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Bush to Hold News Conference

Aired April 13, 2004 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, HOST: Tonight, a special edition of PAULA ZAHN NOW. As we look at a live picture of the White House were at this hour President Bush is getting ready for the 3rd primetime news conference of his term.
Good evening. Welcome. Glad to have you with us this evening. This comes at a pivotal moment of President Bush's presidency against the backdrop of more violence in Iraq. And the discovery late today believed to be American contractors there. Bodies found mutilated in a shallow grave.

Iraq will sure to dominate tonight's sessions, as will what the White House knew in the months leading up to 9/11. Plus a commission member speaks out on todays 9/11 testimony which included attorney general John Ashcroft. What should we expect to tonight. Lets put that all in focus now.

Wolf Blitzer, joins me from a Washington bureau.

But we begin with senior White House correspondent who is standing by in the East Room. Good even, John.

JOHN KING, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good evening to you Paula. In reflection of the extraordinary stakes for this president politically here in the United States and around the world, the president will deliver about an 18 minute opening statement focused solely on Iraq. That is out of the norm. Usually three to five minutes the president speaks at the beginning of one of these news conferences. Mr. Bush we are told, wants to give a detailed assessment -- his assessment of the situation on the ground on Iraq now. We are told his statement will include a promise to give the generals on the ground any troops they need. The generals now asking for more troops at a time when Mr. Bush had been hoping to bring U.S. troops home. We're asking to look for a possible announcement of new U.S. ambassador for Iraq. We're told he's settled on the current United Nations ambassador from the United States, John Negroponte.

He is the president's choice to replace Paul Bremer is the top U.S. diplomatic representative in Iraq. When sovereignty is transferred in 78 days to a new Iraqi government, two administrative sources saying the president is likely to make that announcement as well tonight. And Paul, the president will focus on Iraq. Many of the question certainly will, because of the violence and political instability of recent days. And also look for criticism of this administration coming out of those 9/11 Commission hearings and 202 days from the presidential elections, that's likely to come up once or twice as well.

ZAHN: Because of all the unanswered issues because of the Iraq and 9/11 Commission, how much pressure was there on this president to have this prime time news conference tonight?

KING: Enormous political pressure. And the president has been preparing for several days down at the ranch in Crawford. Reading briefing papers in preparation for this. Two mock Q and A sessions with aides today going over issues they believe will come up today and a rehearsal of that opening statement which was originally about 12 minutes. The president add several more minutes to that opening statement. So a great deal of pressure. This in some ways a defensive move by the president because of all the questions about his defensive move on Iraq and 9/11 Commission hearings, but also the power the incumbent president has at his disposal, the third prime time coverage of his presidency. Mr. Bush hoping to change public opinion and public perception of the mission in Iraq. As well as to answer more questions of what his administration did and did not do in the days and weeks before the 9/11 attacks, Paula.

ZAHN: John King, thanks for that update from the White House. Let's turn to Wolf Blitzer who will talk about how important tonight's news conference is to the presidency.

Hi again, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Paula. Thanks very much. The news conference will be very important. The images that have been coming before the American public in recent days have gone from bad to worse. The fighting in Iraq, enormously complicating the situation for the president. One year after the war in Iraq, this was not the way it was supposed to be. It was not the way the president certainly wanted it to be. His advisers are telling him you must go out and reassure the American public, a jittery American public. That will be first and foremost on his mind, to explain to the American public what's going on in Iraq, right now from his vantage point. At the same time, no one can ignore the 9/11 Commission hearings going on over the last several weeks. The discrepancies. He will need to reassure the American public at the same time that he didn't neglect the warning signals out there before 9/11, that there really was nothing he could have done to prevent 9/11 from going forward. These are the two issues certainly going to dominate the questioning.

ZAHN: Wolf Blitzer, thanks so much. We're going to join you again a little bit later on in this half hour. Right now, we go straight to the Pentagon to get more on four bodies found to be near Baghdad. They are believed to be American contractors. We also want to ask senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, a little more about the news John King just reported.

