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White House Briefing

Aired April 10, 2003 - 12:21   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go to the White House and listen to Ari Fleischer.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president began his day with an intelligence briefing, then an FBI briefing. Had a meeting of the National Security Council. He's met today with the secretary of defense, the secretary of state. He's having lunch today with the vice president.

He has also called two world leaders. He spoke with President Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Howard of Australia. He thanked both nations for their contributions and the bravery of the men and women of their armed forces, their effort to help bring freedom and liberty to the people of Iraq.

Later this afternoon, the president will meet with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where he will talk about the importance of the CAFTA, or the Central American Trade Agreement. He'll talk about the importance of strengthening the already good bilateral relations between the United States and each of these nations.

And also later today the president will have a meeting with a group of business leaders who are here in the White House. These employers represent 2 million Americans working for their companies, and the president will talk about the jobs and growth plan that he has pending on Capitol Hill to help create more growth in the economy.

And that is it on the president's schedule, and I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Is the president contemplating, Ari, any other regime changes in the Middle East? Because you hear -- I mean, there seems to be something in the atmosphere that it may not stop with Iraq.

FLEISCHER: Let me remind, specifically using the words "regime change," that this was an act of Congress signed by the previous administration that coined the word "regime change," and it's obviously that this administration supported.

As the president has made very clear, Iraq is unique. Iraq presented a whole set of threats to the world that were unique in the world. And there are other, of course, elements of the world that are not complying with efforts the United States and others around the world would like to see in terms of peace and security. But every region in the world presents a unique set of challenges or difficulties for the United States and for partners in peace, and each is dealt with separately. And so Iraq is a unique set of circumstances, and that's how the president treats it.

QUESTION: The answer is no?

FLEISCHER: It's exactly as I said. Iraqi is unique, and that's how the president treats it.

QUESTION: Kofi Annan is saying that there's a lot of looting in Baghdad and it appears that no one is in charge. What's being done to impose some sort of controlling authority immediately in Baghdad and other areas?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think one of the things that I think you have seen in what's been a rolling effort in Iraq, there were originally reports of looting, and there was indeed looting in Basra and other cities in the south, and as the security situation stabilized, the looting did, indeed, decline.

Of course, our coalition forces are there for a military mission, and they also are mindful about what is taking place on the ground. And these things need to be measured over time. Beyond that, I would refer you to the DOD officials who provide for security on the ground.

QUESTION: But as areas come under coalition control, their mission changes somewhat. The president says in his broadcast to the Iraqi people: Coalition forces will help maintain law and order. So they are becoming the Iraqi police force.

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think that if you take a look at security -- and we've always said that the forces will stay there to help provide security for the Iraqi people, and we mean it -- the definition, again, a part of our overall policy, is you should talk to DOD officials about operational aspects.

But there are also signs -- and if you take a look in western Iraq, this was briefed this morning out at Doha -- there is a town in western Iraq in which the mayor and the town council have already starting working very closely with coalition forces that moved through their town and remain in their town. They're beginning their self- governance once again.

And I anticipate that you will see different places inside Iraq, different reactions from the local officials, the assumption of government infrastructure accelerating in different places inside Iraq depending on events on the ground. And we will continue to work with the local Iraqi authorities to make that happen.

QUESTION: Fair enough. But the president said coalition forces will maintain law and order. And in Baghdad, after the extraordinary scenes yesterday of liberation, today you have a suicide bombing. Does the mission of policing the streets of a city of 5 million people like Baghdad make American troops more vulnerable to this kind of suicide attack?

FLEISCHER: Let me remind you: We are still in the middle of an actual military mission. And suicide attacks took place in other places along the battlefield. This is a tactic that some of our enemies employ. And this remains a dangerous country, a dangerous place, as I indicated yesterday, in many places.

The assassination, the very regrettable assassination of a sheik from Najaf, which the United States strongly condemns and we express our sympathy to the people of Najaf over this assassination, is another reminder of how dangerous the situation is inside Iraq.

It was dangerous before this military mission. It remains dangerous. We are still in the middle of a military mission. The United States is committed to helping the people of Iraq with their security. And DOD will be able to talk about that as they talk about their regular day-to-day activities.

QUESTION: Can you bring us up to date on who is responsible for programming the television broadcasts which the Iraqis will receive?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president today has broadcast a message to the people directly of Iraq. This is a way for President Bush and Prime Minister Blair to speak directly to the people of Iraq about the freedom and the liberation that is coming to them. And we will continue to communicate directly with the people of Iraq, it is important.

