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White House Press Briefing

Aired January 14, 2003 - 10:42   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And we uproot that segment there to take you down to the White House. Ari Fleischer beginning the press press briefing this morning.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: So what I'd like to do is give you a combination, gaggle/briefing, so I'll get into some lengths on the president's schedule today. A couple of personnel announcements I typically do in the gaggle and then we'll happily take your questions, as usual.

The president began this morning with his intelligence briefing, followed by a FBI briefing. He will meet shortly with the president of Poland in the Oval Office, to be followed by a lunch with the president of Poland. I anticipate that the topics of conversation will include the strength and the importance of the warm bilateral relationships that we share with Poland, and there will be some discussion of trade, NATO expansion, as well as discussions of the ongoing efforts in the war against terror.

Later this afternoon in the East Room there will be a pool event at the top in the Oval. In the East Room the president will make remarks to welfare-to-work graduates. The president will congratulate the welfare-to-work graduates on their success, highlight the importance of work and family, and then announce his support for bipartisan congressional action on a welfare reform package that the president will announce today.

Fact sheets will be available to you to walk you through the specifics of what the president is proposing.

And I want to describe to you two of the women that the president is going to meet with today who are real success stories when it comes to helping people make it in America, who were previously on welfare.

Pamela (ph) Hedrick, H-E-D-R-I-C-K, will join the president. She was on public assistance for eight years when she lived in Columbus, Ohio's notorious public housing development, the Greenbriar Apartments complex, which was often there referred to as Oozi (ph) Alley. She is a single mother on welfare. She was determined to help clean up her community and she organized a neighborhood block watch. She volunteered at the Greenbriar in Richmond (ph) Center, a faith-based program started in the public housing development where she lived, and she helped to organize a woman's support group.

The program offered training and volunteer work opportunities around the city. And she volunteered at the United Way and was also hired as a receptionist there.

She eventually was hired by Ohio's first lady, Hope Taft, and has been working as an assistant in her office for the past two years.

She participated in the Habitat for Humanity Program and earned enough money to purchase a house, where she lives in with her husband, Marshak (ph) Jackson, and their two children, Dante (ph) and Darius (ph). She attends the Columbus Community College with a major in political science, and she hopes one day to run for elective office.

Another person that the president is going to be greeting as a sign of a welfare success is Laurie Wilson (ph), who grew up in a household that received welfare, and as a teenage mother she became welfare dependent following high school graduation.

She tried several times to find work and was hired in 1989 by Cellular One. She had to leave her job and enroll in TANF to take care of health care needs of her children, and then she later found a new job at a private sector company but was laid off when the factory she worked at shut down.

She turned to a community center in Indianapolis, where she received counseling and access to training and resources that helped improve her employability, and she eventually found a part-time job with a private company.

And then through the job training program she currently obtained a job as an office manager and has been working now full-time for a private sector company. She's used her success and her funds to purchase a home and her vehicle, and she's very proud and she will report to the president that her two students are A students.

And the reason I go through this at great length is because this is to the president the essence of what welfare reform is all about. It is not just a program involving government numbers and federal spending; it's how to improve the lives of some of our neediest fellow citizens. And it's something the president cares deeply about, and the president will look forward to being with these two people this afternoon.

Personnel announcements, and then I'll be happy to take your questions.

Susan Neely, currently the communications director for the White House Office of Homeland Security, has been named assistant secretary for public affairs for the Department of Homeland Security. Gordon Johndroe, who I know is familiar to many of you, will be joining the new Department of Homeland Security as press secretary.

And then some internal press housekeeping information for you. Rachel Sunberger (ph) will move to the Department of Homeland Security as assistant press secretary and she will be replaced here at the White House by Liz Donan (ph), who many of you know has been an intern here in the press office, who will come on board at the White House and work in our lower press office. So congratulations to the people who are moving on from our press office, though I suspect they won't be far, and congratulations to the new people.

The gaggle is now over. This now can be an on-camera briefing.

QUESTION: What can you tell us about the diplomatic efforts going on with North Korea? The Russians and the Chinese, apparently envoys are going to be acting in some fashion as an intermediary here?

FLEISCHER: Well, we welcome this step. We think it's appropriate for these officials to talk.

And we believe that the message that will be given has been very unified as far as our approach to North Korea. The world has condemned North Korea's actions in stepping out of its international obligations, and we anticipate that North Korea will hear that message.

QUESTION: Are we asking them to pass on any specific messages or offers?

FLEISCHER: There's nothing that's been brought to my attention. I think that they, in their own rights, are going to express their thoughts about the situation. You've heard many of them yourself when it comes to -- North Korea has put itself in a situation increasingly isolating itself from the world, from Russia, from China, from South Korea, from Japan.

