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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Briefing

Aired March 14, 2003 - 12:35   ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Ari Fleischer's briefing has just started. He's answering reporters' questions. There is a lot of important issues on the agenda today.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... chemical attack -- an attack on the people of Iraq with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein. The president will meet with three people who are affected, either they or their families, as a result of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons.

With that single order that Saddam Hussein gave to use chemical weapons, the Iraqi regime killed thousands of Iraq's own citizens. Whole families died while trying to flee clouds of nerve and mustard agents descending from the sky. Many who managed to survive...

BLITZER: We're going to interrupt Ari Fleischer...

(INTERRUPTED BY LIVE EVENT)

BLITZER: Let's get back to the White House now, Ari Fleischer, the press secretary, is continuing to answer reporters' questions.

FLEISCHER: ... the president does think it's important to go the last mile for diplomacy. And this is important to our friends and our allies. And if it's important to our friends and our allies, it's important to President Bush.

QUESTION: But it's not as important to us, obviously, because he keeps saying he doesn't need it.

FLEISCHER: And that's a statement of fact. The United States -- and the president has said it repeatedly -- does not need a second resolution or an 18th resolution based on legality and based on the fact that it's important to disarm Saddam Hussein. But because it is important to our friends and allies, it's important to President Bush.

QUESTION: So he did this for the benefit of our allies?

FLEISCHER: And if it's for the benefit of our allies, it is by virtue therefore beneficial to the United States. We are in this together.

QUESTION: Ari, will you ask the president for me and for many, many others has he really weighed the human cost on both sides of starting a war to go after one man? FLEISCHER: This is not a war to go after one man. This is a war, if there is a war, to go after one regime lead by Saddam Hussein that possesses weapons of mass destruction that could take the lives of millions.

That's why the United Nations called on Saddam Hussein to disarm, is because Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, and that is the core of the issue; they have not disarmed.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) and so forth. And many other countries have weapons of mass destruction...

FLEISCHER: And under Resolution 1441, Saddam Hussein was compelled by the United Nations Security Council to immediately, without condition and without restriction disarm. He has not done so.

QUESTION: They haven't found anything yet.

FLEISCHER: It doesn't prove that he doesn't have it, it just proves that he's able to hide it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: And the inspectors will also be the first to tell you that through the '90s they missed much of what he had too if they haven't been told about it from defectors.

QUESTION: Ari, you said there's a little more diplomacy, a little more time left. Chile today, on behalf apparently the undecided nations, has proposed adopting five of the British benchmarks as strict tests for Iraqi compliance and extending the deadline three or four weeks. Is that too much diplomacy, too much time? Would the president be open to three or four weeks to test these benchmarks.

FLEISCHER: Of course, I was asked several days ago about whether or not the president would be open to extend the deadline 30 to 45 days. Now you could say that's 26 to 41 days. It was a non-starter then, it's a non-starter now.

QUESTION: Well, you said 30 days was a non-starter. Now you're saying that...

FLEISCHER: Four weeks, obviously, is 28 days. Four days ago I was asked about 30 days. That makes it 26. No, that's a non-starter.

QUESTION: In the past several weeks we've seen the administration go from discouraging a second resolution to desperately seeking the vote of nations like Guinea.

We've seen the president go from saying, "Put the cards on the table, there will be a vote," to Secretary Powell saying, "Maybe not." We've seen European officials say the administration told them the road map for peace in the Middle East would not be published until after any war with Iraq to the president walking out in the Rose Garden doing it today. And we had you yesterday saying there's no travel, and now he's going to the Azores. It looks like an administration in chaos.

FLEISCHER: Let me begin with your first erroneous statement. As you said, "a nation like Guinea." I don't know what that means. Guinea is a sovereign nation and a proud member of the Security Council. And if you believe in the United Nations and believe in multilateralism, then nations like Guinea deserve their place on the Security Council with an opportunity to say how they think. That's how the president approaches with respect each of these nations.

On the rest of your statements, you have seen a continuation of the diplomacy. And what you've seen as diplomacy reaches its final path, there are multiple options to reach that final path. The one area that unites all those options is the president's determination to go the last mile on behalf of diplomacy.

QUESTION: And he's willing to flip-flop several times to get there.

FLEISCHER: I disagree with your characterization of it.

QUESTION: Ari, wouldn't an Iraq war slow down this Middle East road map?

FLEISCHER: In fact, the question said something about there will be no road map until the end of the war. I'm not aware of anybody who has made such a statement. The president...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Do you have anybody in the United States government who's made such a statement?

