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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Briefing

Aired March 19, 2003 - 12:16   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, the White House press secretary, is now ready to start answering reporters' questions. Let's go to the White House.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon.

Let me give you a report on the president's day.

The president began this morning with a phone call to British Prime Minister Blair. The president called to congratulate him on the victory that the prime minister had in the vote in the parliament. The two also discussed the situation in the Middle East with the road map and their hope that confirmation would take place involving the new Palestinian prime minister.

The president then had his intelligence briefing, FBI briefing, then convened a meeting of the National Security Council. He also met this morning with the secretary of defense. Then he met with the mayor of New York City, Mayor Bloomberg, as well as Secretary of Homeland Security Ridge, to discuss homeland security issues, and also to note how well New York City has worked to prepare itself for any eventualities and to congratulate the mayor on New York's efforts.

That is it on the president's schedule today. I have one other statement for you.

President Bush will welcome President Paul Biya of Cameroon to the White House for a meeting and dinner tomorrow, March 20, 2003.

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

QUESTION: Has the president consulted with any former presidents besides his father (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and does he have the endorsement for the war on Iraq?

FLEISCHER: As I told you this morning, you need to address to former president what they would say about whether or not they support the president's endeavors.

FLEISCHER: In any case, any communication that the president himself has with former presidents I leave as a private matter between presidents.

QUESTION: Well, then has he consulted with any outsiders at all outside of the government?

FLEISCHER: Again, anything involving the presidents I always leave, as is protocol, a matter of privacy among the various presidents. The president has relied extensively on the information that he has from his meetings with the security team, as well, of course, with foreign leaders whose counsel he seeks on a regular basis.

QUESTION: You mean Americans.

FLEISCHER: No, foreign leaders whose counsel he seeks on a regular basis.

QUESTION: Ari, can you confirm that the administration has asked Iraqi opposition leaders here in this country to return to northern Iraq and be in position?

FLEISCHER: You know, I saw there was somebody on the Hill who suggested that yesterday and I cannot confirm that. I have not been able to get that confirmed. I don't know.

QUESTION: Is the administration talking to these people? And would you like to have them in position? And how do you envision them...

FLEISCHER: Well, of course, we talk to those people, yes. And as you know, there are programs under way, working with them, training them in Hungary, and there was a meeting in northern Iraq that a White House representative went to several weeks ago.

And the purpose of these contacts and the purpose of this dialogue and meetings is because the government of Iraq must be run by Iraqis in the future. And we have always said that this will be a government that comes from inside Iraq, as well as Iraqis from outside the country. And so, of course, we have conversations with those people. This is all part of the planning for a post-Saddam Iraq.

QUESTION: How long do you expect that American forces would be in control of the country before you were able to hand...

FLEISCHER: It's impossible to say. It will be as long as is necessary to do the job right, to provide the security atmosphere for Iraqis to govern their own country. It'll be as long as is necessary, but not a day longer.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that the United States won't be asking Turkey for ground basing, only for overflight rights?

FLEISCHER: I don't discuss operational issues of that nature. Anything like that, you need to talk to the Pentagon about.

QUESTION: What about the administration's expressed expectation that the Turks, if they go into northern Iraq, will be under the command of coalition forces? Have you gotten that confirmed?

FLEISCHER: It's the same statement I made yesterday. We've made our point.

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: ... is it under discussion?

FLEISCHER: We've made our point. We think our point is well understood.

QUESTION: To pick up on something you said, in the phone call with Prime Minister Blair, they talked about the road map. The Palestinian parliament has now established this position of prime minister and beat back efforts, apparently...

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: ... by Yasser Arafat to strip it of meaningful power. Does this position now satisfy the president's request that there be a prime minister with real authority?

FLEISCHER: That was an important development. And the president having, said on June 24 that one of the most important steps necessary to create an environment for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians would be internal reforms in the Palestinian Authority, welcomes the steps that have been taken in the Palestinian Authority. It's a sign of progress.

