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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Conference

Aired March 3, 2003 - 12:20   ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go to the White House. Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, is just giving a little bit of information and his preliminary comments about the president's schedule. He's going to be answering serious questions from reporters.
Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: ... taken hostage by FARC and the need for continued close cooperation to get them released.

They both stressed the need to work together to fight terror, and they also agreed on the importance of disarmament of Saddam Hussein. In another matter, the president expressed his deep appreciation and gratitude to President Musharraf and the government of Pakistan for their efforts that led to the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11th attacks. This is a very serious development and a blow to Al Qaida. The president is appreciative to Pakistan for their fine efforts that they have been carrying out in the war against terror and their fine work in this most recent success.

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

QUESTION: Has the president decided whether he will see (inaudible) peace emissary this week?

FLEISCHER: There is nothing scheduled for today. And as always, we keep you filled in on the president's schedule as the events warrant.

QUESTION: But you would know, wouldn't you, if that were on the schedule this week?

FLEISCHER: The meeting is not today, there's nothing scheduled today. Anything that comes later in the week, we'll keep you filled in.

QUESTION: You often give us a week ahead.

FLEISCHER: And I gave it last Friday. Anything -- as a matter of routine scheduling, anything subsequent to that, we'll keep you filled in as events warrant and as events come closer.

QUESTION: Iraq says it will submit a new report on VX and anthrax and scrapping more missiles. Is this helpful?

FLEISCHER: There is one thing that is helpful, and that is complete, total, immediate disarmament per Resolution 1441.

FLEISCHER: That was what Resolution 1441 called for in November. We have not seen complete disarmament. We have not seen total disarmament. We have seen nothing of the United Nations Security Council called for except for, under pressure, Saddam Hussein finding things that he said he never had and apparently destroying small amounts of things that he said he never possessed.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that's going to slow down the timetable? I think they're destroying the...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: The president said the timetable is weeks not months. He said that just over a month ago. Nothing has changed that timetable.

QUESTION: So it doesn't matter that they're destroying the missiles? In that case, why should they continue?

FLEISCHER: Iraq needs to disarm because that's what the world has called on Iraq to do. They should disarm because that is their promise made to the United Nations Security Council. And that still remains the best way to secure peace.

But it must be nothing less, nothing less, nothing less than complete, total, immediate. It has not been any one of those three.

QUESTION: I want to try to get clarification on something that came up Friday. It's the policy of the administration that Saddam has to totally and completely disarm, but regime change is also the policy. So if he were to fully disarm, in the administration's view, would that amount to regime change, or is the policy now full disarmament plus exile, meaning Saddam has to go?

FLEISCHER: Well, what we've always said is that if the regime were to have completely done what the United Nations called on them to do in Resolution 1441 last November, it would indeed be a different time of regime. And then people have said, does that mean Saddam Hussein could still be the head of it?

FLEISCHER: The point that I have made is that, in the event that the president makes a decision that force is used to disarm Saddam Hussein to accomplish disarmament, nobody should think, not even for a second, that military action could be possibly taken to disarm Saddam Hussein that would leave Saddam Hussein at the helm for him to rearm up later. No. That's not an option.

QUESTION: But if the decision not made to take force, if by some chance he says, "Yes, I'm fulling disarming, meeting all of the requirements of 1441," and he stays in power. In your view, that would be regime change?

FLEISCHER: Let's first see him completely, totally, and immediately disarm. And see if that takes place.

QUESTION: The destruction of these Al Samoud missiles now represent about 10 percent, a little more of their entire medium-range missile capability. That's a piece of real substantive disarmament under international supervision, but it's not total disarmament, but you aren't denying that's real disarmament?

FLEISCHER: It is not real disarmament. There is only one standard of disarmament: Full, complete and immediate. The United Nations resolutions did not call for a little piece of disarmament. I didn't say 10 percent disarmament, four months after we call on you to do it immediately.

None of that was in 1441. And the only reason this is even happening today in the small degree that it has indeed happened is because he is under great pressure from President Bush, the United States and a coalition of the willing.

QUESTION: But it is substantive. It's not just process; this is substance. This is real destruction of weapons.

FLEISCHER: It is insufficient. It is not complete. It is not total.

