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White House Press Briefing

Aired February 3, 2003 - 12:27   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: As you see there on the right side of your screen, the regular daily White House press briefing is now getting underway, and Press Secretary Ari Fleischer there telling the press about President Bush's meeting this morning with NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, and we're going to keep our ears open on that, and once any news does come out of the briefing at the White House, we'll deliver that to you. We'll have coverage of it.
As a matter of fact, we're going to go ahead and dip into it right now, and at least listen in at this particular point.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical and biological weapons. And of course, the president agrees with what Colin Powell has written.

QUESTION: So he does agree that there isn't any one thing that would...


FLEISCHER: I think the reason that we know that Saddam Hussein possesses chemical and biological weapons is from a wide variety of means. That's how we know.

QUESTION: On that issue, is the administration willing to join Great Britain in seeking a U.N. resolution that would set a date certain for complete Iraqi compliance?

FLEISCHER: Well, as the president said Friday, standing with Prime Minister Blair, a second resolution would be welcome so long as it accomplishes the mission, and the mission is the disarmament of Saddam Hussein.

And so it remains something that the president has expressed very clearly, that under his authority in the Constitution as commander in chief and under 1441, he already existed authority to make the decision.

But the president, of course, is in the process of consultation with our allies, and you'll see a series of more meetings, a consultative process with our allies to determine precisely what the next course of events should be.

QUESTION: The shuttle, can you give us an idea of what Administrator O'Keefe said to the president? And also in connection with the shuttle, the budget, envisions an increase (inaudible) disaster, envisions an increase in the shuttle program 23 percent. Is that the president's way of saying that the shuttle program was underfunded?

FLEISCHER: One, on the funding issue, as you know, funding for the NASA budget total will go from $15 billion in 2003 to $15.5 billion or $469 million in fiscal year 2004. Funding for the space shuttle itself will go from $3.2 billion to $3.9 billion under the budget as was proposed this morning, as was prepared prior to the disaster involving the Columbia.

Having said that, I don't know that anybody can make any conclusions about money at this point. The investigation is just beginning, and as Sean O'Keefe said to the president, all causes would be evaluated -- all causes.

It is vital. This country owes it to the people who lost their lives, to the people whose -- families left behind and to the astronauts who lie ready and waiting to go on their next mission to explore every possible reason why this could've happened.

And I think it's impossible to make any judgments at this point. So those are the facts of the budget, but I think it still is too soon to say anything.

QUESTION: Why the increase, Ari, then? What's the justification for the shuttle program in particular?

FLEISCHER: Well, as Director Daniels walked through at his briefing, there were a series of components inside NASA that involved various aspects of the space shuttle that are going to receive the funding designated.

The funding for the last decade was relatively flat. In fact, there was a decline over the last decade, and now there is an increase in the funding.

The funding for the International Space Station, as you know, had run into a series of cost overruns. That has been addressed, and the combined total leads to a budget of NASA that is increasing.

But again, this administration is making no conclusions about whether the funding over the last decade or the increase in funding has anything to do with what took place in the Columbia.

It would be premature and unwise to make any judgments about that at this time.

QUESTION: Ari, the space shuttle program lost a quarter of its fleet Saturday morning. And if the space shuttle is the vehicle is the vehicle to be relied on for at least the next decade (OFF-MIKE) the International Space Shuttle. The president wants to continue the journey into space. Is he at all considering an appropriation to build another shuttle?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, it's too soon to say. This just took place. It's very important to work with Congress on this as well, to hear Congress' thoughts and opinions. But it's too soon to say.

But it's fair to say, and as the president said in his meeting with Mr. O'Keefe, the president is committed to the future of space exploration. He is committed to the future of the men and women of NASA and the international collaboration that has allowed mankind to explore space to the degrees that we have and the degrees we continue to do so and will do so.

QUESTION: Is it even possible to consider building another shuttle, because the apparatus to manufacture the parts to a large degree has been shut down?

FLEISCHER: As I indicated, it's too soon to say.

QUESTION: Ari, is there a need, or does the president think it may be time to look at accelerating the search for a new generation of space planes to replace the shuttle, given the age of the fleet?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I'm not going to, two days after the explosion, leap to any conclusions for anybody in the government about what the next step should be. This has to be a review -- I think first it's important to all the independent panel and the internal NASA panel to conduct their investigations. Let's find out what the cause of the accident was before reaching conclusions about what the next course in space exploration should be.

But the principal point that I want to emphasize is the president is determined to continue mankind's exploration of space.

QUESTION: Ari, one quick question on Korea and then one on the shuttle.

On North Korea, was the president apprised of or involved in the decision to send additional air power to the region so that you could act as I think what the Pentagon called a prudent deterrent?

FLEISCHER: As you know, as a matter of longstanding policy, I just won't discuss military operations.