QUESTION: Is it a step toward a solution?

FLEISCHER: That's up to North Korea. We'll find out. We hope so.

QUESTION: Any reaction to Blix's comments that he regards the January 27 report as simply another interim report and that it will take him well into March to finish the inspections or to proceed to a point where he can make a so-called comprehensive report? Does this delay the timetable?

FLEISCHER: From the beginning, the president has made very clear that the burden is on Saddam Hussein to comply and to disarm. Nothing has changed that. The burden remains with Saddam Hussein.

The issue is not how long the inspections will last. The issue is whether Saddam Hussein this time is finally willing to disarm.

He's been given a final chance to disarm, and, regrettably, we have seen no evidence that he has made the strategic choice to disarm and come into compliance with the United Nations.

We first saw this in the Iraqi declaration, which the world agreed was inadequate. And Saddam has not complied, and therefore time is running out.

QUESTION: So that means that you'll wait until the inspectors have finished their work?

FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated yesterday, the president has not put any specific date on how long he thinks the inspectors will do their job. But as I've made plain today, and as the president has said repeatedly, Saddam Hussein is not disarming, and therefore time is running out.

QUESTION: Well, what do you mean by time is running out? How long can you let 200,000 U.S. troops sit in the sand?

FLEISCHER: The question is: How long will it take for Saddam Hussein to come clean and to prove to the world that he's disarming?

QUESTION: Why do you go so far out of your way to say that the burden is not on the inspectors? I mean, does the president think that the inspectors are doing any good?

Does he care what they say or what they conclude or does he simply believe either Saddam Hussein puts up or shuts up and the U.S. gets ready to go to war?

FLEISCHER: Well, of course the president thinks that they're doing good, and that's why he wanted them to go there. But the fact of the matter is, if Saddam Hussein is hiding his weapons from them, it makes it very hard for them to fulfill their mission.

And this is why the inspectors will be the first to tell you: If Iraq fails to cooperate it makes their mission very, very difficult to prove whether Saddam Hussein does or does not have the so-called smoking gun, because smoking guns, as we know, can be hidden.

QUESTION: Well, then what is the United States doing specifically to help them do a good job? What's the evidence of that good job that they're doing? And what specifically is Saddam Hussein holding out on?

FLEISCHER: Well, the question is, Saddam Hussein had a history of failing to cooperate with the inspectors. He has the ability and the means to hide the weapons that he has developed and that he is developing.

I think the declaration that he made is proof positive that he has withheld information about his weapons-of-mass-destruction program; programs that these previous inspectors said were there when they were forced out of the country in 1998. And now, Saddam Hussein still has failed to account for the weapons that's there. And these are statements that come from Hans Blix and Dr. ElBaradei about what is the gaps that are in the declaration.

QUESTION: What are we giving them? What help are we giving them if we know about all this?

FLEISCHER: Well, as Dr. Blix said yesterday, that he's satisfied with the help that he has been getting from the United States government.

QUESTION: Dr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei are the experts there. That's why they're there. They're the experts.

They say they need months to get that proof positive, to get the answer to the question. Why does the president think he knows better?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has made plain that the burden does not fall on the inspectors. The burden falls on Saddam Hussein to comply with the inspectors. And that's the judgment of the president, having judged Iraq's past behavior, their ability to fool the inspectors, to deceive the inspectors, to hide things from the inspectors, and Saddam Hussein's motives moving forward, in terms of whether he has indeed changed and is this time cooperating. The president's seen no proof that this time he is complying and willing to disarm.

QUESTION: But the inspectors aren't saying they're being fooled, they're being duped. Does the president think that he knows better than they do as to how effective their work can be?

FLEISCHER: I think the inspectors have raised a number of concerns that they have. And they have said they don't believe they're getting full cooperation and compliance from Saddam Hussein. They have found problems that they have cited.

And the president is content to let them continue in their work, of course. And the president is looking forward to the January 27 date. He believes that will be an important date.

And as I said yesterday, the president hasn't put a specific date on when he believes the inspections will come to some type of conclusion or not. But the president's message is clear to Saddam Hussein that he needs to comply.

QUESTION: It's not up to the inspectors to judge how effective their own work is and can be, it's up to the president to say if their work is over?

FLEISCHER: No, I think it's something that we're going to continue to work together on.

QUESTION: It seems like you've already decided. Everything you say makes it suggest you've already decided that the answer is that they haven't cooperated.

FLEISCHER: They haven't cooperated.

QUESTION: If the North Koreans agree to talk about drawing back their nuclear program, will the agreed framework still be on the table, including the completion of the two nuclear reactors that the United States, Japan and South Korea promised to build.

