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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
June 9, 2003
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:02 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I'd like to give you a report on the President's day, and I have one announcement.
The President began his day early this morning with a phone call with the Spanish President Aznar. The two leaders had a very warm and productive conversation that lasted approximately 30 minutes. They reviewed developments in Iraq. The President discussed his recent trip to Europe and to the Middle East, and discussed what the next steps are toward bringing peace to the region.
He discussed the challenge of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and growing concerns over Iran's nuclear program. The two agreed on the need for the United States and Europe to work together, as President Bush advocated in his Krakow speech, to deal with 21st century challenges.
Following the phone call, the President had his intelligence briefing, then had an FBI briefing. He had his 18th Cabinet meeting -- I know you've seen the remarks the President made. It was a wide-ranging meeting where the President was briefed on a number of topics, including the economy, including a number of other domestic matters, as well as foreign policy and defense related matters.
And then later this afternoon the President will welcome to the White House a group of Republican congressional leaders from both the House and the Senate, to talk about the appropriation bills that are pending in the Congress. The President is going to stress his desire to work together with members of Congress to get the appropriation bills enacted into law in a timely manner while maintaining fiscal discipline.
Finally, President Bush will host the annual U.S.-EU summit in Washington on June 25th. The United States and the European Union have a rich and expanding agenda of cooperation. The President looks forward to this opportunity to review our transatlantic agenda with the European Council President and the European Commission President.
And with that, I'm happy to take questions. John.
Q Ari, I just wanted to ask you a question about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In his radio address on October 5th, President Bush clearly said Iraq had stockpiled biological and chemical weapons. But in a Defense Intelligence Agency report from September 2002, the DIA stated there was no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons. I'm just wondering how you reconcile those two disparate thoughts? And where did the President get the intelligence that, indeed, Iraq was stockpiling chemical weapons?
MR. FLEISCHER: From the same report and from other reports. You're reading one sentence from the report. As you know if you read the rest of the report -- and it's been declassified, you have the summary of it -- it talks about how Iraq is distributing chemical weapon munitions --
Q Yes, but it also uses the word "suggests" that Iraq is distributing --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q The President was pretty definitive in his statement.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct, and that's because it's based on amalgam of all the intelligence information that's available, not one sentence. And when you look at the totality of the information that was available from the intelligence community to the President, he said that because that's the conclusion that not only did the CIA reach in 2003, but it's consistent with the reporting that was done by the intelligence communities going back to the early, mid, late '90s.
Q So you're saying he had other intelligence, other than the DIA?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course. The President has multiple forms of intelligence that he looks at. And when you take a look at it in its totality, it supports just what the President said.
Q So did he consider that other intelligence to be more valuable than the DIA intelligence?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, looks at it -- we've always talked about intelligence being a mosaic, different pieces, some of those pieces are more clear than other pieces, some of those pieces are less clear than other pieces. The job of the analysts is to add it up, make recommendations to the policy makers. And the President made his conclusions and shared them with the public. Not only this President, but previous Presidents.
Q But why didn't the President err on the side of conservatism, and take the DIA report over the other intelligence that he got?
MR. FLEISCHER: First of all, the President --
Q I mean, he seemed to take a worst case scenario.
MR. FLEISCHER: The President didn't err on one side or another, he focused on accuracy, and based it on the combined assessments of the intelligence community from all its different forms, as was done in the case of others. Now, that's why the President said it. It was based on what he had heard from a variety of the different sources in the intelligence community. When you added it all up, it was clear, and the President said it.
Q Does the President still have faith and confidence in George Tenet, with the CIA?
MR. FLEISCHER: Unquestionably.
Q He's not concerned about some -- because there are questions about intelligence. He's pleased with the quality of intelligence he's getting with Tenet in charge?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me put it to you this way, I'm going to read from something.
"There's a long line of evidence going back to the early 1990s that Saddam Hussein had lots of weapons of mass destruction and that he used them against his own people. The U.N. believed that. Hans Blix believed that. President Chirac, President Schroeder, certainly, Bill Clinton and his administration, and now this administration."
That's Dick Gephardt talking, yesterday. And so what the President has said is because it has been the longstanding view of numerous people, not only in this country, not only in this administration, but around the world, including at the United Nations who came to those conclusions. And the President is not going to engage in the rewriting of history that others may be trying to engage in. The President acted to protect our country, and he acted properly, wisely, and I think the American people are thankful that he did.
Q But isn't there still a suggestion of a breakdown in intelligence, given the fact that we thought there were weapons poised to be used and yet they haven't been found yet?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I don't think that suggests a breakdown. I think what it suggests is the need for patience. Just as the President has said, that in the immediate aftermath of the war, as we continue to be engaged in security operations, first and foremost, in Iraq to protect the Americans who are there, there is also a growing effort now as more experts arrive for the purpose of looking through the documents, starting to search through the additional sites, interviewing the mid-level personnel who were present, working on the program, that this will take time. It will be done thoroughly. It will be done deliberately. And it will ultimately lead to the truth, and the truth, we fully expect will match the statements you've heard.
