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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Ari Fleischer Gives White House Briefing

Aired December 4, 2002 - 12:27   ET

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

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you now to the White House, Ari Fleischer giving the briefing -- the subject Iraq.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

QUESTION: ... let this play out? The inspectors say they're going to go back in January.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Let me try to review with you the steps that will be upcoming. And the president is less interested in any of these statements that Iraqis happen to make. He's more interested in what they put in writing and present, per their obligations to the United Nations Security Council.

On December 8, the Iraqis have said that they will turn over, per their obligations to the U.N., a declaration of their weapons programs. It is up to the Iraqis to determine the length of it, what it says, the language it will be in. We have various reports that it may be hundreds, if not thousands of pages long. It may be in more than one language. We'll have to see what the Iraqis turn over.

It will then go to the United Nations, and then the United Nations will review it through the Security Council. It will be shared with member states of the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly. And then the United States will carefully review it. We will take the appropriate amount of time to review it, to assess it, to study it.

And then, only at that point will I be able to indicate what the United States thinks of it. And I don't know because it depends much of what the Iraqis say and how much they provide, how long that process will take. But it begins on the 8th.

QUESTION: If I can try one more time. I mean, we know what they're going to say if the officer is speaking on behalf of the country, which is "We have no weapons of mass destruction. There will be new stuff in the declaration, but nothing that is prohibited." So given that, are they not already in defiance?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president will wait until they make the formal declaration as required by the United Nations Security Council. However, the last time the Iraqis said they had no weapons of mass destruction, they turned out to be liars.

QUESTION: OK. Can I follow up on that? You said events proved them false...

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: ... and the facts contradicted them. What facts contradict them now?

FLEISCHER: Well, we'll find out. Let's wait to see what they publish.

QUESTION: Will you wait to develop facts?

FLEISCHER: That's what I just indicated. The Iraqis will turn this document over. And we are less interested in any of their public statements now and more interested in what they actually put in writing when they provide this document to the United Nations Security Council.

At that point, we will study it. We will assess it. We will review it. And then the inspections, of course, will accelerate beyond that.

QUESTION: So you won't have a statement about whether or not that would be a material breach of the resolution?

FLEISCHER: I can't predict any future statement. We haven't seen what the Iraqis said yet.

QUESTION: Well, let me ask you then based on their statement and your previous statements. They say they don't have weapons. It's the position of the United States that they do. Can you prove that?

FLEISCHER: We have said publicly that based on our information, they indeed have weapons of mass destruction. And this is why I remind you, the Iraqis do not exactly have a good track record of honesty and truth-telling when it comes to the declaration of what they have. That's why the work of the inspectors is important. And that's why the president insisted on the return of the inspectors.

This is why the president refers to this as 10 years of defiance. We've heard Iraqi lies before. After all, when the Iraqis recently said in the '90s they had no weapons of mass destruction, how do they explain the fact that they proved that they had them?

QUESTION: But what proved that they were lying were facts established by the inspectors.

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: Is that what will happen this time?

FLEISCHER: That's the purpose of having the inspectors there. That's what the president hopes inspectors will be able to do.

QUESTION: So the inspectors will disprove any lie by the Iraqis?

FLEISCHER: That's the purpose of having the inspectors there. Whether the inspectors ultimately will be able to disprove any lie by the Iraqis remains to be determined. That depends on the resources of the inspectors. It also depends substantially on the compliance of Iraq with the inspection regime.

QUESTION: You indicated earlier this morning that you could inform us of how the president's being informed about the inspections. Is he being informed? Does he get reports on a regular basis? How does he know these bellicose statements that he's making? And the first law of journalism is never to assume. And I don't think the White House is aware of that.

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, the first law is never assume?

QUESTION: Never assume.

FLEISCHER: I'm not sure what that means. But in any case, the president does receive reports on a daily basis in his morning briefings. And as a result...

QUESTION: From whom?

FLEISCHER: It's the National Security Council team, the security team, Dr. Rice and others.

And I'm not going to get into the specifics...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to get into the specifics of what he is told in these briefings. But you can presume the mechanisms that are set up through the United Nations, because they have their inspectors on the ground who conduct their inspections. Then there is actually a very slow process, where the inspectors then, through their official channels, get back to the United Nations Security Council through their direct relationship with the Security Council. The Security Council then receives the information. And that's the official flow of the information. The United States, then, would be in a position to receive it from the United Nations.

QUESTION: That's how we're getting it then, through the Security Council.

FLEISCHER: That's the official loop of the information. And I don't think you're going to be surprised to see that there will often be a lag between some of the leaks that come out on the ground immediately in Baghdad and the official channels that the information flows in.

