print-only banner
The White House Skip Main Navigation
  
In Focus
News
News by Date
Appointments
Federal Facts
West Wing

Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 8, 2003

Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

Play Video  Video (Real)
Play Real Audio  Audio

1:45 P.M. EDT

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the President's schedule, and then I have two announcements I'd like to make. This has been a busy day on the foreign policy front, welcoming to the White House several of America's best friends and allies throughout the world.

The President began his day with a breakfast meeting with the Prime Minister of Denmark. The President thanked the Prime Minister for Denmark's strong support in the war on terror and the operation in Iraq. They discussed European relations with the United States, as well as Middle East peace prospects.

Then the President had an intelligence briefing, followed by an FBI briefing. And the President also just completed a meeting with the Amir of Qatar, as well as a lunch with the Amir. They talked about the reconstruction of Iraq, prospects for peace in the Middle East, and the President congratulated the Amir on the reform efforts that he has led in the nation of Qatar.

Later today the President will make remarks at a briefing for Asian-Pacific Americans and he will sign an executive order dealing with insular affairs. And then this afternoon, in a celebration at the White House, the President will welcome the foreign ministers of seven new NATO nations. The United States Senate, just this morning, ratified the membership of these seven as part of the expanded NATO, and the President looks forward to cementing a strong basis for the future of close cooperation we enjoy with these nations. Those nations are Slovakia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, and Latvia.

And that is my report on the President's day. Two announcements: The President and Mrs. Bush will welcome Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan to his ranch at Crawford on May 22nd and May 23rd. Japan stands as a committed ally and firm supporter of coordinated efforts to tackle the major security challenges we face. The President looks forward to discussions with Prime Minister Koizumi on the reconstruction of a liberated Iraq, strengthening a united strategy to deal with North Korea's nuclear threat, and exploring closer cooperation on global, economic and security issues.

And also, President Bush will welcome to the White House Philippine President Gloria Arroyo for a state visit on May 19th. The Philippines are a close friend and stalwart ally in the war on terror, and the President and the First Lady will host the President for a state visit and state dinner later that evening.

John, are you stretching, or is that a question?

Q No, I'm just getting ready to launch that finger in the air, as soon as you're done. (Laughter.) It would be the first finger.

MR. FLEISCHER: I was going to ask. (Laughter.) This is a family briefing, so I decided not to. (Laughter.)

Q Do you expect there to be another diplomatic dustup with France when you introduce the resolution to lift sanctions against Iraq tomorrow?

MR. FLEISCHER: There's no reason that this current U.N. process should look anything like the last one. There is no reason for a dustup. This is, after all, about helping the people of Iraq. And any disagreement among allies would get in the way of helping the people of Iraq. And we do not anticipate it will look like the last one did. We certainly hope it won't.

Q But there are still, certainly, stark differences between the positions of the two countries. Do you expect that you can bridge those differences?

MR. FLEISCHER: Speaking for the United States, and speaking for the President, you already see a unity of approach among four different nations who are co-sponsoring this resolution. And I can't speak for other nations. I think it's fair to put the question to them. But now that the people of Iraq have been freed, now that the Saddam Hussein regime is gone, why would anybody have any opposition to lifting sanctions on the Iraqi people? That's not a question I can answer from their point of view. But as the President said last night, he is hopeful that we'll have a new atmosphere for cooperation at the United Nations.

Q So this idea that you've got a like-minded nations who have positions on the Security Council together, is that an indication that you plan to steamroll France?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think it's -- in fairness to France, you need to ask the question to France. And in fairness to France and other nations, they have not yet received the resolution. There's been considerable talk about it. As Ambassador Negroponte just stated, it will be formally presented and tabled tomorrow. So members of the United Nations Security Council will have their own opportunity to speak about it. But the Saddam Hussein regime is gone. There is no reason for the people of Iraq to suffer sanctions any longer.

Q I'm sorry, if I could just ask one more. Do you expect that Germany will be on board this time around, since the issue is not about war --

MR. FLEISCHER: As the President said, this -- the environment is much more hopeful this time. But I can't speak for other nations.

