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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Briefing

Aired April 23, 2003 - 13:17   ET

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

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to LIVE FROM.... This is Ari Fleischer. That's the White House. Let's listen.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... this morning spoke with Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey. The two reaffirmed the strong relations between the United States and Turkey, longtime friends and allies. President Bush expressed appreciation for Turkey's ongoing resupply of United States forces in northern Iraq, and he welcome Turkey's desire to work closely with the United States in support of Iraq's security, stability and reconstruction.

The president also welcomed Turkey's ongoing economic reforms and Turkey's cooperation with the International Monetary Fund. Prime Minister Erdogan expressed thanks to the United States for our support of Turkey, including the $1 billion of assistance included in the recently passed supplemental legislation.

The president also met today with the president of Uruguay, President Jorge Batlle, in the Oval Office. The two presidents reviewed a number of issues of mutual interest, including the situation in Iraq, the war on terrorism and the economic situation in Uruguay, as well as in the region.

The president reaffirmed his continued support for President Batlle's efforts, in cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, to promote sustainable growth in Uruguay.

The president underscored our commitment to strengthen trade and investment ties with Uruguay.

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

QUESTION: What are your concerns about Iran's attempts to involve itself in budding Iraqi democracy, and particularly this idea of Iranian agents that may have been sent into some Shiite areas with the attempt to advance Iranian interests in the area?

FLEISCHER: Let me make a few points.

The president thinks it's essential that the Iraqi people determine their own future, that they are capable of doing so, and they will be able to do so. There is more than enough for the international community to do in helping the Iraqis build a better future for themselves, and we hope countries seize on the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the Iraqi people.

We note some recent reports about Iranian activities, and we have made clear to Iran that we would oppose any outside organizations' interference in Iraq, interfering with their road to democracy. Infiltration of agents to destabilize the Shiite population clearly fall into that category, and that is a position that we have made clear to the government of Iran.

QUESTION: So in terms of you opposing any attempts to destabilize moves toward Iraqi democracy, what have you told Iran that you will or will not do to oppose...

FLEISCHER: I'm going to leave private conversations where they belong, which is in the realm of good diplomacy. They have received that message.

QUESTION: You were pretty clear with Syria when you were worried about what might be going on there. Are you issuing similar statements to Iran?

FLEISCHER: We have made the message clear to Iran.

But let me state something. I want to make sure you understand clearly the nature of what is happening here and what is happening on the ground in Iraq.

There is no love lost between the Iraqi people and the Iranian people. The Iraqi Shiite community is a very capable community, a very large community and a very diverse community. And I think that any efforts from anybody outside of Iraq to try to create an outsider's version of what should take place for the Iraqi people, by the Iraqi people, will not have much chance of success.

So it's important that you understand what is going on, the seriousness of it, and also understand the inherent abilities of the Iraqi Shiites, which are a very different group of people from the Iranians.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) question, if I could. Are you surprised at the level of anti-American sentiment that has been surfacing in Karbala?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, you see these reports and you see, of course, the headlines and you see some people, any number of people, who are interviewed who say something bad about America. And of course that screams up to the top of the headlines.

But I don't think that's indicative of the feelings of the Iraqi people or people in Karbala. In fact, there is some reporting that shows what the Iraqi people and the Shiite people and the people around Karbala and other regions really want is to have control of their own future, and that's what we want as well.

And so I think people are experiencing the joy of being liberated, and they are able people, they understand the United States is going to stay to provide security, we'll stay as long as we need to, but not a day longer. And we share their thoughts about not staying any longer than is necessary. But I think you have to be very careful about how you analyze the message of a few and interpret it as a message for an entire people. That's not the case.

QUESTION: Have any weapons of mass destruction been found? And if they are not, will there be an explanation to the American people from the president. How does he feel about it?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president knows that the proper people are in charge of looking for the weapons of mass destruction, and they have a very effective protocol that is in place. And just as we have always said for months, even before the war began and even while the inspectors were there, the chances of success depend not on finding something by bumping into it during the courses of travel through Iraq, but it really depends on information that is provided to the United States or to the coalition or previously while the inspectors were there from the Iraqi experts who were involved in the program. And that also means getting access to and reading the thousands of pages of documents that we're in the middle of doing.

So it really requires the ability to get that information on the ground from Iraqis involved, which we are doing; to study the documentation that exists on the ground, which we are doing; and then to spread the process out and verify the information over whatever period of time it takes. Nothing has changed the president's confidence that this indeed will result in the findings.

QUESTION: Does he feel he has been mislead by his own advisers?

FLEISCHER: Of course not. Of course not.

QUESTION: He still thinks there are weapons there?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely.

QUESTION: Can I just follow on that, Ari? Because yesterday on that point you said that you were confident weapons of mass destruction would be found.

