your child credit that you've already been promised. It would reimpose the death tax on people. If you're in the 10 percent bracket, it would increase your bracket to 15 percent, beginning in those late years.

And the Daschle budget also freezes defense spending, beginning in 2005. And it uses Social Security and Medicare trust fund money until at least 2008; despite the criticism those Senate leaders made against the president on the very same charge, they do it themselves.

QUESTION: On the cover of Fortune magazine, there's an article this week called, "It's Time to Stop Coddling the White-Collar Crooks: Send Them to Jail." In a nutshell, the argument is that corporate and white-collar criminals inflict more damage on society than all street crime combined. Does the president agree with that analysis?

FLEISCHER: I don't know if the president has seen this story and so I'm not going to comment on that.

QUESTION: The Treasury Department enforces Trading With The Enemy Act law against -- they settled hundreds of cases over the last couple of years against companies big and small and yet they don't publicize it, unlike the Bureau of Export Administration, which puts those settlements up on their web site. Why does the president allow this to happen for the Treasury Department to make these secret settlements with big companies that are trading with Iraq and Iran and so forth?

FLEISCHER: I think you need to ask Treasury that question. It's the first I've heard of the program or even the question, so you may want to check with Treasury. They don't get all their marching orders from the White House. HEMMER: We are going to break away from the White House daily briefing with Ari Fleischer. Quite a few things there on the plate at the White House, starting off with North Korea. Clearly, the White House showing public concerns about the potential for a nuclear program still being developed in Pyongyang.

Also questions about Tom Ridge, Homeland Security director. There are a number of Democrats in Congress who want Tom Ridge to come to Capitol Hill and testify publicly. The White House says Tom Ridge would do it, meet with 100 senators, but apparently, the question, according to the White House anyway, is an issue of setting.

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