Q On the tax cut plan, the President, as he talks around the country, has made the dividend tax elimination such a centerpiece of the plan. And now that the House has trimmed it back a little bit, and the Senate has cut it way back, and there are different versions in the different Houses, what is it exactly the President is going to ask for when he goes to these audiences and tries to promote his plan? He's been urging people to email their members of Congress, but what exactly is he supporting at this point?

MR. FLEISCHER: Make not mistake, the President is still committed to a 100-percent elimination of the taxation on individual dividends, because it's double-taxation. He thinks it's wrong. And by eliminating it, it creates the greatest boost for the economy. That continues to be the President's goal.

Now, as you know, there is a process here. The House and the Senate pass their legislation and they meet in the crucial conference committee to iron out differences. So we're watching the beginnings of the story here. The beginnings have already gotten off substantially to a good start. No question, there are differences in some of the substantive levels on the dividend tax cut. We'll work through the process.

Q Well, he can no longer realistically expect to get the full elimination of that tax.

MR. FLEISCHER: We'll continue to work through the process. And if the President believes that zero is the appropriate goal, he'll work toward it.

Q But what's the purpose of talking about the whole thing now if it's going away already?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think you can presume it's gone away already. Let the process proceed.

Q Is he going to change his message a little next week when he talks to these audiences in Indiana?

MR. FLEISCHER: You'll be there. I'm sure you'll be able to cover it.

Q Ari, on the United Nations, the President is pretty clear that he believes the United Nations failed the test when it really mattered, when it had to do with war and peace on Iraq. So does -- what is his level of confidence? Does he think that there's a legitimate place for the U.N., going forward?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think you have to separate the U.N. activities here into two columns. The first column is what the President viewed as a failure by the United Nations to come to terms with preserving peace and security by not enforcing its resolutions; therefore, the coalition enforced the resolutions.

On the other side, in the second column, are the ongoing activities that the United Nations has demonstrated success in, involving reconstruction efforts and humanitarian efforts. And that's what the oil-for-food program represents, and that's what lifting the sanctions represents. So this is proceeding along those tracks. Again, the President said last night, it's proceeding on a more hopeful environment in the Security Council. And events will take place. We'll judge from there.

Q Let me ask you something about the assault weapons ban. I realize the President was for the reauthorization back in 2000. Why does he support that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President thought, and said so at the time in 2000, that the assault weapon ban was a reasonable step. The assault weapon ban was crafted with the thought that it would deter crime. There are still studies underway of its crime deterring abilities, but the President thought that was reasonable, and that's why he supported it. And that's why he supports the reauthorization of the current ban.

Q Does it work?

MR. FLEISCHER: There are, indeed, studies underway that will determine that. And we'll await those studies to make any final conclusions. But that's exactly what the President said in 2000.

Q But he's willing to disappoint a pretty big supporter here, the NRA, based on some ongoing studies, or does he have a more fundamental belief that these kinds of weapons should not --

MR. FLEISCHER: He believed it in 2000, before studies were completed; he continues to believe it now. We'll see if the studies provide any additional information. But the President focuses on this issue like he does on all -- he focuses it on the merits. He makes his determinations. Often the President will agree, of course, with the National Rifle Association. On this issue he does not.

Q One more point on this. Forgive me for wading into the politics of issues like this, but he doesn't think that there's -- is he concerned about taking steps that put him at odds with his Republican base, or does he feel like really he's built himself up so much it's not an issue?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think when you look across-the-board at the positions the President takes, the President evaluates the issues that come before him based on the facts, based on the merits. He makes the determinations, and then others are free to say whether they agree or disagree with the President. I think his view to whether it's an issue that's important to one party or another party, or to many people in the middle, his view is, do what's right, and let people interpret it from there. In this instance, you know what he said, as you pointed out, in 2000. He continues to believe it today.