QUESTION: Well, the Pentagon has described this military operation. I'm not asking you -- the only thing I'm asking you to do is tell us whether the president was apprised of it and considers this a necessary step up, because it certainly seems out of tone with what you've been conveying to us here, which is this is a serious problem but not one that requires necessarily anything other than a diplomatic response.

FLEISCHER: No, I think you can assume that there's -- what the president said to you is ongoing and valid, that the president continues to believe that the matter with North Korea can be resolved through diplomatic means. But that does not mean that the United States will always have contingencies and make certain that the contingencies are viable.

QUESTION: When he says that he's committed never to invade North Korea -- or he has no intention of invading North Korea, I think was his exact words -- does the no intention and the use of a word "invade," as opposed to attack (inaudible) a preemptive strike, are those conscious choices?

FLEISCHER: Again, when the president says that he believes that this can be resolved through diplomacy, I think it expresses how the president is approaching the solution to this matter. And this is an international issue that North Korea has brought upon itself and the president is treating it as a matter of international diplomacy. That's his approach.

QUESTION: And one quick one on the shuttle. Did the president express today to the NASA chief or to anybody else that he wants any words of dissent within the organization about what kind of damage might have been done to the orbiter to be out early or are you content to let this sort of go on at the pace at which it did during the Challenger...

FLEISCHER: The president did not dictate the timing of the investigation. That's for the investigators to determine and to make known, as they are doing twice a day in their two news conference, as events warrant, as facts are developed. That's not a question for the president to exercise any judgment about. He wants the independent investigators to be the ones to make those determinations.

Let me fill you in a little bit on the meeting that the president had. It lasted 45 minutes. Mr. O'Keefe began it by talking about the families of those who lost their lives, the relatives and their well being now and the care that is being taken for them. The president agreed that that has to be a priority, to make certain that the families are taken care of.

He reviewed the chronology -- Mr. O'Keefe reviewed the chronology of events that immediately led up to the disaster, and he said that his intention is to get back into space as soon as possible with all safety issues having been fully, fully explored. And he said that all causes are being evaluated.

The president inquired about the health and the status of the families. He talked about and inquired about the morale of NASA. He made note that, amazingly, we have received no reports of anybody who was hurt by falling debris in the entire field in which the debris fell, and both the president and Mr. O'Keefe expressed amazement at that. And obviously that's one small positive piece of news in this tragedy.

And the president talked about the status of the next crews and the morale of the next crews -- crew -- and they were ready to go as soon as they were able to go back into space. The president inquired about the children's experiment that was aboard the space shuttle. And finally, the president said to the head of NASA, quote, "You make us proud."

QUESTION: Ari, in the budget today, the general tax credits are at $20 billion over 10 years, which is down from the original proposal of $90 billion. Can you explain that drop? And is that all of that the proposal or is that a first installment? FLEISCHER: I'd have to take a look at the delta from last year to this year, and I think that may have been something that Director Daniels addressed in his briefing. The president remains committed to making certain that all Americans have the right to have a charitable deduction for their giving. Under changes that were made in 1986, only taxpayers who itemize were able to receive an itemized deduction. The president would like to extend that to more people.

There was some consideration in Congress last year about how open-ended to make that, and so this is also an expression of wanting to work with Congress on some of their concerns.

QUESTION: Looks like Hans Blix and maybe even Mohamed ElBaradei will be going back to Iraq next week. Is that something that you are worried that will kind of throw off your timetable as this week the big presentation from the secretary of state? The last time they were there there was this big agreement and Iraq said that they were going to comply and it kind of helped shape the world opinion a little bit? Are you concerned about the timing of this?

FLEISCHER: Under 1441, it is, of course, within the prerogatives of the directors of UNMOVIC and IAEA to travel to Iraq for the purpose of implementing the resolution. That is their prerogative, and the president wants to make certain that 1441 is enforced.

QUESTION: Ari, can you talk a little bit more about what's on the agenda for the Bahraini (ph) meeting this afternoon? And how concerned is the president about (inaudible) public opinion elsewhere in the world that is against any action against Iraq, particularly the reaction in the Arab World?

FLEISCHER: One, in the meeting with Bahrain, the president looks forward to the meeting. They are a very good ally of the United States. And I think you can anticipate that the topic of Iraq will of course come up.

I think they may also talk about peace in the Middle East, which is something that the president and Prime Minister Blair continued their conversations about. I think those, broadly speaking, will be the two areas of conversation that arise.

As for public opinion, as you know, I've said this many times, the president will be guided by what he thinks is necessary and right to protect the people of our country, as well as the region, and our allies in the region as well. He's consulting very closely, as you can see, with the leaders of many of these nations.

