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White House Press Briefing

Aired December 13, 2002 - 12:22   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A wide range of issues coming up at the White House briefing. Ari Fleischer answering reporters's questions right now.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that the president does not tell members of Congress how to conduct their affairs in terms of whether they desire or want to do news conferences, et cetera.

I think you see those are judgments that are made by the individual members of Congress. And Senator Lott, of course, will, just as you indicated, have something to say this afternoon.

QUESTION: Does the president believe it's a good idea?

FLEISCHER: Those are judgments that others make. The president does not sit in judgment of whether or not people need to have news conferences or not.

The president believes it's important to speak to the country about the issues of race relations and improving race relations and the important advancements that our country has made in civil rights. That's what the president focuses on.

QUESTION: Two questions. Why did the president wait four days after the senator's first apology and almost a week after the remarks to voice his opinion?

And now that the administration has turned over its preliminary assessment of the Iraq declaration to the U.N., can you share with the public what the preliminary assessment is?

FLEISCHER: On your first question, the president thought it would be highly appropriate, given the context of yesterday's address about how to help Americans come together as one community, when he went to Philadelphia and spoke about his faith-based initiative, the president thought that was the appropriate place to share with the nation his thoughts about improving racial relations in the United States. He was very proud to have done so.

On your second question, on the declaration, the president is continuing to review the declaration and he looks forward to have something to indicate about our summary of the declaration as a government in totality as that is developed. He will have something to say on it, but I think -- he will await when he has more information he can have something to say in its totality, but that time has not yet come.

QUESTION: Ari, U.N. officials, diplomats who have gone over the declaration, again a preliminary assessment; are saying that there are some pretty glaring omissions. Do you read this as more game playing, more deception by Iraq? And if so, how long does the administration intend to let it go on?

FLEISCHER: Well, we've always said that we want to carefully review the document in terms of reviewing not only what is in it, but what is not in it. That review is still going on. And I think that, given the president's desire to have this in totality and to address this in a more comprehensive way and in a very thoughtful and deliberative way, I don't think it'd be appropriate for me to comment on these preliminary reports that you are hearing from others, including the United Nations.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Iraq, whether -- the situation at least appears to be in a semi-holding pattern, as you said, take the time necessary to go through the declaration in its totality. Whereas, North Korea, and I know you've said before these are different situations, but here you have what appears to be a crisis that may be accelerating. So why then is the administration not taking a more aggressive approach toward dealing with that crisis?

FLEISCHER: Well, the United States is taking a very firm approach in dealing with the situation on the Korean Peninsula. And just like we did in the United Nations vis-a-vis Iraq, we are doing so in concert with our allies and the international community involved in Korea -- or North Korea, specifically.

We are working very diligently and effectively with Russia, with China, with South Korea and with Japan, as we focus multilaterally on the problems of North Korea pursuing a unilateralist course that is a course that gives us concern.

We believe that North Korea's recent actions in requesting that the International Atomic Energy Administration remove the cameras and seals that have put in place by the international community to keep an eye on some of North Korea's programs are a serious matter. And we hope that North Korea will reconsider their request to the international community to remove this equipment.

But I want to reiterate that we will continue to work with the international community to seek a peaceful resolution to the situation in North Korea. And this is a situation that North Korea has created by pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

QUESTION: But it's the administration's only view -- I mean, you have not only that, but you have wanting to restart nuclear power plants, the announcement that they were pursuing a nuclear program, and all the administration is saying is, "This is a serious problem." How does it not compare to what's going on in Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Because the situation in Iraq involves somebody who has used force in the past to attack and invade his neighbors. That is not the history of North Korea for the last 50 years. And so, it's not exactly analogous. The world is not -- cannot just be treated as a photocopy machine: the policies in one part of the world need to be identically copied through another. It's a much more complicated endeavor than that.

And so, the president will continue to work in concert with our allies. And the fact of the matter is diplomacy -- often the best diplomacy takes time. And that is something the president will continue to pursue.

QUESTION: I have two questions, one a follow. Given that the world does seem to be speaking out, saying there are holes in this report, you say you need to complete your own review, but is this speeding up the time frame, do you think, in which the U.S. will respond? Or are they taking this long to perhaps act now while others are saying there's a lot of holes here in this document?

Second of all, Senator Lott said in his comments today that he spoke to the president yesterday. What can you tell us about that conversation?

FLEISCHER: On your first question, because this is such a serious matter and because the content of what Iraq says in this declaration and what they don't say in this declaration has important implications for war and peace, the United States will take as much time as is necessary to do it right. And we will continue to be deliberative and to be thoughtful as we review this document.

And the president will, as I indicated, at the appropriate time in his judgment, share with the United States and people of the world what he thinks about Iraq's declaration.

But because of the importance of this, the president will wait. And while others are free to speak out as they see fit and to give preliminary judgments, the president looks forward to at the appropriate time giving a more comprehensive judgment based on all of the information, not just the preliminary information.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the quicker you can get moving on a winter time frame, if indeed the U.S. decides to act, isn't it better to get going rather than to (inaudible)?

FLEISCHER: The president is going to be guided by a time line that allows for the greatest deliberation and the greatest thought.

That's the guideline that will direct the president.


QUESTION: ... Senator Lott's -- the phone call between the president...

