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White House Press Briefing

Aired March 24, 2003 - 13:02   ET


PAULA ZAHN: Richard Roth, we're going to have interrupt you because Ari Fleischer's reading -- briefing, that is, has gotten under way at the White House. Let's listen in.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: had his intelligence briefing, FBI briefing, called a meeting of the National Security Council.

Following the meeting with the NSC, the president met with the secretary of defense. He has just completed a lunch with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the residence. And later today, the president will also meet in the Oval Office with the chairman of the Federal Reserve and the secretary of the Treasury. This is immediately prior to the meeting the president is having with the National Economic Council, where the president will talk about the state of the economy.

FLEISCHER: Later this afternoon, the president will welcome to the White House a bipartisan group of House and Senate leaders to talk about the supplemental appropriation bill that the president intends to send to the Congress to fund the war costs.

And that's my report on the president's day. I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Did the president tell President Putin that he was just concerned or angry (OFF-MIKE) turning over hardware that's being used against U.S. troops? And how recently was this hardware turned over, before or after the war broke out?

FLEISCHER: Well, we are very concerned that there are reports of ongoing cooperation and support to Iraqi military forces being provided by a Russian company that produces GPS jamming equipment. This is what was discussed in the phone call. There are other causes of concern, as well involving night vision goggles and anti-tank guided missiles.

So we do have concerns that some aspects of this may be ongoing. Those concerns were raised in the phone call today. President Putin assured President Bush that he would look into it. And President Bush said he looked forward to hearing the results.

QUESTION: Just to be clear, by saying ongoing, there are reports, U.S. intelligence reports or media reports that the jamming equipment has been delivered since the war began? FLEISCHER: Well, I assure you, the president does not make comments to foreign leaders based only on media reports. We have concerns. Those concerns have been expressed at the highest levels, and these concerns have been expressed repeatedly over the last -- quite some little while. This is not the first instance in which these concerns have been raised with officials. Senior U.S. government officials have repeatedly raised this issue with the Russian counterparts over the past year in the hopes the Russian government will move aggressively to cut the cooperation from this company or the companies involved.

QUESTION: That's my point. This is not the first time the United States has raised this concern. Aren't we looking...


QUESTION: ... more than just what that concern is?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I'm not going to give you the verbatim on a presidential phone call, but I've expressed to you the concerns that we have in the United States about this.

FLEISCHER: And, as I said this morning, we find these actions to be disturbing.

QUESTION: Have they been going on since the war began?

FLEISCHER: I said these concerns have been raised going back now almost a year.

QUESTION: A question about the economy.

FLEISCHER: Over the past year is how I would put it.

QUESTION: A question about the economy. Why shouldn't Americans expect that at a time when the administration is asking Congress for a lot of money for the war and its aftermath, on the order of, I guess, between $70 billion and $90 billion, that that shouldn't have some impact on the president's domestic economic plan, particularly his tax cuts?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me cite to you some of the reasons that guide the president when he seeks to make sure that the economy can grow and that jobs can be created so that when our men and women in the military return home they'll have jobs to come home to.

This is not the first time the United States has gotten into a military conflict of some type of prolonged nature in the past where a president pushed the Congress to enact tax cuts.

Quote, "We shall, therefore, neither postpone our tax cut plans nor cut into essential national security programs. This administration is determined to protect America's security and survival, and we are also determined to step up its economic growth. I think we must do both." That statement was made by President John F. Kennedy on December 14th, 1962, at a time when the United States government spent three times as a percentage of the GDP what we spend today on military and defense-related matters.

QUESTION: Why is that analogous to the current state of the economy in 2003? That's a Democrat, that's terrific, but, I mean, was the, what was the size of the deficit?

FLEISCHER: It's not that it's a Democrat. The point being that it's important to push for economic growth and to keep the country strong. The two go hand-in-hand.

QUESTION: I mean, you're quoting, you're quoting old quotes, but what about the question of can Americans expect an impact?

FLEISCHER: Because it still is valid. The stronger the economy the stronger we are as a country, the stronger we are as a country the stronger our military.

QUESTION: Well, hold on, wait a second. Why should the American public expect that you can accomplish that at the same time that you want to fund an extremely costly prescription drug benefit?

I mean, isn't the administration giving the public a false sense of being able to do it all?

