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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Briefing

Aired December 11, 2002 - 12:42   ET

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

WOLF BLITZER: The White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer is answering reporters' questions on all of these issues right now. Let's listen in.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: The president congratulates Ambassador Zoellick and Minister Alvear for the fine work in producing this long-sought free trade agreement. The teams involved in this have worked long and hard, and this is important to America's economy and to the economy of Chile.

This agreement with Chile will mean higher, better paying jobs for Americans and is important to our outreach in the hemisphere with our friends and allies. The president looks forward to other initiatives in the hemisphere and continuing to make progress in the promotion of free trade.

And with that, I'll be happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the status is of the ship carrying the 15 Scud missiles that were headed for Yemen? And can you kind of walk us through this whole incident?

FLEISCHER: Let me start on the walk through, and then I'll give you the status. There are some developments.

This has been a very successful coalition interdiction effort that took place in the Arabian Sea. We became aware of the departure of the ship from North Korea that was carrying what we believe to be weapons of concern. This was a non-flagged vessel, which gave us further concern. And the vessel was destined for Yemen.

We had a concern about what was on it. We had a concern before ascertaining, indeed, that it was going to Yemen, that it may have been heading for a nation that is a potential terrorist nation.

As a result, the action that was taken, where the ship was stopped and boarded. And I can report to you now that as this matter has been discussed with the Yemenese officials -- Secretary Powell has spoken with Yemenese authorities, the vice president has done so, as well. We have looked at this matter thoroughly. There is no provision under international law prohibiting Yemen from accepting delivery of missiles from North Korea.

FLEISCHER: While there is authority to stop and search, in this instance there is no clear authority to seize the shipment of Scud missiles from North Korea to Yemen, and therefore the merchant vessel is being released. QUESTION: If I could just follow up on that. Were the Yemenis contacted when the ship left that we thought it was going there, and did they in fact say that they had not purchased any new missiles from North Korea?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I heard a media report, or at least a question pertaining to that, and I have started to track that down, and I do not think that's an accurate statement. The information I have does not lend me to support that thesis.

QUESTION: Did the United States have an agreement with Yemen that Yemen not purchase this type of equipment from North Korea?

FLEISCHER: We have, as you know, efforts around the world on the proliferation front to discourage missile technology's import or export in (inaudible) cases. And that is part of our ongoing dialogue with Yemen. It involves some issues that immediately enter the category of legality in terms of various agreements, international treaties and agreements and understandings between the United States and Yemen and around the world vis-a-vis the missile technology control regime. And so the conversations have been taking place with Yemen about it, but it's not possible to reach such a clear conclusion.

QUESTION: While although it may not be illegal, the Pentagon has been saying it's in violation of an agreement with the United States.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Well, again, there are certain legalities that accompany these understandings with different nations, all of which need to be fully explored. And that is why we began the conversations with Yemen as these issues were being explored, and this is also why the decisions have been made to release the ship.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... "yes," "no," or, "I don't understand," to the question?

FLEISCHER: No, it's just what I indicated.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... violate an agreement with the United States.

FLEISCHER: It's a series of conversations and understandings that exist, and the legalities of those conversations are very important to understand.

QUESTION: Is that the answer, is, "We don't know whether or not it's a violation of the agreement"?

FLEISCHER: No, I think that that would be a bit of an overstatement.

QUESTION: I don't know -- I wouldn't know what to write (OFF- MIKE).

FLEISCHER: Well, again, as I indicated, there is no provision under international law that prohibits this. And as we discussed this with Yemen, in terms of our dedication toward international law and to the honoring of proliferation agreements, those conversations have led to the conclusion that the ship has been released.

QUESTION: But have they given us assurances, verbal or written, that they would not buy anymore missile technology from North Korea after the August embargo was slapped on the North Korea company?

FLEISCHER: I think that there are indications that things that took place in Yemen previously were not always going to be practiced into the future, and it's a question of exactly how to define the starting date of that future. And that is the point of discussion with Yemen.

QUESTION: All right. So, in other words, an agreement had not been reached yet. So they didn't violate an agreement because you guys are still just talking about it; about something that would codify...

FLEISCHER: And exactly what the starting point of any agreement would be.

QUESTION: OK. All right. So there would be an agreement -- there will be an agreement at some point in the future, but we're not there yet.

FLEISCHER: Let me say this about the future, as well. Yemen is a partner of the United States in the war on terrorism. There are many agreements around the world in the international treaty law which have been agreed to, focused on nuclear proliferation, biological proliferation or chemical weapon proliferation.

One thing that does come out of this that the United States thinks needs to be looked at by the world is that there are less stringent agreements on the international treaty level dealing with proliferation of missiles. The nuclear proliferation agreements are well known, biological and chemical are well known.

One thing that this does underscore is the need to take a look -- and we will do so -- with friends and others around the world in a diplomatic sense about whether or not the international regimes that deal with missile proliferation need a second look.

QUESTION: Let me ask a follow-up? Now that these weapons are going to go on to Yemen, what's the administration's level of concern about a haven for Al Qaeda and a government that has, while it's pledged its cooperation is still rather suspect, taking receipt of these kinds of weapons, possessing them in the first place?

FLEISCHER: Well, Yemen is a sovereign government, and Yemen has given the United States assurances -- and this is what Mr. McClellan referenced this morning -- as conversations took place with Yemen, Yemen has given the United States assurances that it will not transfer these missiles to anyone.

QUESTION: Has the president, or has the White House, anybody here seen the new -- the intelligence report put out by the Senate committee, and what do you think of it?

FLEISCHER: We look forward to receiving it and studying it in its totality.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: I'm not aware that it has reached that level yet, I think they have just come out with it now. Obviously there are some press accounts of it that were given out ahead of release, and it's a question of conveyance and when it will actually be looked at.

