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White House Briefing

Aired January 27, 2003 - 12:08   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're also standing by for the White House briefing, Ari Fleischer -- in fact, he has just started speaking. Let's go to the White House.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president began this morning with an intelligence briefing, followed by an FBI briefing. I think also this morning called President Aznar of Spain. The two had a warm and substantive conversation between two good friends. Spain is a close ally and a very strong partner in the fight against terrorism.

The president congratulated President Aznar on the arrest of Al Qaida members in Barcelona recently. And they consulted on the situation in Iraq as well as current discussions at the United Nations. The president sought President Aznar's advice on how to address the issue in the coming weeks as the president continues his consultations with leaders around the world.

The president then convened a meeting of the National Security Council, and then he is spending a considerable portion of today working on his State of the Union address which, of course, will be delivered at nine o'clock tomorrow night.

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

QUESTION: The chief nuclear inspector said just now that his team needs a few more months to complete their work. Is the president willing to wait a few more months?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president, number one, is very pleased that the inspectors are there and on the ground and are in a position now, having been there for two months, to make the assessments that they did this morning up in New York.

The process is continuing, but the process is running out of time.

QUESTION: A few more months?

FLEISCHER: I've not heard the president put a time period on it, so I would hesitate to do that myself.

QUESTION: Ari, you've concluded the Iraqis aren't complying with the inspectors. Why not call a halt now? Why not get on with it? FLEISCHER: Because, as the president said, it's important to continue to consult, to work with world leaders about how to address the growing problem of Saddam Hussein's failure to comply with the inspectors, the problem of Saddam Hussein continuing to have in his possession biological weapons and chemical weapons which he has not accounted for. And we will continue to consult for the president's promise.

QUESTION: Do you see any decisions being made this week or attempt to reach an international consensus this week on what to do next?

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't want to put a timetable on it. I wouldn't want to guess. But I think that events will develop, and they will be driven to the point of conclusion as a result of Saddam Hussein's failure to comply and the fact that he remains the very threat that we fear to begin with.

QUESTION: Have you decided when he's run out of time?

FLEISCHER: Well, that'll be the judgment the president has to make. And in this regard, the president...


FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: ... and will he make after consulting with the United Nations?

FLEISCHER: Let me try to describe to you, I think, the thoughts that are in the president's mind as he approaches this.

He approaches this, number one, believing that the most solemn duty of the president is to protect the country and to protect our people, and whether they are Americans abroad or people here at home, particularly after what we saw on September 11. And I think in the State of the Union tomorrow, you're going to hear from the president a very healthy discussion about the economy, a lot of discussion about improving health care for Americans, and the president will also talk about security for the American people, both in terms of homeland security and national security.

On that final point when it comes to national security, I think the president will continue to consult with our allies, continue to have discussions, as he did this morning with President Aznar of Spain and others. He will continue to evaluate the information that he has about the threat that Saddam Hussein presents.

And if the president reaches the conclusion that we have, indeed, reached the end of the line where Saddam Hussein will not indeed disarm, and the only way to disarm him is through the use of force, then the president will at that moment share his thinking with the American people at greater length.

QUESTION: What about the United Nations? That was the question. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, he'll continue to consult with members of the United Nations, yes.

QUESTION: Is the president willing to take more time because he realistically believes that Iraq is going to disarm or because he needs more international support, and is trying to get it?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president is hopeful that Saddam Hussein will disarm, but he has not see many signs yet that Saddam Hussein will disarm.

Clearly, if you listen to what Dr. Blix said at the United Nations this morning, in his report, now based on two months worth of being in Iraq, he has indicated that there are still, in his words, unaccounted for weapons, that he is still concerned about Iraq's possession of VX from previous inspections, that they continue to not know its whereabouts. He said that Iraq has rockets which could be the tip of submerged iceberg. He talked about the possibility of Iraq's continued possession of anthrax and missiles in excess of 150 kilometers.