Q The President described the threat as imminent. And you're now saying it's going to take time to uncover it, and the administration is shifting from describing weapons ready to go, ready to fire at neighboring countries, at American troops, to programs, capabilities, desires. Whatever the consensus of the world was about Iraq's weapons, shouldn't the White House kind of admit that the facts on the ground are now demonstrating that they had a different level of capability?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think the facts on the ground show that in the United States' conduct of the war we had good reason to worry about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, particularly when you found Iraqi troops with chemical weapons protection gear of their own, when they had atropine, which is used to inoculate against the effects of a chemical attack. What other conclusions should military planners have reached when they discovered things like that? Should they say, we found the chemical suits, we found the atropine, but we're not going to take action to protect our troops against what could be an imminent attack?
Of course, they should do exactly what they did. And, thankfully, no chemical weapons were used against our advancing forces. But that doesn't change the intelligence information or the fears we had about it.
Q But not only were not chemical weapons used, none have been found. And that's really what is giving rise to this concern, not just in this country but in other countries, as well, about what seems to be a gap between the urgency and the imminence of the threat that was described by the President and others. And now, not only what has not been found, but what we're hearing from the President and from the Secretary of State that really what Iraq had was programs, capabilities.
MR. FLEISCHER: Programs, of course. And programs in and of themselves give rise to tremendous concern. But it's the weapons, themselves, as well as you heard from Dr. Rice and from Secretary Powell yesterday and as the President has previously stated.
Q So the President and the White House remain convinced that actual weapons, warheads with deadly substances in them ready to be fired, will be found in Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: You heard it yesterday. You heard it today. You say "ready to be fired," the exact condition of the weaponry remains to be seen. And that's why we have the teams of experts and specialists on the ground to review it.
Q Ari, on North Korea, they now say they want to -- they need nuclear weapons so that they can cut their military and devote more money to the economy, the collapsing economy. Is that a valid reason?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the statement shows an interesting glimpse -- for North Korea to be acknowledging what the world knows, and that is that they have created a circumstance where their own people are suffering as a result of the decisions that the government has made that deprives the people the basic resources they need.
Perhaps from this glimpse of North Korea acknowledging that its own people suffer as a result of North Korea policies, it will help North Korea to now make the right decisions. And the right decisions are to put their people first, to feed their people, to get health care to their people knowing that the world would be willing to help them. But North Korea needs to fully and immediately dismantle their nuclear weapons program. That's the best way to feed their people and to protect their people.
The greatest threat to the security of the people of North Korea comes from the government of North Korea that starves its own people.
Q Are we getting any closer to more talks, five-way talks?
MR. FLEISCHER: The conversations continue. The President has been heartened by what he has heard in the meetings that he's had with Prime Minister Koizumi and the other leaders in the region. And we're still in the consultative process with the other leaders in the neighborhood, including South Korea and China, to determine the next steps and the exact modalities for them.
Q When you were asked this morning about the Senate passage of the bill broadening the child credit you said the President thought it was a good idea and that he wants to sign that legislation. Given your position that income tax cuts should be primarily focused on income taxpayers, what does the President think is a good idea about this? And what is his message to House Republicans who clearly are balking at putting something like this through, at least without attaching it to a broader package of tax --
MR. FLEISCHER: The President, as I said two weeks ago when the original tax bill was passed, the President would have signed that bill had the low income provision been a part of it. He was willing to sign it, he supported it, he would have signed it.
Today, the Senate -- or just last week the Senate has acted and they have passed a provision that now narrowly targets the low income workers. And the President believes it's a good idea to provide this to them, to provide this assistance to them. He will sign it if it comes to him -- he hopes it will come to him. He supports it, he thinks it's good policy.
Now, it doesn't change the economic facts, and I think it is important for people to just recognize there is no difference and the two are consistent, to describe tax relief, income tax relief for people who pay income taxes, which is a separate matter from this program, which represents going above and beyond income tax relief and is really an assistance program to help low income workers.
The President has a long record of being supportive of such programs -- for example, his support for the earned income tax credit, which is a similar type program.
Q What does he say to House Republicans who don't want to do this?
MR. FLEISCHER: His advice to the House Republicans is to pass it, to send it to him so he can sign it. He understands they're going to take a look at some other tax matters. That's their prerogative. But he wants to make certain that this does not get slowed down, bogged down. He wants to sign it.