The Department of Defense is in charge of this program. The Department of Defense has the facilities on the ground to transmit the information that is being broadcast. And just as they have done with Commando Solo, which is a series of radio broadcasts that have been made for weeks to the Iraqi people, this was a Defense Department operation then, it remains a war, it remains a Defense Department operation.

QUESTION: Right. But who is deciding what the program content...

FLEISCHER: The Department of Defense.

QUESTION: Who in the Department of Defense?

FLEISCHER: That's a question, I'm sure, that will come up when they brief later this afternoon. It's a series of people on the ground in Doha as well as here in the United States.

QUESTION: For example, is Wilkinson (ph) part of this, even though he's not part of...

FLEISCHER: Again, I don't brief the DOD details. That'll be available to you by the DOD officials.

QUESTION: And we're told that the three network news broadcasts are supposed to be carried unedited on this service. Is that correct?

FLEISCHER: I have not heard that myself. I don't know if you're raising it to object or to support.

QUESTION: Just to confirm.

FLEISCHER: OK. No, that's a question of the DOD. They're in charge of the content of it. I can talk to you about the president's involvement in it and the video that you know we released earlier today about it.

But the president is very pleased that DOD will be providing this service to the Iraqi people. For decades, the Iraqi people have heard nothing but totalitarian propaganda that was designed to prop up the regime of Saddam Hussein. Their messages to the Iraqi people were far from the truth. They were not the observations of people who were in a position to have facts, to report facts, or to show those facts to the Iraqi people. That will now change, and that is for the good of the Iraqi people.

We also see a day coming -- it is not here yet because we're still in the middle of a war -- but we see a day coming that we look forward to, which is where the Iraqi people themselves will welcome in their own journalists, where they themselves will set up independent media, where they will themselves avail themselves of the rights that we think go with democracy around the world as we have here, which is the right of a free press to broadcast and to print. That is an important of Iraq's future. And so, we see that day coming.

QUESTION: Aren't you concerned that the Iraqi people may simply see this as propaganda from a different source?

FLEISCHER: You know, one of the reasons that we feel so strongly about the free press is because we want the free press to be there to see it with their own eyes. As you know, the United States military made the decision, with the support of the White House, to embed countless journalists with our troops there to see things with their own eyes and to report the truth as they know it. And I think you'll be in a good position -- your reporters are on the ground in Baghdad -- to get their reactions after they see a message from the president.

I think if the scenes that we're seeing on the streets carried through free media's cameras are any indication, the Iraqi people welcome a message from President Bush.

QUESTION: Ari, on weapons of mass destruction, British Prime Minister Blair said a couple of days ago in Belfast that after the regime fell that we, the coalition, would be led to them, his words.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was offering rewards for Iraqis to prevent the regime from either destroying documents or destroying materials or shipping them out of the country.

So, I mean, what's the bigger picture here? Is the United States in a position where we have to rely on people on the ground to ultimately get to the very weapons that we say Iraq has and that we've been after?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think there are two principal things that involve the Iraqi people in the efforts to determine where their weapons of mass destruction are.

One is, the people who are involved in it and want to do everything they possibly can to destroy all the evidence of their involvement in it. Obviously, those people are the problem.

And then there are other people who may have knowledge about it, who want to provide that knowledge to the Untied States or to coalition allies so that evidence of weapons of mass destruction can indeed be unearthed or found.

And I think we'll see both on the ground in Iraq.

I think it is something that will be found. We've always said that we have information that they have weapons of mass destruction; the precise location of where it is is information that the Iraqi people can be helpful with.

QUESTION: OK. But you're saying now that -- I mean, it appears that we really are relying on people to lead us to them rather than knowing where these materials are. And if we don't have that sort of cooperation, I mean, are we going to come up empty here?

FLEISCHER: I think you've always heard and you continue to hear from officials a measure of high confidence that indeed the weapons of mass destruction will be found. What we have is a regime that was a master at hiding it, that had set up a very large and elaborate infrastructure for the sole purpose of hiding it.

And as the military conflict goes through its various phases and we turn the corner from actual military conduct, military operations to more of a pursuit of where the weapons of mass destruction are, then I think additional information will come in. And we don't rule out that it can come in thanks to the help of the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: I just want to nail this down. Either the bad actors are going to flip and tell you about it, lead you to it or present it to you; or people who are essentially good actors are going to tip you off, you know, once you're there and lead to the materials, that right now the government forces on the ground are not in a position independently to get to where the major caches...

FLEISCHER: No, you can't rule out that the coalition forces might find something along their travels on the ground.