Q Ari, on that, last night Karl Rove was in New Hampshire, and he spoke with one of the leading gun activists in the state, who says on his website today that Karl Rove said Congress isn't going to pass this extension anyway, and so gun owners don't have to worry, the President is going to be for the extension, but Congress isn't going to pass it anyway. Is that the President's attitude, that this bill isn't really coming his way?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think you can talk to any number of handicappers about any number of issues that are pending before the Congress and probably get an equal number of opinions. So this is a matter that the Congress will be taking up, and they will be taking it up now, knowing what the President's position is on it. And I can't make any predictions about what Congress ultimately will do. It's a business that outsiders engage in and insiders engage in; we'll see who's right.

Q According to this gentleman, Karl Rove was engaging in that. Given the fact that Republicans do control the Congress and that getting this passed, getting it onto the agenda will require Republican leadership, is the President willing to fight for this, to fight for the extension of the assault weapons ban?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has made his position known. And during the course of the debate, I imagine that people will refer to the President's position and cite it, and I will continue to repeat it. The President, you will watch his actions and judge for yourself over time.

Q So no plan to make any calls on this, to spend political capital to get this done?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, as I indicated, I think you'll be able to judge the President's actions by observing them yourselves.

Q What does the President hope Secretary Powell will be able to achieve this weekend in the Middle East?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is hopeful that in the Secretary's visit to the Middle East, the Secretary will find a willingness from the parties to take the first steps down the road that the road map outlines. It's very important for the Israelis, for the Palestinians, for the Arabs to recognize that this is now a moment to seize. And the Secretary is going to the Middle East to help them to seize it. And it's the beginning of an important process.

Q Does he hope to come out of this with a cease-fire, something concrete?

MR. FLEISCHER: Just as I indicated. The road map represents a hopeful moment, a hopeful process, and it outlines a route for the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Arabs to travel together to reach the goal of a two-state solution to the violence that has wracked the Middle East.

As we've seen in many other peace efforts in the Middle East, going back decades, sometimes they're successful, sometimes they're not. This President is determined to take every step the United States can make to help this one to be successful. There are no guarantees; it is the Middle East. What can be guaranteed is that this President will put a shoulder to the wheel to try to make it happen.

And this is a topic that came up in the lunch with the Amir of Qatar. This is a hopeful moment in the Middle East, and that's how the President begins this. We've seen before hopeful moments in the Middle East go up in a puff of violence, and we hope that won't be the case again. And the President is determined to make every, every effort to take advantage of this time of history.

Q Ari, attacking this another way on the assault weapons ban, basically the NRA is getting what they want from Congress. What is the President willing to do -- as he said he supports the Clinton administration's assault weapons ban -- what is he willing to do to go the extra mile so this ban would be reinforced after 2004?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the statement from the President, already, sends a very clear signal to people about what the President supports, the fact that the President is prepared to sign this legislation. And this is an issue that both parties will take up and face, and I think you'll find any number of people in the other party who has different thoughts about this, as well.

But the President is for it. I've said it, you know his position, and you are free to talk to him about it yourself -- he took questions today -- raise the issue with him, and you know his position.

Q But there's a contradiction. One of his main advisors is contradicting what the President is saying. How is that --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's not true. It's not true.

Q Well tell me then. Tell me why it isn't true.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think as Terry described the remarks by a third party, it was a question of analysis of what Congress will or will not do. And as I indicated, you can, on any number of issues, find people who handicap what Congress will or will not do. It's a guessing game.

Q But basically what the Karl Rove statement is, is the politics of politics that will ultimately give the NRA what they want. They don't want the assault weapons ban --

MR. FLEISCHER: April, this is, to the President, this is about a promise he made, a commitment he gave because he thought on substance, this was reasonable. Now, I'll leave politics to others, but that's the President's position.

