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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Briefing

Aired September 4, 2002 - 12:48   ET

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


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to take you live to the White House now, where White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer is come up to the microphone going to address reporters. Of course the big agenda item, Iraq. The president met with congressional leaders this morning. We've been talking about that all morning. We'll talk more about it this afternoon.
Let's see what Ari Fleishcer has to say.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: I suggest that you be in New York to hear the speech, and the president will be able to fill you in.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) just the most broadest guidance? I'm not asking what his plan is -- will we know what his plan is?

FLEISCHER: Let me try to help you out a little bit here. As you could see in the president's remarks today with the congressional leaders, and in other phone calls the president will have with world leaders this week and his meeting with Prime Minister Blair this weekend, and then leading up to the speech the president will give to the United Nations, the president will continue to make the case to the American people about how the best way to promote peace and stability and freedom for the United States and the world, particularly in the region of the Middle East, is by removing the threat that we all face through Saddam Hussein's presence as leader of Iraq.

The president will continue to make that case. The president wants to engage in the debate that democracies must go through in order for the public to fully understand the issues, in order for Congress to play its full role in this issue, and in order for the world to play its role.

And so the president will consult, the president will listen, and the president will lead.

QUESTION: I'm simply asking -- I can infer from your answer either way -- will we know after the speech, will we know on the 12th what his plan is to overthrow Saddam, or will he simply have made it a better, bolder case for overthrowing? We know what he's doing here.

FLEISCHER: I think you will continue to see the president making the case why the world will be better off without Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq, without Saddam Hussein trying to arm up, to acquire weapons that he, we fear, will use against either ourselves or our friends. The president will continue to make that case. I'll invite you to listen to it, and you'll be able to evaluate it as time goes along. But the president is just beginning to make this case.

QUESTION: Ari, can you clear up a point that was made this morning? Is the president going to seek support from Congress, or approval from Congress? And, you know, what kind of form would he seek either support or approval?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's fair to say that Congress will draft the appropriate language in consultation with the White House for a vote that can include any number of things, including the option of military force.

QUESTION: But one implies permission and the other one implies a vote of confidence.

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say, and you know this from the legal findings that took place over the last couple of weeks, that from a legal point of view, the White House has the authority that it needs. From a much broader point of view, the president said this morning that he will seek congressional approval for any of the options that he may consider.

QUESTION: So he's looking for permission as opposed to a measure of support, because the words "support" were used by some officials and then the words "approval" were all...

FLEISCHER: I think this is very much akin to the vote the Congress took in early 1992. The White House position today is similar to the vote -- the position back then from a legal point of view about the authority that the president has as commander in chief. Nevertheless, it is very important, particularly in a democracy, for Congress to have its role, for Congress to speak and for Congress to vote.

QUESTION: '92 or '91?

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, 1991 was the vote. The vote was in 1991.

QUESTION: If the president makes a persuasive case about the need to remove Saddam Hussein, but that's really just the first question, isn't it? What's the president's position on what comes next? Some of the members of Congress talked about the need to level with the American people about the possibility of a long-term American occupation. What's the president's position on this?

FLEISCHER: Well, one, the president again has made no decision about the use of the military. And the president's position is strikingly similar to Congress' position about the world being better off without Saddam Hussein being in charge.

Congress has voted on that matter themselves. They took a vote on that and it is an important part of the debate that will take place up on the Hill where administration witnesses will go and testify, the secretaries of the government will go and testify, the secretary of defense, secretary of state et cetera, and they will talk about these issues.

FLEISCHER: The president's point of view is the world will be far better off without Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq. We look forward to an Iraq that is democratic, that is stable, that is unified, and that's the administration position.

QUESTION: And what's the American responsibility in ensuring that stability and that unity?

FLEISCHER: The United States plays a role. The world plays a role. Because the world and the United States will all be better off with a new regime in Iraq. But the Iraqi people play as well. The Iraqi people play the central role.

QUESTION: Would that role potentially include American occupation of Iraq?

FLEISCHER: You are presupposing American military force is in Iraq, and that's a decision the president has not yet made.

But the president will go into this with his eyes wide open, asking for the country to focus on this, asking for Congress to focus on this to consider all the implications, consider all the issues. The president right now is focusing on how the world will be better off without Saddam. I think it's a fair point, and it's a point that will indeed be raised, and has to be thought through.

QUESTION: Beyond his opinion that the world will be better off, did he present any concrete evidence of Iraq on the verge of nuclear planning, nuclear bombs, or any other thing that would really be different than what Israel has today?

FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, I don't think it's fair to compare Israel to Iraq.

QUESTION: Israel is the only nuclear power in the Middle East.

FLEISCHER: I don't think it's fair to compare.

Let me go through something here for you. On September 22nd, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, starting an eight-year war in which Iraq employed chemical weapons against Iranian troops and ballistic missiles against Iranian cities.

In February 1988, Iraq forcibly relocated Kurdish civilians from their home villages, killing an estimated 50,000 to 180,000 Kurds. On March 16th, 1988, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurdish civilian opponents, killing an estimated 5,000 Kurds. It caused numerous birth effects that affect the town still today. That's the town of Halabja.

On August 2nd, 1990, Iraq invaded and began a seven-month occupation of Kuwait.

In April 1993, Iraq orchestrated a failed plot to assassinate former President Bush. Since March 1996, Iraq has systematically sought to deny weapons inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq access to key facilities and documents, has on several occasions endangered the safe operations of the United Nations officials and their helicopters transporting personnel in Iraq, and has persisted in a pattern of deception and concealment regarding the history of its weapons of mass destruction programs.

August 5th, 1998, Iraq ceased all cooperation with UNSCOM and subsequently threatened to end the long-term monitoring activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency and UNSCOM.

These were the findings that Congress made, that President Clinton signed into law as part of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. This is what Congress found that led to the overwhelming vote for regime change in the Congress. These were their findings at that time.

Since then, we know that America is even more vulnerable because of September 11th.

QUESTION: Has any other nation defied U.N. resolutions and have we decided to go to war against them?

FLEISCHER: The president has not decided to go to war, but the president has decided that...

QUESTION: He's certainly on the verge, how long does it take?

FLEISCHER: He won't -- that the world has an obligation not to let Saddam Hussein thwart all these resolutions.

QUESTION: Don't you think (OFF-MIKE) he is going to war?

FLEISCHER: No.

QUESTION: You've talked generally about options, making it clear the president hasn't made a decision as to what to do. There's a report in the L.A. Times today that says one of the things the administration is looking at is what they describe as coercive inspections, which I guess means the inspectors would go back into Iraq but with military forces of some sort backing them up. And that they could use force if the inspectors were denied. Is that...

FLEISCHER: I saw that report and I can't vouch for it. I can tell you that, as the president indicated today, the goal is disarmament. Inspectors are one means to try to find out whether or not Saddam Hussein has indeed lived up to his commitments and has indeed disarmed.

I wouldn't place a lot of emphasis on that. I think there are still a lot of different things that are being talked through.

QUESTION: Is that a focus, though, I guess when he meets with Blair this weekend and Chretien on Monday? There is still a push from our European allies that returning the inspectors should be the first step; has the president ruled that out? FLEISCHER: The president has, no, the president has said that the inspectors need to return. He thinks Iran (sic) needs to allow the inspectors back in with unfettered access, anytime, anywhere to any place.

QUESTION: So why wouldn't that make sense, sending them in with forces backing them up, to say "If you're not going to let us in..."

FLEISCHER: Again, the president is reviewing a great number of options, and the bottom line though is that Iraq needs to live up to its commitments to disarm; not simply allow inspectors in, not to resume a cat-and-mouse game, not to put people in there in harm's way where Saddam Hussein would again use the powers of the state police to rough-up inspectors and make their job impossible to do.

The purpose is for the world to know that Saddam Hussein has lived up to his commitments and has disarmed. After all if the world doesn't know if he's disarmed, how can the world know if it's safe?

The burden is on Saddam Hussein, not on the United States.

QUESTION: Ari, the president will be making his case to the world at a United Nations speech next week. Would he be willing to make a similar speech before a joint session of Congress?

FLEISCHER: I can't predict this early in a process that is going to take some time each and every step along the way. What I can say to you with certainty is that the president will continue to address this matter with the American people and with the Congress and with our friends and allies.

Democracies must proceed in that manner. And the president will lead this democracy in doing that.

QUESTION: Can you define what the president meant by the word "crawfish"?

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: I think what the president is saying is -- let me give you another example on something. This is the United Nations resolution in 1991 that set out many of the terms by which Saddam Hussein pledged to abide by and that's what helped end the Gulf War.

"The United Nations, in 1991" -- and I'm reading from this -- "decided that Iraq shall unconditionally accept the destruction and removal or render harmless under international supervision of all chemical and biological weapons and all stocks and agents of all related subsystems and components of research development support and manufacturing facilities. Also they will unconditionally accept the destruction and removal and rendering harmless of all ballistic missiles with a range of greater than 150 kilometers."