FLEISCHER: Well, they're involved in military operations. And Iraq has been hiding it.

But what we have is intelligence about their having it. Whether it was a specific location or not is often not the case.

But keep in mind the rescue of Jessica Lynch, for example. That was developed as a result of information provided to us by an Iraqi citizen. And so we, of course, we're on the lookout for our POWs. We had our antennae up doing everything we could to find them. We have means to be able to do certain things. But there's a limit to these means. The more there is help from the Iraqi people the easier the effort. QUESTION: I'm not asking for specifics, but I want to know specifically if the United States knows where a cache of WMD is. (OFF- MIKE) send troops to, if the site was clean, they could go to it and get it?

FLEISCHER: What we have always said is that we know that they have it, and they are an expert at hiding it.


FLEISCHER: We've always said we know they have it. They are expert at hiding it. I can't discuss all intelligence information, and this is something that Secretary Powell talked about when he went to the United Nations and talked about their abilities to hide. But make no mistake, we maintain high confidence that they have it and it will be found.

QUESTION: Do we know where any of it is?


QUESTION: Yesterday Secretary Rumsfeld said, Ari, that Syria was believed not only to be shipping some goods into Iraq, which he had discussed previously, but also helping the exodus of people from Iraq, presumably leaders. I was wondering if you could tell us, first, if the White House has any evidence that Iraqi leadership are escaping across the Syrian border or attempting to.

Secondly, whether the president has communicated in any with Syria to make it clear what kind of consequences there would be if there was such (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

FLEISCHER: No. Again, I don't have anything to add beyond what the secretary said yesterday about this. Secretary Powell said something similar about it as well. The secretary referred to the scraps of information that we have yesterday, and I think he said what the president wanted to say.

QUESTION: The president himself has got no plans to make any communication to Syria about the seriousness of this?

FLEISCHER: There's nothing that's been brought to my attention directly in the communication area there, but I don't know.

QUESTION: Ari, do you think the fall of the regime has affected the domestic political environment? Is the president in a better position now on taxes, Medicare, the rest of his domestic agenda?

FLEISCHER: Well, one is a statue fell. We're still not certain what the status of the regime is. We still are in the middle of war. And as events last night showed, and as events just today showed, we still have American forces who are being wounded or killed in this war. So it is not over. The final events have not taken place. And so I still want to temper and put this caution out there.

I think it's impossible to say what results the international affairs and war will have on the domestic agenda. That's for members of Congress to decide.

What's important from the president's point of view is that nobody forget the importance of taking action on the domestic agenda, because we still have Americans who are looking for work, we still have an economy that is growing, but not growing as fast as the president would like it to grow.

And so separate and apart from anything happening in Iraq, it's important for Congress to get moving on the domestic agenda, and indeed they have in many cases.

As you know, the CARE Act passed the Senate, providing for charitable deductions for Americans who give to charity. Energy legislation looks like it may get voted on in the House as soon as today. The budget resolution still is in its final moments of discussion up on Capitol Hill.

So they are making progress on some areas of the president's agenda. On other areas of the agenda, Congress is exercising its free will.

So we're pleased to see the Congress is moving on the agenda. The president's not getting everything he likes, but he certainly is defining the debate.


FLEISCHER: ... House and the Senate have to weigh what they can accomplish individually and then together in a conference. The conference is still meeting. They have not filed the conference papers. They continue to try to work through for successful resolution of the budget resolution, and that's where we are, and that's what the president is helping on.

QUESTION: Is it better then to defer the decision if the direction appears to be -- if the compromise appears to be heading in the direction of $350 billion? If Republican senators don't give, would you prefer that the decision is deferred until after the congressional recess?

FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, the House of Representatives passed a budget resolution that had some $726 billion worth of tax relief in it. The Senate has a provision of $350 billion. The process always works that the House and Senate conferees get together to try to see if there's a compromise that can be achieved. We're working with them in that goal, and the talks are continuing.

QUESTION: Your answer to the question why DOD is doing these broadcasts dealt entirely with the technical means of transmitting them into Iraq. It doesn't really answer the question of why DOD is controlling the content. Can you address that, why DOD and not a civilian agency is doing it?

FLEISCHER: For the same reason that DOD has successfully been doing it in a very able fashion for weeks, involving getting radio messages transmitted into Iraq, because we are in the middle of a war, and DOD is very good in the middle of a war not only of fighting and winning a war, but in providing information for people who have a thirst for information. The Iraqi people want to get these radio broadcasts, they want to know the facts, they want to know the truth, and DOD is in an excellent position to provide it and we're pleased they are.

