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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Briefing

Aired April 2, 2003 - 15:31   ET

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

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: ....the foreign minister of Kuwait and the president of Spain.

This afternoon the president just concluded a meeting that went much longer than scheduled -- so my apologies for coming out here late -- with a group of economists from Wall Street to talk about the state of the economy and the president's jobs and growth package that's pending on Capitol Hill.

And the I have one announcement, then I'm happy to take your questions.

The president will meet with President Jorge Batlle of Uruguay at the White House on April 23rd, 2003. This visit provides the opportunity to deepen United States cooperation with Uruguay, a strong ally in the war on terrorism and in promoting democracy and economic growth in the hemisphere.

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

QUESTION: Do we know from either forensic evidence or any statements by Private Lynch the identity or whether or not any of those bodies were coalition troops?

FLEISCHER: I have no information on that. Anything about that would come from the Pentagon.

QUESTION: And can you tell us when the president found out that there would be a mission to try to rescue her?

FLEISCHER: Yes, let me try to walk you through a little bit about this.

Yesterday the president was informed about the successful rescue in a conversation he had with Secretary Rumsfeld shortly before 5 o'clock in the afternoon. Secretary Rumsfeld informed the president of the successful rescue and the president's reaction was, "That's great."

The president had a hint of it earlier in the day, but the tactical decisions were made by General Franks and his commanders on the ground about exactly what to do and when to do it. And that's what took place. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president had some generalized information, but, again, the tactical information was -- the decision about what to do and when to do it was made by the commanders on the ground. The president had some general awareness that something might be happening, but not the details.

QUESTION: Could he have told General Franks not to do it? And was the plan signed off on by him?

FLEISCHER: It's not a question of whether this is signed off on or not signed off on by the president. These are the exact types of things that commanders in chief entrust to their people in the field to do. That's the way the military structure works best, that's the way the president works it.

FLEISCHER: So it isn't...

QUESTION: There's a history of commanders in chief signing off on authorizing just this kind of mission, literally.

FLEISCHER: The president has made it clear that he wants the commanders in the field to have the flexibility, the ability and knowing that they'll have the backup for the White House for them to make these types of calls and these types of decisions in a way that maximizes the mission.

QUESTION: So whose call was it to do it? Franks?

FLEISCHER: You have to ask DOD specifically which military official. But -- oh, no, that's correct.

Let me say this, though. The president does express to the armed forces, to all those involved, especially to the daring service men who carried out -- service men and women who helped make this happen -- the president expresses to them the pride of our nation for the successful rescue. And of course, he expresses the joy of our nation for the Lynch family upon her being rescued.

And I do want to say it is tempered somewhat by also the fact, of course, that the president knows that we have others who are missing in action, we have others who are POW, we have others who have died. And that, of course, is always on the president's mind.

But there's no question that this is a good day, a good moment and the president is very proud of what took place.

QUESTION: How is the president reacting to the stress of the war? There's an article that suggests in quotes from his friends that he feels he is being tested. He feels burdened by this. How would you...

FLEISCHER: You know, I can only say that I think the people who are talking are not people who have spent much time with the president. Because my read of having seen the president is the following -- and I see him often -- I think it's fair to say that the hardest part was the lead up to the decision to use force. I think for any commander in chief, for the president, for this president, that to him represented the most difficult time of deciding whether or not force must be used knowing that it would put American men and women in harm's way. Once the decision was made, this is a president who is very comfortable, who is very steady with the decision made. And that's what I see in him. These are serious times. We are a nation at war and the president is always cognizant of that.

Tomorrow when the president goes to Camp Lejeune, he is going to meet with some families whose service men or women have lost their lives in Iraq. And that is something the president thinks about. But he also keeps in mind the purpose of the mission, the nature of the mission, the importance of the mission.

FLEISCHER: And that's what I see in them.

QUESTION: Do you feel that he feels burdened and that he feels that he is being tested?

