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White House Press Briefing

Aired January 13, 2003 - 13:23   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: To the White House now, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer briefing reporters. Let's listen in.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... the president would move into a spot like this.

And finally, the president intends to appoint Dina Habib Powell to replace Clay Johnson as assistant to the president for presidential personnel. Ms. Powell is currently special assistant to the president for presidential personnel.

With that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: How do you spell Everson's last name?

FLEISCHER: Mr. Everson's name is spelled E-V-E-R-S-O-N.

QUESTION: Given the fact that many people in this administration, at least on background, describe what North Korea seems to be trying to do as a shakedown, what do you make of that in light of the fact that the United States is now offering the possibility of fuel aid and other kinds of economic aid if North Korea will simply drop its nuclear program? Why is this somehow different from the so-called shakedown?

FLEISCHER: Well, what we've always said is that North Korea needs to come back into compliance with international obligations. If they do not come back into compliance with international obligations, they'll continue to isolate themselves. And that begins with North Korea's dismantlement of its programs for the development of nuclear weapons.

And as Mr. Kelly made clear in his statement, he said in his own words: once we get beyond nuclear weapons. So the ball remains in North Korea's court. They know what they need to do. And they need to take that action.

QUESTION: So why is that not a quid pro quo?

FLEISCHER: I think that it's clear that North Korea first knows what it needs to do. And we've always said that if North Korea comes into its international obligations then they will stop isolating themselves.

QUESTION: Ari, on Iraq, as this buildup continues, the military buildup continues, Americans can only draw one conclusion, and that is, though it's the last resort, this country is very much readying itself for war.

So why isn't it time to clarify for the American people why exactly we would take such action, what evidence the administration possesses to link Saddam Hussein with an imminent threat against the country?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has made it very clear that the role of the inspectors is a very important part of this process. The inspectors need to be in Iraq to do the job that the world has asked them to do, and they are in the middle of their work.

The president understands and is the first one to understand that in the event he reaches a conclusion that Saddam Hussein has refused to disarm, Saddam Hussein continues to defy the inspectors and to hide his weapons, and that if the only way to achieve disarmament is through military action, the president is the first to understand the need to communicate that message to the American people, and indeed he is prepared to do so if it gets to that point.

It has not reached that point at this time, and so I think your question is a good one, it's just it's not the time that the president has decided it is that time. This is the course of the inspections.

QUESTION: But why hold out? I mean, what we're seeing every day in our newspapers and on television are troops being deployed to the region and very pointed language toward Saddam Hussein, and yet we can't know the real payoff here, which is why exactly we are readying ourselves to go war, what we know, what the government that the public doesn't.

FLEISCHER: Well, because the president is the one who has to make the ultimate decision about whether or not Saddam Hussein has brought the world to the point where the world has no choice but to take military action. The president has not reached any conclusions. And so it's not a question of why isn't the president saying anything today. At the appropriate time and in the president's judgment he, of course, will. It is a solemn obligation on the president, and he knows that.

QUESTION: Back on North Korea, just a couple of very simple questions. Is the United States preparing to sit down and speak directly to a representative of North Korea?

FLEISCHER: The United States, as was indicated in the PEKOG (ph) statement, is prepared to talk to North Korea, and the message is simple: that North Korea needs to take action to disarm.

QUESTION: So what those conversations would be about would be completely limited to North Korea's nuclear weapons program...


FLEISCHER: There is a perfect consistency here. Mr. Kelly said that once we get beyond their nuclear weapons then there may be opportunities in the area of energy.

QUESTION: In the same conversation?

FLEISCHER: But as I made clear before, I said the United States is willing to talk, not negotiate. We are willing to talk about North Korea dismantling its facilities and coming back into international compliance with their obligations.

Having done that, once they do that, then, at that point, North Korea can resume its place as a sovereign nation that is respected and treated by other nations in a manner consistent with their resuming those international obligations. Not until that point.

QUESTION: So the United States would be prepared to sit down with North Koreans, and if the first thing that came out of the North Koreans was, "We'll dismantle our nuclear weapons," the thing that could come out of the United States is, "And we'll provide you aid," how is that not...

