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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Ari Fleisher Gives Briefing on Iraq

Aired January 30, 2003 - 14:04   ET

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

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: We are now going to take you live to the White House where we are standing by for a White House press conference and the briefing of the day.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Cal Ripkin, formerly with the Baltimore Orioles, Darrell Green, formerly with the Washington Redskins and many others; all designed to follow through on the president's State of the Union that the importance of increasing volunteerism and mentoring throughout America.

The president then returned to the White House, where he had a meeting in the Oval Office with the prime minister of Italy, Prime Minister Berlusconi. He had lunch with Prime Minister Berlusconi. I'll get to that in a minute.

He is currently meeting with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. And this evening he will welcome to the White House the combatant commanders for their semiannual visit to Washington.

Let me share with you several pieces of information on the domestic front.

The Senate has begun the year with signs of progress. In the Senate Finance Committee, the Finance Committee today passed out unanimously -- voted unanimously to support the president's nominee for secretary of treasury, John Snow.

FLEISCHER: The president is grateful for this action. He thinks it's very important that he be allowed to have his full economic team in place. We'd like to thank Chairman Grassley and Democratic leader Baucus for their bipartisan efforts.

Senator Baucus, knows that it is important for this vote to be taken up on the floor of the Senate today. The president agrees for the good of the economy, it's important for the Senate to move quickly in bipartisan way to confirm the secretary of the Treasury.

In a slightly more partisan way, the Senate Judiciary Committee today, on a party line vote, reported out Miguel Estrada for the Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit. The president is pleased that this is the first of the nominees that he had named early last year whose appointments have been blocked by the previous Senate, and now action is beginning, so the judiciary emergency vacancy can be filled. The president is very grateful to Chairman Hatch of the Senate Judiciary Committee for the action, and he looks forward to passage on the floor.

On the foreign policy front, number one, the president would like to thank the leaders of eight European nations who signed the op-ed that ran in European versions of many newspapers today. The president is very grateful to these eight European leaders and to others who are supportive of his efforts to make certain that Saddam Hussein is disarmed.

The president had a very successful meeting with Prime Minister Berlusconi. The two agreed about the importance of disarming Saddam Hussein.

FLEISCHER: The president emphasized once again that he hopes to do this peacefully. And the two agreed about the importance of continued consultation and cooperation, as we will keep in touch with our good friends the Italians.

The president also made a series of phone calls this morning. I mentioned yesterday that we are now entering, in this final stage, a diplomatic window, and the president is very busy talking to leaders throughout Europe and throughout the world about the situation in Iraq and how this can be resolved so Saddam Hussein does disarm.

He spoke this morning with Portuguese Prime Minister Barroso. The president thanked the prime minister for his public support on Iraq and asked the prime minister to pass along his thanks to the Portuguese people for their longstanding friendship that they have shown for the United States.

The president listened carefully to the prime minister's views on the next steps in addressing Iraq's continued refusal to disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction.

Both agreed on the importance of consulting with other members of the international community regarding Iraq. The two leaders agreed to stay in close touch and continue consultations.

The president this morning also called Swedish Prime Minister Persson. They had a very friendly discussion and they agreed that Saddam Hussein must disarm and they need to work together to accomplish that goal.

The president said he'd continue to seek common ground with leaders, and he noted that time was running out. The president will, again, look forward to continuing his consultation with the Swedish prime minister.

And finally, President Bush, of course, tomorrow will be pleased to welcome British Prime Minister Blair to Camp David. The prime minister was President Bush's first guest at Camp David two years ago, and tomorrow's meeting is another in a continuous series of consultations on a variety of important issues, including Iraq.

I expect the two leaders will talk about a range of issues, including Iraq, the Middle East, the war on terror and ways that we can together, in concert with friends and allies, fight the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The president values Prime Minister Blair's leadership and will listen carefully to what the prime minister has to say.

Now, I am happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: On the question of exile for Saddam Hussein, is the administration prepared to propose something in a specific and detailed way to back such a move? Or will it simply be satisfied to state publicly, as the president did today, that that would be a good thing if that were to emerge out of the region; if the Saudis pushed that or if others pushed that and Saddam were to agree?