And I think, as you started to see last week, something that we've been indicating to you for quite some time is starting to manifest itself, and that is expressions of support from various leaders around the world. And I anticipate that that will continue.

And so this will remain, just as the president promised, a very heavy consultative process. The diplomatic window remains a window in which the president will fully engage, to reach out and enter into discussions with our friends and allies. And I think he is having quite a bit of success.

QUESTION: Ari, can you lay out for us some of the details of the declassification process? Who is in charge. Where the effort is centralized to try to figure out what can be used by Secretary Powell.

And secondly, has the decision been made to use (inaudible) of communications intercepts of Iraqi officials?

FLEISCHER: On the second part of your question, I'm not going to indicate exactly what will be said. That'll be for Secretary Powell to do Wednesday up in...

QUESTION: I'm just asking whether or not the decision has been made to use...

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to get into that. These will be things that the secretary himself will reveal. And that will be your indication.

But the process has been a week-long, a little bit longer than that, interagency collaboration that involves the CIA, the NSC, the State Department, DOD, to review the raw material, the information that is known, with an eye toward how much can be made public so that the people of the United States and people around the world can have as much information as is possible about why we feel so strongly and know that Iraq has biological and chemical weapons, balanced against the need to protect the sources of this information so that we do not, one, lead to anybody getting killed in Iraq as a result of this; or the source of this information drying up in the future.

So it's a very important series of judgments that get made to each piece of data to determine whether or not it can or cannot be made public.

QUESTION: One other little thing for you. The president often articulates principles on legislation or on any sort of effort to lay down the law, if you will. With regard to a second resolution, does the president have one or two particular principles that would need to be met for a second resolution to get his support?

FLEISCHER: Well, it's exactly what he said Friday with Tony Blair.

QUESTION: Just as long as it gets done quickly, he doesn't care what the content is.

FLEISCHER: So long as it leads to the disarmament of Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Ari, back on NASA's funding, it sounds like you are leaving the door open to an increase in funding for NASA, not that you're committing yourself to it, but...

FLEISCHER: Well, the president is proposing one in the budget that he sends up today. QUESTION: Yes, I know, but it sounds as though you're opening up the door, at least leaving the door open to the possibility of even more money being sent to NASA after the investigation is done and if he concludes -- and you all agree -- that that is something that's needed.

FLEISCHER: Well, what I indicated at the top, today is the day the budget gets sent to the Congress. The process begins today in terms of where the decisions get made in the Congress. And it's important to listen to and work with members of Congress on this and in all areas of the budget.

As I indicated at the top, I don't think anybody can reach any conclusions about funding levels and the disaster affecting the Columbia. Everything needs to be looked into in order to make determinations, but no one can make any conclusions this quickly after the disaster.

So as always, the budget goes up. We'll work with members of Congress on it. But the amount that's in the budget is the amount the president thought was necessary. Clearly, now a disaster has taken place, and as the process unfolds it's a healthy process. It's a flexible process. And it allows for additional input as events warrant.

QUESTION: So you're not ruling out the idea that the president would support an increase in funding later if, in fact, the investigation and you all agreed that that was necessary.

FLEISCHER: No, I'm not addressing it, because I think within 48 hours of the disaster is just too soon to address.

QUESTION: Ari, ever since the president announced Secretary Powell's U.N. appearance in the State of the Union address there's been a great deal of expectation built up around that appearance. Was his statement in today's op-ed piece that there is no smoking gun an attempt to lower those expectations?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think people will form their judgments, having watched the secretary, and people will come to their conclusions about it. I think it will be compelling, but I think that these will be judgments that people make.

And that is exactly why the president wants this done in public. The president wants this information shared publicly so that individual Americans can exercise their own right to tune in and make their evaluations as citizens of our democracy about what it is that the government knows.

In the event that the president decides to use force, he thinks it is vital that the American people have as great an understanding of the reasons why as possible.

QUESTION: Should we take the secretary's piece today as an effective summary of what he's going to say tomorrow?

FLEISCHER: I think it's obviously a good guide to what he's going to say Wednesday.

QUESTION: Ari, two questions for you.

When the president met today with the NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, did they discuss the program that will take place tomorrow in Houston, what the participation of the president and the first lady will be? Will they meet with the families of the victims?

FLEISCHER: They did talk about that very briefly, and the program is still being worked through at the staff level. But they did talk about that briefly.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the president intend to try to meet with the families of the victims?

FLEISCHER: We'll have all the details of the program as its final. But, yes, the president will of course spend time with the families.

QUESTION: And the second question. The president must have been receiving a lot of condolence calls from leaders around the world.


QUESTION: I imagine he's taken some and some he hasn't had the time. Can you tell us some of the calls he has received (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: Well, over the weekend we released to you the names of the eight foreign leaders with whom he spoke. So that's a matter of record.

