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White House Press Briefing

Aired January 17, 2003 - 12:24   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go over to the White House now, where the press secretary, Ari Fleischer, is answering questions.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... not -- not -- on the declared list that Iraq provided to the world indicating what weapons it said it possessed. The fact that Iraq is in possession of undeclared chemical warheads, which the United Nations says are in excellent condition, is in and of itself a serious and troubling matter.

QUESTION: Ari, how do you determine that the canisters are not in the declaration?

Did somebody go through the whole 12,000 pages...

FLEISCHER: Went back and looked through the declaration, and I think it's as easy a matter to review.

If somebody wants to make the contention that the 12 chemical warheads discovered at this facility -- late '90s constructed bunker just outside Baghdad is in the declaration, the burden is on them to show the world what page it's on and to cite the reference. The United States government has very thoroughly -- and we're familiar with the declaration -- gone through it very, very carefully to see whether or not the existence of these 12 warheads at this bunker was in the declaration. It was not.

And I think also it's fair to say that if it had been in the declaration, there's not a person in this room wouldn't have known it, because you would have remembered it because it would have been a very significant declaration that they are indeed in possession today of chemical warheads. They kept saying they were not.

QUESTION: So does this constitute the smoking gun, Ari?

FLEISCHER: I know it's troubling and it's serious, as exactly as I've characterized it.

The president is continuing to work with our allies, consulting with our allies. The inspectors' efforts remain under way. More information about this very discovery needs to be carried out, needs to be obtained. The inspectors are doing their job. And we'll see what the rest of their job entails in terms of what knowledge is gained from additional information that we are all seeking about these warheads. QUESTION: This weekend there is more anti-war demonstrations planned in various parts of the country. Is the president troubled by these manifestations of dissent?

FLEISCHER: No, I think the president welcomes the fact that we are a democracy and people in the United States, unlike Iraq, are free to protest and to make their case known. And that's a time-honored part of American tradition and the president fully understands it. It's the strength of our democracy.

QUESTION: Is he worried about going to war with a sizable percentage of the population not supporting him?

FLEISCHER: I'm not sure that it's fair to say it's sizable. I think it's anybody's guess. But there are equal numbers of people who -- larger numbers of people who, of course, are very much in support of what the president is doing. I think the fact of the matter is, most people who support what the president is doing are not going to take to the streets to say, "Disarm Saddam Hussein."

QUESTION: Ari, on affirmative action, because the administration is not asking the court to overrule the Baca (ph) decision, is the government not conceding that it is OK for race to be a factor when selecting students for college admission?

FLEISCHER: Well, what the president is saying is, he as president is setting a vision and a goal for the country, and that is that diversity on our college campuses is an important goal to achieve. He is saying the manner in which the University of Michigan, by giving students 20 points on the basis of the color of their skin and only 12 points, for example, on having a perfect SAT score, is the incorrect way to achieve the goal of diversity.

The president, as you look at his record in the state of Texas, thought that different approaches to dealing with this difficult issue about how to promote diversity on campus and to do so in a way that is race neutral. And the president is urging and is pushing through this brief and through his statement yesterday the wheels of universities in the direction of increase your diversity, to do so in a way that is race-neutral. And that's the message that the president is sending.

QUESTION: Right. But the question is, by not challenging Baca (ph), are you not conceding that it's permissible for colleges and universities to use race not as the factor, but as a factor?

FLEISCHER: Here's how the president approaches it. He believes -- in his words -- that university officials have the responsibility and obligation to make a serious, effective effort to reach out to students from all walks of life without falling back on unconstitutional quotas. Schools, in the president's opinion...

QUESTION: But that's not responsive to the question.

FLEISCHER: ... should seek diversity by considering a broad range of factors in admissions, including the student's potential and life experiences. That's how the president approaches it. QUESTION: Just one more on this. Because it's distinctly possible that the Supreme Court justices will not find that a race- neutral alternative, like what they do in Texas or in Florida, is an appropriate alternative to any sort of race-based program, they may very well ask the solicitor general, "Well, what should colleges and universities be able to do with regard to race? Can race play any factor?" How is he going to answer that question?

FLEISCHER: Well, that came up in the deliberations where the president had to decide what type of brief he wanted to file. And the president's judgment was that because he wants to promote the goal for our society, because he thinks it's in the interest of our society -- we are not after all yet a colorblind society -- to promote diversity as a goal without quotas, the president made the decision to file a narrowly tailored brief that would not test the outer edges of constitutionality. That's the matter...