Q Two questions about the President's judicial nominations. To what degree do you think people in America, citizens, are following the to-and-fro over this issue between Republicans and Democrats at the Capitol?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think, like a lot of issues that come before Washington -- issues, obviously, like the war I think the entire country pays attention to. But there's a whole series of issues that slices of America pay attention to. And I think when it comes to judicial issues, there are, indeed, a lot of Americans, a fairly large slice, who have a care about our constitutional system and about the judiciary being filled, because many people depend on courts for justice, and when they go to court they want to know that they won't have interminable delays as a result of a lack of judges sitting in the chairs, and too high a vacancy rate, which is the present condition, particularly in the circuit court.

So I do think this is one of those issues that many people do pay attention to. It's a good government issue. Failure by the Senate to ratify judges, to engage in filibuster against judges who have been nominated for more than two years, is just a failure to engage in a good government process. Every judicial nominee, in the President's judgment, deserves an up or down vote.

Q And, Ari, over the next number of days, the President will be going to New Mexico, Nebraska, Indiana. I wonder if you could tell us how each of those states was chosen, and what the President hopes to accomplish?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President, as you know, repeatedly travels around the country to make his case on behalf of different issues that are pending before the Congress. The President enjoys traveling to different places, places he hasn't been to recently. He also does, indeed, look at this as a close vote in the Senate. And the President hopes that his travel will help members of Congress to reach decisions based on the merits of the President's proposals and his discussions about those proposals.

Q Ari, Security Council countries like France and Russia have made clear that they're reluctant to completely lift the sanctions against Iraq until they know that they're no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What is the U.S. willing to do to address that issue with --

MR. FLEISCHER: Let's allow the countries to speak for themselves, allow them an opportunity to look at this resolution. So I think you might be surprised about the prospects for this resolution moving forward in a cooperative fashion. So I don't know that you can take too much out of the bitterness that marked the previous debate at the U.N. and apply it to this debate. Allow the resolution to be introduced, and allow the member states of the Security Council to speak for themselves having looked at the resolution.

And, still, at the end of the day, it comes down to the question of the Iraqi regime is no more. The concerns the United Nations had when they imposed sanctions have vanished. Why, therefore, should the Iraqi people suffer? This is about the Iraqi people.

Q Let me ask the question a different way then. Can you clarify the U.S. position on that issue? Obviously, Negroponte -- John Negroponte said that he doesn't favor UNMOVIC going in there, but other international inspectors, is that something that the U.S. --

MR. FLEISCHER: It's exactly what I said this morning. The coalition is continuing to lead the effort to find the weapons of mass destruction. And as you know, in terms of what, certainly by all appearances, would seem to be the mobile biological weapons van that Secretary Powell warned about, that Iraq denied having, that has now apparently been found, we are beginning to have success. There continues to be a voluminous amount of documents that still are going through, and other sites to be visited. So the process is well underway. We remain confident about what we will find. And the coalition is leading that effort.

Q Leading the effort, but would you go along with other agencies, like the IAEA, for instance, going along with the coalition troops?

MR. FLEISCHER: Just as I said this morning, we don't rule anything out. But for the foreseeable future, this is a coalition-led effort.

Q By my count, the state visit from the Philippines will only be the President's third since he took office.

MR. FLEISCHER: I believe that's correct.

Q So why is the Philippines receiving this rare honor?

MR. FLEISCHER: This is the President's way of saying, thank-you, to the government of the Philippines, to President Arroyo and to the people of Philippines for their stalwart efforts in fighting the war on terror, for being such a good and reliable ally to the United States.

The Philippines, in an area of the world that has not received much notice, because much notice in the war on terrorism has been focused on Afghanistan or Iraq or other places -- the Philippines have suffered mightily at the hands of terrorists. And the Philippine government and President Arroyo have shown great courage in taking on the terrorists inside the Philippines, particularly on some of the more remote islands in the Philippines. And the President wants to express the gratitude and appreciation of the American people and himself by hosting a state visit.