FLEISCHER: No, I really can't say that. I think when you say burdened, I don't know how to define what the word burdened means. I think any time a president of the United States authorizes the use of force, when this president authorized the use of force, he understands the serious nature of that. But when he does so because he feels so strongly and so deeply, as he shared with the public, the important reasons why force has to be used, the president is somebody who has set has sights on a mission and is proud of the men and women who are carrying out the mission. And he is resolved to see it through. He is comfortable with the decisions that are made. And I think that you'll see tomorrow at Camp Lejeune, it's going to be a private meeting with the families.

As you know, the president does think carefully about these decisions to put people in harm's way, and he cares deeply about that.

QUESTION: Ari, has the U.S. any contact with the Iraqis or any third-party intervention to end the war?

FLEISCHER: Not that I know of.

QUESTION: You said he had a hint of it earlier in the day, and he knew something was going on. Did he know that there was a rescue mission under way to try to get one of the POWs?

FLEISCHER: I really am not going to go into any more depth than that, than what I said. Just that it was -- without being specific, there was some generalized information, obviously, of highly classified nature. But as far as the timing, the tactical aspects, he did not.

QUESTION: I'm not asking about any of that. I'm asking -- and I know it's classified -- but now everyone knows that DOD received intelligence that Jessica Lynch might be alive and that they were going to launch this special operation mission to get her. FLEISCHER: I'm just not at liberty to get into any more specifics about what it was that the president got hinted.

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: ... for how much the president is tuned in to the daily developments on the ground. I mean, this was a big deal, obviously.

FLEISCHER: Well, obviously. I mean, when I say he's tuned in, he's tuned in. He was tuned in. The secretary informed him about it at 10 of 5. That was part of the regular briefing that the president receives on all events, particularly something like this.

But on many of the different events in the theater, the president is told about it. Earlier in the day he received some generalized information about some possibilities or this possibility. And I'd just leave it at that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: This possibility that -- of what transpired late in the day may happen.

QUESTION: OK, what transpired later in the day?

FLEISCHER: The rescue, and that was singular.

QUESTION: On a different subject, Appropriations Committees in both the House and Senate have now rejected a White House request relating to the supplemental for the $2.5 billion that would go toward reconstruction and humanitarian aid, rejected your request that that money be controlled by the Pentagon. And instead, they are designating that it be controlled by State Department and other agencies.

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: Does this mean the State Department is now going to run the reconstruction efforts?

FLEISCHER: No, it's part of the $74 billion appropriation bill the Congress is considering. They granted the president's request in this area for the dollar amount but there is a difference in their committee work about exactly who should get to expend the dollar amount.

So the president is pleased with the focus on the correct dollar amount in this case but disagree with the committees about whether it should be the State Department or the Defense Department that should be authorized to expend the funds. And that is an issue that we'll take up with the House and the Senate when it comes to the floor.

QUESTION: But given that both committees -- and this is not just a partisan issue. Republicans agree that the money should go to State Department too. How do you readjust? If Jay Garner -- retired General Garner, who's supposed to be running the operations, does he work for the State Department now? FLEISCHER: By working the issue when it comes to the full House and the full Senate. It was a committee that did it in the House, a committee that did it in the Senate. And, of course, the way the process works, it's the beginning stages of it, and we'll continue to work it. QUESTION: But just to clarify, the president still believes that the Pentagon should be in control of the rebuilding and humanitarian relief efforts...

FLEISCHER: The president believes...

QUESTION: ... (inaudible) supplemental.

FLEISCHER: The president made the proposal to do it in that manner because given the fact that the Pentagon has the security forces, the armed forces on the ground, he believes that's the most effective way to deliver the help to the Iraqi people that would be necessary for the reconstruction of Iraq. So that's why he made the proposal the way he did and he stands by it. We'll see ultimately what happens when it gets to the floor.

QUESTION: Iraq has a debt -- an external debt of about $100 billion. A huge burden not to even look at the oil reserves, run up by Saddam Hussein, unelected dictator, building palaces and weapons. And there is...

FLEISCHER: Actually, he was elected. He had 100 percent, he said.

QUESTION: Stand corrected.

