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White House Briefing

Aired September 24, 2002 - 12:24   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Live to D.C. now, where Ari Fleischer is giving the daily briefing from the White House there, talking about the intelligence dossier released by Britain, talked about this morning.
QUESTION: ... possible action against Iraq. And then, Secretary Rumsfeld just today also mentioned that as, again, another justification...

FLEISCHER: To be clear, what the resolution sent up to the Hill mentioned was the growing awareness of the risks that America faces since September 11th. The fact that our nation is no longer as safe as we once perceived that we were prior to September 11th, that what's the resolution cited, and then it went on to talk about Al Qaida operating outside of Iraq.

QUESTION: But that's just in northern Iraq, as I understand it -- right? -- in the Kurdish-controlled area.

FLEISCHER: Iraq is Iraq.

QUESTION: Yes. But one part of Iraq is controlled by Saddam Hussein; another part is controlled by the Kurds. That makes it a vastly different fight.

FLEISCHER: Actually, the information we have is that they're operating inside of Iraq.

But again, the point that the president made in his speech to the United Nations did not rest on whether Saddam Hussein was involved on September 11 or not. The point the president made to the United Nations and he makes to the American people is that we face a threat from Saddam Hussein because of who he is and what he has done, not because of September 11.


QUESTION: ... I just want to be clear. Are we talking about Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq or the part of Iraq that Saddam Hussein...

FLEISCHER: I would have to take a look at an exact detailed map and have a more precise briefing on the exact coordinates of where they are, and where they may move to.

QUESTION: Ari, when you raised the level to orange, you guys were very good about telling people what this meant for them, what they should do, and what the significance is. Going down to yellow, do the people know -- sigh of relief, there's no problem out there now? What does this mean?

FLEISCHER: The Justice Department has issued, as we are speaking now, an actual statement by Governor Ridge and the attorney general on what this entails. And let me try to provide some explanation for this as well and some background on it.

Yesterday morning, the president in his morning meetings directed Governor Ridge to convene a meeting this morning of the Homeland Security Council to make a recommendation about whether or not, based on the intelligence we have, the threat level should be lowered. This morning, the topic did not even come up in the president's morning meetings with his intelligence community, because the president knew homeland security was meeting later.

At 11:15 this morning, the Homeland Security Council met, and at 11:24, they reached an agreement with no objections to make the recommendation to the president to lower the level. Governor Ridge, at 11:35, briefed the president on the Homeland Security Council meeting, and the president made the decision at that time to lower the level. And the reasoning is, because the threat level is a meaningful measure of alert for the nation and for the law enforcement community. It is based on the best intelligence we have, and the best assessment of the threat to our country.

It is not a science. It is an art, as Governor Ridge says. And the determination was made because of the intelligence we have and because of the arrests and the passage of time from September 11, that it's appropriate to always bring the alert level to a level that measures the perceived threat.

Keeping the alert level at an artificially high level, you know, over time, may lead to the degradation of the meaning of the level, because it's impossible for law enforcement communities to stay up at that heightened a level unless there's sufficient ongoing information to justify it.

Any law enforcement community will tell you that these types of actions will be meaningful only if they are put into place when the circumstances actually warrant it. To leave it up at such a high status when the circumstances no longer warrants it can lead to people not taking it seriously any longer.

So based on those intelligence threats, based on the information from the arrests in the past since September 11, it was returned to its elevated level from a high level.

We still are on alert. We still need to be careful. But clearly the immediate information that the president received that led from its moving from elevated to high has changed. And our intelligence community and law enforcement community will reflect that change.

QUESTION: On Iraq, Ari, and weapons inspections, disarmament versus a U.N. resolution under Chapter VII, Kofi Annan yesterday said that his understanding of the agreement that he knocked (ph) out with Naji Sabri was for unimpeded inspections. An Iraqi official today said he would welcome inspectors in with unfettered access. Do you still need a Chapter VII resolution at the U.N.?

FLEISCHER: Well, listen, this really is no longer a matter of what Iraq says. This is a matter of what Iraq has done. If what Iraq said mattered, we wouldn't have thought they'd have invaded Kuwait, would we? They said that that was a part of Iraq, and they denied the original invasion, didn't they?

And so, Iraq's words have really lost any value. What does have value is protecting the world from Iraq's threats. And this is just another example, and it's the latest example of Saddam Hussein trying to wiggle out of things and trying to buy time in the effort to fool the world once again. Just yesterday, Iraq and the state-run press said that passage of another U.N. resolution would be wicked and would lead to no inspectors returning.

Today they said unfettered inspectors returning. Their story just constantly changes. The one thing that doesn't change is their threat.

QUESTION: So are you concerned that this may again blunt the momentum that you've managed to rebuild at the U.N. Security Council for a Chapter 7 resolution?

FLEISCHER: No, I think that people have seen Saddam Hussein as somebody they don't rely on, and so efforts continue and the conversations continue, and we'll continue the diplomacy along the timetable that the United Nations has outlined.

QUESTION: Ari, last night, early this morning, the U.N. Security Council, with the United States abstaining unusually, issued pretty tough criticism of the Israeli government's action in Ramallah, called for withdrawal. The president has merely said those actions are unhelpful. What specifically is the president expecting of Israel in Ramallah and the West Bank?

FLEISCHER: Well, the reason the president said it was unhelpful is because the president thinks the single more important ingredient to bring peace to the Middle East is change in the Palestinian Authority. And that's vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And there have been efforts under way within the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority to bring change, to have new leadership, a leadership that actually does have an interest in working side by side to allow Israel to exist in peace and security, a leadership that will take meaningful action to stop the terrorists, just as the Palestinian Authority had pledged it would do at Oslo.

And so the president is focused on helping to bring those changes about.

And the president believes, and he said so this morning, that Israel's actions in Ramallah are not helpful to the cause of creating this change in the Palestinian institution, that Israel's actions can have a boomerang effect; that they build Yasser Arafat up when he should no longer be the issue.

QUESTION: Is it fair to read that as a call on Israel to withdraw, stand down from what they're doing in the West Bank and Ramallah?

FLEISCHER: Israel has to come to its own conclusions and make its own judgments, and the president urges Israel to make the judgments that will create peace in the region, and the president has expressed his thoughts directly on this.

QUESTION: Do these actions and this flare-up in the violence complicate the president's efforts to build international support for confronting Iraq?

FLEISCHER: No, I have not heard the president say that, no.

QUESTION: You don't think they do?

FLEISCHER: I haven't heard the president say that, and I think that the threat the world faces from Iraq is so clear and is of such urgent nature that the world is going to continue to focus on this. And the events in the Middle East have long been very difficult and complicated vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians and the Arabs. But we've seen again in that situation an ability to work well with the Arab nations and others and all parties with their responsibilities to try to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. What's happening in Iraq is really a separate matter with the world and the U.N.

QUESTION: Ari, is it important for the president that the Congress act first on the Iraq question before the U.N. takes up (inaudible) between the two?

FLEISCHER: Really, the president has not set a sequence in motion or asked for a sequence to be set in motion. As a practical matter, it does appear that the schedule of the House will go first on this matter. But, again, these are determinations that'll be made by House leaders and then Senate leaders and then by the United Nations. But the president is looking for action in both, but I've not heard him talk about a sequence.

QUESTION: Two questions, Ari. Normally, when an election is held -- a democratic election...

PHILLIPS: White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, daily briefing of reporters there at the White House.


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