But we look forward to looking at this. This is an important document. This was important work that was done by the Congress through the Intelligence Committees that now will be built upon with the 9/11 commission. They have some recommendations in there that we want to review carefully and talk to members of Congress about.

QUESTION: I understand that it takes off on practically all the top officials in this administration in terms of intelligence.

FLEISCHER: Have you read it?

QUESTION: No.

FLEISCHER: Well, then how do you know it took off after all the top officials?

QUESTION: Because I had some good reports.

FLEISCHER: We'll take a look, we'll see what it says. There was a reason that the 9/11 commission was based on the Intelligence Committees' work. The Intelligence Committees performed their duties for the country by taking a look at all the information that was relevant.

FLEISCHER: And the next step is for the administration to receive it and analyze it. We appreciate the work that they put into it.

QUESTION: Well, do you go along with the Defense Department having one intelligence officer over all the agencies?

FLEISCHER: That's a separate issue from what the committee -- this report recommends having a Cabinet-level secretary of intelligence, for lack of better words, and that's a recommendation that we'll review and we'll see what the reasons they have in this report and we'll take a look.

But as far as the Department of Defense, the Department of Defense plays a very valuable role in the intelligence community and they organize themselves as such.

QUESTION: So you don't have any say in that?

FLEISCHER: I've heard no objections from the White House about that matter.

QUESTION: Back on the ship, does the administration believe that the government of Yemen has been completely above board and frank on this matter?

FLEISCHER: I think that in our conversations with Yemen we have talked this matter through. I think that Yemen understands the United States' commitment to making certain that terrorist regimes in the area do not receive weapons. And the United States, as you know from reading our strategy on combating weapons of mass destruction, will be vigilant in fighting proliferation in terms of counterproliferation efforts and nonproliferation efforts, including interdiction, as warranted or necessary.

QUESTION: Follow up on that in just a second, but in talking this matter through the Yemenis were honest, frank and above board with the United States?

FLEISCHER: I think that we have no complaints about the diplomacy between the United States and Yemen as we discuss this matter.

QUESTION: So why was the ship unflagged in international waters (OFF-MIKE)? FLEISCHER: Well, I think those are one of the reasons that we had questions about the ship, and we did not know where the destination of the ship was. And I think that these things are still going to be explored.

QUESTION: Why were the missiles hidden under bags of cement?

FLEISCHER: That's a question that North Korea or Yemen have to answer. But again, because the fact of the matter is it is not (inaudible) product that can be stopped under international law and seized, that the fact that somebody took those steps is not in and of itself a violation of anything. That's why the ship is proceeding.

QUESTION: Did we ask them why they did that?

FLEISCHER: Again, we have reviewed the matter to see what steps were necessary to take and whether or not the ship's delivery should be resumed. And we have no reason legally to stop it, in that sense, or another way.

QUESTION: Has Yemen committed not to take any more shipments from North Korea?

FLEISCHER: I think that's a question you should address to Yemen.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Again, if you're asking about something that Yemen is committing to with other nations, you need to ask Yemen that. (CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... have they committed to the United States, have they committed to the White House after this incident that they will not take any more...

FLEISCHER: Again, I think it's not my job to speak for other governments. I can explain to you what's happened in the case of this ship.

QUESTION: Ari, are you contemplating more sanctions against North Korea for this?

FLEISCHER: Again, under the Missile Technology Control Regime, there is no provision of international law that prohibited this.

QUESTION: Well, what good is it?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's why I said there are issues that are going to be raised that deal with the overall regime of missile import and export. What is clear is that the international regimes that deal with nuclear and others have provisions that do not apply in this case, and international law still has to be obeyed.

QUESTION: Several questions on this, Ari. Let's focus on the North Korea part of it instead of the Yemen portion for a moment.

First of all, after you turned out this policy on interdiction that makes it clear you will stop these, is the lesson that North Korea should draw from this that while the United States is willing to cut off North Korean oil, it is free to ship out its Scud missiles, it's No-Dong missiles, the Taepo Dong missiles (OFF-MIKE) which of course is the main way that it's financing its other weapons of mass destruction program?

The policy of the United States is: As long as the recipient nation can legally receive it, we will do nothing to cut off North Korea's export of missiles.

FLEISCHER: Well, the large majority international community has long opposed proliferation of these type of missiles. The United States has identified North Korea as one of the prime exporters of such missiles. And North Korea actions, in the case of this interception, demonstrate clearly the concerns we have as a country.

Having said that, international law still is international law. And you have to be careful to separate the agreement North Korea made with the United States and Japan and South Korea vis-a-vis the agreed framework and their cooperation with the agreed framework on the issue of oil, which you did raise, separate and apart from whether or not in this instance the export of the Scud missiles was not controlled by international law.

QUESTION: During the Cuban missile crisis, there was no international law that guided missile exports between the Soviet Union at the time and Cuba, and yet the United States turned the ships around.

FLEISCHER: Well, this is why I suggest to you that -- I said earlier that Yemen is a partner of the United States and that we had concerns about whether or not these missiles were going to head to any rogue regimes. And that would have been a different matter.

But the fact of the matter is the import or export of this, which is legal, must be observed under international law. If international law would have given the United States the right to do other things vis-a-vis other nations, you can rest assured we would have exercised those rights.

The issue is whether the national security of the United States...

BLITZER: Ari Fleischer, the White House Press Secretary telling the world that the United States and its partners will indeed allow that ship that was stopped, seized on the -- in the Arabian sea, off the coast of Yemen now. to proceed to continue on to Yemen with those dozen or so SCUD missiles on board. He insists the United States and its Spanish allies had the authority to stop that ship, to inspect that ship...

(AUDIO GAP)

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