The president is worried because the United Nations is showing the world that there are many good reasons to worry about Iraq being in possession of weapons that are very deadly for millions.

QUESTION: So this additional time then is really -- since he's very pessimistic about any change of heart in Baghdad -- it's really aimed to bringing the French around, and it's really aimed at trying to get more international support that just isn't there right now.

FLEISCHER: The president will continue, as I said, to consult and to talk to our allies. But I think it's important for the world to know what the president has said, and that time is running out.

QUESTION: Beyond the process, if the president asks for the country to go to war, they're ultimately going to ask what it is the president's protecting the American people from in Iraq. What is he protecting us from?

FLEISCHER: Well, the biggest fear and the biggest concern is that Saddam Hussein does indeed possess weapons of mass destruction in the form of biological and chemical weapons. And I think it's important just to take one step back. And often we talk weapons of mass destruction as if those are just vocabulary words.

Weapons of mass destruction will inflict untold horrors on the civilized world. They can take the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, as well as be a weapon of terror that can dramatically change the life that the American people will come to live and expect. That is the fear that Saddam Hussein will indeed unleash these weapons if he is able to or link up with terrorists who would do it for him. It is not an idle fear. It is a real fear particularly since we went through what we've gone through as a country since September 11.

That is the core of it. If Saddam Hussein did not have these weapons, the president would not have this cause for concern. He has these weapons; he's used them before. That is the heart of the president's concern.

QUESTION: Can I just follow on this apparent link to Al Qaida that is being presented in still rather vague form? If the president believes that there is a real danger that Saddam Hussein would cast -- somehow give his weapons of mass destruction to groups like Al Qaida, why hasn't it happened since 1991, when we know during that period of time that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida were busy plotting and carrying out attacks against the United States?

FLEISCHER: Well, what we do know is that that clearly happened in the past. And there have been contacts between senior members -- senior Iraqi officials and members of the Al Qaida organization, going back for quite a long time.

We know, too, that several of the detainees, particularly some of the high-level detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to Al Qaida in chemical weapons development. There are contacts between Iraq and Al Qaida.

We know that Saddam Hussein has a long history of terrorism in general. And again, if you are waiting for the smoking gun, the problem is, when you see the smoke coming out of the gun, it's too late -- the damage has been done.

QUESTION: I understand that. But we're talking about a period of well over 10 years at a time when Al Qaida was at full strength, you know, tearing it up, attacking U.S. embassies, if they wanted this kind of thing, as the president said they do, why didn't they get it through those contacts and through that training?

FLEISCHER: One factor I think you also have to consider is, given the fact that Afghanistan provided a very large training ground and operational ground to Al Qaida, many of their needs were taken care of in Afghanistan until September 11, and then their activities in Afghanistan have been widely disrupted.

This is an unfolding story, and I think you'll hear more of it.

QUESTION: Well, when?

What is the president's overall reaction to Han Blix's report right now? Is he satisfied with it? And did he have any advance warning of it? Did he know what was coming, say, last night?

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that we have briefings in which receive generalized information. I don't know that we had all the prepared text ahead of time. I'm not aware that we did. Perhaps somebody had it; I'm not aware that that is the case. But we had a generalized sense of what he's going to say.

And I think it's fair to say that Hans Blix gave a report that is a frightening reminder of the fact that UNSCOM found chemical and biological weapons in the late 1990s, and according to the United Nations this morning, no one knows where they are, and the fear is, as Hans Blix said, that this is a submerged tip of the iceberg in terms of the little that has been found already. And let me address this issue about what has been found. The United Nation reported at the end of the 1990s that Iraq possessed 30,000 chemical warheads and chemical munitions. The inspectors in the eight weeks that they have been in Iraq have found 16 chemical warheads. At the pace that Iraq is cooperating with the inspectors, it will take the inspectors another almost 300 years to find the remaining weapons that the United Nations said Saddam Hussein possesses.