Q Second question. Critics of the administration see the White House and the State Department spending a lot of time with the new NATO candidate members today, with the Philippines, and spending significantly less time with traditional allies like France and Germany. Do these critics fail to understand the value of these other countries? Has there been a shift in emphasis?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, but, you know, what are you seeing -- and I know I mentioned at the top this has been a busy foreign policy day here at the White House, and, of course, President Aznar was just here, and the President and Prime Minister Blair speak often and have met often. What you are seeing here is a real numerical reminder of how the world agreed with the United States, and how few countries disagreed with the United States. And that's a fact. Much of the world, most of Europe, agreed with the leadership that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair and Prime Minister Aznar and Prime Minister Berlusconi displayed in the recent confrontation with Iraq. There were a couple nations that did not. They are a small minority of nations.

Q But your critics would say that in terms of size of the country and in terms of population and the power of their economies and their clout around the world, that the preponderance of opinion was against the U.S. policy, so that the numbers of countries supporting is not an accurate count of world support for the war in Iraq and other policies.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think if people measure principles of right and wrong by GDP size, they're using the wrong measurements. Right and wrong is right and wrong, whether it's the smallest nation with the lowest GDP that stands on principle, or the largest nation with the highest GDP. You don't measure right and wrong by a nation's GDP. You measure it by the decisions they make to defend freedom.

Q There does seem to be a shift in sentiment along these lines. Is it fair to say that the U.S. now believes it is easier in many ways to work with some of the new members of NATO than it is to work with some of the members of the Security Council?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the President has been very up-front about this; there is a very refreshing notion in many of these Eastern European nations about the price of liberty and freedom. They remember what it was like to live and suffer from tyranny, and they understand the risks that have to be taken to defend liberty. And these East European nations were proud to stand up early and alongside the United States. And the President has been unabashedly proud to say thank you to those countries.

Q You said that we should reserve judgment until France and Russia and others have had a chance to look at the resolution. What is it in that resolution that you think they will find persuasive? Are there portions of it --

MR. FLEISCHER: My point is I think you're overstating their opposition and you need to just allow them to have a look at it. And as I mentioned, we are in a different era and a different environment at the United Nations. I don't think some of these nations want to repeat the mistakes that they made in the past, and allow them to speak for themselves.

Q Is there something in this resolution that will resolve or at least move toward resolving the issue of how Iraqi oil can be sold, who can assert ownership, and how the money will be dealt with, and who will be able to spend it, and all the questions surrounding Iraq's oil?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me tell you what it will include, and there will be additional details that will come later. But it will lift sanctions on Iraq, wind down the oil-for-food program, provide for an appropriate administration to help provide security and rebuild Iraq, and encourage international participation in this effort.

The President wants the Security Council to act quickly to pass this new resolution. There is no need for a lengthy debate. And previously, I think I said there were four co-sponsors of it. I believe there are three -- it's the United Kingdom, Spain, and the United States.

Q Ari, could you just address the oil thing in particular? Does it resolve this question of how they'll be able to sell Iraqi oil? I mean, who can sell it --

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm going to leave it at this level for now. Member states have not yet received the resolution, so I'm going to leave it at that for now.

Q Does the federal support extending unemployment benefits for those whose benefits coming to an end cease at the end of this month?

MR. FLEISCHER: This is an issue, as you know, that the President supported earlier this year, the extension of unemployment benefits. Unemployment remains a key concern for the President and this is an issue on which we will work with the Congress.

Q So you have no view of that? You have no view about whether, in principle -- I'm not saying by how long, but whether in principle the benefits should be extended?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that all depends on specifics, and the President will want to work with the Congress.

Q On women in combat roles in the military, the President said this morning that our commanders are going to make decisions. Is the President going to get a report from him, from them? How is he going to sort of keep track of this particular issue?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think you need to start with DOD and see, in the wake of the war, if they are or are not doing any evaluations of the role of women in combat. I don't know if they are, or not. The President was asked an interesting question about it; it may have been hypothetical. And you know the President's thinking about it, but to start the process you need to check with DOD.

Q Can you describe for us what the President wants to talk about in South Carolina tomorrow? And is this the only commencement address he's going to give this year?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, this is not the only commencement address he will give. I believe in the week-ahead tomorrow we will indicate the one other that he will do.