Good evening Jamie. First off, let's talk about what John just indicated, there is an expectation the president will say tonight he will promise the generals on the ground any number of troops they think they need.

What kind of numbers are we talking about here? JAMIE MCINTYRE, SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's the standing promise, that the administration the Pentagon has made to the generals. That has been their answer to criticism all along there weren't enough troops. They always said any time they need more troops they'll get them. What has been contemplated is up to 20,000 additional troops, essentially having the 1st Armored Division stay in Iraq. We were told at least parts of that division will stay. Sources say, they're looking at as much as 20,000 troops staying. There could be a decision on that very soon.

ZAHN: Jamie, tell us more about what we've learned about the fate of these American contractors -- who we believe at least at this hour could be those American contractors.

MCINTYRE: Right, four bodies found west of Baghdad badly mutilated. They haven't been able to identify them. But they do fear they may be the American contractors who disappeared after an attack on USA fuel convoy last Friday. The bodies were found in the same general area where that fuel convoy was attacked. That has led the Pentagon to believe they might be among those seven American contractors. The State Department said it contacted the family of the seven missing, who all worked for Keglog, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of the oil services company Halliburton.

Even though it doesn't know for sure what it's dealing with, Halliburton issued a statement that said, "While we are not yet certain of the identification of these individuals and no matter who they are, we at Halliburton are saddened to learn of these deaths and are working with the authorities so the families can begin the grieving and healing process."

One of the seven, Thomas Hamill, a truck driver from Mississippi was taken hostage at the time. He's been seen since on television footage. His fate is still unknown as is the fate of two soldiers listed by the U.S. Military as missing since that attack -- Paula.

ZAHN: McIntyre, thanks for that live update from the Pentagon. A remind Halliburton and its subcontractor so far have lost 30 people in the Iraq-Kuwait region.

We are going to turn our situation -- turn our attention now to the situation on the ground in Iraq. At this time about 40 people from at least 12 different countries are now known to have been kidnapped. Several thousand U.S. troops are in place surrounding the Iraqi town of Najaf ready for a showdown with the radical cleric Muqtada Al Sadr. Another force is surrounding the town of Fallujah.

Jim Clancy joins us from Baghdad with the late details.

Good evening, Jim.

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening to you Paula. A lot of attention around Najaf, the holy city for Shia Muslims. U.S. troops blocking the exit out of the town. Inside Muqtada al Sadr seeking sanctuary in that holy city, right next to the Imam Ali Mosque, seeking sanctuary from an arrest warrant issued in connection with the murder of a rival cleric in that very city one year ago. Now, also on the ground, we have a situation in Fallujah, two Marines were killed, eight others were wounded in the last 24 hours, according to the latest numbers. Eleven Iraqis killed, 38 wounded. Among the wounded were three women and four children, that according to a hospital source in Fallujah. No way of independently confirming it. What we can confirm is that U.S. forces say they arrested two wanted terrorists in the general Fallujah area. And tonight, we have the spokesman for the CPA, Dan Seymour, saying that U.S. Believes, coalition believes, that Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a wanted terrorist believed to be a mastermind of some of the violence in Iraq, they believe he is an Fallujah or at least nearby. A significant development.

Another development from the hostage front, this coming from a source that may know best. A taxi driver saying they're being offered $10,000 for Americans, $5,000 for other ex-patriots. An important implication here, Paula, this is more than a spontaneous wave of kidnappings from a popular nationalistic insurrection, this is planned. The hostage situation now seized some 40 hostages, at least three dozen that have been taken from 12 different countries, having a chilling impact. France today calling for its nationals to quit the country. Others heading home on their own -- Paula.

ZAHN: When you're talking about a bounty of some $10,000. That is huge money.

Are we able to evaluate the level of interest in following through?