And this is why the inspectors are doing their best job, but they more time they get, the more they're getting the runaround from Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Ari, you said this morning, and I'll quote you, "Iraq must comply in all regards, not in some regards, not in half-regards, not in some areas but not in other areas." In other words, you're saying that they're not complying. What will you gain by waiting? Do you think they'll switch totally and start complying totally? You say any...


FLEISCHER: Well, clearly the president does believe the more pressure on Iraq, the more the chances of resolving this peacefully. And the president still hopes that this can be resolved peaceful.

Nobody, but nobody is more reluctant to go to war than President Bush. Nobody understands what this entails like the commander in chief whose duty and mission it is to meet with the families, to look them in the eye and to be with them at a time prior to the going off to war and hopefully to greet all when return from war. He's seen it in Afghanistan about the suffering this has caused American families, families of service men and women who are asked to carry out the ultimate sacrifice.

He does not want to lead the nation to war. He hopes it can be averted. But he is also clear about the fact that one way to save American lives is to prevent Saddam Hussein from engaging in something that could be far, far worse than the price that we've already seen on September 11.

QUESTION: So you want basically a complete change of strategy from Iraq, helping the inspectors instead of trying to hide things from them?

FLEISCHER: The president wants to see Iraq do what Iraq has pledged to do, which is exactly what South Africa did, that Kazakhstan did and that the Ukraine did, which is prove a commitment to disarmament. There's no reason it has to take this long. Saddam Hussein, if he wanted to disarm, could have shown the inspectors where his arms were and prove that he was a leader intended on peace, not war. Obviously, he's made a decision not to do that, and that's why Hans Blix this morning walked through all the weapons that the United Nations knows Iraq has that remain unaccounted for.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) but given what Hans Blix said and what Mohamed ElBaradei said about needing a few more months, will you at least concede that a few weeks is probably going to be needed here in order to get at least some of the allies on board?

FLEISCHER: The president hasn't put a timetable on it, so I'm not going to put a timetable on it. The inspections are continuing. The inspectors were at work yesterday; the inspectors are at work today; and they will be at work tomorrow.

But the president has made it clear, and he is trying to rally the world, that time is running out. And the president will continue to rally the world. And one day, one way, sooner or later, Saddam Hussein will either disarm so peace can be preserved or a coalition will be assembled to do the job and to protect the peace.

QUESTION: So a few more weeks is not out of the question?

FLEISCHER: I can't talk about specific weeks or months.

QUESTION: Ari, polls have shown that a lot of people in this country and maybe around the world, also people on Capitol Hill feel the president has not quite made the case to go to war. Is the president sitting on any information that could significantly change public opinion that he has not released, whether to protect intelligence sources or simply (OFF-MIKE) his hand should be played close to the vest?

FLEISCHER: Well, number one, the president is not going to be guided by a decision about whether or not to go to war based on polls. The president will be guided by what he views, as commander in chief, is necessary to do to protect the American people.

Having said that, I think it is also clear that in the event the president does make the determination that it will be necessary to go to war, he will, of course, make more of a case.

I think when you take a look at where the public is, it's interesting because it's even more so than in 1991 the public understands the threat that Saddam Hussein presents, that the public is supportive of the use of force if, in the judgment of the president, it becomes necessary.

But clearly, the president will continue to educate the public and make his case. He has not made an entire case yet. If he decides that more is necessary, he will, of course, -- of course -- engage deeper with the American people.

QUESTION: Over the near-term, is there any effort contemplated to halt the inspections?

FLEISCHER: No. As I indicated, the inspectors are continuing their work, and the president has not put a timetable on it.

QUESTION: The Pentagon or some defense officials indicated on Friday that they won't be fully ready for military action in Iraq until early March. Is that the White House view, as well? FLEISCHER: I'm not going to discuss operational details on when the Pentagon will or won't be ready. All I know is if you read every account of when they will or won't be ready, you can pick any week beginning, basically, I guess next week until March, because I've seen every week identified as when they'll be ready. So I think your guess is as good as -- well, it's your guesses. I'm not aware of one account from the Pentagon.