QUESTION: Isn't it a political dodge not to address the heart of the matter, which is to ask what role race should play appropriately in these kinds of admissions?

FLEISCHER: The heart of the matter, in the president's opinion, is how to lift our society up and help it evolve in a way that focuses on the importance of diversity as a goal. The exact manner in which to do it, the president did not want to constitutionally proscribe one way or another except for the fact that it cannot and should not, in the president's judgment, be done through the use of quotas.

QUESTION: Secretary Rumsfeld says the president has not made a case for war. Does the president plan to make his case or such a case? And if so, when?

FLEISCHER: Well, if the president does decide that war is the only option to protect the American people in the region and the world from Saddam Hussein, who has not disarmed, the president will, of course, make a case to the American people about it. The president recognizes that our democracy does not go to war without all the issues being explored by the American people with active leadership of the president of the United States. And so, of course, if he makes that judgment, he will do so.

QUESTION: British Prime Minister Tony Blair said at a news conference earlier this week that he would not allow the United Nations to act as veto to any war if the war should come. Does the president feel the same way?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has made very plain, and he has said this in private conversations with many of our allies, that we will continue to consult, and that is precisely what we will do. We will continue to consult.

And the president appreciated very much the United Nations Security Council action in November that put the inspectors back in there. And I'm not prepared to make any guesses on speculations about what other actions may or may not be taken beyond that. QUESTION: Does the administration plan to take the chemical warheads issue to the Security Council or press it in any way before the U.N.?

FLEISCHER: I have not heard any discussion about that specifically, no.

QUESTION: So at this point you're going to wait until the 27th before the next round of discussions before the Security Council about Iraq compliance?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think what we will continue to look for is whether or not Saddam Hussein is disarming. And obviously, the discover of 12 chemical warheads is proof that he has not disarmed, especially when you consider the fact that, for the purpose of letting the world know whether he had disarmed, he filed a declaration saying that he did not have weapons.

FLEISCHER: He also filed a declaration that did not include these 12 warheads at the bunker. And now we know, of course, that he has them.

QUESTION: The wires report that Secretary Powell is telling a German paper that by the end of the month it will be proven that Iraq is not cooperating. Does the U.S. have some plan to lay out some evidence before the end of the month?

FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated, the president and members of his administration will continue to talk to the public about this matter.

There is no question Saddam Hussein is not cooperating, and I can cite for you some of the statements that were made by Dr. Blix, for example: "We feel Iraq must do more than they have done, so far, in order to make this a credible avenue. The message we want to bring to Baghdad is, the situation is very tense and very dangerous, and everybody wants to see a verified and credible disarmament of Iraq." That's when he added, "We feel Iraq must do more than they have done so far to make this a credible avenue."

I think it's fair to say that the inspectors are finding increased examples of Iraqi failure to comply.

QUESTION: Ari, the president, in the days leading up to the adoption of that resolution, spoke in very clear language. He said that this is Saddam Hussein's final chance, it had to be a full and complete and accurate accounting...


QUESTION: ... and that there would be no deceptions and no games, zero tolerance. You say in the case of these warheads he filed a declaration, they were not in there. Unless you see a complete change of heart before that January 27th deadline, is the president prepared to tell his representative at the United Nations to say, "Game over"? FLEISCHER: Number one, nobody has called that a deadline. January 27th is an important reporting date. And the president has indeed said that Iraq is entering its final phase. And the president has said time is running out.

It's not my place to put words in the president's mouth, saying if there is a timetable attached to that. I think Saddam Hussein needs to get the very clear understanding and message from the United States and from the world that he needs to disarm; that this is indeed serious.

The timetable for it: Saddam Hussein needs to figure that out. He needs to disarm immediately. And he promised he would do so in the declaration, and as yesterday's discovery shows, what he filed in the declaration was not met by the facts on the ground.

QUESTION: Is the president worried, as we go through this debate and await the 27th, that whatever other decisions the president makes about a timetable, are you worried about the two very difficult views of how the inspections process is working? You look at this discovery and cast it as -- you haven't used the word, but almost as a failure, saying it's proof that Saddam is not meeting the test, that its proof that he's not meeting his commitment, that the burden is on him to disclose and destroy. Others are saying this is proof the inspectors are working.

Are you concerned that, while you focus on disarmament, others, including the French today, saying, "Give them more time," might be focusing on containing...

FLEISCHER: There's no question the inspectors are on the ground working. The question is, Iraq is not complying and Iraq is not fulfilling its word that they gave in their own declaration.