QUESTION: He said that he was told by officials in the United States government.

FLEISCHER: I can't speak to that. I am not aware of any United States official who has said that there would be no road map.

The president has always said -- if you go back to the June 24th speech -- that what we needed to have was an environment in which both Israel and Palestinians can have confidence to live side-by-side in peace as the Palestinians reform and as the security situation got better on the ground.

The president has observed there was a change in events in the Middle East with the naming of a Palestinian prime minister. The president hopes that this will be a key moment in which the Palestinians themselves are showing signs of serious, meaningful reform. And if that is the case, the president has said he will send the road map forward, exactly in keeping with what he said on June 24th.

QUESTION: And he said the new prime minister should have real authority. Are you worried that Yasser Arafat would have too much authority or too much influence over the new prime minister? FLEISCHER: It's a question mark. And it's an important question mark to resolve. Yasser Arafat has not shown a history of being willing to relinquish power in reality. And so it's an important issue to determine whether or not the Palestinians are indeed engaging in meaningful reforms.

The president hopes so. If they are, this president is prepared to take action.

QUESTION: We're very possibly just days away from going to war, yet the president has yet to show the American public in any detailed way his best assessments of what military and civilian casualties might look like, what the terrorist threat reprisal possibilities are, what the costs of this war might be, what the burdens of occupation and rebuilding might be. If a determination is made to go to war, is the president going to share his best thinking on this with the American people before the shooting starts?

FLEISCHER: We are rapidly approaching the final diplomatic moments. And in the event the president makes the determination that he must go beyond diplomacy and that force must be used, he will indeed have much information to share with the American people.

QUESTION: Including addressing those specifically...

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to predict...

QUESTION: ... before or after the shooting starts?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to predict every eventuality of the remarks the president will make. But I think the American people will hear what they are expecting to hear from the president at a serious time like this.

QUESTION: Beforehand?

Following up on your respect for Guinea, what would be the harm and would there be any benefit to having a representative or some representatives of the six middle, undecided Security Council nations in the Azores?

FLEISCHER: Well, the meeting is a chance for the co-sponsors of this resolution to speak and to meet. It's for those nations that are standing by 1441 as the sponsors of this resolution to meet. So that's the purpose of the meeting and that's why they're getting together.

QUESTION: If the purpose of the meeting is to get a resolution, what would be the harm...

FLEISCHER: I'm not aware that's even an eventuality or a circumstance that anybody else has suggested, let alone the leaders of those nations. So this is a meeting of the leaders that I've mentioned.

QUESTION: British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in part the reason for recommitting to the Middle East peace process is to show a sense of evenhandedness, the suffering of the Iraqi people, the war on terror, as well as the suffering of the Palestinians and the Israelis. Is there any recognition from this administration that those two conflicts have not been treated evenhandedly?

FLEISCHER: The president's approach has been one that all parties have responsibilities, and that's what he said on June 24, and he cited specifically the responsibilities of Israel to peace, the Palestinians to peace and the Arab nations to peace.

QUESTION: And how do you respond to the suspicions that the administration is talking about this recommitment to this road map -- Middle East road map as a part of the strategy to win support from the U.N. Security Council on the second resolution?

FLEISCHER: You know, I think you could easily ask the question, if the president didn't go today, you could say, "Now that the Palestinians have appointed a prime minister, are on the verge of perhaps appointing a prime minister with real authority, why isn't the president saying anything? Is it not important enough for the president?"

The point is, action is taking place on the ground in the Middle East in accordance what the president called for on June 24th. Failing to note what took place by the Palestinians would be an omission of the president's duties to work toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I think it would be surprising if the president did not speak out at a time like this.

QUESTION: But, Ari, is there no recognition that it might even look suspicious at this time, the timing of this, to talk about recommitting to the Middle East road map?

FLEISCHER: If you're suggesting that the Palestinians have chosen this moment to appoint the prime minister is suspicious, I think that's something you need to take up with the Palestinians.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: But again, if you're suggesting that it's appropriate for the president to stay silent as the Palestinians are on the verge of perhaps appointing a powerful or independent prime minister, I think that's a rather unusual statement to make, that the president should remain silent at a time like this.

BLITZER: We're going to break away from Ari Fleischer's press briefing. We'll continue to monitor it, of course. Two key issues on the agenda right now, this summit Sunday in the Azores, the Portuguese islands of the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean. The president will be meeting with the leaders of Spain and Britain, as well as the leader of Portugal, of course, the host country for this summit, an emergency summit on Sunday in the Azores to talk about the next steps in the showdown with Iraq.

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