QUESTION: ElBaradei said that -- also pointed to an example the administration has pointed to, South Africa, as an indication of what real disarmament would look like. But he noted today, as did the South African representative to the U.N., that even with their full cooperation it took two years for the disarmament to unfold.

FLEISCHER: Well, I think there was no question about South Africa was cooperating with disarmament. South Africa was providing access to the sites that showed the disarmament. And then the procedures and the protocols were all put in place and all accepted.

If we had that confidence that Saddam Hussein was indeed cooperating in disarming, then the very message the president has given about Saddam Hussein needs to disarm, could go forward. But we have not seen any of that evidence.

QUESTION: Blix's report today seemed more negative than positive. Does the White House feel as though the Blix report will help the president rally support for cracking down harder or military action or whatever the president decides?

Is this an important step in terms of his diplomatic, his international diplomatic efforts?

FLEISCHER: I think from the president's point of view what's important is that the facts be established. And now that the inspectors have been there for two months, and we always indicated this would be an important reporting date, it's clear from today's important reporting date that Iraq has failed to comply, that Iraq continues to have weapons of mass destruction that they have not accounted for, and that Iraq's failure to comply has led to a situation where the inspectors are getting the runaround. That's what today's important reporting date has shown.

QUESTION: Ari, when we ask you to substantiate your allegation about a link between Iraq and Al Qaida, you usual response is to say that to provide any specific intelligence to support that assertion would compromise sources and methods.

Today you've alluded twice to information gained from interviews with detainees that you say prove that link.

It's hard to understand how disclosure of an interview with a detainee could compromise either sources or methods, because in this case both the source and the methods...


FLEISCHER: That's why I said it.

QUESTION: OK. Would you then consider releasing, for example, a transcript of the interview with the detainee that establishes that link so that we can judge more fully the information?

FLEISCHER: I have no idea about that. I don't even know if transcripts are taken in that sense. I don't know that there's a White House stenographer sitting there in that sense. I'll be happy to take your question up with other people here, but I give you the information because that's where we have it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) talking about a specific transcript, but typically in any kind of interview situation some sort of report, I presume, was made. Why wouldn't you disclose that? Why wouldn't that help your case?

FLEISCHER: I think I just did disclose to you the germane part of it.

QUESTION: But you haven't disclosed the details of it, and that would certainly...


FLEISCHER: As I indicated, this is an ongoing situation, and I think that there may be more to be said at the appropriate time.


FLEISCHER: As I indicated, I think (UNINTELLIGIBLE) more to be said at the appropriate time.

QUESTION: Ari, last summer Secretary Rumsfeld, and then again later, in early fall the president himself, both of these gentleman alluded to a potential link between Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Can you at least tell us whether or not Secretary Powell's remarks yesterday were based on any new information since those two remarks were made? In other words, since last fall and last summer.

FLEISCHER: Well of course we're always reviewing information and getting more information. And as a result of the successful prosecution of the war on terror, we continue to be able to talk to people around the world who have been captured, who give us information. And then it's all put together, and conclusions try to be reached. So this is an ongoing gathering of information that leads to ongoing formations of conclusions.

QUESTION: So are you saying then that, yes, there is some new information that led to Secretary Powell making those remarks yesterday in Davos?

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say there is always developing information based on our successes so far in the war against terror.

QUESTION: Over the weekend, there were reports that the United States is prepared or it is considering using a nuclear bunker cluster bomb. Given that this situation with Iraq is about Iraq disarming its weapons of mass destruction, would it be more appropriate -- or is inappropriate for the United States to be talking about or considering using weapons of mass destruction itself? And would the United States be prepared to do so on a preemptive basis?

FLEISCHER: I think it's well known that the United States' longstanding policy about use of nuclear weapons is that we don't rule anything in and we don't rule anything out. And that remains our policy.