This is what Saddam Hussein promised to do. This is what Saddam Hussein has tried his best to slither out of; as the president put it, "to crawfish out of." These are the promises that Saddam Hussein made to the world, promises made to ensure peace that Saddam Hussein has not honored. This is why peace is at risk. This is why peace is at jeopardy, because Saddam Hussein made these promises. Saddam Hussein promised that he would give up chemical weapons, promised he would give up biological weapons, promised he would give up missiles that had a range of greater than 150 kilometers. He has not done so.

FLEISCHER: That is the threat to peace.

QUESTION: The president said that he was seeing Tony Blair this weekend, that he was also speaking to the leaders of France, Russia, China. In fact, these are the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: Are the U.S. and Britain considering the need for some new U.N. resolutions, possibly asking for tougher kind of inspections, or at least is this an indication that the next step goes through the U.N.?

FLEISCHER: The president today said that he would, at the appropriate time, ask Congress to approve any resolution, if he makes that determination.

The president will continue to consult with our friends and allies. He will begin with the members, as you point out, of the Perm 5 -- the Security Council's permanent five members. He will also discuss this when he goes the United Nations and speaks to nations throughout the world. He will continue to consult. He will continue to listen. And as he has more determinations to make, he will share them with you. If that is one of them, he will share that with you at the appropriate time.

This is the beginning of a process, and it's the beginning of an important process, for the president of the United States, the leader of the democracy that has kept the world free and safe, to speak to other nations, to speak to our allies, to speak to our enemies, and most importantly, to speak to the American people, so the American people can understand what is at stake, why it is so important, and how open the president will be in the formulation of whatever policy he decides is necessary.

QUESTION: In other words, there could be a new U.N. resolution on Iraq.

FLEISCHER: Again, the president will continue to consult with our allies, and this is the beginning of the process.

QUESTION: Two quick questions, please. One, when the president goes to the U.N. next week and meeting world leaders, do you think he is going to make this time his case the way he did in the case of Afghanistan? Will he compare these two, Afghanistan, Taliban and Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein? And also, the world economy is already bad, but oil flow may be on hold after the (OFF-MIKE) What is he thinking about, because many countries may not get oil?

FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not going to predict what the president will say beyond what I've said about August 12th. But certainly there is no question that there are people in this world, Al Qaida, Saddam Hussein, who have, or in the case of Al Qaida, who had, although they are trying to regroup, means to attack and harm the United States, our people and our interests abroad, our friend Israel. And they have shown a willingness to use those weapons, to take lives, and that is why the world has to stand strong in the president's opinion to protect freedom and to protect our way of life.

QUESTION: Second question is that the closer we get to 9/11 first anniversary, people here are still (OFF-MIKE) living in fear and terrified. What message do you think he has now on this first anniversary that how can they live their lives, and also especially their businesses are being hurt and losing their shirts every day?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president, on September 11th, will also give an important speech. And that will be, I think, a very solemn day for the American people, and the president's remarks, we are going to want to be very respectful of those who have lost their lives, those who mourn, and he will talk about the wonderful love that our country has for their families of survivors, and talk about the challenges our nation faces from those who would take away our lives if they could.

QUESTION: Ari, Gephardt said today that he didn't hear anything new in the meeting today. I am wondering, as the president begins to talk to Congress, is the plan to really, sort of, repeat information that they already have about Saddam?

Does he think they already know enough? Or does he have significant new pieces of information that he's going to share with them to convince them to support these resolutions?

FLEISCHER: Well, the purpose of the meeting today, as the president made plain, was to inform them that he will seek congressional support if it comes to that point at the appropriate time. That was the purpose of the meeting. The purpose of the meeting was not to share intelligence information. There will be many other meetings that information will be conveyed.

Secretary Rumsfeld is traveling up to Capitol Hill today to have closed-door meetings with members of Congress. I think you can anticipate throughout the course of the public hearings that the House and Senate will hold, with administration officials testifying, the president will continue to lay out the case.

QUESTION: You're crawfishing away from my question.

(LAUGHTER)

Does he have new information that he's going to share with them in order to try to get Congress to support him or do they have enough already?

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that when this becomes a matter of a vote in the Congress, the president is very confident that he'll have the support of the overwhelming majority of the Congress. I think the Congress has voted like that in the past, and the president will continue to make the case and he's confident that Congress will support him.