CLANCY: Well, all of the hostages, not all of them, but most of them, predominantly all of them have been taken from an area that is known for criminal activity. Hostage gangs in Iraq, a long standing problem. The U.S. cracked down a little earlier this year and late last year. But at the same time, it is known this will ferment more of these kinds of kidnappings. It is a serious threat and shows this level of organization that supports the U.S. claim former regime elements and outside foreign fighters are perhaps behind some of the violence Iraqis are going through today.

ZAHN: Jim Clancy, thank you so much. We turn our attention to the White House where just about 20 minutes from now the president's news conference will get under way, the third prime time news conference of his presidency.

Then, we will look at the issue of 9/11. Did the attorney general ignore warnings about the potential of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil? This is how he defended himself against those charges today.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ZAHN: We'll be talking with a commission member about that testimony today, and whose story he actually bought, when he listened to strikingly different testimony.

Also coming up, the president readies himself, as I said, for that news conference, 20 minutes from now, a preview of what he might have to say on the other side.


ZAHN: The testimony at the 9/11 commission hearings today has been riveting, that's just from the perspective of someone watching it on television. Now, we'll get the view of someone who is on the commission. With us now, former congressman, Tim Roemer. He joins us from Capitol Hill. Good to see you, sir. What do you think is the headline coming out of today's hearing?

TIMOTHY ROEMER (D), 9/11 COMMISSION: I think the headline is probably a lot of good people working on a big problem with too oftentimes bad results. We don't have enough sharing of information between the CIA and the FBI. We have too many people trying to grasp information and not share it with one another, especially when it's important. We have too many people not connecting the dots. We have too many people trying to run forward with a briefing and not trying to strategically understand the threat of this transnational lethal dangerous of jihadists coming at us throughout the 1990s.

ZAHN: Let's move on to the issue of the commission actually releasing a staff report today, describing what the former acting director of the FBI, Thomas Pickard had to say about his conversations with Attorney General John Ashcroft about the pending threats. Quote, "former acting FBI director Thomas Pickard told us that although he initially briefed the attorney general regarding these threats, after two such briefings, the attorney general told him he did not want to hear this information anymore."

Here's what Mr. Ashcroft had to say in response to that.


ASHCROFT: I didn't ever speak to him saying I did not want to hear about terrorism. I care greatly about the safety and security of the American people and was very interested in terrorism and specifically interrogated him about threats to the American people and domestic threats in particular.


ZAHN: These are two strikingly different stories we heard today. Who's lying?

ROEMER: Well, we've heard some of this throughout the 9/11 commission. We hear different opinions, Paula, different interpretations of facts and we have to get to the bottom of them. Certainly Mr. Pickard said in his interview with the 9/11 staff and to some commissioners that in his briefing to the attorney general, that he had said at one point, that he didn't want to hear any more of it. The attorney general said very emphatically today that that was not true, and we have to get to the bottom of he said, he said, in this particular exchange between these two people.

ZAHN: You have to have some sort of sense in whether you think Attorney General Ashcroft took these threats seriously enough. Did he?

ROEMER: Well, Louis Freeh, the former director, who served in the Clinton administration, in his interview with the 9/11 commission, in a private interview said that when he was supposed to brief the attorney general, he initiated the briefing on counterterrorism. Nobody asked him for that. He initiated it. He thought it was important. In a May 10 memo, in 2001, the attorney general talked about three priorities. None of them were counterterrorism. We have to determine, in that case, is Louis Freeh right in determining that, or is General Ashcroft right when he testified before the Senate appropriations committee on May 9, and he talked about terrorism to some degree?

ZAHN: Well, I certainly don't envy the task that lies ahead for all of them. Commissioner Roemer, thank you for your time tonight.

What the president needs to say to the nation and the world tonight in tonight's primetime news conference, our "CROSSFIRE" team considers the political stakes. And the president will be at the podium in less than 13 minutes. We will have his news conference live right here on CNN.