There is a proposal out there that once Saddam Hussein and his regime are gone, that the people of Iraq should not be burdened with this debt, that it should be forgiven, partly to liberate them from this conduct of Saddam Hussein, and also to teach banks and corporations and countries who lent such a tyrant that kind of money a lesson not to do it in the future. Does the president have a feeling on what should be done with Iraq's debt?

FLEISCHER: I think that all of these issues are going to be the issues that are going to be part of the reconstruction effort. And these decisions will get made with the international community. Obviously, there are very -- there are a number of nations that have money that is owed to them, owed by the state. The state will continue to exist. And so therefore it is still an important issue. The people of Iraq will have a role in this as well. So I don't think anybody can tell you what the outcome will be.

The one thing that is certain is Iraq is a wealthy nation. Iraq has vast resources. Iraq will have -- unlike Afghanistan, for example, Iraq will have a huge financial base from within upon which to draw and that's because of their oil wealth. And that should serve benevolent purposes in the future. It should serve peaceful purposes. It should serve trade purposes in the future. It has a future also where the trade sanctions will get lifted one day.

QUESTION: So you aren't ruling in or out debt forgiveness? FLEISCHER: I am just saying I think it's too soon for anybody to give any assurances on one way or another. As I said, state-to-state relations continue even if a regime is changed.

QUESTION: Can I ask you a more specific question then? Does the United States know now that forces are within 15 miles, perhaps closer to Baghdad, the day after this regime falls -- literally, the day after, who runs the financial system in Iraq? Who runs its diplomacy? Who runs its oil fields?

FLEISCHER: Well, this will be part of the whole reconstruction effort.

QUESTION: You mean, you don't know that yet?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think when the -- the day the Taliban fell, did we know the name of the new president of Afghanistan? No.

The point is, the best way to ensure the future stability of a country is to take care first of the security matters, which is first, to be certain that the regime is disarmed, to make certain that Saddam Hussein and those around him are not in power. And things will evolve and I think things will evolve in different parts of the country at different pace.

Already you are seeing some talk by the British of empowering Iraqi officials to run certain affairs in some of the areas that they have now controlled.

And so, again, I think you're going to see different things, different regions of the country. But broadly, the effort is designed to make certain that security is enhanced. There will be additional handovers of roles to the Iraqi people from both within and without.

QUESTION: It was suggested this morning that the airline aid package on the Hill is excessive. Do you think the airlines are trying to take advantage of the government to cover up some structural problems they have?

FLEISCHER: I think that the airline industry even prior to the war in Iraq was beset by economic difficulties, obviously unrelated to anything happening in the war in Iraq.

FLEISCHER: The taxpayers responded generously, once, right after September 11th, in the form of loans that were available to the airlines, some of which just this week accepted substantial loans from the taxpayers.

So the airline industry has to be looked at in terms of, is there something specific that was caused as a result of this war that merits additional help from the taxpayers, or were there other conditions that existed in the marketplace that need to be considered separate and apart from the war?

Some of the issues that the airline industry brought to the attention of policy-makers were their fear that a war would lead to a spike-up in the price of fuel oil, which is a large component of the cost that airlines incur. Jet fuel costs have actually fallen, not risen, as was predicted. Fuel costs have fallen from $1.20 a gallon in February to just 80 cents last week.

And also in terms of passenger ridership, the airlines anticipated a 15 percent decline in ridership. There has, indeed, been a decline of 10 percent, not the anticipated 15 percent. And that's also a factor that needs to be considered: the level at which ridership now is very similar to the level of just one year ago.

Therefore when the administration takes a look at the congressional committees' action to add some $3 billion to the appropriations for the airlines, the White House believes that is excessive.

QUESTION: What is an appropriate (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Something less than that. The administration does not oppose assistance for the airlines. But clearly given the factors that have affected the airlines, such as fuel oil and the limited impact the war has had, the administration believes that the amount that the Congress is considering now is excessive.

QUESTION: The White House is signaling it wants to compromise on the tax cut. What is your reaction to that? Is $550 billion acceptable to you?

FLEISCHER: Yes, thank you for bringing that up.

Obviously, the House has passed a figure at the level that the president sought. The Senate has passed a different figure. The president believes very strongly that the higher the number, the more jobs will created for the American people. And therefore, the president continues to think it's very important that the $726 billion figure that the president sought is the figure that is arrived at. He will continue to push for that figure.