FLEISCHER: They need to dismantle. They need to dismantle.

QUESTION: Oh, so that you need to see action.

FLEISCHER: It needs to be verifiable, it needs to be a dismantling, it needs to be irreversible. And that's the position that we approach this with.

Let me put it to you this way. North Korea wants to take the world through its blackmail playbook, and we won't play. It's up to North Korea to come back into international compliance with their obligations. If and when they do that, then the world of course will make clear to North Korea that they now, in honoring of those agreements, because they are no longer putting themselves on the path to isolation, just as we always indicated that we were pursuing a bold approach to North Korea prior to finding out about their violating of their agreements, the world was prepared to engage.

QUESTION: There'll be no fuel oil flowing, there'll be no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow until there is verifiable dismantling of their nuclear weapons.

FLEISCHER: And let me remind you on the question of the oil deliveries, this was a decision made internationally. This was a multilateral decision made by the partners in the region, South Korea, Japan and the United States.

QUESTION: How much concern is there, Ari, that North Korea could sell nuclear weapons on the open market, just like they did with the Scuds?

FLEISCHER: Well, there's always concern about any nation and proliferation. That's why proliferation agreements are very important. It's another reason why there was serious concern and condemnation around the world about North Korea stepping out of the proliferation treaty. And it would be seen as a very serious development. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) manufacture many nuclear weapons.

FLEISCHER: I'm not expert enough, in a position to be able to give you an answer that at its core is really a scientific one.

QUESTION: I want to follow up on Steve's interesting question there. There is a point at which the North Koreans would be able to move into production when they start up their reprocessing facility, which they've threatened to do but apparently so far have not yet done. Are we sending message to the North Koreas, either publicly or privately, that makes it clear that starting up that production facility would be a certain red line that could move this away from diplomacy and toward a more urgent problem, since that would enable them to produce weapons (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: I think we've continued to send a consistent series of messages to North Korea that North Korea has chosen to ignore. And I think these are messages that have been sent by the world.

And this is the essence of the problem is you have North Korea that has turned its back on the messages of the world, on the obligations North Korea has before the world, and in the process they've only isolated themselves.

QUESTION: If I can just follow that up, the messages we've sent have been general one that, "You're moving in the wrong direction." What I'm trying to get at is have we sent a specific one to them to the point that Steve was raising?

FLEISCHER: No, the messages that I'm aware of are the ones just as I described: a generalized series of messages about North Korea coming back into the commitments it made with the nations around the world.

QUESTION: Two things. One, going back to Iraq, do you think that your message is out about potential war with Iraq and why?

And do you think that the American public gets it more that this could be a different war, hand-to-hand combat, not in the desert and fighting with tanks and things of that nature? Do you think the American public gets that for this potential war?

FLEISCHER: I think the American public is very keenly interested in things that are happening vis-a-vis Iraq.

I think they have tremendous faith and trust in the president and his judgment. They understand the president has information available to him that helps guide the president's actions. And I think that they understand the president has been very patient and has worked through the international community as a way to address the problem in Iraq.

I think that's a fair description of where the American public is.

As I indicated to Mr. Gregory the president, more than anybody, understands the obligation on his shoulders to explain to the American people his thinking in the event it moves beyond current events. And he will do that if it becomes necessary. He understands that.

The American people are the least willing people in the world to go to war. The American people are also people who understand the need to protect ourselves from an enemy that has weapons, that may seek to use them again, particularly after what we went through on September 11th. And this is what the president has to weigh is when it reaches a tipping point, in his judgment, that the price of inaction is greater than the price of action; the risks of doing nothing would lead to another attack on the United States.

These are the difficult judgments the president of the United States has to make. He has not yet made them.

QUESTION: Second question: We've seen then-Governor Bush's record on death penalty cases in Texas. What is his stand on what Governor Ryan's done?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that these are matters that states review under the state laws. He has made no specific comment about what Illinois has done in this case.

The president believes, just as he said when he was governor of Texas, he didn't think it was the purview of the federal government to dictate to the states how they should have their own laws be administered.

The president does believe that the death penalty does serve as a deterrent to crime.