Q Ari, for each President there have been -- there's something that defines their presidency, either one thing or many things. Could the issue that weapons of mass destruction have not been found be one of those defining issues for this presidency?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the American people decide what the defining issues are. And I think when you hear from the American people, they tell you that they -- for an overwhelming majority is very glad of the actions that the President took. They believe that the world and the United States are safer because Saddam Hussein has been deposed from power. And I think that they share the President's assessment about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and weapons programs, and they, too, have confidence that it will ultimately be found and the truth will be revealed. I think there's an interesting lesson here on patience. The President has it, he will continue to have it.
Q Ari, on -- somewhat on Iraq. Many soldiers who are there now who are dealing with the hostilities over there are saying that the issue of warring is being down played here on U.S. soil and from the White House. And they're calling home, saying, look, I don't know what they're talking about, but we're still in battle, we are still war.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q What do you say about that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I assure you it's not down played by the White House. It's very realistic in the White House, and that's why the President, Secretary Rumsfeld, General Franks and Ambassador Bremer are working so hard on the security plan. That's why you've seen -- DOD can brief you on more of the details of it -- but the increase of troops in Falluja and from other places in areas north of Baghdad, primarily.
When you look at Iraq broadly and the entire country, you'll see that there are many, many areas that are generally pacified, where generally there is a large involvement or a significant involvement of the Iraqi population in governing themselves, in the food distribution programs, in the development of port activities of a peaceful nature. In large areas of Baghdad, that's the case, too. There are, indeed, pockets of Baghdad that are still highly dangerous, and this is where some of the recent attacks have taken place.
And then there are cities, predominantly a little bit north of Baghdad, and more in the Sunni areas, that are, indeed, hostile and dangerous. And that's why the security plan that DOD is implementing is drawn up with an eye toward protecting our forces. Of course it remains dangerous. It remains warlike conditions for those people in those areas.
Q You said the key here is patience, the President has it and will continue to have it. Some who urged weapons inspections to continue and urged patience at that time are asking why is the President asking them for patience now, when he didn't have patience before the weapons inspectors?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's a good question. And there's one major difference. For those who asked for patience before, they were never, ever going to find anything so long as Saddam Hussein was in power. No one would talk to them, no one would provide them with any information, there were no documents or papers to go through. Indeed, the only thing there was were threats of death to anybody who cooperated with the inspectors.
So more patience would have led to more opportunities for Saddam Hussein to conceal, to deny, to delay and to continue to be a danger and a menace. With Saddam Hussein gone, the entire apparatus has changed to one now where over time we will be able to look at the documents, we will be able to search the sites. None of that could have been doable or possible with Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq. It's a simple difference.
Q Anything new on the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein, either alive or dead?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, nothing new to report.
Q Does the U.S. support having the international inspectors go back in and do the full-fledged search that they were trying to do before the war started?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, that full-fledged search is well underway now as a result of the increasing involvement of the coalition.
Q But that's primarily with U.S. personnel --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q -- not IAEA, which has a very limited role right now.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the IAEA is different. The IAEA is going in, that's the International Atomic Energy --
MR. FLEISCHER: They're going in to look at the nuclear facility.
Q Right. Just to make certain that the facility is intact?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. The search for WMD involves biological and chemical, which was not headed by IAEA.
Q Well, why not have the other agency go in and be able to work without any --
MR. FLEISCHER: Because IAEA is going in to take a look at actual inventoried items that they, themselves, knew precisely where they were, what their status was, because they inventoried them. That wasn't the case with the chemical and biological. What the United Nations concluded about the chemical and biological is he had tons of it -- anthrax, VX, sarin -- but it was not accounted for. They had accounted for these nuclear materials. And that's why the difference.
Q But if, indeed, the threat was imminent before we went in, in the middle of March, why not have as many people as possible on the ground, regardless of their affiliation, to find these weapons? Because the last thing that you want is to have them get into --
MR. FLEISCHER: Because the coalition is leading this effort and will continue to do so, for those reasons.
Q Is it enough people?
MR. FLEISCHER: It is. And the DOD will make continued judgements, as we work with the agencies, about the ebb and the flow of it. And they make those decisions.
Q You alluded to the fact that the U.S. revamp the force that is in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. Was there some sense along the way that the U.S. wasn't going about this in the most effective way, that there was something wrong with the initial force? Why the change?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the initial force was focused on security. The initial force was focused on fighting and winning a war. And the skills of a lieutenant, of a sergeant, of large numbers of military people who went in, they're trained to fight and win wars. That's their mission.
Q But is --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's their mission. And then there were smaller teams of more expert people who had capacity, who had knowledge, who had some tools to go in and look at these sites. And now, as you can imagine in the aftermath of the war, it's easier to flow in. There are more experts, more people with this knowledge and ability to review documents, to talk to people. Talking to people requires people with the language skills. And so this is an evolving set of circumstances, and we reconfigure our forces to match it.
