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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Briefing

Aired February 12, 2003 - 12:20   ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Ari Fleischer, the White House Press Secretary, is speaking about North Korea, the decision today refer the North Korean nuclear matter to the U.N. Security Council.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: ... through diplomacy. We plan to work closely with members of the Security Council and other friends and allies toward a shared objection of the elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program in a verifiable and irreversible manner

With that I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: What did you think of North Korea's attempt to get Britain to be an intermediary between you and North Korea over the nuclear issue?

FLEISCHER: Again, this is a matter that North Korea has taken provocative steps that have caused great concern around the world, not just for the United States, not just for Japan or for Russia or China or South Korea, or not for England.

But this is a matter to be settled through diplomacy and through multilateral action.

I want to bring to your attention one interesting point about when repeatedly the administration's made the case that North Korea is continuing to further isolate itself. Compare what took place in Vienna today to what took place in Vienna when North Korea previously engaged in provocative actions in 1993.

In 1993, when the IAEA voted on a similar matter, the vote at that time was 28 in favor, two voted against and there were 4 abstentions against the position of North Korea.

This time, the vote was 31 in favor, nobody opposed and just two abstentions.

So North Korea continues to march backward in time only to the detriment of the people of North Korea.

QUESTION: Yesterday, there was a news conference with Senators Lieberman and McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham. And they said France may be trying to weaken NATO as a way of improving their status in the European Union. Does the White House have any thoughts about that? And has the White House had any contact directly with President Chirac?

FLEISCHER: Well, certainly, the president talked with President Chirac just a few days ago, as you know.

The president is focused on the results. That is what the president cares most about. The president would like to see as much unanimity as possible in the European continent.

But the president is delighted to see how much European support there is for the American position and for the position of Turkey.

The president thinks it's vital that the people of Europe and the governments of Europe not turn their back on Turkey, and the president knows that the majority, the overwhelming majority of Europeans will not do that.

There continue to be a small number of European nations that continue to isolate themselves from their fellow Europeans. That's regrettable, but nevertheless, at the end of the day, still, no matter what position ultimately France, Germany or Belgium takes -- and nobody has any hope that Germany will change its position -- at the end of the day, we will remain friends and allies with each of those three nations.

Our alliance has gone through strains before. We're going through a strain now. But more importantly, the alliance is broadly unified despite the strains that have been brought upon by these three nations.

QUESTION: As the administration, as the White House moves toward trying to craft a second resolution at the United Nations, are you laying down any red lines as you did with the crafting of Resolution 1441?

FLEISCHER: On a possible second resolution at the United Nations?

No, I don't think it's going to be a complicated matter. I think there will be the usual wordsmithing in discussions that take place in New York. And it still remains somewhat premature to get into the exact wording.

I think many of the nations that would be involved want to see what Hans Blix reports on Friday, and then we'll have more to indicated after that.

QUESTION: But are you going in with any red lines as you did with 1441, where you said it has to mean (ph) disarmament...

FLEISCHER: Well, the one thing the president has said that a second resolution must do is enforce the first resolution -- Resolution 1441, which called for immediate compliance by Saddam Hussein, said there would be serious consequences if there was not immediate compliance and said the resolution would be binding -- not optional, not negotiable, but binding.

QUESTION: A philosophical question, if I may, that our editors would like us to ask the administration today in a variety of venues. Something that the critics of this administration have said both domestically and abroad when it comes to Iraq is that they still do not understand the need, not only to go to war, but to go to war now, to disarm Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

Not just why war? But why war now?

FLEISCHER: Why has Saddam failed to comply now? Why -- when the United Nations understanding full well the seriousness with which President Bush made his presentation last September, did the United Nations pass a resolution binding on Iraq that called for full and immediate compliance?

The United Nations, the world didn't say lengthy compliance. They didn't say negotiable compliance. They didn't say compliance over months. They said immediate. The words immediate have value and meaning, if international efforts to stop proliferation or going to, themselves, to have meaning.

The United Nations said without conditions or restrictions. The United Nations said it was a final opportunity. Not a penultimate (ph) opportunity, but a final opportunity.