FLEISCHER: This'll be a matter that the Congress will decide. And this why the president is very pleased with the progress that's been made in the Congress on passing of his budget. If you take a look at what both the House and the Senate have done, you'll see the budget is moving along and moving along rather nicely.

QUESTION: Has the president made any comment to you about the showing of POW pictures on television? Has he said anything to you about how the war is going, given the expectation on the part of some that it would have gone faster, that it would have proceeded more efficiently than it seems to have?

FLEISCHER: Sure. What he has said to me is just what you've heard yesterday. The president was asked the very same questions yesterday and the president answered them. And the president knows that we are making good progress in the war to disarm Saddam Hussein.

As has been reported regularly from CENTCOM, there have been setbacks, there have been casualties. Yesterday was a tough day. But when you take a look at the overall plan, as the president has made repeatedly clear, we are indeed making progress.

QUESTION: What about the POW pictures, has he asked to see them?

FLEISCHER: Nothing to report since the president shared that with you yesterday.

QUESTION: In terms of the pictures, the administration's upset because it is a violation of the Geneva accords, you say... FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Are we following the Geneva accords...

FLEISCHER: Of course.

QUESTION: ... in Iraq and Guantanamo?

FLEISCHER: There are two different situations. You have the war against terrorism and then you have this conflict, which is much more of a traditional conflict. And we have always treated people humanely, consistent with international agreements.

In the case of the fight in Iraq, there's no question that is being done in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

QUESTION: But how about the detainees in Guantanamo, they have no rights under the Geneva accords?

FLEISCHER: As I just indicated, we always treat them humanely, consistent with.

QUESTION: The Russian foreign minister, Mr. Ivanov, has just said, "Russia has observed all U.N. sanctions, not supplied military equipment to Iraq." He said the U.S. has had several inquiries. He said, "Our experts have checked these inquiries meticulously, including a recent one, and did not find any proof."

He's lying?

FLEISCHER: Well, those statements were made prior to the statements that were made this morning by the White House. And I'm certain now, with the phone call that was made to the president, Russia will take a look at what their Russian companies are doing. That's exactly what the foreign minister's boss told the president of the United States he would do.

QUESTION: Does the president consider that anyone who's arming our enemy is our enemy?

FLEISCHER: I expressed to you that the relations between the United States and Russia are important relations that the presidents are dedicated to keeping.

There are problems. This clearly is a problem that needs to be resolved, and this is why it came up in the phone call, this is why it's disturbing and this is why the two have talked about it, for the purpose of resolving it.

QUESTION: One more, on the humanitarian situation. In Basra the Red Cross and others are saying that 40 percent of that large city's population now cannot get access to water, to drinkable water.

QUESTION: It is a humanitarian emergency. The president said, about 24 hours ago, that within 36 hours massive humanitarian assistance would flow into southern Iraq. Does he still expect that? FLEISCHER: The president's statement was that massive humanitarian relief would begin to flow in 36 hours, and that everything is being done possible to get that humanitarian relief to the people.

One of the central focuses of all the military planning was to make certain that humanitarian supplies were able to reach the people of Iraq as quickly as possible. You may want to talk to CENTCOM and others involved in it to see what the Iraqis have left behind that would hinder the flow of humanitarian relief. But nevertheless, that is part of the planning.

QUESTION: Ari, this will be the second time today that Chairman Greenspan's been at the White House. Can you give a little bit more on what kinds of advice you're seeking from him at this time? And secondly, can you give a little more information on the National Economic Council meeting, what kind of topics it will address?

FLEISCHER: Well, one, in terms of Chairman Greenspan, he is an occasional visitor to the White House where he speaks and meets privately with either the president or other senior administration officials to talk about the economy. That's no surprise. It's nothing new to this administration.

The president will meet with him for one of those periodic meetings today, and then go into the meeting of the National Economic Council.

The purpose of the meeting is to bring the economic team together. They met several weeks ago, but to discuss, again, the status of the economy, growth signs in the economy, trends in the economy and to talk broadly about where the economy is going.

The trends in the economy remain mixed. The economy is indeed growing. And different pockets have different growth rates. Clearly, the economy has emerged from the recession it was in, but it's an issue that the president is still focused on, concerned about because we want to make sure people can work.

QUESTION: And do you expect some discussion of the war's impact to date on the economy.