Now, there may be some members who don't, and they'll speak on their own and they will, I'm sure in good faith and on principle, announce why they would oppose. But the president is confident that when this goes to a vote at the appropriate time that the vote will be a yes vote.

QUESTION: You said if it comes to that time. I don't understand. Is there definitely going to be a vote or is it contingent on a decision to go to war?

FLEISCHER: The president said at the appropriate time this administration will go to the Congress to seek approval.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) he will go to seek approval no matter what?

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that there will be a vote in the Congress before they leave for the elections.

QUESTION: That would include sanctioning military and possibly other options for removing Saddam Hussein.

FLEISCHER: The exact language -- as I indicated at the top, the exact language, of course, as always and anytime Congress works on anything will get discussed between the White House and the legislature.

QUESTION: Following on that, will the...

FLEISCHER: On the crawfish?

QUESTION: Yes (OFF-MIKE) information that the president will present to lawmakers?

FLEISCHER: The president will continue to make his case. I don't think...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: From the president's point of view and from Congress' point of view, as a result of the vote they themselves took in 1998, they had all the evidence they needed then that Saddam Hussein needed to go.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: I didn't say he would or he wouldn't. But I'm focused on today's events; I can't predict to you all future events. QUESTION: On the possible resolution of congressional support, does the president anticipate waiting until he has made a decision before seeking this vote in both Houses of Congress or there could be a vote even before the president has decided what action to take?

FLEISCHER: No. I don't rule out that there could be a vote before the president has decided what action to take. Congressional language can often be all-encompassing to allow for different possibilities.

QUESTION: He also wants other things. You also sent letters, I believe, to -- did all members who attended the meeting today get these letters?

FLEISCHER: That's correct. The president sent a letter to the individuals who were there. This is the president's way of saying he wished could have had this meeting with all 535 members of Congress, and so this letter will be disseminated.

QUESTION: Ari (OFF-MIKE) question, one on Iraq and one on Colombia. On Iraq, the president's already started today to make his case to Congress. When will he start making his case with the American people? Will he hold special events, will he travel specifically on this issue?

FLEISCHER: I think the president started making this case with the American people today. I think the president has repeatedly been making his case even earlier, but certainly this is in a new atmosphere and a new context as Congress comes back for the last five weeks of the scheduled session.

QUESTION: Will he have special events?

FLEISCHER: We'll continue to inform you about the various events. I've already indicated, and you heard from the president that he's going to be having some phone calls. And as you know, we always try to give you a report on the phone calls. He'll have the speech up at the United Nations. He'll have the prime minister of England to Camp David. So there will be a series of events, and there's a public component for much of this where you'll get a chance to talk to the president.

QUESTION: On Colombia, you said yesterday the president will be receiving the new president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe Velez, on the 25th. New York Times today has a story saying that with his support, president of Colombia, United States has begun what American officials say will be the biggest and most aggressive effort yet to wipe out coca growing by spring. It also says that the amount of crop dusters arriving from this country to Colombia will increase from 12 to 22 by next spring, but at the same time the State Department is expected to submit a report to Congress today on the potential health effects of the spraying.

Under the provision sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy, Congress has required that the Department of State, in consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency, certify that the use of pesticides does not pose unreasonable risks or adverse effects to humans or the environment.

Does the White House have a position?

FLEISCHER: Let me see if I can get anything on that and post it for you later today.

QUESTION: Let me see if I can clarify. You want Congress to give its support for the use of military action before the president decides whether or not it's necessary.

FLEISCHER: No, I said I don't rule out that that could be the timing.

QUESTION: Because we don't know when the president's going to make a decision.

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: But he's already asking for support.

FLEISCHER: The president has said that at the appropriate time...

PHILLIPS: A number of questions from reporters there during the White House briefing with White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Ari Fleischer still sticking to three words that president will consult, listen and lead. A lot is coming down with regard to Iraq. The president met with congressional leaders this morning. He is going to have a weekend meeting with prime minister of Britain Tony Blair. And then of course he has a speech to the U.N. September 12th, just one day after the anniversary of September 11th. Will we know on the 12th if indeed a war will take place against Iraq? Ari Fleischer said we must wait and see. This is just the beginning of the case that president needs to make with regard to an attack.

Once again, Ari Fleischer reminding reporters of Saddam's violent history and fact that he has ignored agreements made after the Gulf War to keep weapons of mass destruction from being built and from being distributed.

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