QUESTION: How long will these broadcasts go on? How long do you envision them continuing?

FLEISCHER: I don't know that I've heard any type of timetable that is put on it. I think they will go, and I think, over time, you will see an increased number of Iraqi people who hear about them and are able to watch them, and that'll be a good situation to see develop.

But the end goal is for everything militarily to leave Iraq and for Iraq to be run entirely by the Iraqi people with a free Iraqi press. Make no mistake, that is the goal, and that is something that I think you will see happen.

QUESTION: You said in the morning that some of these broadcasts would be transmitted over what used to be Iraqi state TV. Is there some plan at some point to turn those transmission facilities over to a new, to an interim government?

FLEISCHER: That'll be something that the reconstruction folks on the ground will work on. Clearly, there's a desire to turn as much over as fast as possible, so that the Iraqi people can run their own affairs.

And literally the way it works is, it'll be transmitted on the same channel that people were used to tuning in on Iraqi TV. That's the way the technology works. It'll be broadcast from American coalition facilities involving DOD equipment, and so there's either airplane or transmitters on the ground. It'll be transmitted in such a way that if an Iraqi citizen was used to tuning in channel 3, for example, they'll be to again tune on channel 3 and there it would be.

QUESTION: Do you have any even approximate time frame as to how long it might take for an interim Iraqi regime or government to be up and running with its own means of communication?

FLEISCHER: No, I would not hazard a guess.

QUESTION: Ari, prior to the war many of the opponents said that the danger of going to war would be that the attitudes toward the United States around the world would seriously deteriorate. Now that we've gone to war and the war is winding down, does the White House feel as though attitudes towards the United States from countries other than those who are on our side has changed or has deteriorated like many predicted?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, I think that different nations will feel differently, and I think some nations that were irrevocably opposed to the use of force to disarm the Iraqi regime will continue to be irrevocably opposed to it. We disagree with those nations. The president disagreed with that prior to taking action and in the wake of the action that's been taken, he disagrees even stronger. Other nations, of course, I think wanted to wait and see what the results were.

But I'm not going to speak for all nations. The president did this because he thought it was the right thing to do, and it's fair to say he did it with a rather large coalition of political supporters from around the world.

QUESTION: Do you feel as though you've had deterioration?

FLEISCHER: No, I can't say that. I haven't seen that. No.

QUESTION: Two questions, please. What is the latest information about the search for Saddam Hussein? And would the U.S. government be willing to put a reward on information that would lead to his whereabouts or his capture?

FLEISCHER: I have no new information to report on that, and I have not heard any discussion about the latter.

QUESTION: Second question. The North Korean government continues to make statements and refusing any other intervention but a big dialogue with the United States. I know that President Bush will be meeting soon with the president of South Korea. What is going on on the diplomatic front between Washington and Pyongyang?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think what's going on, it not only involves Washington and Pyongyang, but it involves other capitals and Pyongyang. The United States has been working closely with China and with Russia and with Japan, as well as South Korea, of course, about the seriousness of North Korea's actions with withdrawal from the Non- Proliferation Treaty, as well as North Korea's threatening efforts to develop nuclear weapons. And that's something that has caused concern not only in America's capital, but in these capitals, and we continue to work with these nations about it.

As you know, there is some discussion at the United Nations Security Council about taking up measures to discuss what North Korea has done. Those discussions continue. We continue to think they are important.

QUESTION: Ari, back to the tax cut. How could the president claim victory on a half a package of his $726 billion proposed?

FLEISCHER: Well, number one, let's wait and see what the final outcome is. The president wants to make certain that what is done provides as much economic growth as is possible.

It's interesting, if you go back to the beginning of the debate, many Democrats were saying they would not support anything in excess of about $100 billion, as a temporary one-year tax cut. Obviously, whatever the outcome is, it's going to be significantly more than many of the Democrats supported.

So there's a process under way. We'll see if the process results in a good position somewhere in between what was originally set out and what is finally accomplished. We can also accomplish things by working together with various parties on the Hill.

QUESTION: On the CBO meeting later this afternoon, what's the purpose of that and why is it going to make any difference?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president's continued to meet with a group of constituents to talk about the importance of the growth package. These constituents then help to spread the message. They can go back to Capitol Hill and talk to different people about the importance of passing the package. It's part of how the president communicates.

And he likes to hear also from people who employ millions of Americans about what, in their judgment, will lead to their being able to hire more, to employ more. That's end of the day what this is all about.