FLEISCHER: I'll try to give you a read after the meeting.

QUESTION: And have you reached a decision on airline aid?

FLEISCHER: If there is anything to report, we'd report at the appropriate time.

QUESTION: You mentioned that the president is going to discuss with the congressional leadership today the costs of the war and the initial occupation and rebuilding, so forth. What efforts, if any, are being made at this point to seek contributions from the coalition of the willing or any other nations out there either to the direct military costs or to whatever comes after? FLEISCHER: Well, as I mentioned, interestingly with the phone call to President Putin, talking about the importance of humanitarian relief; there is a commitment from nations to help in the humanitarian aspects of helping the Iraqi people with the reconstruction costs that will be incurred. So there will be some effort, but clearly this is going to be something the United States is taking the lead in. And we will continue to talk to our friends and allies about.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) at this point that the United States is going to bear the overwhelming majority of the costs both for the military and for the post-war.

FLEISCHER: I think you'd have to wait and see what other nations decide to do in the end here, what costs they will participate in and, as well it remains to be see what costs are incurred. Of course, with the precision capabilities of the military, there are going to be costs, but it's impossible to say what those costs will be.

QUESTION: Ari, are you surprised that there have not been more chemical and biological weapons found so far? And why hasn't there not been more of an effort up front to try to seize and control these weapons so they're not used against American troops?

FLEISCHER: I can just report to what the president said yesterday. He's thankful that it has not been used. Anything dealing with seizing or anything of that nature, you have to talk to the Pentagon about.

QUESTION: Well, right, but you speak every day about weapons of mass destruction. Should this be an indication that this is less important than territorial gain or seizing oil wells that we have not done this sort of thing?

FLEISCHER: No, I think you're -- if you're asking about plans that would result in the seizure of WMD, things of that nature, that's something that General Franks has briefed on in the Gulf and I would refer you to his words.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) you're not surprised that they haven't been found?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think there could be a variety of factors behind it, but as we have said repeatedly we are -- we have information that Iraq has possessed biological and possesses biological and chemical weapons.

QUESTION: Two questions. First, on the issue of the conversation with President Putin about the Russian technology, is it the United States government's concern that solely that Russia or a Russian company transferred to Iraq this GPS jamming equipment, or did the president discuss concerns that perhaps there are Russian advisers inside Iraq now helping the Iraqis use this equipment?

FLEISCHER: No, the issue that was raised in the phone call was the transfer from Russian companies to Iraqi authorities of this technology. QUESTION: And this is probably isolated, but there have been grumblings today, both from members of a Marine unit, and members of an Army unit, that one of their concerns in these firefights is that they're not being allowed to use enough force.

Is there any concern here that, because of the admirable goals of trying to protect Iraqi civilians and Iraqi infrastructure, that Americans are being put at risk in some of these skirmishes because they're not allowed, in the cases of Iraqi shooting at them from residential areas where there are civilians, to use overwhelming force to go after them?

FLEISCHER: No, the president is very satisfied that the rules of engagement are rules of engagement that are to be set by the experts who fight and win wars, and that's the Pentagon.

The Pentagon makes the determinations about the exact tactical operations that are to be pursued to disarm Saddam Hussein and to engage in whatever conflicts or firefights our men and women are involved in.

The president is satisfied with that, and those are questions, again, to DOD.

QUESTION: Another question on the Russian equipment: Do you have any evidence that the GPS jamming devices or the night vision goggles or anything else is being used right now by Iraqi forces against American troops?

FLEISCHER: We have credible evidence that Russian companies provided the assistance and the prohibited hardware to the Iraqi regime. That's why we have found these actions to be disturbing.

Beyond that I'm not prepared to say with any level of specificity beyond that, but we have concerns they were provided, they were not provided for the purpose of sitting on shelves.

QUESTION: But you don't know for sure that they're being used right now, but you're concerned that they might be?

FLEISCHER: Again, I think I've expressed it.

QUESTION: The president's schedule has been quite curtailed for the last couple of weeks with almost no public events. That seems to have changed starting last night, today, the rest of the week, he plans a trip on Wednesday.

Has the president made a decision that it's time for him to be much more visible to the American people at this point in the conflict?

FLEISCHER: No, but I think that in the initial 24, 48 hours in the military conflict beginning the president, of course, addressed the nation to explain that it was going to begin and why.