The United Nations, as I indicated, said it was binding, and they said that Iraq would face serious consequences as a result of continued violations.

So the question is in reverse. Given the fact that Saddam Hussein has shown no inclination that he intends to comply, at what point does the world say the United Nations has meaning, the United Nations has value, the resolutions count; or is the message of the world to allow Saddam Hussein to continue to drag his feet as he builds up his weapons of mass destruction for the possibility of using them?

That's a chance we don't want to take.

QUESTION: I'm going to say that people disagree with you on this issue, see alternatives to war and do not see the need, even if there is no alternative, to do it now. And they do not perceive the threat in the same way you do.

FLEISCHER: I think the president, number one, respects the opinion of people who just don't believe war is ever the answer. That's their right. And there is a strain of thought that believes that. And the president respects it. It's a time honored part of the American tradition and traditions abroad in some places as well.

But having said that, there is often a school of thought that there are some people who use the excuse, "Why now?" for "Why ever?" They're not prepared to say, "We don't believe ever in the use of military force."

And unfortunately, as the world has seen, when dangers gather, the democracies have a burden on themselves to make a determination about when force is necessary to protect democracy themselves.

And that point may come into reach with Iraq. The president still has not given up hope that it can be settled peacefully. But I think clearly Saddam Hussein has an interest in dragging this out in an effort for people to avoid making decisions that we may need to make to protect people.

QUESTION: The argument you keep making and the president's made it a number of times is that, if the U.N. doesn't back you on this, then the U.N. is in a sense irrelevant or (OFF-MIKE) if you dismiss the U.N. as irrelevant in this case, and yet at the same time you don't want to negotiate with North Korea unilaterally, you're praising what the IAEA is doing with regard to North Korea. What happens to those situations with North Korea and other countries in the future if you dismiss the U.N. because they don't agree with you on this?

FLEISCHER: Well, number one, the president does not want to dismiss the United Nations. As I indicated, the president hopes that at the end of the day and would like to believe at the end of the day the United Nations will be meaningful. And that's exactly why it's important that the United Nations take meaningful action vis-a-vis Iraq, otherwise the message the United Nations will be sending to North Korea and to the next North Korea and to the next North Korea is that international regimes to fight proliferation are useless. That is not a message the world can afford.

But we have to face the reality about whether or not these international systems to combat proliferation are working or not. Iraq is testing the United Nations. The president wants to make certain that the United Nations passes the test. And that's why we are going through the United Nations.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on two earlier questions? I'm unclear on why you feel it's important for NATO to act before the Security Council does? I mean, a lot of the NATO countries opposed to you have said they want to hear what Blix has to say first, then see what the Security Council decides.

FLEISCHER: Number one, to be clear, Article 4 has been invoked by a NATO member, Turkey. Under Article 4, and it's only a couple of sentences: When a nation feels that they may be under threat, it is their right to go to NATO and seek support. So this is a matter that NATO has before it because Turkey raised it under Article 4. We support Turkey in doing that.

Turkey feels threatened as a result of the hostilities that may be imminent because Saddam Hussein will not disarm. And the purpose of an alliance is to work within the alliance to protect nations that feel threatened. And on 16 out of 19 agree Turkey and agree with the United States, that's a rather powerful statement.

QUESTION: And just quickly on John's (ph) question. Is any language at all on the second U.N. resolution being discussed either internally or with other countries?

FLEISCHER: It is. I think it's fair to say that there are conversations under way about the language. I'm not going to get into the drafting of it in public. And again, it still remains somewhat early in U.N. time, but it won't be early in U.N. time for very long.

QUESTION: What is the administration's assessment of the likelihood of the risk that Saddam Hussein, with his back up against the wall with war seeming almost inevitable, will open up his arsenal of germs and chemicals and disperse them to terrorists?

FLEISCHER: Does this mean that ABC News is acknowledging that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction?

QUESTION: We just report the facts, and the fact says the U.N...

FLEISCHER: I raise that for a reason, because there's been suggestions that the United States has no proof that he has these weapons of mass destruction. And clearly if the questions shift...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... can you identify when and where?