The President is going to give a foreign policy address in South Carolina tomorrow. The President's address is going to focus on the hopeful moment in the Middle East and he will touch on other areas around the world, as well, particularly in the war on terror.

Q Can you also describe for us a little bit more about the weekend the President is planning, this Mother's Day weekend in Santa Fe? You said you'd have some more details.

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I'll do that tomorrow at the week-ahead.

Q But no here?

Q Ari, the President said on Thursday on the aircraft carrier that the Iraqi regime would not be providing terrorist groups with weapons of mass destruction, that that was one of the advantages of the war. How can he know that with certainty, given that Iraq's main nuclear facility went unguarded for days and was looted?

MR. FLEISCHER: This is a question that I got, I think a couple days ago here, and what I said then applies today, too. The President's reference was to the Iraqi regime. The regime is no more. And we always will have concerns about any loose-knit group of people, but we have no information about that. The President's statement was about the regime.

Q So it's possible that the very scenario that this war was fought to prevent could have unfolded and we really know nothing about it?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think that's a hypothetical, and you have to leave it as a hypothetical.

Q How so?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to say it is or isn't. Who knows? Whatever the risk is, it has obviously been greatly and severely diminished.

Q Two questions, Ari. One, since the U.S. team led by Deputy Secretary Mr. Armitage -- peace for the Indian subcontinent -- still there. When I was in Kashmir, life was going normal, but it was -- only one or two terrorist activities now. How much -- conflict of 50 years old between the two nations is going to be solved, because when the two nations were at the brink of war last year and the President was given credit for -- the tension. Now how much is involved Kasmir to solve this problem?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, the Deputy Secretary of State is in the region for the purpose of working with India and Pakistan to help bring them together. And there, too, this is a very hopeful moment. You have seen a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan, and a very helpful one, at that. Many people have been working very hard, including the United States government, to help make this happen. And it's an important step forward that both countries have taken toward each other. And the President commends them for it.

Q Second -- I have one.

MR. FLEISCHER: Robert. We're going to keep moving.

Q Ari, I'm not sure whether the President has seen this or you've seen it, but a very prominent politician in Britain, the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has had some pretty strong words about the President today. He said, "I think George Bush is the most corrupt American President since Harding in the '20s, he's not a legitimate President. I look forward to his government being overthrown as much as I look forward to Saddam Hussein being overthrown." Have you seen that? Do you have a reaction to it?

MR. FLEISCHER: First of all, I've never heard of the fellow. Second of all, I wouldn't dignify it with a comment.

Q Just to clarify the record, are you saying that the statements attributed to Karl Rove by the anti-gun-control activists were not made by Mr. Rove, that he didn't say them?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, it's the first I've heard of them, so I'm not in a position to tell you that one way or another.

Q Could you check, please, and perhaps post the --

MR. FLEISCHER: I'll see if there's anything I have on it.

Russell. You haven't been here for a while.

Q I've been in row five, that doesn't count. (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: Welcome to row four. I'd like to move to row five now.

Q That's fine.

MR. FLEISCHER: Not you, Lester.

Q The President was in Santa Clara last week and he appeared at United Defense, a major defense contractor controlled by the Carlyle Group. The President's father is a paid advisor to the Carlyle Group. So you have a situation where the President was there touting the products of the company that directly benefits financially his father. Why isn't that unethical?

MR. FLEISCHER: The question is, are Bradley fighting vehicles part of what the military does that should be supported. The answer is, of course, yes, regardless of who serves on Carlyle.

Q What if the President's father was, like, the President of United Defense? Would that be unethical?

MR. FLEISCHER: What if the President's father was on Social Security and the President wanted to strengthen the Social Security program so all Americans could have a strong retirement. (Laughter.)

Q Two quick ones. The President made reference to working together to stop weapons of -- proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Are military actions ruled in or out if diplomacy does not work in the case of Iran, North Korea?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, could you rephrase the question? I was -- (laughter) -- busy eye-surfing.

