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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Briefing

Aired March 13, 2003 - 12:42   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 over to the White House. Ari Fleischer is answering reporters' questions.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... there are numerous options to achieving the end the president seeks, which is a diplomatic solution. I cannot predict for you every shape and turn of the road on the way to that end. But this end is coming into sight, and that's why you're seeing some levels of flexibility and discussion of options as it comes into sight.

QUESTION: Does that level of flexibility reflect a sense that things are starting to break the president's way and break, you know, in the direction of Tony Blair, as well?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president and others are working this hard. But I make no predictions. I have not cited how any nation has indicated that it will vote. That's a matter for individual nations to address.

And I make no predictions. I reiterate what I've said all along, because I think is how these things work, that people will know how the vote will come out on the day of the vote. That is the best day to get an indication from the various nations.

QUESTION: One more on this. Given France's comments today, is the president still convinced that France will veto or is there now some flexibility (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: France has made many interesting comments of late. France has said they reject the logic of ultimatums. This is what their foreign minister said. France also looked at the British proposal, and they rejected it before Iraq rejected it. If that's not an unreasonable veto, what is? So we look at what France is doing and we wish they were doing otherwise.

QUESTION: Speaking of fluidity, can you explain why the president took the rare step to cancel an event at the last minute -- he was supposed to go up to the Hill -- and why plans for him to visit Tony Blair somewhere outside of London, why that planning didn't proceed?

FLEISCHER: Number one, on your first question, it's because of just what I indicated.

The president is working on the situation vis-a-vis Iraq and the diplomacy. And he wanted to make the phone call that I just reported to you.

Two, as I told you this morning, there are no plans for travel. I asked that question to the chief of staff; he said there are no plans to travel. And so, I don't have anything else for you beyond that.

QUESTION: Had there been tentative plans to visit Tony Blair?

FLEISCHER: There's no information about something that there are no plans to do.

QUESTION: Ari, the president was categorical a week ago in saying that no matter what the whip count he wanted a vote. Now the secretary of state raises the possibility that there may not be a vote. Is this thing going completely south?

FLEISCHER: It's interesting, one question is, is it going north, another question, is it going south. It's ongoing.

And I don't think it should surprise anybody that as it gets down to the very last stages of diplomacy there are different ideas that can be discussed, there are different ends to reach, different routes to reach that end. And that's what you're seeing. You're seeing that on the question of the substance of the resolution, on the deadline.

But one thing is not in doubt, no matter what the end is through diplomacy. What is not in doubt in President Bush's mind is that Saddam Hussein will be disarmed.

QUESTION: Jack Straw said this morning that the second resolution is less likely than at any time before. Why should we not thing this is failing? And since when is it up -- when is it likely that this president changes his mind? He hardly ever does. And yet he appears to have backed away from what he said at that press conference about demanding a vote.

FLEISCHER: The president has always said that the United States does not need a second resolution, that we are going to work very hard with our friends and allies on this.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: The president has always valued the counsel and the advice he gets from our foreign friends and leaders on this, particularly our European allies who are working on this issue with us, as well as allies from around the world.

So the president will continue to work this and consult with our friends and allies about the best course to take to achieve the ultimate diplomatic outcome. If a diplomatic outcome cannot be achieved, there should never be any question and a doubt of anybody about the president's intent to disarm Saddam Hussein. I don't think there is any doubt.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... I want to know why did he change his mind? Apparently he is not going to insist on a vote under some circumstances.

FLEISCHER: What you are seeing is the president going the last mile on behalf of diplomacy. There is an end to that road. And the end is coming into sight. Until it is final and the road is traveled this president is determined to pursue a variety of diplomatic options.

QUESTION: You've evaded the question three different times. I want to know why the president, who categorically said that he would demand a vote no matter what the whip count, because he wanted to see how all of these other nations stood, is now apparently to back off and not have a vote.

FLEISCHER: Because your premise is suggesting that in the conducting of diplomacy there can be no room for flexibility. And as the president travels the last bit of this road, he is going to work to consult with our allies and friends.

QUESTION: Did we read you right this morning when you suggested that the coalition you're trying to put together would actually set a deadline for Iraq and have a diplomatic ultimatum rather than the U.N. I mean, would it be to...

FLEISCHER: There are two issues in play here. One is through the United Nations Security Council, the resolution that is pending before them right now has a date for bringing the diplomacy to an end of March 17. That is the resolution pending before the Security Council now. That is the only date pending in the resolution before the Security Council.

If there is a military date by which the president would say that force will be used, the president has not spoken out on that matter.

So you have two separate tracks.

QUESTION: My point is, why is the president going through this charade of diplomacy when he obviously plans to go to war?

FLEISCHER: This is a very serious word, the diplomacy. And the president is carrying it out because he believes in the value of consultations.

QUESTION: But he obviously is not going to follow, no matter what happens.

FLEISCHER: I think that, frankly...

QUESTION: How can you do that?

FLEISCHER: When you use the word charade, which if I'm mistaken has French roots...

(LAUGHTER)

... you may want to address the question to those who say they would veto any resolution. I'm glad I minored in French. QUESTION: You did?

FLEISCHER: Mais oui (ph).

QUESTION: Ari, what is the administration's formal legal position and assessment, from the State Department legal adviser, from the White House counsel, about the lawfulness of taking military action if this resolution were to be voted down, in the teeth of the opposition of the Security Council, either by a majority or by a veto?

FLEISCHER: Let me read you a legal sentence. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 678 authorized use of all necessary means to uphold United Nations Security Council Resolution 660 and subsequent resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area. That was the basis for the use of force against Iraq during the Gulf War. Thereafter United Nations Security Resolution 687 declared a cease-fire, but imposed several conditions, including extensive WMD-related conditions.