Q So you're saying it was security and, sort of, logistical constraints that kept the U.S. from having more a vigorous force to look for WMD in the early days after the war?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the purpose of sending forces into Iraq was to defeat Saddam Hussein's military and win a war -- just take the land, to take the ground, to free the people, and in the process deny the Iraqi regime the ability to ever again use its weapons of mass destruction. That was the purpose of the bulk of the force.
Now, of course, the mission changes as part of the post-war effort. And I think that's very understandable and the natural course in which the different phases of the war in the aftermath of the war flow.
Q Now, any sense of how long this process should take? I mean, are there any limits to the President's patience?
MR. FLEISCHER: Just like reconstruction, it will take as long as is necessary and not a day longer. It will take whatever it takes. And keep in mind, we've always said and continue to say, one of the key groups that information has come from before was the scientists working on the programs. And we continue to talk to those -- especially the medium-level scientists. And that will continue to happen. And I think as people inside Iraq grow increasingly comfortable with the notion that Saddam Hussein is out of power, even though we don't yet know where he is, or if he's dead or if he's alive, that -- the more certainty people have will result in better information.
Q You had -- to follow on the child tax rate question, do you want that passed as a stand-alone bill? You had mentioned the House has other tax priorities. Or do you want it mingled with those priorities?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President will work with Congress on this. The House has some thoughts and some ideas, but the point is the President does not want it to get bogged down or slowed down. He wants to have it passed so he can sign it. So we'll see what the House is thinking, we'll see what the House is working on. But the bottom line remains the same for the President, it's a good idea. These families deserve help, and he wants to give it to them.
Q And he wants it passed. He doesn't want it delayed and passed. He wants it passed swiftly, any assistance that --
MR. FLEISCHER: -- to get it --
Q -- assistance that they want --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, as I said, the House has prerogatives; they're going to work it through two. There are two bodies. The President is respectful of both of them. But the bottom line remains the same, he thinks it's a good idea. And these people deserve help and relief. And it should be passed into law.
Q Why weren't these changes included in the President's original plans?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the original plan was sent to the Congress knowing that Congress would have its own ideas. And as part of the coming together, as worked with the Congress, there would be room for us to listen to some of the initiatives that came from the Hill. That's often how these things are best done.
Q So he supported it, but didn't propose it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Obviously, he supported it. I told you when the bill was passed, the President would have signed it.
Q But in terms of making an initial statement of his priorities --
MR. FLEISCHER: There are many items, there are many items that will, in the give-and-take with the Congress get added in the course of a bill. That's why when the President announces legislation he typically says, I want to work with the Congress on it. That's kind of sending a signal to the Congress that it's not take-it-or-leave-it, it's, you have a role to play, we want to hear your thoughts and ideas. That's how progress gets made.
Q Ari, you said this morning that you were encouraged by the start that the Senate has made on Medicare, that they've moved forward with the proposal. But I'm wondering, is it still the policy of the administration as expressed by Scully, the head of the Medicare system, that the White House does not support that proposal?
MR. FLEISCHER: The White House does not support?
Q The Senate proposal that Grassley and Baucus have worked out?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's still very early in the process. And the process is beginning on all the right notes. The actions that look like will take place in the Senate Finance Committee Thursday are heartening, in that Democrats and Republicans are coming together to get prescription drugs to seniors. And that's, from a process point of view, a good result.
Now, this is going to be legislation that has many different pieces to it, many different formulas to it, many complexities to it. And we're going to work with Congress on each of the intricacies of the legislation. But at its core, what the President is focused on is getting more choices, better benefits and prescription drugs to our nation's seniors. And that's what it looks like may happen this year.
Q But Scully did not mis-speak. You do oppose that initial --
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't seen all his remarks in complete context, so I can't go beyond that.
Q But you could tell me if you support that or oppose that proposal?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, it's exactly as I said. This is the beginning of a process. There are going to be a lot of different ideas that come off the Hill, and we're going to work with the Congress to get it done.
Q Can I have just one more quick one. On the Texas legislators thing, you said that this morning that you're not aware of anybody in the White House that had contacts with officials in Texas about finding the Democrats. Have you asked people in the White House to make you aware of that? Have you asked for any information internally, other than your conversation that you mentioned with Rove?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think there's no need for us to go into a fishing expedition on something where I've talked with the people who are mostly appropriate on this, and they have told me they had no contacts or received any contacts.
Q Ari, is the President concerned that in the Middle East while Arafat may be out of the visible picture, he's still pulling some strings from being the scenes? And that while we've gotten rid of him as a negotiator, he's still a problem for us?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President's point of view is that if Yasser Arafat had wanted peace, peace would have been achieved years ago; that Yasser Arafat had his chance; Yasser Arafat is an obstacle to peace; and that Yasser Arafat lied to the President about an extraordinarily serious situation, because it involved a shipment of weapons to terrorists that Yasser Arafat said he had nothing to do with, had no knowledge of, when it was proven that he was involved in it.