QUESTION: Ari, can we go on to Turkey? I know we talked about it a bit earlier. What is the status, as you understand, about an agreement with Turkey as to what they can and cannot do in northern Iraqi? And in a general sense, do we want the Kurdish rebels, the Kurdish Peshmerga, to take territory from the regime or do we want them to just stay where they are?

FLEISCHER: Well, obviously, we are working, for the most part, in a very coordinated fashion with Free Iraqis, the Kurds in the north. Now, as you've seen, we have special forces working with them.

We have talked to Turkey. Secretary Powell has spoken with his counterpart in Turkey today. And Turkey understands that we understand their concerns, and Kirkuk, which is a city that is involved here, will be under American control.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) told the Turks that they can send, you know, military observers into Kirkuk to assure them that, indeed, we will be in control.

QUESTION: But at the same time, you have Kurdish forces fighting, capturing territory, which alarms the Turks. Which direction do we want this to go?

FLEISCHER: Well, we have talked with both parties. We'll continue to talk with both parties. And we will make certain that what we hope will happen will indeed take place on the ground. We will work to make that take place on the ground.

QUESTION: Well, but you have the situation where these Peshmerga are streaming into a city, like Kirkuk. Are they under U.S. control? Can you really say that?

FLEISCHER: I don't think you should judge the end of the story by the results at the beginning of the story. Let's see how events develop on the ground.

QUESTION: Ari, part of the reason for the war was WMD. Now, well into the war, WMD has not been found. The American public is going to the television every morning, listening to the radio every morning trying to find out if, indeed, WMD was found.

Does the administration feel there's some awkwardness right now with these statements of, "They're professionals at hiding," and, "We know it's there"? I mean, is there some sort of awkwardness about the fact that this has not been found as of yet.

FLEISCHER: No. We know Saddam Hussein is there, but we haven't found him yet either. I mean, the fact of the matter is, we are still in a war and not everything about the war is yet known.

But make no mistake, as I said earlier, we have high confidence that they have weapons of mass destruction. That is what this war was about and is about. And we have high confidence it will be found.

QUESTION: Two questions based on the president's statements. Going back to Kurdistan, because the president talked about a unified, solid nation. At this point, would you now consider accepting a unified, an independent Kurdistan if Turkey is protected (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: No. From the beginning the mission has been clear, and that is to protect the territorial integrity of Iraq.

QUESTION: And on the statement our military forces will leave, but that doesn't say all forces will leave, does that preclude U.S. bases in the future in Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I was asked that yesterday, and I have nothing different or new to say about that yesterday.

QUESTION: Does the United States have any interest in arresting Mohammed Aldouri or any other Iraqi official in the United States?

FLEISCHER: I still don't have anything further than this morning. He is, of course, the ambassador of Iraq to the United Nations. Unless there is cause provided for why a diplomat would be arrested, he is a diplomat.


FLEISCHER: He remains a diplomat to the United Nations, that's correct.

QUESTION: On behalf of?

FLEISCHER: Well, literally, legally, the way it works, he is Iraq's representative to the United Nations.

QUESTION: Is he free to leave the United States if he wishes?

FLEISCHER: I don't have any information on that. That's probably something you need to talk to State Department about.

QUESTION: There have been reports that Mr. Chalabi has been talking to Israelis who were previously -- or to Jewish people who were previously in Iraq, may now be in Israel, and about them returning and also supporting a pro-Israeli stance. Where is the administration on that?

FLEISCHER: Well, number one, I would imagine that there are many Iraqis who are talking to many people who are no longer in Iraq and talking to them about the future of Iraq. It is important for people who care about the future of Iraq to reach out and get in touch with many of the people; the people in Dearborn, Michigan, who were dancing in the streets.

One of the things that you see when it comes to successful nations that emerge from tyranny is the willingness of people who left those countries to escape the tyranny to want to return to contribute to the future of that country. It's a measure of success.

So I imagine there will be a number of conversations about the future of Iraq. And the president's goal is for an Iraq to emerge that respects its neighbors, that lives in peace with its neighbors, including all its neighbors, including Israel.

QUESTION: Ari, last week the White House put out a statement calling for the release of dissidents who were arrested in Cuba. A lot of those people have now been tried, convicted and sentenced, in some cases for 20, 25 years. What's the White House doing about it now to try to...

FLEISCHER: The president condemns in the strongest terms the Cuban government's actions in terms of the repression of these...

BLITZER: We're going to take a break from Ari Fleischer's press briefing, continue to monitor the Q and A.


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