FLEISCHER: Yes. Senator Lott called President Bush yesterday when the president returned to Washington and said to the president basically the message that Senator Lott released publicly, that he agreed with the statements that the president made in Philadelphia yesterday. QUESTION: How concerned is the president that a drawn-out controversy over Senator Lott's comments is going to hurt the Republican Party politically and distract attention from the president's agenda?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president looks at this issue as an issue that involves the importance of speaking to the country about race and the improvements that America has made when it comes to race relations. And as the president said yesterday, any suggestion that segregation in the past was acceptable or positive is offensive. And he said that Senator Lott has rightfully apologized for that.

So the president thinks it's important in his job as the president to lift up the country and focus America's eyes on the great challenges we face as a country in dealing with race and to speak clearly and call the remarks that were made offensive because that's what the president, in his heart, judges them to be and then to call our nation up, to remind ourselves of the ideals that we were founded under.

That's the president's focus on this. The president is going to continue, and I think you will see Republicans everywhere, and I hope both parties continue their efforts to solve Americans problems on all issues, not only race, but on the economy and on creating jobs and helping the American people on foreign policy and all those matters.

And the president, obviously, is full speed ahead. He's making an announcement today, for example, on another important issue.

QUESTION: Two questions: One, I've been covering a week-long trial in Alexandria, the U.S. District Court, one of the largest occasions (ph) of fraud in the U.S. history. This man, a lawyer from Arlington, was found guilty on all (inaudible) accounts. But the question is, he has left man, woman, children, thousands of them, nowhere, on the street, and they have no future. So what the president is going to do, something, to help these aliens that they have not been at fault, and what is the future of I-245 (ph)?

FLEISCHER: And what justice is this and which aliens?

QUESTION: This is (inaudible) in Arlington, that conspiracy and fraud and labor (inaudible) and INS fraud.

FLEISCHER: That has not crossed my radar screen here at the White House. If it's something dealing with specific matters pending before the INS, you may want to check with them about it.

QUESTION: And my second question, North Korea and Pakistan dealings considered now known to the world, and before they both denied that they have been pursuing these nuclear weapons and all this deal, including General Musharraf made a statement and promised to the U.S. and the world and to Secretary Powell that his country has not (inaudible) not a connection with the nuclear program in North Korea.

So who will be punished in this deal, because it said -- there's a U.S. law, if a country helps another country to pursue nuclear weapons, then there were economic or military sanctions?

FLEISCHER: If your question was about Pakistan, this issue, you and I have talked about many times before, and the answer remains the same. Secretary Powell has spoken out about this matter and has received word that there will be no future acceptance of programs and missiles of this nature.

So you've heard this from the secretary before.

QUESTION: Ari, the third country that the president would put in the axis of evil was also in the news again when it comes to its nuclear program, a newly, publicly available satellite photo showing facilities in two cities, (inaudible), if I have their pronunciations right.

What is the administration's assessment of those facilities and what specifically they're being used for? Are they peaceful energy facilities as Iran says, or does the United States believe they are part of a nuclear weapons program?

And more broadly, any sense of "told you so" here at the White House to those who scorned the president's use of that term, axis of evil?

FLEISCHER: We have serious concerns about this. The United States has long stressed that our serious concern with Iran nuclear weapons program, and with its across-the-board pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile capabilities.

The recent disclosure about secure nuclear facilities in Iran reinforces the concerns that the president has had all along. The suspect uranium enrichment plant could be used to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons. The heavy water plant could support a reactor for producing weapons grade plutonium. And such facilities are simply not justified by the needs that Iran has for their civilian nuclear program.

Our assessment when we look at Iran is that there is no economic gain for a country rich in oil and gas like Iran to build costly indigenous nuclear fuel cycle facilities. Iran flares off more gas every year than the equivalent power it hopes to produce with these reactors.

So it is an issue that we have highlighted, that the president has brought world attention to before, and we do continue to have grave concerns about it. It's another reason why it's important to be vigilant in our efforts to fight proliferation of this nature.

QUESTION: I had a question to those who mocked the president when he used the term axis of evil.

FLEISCHER: The reason the president, in his State of the Union in references to Iraq, to Iran and North Korea, cited then for being part of what he has accurately called the axis of evil is because of their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that the president believes that we would be better off if these three nations did not possess.

QUESTION: But he said the president doesn't like to tell individual members of Congress whether to hold a press conference or not. Senator Lott is the leader of the president's party in the Senate, in line to be the majority leader and the chief shepherd of the president's agenda in the United States Senate in the two-year run-up to the president's own reelection. Does he believe the senator needs to pass some test today in his public comments to be an appropriate spokesman for the party, not just an individual member of Congress, but a spokesman for the party and the president's pointman in the United States Senate?

FLEISCHER: I think the president passed out his judgment yesterday when the president made his remarks and made them as emphatically as he did.

QUESTION: Two things...

BLITZER: All right. The White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, answering a series of questions most recently from our own senior White House correspondent, John King, not only on the future of Trent Lott, the president, of course, speaking out on that issue yesterday, but also the nuclear programs going on in North Korea, Iran, certainly concern expressed not only about those, but about Iraq as well, the so-called "axis of evil" that the president spoke about earlier in the year.


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