Q Is he still involved, Ari? Do we feel as though he's really --
MR. FLEISCHER: As far as President Bush is concerned, the answer is, no. And the more people around the world who think he's not involved, the better the prospects for peace.
Now, as far as the Palestinian people, it's a much more complicated issue, of course. Yasser Arafat does play a role within the Palestinian Authority. That is a role that Prime Minister Abbas has to work through and with. And President Bush understands that. But the President believes the best way to actually have peace in the Middle East is to have somebody in the Palestinian Authority who is dedicated to peace, not dedicated to support of terrorists.
Q Ari, question on HIV and AIDS, which is now on the rise around the globe, especially in Africa. Tomorrow Ugandan leader will be here meeting with President Bush. Once President said that Uganda is a model as far as HIV and AIDS is concerned. Do you think he will use his words that he can use Uganda for education around the globe, especially in Africa?
MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question, when you take a look at the AIDS pandemic all around Africa, Uganda is one of the leading nations in fighting this. Uganda has education programs. Uganda has prevention programs. Uganda has an openness in this discussion of AIDS with its own people. All of which has led to a better condition in Uganda than in much of the rest of Africa, or in many other places in Africa -- particularly sub-Saharan Africa.
So the President looks very much forward to this visit tomorrow. The President believes very deeply in the importance of America's help, America's generosity, and America's caring for people who suffer in Africa from AIDS and around the world from AIDS. And this is an exciting new initiative that has been signed into law -- $15 billion over five years to help not only in Africa, but also in some Caribbean nations to fight this pandemic.
Q Any announcements at that meeting?
MR. FLEISCHER: The meeting is tomorrow. We'll see.
Q Ari, last week, after the Senate passed the fix to the child credit thing, Senator Grassley was asked basically what happened, why did it get dropped during the conference negotiations. And he described what he called a disjointed conference. And he said that it had to do with him, Bill Thomas, the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and Vice President Cheney. Today, you're standing here and you're speaking quite eloquently in favor of getting this fix to the child credit thing done more quickly. Why didn't the Vice President make a stronger case for inclusion of that during the negotiations last month?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, for all the reasons that I gave you a couple of weeks ago. It was a $350 billion package. And now, interesting to note, additional -- that it is still scored as tax relief in some areas. Tax relief can be available to the American people, which is all to the well and good.
Q But just if I may follow. There's two questions. Number one,
is this a lesser priority than some of the other provisions that the President asked for? And I'd also point out that the Senate paid for the package with customs fees.
MR. FLEISCHER: These are all important priorities to the President. This package was a jobs and growth package. And the President is very pleased that it was passed into law, signed into law. It's coming at a very propitious moment for the economy, as there are increasing signs of economic growth. The President would like to see more of them. But there have been several recent new indications of growth. And there remains to be seen whether these will last for a considerable period of time.
But that tax relief plan that was passed that the President signed was the right plan that did the right things throughout the tax-paying universe -- for small businesses and for income taxpayers, combined with the 2001 act which focused heavily on tax relief for low-income Americans. Obviously, the low rate was already locked in at the lowest rate possible. It was already down at the 10 percent rate.
Q And if I could, I want to follow on the WMD question. Is there any concern within the administration, given some of the looting that happened in the immediate aftermath and the chaos, that some of the -- that we may not know where these weapons are, but others might have and they may have been smuggled out of the country?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, on the smuggled out of the country question, again, there's nothing concrete that I can report about anything that would support that argument. We have seen some indications that some of it may have been destroyed, of course. But that's exactly why the team is beefing up and ramping up, going over there in increasing numbers to ascertain all of this. And it will -- we are plenty confident it will all make itself clear and will support just what you've heard the administration say repeatedly and just what you've heard previous administrations say previously.
Q Ari, two-part. Since both you and the President surely must believe in the importance to this nation of a media that is both free and honest, and since The New York Times has forced the resignations of editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd for allowing so many Jayson Blair lies into print, my question: you don't blame The Times for doing this, even though The Washington Post failed to fire Ben Bradley for allowing as many Janet Cooke lies into print, do you, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, Lester, when you asked this question a couple weeks about something that --
Q (Inaudible.) (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: No, no, no, you asked a --
Q -- aired them yet.
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, I was about to praise you. (Laughter.) First time I've heard something silence you. (Laughter.) You asked about this topic a couple weeks ago when you brought up the Jayson Blair stories. And I said at the time that this is, indeed, a serious matter and that The New York Times is taking it seriously.
I'm not going to make any comments about personnel matters at The New York Times, but I go back to what I said before: it's a serious matter and I think The New York Times is taking it seriously.