Those conditions provided the conditions essential to the restoration of peace and security in the area. A material breach of those conditions removes the basis for the cease-fire and provides the legal grounds for the use of force.

QUESTION: Thank you. So it's our assessment that we can go to war even if the Security Council votes down this second resolution, should there be a vote?

FLEISCHER: There is no question, based on both international law and domestic law, that the president has that authority.

QUESTION: Thank you. Is that assessment shared...

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: No. Is that assessment shared by Great Britain, Spain and other members of the coalition of the willing or is some of the reason for this talk that maybe we won't have a vote that their international lawyers come to a different conclusion, that this war would be illegal over a U.N. veto?

FLEISCHER: You need to talk to them about their interpretations of laws. I don't speak for them.

QUESTION: Ari, did you mean to say earlier that you saw no daylight in the French foreign minister's statement today that maintaining unity on the Security Council was important and France was open to all opportunities in that regard?

FLEISCHER: I didn't address that issue. What I said...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: I cited the foreign minister's statement that France rejects the logic of ultimatums. Well, if you reject the logic of ultimatums, you're telling Iraq you have forever to disarm, which is contradicted by 1441 which said you must immediately disarm, which raises questions about France's commitment to 1441.

QUESTION: But his most recent statement, can you comment on that, that they are looking for opportunities to maintain Security Council unity? Do you see any daylight in that?

FLEISCHER: I think France has recognized that its statement that it would veto anything that is put before the Security Council has created problems in France from which they're trying to retreat.

QUESTION: And does that create a diplomatic opportunity for the United States?

FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated, the president is pursuing the diplomacy still at this late date, but it will not be pursued all that much longer. It is coming to an end.

QUESTION: Yesterday, you indicated that it would be pointless for the president to call President Chirac. Is that still the case?

FLEISCHER: If a call is made, as you know, we keep you informed.

QUESTION: One on Iraq, one on North Korea, Ari.

On Iraq, when the secretary of state said in public today that we have several options here, going for a vote or not, was he speaking for himself or was he basically speaking a position that the president himself has now taken on? This is just to understand whether the president has, in fact, reversed from last week.

FLEISCHER: I think that I've expressed it all from the point of view of both the president and the secretary.

QUESTION: He was speaking for the president. Is that a fair assumption?

FLEISCHER: Certainly, what I just described is not inconsistent with anything either the president or the secretary has said.

QUESTION: Well, that's not true, because it is inconsistent with what the president said last week.

FLEISCHER: No, as I indicated in regard to Bill's question, as we pursue the diplomacy there is flexibility.

QUESTION: But there wasn't last week.

QUESTION: On North Korea. When the president spoke today to President Roh obviously the South Korean position has been that our position of trying to isolate North Korea or engage in multilateral talks is flawed, they want to continue with the Sunshine Policy, you've said it many times publicly. Did they discuss this and did they simply agree to disagree?

FLEISCHER: The two agreed about the importance of working on this issue in a multilateral fashion. And as you know, the president is very public and on the record as supporting the Sunshine Policy. He said it when he visited South Korea last year. He's said it on numerous occasions.

QUESTION: But even under these circumstances?

FLEISCHER: There's no change. There's no change, but the president's approach to the issue of making certain that North Korea understands it must dismantle its nuclear programs is a multilateral approach. There's a separate issue from the Sunshine Policy, which is a policy that deals with bilateral relations between North and South Korea on all issues, not only nuclear issues.

QUESTION: With the president possibly putting the date past the 17th, as a date for a vote that might happen at the United Nations, what consideration is being taken into the -- just sort of health of the troops? It's getting very hot over there, huge sand storms, et cetera.

FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated, when the resolution was first offered, the resolution was not set in stone and we were talking with our allies and consulting about it. And I think it's been clear from the very beginning that in terms of discussing the date, there may be discussion of the date, but there would not be a whole lot of flexibility on the movement of the date. There may be some levels of it, but not much.

QUESTION: Ari, the White House has said pretty regularly that the lack of unity or inconsistency of the U.N. sends the wrong signal to Saddam Hussein. How is the idea of clearly blowing out the March 17 deadline that the U.S. put forward and possibly not having a vote at the U.N. even though the president said he wanted one, how is that not sending the wrong signal to Saddam Hussein...

FLEISCHER: First of all, you're saying blowing out the deadline.

QUESTION: Well, if you have negotiations through Monday...

FLEISCHER: I think again, what you're seeing is the president of the United States pursue diplomacy to its fullest. This president would very much like to have this matter settled through peace and diplomacy, and he is taking every step that he can think is helpful and wise to doing that in consultation with our allies. But the worst mistake Saddam Hussein could ever make would be to underestimate the seriousness of this issue for this president and for the free world.

QUESTION: One more. The British are still sort of smarting over remarks that Secretary Rumsfeld made a couple of days ago talking about the fact that they might not be with the United States militarily. There is kind of talk there and other places that he's just become a loose cannon. Is there a concern about that talk or about the idea that the secretary might be a loose cannon at the White House?

FLEISCHER: No. I think that the secretary dealt with that issue in its entirety through the course of his briefing and the statement he issued following the briefing.

QUESTION: Ari, given all the machinations... BLITZER: Ari Fleischer, we're going to break away from the briefing. We are going to be monitoring to see precisely what else he says in the course of the question and answer session with reporters.

A new flexibility underscored today by the Bush administration, new flexibility as far as the timing of a new U.N. Security Council resolution perhaps coming up not necessarily today or tomorrow or Saturday, but in the early part of next week. Also a new flexibility, whether or not there will be a new resolution. The secretary of state telling members of Congress earlier today it's possible there won't even be a new resolution. The U.S. scrambling to try to get nine affirmative votes, nine of the 15 members of the Security Council.

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