Q Regarding Iran, the President said we must work together to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Are military actions on the table? Are they ruled in or out if Iran or North Korea do not stop this proliferation?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, as the President said, the IAEA has been into Iran and we are awaiting their report in June. But make no mistake, what Iran is pursuing raises very troublesome issues, particularly given the fact that Iran is a nation that is rich in oil and rich in gas. In fact, Iran flares off more gas than they would ever produce from the nuclear programs that they claim they are producing for peaceful purposes. It is odd for a nation as rich in energy as Iran to seek production of nuclear energy that they claim is for peaceful purposes. This is a serious matter. And the IAEA is on the spot, they are on the job. We will await their June report.

Q May I ask a quick one on the terrorism ruling in New York by a New York judge yesterday? Would the President support giving some of the seized Iraqi money to families of 9/11 victims?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't have comments on that court case.

Q Ari, you've quoted the President as saying that the situation on the Security Council -- there's a more hopeful environment. But immediately after the battle of Iraq, as you all are calling it, there was indications that -- from the Defense Department, particularly -- that France would have a price to pay for its opposition. Is that no longer effective?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well the -- I think Secretary Powell said, yes, to a question about will there be consequences.

Q Right.

MR. FLEISCHER: And I think on this issue, it's important to allow the member states of the Security Council to speak and to vote on the merits of what is put before them. We shall learn their position. They shall take their position publicly, and we will know more.

Q But in order to gain their support, are there still -- regardless, are there still going to be consequences?

MR. FLEISCHER: The reason the President said what he said last night is because the members of the Security Council want to work together. And I think, from the President's point of view, some of these nations that oppose the United States have learned lessons, and made mistakes, and they don't want to repeat those mistakes. And they, too, want to work better with the United States. So we will see what happens when it's put before them.

Q As was mentioned, the President said it's up to the Generals to decide whether women should be in combat. But isn't he, as Commander-in-Chief, at a time when Jessica Lynch and others have been held prisoner, responsible for setting policy to the Pentagon on an important issue like this?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think what the President is saying is that if there are any reviews of any specific issues that arose in the conduct of the war, regardless of whether it deals with a gender issue, or a fighting doctrine, or a type of vehicle, or a type of military equipment used, that it should be the Pentagon and the military who makes the first evaluation of what that means.

Now, of course, if anything rises up to a higher policy level, the President will be involved. I think the President also gave a rather strong statement about his approach to these issues, and how qualified women are to serve in very important roles in our military.

Q But, specifically on my question of women in combat roles, some conservatives are saying the President is essentially punting this issue. And you talked earlier about how he has a tendency to tackle tough, thorny issues, even if it might alienate conservatives or liberals. Why not tackle this one?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, you're dealing with a hypothetical. You don't even know if there is a review, you don't even know if the events in the war have led to a need for anything to be reviewed or for the status quota to remain.

Q But he would be the one to review it.

MR. FLEISCHER: What the President is indicating is his overall approach, and I think he gave you a pretty strong statement about the important role that women play in our military, and his confidence in women. He has seen it happen.

But, as with all matters in the military, the President wants to hear first from the experts, and then if there is anything beyond this hypothetical, he might have more to say, if that even happens.

Q Yesterday, an open letter signed by over half the members of the Iranian parliament was read aloud during their sessions. The letter called for liberal reforms and an end to diplomatic isolation. Does the administration interpret this as a sign that this member of the "axis of evil" is getting the message? And what is the administration going to do to reach out to the Iranian reformers?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there, indeed, are intriguing developments underway inside Iran that are very hard for outsiders to read. Iran is a remarkably young country. The population of Iran disproportionally does represent very young people. The message that young people, particularly in Iran, have expressed is they want to be free, they want to have an open society.

And we shall see what the future of Iran holds. It's an important issue; it's a hard issue for outsiders to read. But the cause of reform and the cause of democracy are important everywhere. I would refer you to the President's statement that he issued to the people of Iran.

Mr. Sanger, very gracious of you to assume a seat in the fifth row.