Q Okay. Since the Palestinian Authority has done no more to fulfill its obligations to the road map than it did for the Oslo Accords, and since yesterday's killings of five Israeli soldiers, my question is, can you cite any reason why, with the road map completely road blocked, that the President should not end his exemption of Palestinian terrorists from his promise of war on all terrorists?
MR. FLEISCHER: The road map is just beginning. The road map is just being implemented.
Q What have they done? What have the Palestinians done to fulfil any of the requirements of last month for the road map?
MR. FLEISCHER: When you take a look at the statements that have been made by the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, this President --
Q Statements? That's --
MR. FLEISCHER: This is exactly how the road map was designed to begin. The Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority is determined to work with the United States and the Arab nations to rebuild their security forces so that he can, indeed, live up to the terms of the road map, which involve cracking down and dismantling terrorism. The President has confidence that over time, with the help of the United States and the help of the Arab nations and the help of Israel, that Prime Minister Abbas is the best hope for implementing the terms of the road map.
This is an issue that has always been fraught with extremists who seek to derail the road map. What is important now is that the Palestinian Authority is led by someone who is not an extremist, but somebody who is dedicated to implementing the road map. And the President will continue to work with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, despite the recent violence, to help them to implement the peacemaking sides of the road map.
Q Ari, one of the most vocal of the administration officials in emphasizing unambiguously that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was the Vice President. And, particularly, he was putting forward this -- what was later seen to be forged evidence about the letter indicating purchase of yellow cake from Niger. Can you tell me, at what point did the Vice President know that this evidence or suspected that this evidence was forged in this process?
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't talked specifically to the Vice President about it, so I can't answer specifically, from his point of view. What I can tell you is, is the American intelligence community, as the information was received about the forgeries behind this, very frankly, spoke up and said that this information was incorrect.
Q Can you tell me also, Ari, what role the Office of the Vice President or people from the Vice President's office -- like Mr. Libby or others -- played in putting together the package which was presented to the United Nations, trying to justify the attack on Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, you need to talk to them specifically about what role they played. But as has been discussed on numerous occasions, the Vice President, whether it be the Secretary of Defense or as Vice President, it is in his capacity, and we are a better administration for it, works carefully with the intelligence community, works carefully with all the agencies involved in the defense of our country to work with them to make certain that we are all working together, we're doing our best to implement the policies of this President.
And the President values him highly in that capacity, in that role. He is very effective and he delves deep into what the agencies are working on, no matter where they are, to make certain that we are working from the best policies possible. And that's a very strong role he plays, and the President is appreciative for it.
Q Ari, who is taking the lead in Iraq on investigating the waterways to do the requisite testing to see where chemical weapons materials and poisons were dumped in Iraq, the possible quantity that were dumped, where they were dumped? Who is taking the lead on that, and when might we expect to have some sort of status report on that particular situation, on the dumping of chemical weaponry material, poisons into the Iraq waterways?
MR. FLEISCHER: Just as during the conflict itself, DOD still is the lead agency involving many of the operational findings and matters that are there. That's really the group that you need to address these specific questions to.
Q The President hasn't received any kind of report from DOD yet on that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I wouldn't know if he did or if he didn't. But if you're asking publicly, who is the agency that is responsible, that's the best place to get your answer.
Q Attorney General Ashcroft has made it clear that he wants even broader investigative powers to involve himself in the fight against terrorism than he currently has. Has he discussed this with the President and does the President agree with that? And what sort of broader investigative powers could he possibly be looking for?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President thinks it's important to always review the status of our ability to fight the war on terrorism, because it's an ongoing issue against opponents who quickly realize what strengths we have and then design ways to get around our strengths to exploit potential weaknesses. And this is something that I think will be with us for quite some time. And this will also be, of course, done with an eye toward maintaining civil liberties and Constitutional protections. And this is where it's very important to continue discuss these matters with members of Congress in both parties who have important thoughts about this.
And so it would not surprise me for Attorney General Ashcroft to work with members of Congress, to think through the Patriot Act, and to think about any items that can be strengthened, or improved, or changed.
Q That's fine, but his assertion is he wants broader powers. Does the President agree with him that he merits broader powers?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President wants to work closely with members of Congress on anything that will help strengthen our ability to fight terrorism, and it depends on the specifics and we'll work with Congress on those.
Q Okay, one more thing if I may. I think you all were gone when the Inspector General's report came out questioning some of the methods in dealing with the immigrants. A question in the -- does the President have any feelings or statement about that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I would refer you to what the Department of Justice said when that report came out.
Q The latest tax cut relieved 10 million low-income Americans of paying any federal income tax. The child tax credit that will likely be passed will result in a minority of Americans who will pay 100 percent of all federal income taxes. Where's the fairness in that, and it isn't that a dangerous precedent to set?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well it's the very nature of our progressive income tax system. In a progressive income tax system such as that our country has, any time you lower marginal income tax rates, there will be a group of Americans at the bottom of the economic income paying level who will be relieved of the burden of paying any income taxes. And under our generous system there are, indeed, Americans -- several million of them -- who not only will pay no income tax, they will get money back from income taxpayers.
