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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, January 9, 2003 (Full transcript)

QUESTION: Can we presume that the President is very happy that Mr. Blix says there is no smoking gun in the search for weapons in Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the problem with guns that are hidden is you can't see their smoke. And so we will still await to see what the inspectors find in Iraq and what events in Iraq lead to. The report that we understand was conveyed in the meeting up in New York this morning said that the work of the inspectors is still underway, they continue to gather information. And the report also cited a number of concerns and a number of problems in what Iraq has been doing.

QUESTION: But it wouldn't be disappointing, would it, if there were no weapons there?

MR. FLEISCHER: We know for a fact that there are weapons there. And so -- the inspectors also went on --

QUESTION: What's the search all about if you know it so factually?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me cite to you what was -- what the inspectors have said at the United Nations. And this if from their reports. "In order to create confidence that it has no more weapons of mass destruction and proscribed activities related to such weapons, Iraq must present credible evidence. It cannot just maintain that it must be deemed to be without proscribed items so long as their is no evidence to the contrary."

Now, continuing in the words of the inspectors, "A person accused of illegal possession of weapons may indeed be acquitted for lack of evidence. But if a state which has used such weapons is to create confidence it no longer has any prohibited weapons, it will need to present solid evidence or present remaining items for elimination under supervision."

And they continue, "If evidence is not presented which gives us a high degree of assurance, there is no way the inspectors can close a file by simply invoking a precept that Iraq cannot prove the negative. In such cases, regrettably, they must conclude, as they have done in the past, that the absence of a particular item is not assured."

So while they've said that there's no smoking gun, they said the absence of it is not assured. And that's the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is Iraq is very good at hiding things.

QUESTION: The heart of the problem is there is a lack of confidence in anybody speaking the truth there, isn't that --

MR. FLEISCHER: Are you accusing the inspectors of not speaking the truth when they say that it's not assured?

QUESTION: No, I think they're speaking the truth, and the country won't accept it.

MR. FLEISCHER: So when they say the absence of the particular item is not assured, you accept that as the truth. You agree with the President. I'm very proud.

QUESTION: I mean, the point is, wouldn't you be happy if there were no weapons there?

MR. FLEISCHER: There would be nothing that would make the President happier than there being no weapons in Iraq. And the best way to make certain that there are no weapons in Iraq is for Saddam Hussein to disarm himself of the weapons he has.

QUESTION: The inspectors have also said that there's no deadline to their inspections. They need time. Prime Minister Blair has said that they need time and space, that the January 27th report that they'll deliver should not be seen as any kind of deadline. And Secretary Powell said that, as well. Is this an indication that the President is willing to let the inspectors go at this for a good, long while?

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, I've never heard the President put a time line on it. The President wants the inspectors to continue to do exactly what they are doing, which is to do their level best to carry out the search, given the fact that Iraq has thrown up hurdles and isn't complying in all aspects, continuing with what the inspectors have reported in New York.

They cited a number of issues that are real causes for concern by the United States government. And among the things that the inspectors themselves have said are discrepancies and inconsistencies. These deal with special munitions, illegal imports on a relatively large number of missile engines, contradictions involving the chemical agent VX, inadequate response by Iraq to provide the names of all personnel who have been involved in weapons of mass destruction programs. Indeed, the inspectors found that the list that Iraq provided of who has been involved in the weapons of mass destruction programs left out known names of people who have been involved in the weapons of mass destruction programs.

The inspectors themselves have concluded that Iraq failed to make a serious effort to respond to this information that the world has required. Inspections that the IAEA conducted, which the IAEA, per their rights under the U.N. resolution, asked to be conducted in private without any Iraqi minders were rejected. The inspections could only take place if Iraqi minders were in the room -- hardly a welcoming environment if anybody has information that they want to share. And so there were a number of things that were said that still give cause for concern in this report.

QUESTION: But is the President willing to give the inspectors the time and the space that they say they need, the months that they say they'll need in order to determine the answer to the question?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I have not heard the President put a time line on it. The President has said that he wants the inspectors -- the President has said that he wants the inspectors to be able to do their jobs, to continue their efforts, and that's what we support.

QUESTION: The head of the IAEA said today that the suspect aluminum tubes Iraq has obtained were not used for -- or not suitable for enriching uranium. Do you still maintain that Iraq has an active nuclear weapons program?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let's be clear on what he said. What Mr. ElBaradei has said is, "While the matter is still under investigation and further verification is foreseen -- so it's not a closed matter -- the IAEA's analysis of data indicates that the specifications of the aluminum tubes sought by Iraq in 2001 and 2002 appear to be consistent with the reverse engineering of rockets. While it would be possible to modify such tubes for the manufacture of centrifuges, they are not directly suitable for it. It should be noted, however, that the attempted acquisition of such tubes is prohibited under the United Nations resolutions in any case."