ZAHN: Welcome back. A reminder, we are minutes away from the president expecting to take some very tough questions from the Press Corps about the issue of Iraq and the 9/11 commission. Tonight's news conference comes at a critical time of his presidency. Let's turn to "CROSSFIRE" co-host Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson. Good to see both of you. So, Tucker, what is at stake for the president tonight?

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": They're always high when the president speaks live, particularly high tonight because there have been scores of Americans killed in Iraq in the past week. There's a lot of evidence that Americans will put up with high casualties if, a, they understand why they died and, b, they think their deaths were in the service of an attainable goal and it's going to get better soon.

My own strong sense is that people have lost confidence in both of those things. Iraq look likes a disaster. Maybe it's a not, we don't know but from watching television, it looks like it's falling apart. And I think the president needs to convince people that it's not.

ZAHN: Paul, what is it the president can say to the American public that's going to change those opinions that seem clearly entrenched when you look at the latest public opinion polls? PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": The best thing he can do is give us some sense of control. Things, particularly, in Iraq look like they're spinning terribly out of control. The worst thing he can do is give us another of his sort of cheerleader talks which says we're good and they're evil. I know that. I think he can give us a sense of control, though, to say here's my plan to try secure the country. Maybe we need more troops, maybe we need foreign troops. I don't have the answers but if he gives us a 3-4-5 point policy plan that says here's how we're going to get things under control in Iraq, I think he will have done a lot.

ZAHN: Paul, this is a president that concedes that this is not his strong suit, holding news conferences. We're going to dip now into an exchange he had last week with reporters I think is fairly evident of that.




BUSH: You are? Well, ask.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Sir, what -- in regard to...

BUSH: Who are you talking to?



ZAHN: What kind of tone do you expect the president to strike tonight, Paul? The questions are going to be tough?

BEGALA: Well, they will. And I certainly hope he's more respectful than he was in that clip. There's nothing disrespectful in calling the president sir. We know that he's the president. The reporters -- actually, from the White House Press Corps, the last East Room press conference they had was just before the Iraq war and they were remarkably supine. They were really lapdogs. So I think the reporters will be primed to be a little tougher. They ought to be given the casualties of Iraq. The president had better be respectful of legitimate questions. He is our president, he works for us and he worked for that reporter that he just insulted in the film clip that you showed.

ZAHN: Tucker, they obviously wouldn't be putting the president out unless they thought he had something to benefit from this news conference. But what this greatest risk he faces?

CARLSON: The greatest risk he faces is looking spooked, afraid, lacking in confidence, rattled. I don't think this is one of those press conferences where you want to misspeak a great number of times. You want to look like you're in command and control. Let me just say one thing though. I think this criticism that one often hears from the left, that's where it comes from, that reporters who cover the president are somehow in bed with him, that they are lapdogs, I think, is a bit much. I think it's ridiculous, actually.

If you read the daily coverage of the president it's as rigorous and as serious as it's ever been. And it really is the first refuge of political people, blame the press. Always you saw right blame reporters, liberal media conspiracy during the Clinton administration and you're hearing it from the left now blaming reporters for not being mean enough to President Bush. They're tough enough, they've always been tough enough.

ZAHN: Thank you, gentlemen.

We're just minutes away from the president's news conference. When we come back, what we might actually hear from the president.


ZAHN: We hope we've given you a pretty good idea over the last 20 minutes or so what you might expect to hear from the president. A lot at stake for the president as he holds his third primetime news conference of his presidency. This, of course, not his favorite venue, his audience made up of an increasingly number of skeptical Americans. Americans who, by and large, supported the idea of going into Iraq but now who are deeply troubled by the tremendous loss of American life in the last month alone.

As we await for the president to enter the East Room, this programming note. Right after the press conference stay with CNN for analysis beginning with "LARRY KING LIVE" and then Aaron Brown will be along with a full wrap-up and reaction on "NEWSNIGHT." And we'll be back tomorrow night to analyze what the president said. For now CNN's special coverage of the president's special news conference begins right now with Wolf Blitzer.


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