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's impossible to speculate about what may be the result, but the fact is it begins with North Korea dismantling its programs.

I think nobody in the world wants to repeat the pattern where North Korea has the ability to put the world through blackmail once again. And the most effective way to maintain a denuclearized Korean peninsula is by North Korea moving forward on that which they promised the world, which is that they would not have developed weapons of mass destruction or nuclear weapons and that now, having seen their patterns of behavior, it's important for them to dismantle the programs that they have so the world doesn't have to go through this again.

QUESTION: So you haven't already decided to scrap the 1994 agreed framework and negotiate another agreement?

FLEISCHER: Well, the 1994 agreed framework has been nullified as a result of North Korea's actions. As Secretary Powell made clear in an interview yesterday, it's a question of some type of new arrangement that would replace that.

QUESTION: Has the president now decided to file an amicus brief in the Michigan affirmative action case?

FLEISCHER: The matter remains under review. The deadline is still Thursday, and it's something the president has continued to focus on. He focused on it again yesterday. He'll likely focus on it some more. And it remains a question under review.

QUESTION: Has he instructed the Justice Department to draft a brief that he is considering?

FLEISCHER: That would be answering the question about has the president made a decision about whether there would be or would not be a brief. You're saying, does this mean the administration will definitely get involved?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) he asked them to draft one if he's considering whether to file?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I want to leave -- I think at this point the best thing is that the deadline is Thursday and this will be a matter that as the events get closer, they'll express themselves in some form or another.

QUESTION: Ari, yesterday Assistant Secretary of State Kelly said that if North Korea agrees to set aside its nuclear program in a verifiable way, there would be opportunities to discuss energy aid. Secretary Powell is quoted in that interview you just referred to as saying that it is possible down the road to discuss not a formal treaty probably, but some sort of language on a non-aggression agreement between the United States and North Korea.

Is it not fair to describe these public comments by senior diplomats of the United States government as inducements to try to get North Korea to the table?

FLEISCHER: Well, given the fact that the administration has always said that North Korea knows what it needs to do -- it needs to come back into compliance; it needs to dismantle its programs -- that's the first step in anything that has potential one way or another. That's a sine qua non, it must happen. Without that happening, nothing else will flow. And that's as a result of the actions that North Korea has taken and put itself in this position.

So I don't think these can accurately be described as any type of inducement when the statement remains identical to what you've heard for weeks. North Korea has got to put itself back into compliance.

QUESTION: But this public discussion of those possibilities now in days after senior administration officials say there will be no incentives, no concessions, no quid pro quo, is there not some inconsistency there?

FLEISCHER: I fail to see it. If North Korea does what it promised to do, then, in effect, then we'd be back at the relations with North Korea the way they were prior to them breaking their word.

The important issue here is that North Korea take that action and do so in a real way, in a verifiable way and in a way that is dismantling of the facilities. Otherwise the world can right away be in this same position again, where the world takes North Korea at its word, North Korea sees if it can get anything, and then North Korea plays this blackmail game again.

This is a road the world has traveled down before, which is a dead end road. And we have no interest in traveling back down that path.

QUESTION: Well, then, would it be fair to say there is little or no price to pay for North Korea for breaking its word if, after a period of standoff and confrontation, if it says, "Oh, never mind, we can go back to the way things were the day before."

FLEISCHER: There is a price to be paid by North Korea, and the price has been that they're only hurting their own people. It's the people of North Korea who suffer the most.

QUESTION: What's your understanding of what the Chinese and the Russians are offering in terms of mediating the dispute with North Korea? And do the talks replace the U.S. offer for technical talks at the United Nations?

FLEISCHER: The ball remains in North Korea's court when it comes to talking with the United States.

The statement that you've heard that came out saying the United States would talk to North Korea about them getting back into compliance remains. And we have not heard back from North Korea on that point.

As I indicated, we welcome any of the conversations our allies have with North Korea. And I think you have to allow the conversations to take place before you can determine anything that may be said about them. I'm not in a position to give you all the details of talks between two sovereign nations. QUESTION: It's my understanding that what the Chinese are offering is to mediate talks between Washington and Pyongyang. Is that not the case?

FLEISCHER: Well, we've already made it plain that we're not looking to negotiate. We are willing to talk to North Korea about their dismantling their programs.

QUESTION: One on Iraq and one on welfare reform. On Iraq, you say today that time is running out, but many of our allies are saying that the inspectors need more time. How is the White House going to manage that disconnect of expectations by the rest of the world...

FLEISCHER: Well, the inspectors have more time, but time is running out. This is a question of not allowing Saddam Hussein to string the world along forever. And I don't think the two are at all hard to understand or incompatible.

