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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Briefing

Aired May 7, 2003 - 12:33   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 is responding to criticism from Senator Byrd about the president's going aboard that aircraft carrier to speak about the war.
Let's listen in.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: There's not a Republican that Congressman Waxman doesn't want to investigate, and so I just dismiss that as not serious.

QUESTION: Ari, is the president disturbed that you have not found weapons of mass destruction, you have not found Saddam Hussein, you have not found bin Laden, you have not found the anthrax dealer? I mean, it seems to me all of these things are a dead end. What's his feeling?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the president looks at this at two levels. One is the accomplishment of the overall mission. And two, some of the component parts of the overall mission.

In terms of the fight against those who attacked our country on September 11, the al Qaeda, harbored by the Taliban, there is no question this has been a successful mission. The abilities of al Qaeda have been severely diminished. And the president is grateful for that happening.

Obviously, Osama bin Laden has not been captured, but as you look at all the operations, just ask Shaikh Khalid Mohammad how he feels about our ability to track people down.

So over time, the president is confident that there will be additional arrests. But this is about more than one man, as the president has repeatedly said. The mission against al Qaeda continues.

Vis-a-vis Iraq, clearly this, too, was a successful military operation, a successful operation. The Iraqi regime is no more. The threat is no more from the Iraqi regime. And as you can see from the deck of 55 cards, there has already been in a short period of time tremendous success in capturing these people or having them be turned in.

As for Saddam Hussein and as for the latest -- this tape that is in the news, we don't know if the tape is genuine or not. It's being studied. We don't know if he's alive or not.

QUESTION: Well, we went to war, didn't we, to find these because we said these weapons were a direct and imminent threat to the United States, isn't that true?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely, one of the reasons that we went to war was because of their possession of weapons of mass destruction, and nothing has changed on that front at all. We said what we've said because we meant it. We had the intelligence to report it. Secretary Powell said it.

And I may point out to you, as you may know, there is a news conference at the Department of Defense today at 2:00 to discuss one element in this.

And so, we have always had confidence, we continue to have confidence that WMD will be found. He's had a long period of time to hide what he has in a variety of different places. And there is a whole protocol of the search that is under way that is being conducted in a very methodical fashion.

QUESTION: But would he have been able to use them despite shock and awe and so forth? You really made them operable to contend with the U.S. forces.

FLEISCHER: Well, I think one of the reasons that he did not use them was because of the successful manner in which the military campaign was carried out, both in the days leading up to the actual fighting, and then when the fighting began.

QUESTION: Ari, there are some reports that Germany now may have offered the United States help in the U.N. resolution to lift the sanctions. Are you optimistic that Germany -- has Germany come forward and offered this kind of help?

FLEISCHER: Well, we will continue to work with all the members of the Security Council on the lifting of the sanctions. The president's position, as you know, is that the sanctions should be lifted.

I don't want to speak for the German government, but Germany, I think, has an interest in working closely with the United States, and we want to listen to them and hear their thoughts. So we will continue to pursue this and consult with all our allies.

QUESTION: What about Russia? Have there any signs from Russia that they're more accommodating than they were in the past?

FLEISCHER: I'm not prepared and I think it's still early at the United Nations process. No resolution has been offered yet. I think the diplomats continue to consult among each other on the language of the potential resolution. And so I'm not prepared to go down country by country on something that's under discussion.

QUESTION: Will there be a resolution next week?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to predict a date. The date that everything is backed up against is June 3 when the current terms for the oil-for-food program expire. The diplomats will make that decision when they think the time is right. QUESTION: Would you like to have one before Powell's trip next week to Russia and Germany?

FLEISCHER: The diplomats will make the decision when they believe the time is right.

QUESTION: Ari, everybody's getting into this trap a little bit about whether WMD will be found, which may not be the issue, because, A, you may not find them, they may have been destroyed, whereas the president said they may have been disbursed, which raises the question that they could have somehow been spirited out of the country by terrorist groups and the like.

What information do you have about that eventuality happening? I mean, isn't it presumptuous to presume that the American people are safer when you can't account for whether weapons have been taken out of the country or weapons materials have been taken out of the country?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the real threat here came from a nation- state headed by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen who showed they were willing to use weapons of mass destruction before. That's what...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: No, that's the basis for saying that people are safer. If you're asking the question, on what basis does the president conclude people are safer, that's the answer.

QUESTION: I thought the concern was (OFF-MIKE) fall into the hands of al Qaeda. Wasn't that the rationale?

FLEISCHER: Well,I'm continuing. The president said that the removal of the regime has diminished the threat and increased our security, and I think that's unquestionable. It was, after all, the regime that used weapons of mass destruction in attacks previously.

Of course we always have concerns about any place that has weapons of mass destruction passing them along. But given the routing of the Iraqi regime, it certainly makes that much harder to do. Any type of organized efforts or organized movements are harder for the disparate people in the regime to carry out now, those who may be hiding or who are still among the 55.