We understand that there will be a give-and-take process in the Congress between the House and the Senate. But the president is going to continue to push for that figure.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) "No, we're not going to compromise."

FLEISCHER: Well, again, we understand that the president proposes, Congress disposes. But the president is continuing to push for the figure that he proposed.

QUESTION: Ari, I think the point people are trying to get at when it comes to the rescue operation, you said the president had a hint. Without getting into any of the classified information or operational details, that seems to suggest that the president was told in the morning at one of his earlier meetings with the national security team that there was some intelligence and the possibility of rescue operation being launched. Was he also given the option to say no? FLEISCHER: I don't think people view the president as looking at it in that way. When the president receives his briefings in the morning about, "Here are the different possibilities of things that may take place down the road."

FLEISCHER: And then, later in the afternoon, down the road is traveled, and the president gets an update on the things that he talked about earlier in the day.

The president has made it very clear to the commanders and to Tommy Franks that Tommy Franks makes the calls about the tactics and the timing of the operations. That is how the president thinks wars are won.

The president has said repeatedly the White House will not micromanage the war. That is exactly why you have generals and admirals and experts, to guide the war and run the war in the way that they believe is the best way to run it.

He'll stay deeply involved. He monitors it. He asks questions about what is happening to enforce accountability, to make certain that people are doing the things that they said they were going to do. But when it comes to running the war, the president believes that it's best left in the hands of the people who are expert at running the war.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) question now on the financial issues. In the supplemental there are a number of Republicans who are saying there is majority support for striking out the money for Turkey because of anger on the Hill about the Turkey situation. What is the administration doing to try to keep that money in there?

And to follow on Elizabeth's (ph) question, not as the White House press secretary, but as the former spokesman for the Senate Budget Committee chairman and the former spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, how likely is it that the president will get his $700 billion?

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: Are you asking me as an AP writer?

QUESTION: Sure.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: The land of the formers.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: As a former spokesman for those two entities, I think it's appropriate to buck that question to the White House press secretary. And he answered already. So thank you for the opportunity.

No, I can tell you, there's a process that's under way on the Hill. We have seen this before. And the president made a proposal because he thought it was the best proposal to do the most good for the economy. And therefore he is going to continue to push the Congress to pass the proposal that he made.

He will work with the Congress in that endeavor. Congress, of course, has the final word, but it'll be a final word where the president's voice is heard.

QUESTION: On Turkey?

FLEISCHER: And on Turkey, as you know, Secretary Powell has been in Turkey meeting with Turkish officials about the ongoing bilateral relations and interests. And we will see exactly what happens on the floor of the House or the floor of the Senate. We're aware that members of Congress have some strong opinions on this.

FLEISCHER: But the president does think, given Turkey's economic circumstances, that it is appropriate, it is the right policy for the $1 billion to be approved.

QUESTION: There seems to be a new big push going on toward Baghdad at the moment, and the Pentagon said today that the toughest fighting may be ahead of us still. One of the criticisms with the administration is that the rationale for the war has seemed to change over time. So for the record, at this point, would we say what -- how would this administration define the victory?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has been unequivocal and said it in his speech in Philadelphia. He's been saying it in all of his remarks. And I think this is something that you have heard, particularly out of the Pentagon.

This mission in Iraq is about the disarmament of the Iraqi regime, and it is also about making certain that Saddam Hussein and those around him are no longer in power, so they can do this again to the Iraqi people or to the world. Those are the two missions.

QUESTION: You have to do both things in order to be a victory, one or the other?

FLEISCHER: It always has been, and that is the purpose of their military effort.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the threshold is for defense officials coming to the president and asking for some sort of fresh authorization aside from any classified matters? Are there circumstances under which they must come to him for fresh authorizations?

FLEISCHER: You know, there is really nothing that's been brought to my attention like that. What happened this year, the president develops a war plan with the experts, with the National Security Council, with the DOD, with the generals, with the CINC, the secretary of defense. The plan is approved, and...

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