What has yet to happen is the acceptance of the position by Abu Mazen or the confirmation. That has not yet taken place.

QUESTION: But that position, as it's now laid out officially by the Palestinians, is a position of real authority in the president's (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

FLEISCHER: I leave it that the president is pleased with the internal progress that is being made in terms of the Palestinians seeking internal reforms.

QUESTION: OK. And then, one other thing. Ambassador Negroponte, at the U.N. this morning, has told the other members of the Security Council that he looks forward to working with them in the days and weeks ahead on issues that the Security Council will be involved in.

Can you outline with any specificity what the president thinks the role of the U.N. will be going forward?

FLEISCHER: Sure. And this was addressed in the meeting in the Azores and a communique that was issued following the meeting that talked about the role of the United Nations. This was a joint statement by the four leaders.

And in there President Bush said, as well as the other leaders said, that it's important for the United Nations to have a role in the humanitarian aspects of rebuilding of Iraq. And so that's -- you may just want to go back to the exact document to find the precise words. But clearly there is a role for the United Nations in the future of Iraq in terms of that humanitarian aspect.

QUESTION: Do you expect any political role? In some of these other situations, there have been U.N. officials who have assumed responsibility for civil administration, in Kosovo, East Timor, more places like that?

FLEISCHER: I'd refer you to the exact language in that document. I have not brought that document with me. But that is the document that sets forth the policy and says it in precise terms.

QUESTION: Ari, with eight hours to go to the deadline, have you gotten any indication from the Iraqi government that Saddam plans to step down?

FLEISCHER: No. With just a short amount of time to go before the deadline, we have not received, unfortunately, any indication from Saddam Hussein that he intends to leave the country.

QUESTION: Ari, first of all, logistical thing. You released this morning the letter that was sent up to the Hill, but we haven't yet received the backup material.

FLEISCHER: That was released about an hour ago.

QUESTION: Was it?

FLEISCHER: Yes.

QUESTION: OK.

FLEISCHER: I saw it was e-mailed out, and so I presume everybody here has it.

QUESTION: And the substantive question I have for you is, the president in his speech two nights ago described the Iraqi threat as one that could be one to five years into the future to obtain either a nuclear weapon or something that could strike us, so a non-imminent threat.

In the president's mind, is he in this action setting a precedent that the United States could now act either preemptively or preventively, depending on how you define it, against a threat that is not an imminent one against the United States?

FLEISCHER: Well, here's how the president approaches this. He believes, number one, based on the reviews conducted by the attorneys, that there already exists a legal basis both in international law, as well as in domestic law, for the use of force to disarm Saddam Hussein. And that is also found in Security Council Resolutions 678 and 687, as well as 1441.

The president also believes that there is a gathering threat from Iraq, that the failure of Saddam Hussein to disarm of his weapons of mass destruction presents a threat to the security of the United States, and therefore he has come to the conclusion that, after exhausting the diplomacy, that military force must be used if Saddam Hussein does not get out of the country.

That summarizes it for him. In terms of precedents, et cetera, I think that some people have made the case, and different people will have different historical views of these things, but you can look at the Cuban missile crisis, of course, where there was a decision made without the United States being, quote/unquote, attacked to conduct a quarantine or an embargo, which, of course, international lawyers would tell you is an act of war.

And so, I think you're going to find the historians, legal scholars, will have differing conclusions about these matters, but the conclusion the president reaches is that Iraq's failure to disarm presents a threat to the people of the United States, and, therefore, he is prepared to use force.

QUESTION: Just to follow. Even if you were absent the U.N. resolutions, if they didn't exist, he would still think he would have justification under the current circumstances?

FLEISCHER: There's no question about that.

QUESTION: The report that came was about a seven-page report. One of the points it makes in trying to make the case that a movement against Saddam would help the war on terrorism is that detained Iraqis could help identify terrorists living in the United States. I'm assuming, first of all, by detained, we're talking about those who've been captured in the war. Is that correct?