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: I would be happy to provide you with transcripts where the administration claims that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, that the administration has proof that they have weapons of mass destruction.

QUESTION: What's the administration's assessment of the likelihood...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: (OFF-MIKE)

QUESTION: ... I'll get back to you on that. But more importantly, what is the administration's assessment of the likelihood of the risks that Saddam Hussein would disperse whatever weapons he has to terrorists now that his survival is at stake, now that his back is up against the wall?

FLEISCHER: Well, it's always a worry that Saddam Hussein will do that whether his back is against the wall or whether his back is free and at peace. So the worry remains, no matter what not because of the actions that would be taken by an alliance, but because of the actions that would be taken by Saddam Hussein, because Saddam Hussein himself would do this even if there was no military option in play.

QUESTION: Is it possible, though, that by pushing this issue to the brink of war the president has made Americans less safe from these weapons?

FLEISCHER: Categorically reject that as a possibility in that. Allowing that is a formula for the United States to ever be blackmailed by anybody and everybody around the world who would pursue weapons of mass destruction. That line of thought, that line of logic -- and I'm not suggesting that you're engaging it -- but that line of logic, if it was applied, would mean that the United States is forever saying: "We will be blackmailed." The United States will never accept that line of reasoning.

QUESTION: Is the president, then, confident that whatever arsenal exists in Iraq can be completely and effectively neutralized by his course of action, rather than dispersed by the violence and chaos of war?

FLEISCHER: I think you can rest assured that in the event that the president makes a determination that the use of force will be required, we have made crystal clear that this is about disarmament, as well as regime change. And that part of disarmament will be to make certain that neither Saddam Hussein, nor any of the people who would follow Saddam Hussein would ever be able to use weapons of mass destruction.

QUESTION: Ari, you suggested before that the United States is not interested in allowing a lengthy process of compliance with the existing U.N. resolution. Does that mean that the United States would preclude a second resolution that calls for some additional weeks or months of intensifying inspections?

FLEISCHER: Well, given the fact that several weeks ago the president said this is a matter of weeks not months, I think the timetable remains locked in as to what the president said. But I think if you want to take a look at this in terms of the United Nations, the United Nations resolutions and Iraqi compliance, what you have is, unfortunately, in 2003 history repeating itself to the period of 1996.

And I have a document, I'll be happy to release this to you, about the fact that Iraq has not complied. They cover up their compliance in seeming efforts to comply; such as their statements about unconditional U-2 flights, which we now know from the letter that was sent by the Iraqis' so-called conditional became -- so called unconditional became conditional as soon as the ink was dry on their letter. It was never unconditional to begin with. It always had conditions attached.

Back to 1996. If you recall in March of 1996 UNSCOM began a program of intrusive inspections after a 1995 defection of a family member of Saddam Hussein. The defection revealed the tremendous amount of information that Saddam Hussein had previously denied he ever had -- viola, the declaration of 2002 where Saddam Hussein denied he had weapons.

That was followed by a series of new inspections provoking another statement by the president of the Security Council condemning Iraq's actions, which led on June 19, 1996 the request of the Security Council UNSCOM's travel to Baghdad and gave Baghdad what they called the last chance to avoid enforcement actions. The United States consulted with allies to gain consensus that Iraq's actions were in material breach of its obligations, and military preparations begun back in 1996.

On June 22, 1996 Iraq tried to cut a deal, and they did. They negotiated three agreements. A joint statement committing Iraq to provide immediate unconditional access, a program of work that could lead to a report that Iraq had disarmed and an agreement on modalities on inspecting sensitive sites. The council then relieved itself of its enforcement actions. As we all know that turned out to be worthless and the inspectors were shortly thereafter, in 1998, thrown out of the country.

A similar pattern is repeating itself in 1003. Under pressure, Iraq comes up with phony examples of compliance trying to get leaders around the world to bite on whether or not they have, indeed, made a concession or started anew to comply. They hope that the world will fall for it and accept it as new evidence of progress...

BLITZER: We're going to break away from the White House press briefing, Ari Fleischer at the White House.

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