And so it's above and beyond what they would have paid. And this is part of the earned income tax credit program. This is part of the way the child credit is now administered. And it is the reality of how our tax code works. The President supports these measures because the President thinks that for people who are struggling to make it from lower income into lower-middle income and into middle income, this is a helpful way to help them to work up the economic ladder. But it is a given in our progressive income tax system. When you cut income tax rates, there will be people who will no longer have to pay any income taxes. They have little income, however.
Q Ari, there are millions are conservative supporters of the President who have signed letters protesting this road map for peace. Does the President see these letters, and does he give any consideration to this important constituent base of his?
MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question the President is aware of the risks to the road map. And the risks of the road map come principally from both edges of the debate. And, of course, within Israel there will be many people who oppose the dismantlement of these illegal outposts. But these are the actions that are required to be taken for Israel and Palestine to live side by side in peace and security.
And never stop asking yourself the question when it comes to the Middle East, how much longer can Israel and the Palestinian Authority live the way they are, with violence, with killing, with retaliation. Israel has the right to defend itself. But is there a better way? Is there a way that Israel and a Palestinian Authority can finally, at long last, live side by side as Israel and as a Palestinian state?
There have been Arab nations that have made peace treaties with Israel, and have honored them -- Egypt has, Jordan has. Why does anybody have to assume that the Palestinian people don't want the same thing? There are terrorists who don't want it. And the terrorists are the enemy, not only of peace, but of the creation of a Palestinian state. And that's why the President welcomes the words and is now looking for the results in the actions of the new Palestinian leader, as well as Prime Minister Sharon.
Q Do you know if President Bush plan a direct response to these letters or plans to meet with any of these conservative leaders?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's response is widely known. The President is dedicated to implementing the road map.
Q Ari, does the President feel the members of his own party might be interfering with or usurping executive branch authority or powers by, A, Tom DeLay involving the Homeland Security Department, Justice Department, Transportation Department in the Texas legislature situation? And, B, Senator Craig putting a hold on Air Force promotions?
MR. FLEISCHER: The question of holds is a long-lasting Senate tradition that often can be problematic. And it's part of working with the Senate and helping the Senate to make progress, particularly on the question of appointments and nominees.
On the first question you asked, as you know, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Transportation are reviewing all the facts and circumstances in this matter. And that's where it lies.
Q Well, on the Craig putting the hold on the Air Force promotions, you have complained repeatedly about Democrats blocking judicial -- the progress of judicial nominees. What's the difference?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that there is, in the case of the judicial nominees, a determination to at all costs block even a vote on the floor, with no end in sight, and that's why it's a filibuster. On the question of holds, we have seen holds come and go before. Holds are often lifted that results in a vote. If the Democrats were to relieve the filibuster and allow a vote to take place, then I think you would have an analogous situation. That's the difference between holds, frankly, and a filibuster.
Q What effect is the Craig maneuvering having on the Air Force?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, the President is always entitled to have a full team in place at all levels of appointments. And you have to just work these issues through with the Senate. I'll see if there's anything more specific on these for you. I may have something more on that tomorrow. I'll just have to ask.
Q A follow up on the road map question. The terrorist group Hamas says it will not cooperate with Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas. What does that mean for the road map? Is that going to be a failure?
MR. FLEISCHER: Hamas' refusal to cooperate is a real setback for the Palestinian people, who deserve a state. This is why these terrorist groups not only are a threat to the security and to the lives of the Israeli people, but to the health, the welfare and the well being of the Palestinian people. That is why these terrorist groups are such a risk, and that's why Prime Minister Abbas is a welcome leader in the region. And he needs to be supported. He needs the help that he deserves in order to be able to dismantle these groups.
Q Ari, there is a report saying that there has been an increase of drug trafficking in the United States, especially heroin that has already replaced cocaine. And some people in the DEA are saying it's because the administration has put more attention on the fight against terrorism than on the fight against drugs. And there is other people who say it is the failure of the Mexican authorities to cooperate, and the Colombian authorities. What is the situation -- what does the White House thinks of it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this is an ongoing battle against drugs. And the President wants to fight it at two levels -- one on the demand side and the second on the supply side. The President's budget included millions of dollars to help provide programs to fight drug abuse in the United States. And if you remember in the President's State of the Union address, he announced a new program to conquer addiction, a $600 million program that is now making its way through the Congress that the President hopes will be passed.
Then on the supply side, we continue to work closely with Mexico, Colombia and with other nations to provide them with assistance and training. And the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency, is involved in helping with the eradication of the supply. So it has to be fought on both fronts, and it continues to be fought on both fronts.