QUESTION: But I think that some of our allies would consider, you know, into mid-March, if that's what the inspectors feel, they need some time, that that would not be stringing along the world forever.

FLEISCHER: And I said yesterday, the president has not put a specific date on this. And the president will, of course, continue to consult and talk with our allies and friends about the situation in Iraq, as he regularly does. But it's fair to say that, just like I said, time is running out.

QUESTION: On welfare reform, the fact sheets and the program he'll unveil today or talk about today, is it the same one that he did last summer or is there (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: The House of Representatives took action last year in passage of welfare reform. This is one of the issues that did not come up in the Senate last year. And what the president will announce today will be similar to what the House passed last year in terms of helping move people from welfare to work, strengthening the work requirements in the welfare law and encouraging other programs of giving support to welfare families.

QUESTION: So he's not going to deviate from the guidelines and priorities he outlined...

FLEISCHER: No, you'll see that on the fact sheet. It's similar to that.

QUESTION: Ari, the last couple of weeks there have been many issues of race that's hit the desk of the president. And in the midst of all these controversies, many Americans still want to know what the president's philosophy is as it relates to civil rights.

FLEISCHER: I've said this to you repeatedly. The president's philosophy when it relates to civil rights is, the president believes it's important to give people every opportunity, to be sensitive to the needs of minorities in this country and to be cognizant of the fact that all deserve an equal shot.

He wants to find a way to help people to make it in America. And the president, through a variety of his policies, has put programs forward to do just that. The education bill that the president has proposed. The economic recovery package the president has proposed. And specifically, when it comes to issues of civil rights, the election reform legislation that the president signed is one of the most effective measures of helping improve civil rights in America. Many leading black organizations have cited that legislation as an important issue on civil rights, and the president was proud to sign it.

QUESTION: Will his decision for Thursday reflect what you're saying as it relates...

FLEISCHER: We'll ultimately find out.

QUESTION: Ari, just to clarify, there's been at least one report that I've seen that says that the president has made a decision. You're clearly saying that's not true, he has not made a decision...

FLEISCHER: No, the matter, as I indicated, remains under review. And I've seen numerous reports saying the president has made contradictory decisions. If you read different accounts in different papers, you see the president has decided different things. So I think it's fair to say that people who have such reports don't have all the facts, because obviously if they did they couldn't report things that are contradictory.

QUESTION: And also to follow on something you said earlier, you said yesterday the president focused on this. Who is he working with on this matter?

FLEISCHER: Just as I indicated yesterday, he's working with White House staff and Department of Justice.

QUESTION: Before going into any war, does the president feel, as a matter of policy, that it's his obligation to tell the American people how many casualties that they should expect?

FLEISCHER: I don't know that there's any possibility of predicting how many casualties to be expected in the event the president makes a decision to go to war.

QUESTION: Shouldn't there be some type of discussion of that, though. Given that, you know, we've heard a lot about the risks of not acting, shouldn't there be some discussion of the risks of war as well?

FLEISCHER: Again, it's a hypothetical about something that hasn't happened yet, and so I don't know how I can answer that, other than to say that, as I said yesterday, in the event the president makes the determination that the best way to preserve the peace and to protect the American people is to move forward to disarm Saddam Hussein, he will of course, and at some length, discuss this with the American people at great detail. QUESTION: Ari, is the president disappointed with his former treasury secretary's public comments that he wouldn't have done the dividend tax cut? And secondly, does that make it more difficult for him to sell the tax cut because we knew that it wasn't a secret that there was this difference of opinion?

And on an unrelated matter, what does the president think about the major news organizations' decision to go to market-oriented policies for election result predictions?

FLEISCHER: Well, on the first question, it's no surprise and nothing new. It's been heard repeatedly both in public and in private. So there was nothing different here.


QUESTION: ... make it more difficult for him to sell it in the closely divided Senate...


QUESTION: ... because they can say, "Look..."


FLEISCHER: I don't think so. I think that's an opinion that the previous treasury secretary stated repeatedly, on the record and in private. So everybody was well aware of it.

On the second question, about the decision, you know, obviously the 2000 election was an election in which the previous system broke down.

From the president's point of view, these are decisions that are being made by officials in the media about how best to be accurate. And the president welcomes any focus by the media on how best to be accurate.

QUESTION: Is the president considering any kind of a speech on affirmative action? Yesterday, you talked about what an important issue it is in this case, it's risen to his attention, and has the potential to impact a lot of Americans, black and white. Is it something that's important enough for him to -- aside from any legal brief -- to speak out on to the American people?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, as I indicated, the deadline remains...

HARRIS: We are going to step away from this White House press briefing. No breakthroughs heard there just yet.


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