And the second piece to that, any indication -- is the world getting any indication that Saddam would agree to such a thing?

FLEISCHER: Number one, it would be a very desirable event if Saddam Hussein would leave Iraq. That would be one way for peace to be preserved. And the president hopes that can happen.

Whether it will happen or not, I don't think anybody can guess or count on. The only person who knows whether that will happen is Saddam Hussein.

And the most likely way to make it happen is to continue growing pressure on Saddam Hussein. The less pressure, the less likely it is. The more pressure, the more the likelihood. That's very hard to assess how likely it will be. It's very hard to understand what Saddam Hussein has done, let alone to predict what he will do.

As for the question about how that would be treated, this would be an international matter. This is not a matter for the Americans to decide. It would be something that would be discussed in concert with friends and allies. And I couldn't possibly guess or speculate what any outcomes may or may not be.

QUESTION: Ari, but the pressure he bought to bear primarily by the United States. I mean, we are the ones who have the troops there in the largest numbers. So if we're really committed to putting that on the table, is this administration prepared to put together a concrete proposal to suggest to Saddam that he might take?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I think the first thing that would be important for Saddam Hussein to leave. And again, as I indicated to you, you are accurate in pointing out that much of the military presence is American. But any such matter, whether it would or would not come up, would be an international matter, not a uniquely American one.

QUESTION: Ari, on your weeks and months formulation, is this a rejection of calls for more time for the weapons inspectors? And is it a deadline? FLEISCHER: Number one, the reason the president said weeks, not months, is because he does not want to repeat the mistakes of the '90s, where Saddam Hussein, once again, games the world, strings things out and continues to hide his weapons.

FLEISCHER: There does come a point at which the world can judge whether or not Saddam Hussein is complying and is disarming. It doesn't take a long time to know if Saddam Hussein is disarming or not. And the president has expressed that as weeks, not months.

QUESTION: So does that mean that the president would not agree to an extension of the mandate of the weapons inspectors?

FLEISCHER: There is no time period for the inspectors. The inspectors have a mission until their mission is deemed by the United Nations Security Council to have run its fruitful course.

QUESTION: By saying weeks, not months, has he effectively set a deadline?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, the president has said that he has not made a decision about military action, if that's what you mean.

But the president is clearly sending a message to Saddam Hussein and to our friends and allies that there is no point in repeating the mistakes that have been made before which allows Saddam Hussein to bob and weave, to hide and to dodge, to cheat and retreat. We will not repeat and return to that error.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: If I could follow that poetry...

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: What do you have?

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: ... this idea of weeks, not months; if the president is as certain...

FLEISCHER: That was inadvertent, by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: I wouldn't even know I said it if you didn't laugh.

QUESTION: If the president is as certain as he was in the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, that Saddam Hussein is not disarming and is playing, as you say, cheat and retreat with weapons inspectors, why does he feel the need to wait at all?

And in terms of making the decision, what more evidence does he need? You have been quick to point out you already have all the authorization you need to go to war if necessary.

FLEISCHER: In the phone calls the president is making to world leaders and his meeting with Prime Minister Berlusconi, the president is emphasizing how important it is to let diplomacy run its course to the greatest degree that can solve this problem. The president is serious about consultation. The president is serious about diplomacy. He hopes it will work, and he wants to give it time to work.

But diplomacy never works if it's diplomacy forever in the face of a threat like Saddam Hussein. And that's a lesson the world has seen over the last 10 years.

FLEISCHER: Unlimited diplomacy leads to unlimited running around by Saddam Hussein to continue to develop his weapons.

QUESTION: Sure, but you also said zero tolerance last fall. The president has said that he's in material breach, he's said he is not cooperating with weapons inspectors...

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: ... and he's not disarming. You've said that he is in violation of Resolution 1441. Zero tolerance. Where is the zero tolerance?

FLEISCHER: The president will let you know when it reaches the point where it is down to zero. The president has said that it is the final phase. It does have a zero tolerance. If you're asking why isn't there military action today, the answer is because the president is serious about consulting with our friends and allies as he promised he would do.

QUESTION: We do know something that he said, the president wants to let diplomacy run its course, but we know that course won't extend more than eight weeks from today.