Q What did the President hear about the economy this morning during his Cabinet meeting? Can you share some of the details?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there have been a series of private-sector formulations, or projections about growth in the second half of this year. The Secretary of Treasury presented to the President information about growth projections for the second half of this year, which will be at a rate significantly higher than the present growth rates.
In other words, the trend for growth appears to be going up. It's a question of how far up and how fast. It's also a question of, we've heard similar projections in the past that did not materialize. And so this does remain an economy that has mixed signals. But the President is receiving increasing signs from both the private sector and from the government that there are positive signs, particularly now with the boost that the economy is going to get as a result of the tax relief package that was signed into law.
As a result of that, income tax rates will be lowered beginning in, mostly likely, some time mid-summer to late summer. And, therefore, Americans who will benefit will receive greater take-home pay in their paychecks this summer as a result of the lowering of the income tax rates for those who are affected.
And in addition, when the child credit relief goes out, tax checks go out, there will be some $25 million American families with children who will receive checks for a few hundred dollars to boost the economy, to give a stimulus to the economy, for these families to use as they see fit. And that will take place also this summer. So it's a double dose of stimulus to the economy just at the right time.
Q Two things on that. The tax bill cut, the President's own personal income tax bill, $26,000. I'm wondering what does he plan to do with the extra cash? (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't asked him.
Q Second question. You said in April that the war was about weapons of mass destruction. The war resulted in tens of thousands of innocent civilian deaths -- thousands of innocent civilian deaths, according to The Los Angeles Times. Do you personally feel any remorse, given the public case that's being made that this war was based on that false pretext?
MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, you have no basis to say that it's a false pretext. Number two, I think when you take a look at all the mass graves that have been discovered all around Iraq, I think the world breathes a sigh of relief that a brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein, who had no regard for human rights, has been removed from power so that the Iraqi people can, at long last, have a life and build a future that's based on freedom and opportunity and not on tyranny.
Q But you said it was based on weapons of mass destruction, the war was based on weapons --
MR. FLEISCHER: And that still stands, as you've heard earlier in the conversation.
Q Ari, U.S. troops are training a new police force in Baghdad. That's a very different skill, though, than most U.S. soldiers are trained for. How are U.S. soldiers being retrained for that new job? Or is it a, sort of, learn-as-they-go process?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you need to talk to DOD about the specific units that they're using to work with the Iraqi police and to rebuild or reconstitute an Iraqi police force. They can advise you what the history of any one of those units is. It's also important -- and this is why it's going to take time on the security side -- to recognize that the police in Iraq were not like the police in the United States. The police in the United States maintain traffic. They help families. They deal with domestic disputes. They obviously go into violent situations where there are criminals. The police in Iraq were also known for rounding up people, taking them away, and then never being seen again.
And so all of this requires a change of thinking where the Iraqi people start to see Iraqi police, knowing that the police are their allies -- not their enemies. And this is another reason why the rebuilding of Iraq will, indeed, take time. Saddam Hussein created an entire infrastructure of torture, of tyranny, of neglect -- a neglect of the basic needs of the Iraqi people, which is why the electricity is coming on, but coming on slower than we would have hoped. It's because of the neglect and the abuse and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. These are the real-life, on-the-ground issues that the Iraqi people are starting to look at in a different light. And that takes time.
Q -- U.S. soldiers are now playing that role, are they properly trained to --
MR. FLEISCHER: You need to ask DOD. I don't know the names of the specific units that's doing it.
Q Ari, the President has repeatedly said that he's ready to lead the peace process in implementing the road map, what are the next steps for him? I mean he's now made a big step by presenting himself there in person. What happens next? He talked about a team that will be put on the ground.
MR. FLEISCHER: Right.
Q When is that going to happen, who are we going to see there?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, what's next has already started if you noticed. I've reported to you several of the phone calls that the President has made since his return from the Middle East. He talked to President Aznar -- Prime Minister Aznar today. He has spoken with Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and with Tony Blair. And he's talking to the European leaders, of course, who have some role to play in helping the parties in the Middle East to find peace. The President is sharing with these leaders his findings on the trip and talking to them about what they can do to play a productive role.
Of course, at the President's direction, Ambassador Wolf will be going to the region very soon. He is putting together his team, which will focus on security, which will focus on the economy, to be on the ground in a real can-do, focus on implementation and relationship with both the Israelis and the Palestinians. The President will closely monitor his efforts, as well as work directly through Secretary Powell and through National Security Advisor Rice.
And we will work -- the President will work to focus on implementing the next steps, the next steps meaning the increasingly humane treatment of the Palestinians, the dismantling of the illegal outposts, the rebuilding of the Palestinian security so that the Palestinian Authority can indeed fight terror.
Q Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.
END 12:50 P.