QUESTION: So is it the administration's view that making a war in Iraq now is preferable to any further piecemeal substantive disarmament?

FLEISCHER: Well, he president has not made a decision about whether or not this ultimately will be done through the use of force. If he makes that decision, I think you can infer from that action that the president would agree with your premise in that case. But until he does of course, and if he does, the process remains under way. It's a process by way which Iraq has defied (ph) the United Nations. They pretended to comply in small and limited ways but nothing less than full complete and immediate is called for because that's what the United Nations has sought.

QUESTION: Can I also ask you about a report in the Observer newspaper in London of a memo purported to be from the NSA, an e-mail message from a man who actually works at the NSA, they establish, in which he describes a surge in surveillance of U.N. Security Council members to see what these nations are thinking about in Iraq.

QUESTION: What's your response?

FLEISCHER: It is a matter of longstanding policy. The administration never comments on anything involving any people involved in intelligence. For example, if somebody were to say to me, "Is Libya an object of American intelligence?" I would never answer that question yes or no.

The administration does not answer questions of that nature. We don't answer who does or does not work in the intelligence community. Once you start that, you start getting into process of elimination. We do not do that about any question, about any report as a blanket matter of policy.

QUESTION: Then, if you're a Cameroonian diplomat or a French diplomat at the United Nations, because of what you just said, you're going to have to operate on the assumption that the United States is bugging.

FLEISCHER: It's a blanket matter of policy that we do not answer questions of that nature, whether it's true or not true. And I'm not indicating to you whether it is true or not true.

It is a blanket matter of approach and policy that predates this administration.

QUESTION: Ari, in the past couple of weeks, you said a number of times that we know what disarmament looks like and cited the examples of South Africa and other nations that have disarmed.

If the Iraqis continue -- that's a big if -- but if they continued on a daily basis getting rid of missiles or buried bombs that they suddenly happen to discover, would that -- if this is a sustained issue -- would that begin to look like disarmament you have in mind? And why have you given us no metrics by which to measure what this disarmament would look like?

FLEISCHER: Well, here's the catch-22 that Saddam Hussein has put himself in. He denied he had these weapons, and then he destroys things he says he never had. If he lies about never having them, how can you trust him when he says he's destroyed them? How do you know he's not lying, and he doesn't have tons more buried under the sand somewhere else? How do you know this is not the mother of all distractions, diversions, so the world looks in one place, while he buries them in another? And this is the point to which Saddam Hussein has brought himself as a result of defying the U.N., having created an environment where the inspectors were removed in the late 1990s. And on their way out, in their final conclusive report, they indicated that Iraq had 26,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 of botulum, 1.5 tons of nerve agent VX, 6,500 aerial chemical bombs.

We don't know where those are. We have yet to see any accounting for all of these. And so the fact that he may have destroyed some 16 missiles has nothing, nothing to do with the anthrax, the botulum and VX.

FLEISCHER: It also contradicts the fact that he said he doesn't have any weapons in violation of United Nations resolutions.

He's put himself in an awfully bad catch-22 and this is on his own doing.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) India Globe has been saying for months that all the doctors are hiding in Pakistan and this one now was arrested at the house of the chief of the woman's (ph) organization (OFF-MIKE) Why we are getting one by one -- I hope President Bush asks General Musharraf to give us all the terrorists at one time so we don't go through terrorizing every day another life here in America and around the globe. And also, Indian Ambassador Mr. Lalit Mansingh said that Pakistan is a dangerous place (OFF-MIKE) today. My question again is that, even Osama bin Laden may be hiding, who knows, in one of the homes of the ministers or even General Musharraf's house.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: Not sure on what basis you might say that. The president complimented General Musharraf and the government of Pakistan for their actions.

Clearly, Al Qaida fled Afghanistan as a result of a military operation that the United States and her allies launched against Al Qaida in Afghanistan. They fled across a difficult-to-patrol border into Pakistan, into cities that are in the tens of millions, large cities where they believed they could hide.

What this shows is the strong cooperation that we have from the government of Pakistan. And for that, the president is grateful to President Musharraf and the people of Pakistan. They deserve the world's congratulations for helping in this effort and leading this effort.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: You said this morning that you are -- that the Bush administration was surprised by the vote in the Turkish parliament. What is the U.S. doing, if anything, now, to try to reverse that diplomatically or otherwise, or do you feel that the best thing to do is not do a lot because some Turkish officials have even said that public pressure from the U.S. might have forced the vote to happen the way it did?