And then the president thought that the best spokespeople for detailed understanding for the country of what is being pursued on the ground should come from Secretary Rumsfeld, General Myers and the DOD briefers.

Of course, the president will continue to be very up-front and visible, and talk to the American people about what is happening and why it's happening and that's been planned for the events that we've already reported to you this week, for example, the president's trip tomorrow, the president's trip Wednesday, you have that information already.

QUESTION: Particularly as the news gets worse and American casualties mount, does the president feel that it's important to be able to communicate with the American people about why there's a...

FLEISCHER: The president -- regardless of what happens with casualties or the pace of casualties, the president knows it is always important a part of his job to communicate with the American people, and that's why he will continue to do it.

QUESTION: If I could pick up on that point, is there a concern that the American public might have, at least from the first few days, gotten the sense that this was going to be easier than in fact it is proving to be?

FLEISCHER: Well, I can't speak for the public's understanding, of course, but I can say that the president has always said that this would be long and it risked being hard.

If you recall the president taped his radio address on Friday, and he taped it Friday morning, as I reported to you on Friday.

FLEISCHER: And in the radio address the president said, Friday morning, that this could be longer and harder than some people have thought.

So this has always been part of the war planning. This has been built into the work that has been done by our leaders in the Pentagon, has been reflected as part of the president's overall approach.

QUESTION: Can you bring us up to date on the thinking about Saddam Hussein, any comments you have on the most recent...

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm going to break way from the White House press briefing momentarily to go to Baghdad.


BLITZER: We're going to back to the White House, where Ari Fleischer, the press secretary, is still responding to reporters' questions.

QUESTION: ....three times in the last two days. Why is he here so often?

FLEISCHER: You said three times in the last two days. I think he was here meeting with staff last week. He met with staff this morning. He'll met with the president.

As I indicated, he meets with staff. It's not my habit to read out every staff member's meeting with everybody in Washington, D.C. If I'd did that, we'd never take any questions; it'd only be about what staffers met with whom. So I can't speak to every staff meeting that somebody has.

QUESTION: That is clearly an increased presence here at the White House.

FLEISCHER: How do you know that? If I haven't read out the staff meetings before, I don't think you have really much of a basis to compare whether he's here on an increased or at the same level as always.

The chairman of the Federal Reserve, as part of his duties and this administration and in all administrations, meets with the most senior staff to discuss economic matters, and meets with the president periodically.

QUESTION: On that basis?

FLEISCHER: On a periodic basis. Sure.

QUESTION: Three times in two days? He's here that often?

FLEISCHER: I don't know what you're making of that, but whatever the facts are, he meets with staff from time to time.

QUESTION: On GPS, you didn't answer the first question...

FLEISCHER: I do not have any type of breakdown specifically on night vision versus GPS versus anti-tank guided missiles. We have concerns about all of them.

QUESTION: Ari, on Friday the door still seemed to be a little bit open to exile. Over the weekend there were some setbacks. The president had comments on it yesterday for apparent war crimes, executing American GIs in Iraq. Is the door now effectively closed to any arrangement for exile of Saddam and...

FLEISCHER: Well, you've heard the president say yesterday he gave Saddam the 48 hours to leave the country to avoid military conflict and he did not take him up on that. But I think if you look realistically now, it's a hard thing to imagine that Saddam would now take advantage of it. We still are hoping for every opportunity that result in settling this as peacefully as possible. But I think you have to be realistic about what Saddam plans to do.

QUESTION: Last week Northwest Airlines laid-off several thousand employees blaming the war. Why hasn't the administration taken a position on an airline relief package, and would it oppose congressional efforts to add such a package to the war supplemental?

FLEISCHER: Well, we continue to consult with the airlines. Meetings have been held here between administration economic advisers and the airlines. The airlines, of course, even prior to September 11th, were not in a strong a financial condition as they would've liked. September 11th made it harder and a large package was passed to help the airlines with that.

Of course, conditions now prior to the war also had an economic impact on the airlines separate and apart from anything that's happened in Iraq.

So we will continue to work with them and to listen to them, and I'm not going to prejudge all outcomes.

QUESTION: Senator Lott, Senator McCain sent a letter last week which has not been answered yet. Is the administration going to take a position in time to consider it as part of the war supplemental?