He believes that, for violent, heinous crimes, that the death penalty ultimately saves lives. He believes the death penalty is that type of deterrent when it is administered fairly, swiftly and effectively.

QUESTION: What's the evidence of that?

But under this most recent situation there's a lot of controversy with it. Does he at least believes there needs to be some kind of study before other states take this kind of action that Governor Ryan has taken?

FLEISCHER: The president does not tell states how to conduct their business. These are individual judgments that the elected officials in these sovereign 50 states are paid to make on the basis of information on how their states systems are run. It is not the federal system, these are 50 different state systems.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the latest thinking of the president is on the University of Michigan case, the affirmative action case, which way he's leaning, if he's leaning (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: No, I'm not prepared to say if he's leaning one way or another, because it remains under review. The deadline for any decision by the federal government to enter into an amicus brief in this matter is Thursday; this is Monday. And so the matter remains under review.

QUESTION: Can you shine some light, though, on, kind of, part of his thinking -- part of the White House thinking of how or why they would come down one way or another?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me at least inform you about the process. I don't think, again, there's anything I can say about any ultimate outcome for a matter that is not yet decided.

But the president views matters of race as some of the most important and sensitive matters in our country. He is very sensitive to issues involving race and giving opportunities to people from a variety of backgrounds while also giving opportunities in a manner for one and for all in our country.

And so the president, having been governor of a state that was so ethnically diverse as Texas, I think is well versed in many of the sensitivities, the ups and the downs and the ins and the outs, to these issues. They are all inherently very complicated parts of our social formula and our social fabric in the United States.

So with that said, the president and his staff have been meeting with officials at the Department of Justice, talking about the case, listening to all sides of the case.

And, as I said, the president is sensitive to all issues involving matters pertaining to opportunity and race, and I think it's not -- there's nothing I can offer beyond that about what ultimate decision will be made, and it can be one of any number of decisions or no decision.

QUESTION: Is that off the table? Is it a possibility that you wouldn't file a brief at all at this point?

FLEISCHER: We'll know by Thursday -- around Thursday.

QUESTION: Ari, given that Illinois is not the only state that has had some questionable executions or cases on death row, has the president expressed any curiosity about any of the cases of execution that occurred under his watch in Texas?

FLEISCHER: No. The president repeatedly has said throughout the process in Texas that he believes that people in Texas received justice on a fair basis, it was administered fairly and it served as an effective deterrent.

QUESTION: Ari, on North Korea, are you saying it is now OK for American officials to talk about what North Korea could expect from good behavior after it comes back into compliance?

FLEISCHER: Well, it's nothing new. American officials have said that since Jim Kelly went to Korea and met with Korean officials and said, "We were prepared to offer a bold package for North Korea until it was clear that you had violated the existing agreements that you made." What's important here is that North Korea, once it give its word, honors its word. What good is a new agreement if the old one doesn't stand up?

So what's important is that North Korea has got to comply with its given word. If they comply with their given word, then it's a different basis for moving forward. But until that point, North Korea has an obligation and a burden on itself to come back into compliance.

QUESTION: Last week there were a number of people who suggested that that indeed was what had to happen that we need to talk about: what was on the other side of this whole mountain for North Korea if, in fact, they agree to stop their nuclear program. And my sense last week was that we were willing to do that, to talk about what might happen after they came back into compliance. They were mistaken about that?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think again, if you take a look at the statements the administration officials made on January 7th, for example, before this so-called light of the tunnel story came out, you can see from the statements made in the joint declaration of the United States, Japan, South Korea, the following statement: "The three delegations stress that elimination of nuclear programs by North Korea would provide an opportunity to return to a better path leading to an improved relations with the international community, thereby securing peace, prosperity and security for all countries of Northeast Asia."

That was a statement made on January 7th, almost a week ago. So I think you're hearing just a different formulation of the exact same sentiment that was put in writing on January 7th.

I don't think you have anything new here. I think you just have an expression that was specific to energy as opposed to the more generalized statement about returning to a better path leading toward improved relations. But they both begin with the most important provision, exactly as Secretary Kelly made clear, once we can get beyond nuclear weapons.