Q Well, my colleagues in the front always ask better questions than I do anyway. Is it the U.S.' policy that we have the right to intercept missile shipments coming out of -- this follows Connie's question -- North Korea or Iran, shipments that don't necessarily violate a specific statute in international law, as a way of trying to contain the kind of threat the President was talking about this morning?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the conduct of any operation on international waters, the United States would be bound by domestic law and international law, and within those two bodies of law, the United States has options.

Q Let me just take you to the specific example. We had an earlier one where the North Korean shipment was intercepted on the way to Yemen. In that case, you believed it might be going to Iraq. If it's not going to a prohibited country, like Iraq, is it still the view of the administration it has a right --

MR. FLEISCHER: It all depends on the facts and the circumstances, the information pertaining to that incident. And it would be evaluated; but any action taken would, of course, be consistent with law.

Q Ari, two-part. Considering our military and CIA's very effective use of unmanned aerial drones in Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, and the support of Republicans John McCain, Steve Shadegg, John Warner and Asa Hutchinson, are using such drones to police our Canadian and Mexican borders -- and my question is, does the President disagree with his fellow Republicans and oppose such use of drones to police our borders?

MR. FLEISCHER: On an issue like this, it's more a matter that the agencies would take a look at and if they have anything to report to the President, he'd evaluate it.

Q Yesterday, the AP reported from Jerusalem that the road map's provision of "the right to return" for 700,000 Palestinians who fled Israel in '48, 1948, is, in Prime Minister Sharon's words, "a recipe for the destruction of Israel." And since there has been no Arab restitution for hundreds of thousands of Jews who lost their land -- Arab lands in 1948, how can the President possibly endorse this Palestinian return demand?

MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, this is exactly the reason the road map has been offered to the parties, to find a way to bring them together on contentious issues like this.

Q He's rejected it -- Sharon has rejected it, and remember, Congress instructed Ben Franklin not one dime to those Torries. You remember that, don't you, Ari? (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: And we are following the road map that Benjamin Franklin laid down, which is the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Q Ari, there have been many peace plans or road maps to peace in the Middle East over the years in various administrations, and terrorism has always come into play to severely undermine them. What is the United States doing proactively in regards to Syria and Iran on cutting off funding and support for terrorist groups that again could tip over the apple cart?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, keep in mind, the Secretary of State was just in Syria, and gave a very tough and strong message to President Assad of Syria. And he received certain commitments from the President of Syria, and we are going to watch very carefully to see if those commitments are kept.

From the President's point of view, terrorism risks undermining the prospects for peace in the Middle East. If there is terror, it will be very difficult to get the parties to work with each other. Terror is the first starting point for the process. Terror must be stopped, in the President's judgment. And that is a crucial ingredient about the responsibilities of the Palestinian Authority and the Arab nations. And the President has been satisfied with what he has heard from the Palestinian Authority in the person of Abu Mazen, and the work that he has already put in place with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It's a crucial matter.

Q Ari, that's one leg of the stool. What about Iran? Will Iran --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Iran clearly is a sponsor of terrorism. It's a major source of concern and a problem.

April. I'm sorry -- Sarah. I've been promising.

Q You forgot me.

MR. FLEISCHER: Sarah.

Q Thank you. Has the President made up with his friend, Vicente Fox, and are they going to visit each other again soon?

MR. FLEISCHER: There was no making-up to do. President Bush and President Fox have always been good friends. There are a series of issues that remain pending, that remain important. And that's how the President approaches it.

Q Ari, tomorrow the President is going to South Carolina, a place where many African Americans are still upset over -- about this flag flap. Is the President still concerned that this group of people who he's trying to woo for the next election are concerned still over the issues of the Confederate flag and over racial issues? Where are his thoughts?

MR. FLEISCHER: I would remind you that when the President said that's an issue for the people of South Carolina to decide, the people did. A compromise was reached that involved the African American community and other community leaders throughout South Carolina. A compromise was reached and a compromise is in place.

Q So he feels good going, and not worrying --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President feels free to go around to every one of our 50 states. And most foreign countries. (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.

END 2:26 P.M. EDT