So it remains a cause for concern that they are pursuing acquisition of elements that are banned to them, that have purposes that still can be used for military purposes. And we do have concerns about their potential of developing nuclear programs. As you know, we have always been explicit on this topic. We have always said that we know that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction of a biological nature. We know they have weapons of mass destruction of a chemical nature. We have not said that conclusively about nuclear. We have concerns that they are seeking to acquire and develop them, of course.

QUESTION: And do the Blix statement, the El Baradei statement, do they make it harder for you to persuade world opinion that Iraq is a threat?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think when you hear the list of concerns that Hans Blix and Dr. ElBaradei have delineated about the failure of Iraq to comply fully with all their obligations, it gives ongoing cause for concern to the world. They have said that they have not gotten everything they have sought, they have not gotten everything that they need, that the inspections need to continue. And they also walked the United Nations through how they are now getting more material and more resources themselves so they can better do their jobs, which we were very pleased to hear.

QUESTION: Ari, going back to the timetable, you said you've never heard the President lay out a timetable. But he said and you've said that January 27th if a very significant day.

MR. FLEISCHER: That's true.

QUESTION: Is it a deadline?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President has not said it's a deadline. The President has said it's --

QUESTION: What do you plan to determine by January 27th?

MR. FLEISCHER: We will hear from the inspectors. So we want to hear what the inspectors are able to find about their abilities in Iraq to find and pursue whether or not Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, and to ascertain what type of compliance Iraq has been providing to the inspectors.

QUESTION: So your expectation is that they will be able to give you that information in just the next couple of weeks?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's an important reporting date. And we will see what the inspectors have to say in this three-week period.

QUESTION: And if they say, we need months more to go do our jobs?

MR. FLEISCHER: I can't speculate. Let's see what they say.

QUESTION: Well, presumably, we're not sending thousands of troops to the region, spending millions of dollars deploying them now if the administration is willing to let them sit there and twiddle their thumbs for six months while the inspectors do their job.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the fact is that the presence of the military has an effective influence on diplomacy and making sure that Saddam Hussein understands that he needs to comply, because if he doesn't, the United States has the means and the ability to make him comply.

QUESTION: So that's why the troops are there now, to send that message?

MR. FLEISCHER: It certainly does send that message. And the President has said that either Saddam Hussein disarms, or we will disarm him. It's a serious message.

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QUESTION: Secondly, Ari, Turkey has indicated that they will not let at this point U.S. bases be established there. You had the red carpet treatment from Mr. Ervogan several weeks ago, and he indicated that Turkey may change its position. Now public opinion is very much against any military action in Iraq and the government has taken consideration for that. Isn't this coalition which was envisioned in the beginning kind of falling apart with the Turkish situation?

MR. FLEISCHER: I would say that the United States and Turkey have a very common interest in making certain that any security threat from the Iraqi regime is neutralized. And we have an interest in working together to foster political and economic stability in the region. The United States and Turkey have long enjoyed a very healthy and good strategic relationship, diplomatic relationship, and economic relationship. We continue to coordinate very closely with Turkey on the best approach to issues in the region and we will continue to do so.

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QUESTION: Ari, Prime Minister Blair is facing growing dissent within his own Labor Party over possible military action with us against Iraq if there is no actual smoking gun. Are we concerned that this dissent could bubble over and in some way hamper or restrict our options of dealing with Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think the United States and Great Britain have been working shoulder to shoulder on a common approach to confronting the threat to peace that Iraq presents. The President continues to work very closely with Prime Minister Blair. He remains a very good ally, a very good representative of the people of Britain, all the people of Britain, and we will continue our relationship. It's been a very healthy and productive one for both sides.

QUESTION: -- that the time that is elapsing is really an ally or a foe in dealing with Iraq? It seems as we go along further and further down the road, any --

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm really not sure that, when you talk about the time elapsing, that the President never said that there was a timetable here where on January 9th something had to happen or not happen. That's not how the President has ever approached this. The timetable is actually unfolding very much as the President sought when the President went to New York, I think, on September 12th and went to the United Nations. The inspectors have returned to Iraq; they are in the middle of conducting their business. And the President is appreciative to them for their efforts.

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