So it's a question...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: It wasn't too hard (OFF-MIKE) three trailer trucks of American $100 bills out of the country.

FLEISCHER: It's a question of diminishing their abilities; it's not a question of eliminating the abilities for terrorists to do things. No. That's why when the president gave his speech on the aircraft carrier, he said that there still are risks, that the fighting against terrorism will continue to go on, and that is the case. But make no mistake, the threat has been diminished. The threat from terrorism has not been eliminated, and the war against terrorism must continue.

QUESTION: I know that, but you're making these pronouncements without answering the direct question, which is, what does this administration know about not only what has been found -- you're still checking -- but what weapons materials or actual weapons may have been taken out of the country?

FLEISCHER: Well, we don't have anything concrete to report on that. The president has said that some may have been destroyed, some may have been dispersed. He didn't indicate to where they may have been dispersed. It certainly is possible they were dispersed to various hiding places throughout Iraq. So it's not a question that we have reliable information to know of.

QUESTION: Or outside of Iraq.

FLEISCHER: The president didn't specify when he said where they may have been dispersed to.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: He didn't specify, and as I indicated, we have no...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... some specificity on this?

FLEISCHER: It may not be knowable with precision. The president has said that they were dispersed and not all of that is knowable.

QUESTION: Ari, the president yesterday talked about his confidence that weapons of mass destruction programs -- evidence of programs would be turned up, and other administration officials have talked about capabilities and programs. Before the war many administration officials, right up to the president, talked about actual weapons, battlefield munitions stockpiled, locked and loaded ready to go as the administration claimed there were orders to field commanders, "You can use them."

Does the administration still say that kind of capability will be found in Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I think if you continue to look, you'll find a common thread in the statements made by administration officials repeatedly. Dr. Rice said in some of the interviews she gave with foreign journalists just this week, where she expressed again the confidence of the administration that WMD will be found. And there are a variety of forms of that, and our statement covers all those forms.

You're accurately pointing out that as we learn more about the Iraqi program, we're finding information about just in time, delivery mechanisms that they have. But that doesn't substitute for the previous statements about finding WMD.

QUESTION: So it is still the administration's claim that Iraq had battlefield munitions, WMD weapons ready to go, that simply haven't been found yet in Iraq, but they were there?

FLEISCHER: Well, clearly when you look at many of the things that were found in Iraq in terms of all the chemical protection units and suits that the Iraq military officials had, the atropine that is used to protect somebody from a chemical weapons attack, all of which were in the hands of Iraqi officials, it's kind of odd that they would have all that equipment for their own forces on the field. That's typically what you would employ if you're in a chemical environment.

So, no, changes on it. It's going to be a long process, and that's what's driving this. And the search is under way. We make no predictions about how long it will take. It may take a while. And we will continue to develop information. As I indicated, there will be some information forthcoming on what may be known so far.

QUESTION: And then just one on the visit to the Abraham Lincoln. There are some people who have raised a question about the appearance. The president arrived on deck in a very dramatic, spectacular fashion, on board a military aircraft wearing a full flight suit, and there are some people who are concerned that might have dissolved or weakened the distinction between civilian control of the military and the president adopting military regalia at the end of a war. Is the president concerned at all about that?

FLEISCHER: Heavens no. That's a non-issue. If you noticed, everybody who came off the Viking wore a flight suit, as you are required to a flight suit if you're going to participate in a flight on the Viking.

That is what you wear if you're on a Viking.

QUESTION: Ari, yesterday the Fed warned about the risk of deflation. Is that a concern of the administration? Is there any evidence of deflation in the economy?

FLEISCHER: I'd leave those issues up to expert economists. You can hear what the Fed said. They issued a news release about that topic yesterday. They were not as precise as you were in your question. That's a question that economists will debate.

QUESTION: Is it something that you're studying within the administration?

FLEISCHER: The administration always take a very careful look at any statements that the Federal Reserve issues. Those statements are sometimes cryptic and they require considerable study.

QUESTION: Ari, was it the vice president's idea to have the president land in the plane on the Abraham Lincoln?

FLEISCHER: The vice president pointed out to the president that he himself had done it. So it was a variety of different people... (CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Pardon me?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) chopper?

FLEISCHER: No, he's also landed on an aircraft that was caught by a tailhook. I don't know if it was a Viking specifically, but he flew on an aircraft onto the aircraft carrier in the past.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Well, I think various staff had the idea. I really couldn't tell you. Ultimately, of course, it's always the president's decision, and it was the president's decision to fly out on the Viking, proudly so. So I couldn't tell you with precision.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about the vice president's interview yesterday where he said he'd running again? Again, just to follow up this morning. has the president formally asked him to run again, have they had that conversation?