FLEISCHER: The president said weeks, not months.

QUESTION: So, we will be either at war or Saddam will have disarmed within eight weeks.

FLEISCHER: The president said weeks, not months. I think Saddam Hussein needs to figure out what that means, and hopefully it will help him to disarm. If it doesn't, the president has made clear that he will lead a coalition to disarm him.

QUESTION: I think it's important to the American people to know as well that it's a matter of weeks now.

FLEISCHER: The president did say it for a reason.

QUESTION: I think you can clear up one thing that's caused some, perhaps, misunderstanding and anxiety, and that's what specifically is the administration's doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons in any war with Iraq?

FLEISCHER: It's exactly as I said last week and Secretary Rumsfeld has said, that America's policy involving nuclear weapons is to not rule anything in, not rule anything out. We do not comment about the potential use of nuclear weapons. QUESTION: Is there any greater likelihood that nuclear weapons would be used by the United States in this war than in any previous conflict?

FLEISCHER: It is a deliberately ambiguous statement.

QUESTION: Senator Kennedy had a speech yesterday. Are you going to be able to provide the undeniable proof to silence the critics?

FLEISCHER: Again, I think the people will judge the information that they already have. I think that most Americans, even before the State of the Union, agreed that Saddam Hussein was a threat and that they would support the judgment, if the president were to make it, to use force to remove the threat from Saddam Hussein using the weapons of mass destruction that we all know, that the United Nations knows and others knows that he has. And I'll just leave it at that.

QUESTION: How would you respond to some of this Democratic criticism?

FLEISCHER: I think the president respects those who disagree. After all, there were a number -- not a lot, but there were a small number of Democrats who voted against the resolution for the use of force. There was a much larger number of Democrats who voted against the resolution for the use of force in 1991. It is their prerogative, and the president respects it.

The president will continue to do what he thinks is right for the country. And in doing what he thinks is right for the country, this president is confident that his leadership will be followed and will be supported.

QUESTION: To go back to the question of exile, would the administration support an effort by the Saudis or by the international community generally that would specifically include amnesty from war bonds or any other charges that...

FLEISCHER: Let's just be more specific on the previous question. And, again, the president thinks it would be in the interest of peace if Saddam Hussein were somehow to be convinced to leave the country. But beyond that I'm not prepared to speculate about what may or may not happen. Again, that's a matter for not just the United States to have an opinion about, but the international community and I'm not speculating.

QUESTION: Without going into details, though, have there been discussions between the administration officials and other nations about what some sort of exile package might look like?

FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not going to speculate about it. I think that there are some things that the less said the better so that Saddam Hussein leaves the country. Now, don't take that to mean one way or another, but I'm just not going to speculate on this topic.

The hope for peace is that Saddam Hussein leaves. And I think it's not only the hope for peace, but the hope for the future of the Iraqi people. Iraqi people deserve a government worthy of the people of Iraq. It's the Iraqi people who have to suffer under the totalitarian state and a brutal regime.

It's not just American service men and women and people around the world and people in the region who would be spared from harm's way if Saddam Hussein were to leave. That itself is important. But what about the people of Iraq? They would be the biggest winners if Saddam Hussein were to leave.

QUESTION: Ari, you said that the president welcomes criticism. But how does the president feel about the fact that Edward Kennedy wants Congress to approve any military action or Robert Byrd saying that matters should be approved by the United Nations? Does he feel that's hampering his effort to pressure of Saddam?

FLEISCHER: No. Again, this is a democracy and people are welcome to their opinions. I think many of the opinions that you're hearing are distinct minority opinions that don't have much support on the Hill.

In fact, I'm not sure, but I suspect there may be some discomfort within some Democratic quarters for ideas like this, because I don't think the Democrats want to take votes on some of these matters necessarily.

But the president respects it. These are their opinions. No matter what at the end of the day, we all work together in this country of ours, and they have that right. That is the strength of our system.

QUESTION: Ari, am I allowed a second question, having to do with Miguel Estrada? You said today he was approved by a partisan vote in the Judiciary Committee and will go to the floor of the Senate. There, I imagine some Democrats would also try to block his approval. Is the president working on that nomination, which is, I think, the first one to be passed this year, if I'm not mistaken, by the Judiciary Committee?