And secondly, what evidence do we have, what reason do we have to believe that detained Iraqis would be able to point us to suspects living in this country?

FLEISCHER: Let me reread the report to take a look at that provision in particular.

When I read it -- let me take a look at that in that particular regard.

The report focuses on, as the congressional requirements dictate, Congress, when it passed the resolution with huge bipartisan support last fall, laid out several reporting requirements imposed on the administration if a decision was made to use force. The report was required either immediately before or within 48 hours of the use of force -- or it said before or 48 hours afterwards.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... is making the argument, as required by the resolution, that a movement against Iraq would help in the war against terrorism. And in that section, the claim is made that it would help identify terrorists here. If you could provide some guidance as to how we could make that claim.

FLEISCHER: Yes. What the report required on the question of terrorism is that in connection -- this is reading from the law that triggers the formal requirement to put together the written report, which was sent last night, and I'm reading from the October 16, 2002 statute.

"In connection with the..."

BLITZER: We're going to break away briefly from Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary...

(INTERRUPTED BY LIVE EVENT)

BLITZER: I want to go back to the White House, because Ari Fleischer, the press secretary, still answering reporters' questions.

FLEISCHER: ... made it clear that the use of the guard is a state option as consistent with code orange. And that's something that's been well established in all the protocols that guide what steps would be taken as the threat level goes up or comes down. And governors have that prerogative, they have that option as they see fit under the way it's set up.

So I don't view that as a problem. I view that as the way the system is set up to give governors flexibility in decision-making. You know, there are some states where they may not think that they are terrorist targets and that they don't have to make such decisions to employ the guard; other states may see it differently. That's part of the flexibility based on threat assessment that is provided.

In terms of funding, we have never ruled out that there would be a homeland security component to a supplemental request. That is a possibility.

QUESTION: So you anticipate that it would be rolled into the supplemental that would involve the cost of the war and the initial rebuilding?

FLEISCHER: What I've said is, we do not rule that out. That is a possibility.

QUESTION: Back on Turkey. In light of their decision to give the U.S. flyover rights, does that change the status of the economic package that the U.S. was holding...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Two points. One, the Turkish parliament has yet to speak on that matter. There are some important leading Turkish voices who have expressed their position that Turkey should grant flyover rights. But as a legal matter, the Turkish parliament has not yet voted on that. And so it's premature to make any judgments about what actions Turkey will take. We will look forward to hearing the results of that vote.

In terms of an economic package, the previous package that was discussed with Turkey was contingent on their cooperation, their total cooperation in the military endeavor. That total cooperation has not developed, and therefore the previous package is no longer the pending package. QUESTION: But is the administration willing to consider some smaller version of it? Because another argument for the package itself was that Turkey being so close to the action was going to suffer real economic damage.

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: And so is the administration prepared if Turkey cooperates at some level to go back to the table and perhaps try to provide some kind of aid that's perhaps small?

FLEISCHER: The White House has not ruled out assistance for Turkey in this matter, but I don't have anything to indicate beyond that.

QUESTION: First of all, to return to the supplemental. Secretary Ridge told us out in the driveway after the meeting that there would be, definitely be a homeland security component in the supplemental. Was he correct or was he getting ahead of the program?

FLEISCHER: No, he's correct.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: I will advance it that far. Yes, he will. And that'll be made clear in testimony later today up on Capitol Hill.

QUESTION: Regarding the meeting involving the secretary and Mayor Bloomberg, can you give us a little more detail, readout of how that meeting went and what was said?

FLEISCHER: Sure. Mayor Bloomberg briefed the president on Operation Atlas, which is New York City's plan to protect New Yorkers in the event of terrorist attacks. The president noted that New York City, of course, has a tremendously effective infrastructure designed to combat terrorism, has been tremendously effective. New York has great resources and great abilities. And the president expressed his pride in that.

