Fleischer suggests network should've allowed official refute

NEW YORK – Seems the White House may have wanted to debate Iraqi president Saddam Hussein after all.

Bushies and CBS had a diplomatic meltdown Wednesday over Dan Rather’s rare and exclusive sit-down with Saddam Hussein.

In the interview, which took place Monday in Baghdad, Saddam challenged President Bush to a live TV debate. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer quickly dismissed the offer.

Ready to refute

But Wednesday, Fleischer suggested that the Eye should have allowed an official from the Bush administration to refute Hussein.

The White House claims that the net would not allow anyone but President George W. Bush himself to rebut Hussein’s arguments on “60 Minutes II” Wednesday.

The net vigorously objects to Fleischer’s characterization.

“Adam Levine (of the White House Press Office) called (“60 II’s”) Jeff Fager and asked if Fleischer could refute what Hussein said at the end of each segment of the interview,” said CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. “Jeff said that it wasn’t appropriate, but he’d be glad to put the President on.”

Eye’s air offer

Thus began a he-said she-said between the two sides, with the White House Wednesday contending that Fager said he was only interested in putting on Bush, even if the remark was supposedly meant as an off-handed suggestion.

The net said that after Fleischer’s Wednesday press briefing, it offered Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney or Secretary of State Colin Powell the chance to be included this week on “60 II.” The net also offered an hour with the president next week as an alternative.

Genelius said, however, that the White House rejected Wednesday’s offer, instead suggesting that the net put communications director Dan Bartlett or Fleischer on the air.

“This is a journalistic enterprise, and will be presented with ample context – and with the White House position,” said Genelius.

“This is not throwing Osama Bin Laden’s ‘speech’ on the air,” she said, referring to the recent airing of an unverified audiotape of the Al Qaeda kingpin. “This will done fairly.”

Difficult questions

Fleischer didn’t bring up the topic of the Bin Laden tape; instead, he was asked about it by the White House press corp. He used the chance to comment on the role of the press in general as war tensions mount, while commending Rather for “getting a serious journalistic interview.”

“I think the American media generally are going to be facing some interesting and difficult questions as Iraq puts people out to engage in propaganda,” Fleischer said.

(Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.)

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