FLEISCHER: Yes. I looked into that, and what you have here is basically a reiteration of what you were told last fall. Last fall on November 7, the president said publicly that Vice President Cheney will be on the ticket if the president decides to run again. And the president did have a discussion with him about that right around that time last fall.

QUESTION: And he is at all concerned about his heart problems...

FLEISCHER: Obviously not.

QUESTION: And why does he think he's the right running mate?

FLEISCHER: For the exact same reasons that he thought in 2000. And I don't have anything additional to add beyond that. I think that at the time, if the president makes an announcement about his own plans, you may hear more thinking about that.

QUESTION: Ari, going back to Elizabeth's (ph) first question, could you give a little bit more color as to when and how this was determined for this, what some of your staunchest critics are calling a wonderful photo op that was used for exploitation?

FLEISCHER: In terms of picking the vice president to be on the ticket?

QUESTION: No, her first question.

FLEISCHER: And that was?

QUESTION: You know, how, when -- when was this decided, when hostilities started diminishing or what? When was this whole decision decided for him to fly in on the Lincoln aircraft carrier? FLEISCHER: Yes, I think I answered all that in the gaggle on the way out to the Lincoln. So you've got a record of all of that. This was, as the president decided he wanted to address the nation and to give a speech to sum up to the country where we were as the conflict wound down. There were a discussion of the best venues, the various venues for the president to talk to the American people. And the president thought the very best venue would be in a place where he could thank the men and women who help make it possible in person.

QUESTION: Last week you said the speech was significant, because, one, we found out that he started rehearsing in the theater for this, and you said it was significant. But tell me this, because of the significance of this, did he need drama to emphasize the significance of this speech?

FLEISCHER: The president wanted to go out somewhere to thank the men and women who made this possible in person. They deserve nothing less. These are the men and women who fought a war to keep us free, to protect us and to save us. They deserve no less.

QUESTION: Ari, back on Waxman. Congressman Waxman sent a letter to Lieutenant Flowers (ph) saying, quote, "There appears to be a conflict between administration statements of intent that the oil belongs to Iraqis and its actions issuing contracts to U.S. companies like Halliburton to produce and distribute the oil. This conflict should be addressed by the administration in a forthright manner."

Is there any concern that at the very least the administration has a perception problem here, that this could become something where if Waxman continues to call for investigations, continues to ask for information about the contracts, that it could become at the very least a distraction?

FLEISCHER: No. This is exactly what I said at the beginning. Congressman Waxman has never met a Republican he didn't want to investigate. You can address all questions to the contracting agencies.

And of course the oil of Iraq belongs to the Iraqi people. All resources of Iraq belong to the Iraqi people. And the United States, through the Agency for International Development and through other entities, is going to be there to help the Iraqi people. And that is exactly what we're doing.

QUESTION: Do you believe that the contract should become public?

FLEISCHER: You need to address those questions to the contracting agencies, not to the White House.

QUESTION: The administration has no position (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: These are contracting matters, not White House matters.

QUESTION: Ari, just one more question on the carrier business. If footage of the president's appearance were to appear in his reelection campaign, would it be appropriate then to have the campaign pay for it?

FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to speculate about what would or would not happen. You know, the campaign is a long way away. That was a wonderful, proud day for our military, for the nation and for the president, and that is forever how he will remember it. He was deeply moved to be there, to arrive the way he did. The men and women of the military were deeply moved to be able to host him. And that's the spirit that this president is going to remember that day. And nothing else will diminish that.

QUESTION: Could you clarify for us? I didn't quite understand what you were saying about where we stand with the U.N.

Obviously, the secretary of state is going up there today. Where are we in the process of putting forth a new resolution aiming at the June 3 deadline?

FLEISCHER: We're in the consultative process. Discussions are under way among diplomats to talk about what comes next after the June 3 deadline expires, and the position the president has taken is that the sanctions should be removed. There are conversations among diplomats now about how to best accomplish that.

QUESTION: Would you hope to have a new resolution passed by the time the oil-for-food expires so that you don't have any period during which no food can be delivered to the Iraqis?

FLEISCHER: Well, certainly you want to have this action done prior to June 3.

QUESTION: Now, the Russians are proposing that Kofi Annan be given the authority to sell -- have continued authority to sell Iraqi oil and essentially to control the oil industry, to develop fields and all that sort of thing. Does the U.S. have a position on that?

FLEISCHER: Again, the position of sanctions should be removed and the decisions about who will be part of the reconstruction will be made by the various parties, and the coalition is leading that effort.

BLITZER: We're going to break away from the White House press briefing, continue to monitor it, Ari Fleischer telling reporters the president proud, proud to have flown aboard the aircraft carrier the Abraham Lincoln to deliver that speech last week, despite the criticism from Senator Robert Byrd last week, the Democrat, saying this was improper use of taxpayer money for such a photo-op in his words. We're going to continue to monitor this briefing, get more as it become available.

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