FLEISCHER: Well, according to the information I have, it has never happened in the history of the Senate for a circuit court nominee been passed out of committee to be blocked on the floor through a filibuster. So the committee has spoken, progress is being made, the log jam in the Senate is now breaking.

And the president looks at the vote on John Snow in the Finance Committee today and the vote on Miguel Estrada in the Judiciary Committee today as signs of progress based on the last election where the American people said, "Work together and get things done."

And that's why the president welcomed the action today; that he hopes that both votes will move to the floor. The American people are entitled to have an executive branch and a judiciary branch filled in, not left blank and vacant.

QUESTION: Ari, the president mentioned something that was mentioned earlier, the aluminum tubes, as part of the list of evidence that the U.S. thinks Saddam Hussein has got weapons of mass destruction. But the IAEA and other world officials -- Mohamed ElBaradei actually, specially said that it's just not fair, that is not what that is intended to be used for in Iraq, that it's really just conventional.

Isn't there a concern that when the president and the White House make statements like that it's going to undermine your overall argument, this Mount Everest of evidence that you say exists?

FLEISCHER: No, and I'll give you three reasons why, in the president's judgment.

Number one, Mohamed ElBaradei and the IAEA said that the importations of these tubes is illegal and violates the policies that Iraq committed itself to, regardless of what the IAEA has so far judged them to be. They said Iraq's actions in importing them are in and above themselves a violation. That should be a cause for concern, number one, about whether Iraq is disarming.

Number two, on the tubes, the IAEA has said that their investigation remains open. They have not reached final conclusions about this.

On that point, therefore, to point three, there are continuing discussions with the IAEA in which information is being shared about this information.

The preponderance of evidence is that Iraq attempted to procure high-strength aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment. We stand by that statement. Our technical analysis of the extremely tight manufacturing tolerances and high-strength materials indicates the tubes far exceed any specifications required for non-nuclear capabilities. Iraq attempted to procure the tubes covertly. The cost of the tubes are greater than what one would pay for if the tubes are just to be used for artillery. Iraq has devoted substantial efforts to concealing its nuclear program in the past. It's not surprising that it would attempt to mislead the inspectors on this issue. And the inspectors have left it open because they want to continue to hear from us and to work on this before final conclusions are reached. The president stands by every word he said.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) intelligence that's already been shared with them?

FLEISCHER: It's an ongoing process.

QUESTION: Will Secretary Powell outline some of that? It's an interesting statement.

FLEISCHER: I know you will be there on Wednesday next week, so you'll find out Wednesday.

QUESTION: Ari, Prime Minister Blair is on record saying that he would like a second Security Council vote on use of force in Iraq. What's the administration thinking at the moment about whether a second resolution would be desirable and possible? FLEISCHER: And just as I've indicated, we will continue to consult with our friends and allies about the next course. The president does think that the United Nations is important.

FLEISCHER: He hopes that they will prove to be important by taking meaningful action that results in the disarmament of Saddam Hussein so this can be resolved peacefully. As you know, the president has also said that if Saddam Hussein does not disarm, he will lead a coalition to disarm him.

QUESTION: But you've already demonstrated that you think the United States is (OFF-MIKE) Secretary Powell up there next week -- on the second resolution, has there been a decision made on whether (OFF- MIKE)

FLEISCHER: His decision is we'll continue to consult.

QUESTION: You talk about diplomacy running its course. Could you just give us some idea of what to expect beginning with Secretary Powell's comments, and running at least through the next report of the arms inspectors, which will be on the 14th of February? What do you foresee happening? What does the U.S. want to happen during that critical period?

FLEISCHER: Well, there's one thing the United States wants to see happen, and that is for Saddam Hussein to disarm. That's what this is all about. Every one of these actions, every one of these steps, every shipment of troops is all aimed at one thing: that's the disarmament of Saddam Hussein so the threat to the world and to the region can go away.

Toward that end, what you are seeing now is a very active window of diplomacy involving the president's personal time making a series of phone calls, which will continue; a series of personal meetings, which will continue; meetings and phone calls by the secretary of state, by others in the government. You're seeing very active diplomacy of a kind that you saw, frankly, around the September/October period as well. That will continue. It won't continue forever. It will continue for a finite period of time, as the president has said.