All the president knows to do is speak directly and realistically. And when the discovery is made that Iraq has 12 chemical warheads that they failed to declare, the president will call it for exactly what it is. And it is serious and is troubling, in the president's judgment.

QUESTION: Were the inspectors acting on the basis of any U.S. intelligence?

FLEISCHER: I would not be able to answer that question. I've indicated to you broadly the United States has and will continue to provide intelligence to the inspectors because it is in our interests for them to have the best information. But I am not going to be able to give you step-by-step information about what intelligence is passed along on any type of daily basis.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) intelligence passed along.

FLEISCHER: Of course.

QUESTION: Why not just pass the -- why is it coming out in dribs and drabs, the way you're suggesting it? FLEISCHER: There are ways to convey intelligence, so it is the most useful. And I hear no objections from the inspectors.

QUESTION: Ari, two questions. On North Korea, is there any active review under way about removing the 37,000 American troops (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

FLEISCHER: There is not.

QUESTION: Does this president favor removing the troops under any circumstances?

FLEISCHER: I have not heard any discussion of that here. The president believes that the United States and South Korea are reliable allies, that we have worked well together. We will continue to work well together. Obviously there is a new debate that has been launched in the United States about whether or not the troops will be withdrawn. But that's the view of the president.

QUESTION: What if South Korea asks the United States to remove the troops?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to deal with hypotheticals. That's not the case. It hasn't happened.

Just the opposite has happened. As you know, President Roh just recently visited with the troops and thanked them for their efforts to keep the peace on the peninsula, which I think is representative of the majority of the South Korean people.

QUESTION: Does the president favor abolishing the SAT scores at all as a criteria? Some colleges are actually moving in that direction.

FLEISCHER: I have never heard the president weigh in on that topic.

QUESTION: The president -- we heard him say this week that time was running out for Saddam Hussein. Today, or actually I think it might have been yesterday, Muhamed ElBaradei said he wanted more time for the inspections, going to March. Given what we've learned about the chemical warheads, has the president seen enough?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think, again, if it reaches the point where the president has come to the conclusion that he has seen enough to the point where the only way to protect us is by disarming Saddam Hussein, he will inform the country about that.

In the interim, the inspectors are doing their job. They are hiring out their mission. And we will, of course, continue to support them in that mission.

The real issue here is what is Saddam Hussein doing? What is Saddam Hussein hiding? And what else has Saddam Hussein failed to list in his declaration? QUESTION: If time is running out for Saddam Hussein, the president thinks that maybe time is also running short or running out for the inspectors.

FLEISCHER: Well, again, the president has not put any timetables on it as such. And if the president decides to, he will make such a statement. But at this point, we are continuing to let the process work, obviously.

QUESTION: Without regard to what may or may not have been passed to the inspectors in the area of intelligence, did the United States -- anybody in the United States government have any advance knowledge of the warheads that were discovered yesterday before they were discovered by the inspectors?

FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to give you an answer to that. You asked me to speak for the entire United States government.

QUESTION: To your knowledge.

FLEISCHER: To my knowledge, no. The inspectors worked at the inspectors' discretion.

But I really am not in a reliable position to give you that type of information about the entire United States government. And again, I'm not going to pass on information to you about intelligence conveyance.

QUESTION: Well, I'm not asking that. I'm asking basically did this come as a surprise to the White House?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I am not aware of people that I have spoke to immediately about it, that they had any advance information about it.

But I don't know that that's necessarily conclusive.

QUESTION: Assuming that you're right and Iraq is wrong about whether these warheads were disclosed within the declaration, does the fact that Iraq has undeclared warheads, chemical warheads, put them in material breach of any U.N. resolutions?

FLEISCHER: As for picking a legal word, the president's approach to this is that the issue is that Saddam Hussein is not disarming. That is what is most relevant.

Per the United Nations and the use of the word "material breach," according to Resolution 1441 when it was passed, Iraq was and continues to be in material breach. When they filed their declaration that at the time the United States declared failed to have all information in it, which, of course, has now been verifiably demonstrated to be an accurate statement, as if there would have been a doubt, we said at that time that they continue to be in material breach. Certainly, the discovery of the chemical warheads in Iraq does not get Iraq out of the material breach they're currently in. QUESTION: But can you put this in some, sort of, context? Is this just one more element, one more piece of evidence that, sort of, builds the case? Is that how you would describe this?

FLEISCHER: I've described it as serious and troubling.

BLITZER: Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, answering reporters questions on the latest developments involving Iraq. He points out that those chemical warheads were in, his words, "excellent condition." As a result, a serious and troubling development.

He also insists Iraq is not -- repeat, not cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors.


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