I don't know if I have brought all eight with me. I know that yesterday he spoke with Presidents Musharraf and Vajpayee. He's spoken with President Putin. I don't want to go down all the list because I may forget one person or two people. You can take a look at all the information that was released over the course of the weekend. We can provide that to you.

QUESTION: Has he taken any calls today?

FLEISCHER: No, not today.

QUESTION: Ari, you and others in the administration today have said that 48 hours is too soon and have suggested that there's too much discussion as of right now about money. But over the weekend there were some people, specifically yesterday on the talk shows, there were members of Congress who did complain about NASA funding. I wonder if you would comment on the fact that some people have suggested that there just hasn't been enough money for the program up to this point.

FLEISCHER: Well, no, I think the president respects the opinions of people who are going to take a look at this. And you will likely hear a variety of different opinions about it. And the nation has just gone through a tragedy, and in the president's judgment, after a tragedy like this, what's most important is that everybody join together in making certain that we know what happened and why, that no stone be left unturned. And once the cause is determined, that we all together as Americans look at what needs to be done next and do so in a spirit that's marked by the same spirit that NASA has, which is a spirit of working together to get a mission accomplished.

The mission to be accomplished in this case is to resume space flight and to continue the marvels of space exploration that have been the hallmark of American pioneerism around the world, particularly the international collaboration that has marked space flight and space travel today.

QUESTION: Ari, since some of the criticism has actually come from Republicans as well, has the White House made an effort to reach out to members of its own party to just ask that, you know, people hold their tongue on this issue?

FLEISCHER: No, as I indicated, members of Congress are free to express their opinions, and the president values all of them.

That is a part of our process.

QUESTION: Ari, as far as the seven astronauts are concerned, prayers were held throughout India and also here in the United States throughout all the Hindu temples, including one in Maryland. Ambassador Lalit Mansingh, he delivered (inaudible) message of condolence, and he said that India lost one of her daughters, Ms. Kalpana Chawla.

My question is, when president spoke with Prime Minister Vajpayee, what they spoke, what they said, as far as because India lost (inaudible).

FLEISCHER: I reported this last night. When the two spoke they expressed mutual condolences because of the losses. And the Indian astronaut, of course, a hero in India. She was born in India and she became an American citizens and was an example and a role model to millions in both countries, particularly women. And that summarizes the message.

QUESTION: Ari, on the astronauts' memorial, in Titusville, Florida, the name of Colonel Ilan Ramon of Israel will presumably be included with the other six from the Columbia. And my question, is the president grateful that in 1981 this officer, as an F-16 pilot, helped to demolish Saddam Hussein's nuclear plant at Osiraq near Baghdad.

FLEISCHER: I think that many people expressed, after 1991, when the United States realized that contrary to the intelligence information suggesting that Iraq was years after from the development of a nuclear weapon they actually were only six months away, had that mission not taken place at that time the military mission in 1991 would have been made far, far more difficult. I'd just leave that as a statement of fact.

QUESTION: Ari, page one of this morning's Washington Times reports the acute discomfiture of Democrat presidential candidates about how to observe the NAACP boycott of the entire state of South Carolina.

And my question is, while I know it's tempting for you to enjoy this Democrat problem, does the president really believe the NAACP would be far more valuable in working to end the slavery of blacks in Sudan and Mauritania today than in conducting an attempted censorship of a flag that is entirely historic and under which fought hundreds of combat Confederate soldiers who were black?

FLEISCHER: The president does not see it as his job to suggest policies to private organizations about how they conduct their business in that sense.


QUESTION: He suggests to lots of private organizations. Ari, he suggests to all of us...

FLEISCHER: You are not a private organization.


QUESTION: No, I didn't say that.

FLEISCHER: There is only one of you.

QUESTION: Before the disaster with the Columbia, the president increased the funding for the shuttle in his budget. What was he thinking in terms of his goals and priorities for the shuttle program when he put that increase in?

FLEISCHER: It's a belief in the importance of the space shuttle mission and the importance of continuing to pursue scientific research and exploration in space. That's why the budgets the president has submitted reflected that.

QUESTION: But were there specific line items for specific areas of the shuttle program?

FLEISCHER: Yes, there were, and Director Daniels, I think, briefed those at his 11:00 briefing, and those are also available from NASA.

The budget is coming out. You will have that actually in writing as well, so you'll be able to see several of those lines items in the budget.

QUESTION: What did you find out about...

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, speaking about the president's budget. Long before the horrible tragedy on Saturday with the space shuttle Columbia, the president had decided to increase the overall federal government's funding of NASA from $15 billion to $15.5 billion, and to significantly increase the funding for the shuttle program from $3.2 billion to $3.9 billion, almost $4 billion. The president determined to continue the space program. The president also expressing support for the space program through Ari Fleischer today in a meeting with Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator.


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