FLEISCHER: Well, one, Turkey is reviewing its options. And the United States is doing the same. As a result of this vote, Turkey has gone back to look at it. We are doing this. It's unclear, as well, what the ultimate outcome will be. But no matter what the ultimate outcome is, one thing is for certain. And that is, if the president of the United States makes the determination that force must be used to disarm Saddam Hussein, whatever route is taken, the ultimate military mission will remain successful. We don't know what the outcome will be. This is still a matter of study.

QUESTION: You mean, it will be successful, but it will be harder?

FLEISCHER: There's no question that Turkish approach would have been the preferable approach, but other approaches are available. There are other options from a military point of view. The president has every confidence that those options will be militarily successful, if he so exercises them.

QUESTION: On the aid package, is the aid package still viable at this point?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, as I said, Turkey is reviewing its options. The United States is reviewing its options. And I think it's impossible to make any judgments beyond that at this time. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Iraq clearly is starting to destroy some of its weapons, perhaps not as quickly as the administration would like. Clearly, it can't all be done in one instant, in some Big Bang Theory.

QUESTION: Doesn't this speak to the president's well-known impatience that his patience is running out, he's not willing to give this process more time?

FLEISCHER: No, I think the question is, why didn't Iraq destroy these missiles in November when they were told to? Doesn't it surprise anybody that the only reason they're doing them now is because they're under mass pressure as troops gather on their border? And doesn't that suggest that their motives have nothing to do with disarmament, that their motives have to do with trying to stretch this out to avoid pressure from the world and to see if, by announcing the destruction of a small amount of their known tip of the iceberg while they continue to hide what is below the water, that they're just trying to buy time and relieve pressure, all the while keeping their weapons of mass destruction, including their anthrax, their botulum and their VX to themselves? That's the cause of concern.

QUESTION: So the president doesn't believe that this process is working or in any way...

FLEISCHER: The president doesn't believe Iraq has disarmed.

QUESTION: Ari, I wonder if you could lay out for us something that Governor Ridge, Secretary Ridge, said today to reporters about the role of Khalid Sheik Mohammed in the recent increase in the terror alert.

How much was our knowledge of his plans a part of that increase?

FLEISCHER: Without getting into anything specific -- and as you know when the terror alert went up, it went up for a variety of factors -- it is accurate to say that several cases in those factors, there were ties to Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

QUESTION: That we had knowledge of plans he intended to carry out in the United States?

FLEISCHER: We had information. We had various reporting, all of which, to varying degrees, could be traced back to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and that gave more credibility to our concerns.

Sometimes, we talk about the amount of chatter. And if you remember, I pointed out to you, sometimes it's not only the amount of chatter, it's the quality of chatter. And in the case of quality of chatter, you can say that that is also attributable to anything that would be connected to Khalid Sheik Mohammed. I think we had that conversation here before, and that's when I used the word quality.

BLITZER: Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, answering reporters questions on the weekend arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda operative, the so-called number three of Al Qaeda. We're going to continue to monitor the press secretary's question-and-answer session with reporters. He does insist that Iraq's destruction of these Al Samoud II missiles are not real disarmament. He said the United States is continuing to review options right now as far as Turkey is concerned, just as the Turkish government is reviewing their options.

He says the only way the U.S. will deal with the Iraqis is if there's complete, immediate disarmament right away.

On one point, a significant point, the press secretary sought to clarify some comments he made last week on regime change in Baghdad, which seemed to underscore, at least to some, a possible shift in the bush administration stance.

He said, if the U.S., the Bush administration does go to war against Saddam Hussein, leave no doubt about it, there will be regime change. Saddam Hussein under no circumstances would be allowed to remain in power.

But if the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein were to go ahead and immediately start cooperating fully destroying all of its weapons of mass destruction capability, he's leaving open the possibility Saddam Hussein could remain in power. Disarmament, full disarmament is the U.S. mission. He refused to discuss what would happen to Saddam Hussein if, in fact, he were to fully cooperate with that kind of weapons destruction.

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