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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, January 17, 2003 (Full transcript)

Q The inspectors in Iraq don't appear to be putting as much importance on the finding of these 12 rocket canisters as the United States is. Why are these units that distressing to you? And are you certain that they were not in any of the accounting, as Iraq says they were, in the declaration of the last month?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, the inspectors' role, as they're fulfilling it properly, is to comply -- to seek Iraqi compliance with the resolution. Their mission is to inspect and to verify and to dismantle. The United States, members of the Security Council, have the right to judge the actions that they're taking. I'm not aware of any statements that have been made by the inspectors to the contrary.

We're continuing to work with UNMOVIC and the United Nations Security Council to obtain additional relevant information about what they discovered yesterday. Here's what we do know to date. The chemical warheads found by the inspectors were not -- not -- on the declared list that Iraq provided to the world indicating what weapons it said it possessed. The fact that Iraq is in possession of undeclared chemical warheads, which the United Nations says are in excellent condition, is and of itself a serious and troubling matter.

Q Ari, how did you determine that the canisters are not in the declaration? Did somebody go through the whole 12,000 pages --

MR. FLEISCHER: Went back and looked through the declaration, and I think it is an easy matter to review. If somebody wants to make the contention that the 12 chemical warheads discovered at this facility, this late '90s-constructed bunker just outside Baghdad is in the declaration, the burden is on them to show what page it's on and to cite the reference.

The United States government has very thoroughly -- and we're familiar with the declaration -- gone through it very, very carefully to see whether or not the existence of these 12 warheads at this bunker was in the declaration. It was not. And I think also it's fair to say if it had been in the declaration, there's not a person in this room who wouldn't have known it because you would have remembered it, because it would have been a very significant declaration that they are indeed in possession today of chemical warheads. They kept saying they were not.

Q So does this constitute the smoking gun, Ari?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's troubling and it's serious, is exactly as I've characterized it. The President is continuing to work with our allies, consulting with our allies. The inspectors' efforts remain underway. More information about this very discovery needs to be carried out -- needs to be obtained. The inspectors are doing their job, and we'll see what the rest of their job entails in terms of what knowledge is gained from the additional information that we are all seeking about these warheads.

Q Can I ask another Iraq related question? This weekend, there are some more anti-war demonstrations planned in various parts of the country. Is the President troubled by these manifestations of dissent?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President welcomes the fact that we are a democracy and people in the United States, unlike Iraq, are free to protest and to make their case known. And that's a time-honored part of American tradition, and the President fully understands it. It's a strength of our democracy.

Q Is he worried about going to war with a sizeable percentage of the population not supporting him?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not sure that it's fair to say that it's sizeable. I think it is anybody's guess. But there are equal numbers of people who -- larger numbers of people who, of course, are very much in support of what the President is doing. I think the fact of the matter is, most people who support what the President is doing are not going to take the street to say disarm Saddam Hussein.

Break in Press Briefing

Q Secretary Rumsfeld says the President has not made a case for war. Does the President plan to make his case or such a case, and if so, when? And I have a follow-up.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, if the President does decide that war is the only option to protect the American people and the region and the world from Saddam Hussein who has not disarmed, the President will, of course, make a case to the American people about that. The President recognizes that our democracy does not go to war without all the issues being explored by the American people with the active leadership of the President of the United States. And so, of course, if he makes that judgment, he will do so.

Q The follow-up is that British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a news conference earlier this week that he would not allow the United Nations to act as a veto to any war if the war should come. Does the President feel the same way?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has made very plain -- he said this in private conversations with many of our allies that we will continue to consult. And that is precisely what we will do. We will continue to consult. And the President appreciated very much the United Nations Security Council action in November that put the inspectors back in there. And I'm not prepared to make any guesses on speculations about what other actions may or may not be taken beyond that.

Q Does the administration plan to take the chemical warheads issue to the Security Council, or press it in any way before the U.N.?

MR. FLEISCHER: I have not heard any discussion about that specifically, no.

Q So at this point, you're going to wait for the 27th before the next round of discussions before the Security Council about Iraq compliance?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think what we will continue to look for is whether or not Saddam Hussein is disarming. And obviously, the discovery of 12 chemical warheads is proof that he has not disarmed, especially when you consider the fact that, for the purpose of letting the world know whether he had disarmed, he filed a declaration saying that he did not have weapons. He also filed a declaration that did not include these 12 warheads at the bunker. And now we know, of course, that he has them.

Q There's a wire report that Secretary Powell is telling a German paper that by the end of the month it will be proven that Iraq is not cooperating. Does the U.S. have some plan to lay out some evidence before the end of the month?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated, the President and members of his administration will continue to talk to the public about this matter. There's no question Saddam Hussein has not cooperated, and I can cite for you some of the statements that were made by Dr. Blix, for example: We feel Iraq must do more than they have done so far in order to make this a credible avenue -- the message we want to bring to Baghdad is the situation is very tense and very dangerous, and everybody wants to see a verified and credible disarmament of Iraq. That's when he added, we feel Iraq must do more than they have done so far to make this a credible avenue. I think it's fair to say that the inspectors are finding increased examples of Iraqi failure to comply.

Q Ari, the President, in the days leading up to the adoption of that resolution, spoke in very clear language. He said that this was Saddam Hussein's final chance, that it had to be a full and complete and accurate accounting, and that there would be no deceptions and no games, zero tolerance. You say, in the case of these warheads, he filed a declaration, they were not in there. Unless you see a complete change of heart before that January 27th deadline, is the President prepared to tell his representatives at the United Nations to say, game over?

MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, nobody has called that a deadline, January 27th is an important reporting date. And the President has indeed said that Iraq is entering its final phase. And the President has said time is running out. It's not my place to put words in the President's mouth saying if there's a timetable attached to that. I think Saddam Hussein needs to get the very clear understanding and message from the United States and from the world that he needs to disarm, that this is indeed serious. The timetable for it, Saddam Hussein needs to figure that out. He needs to disarm immediately, and he promised he would do so in the declaration. And as yesterday's discovery shows, what he filed in the declaration is not met by the facts on the ground.

Q Is the President worried as we go through this debate and await the 27th and whatever other decisions the President makes about a timetable, are you worried about the two very different views of how the inspections process is working? You look at this discovery and cast it as -- you haven't used the word, but almost as a failure, saying it's proof that Saddam is not meeting the test; it's proof that he's not meeting his commitment, that the burden is on him to disclose and destroy. Others are saying this is proof the inspectors are working. Are you concerned that while you focus on disarmament, others, including the French today saying give them more time, might be focusing on containment in saying this is okay?

MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question the inspectors are on the ground working. The question is, Iraq is not complying and Iraq is not fulfilling its word that they gave in their own declaration.

All the President knows to do is to speak directly and realistically. And when a discovery is made that Iraq has 12 chemical warheads that they failed to declare, the President will call it for exactly what it is. And it is serious and it is troubling, in the President's judgment.

Q Were the inspectors acting on the basis of any U.S. intelligence?

MR. FLEISCHER: Elizabeth, I would not be able to answer that question. I've indicated to you broadly that the United States will -- has and will continue to provide intelligence to the inspectors because it is in our interest for them to have the best information. But I'm not going to be able to give you step-by-step information about what intelligence is passed along on any type of daily basis.

Q Has there been any new intelligence passed along?

MR. FLEISCHER: Of course.

Q Is there any other way to get to that information?

Q Why not just pass -- why is it coming out in dribs and drabs, the way you're suggesting it?

MR. FLEISCHER: There are ways to convey intelligence so it is the most useful. And I hear no objections from the inspectors.

Break in Press Briefing

Q Ari, just to follow up on the question John was asking, the President -- we heard him say this week that time is running out for Saddam Hussein. Today, or actually I think it might have been yesterday, Mohamed ElBaradei said he wanted more time for the inspections to go into March. Given what we've learned about the chemical warheads, has the President seen enough?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think, again, if it reaches the point where the President has come to the conclusion that he has seen enough, to the point where the only way to protect us is by disarming Saddam Hussein, he will inform the country about that. In the interim, the inspectors are doing their job. They are carrying out their mission. And we will, of course, continue to support them in that mission. The real issue here is, what is Saddam Hussein doing? What is Saddam Hussein hiding? And what else has Saddam Hussein failed to list in his declaration?

Q If I could just follow up, if time is running out for Saddam Hussein, does the President think that maybe time is also running short or running out for the inspectors?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President has not put any timetables on it as such. And if the President decides to, he will make such a statement. But at this point, we are continuing to let the process work, obviously.

Q First of all, a follow-up to Elizabeth's question. Without regard to what may or may not have been passed to the inspectors in the way of intelligence, did the United States, anybody in the United States government, have any advance knowledge of the warheads that we discovered yesterday before they were discovered by the inspectors?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to give you an answer to that. You're asking me to speak for the entire United States government.

Q To your knowledge.

MR. FLEISCHER: To my knowledge, no. The inspectors worked at the inspectors' discretion. But I really am not in a reliable position to give you that type of information about the entire United States government. And, again, I am not going to pass on information to you about intelligence conveyance.

Q I'm not asking that. I'm asking, basically, did this come as a surprise to the White House?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not aware of -- the people that I spoke to immediately about it, that they had any advance information about it. But I don't know whether that's necessarily conclusive.

Q Assuming that you're right and Iraq is wrong about whether these warheads were disclosed in the declaration, does the fact that Iraq has undeclared warheads, chemical warheads, put them in material breach of any U.N. resolutions?

MR. FLEISCHER: As for picking a legal word, the President's approach to this is that the issue is that Saddam Hussein is not disarming. That is what is most relevant. Per the United Nations and the use of the word "material breach," according to Resolution 1441, when it was passed, Iraq was and continues to be in material breach. When they filed their declaration that at the time the United States declared failed to have all information in it which, of course, has now been verifiably demonstrated to be an accurate statement, as if there would have been a doubt, we said at that time that they continue to be in material breach. Certainly, the discovery of the chemical warheads in Iraq does not get Iraq out of the material breach they're currently in.

Q Can you put this in some sort of context? Is this just one more element or one more piece of evidence that builds the case? Is that how you would describe this discovery?

MR. FLEISCHER: I described it as serious and troubling.

Q Ari, will the President have a lot to say about Iraq in his State of the Union message -- address? And will you give us a sneak preview?

MR. FLEISCHER: I will give you a sneak preview, but not this previewy. This is a little early to do any sneaking. The speech is not for another 11 days or so, 10 days or so. I will be happy to share with you additional information as it gets closer to the speech, but it's still in the middle stages of drafting, and so I think this is a little premature to get into that from the podium.

Break in Press Briefing

Q Ari, in the last few months, everything has been about Iraq and North Korea to a great extent. Is there any -- and some people have been complaining, what's happened to the war on terror? Do you see this as all part of the war on terror, or do you think the focus has shifted a little bit?

MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question the President views what's happening in Iraq as a portion of the war on terror. There's no question about it. And the President views this as all areas where, as the President has said many times, the biggest threat that we face is a nation like Iraq teaming up with terrorists to provide them with weapons of mass destruction.