QUESTION: With all due respect, why is that appropriate for the United States? If you're trying to get Iraq to disarm in the interest of nonproliferation, why would the United States be even openly considering that?

FLEISCHER: Again, our policy is we don't rule anything in and we don't rule anything out.

QUESTION: So it's not only in response to potential Iraqi attack?

Ari, his State of the Union speech, how much of it is going to be devoted to Iraq, and what should Americans expect to hear about Iraq and not to hear about Iraq?

One other question, if I may. In view of all the attention that is inevitably going to be focused on Iraq, is the president worried that his, what you have said would be an ambitious domestic agenda, is just going to get lost tomorrow night?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm sure the questions at this briefing will not be reflective of the questions at Wednesday's briefing. You know, I think...


FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: You're having a briefing Wednesday?

FLEISCHER: Well, on the road Wednesday, I know that you'll have a chance to ask your questions.

Most of the State of the Union will not be about Iraq. Most of the State of the Union will be about improving America's economy and providing greater access to health care for millions of American people, including senior citizens. That will be the bulk of the State of the Union.

There will be a section dealing with security, of course, and I think many of these topics we're talking about today will come up in some form. But most of the State of the Union will be about other topics, not about Iraq.

QUESTION: Is there a danger it's just going to get lost... FLEISCHER: I couldn't possibly predict how the speech will get covered. But I think it's always interesting to gauge how the American people sitting at home on their couches and watching the speech, numbered usually in the tens of millions, notice certain things about the speech and remember certain things about the speech that sometimes don't do noticed in the coverage of the speech.

Obviously, everything today is focused on Iraq. I'm not certain that that's going to be the take of the American people. I think the American people have domestic concerns as the number one priority and they're going to hear an awful, awful lot about that.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what people at home should expect to hear and not hear about Iraq? Are they going to hear a deadline, are they going to hear a declaration of war?

FLEISCHER: No, they won't hear a deadline, they won't hear a declaration of war.

QUESTION: Just two questions, just to try to clarify one more time. Will the president present America's own proof that Iraq is linked with terrorists and has transferred weapons of mass destruction? And on the U.N., does the Bush administration still believe the U.N. is effective and worthy of America's full support?

FLEISCHER: The second question was about the United Nations?


FLEISCHER: Well, of course. Yes. But it remains a test of how relevant the United Nations is. There still remains an issue for the United Nations to prove that the resolution they passed was not just one more in a string of resolutions to be followed by additional resolutions, none of which have value, none of which have meaning, none of which are enforced. And that still remains an open test of the United Nations.

And on the first question, this will be one speech that the president gives. There'll be other speeches after this, not only by the president, but by other members of his administration. And this speech will be about the state of the union.

QUESTION: The Associated Press reports that in reaction to what they termed your stern rebuke of Jerry Thacker, a group called Human Rights Campaign said that while this was a positive development, the Bush administration's, quote, "Obsessive focus on abstinence as the solitary mechanism to prevent the transmission of HIV is not based on sound science."

And my question is, what is the Bush administration's response to this charge that you are obsessive and unscientific?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think from the president's point of view, he has long made the case that abstinence is more than sound science, it's a sound practice, that abstinence has a proven track record of working. Now, this is part of an approach that includes, under the budgets the president submitted, other approaches, as well, not just one approach or another approach. But the president has indicated that he thinks that we need to have more of a focus in our school system on abstinence as an option for young people.

QUESTION: The AP also reports that after...

BLITZER: Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, offering a very, very pessimistic account of the U.N. weapons inspection report, saying that Hans Blix has presented the U.N. Security Council with a frightening -- his word -- "frightening" -- reminder of what the Iraqis might be capable of doing in terms of weapons of mass destruction.

Although the White House press secretary going on to say that tomorrow night's State of the Union address will not necessarily be entirely focused, or even heavily focused on Iraq. There will be a lot of other issues as well, also saying there will be no deadline for military action included in the president's remarks, nor a declaration of war.


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