QUESTION: So they sit down to talks, and we say, "You need to come back into compliance; that's the first thing that has to happen." Are we willing, in those same discussions, to talk about the things you just mentioned, this better path?

FLEISCHER: I think it's clear what North Korea needs to do. And there can't even be talks to convey in person between the United States and North Korea North Korea's need to come back into agreement if North Korea doesn't agree to the talks. The American offer to talk still stands; no official response has been received.

QUESTION: Can you tell us anything more about the Greenspan meeting, you know, what the president wanted to do there, and any kind of readout on what happened?

FLEISCHER: It's part of the regular, periodic meetings that the president has had with Chairman Greenspan since the beginning of his presidency. I didn't bring a count with me, but my best guess, just going off the top my head, is that it's probably about the half a dozen times the president and Chairman Greenspan has met for lunch as part of what they do.

And no, in the traditions of the White House, it's a private luncheon. I think that's the best way for both individuals to have the luncheon and to exchange ideas frankly about the state of the economy and any different ideas each person may have.

QUESTION: We can assume that they're talking about tax policy and economic stimulus, can't we?

FLEISCHER: I said the state of the economy. I wasn't in the lunch, and so I...

QUESTION: What ideas each may have? You know what ideas (OFF- MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Surely you wouldn't ask me to presume or assume what is discussed on something that I don't know. I know that nobody would speculate about something they didn't have definitive information on.


QUESTION: Ari, how long was it?

FLEISCHER: They were scheduled for an hour. It was held in the president's private dining room.

QUESTION: Iraq: The weapons inspectors seem to be saying now that the whole process could take up to a year if they want to go through the whole process -- if they're going to go through the whole process. Is the president that patient?

FLEISCHER: The president has not put any type of artificial timetable on how long he believes it's necessary for Saddam Hussein to prove to the world that he's going to comply.

QUESTION: Is he willing to wait a year? Will he allow the forces that are in place now, and going there, you know, to stay there?

FLEISCHER: I just answered the question. The president did not put a timetable on it.

QUESTION: Ari, going back to the University of Michigan case, why is that a presidential decision? I mean, wouldn't that be something that normally would be done at Justice?

FLEISCHER: Well, typically, matters dealing with whether or not an amicus curia, or friend of the court, brief would be filed are typically handled, in most cases, by Justice Department officials. For something that has this level of importance, it has risen to the president's attention.

The president, as I indicated, as governor of Texas, was very sensitive and very aware of the pros and the cons of issues involving race. This case is a particularly important case because it will -- as the Supreme Court has accepted it, it could potentially lead to a definition across the nation about what standards are allowable in terms of society dealing with questions about admissions and race. These are issues that are terribly important to all people of the United States, black and white, and every -- all Americans.

And so it's a question that the president views as an important one. And that's why he is involved.

QUESTION: So in this particular case -- I mean, does Justice present its recommendation, and then the president decides whether or not (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Allow Thursday to take place, and then we'll try to share with you as much information as possible.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) I question not what the decision is...

FLEISCHER: The process remains under way. As I said, no decision has been made by the president at this time.

But the president welcomes a diversity of opinions. He likes to get a variety of ideas. And I'm not indicating to you that all the ideas are the same or the all the ideas are different. But the president wants to have a process that allows for as much thought to enter into the debate as possible.

And that's what's required on issues like this, a lot of quiet deliberation and thought, because very often in the past issues that are attached to race and admissions policies are accompanied by a lot of shouting and yelling. And the president would prefer to approach this matter in as thoughtful a way as is possible, recognizing how important these issues are.

QUESTION: Ari, yesterday, Secretary Evans said that, you know, despite some of the criticism coming out of the Senate, that he has not yet had an opportunity to sell the stimulus plan. How soon do you expect that they'll actually be on the Hill in more public, sort of, fashion doing that? And who else in the White House might be a part of that?

FLEISCHER: This week, Secretary Evans and Secretary Chao are traveling around the country talking to the public about the package. And of course, when you talk to the public, you're talking to members of Congress, and you can anticipate that the president will do that, as well.