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: And others within the administration are saying publicly and privately that, while it may be that they're not found that they would have been destroyed or spirited out of the country or any number of things. So, I mean, which is it? And what should the American people conclude about this, given the fact that this was probably the rationale for invading Iraq?

FLEISCHER: You should conclude that there are no changes in the American position. It's a consistent position that's been stated by the briefers on the ground in the gulf, by the president, by Secretary Powell, by Secretary Rumsfeld, by myself. We have high confidence that Iraq did indeed have weapons of mass destruction. And as a result of the protocols that I just walked through, in terms of how we are going about the conversations with Iraqi scientists and looking through the documentation that exists, that indeed will be found in whatever form it is.

QUESTION: But you seem to be suggesting that in the end this is going to be the history of a program based upon experts who come forward and tell you this is what was going on and, you know, it's probably not around to be found any longer, but this was the level of the program. Is that accurate?

FLEISCHER: Well, clearly the program is no longer going on, but the people who were involved in it are the keys to finding it, and that's what we've always said. That's why we thought so strongly about the need for the inspectors to be interviewed. The inspectors were previously there to interview Iraqi scientists outside of the country; that hasn't changed. That was how we thought the search could be most effective before; continues to be how we think the search would be most effective.

QUESTION: Just one other thing, if I can? Does the president know more about what Senator Santorum said? Does he have any feelings about his comments? Do they think they were inappropriate or appropriate?

FLEISCHER: I haven't personally talked to the president about it, so I don't have anything direct for the president to share.

QUESTION: So you all are just making a conscience decision to just keep clear of this one?

FLEISCHER: No, let me put it to you this way. The president typically never does comment on anything involving a Supreme Court case, a Supreme Court ruling or a Supreme Court finding, typically. And in this case, we also have no comment on anything that involves any one person's interpretation of the legalities of an issue that may be considered before the court.

QUESTION: It wasn't inappropriate, though, to comment on Trent Lott's comments when it had to do with race. And here, besides the legal interpretation, he made the comment that he was comfortable with homosexuality, but not homosexual acts, those he disapproved of. No need for the White House to intervene in that?

FLEISCHER: No. I've expressed it as we see it.

QUESTION: Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen have apparently agreed on a cabinet. Is the president going to publish and push for the road map?

FLEISCHER: Number one, we are pleased by the initial reports that we have received about the agreement that the Palestinian authorities apparently reached between Abu Mazen and Yasser Arafat. The next step would be the submission of the cabinet to the Palestinian legislature as well as the PLC would need to quickly approve it, which would take place over the coming days. Those are the next two steps that would take place before this is actually certified and ratified.

We see no need for that to take any length of time, period of time. When that happens we will officially provide the road map to the parties soon thereafter.

QUESTION: And then one question stemming from that. The president last year called for Israeli settlement activity to come to a close as progress towards ending terrorism is made. What is the president's position on those settlements, given that we have just fought a war over enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions? A very simple question, does the president think those settlements are legal or illegal under applicable U.N. Security Council resolutions?

FLEISCHER: He thinks they're covered under the road map. And under the road map that would be proposed to the parties once this important reform step takes place, it is exactly as you said. It is a process that would allow for the dismantlement of the settlements as progress is made toward peace. That's the president's approach to it.

QUESTION: There are obviously U.N. Security Council resolutions which we've just gone to war to enforce which apply to this situation. Does the president believe these settlements fall within those resolutions?

FLEISCHER: Well, our actions are always in this case based on -- and this specifically, I believe, was Resolution 242 and 338 and these resolutions deal with a political settlement, the peaceful negotiations of all the issues that are involved, including the settlements. But it's not only the settlements, it's a series of issues that involve security, and that's why the road map ties security together with political progress on the ground for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

QUESTION: So he's looking at the settlements through the road map rather than through any U.N. Security Council...

FLEISCHER: Clearly, as I just said here, a premise here is 242 and 338, which is the peaceful settlement of the disputes.

QUESTION: All right. And then just to follow up on David's question, does the president agree with the legal proposition that states have the same right to ban private consensual homosexual activity between adults that they do private consensual incestual activity between adults.

FLEISCHER: This is a matter for the Supreme Court to sort through as they hear the facts in the case.

QUESTION: Ari, is the road map a set document or do you contemplate any changes to it before putting it out?

FLEISCHER: It is a set document, but the president has always said that he looks forward to being able to release it to the parties. And once it is formally released to the parties, we welcome their contributions to it.

It is important to receive the contributions from the Israelis. It is important to receive the contributions from the Palestinians. Because in the end, as much as the United States will be there with our shoulder to the wheel to help make this happen, and indeed President Bush will, it still in the end is up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to work together on agreement about the terms of the road map to make it meaningful progress. And so, we will welcome their contributions.