FLEISCHER: As I mentioned, we'll continue to work with Congress on this, and listen to the various advice we have. I can't predict all outcomes.

QUESTION: Ari, yesterday the president said -- someone asked him if he though the POWs would be coming back, and he said, "Of course," while the first response that we understand the White House or the military been making with the Red Cross to see how the POWs are. Has the White House gotten any information as to when the Red Cross will be going in to see them?

FLEISCHER: That information would be handled by the Department of Defense through our officials in the Gulf. That would not be the Red Cross conveying that to the White House.

So again, I understand the sensitivity on this issue, but it still remains an operational matter involving our prisoners and our forces and you'd have to address it to DOD.

QUESTION: Yes, but for President Bush to make that statement, does he feel comfortable..

FLEISCHER: I think you might want to take a look at the exact question he was asked. I think the question was, "Are there things that can be done to make sure they come home?" and the president said, "Of course." I don't think it was a guarantee.

QUESTION: Right. But for him to make that, "Of course," that, kind of, leave the impression, at least with me, that the Red Cross is involved, and once they get in, that's a sign -- once they get in and look that is a clear signal that they could be coming home if things would be working.

FLEISCHER: Let us hope that is the case.

QUESTION: Anything new on the Turkish front, and what is the president doing to make sure Turkish troops stay out of northern Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Position vis-a-vis Turkey is well known; we said it repeatedly. And we have American officials who are in contact with Turkish officials on a regular basis to make certain they understand our position, and that continues.

QUESTION: Have we got any assurances that they will stay out?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that there are ongoing conversations about this, and our position is unchanged, it's been made very clear, and we continue to talk to Turkish officials about it. There were many reports previously that Turkish forces has crossed the border, and none of those have materialized, but it does remain a matter of ongoing discussion and concern.

QUESTION: You said that Presidents Bush and Putin discussed cooperation on humanitarian issues...


QUESTION: ... but the Russians say that Putin urged the president to avoid, quote, "a humanitarian catastrophe," unquote. Was this conversation perhaps a bit more contentious than you've indicated?

FLEISCHER: No. But, you know, I think it's fair to say that President Bush and President Putin have a good personal relationship, and it's also marked by being a good, frank relationship. The two of them are comfortable saying directly to each other what they think. That's the mark of a strong relationship.

What I've noticed in diplomacy is oftentimes when people don't speak directly to each other about what they think it's the mark of relations that are not as strong as they otherwise could be.

So the two leaders do speak directly to each other. They speak frankly to each other. They hold each other in high personal regard. Nevertheless, there are some differences in our views about situations in Iraq. I've walked you through several of them today.

QUESTION: So what's your frank appraisal of the Russians' concern about the U.S. provoking a humanitarian catastrophe?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the differences there are well known and obvious. Russia did not think that military force should be used to disarm Saddam Hussein. Russia did not see the threat of Saddam Hussein the same way the United States, in the post-9/11 world, saw the threat from Saddam Hussein. So that's not surprising.

But what is important is that, especially when it comes to humanitarian issues, that we are able to work together. That remains important.

QUESTION: Ari, can you preview the Pentagon event tomorrow? And on the supplemental...

BLITZER: All right. We're going to break away from Ari Flesicher's briefing -- Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary answering reporters' questions, confirming that there was, in fact, a phone call between the president of the United States, the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin earlier today.

President Bush expressing deep concern over suggestions, reports, U.S. information that Russian companies have been providing some high technology equipment, even recently, to the Iraqi government, including jamming equipment that could jam GPS systems that would undermine the U.S. military effort. The United States, the Bush administration insisting this is a violation of the U.N. sanctions that have been imposed against Iraq and they're expecting the Russian government to deal with this, to stop providing the Iraqi government with this kind of sophisticated, high technology equipment.

But the press secretary also saying that the president is satisfied with the rules of engagement that the U.S. military says. Some mummurings out there from troops that there -- because they're so -- they're trying to be so cautious in avoiding civilian casualties, as a result some of the U.S. Marines and soldiers moving into southern and central Iraq are themselves becoming endangered. The president, through Ari Fleischer, satisfied with the military's rules of engagement that have been put forward to prevent innocent civilians from being killed.

We're going to continue to monitor Ari Flesicher's briefing.


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