Vis-a-vis the Hill, it remains very, very early on the Hill, as you know, where tax legislation must pass in the House before it can even get to the Senate. The House came in for a couple of days and, as is the January tradition of the House of Representatives, they are now in recess. They'll come back toward the end of the month for the State of the Union. And then the matter will move from there forward.

Typically it's a process that takes many months. QUESTION: As you know, there have been some questions from so- called moderate Republicans, but also centrist Democrats have signaled that they have some concerns. Is it the White House intention to reach out on both sides of the aisle on this issue?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely.

QUESTION: Ari, getting back to the Iraq question for a minute, if and when the time comes where the president has to explain his case to the public, will it be, sort of, furry, fuzzy reiteration of past reports...

FLEISCHER: Did you say fuzzy?


QUESTION: .. reliance on past reports or will it be new evidence gathered recently that will close the loop in the minds of Americans who are saying, "What is the compelling urgency? What is the new evidence that makes this a risk that's..."

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate about events that are not yet taking place.

QUESTION: Let me come back to a timing issue on Iraq, too, if I may. Again, with inspectors talking of up to a year to complete this work, and you're saying the president's not put a timetable on it, does that mean that the troops that he is sending overseas, he's going to have them sit in their tents and on their planes and ships and stuff for, you know, that length of time? He's not ruling out leaving them in the field for up to a year?

FLEISCHER: No, it means just as I said. The president has not put a timetable on it. If the president hasn't put a timetable on it, I certainly won't.

QUESTION: I understand that. But there's practical limitations for how long you can deploy troops, then just leave them.

FLEISCHER: The president has not put a timetable on it, so I understand you want me to do it for him. I choose not to.

QUESTION: What's the U.S. reaction to OPEC's decision to increase production? And how much the oil strike in Venezuela is impacting the U.S. economy?

FLEISCHER: The president views OPEC's action to increase production, particularly given the protracted dispute in Venezuela, as a welcome step. It will increase global energy supplies and support global economic growth. The president views this as a welcome step.

I'm sorry, the second part of your question?

QUESTION: How much the oil strike in Venezuela is impacting U.S. economy right now. FLEISCHER: I think that's a question that you could talk to any number of economists and get any number of different answers about it, particularly given the fact that OPEC is going to take this action that is, as I indicated, a welcome step that does address the situation in Venezuela.

QUESTION: On Iraq again, are you concerned about an erosion of support for any military moves both here and in Great Britain? And also, could you give the public a better idea of what the president's been doing since his public statement (OFF-MIKE) Friday, over the weekend?

FLEISCHER: Well, typically, and I think you know this very well, on any given day the president has a whole series of policy briefings on any number of different topics. A good portion of the president's day is spent with his advisers, getting the latest information on any number of issues that are pending in the Congress or pending around the world. And so that's typically how the president spends his time that you wouldn't, of course, see. That's how he approaches it.

On the question of Iraq, again, the president -- I really answered that question earlier -- the president believes that the American people follow events closely. And the president, at the appropriate time, if it reaches that point, will address these matters.

QUESTION: Ari, Human Rights Watch has it's '03 report coming out, and this year the theme is that the United States has taken a step back from advocation of human rights and, in fact, is engaged in quite a number of human rights violations itself around the world through its prosecution of the anti-terror campaign.

I wonder if you have a general response to that and to the allegation that this is actually undermining support for the anti- terror campaign around the world.

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that when you take a look particularly at what's happened in Afghanistan as a result of the United States military operation in concert with our allies, many people who were oppressed are now free. Many people who had the basic liberties taken away by an oppressive Taliban regime now, for the first time in the lives of many of these people, have an opportunity for a better life, an opportunity for health care, an opportunity for education.

So, this administration strongly differs with any such findings.

QUESTION: Is it the position that that counterweighs -- outweighs support for regimes such as Pakistan, Egypt and others that are engaged in human rights violations?

FLEISCHER: I think the fact of the matter is wherever America goes we always make it a practice to pursue policies that help advance human rights everywhere around the world. And as a result of increased contact with the United States in these cases there are better prospects for that happening.

PHILLIPS: White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer addressing reporters at the daily briefing talking North Korea and Iraq.


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