QUESTION: Ari, the U.N. resolution clearly states that any false statements or omissions in the declaration due on the 8th will constitute further material breach. Will a false statement or an omission on that document be a trigger for war?

FLEISCHER: The president, again, will look forward to seeing the assessments and the studies of the document that Iraq presents on December 8. This will be the beginning of a process.

The administration will review the information that we receive from the Iraqis. We have our own ways of determining whether something seems to be accurate or not and...

QUESTION: I understand all that. But will a false statement on that declaration be a trigger for war?

FLEISCHER: As I indicated, December 8 will be the beginning of a process. The trigger for war will be decided by Saddam Hussein and only Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein has within his ability the means to avoid war. The president has said war is his last resort.

Now, Saddam Hussein has to disarm. And Saddam Hussein has to figure out what the president means when the president says zero tolerance. The president hopes that Saddam Hussein interprets that to mean that he must do what he promised the world, and that is disarm.

The burden is on Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Well, if an omission or a false statement in the declaration does not automatically constitute a trigger for war, then what teeth are in that resolution?

FLEISCHER: Let me just say, when it comes to anything that, as you put, is a trigger for war, if there were such a trigger for war, you would hear about that from the president and not from the staff. But the process begins on December 8, and that is the path that the president sought to put into motion, and this process is now beginning.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... acceleration of the inspections after the 8th to verify the Iraqi declaration. Can you talk a little bit about sort of what acceleration means and does it involve a widening in the number of people on the ground, sort of troop support (OFF-MIKE), a greater number of U.N. officials? What does it mean, you know, to accelerate and to widen (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: Under the plan that the United Nations has put in place to verify Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions, the United Nations is sending a growing number of inspectors into Iraq. And these inspectors will have additional equipment that allows them to do their job. And the amount of equipment and the amount of inspectors grows over time, per the United Nations plans.

What you have seen in the last five or six days or so has been the very, very beginning of a process where they have a small crew of people inside Iraq with a limited amount of equipment. You can anticipate that more people and more people will be arriving.

QUESTION: Do you know how much that grows then, from the small to what levels...

FLEISCHER: I don't have...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: No, I don't have the precise numbers of people, whether it's going to go from 17 to 111. I don't have that. I don't keep that. That's the United Nations.

QUESTION: And prior to the action, earlier this fall we were talking about a robust inspection process.

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: And that was described as involving troop support in some way to protect the inspectors on the ground. Is that anticipated as it accelerates, this inspection process accelerates?

FLEISCHER: No, the terms of the inspectors going to Iraq was determined by the 15-to-nothing United Nations Security Council vote, which, of course, the United States pushed for, and troops was not a part of that.

QUESTION: First, on the first few days of the inspections, it's been a little confusing what the president's remarks were really aimed at. Does the White House regard this first few days of inspections as a meaningful indication of anything?

FLEISCHER: The White House, President Bush regards these first several days of inspections in the precise words that the president used: the beginning of a process.

I have said that it was too soon to say what any of these preliminary inspections with the limited number of inspectors on the ground means to whether or not Saddam Hussein will indeed disarm.

And I think it's pretty logical that the process is beginning. They have a small number of inspectors on the ground now with not as many resources that they will have.

After 11 years of defiance, after four years of the absence of inspectors, six days is not even close to enough time to determine whether Saddam Hussein is cooperating or complying with his mandate to disarm, but it is the beginning of a process that the president thinks is an important process that he called for and is pleased to see that the process of inspections is again resuming.

QUESTION: Now, when that declaration comes out, I gather what you were saying is that we will take that declaration. The inspectors will then go and check the assertions by the Iraqis that they don't have these things. And that you seem to be saying the U.S. would wait until there was evidence of the contrary, rather than to just declare a declaration they have no weapons as false on the face of it.

FLEISCHER: No, I said nothing about what the United States would do after we get it. I'm reserving judgment for the events to take place. I'm not going to speculate about what a future event may be about a document that we have yet to see.

QUESTION: No, the question was: Do we intend to wait for evidence that it's false or just declare it false if they claim they have nothing when it...

FLEISCHER: No, I said that we will begin, upon receipt of the Iraqi document through the United Nations, then into the hands of the United States government, we will wait to study it, to review it, to assess what it means. And that could take -- I can't predict how much time it will take, because that depends on what the document says, how voluminous or how short it is. But it will be a process in and of itself.

QUESTION: How much concern is there that this could be a quagmire, that you would have months of no clear evidence one way or the other that the Iraqis do or do not have weapons of mass destruction?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's up to Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein can create a quagmire if he wants to. He certainly did in the 1990s. The president hopes that the inspection regime will be tough enough and vigorous enough to get at the bottom line, which the world wants to see, and that is that Saddam Hussein disarms. If it is a quagmire, it's because Saddam Hussein turned it into one.

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