And they did talk about the fact that there would be some level of homeland security money in the supplemental. And that was the nature of the conversation.

The president also recalled visiting New York in the aftermath of September 11 and just talked again about the great determination and the way the New Yorkers handled the terrorist attack.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) specific funding levels discussed?

FLEISCHER: No. No specific funding levels discussed.

QUESTION: The mayor said that his main message on the funding question was that whatever homeland security component there is, the money should not be distributed according to the traditional formula of population. He said New York City did not do well by that, that there's a unique threat here and that that should be taken into account.

What's the president view of that? Does he agree...

FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, the president differed with the manner in which Congress put in place in the existing, just passed into law money for states and localities, the manner in which Congress did it.

Clearly there is flexibility needed here to get the funds to the areas that need the funds the most and not to distribute it on any other basis where there would be organizations that have less to worry about getting larger amounts of money.

So I think that the mayor expressed himself on it. You've heard what he said. The president would very much like to see in the proposal that he has made to Congress this year for additional billions of dollars in homeland security money to have greater flexibility, fewer earmarks in the way that money can be spent.

QUESTION: Ari, as we're on the brink of war, is there any kind of message the White House wants to send to...

BLITZER: We're going to, once again, break away from Ari Fleischer...

(INTERRUPTED BY NEWS ALERT)

BLITZER: Want to go back to the White House, Ari Fleischer still answering reporters' questions on the showdown with Iraq, only hours before the deadline -- let's listen in.

QUESTION: ... attack Iraq.

How does the president feel about going into war with opposition that's larger and more passionate than during the Afghani campaign? And second, how should authorities respond to civil disobedience that may occur in the coming days?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president views it just the way he has viewed the many protests that have taken place already. It is the right of the American people to speak out. The president, I think -- and I think it's been widely recognized that there is an overwhelming strong majority of the American people who see it differently from the protesters. And that's their right to see that way.

QUESTION: Even speak out while the war is going on, which they intend to do?

FLEISCHER: The president understands it's the right of people to speak in America.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: I think you have to address that, given whatever the circumstances are, to the local law enforcement officials who would be involved, depending on the circumstances of what is done. That's not a White House matter.

QUESTION: Ari, you said a minute ago that preemption is necessary when you're dealing with an asymmetrical threat, but containment works when you're dealing with a rational threat. How does North Korea fit into that? Is North Korea a rational threat?

FLEISCHER: Well, the policies that the president have announced on North Korea of course focus on working in a multilateral fashion with the other nations involved to make certain that North Korea understands the importance of dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

We hope North Korea will respond to that multilateral message of diplomacy. The president has said all options are on the table. That's the approach the president has taken.

QUESTION: Let me ask you also about, if you could give us an update on the mood here at the White House, the president's mood. Is he doing anything differently today than he does on other days?

FLEISCHER: No, the president has spent today much like yesterday. It's a day of working with the military planners, taking last-minute looks at the various plans of the military planners, and allowing the time that he has given to pass.

QUESTION: Opponents of the war in Iraq contend that it will increase terrorism while the majority of our country seems to believe that decisively removing Saddam will demoralize the terrorist network worldwide.

And my question, how does the president assess the psychological effect of this massive military action on the minds of terrorists?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think, on two levels. One, you can already see that the effort to fight terrorism worldwide, even with the buildup of force in dealing with Iraq, has been very, very successful.

al Qaeda has been severely disrupted. While threats do, indeed, remain and concerns are present, al Qaeda has been severely disrupted. They have lost their ability to train in Afghanistan, they're on the run, they're scattered throughout the world, it's not safe for them anywhere, they know that any given moment any of them can be, like their brethren before them, picked up and brought to justice. And that has a powerful deterrent effect.

And the president also believes that use of force...

BLITZER: All right. That's all the time, unfortunately, we're going to have for SHOWDOWN: IRAQ for this hour. Ari Fleischer continuing to answer reporters' questions. We're going to continue to monitor, see what he says.

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