QUESTION: Some members of Congress worry that it's a little too tough on Israel. Is he taking that into consideration?

FLEISCHER: Well, the road map is a series of actions that need to be taken by all parties. And I think it's fair to say that when you look at the difficult history of peace in the Middle East, none of this is easy, but it is certainly much easier than the violence that has taken place and the loss of life that has taken place between the Israelis and the Palestinians for the last several years.

Now, there has been somewhat of an absence of suicide or homicide attacks recently. There is an increasing willingness it seems for the parties to want to work together, and that's all to the good. This very well may be the right time, the right moment to do something new and different in the Middle East in terms of the parties working together to achieve peace in the Middle East. The road map, in the president's judgment, can help foster that climate to make that happen.

Make no mistake, it's always been a difficult process, but it's one that the president is committed to because peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the creation of a Palestinian state, an Israel that can live side-by-side in peace and security with the United States helping with Israel's security has always been our policy.

QUESTION: First to follow up on the questions on Iran. The U.S. said before the war started that it would not tolerate outside influences stepping in to interfere with a post-Saddam government.

To the other countries there, Iran and Syria, the United States is doing that by protecting Mr. Chalabi, for example, in a compound in Baghdad.

How do you separate out the moral equivalency here of their efforts to influence what kind of government comes up in Iraq and our own?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think you answered it with the way you posed the question. Comparing the points of view of states that support terrorism with the point of view of the United States, which is working together with the Iraqi people and other nations in the region, cannot be compared.

The interests of Syria and the interests of Iran have not always proved to be the interests of peace or stability or freedom or democracy, and we have always said that one of the principles of the liberation and the government that would follow would be a government that is based not on an Iranian model or a Syrian model but based on a model of freedom, democracy, tolerance, openness, rule of law.

QUESTION: On the second subject, Secretary Powell said last night in an interview that there would be consequences for France for its opposition to the U.N. resolution.

Can you describe to us what kind of consequences the president believes are appropriate and tell us a little bit about this meeting that happened on Monday on this subject?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me make a couple of points. One, you have framed it exactly correct, that is the secretary's word, that was a question that was posed to him by the journalist who said: Will there be consequences? His answer was yes.

I've seen some reports saying that Secretary Powell said that France must pay a price or the United States will punish. So if anybody has written those reports, that's an incorrect characterization of what the secretary said. It is exactly what you said.

By consequence I think you've seen that played out before you. Relations between the United States and France have been strained over this very issue, that's a consequence that we have to deal with in terms of the bilateral relationship between the United States and France.

You have seen that...

QUESTION: He was talking about future consequences.

FLEISCHER: Well, I think he's also applying it to the very definition of relations between the United States and France. And he was direct and honest, he said yes, that, indeed, relations between our countries have been strained, and that's no secret to anybody.

I think the real surprise or news would have been if he said no, no consequences, in other words pretending that everything is hunky dory between the United States and France.

We have not been shy about telling you that this has complicated relations between our countries. In the end the president continues to believe because of our common values between the United States people and the French people and the government of France and the United States the alliance will continue, of course.

But it has put a strain on the relationship, and that's a consequence that is paid.

QUESTION: And the meeting?

FLEISCHER: There are typically meetings around here at various staff levels and I don't discuss any of those meetings.

QUESTION: The ACLU has filed suit in San Francisco about this no-fly list, people who supposedly have been put on by the government for political purposes.

Is the president aware of this, and if so, has the White House expressed some concern, or what's the White House's view? FLEISCHER: Yes, the president has every confidence that the agencies responsible for securing the homeland are acting in a way that is in accordance with the Constitution and with the powers they have, as well as with the Patriot Act, which was passed just recently by the Congress with an overwhelming large vote.

So he doesn't worry very much about an ACLU suit.

QUESTION: Can you just flesh out a little bit more about the communications between the U.S. and Iran, or to Iran, what level it was and when it happened?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I'm not going to get too specific about it in terms of who, you know, who exactly talks, but we have a number of channels to talk to the Iranian government, and they are open and we use them from time to time.

We do not have diplomatic relations with Iran, but we have other channels of communication. You're familiar with some of them, you saw that in, for example, the Bonn conference, which was part of the funding for Afghanistan.

Iran, being a neighbor of Afghanistan, participated in the talks at the Bonn conference, and so there are channels of communication that have been open.

And messages get passed, messages were passed.

QUESTION: When?

FLEISCHER: Recently.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) past couple of days?

FLEISCHER: I don't have the precise date, but I'll just leave it at recently.

O'BRIEN: Ari Fleischer at the White House. We're going to leave the briefing, and we will continue to monitor it, of course. If there's anything additional newsworthy that comes out of it, we'll bring it to you right away.

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