Following that, I think this is then when the president will make a judgment about whether Saddam Hussein will indeed disarm on his own, or whether he will have to make the decision to use military force to disarm Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: In that context, how important then is the next report from the arms inspectors on the 14th of February?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate about a report that hasn't been made yet.

QUESTION: But it's obviously part of the sequencing. And the last one was quite important. This is the next benchmark, if you will, about whether or not the Iraqis were actually coming clean. One would think it would weigh fairly heavily. FLEISCHER: Today is January 30th, and I can't speculate about a report that's two weeks out in terms of gauging its important. We already know from the last report that Iraq is not complying.

QUESTION: All right, let me ask you one quick question about Medicare. Does the administration intend to write its own legislation, and when will we learn the details of the president's proposal?

FLEISCHER: In the immediate aftermath of the State of the Union, the president is going to continue to travel the country, and to make the case for the initiatives that he announced in the State of the Union. He did that today on the mentoring program. He will have more to say about the AIDS initiative to help people in Africa and the Caribbean. So you can anticipate a series of events including follow- on statements.

No date is picked at this moment, and we'll let you know when there's a date picked.

QUESTION: To submit legislation you mean.

FLEISCHER: No, to make another speech with additional details.

If you're asking about actually legislative language, I don't know if the administration's going to have legislative language; that's something that typically Congress writes through their legislative counsel's offices. But the points and the specifics will be well known, whether or not it includes legislative language or not.

QUESTION: Ari, when the president made these remarks today, when he was talking about the issue of exile, he was careful to make the point that the goal here is not just to remove Saddam Hussein, but to disarm. And so that -- whoever comes -- if Saddam Hussein leaves, it's not an automatic that this conflict is over, anyone who comes in.

So can you flesh out what the administration's concerns are in that area, in terms of obtaining the goal of disarmament?

FLEISCHER: Well, certainly. If Saddam Hussein were to leave, and his son stayed behind, and his son had weapons of mass destruction, the world would be just as much at risk.

The president views this as how to promote peace.

(INTERUPTED BY BREAKING NEWS)

QUESTION: How widespread does that have to be? How many people are we talking about?

FLEISCHER: I can't make those judgments.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: I can set you the principles. And the principles are deep enough so that the leadership that emerges is a leadership dedicated to peace, not war.

QUESTION: When you mentioned his son, would his son and the other family members who are part of the regime at a minimum have to go... FLEISCHER: I didn't bring the family tree with me.

QUESTION: Yesterday in South Africa, former President Nelson Mandela said, quote, "All President Bush wants is Iraqi oil, because Iraq produces 64 percent of the oil, and he wants to get a hold of it." He also said that America is, quote, "so arrogant," unquote, that they dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killed innocent people.

President Bush on the other hand, yesterday said, quote, "either you are with us or you are with the enemy." In saying this, does the president believe that Nelson Mandela, France and Germany are with the enemy?

FLEISCHER: No on the last point.

And on the first point, if this was a war for oil, the United States would be the ones saying, "Lift the sanctions." That way Iraq could pump oil.

This is about peace. And this is about protecting people in the region and the American people from Saddam Hussein, who has weapons that kill millions.

QUESTION: On January the 27th, during his receiving an award from Ambassador Negroponte in Stamford, Connecticut, the president's father strongly denounced the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, for, quote, "highly offensive rhetoric and Griswold saying that he has to apologize for being from the United States, which is loathed and hated for indifference to human suffering."

To which the former president said, "This was uncalled for and hurt this proud father very much. I know this president better than the bishop. And unlike the bishop, I will never feel the need to apologize for this great country."

And my question, even though this was reported only by Fox network, "Hannity and Colmes" and World Net Daily, surely the president must have heard about what his father said. And so, what was the president's reaction to his father's statement, Ari?

FLEISCHER: Number one, I do not know what the president has heard about what his father has said, and so...

QUESTION: Like he doesn't know?

FLEISCHER: I don't know, but even if I did I don't talk about what the president and his father would talk about even...

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