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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, December 19, 2002 (Full transcript)

QUESTION: Ari, do you have any sense yet of the tenor of Hans Blix's briefing to the Security Council? And is the administration satisfied with the content of his briefing?

MR. FLEISCHER: The Security Council meeting continues at -- in New York. And once the portion of the meeting is concluded, Mr. Blix, I am advised, will go out and discuss with the press that which he said in the private meeting. So I think I have to yield and allow Mr. Blix to speak. Then the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Negroponte and then Secretary Powell will speak.

QUESTION: But certainly, you've got some sense of what he's going to say. Is the administration convinced that he -- that he shares the administration position on the declaration?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me put it this way to be as helpful as I can while being respectful of the fact that Mr. Blix deserves the right to make his remarks known, I think that it will become increasingly clear that the world community -- including the United Nations -- sees omissions in the Iraqi document. At a time when the United Nations Security Council and the United States and all member states of the Security Council were looking to Iraq to provide a full complete and accurate description of their weapons programs. There is a wide recognition that Iraq has not done that. There are omissions and there are problems.

QUESTION: One more on this. Do you feel, does the administration feel like the weapons inspectors do have a larger role to play when it comes to disproving this declaration? Or, is the burden not on them at all? Is their primary function, in the President's mind, to recruit Saddam's weapons scientists at this point?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President feels very strongly that the burden is on Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein must cooperate with the inspectors. The President believes, as the inspectors themselves have often said, that they have a very difficult task, particularly if Iraq does not cooperate, particularly if Iraq does not declare full information, and if Iraq hides the information they have, or if Iraq omits information from the declaration.

The President thinks the mission of the inspectors includes both inspections to find whatever can be found, given Iraq's attempts to deceive and to hide, as well as to interview scientists and people involved in the weapons program. Those are both part of their mission, in the President's judgment.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Yes, can I ask you about the unanswered questions -- to the extent you can talk about that -- about what Iraq used to have and their claims now that they no longer have it? There are unanswered questions about anthrax, about mustard gas, artillery shells, about a number of things. Can you talk about the unanswered questions that we have yet to see answered in the declaration?

MR. FLEISCHER: Given the omissions in the Iraq declaration, there are a number of problems that are presented that involve specific weapons programs that United Nations monitors found in Iraq in the late 1990s that remain unaccounted for in the current declaration that Iraq has produced. Secretary Powell this afternoon in his remarks will be entering into this in some further degree. And so I think the world will be able to hear in greater degree from the Secretary on it. I can give you that in broad brush. I'm happy to do it that way.

QUESTION: Let me ask you a couple more specific things. One, there's been some confusion over whether or not you believe that Iraq is in material breach. There are officials quoted this morning, one now quoted on the wires, saying that Iraq is in -- we believe that Iraq now is in material breach. Is that in fact, the case?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, this will be something that comes out from the proper channels that you will be hearing from later today, from others.

QUESTION: We just heard this from a U.S. envoy.

MR. FLEISCHER: And I think the people who will be speaking on this will be Ambassador Negroponte and Secretary Powell.

QUESTION: One other thing, if I could, and that is the next time for Blix to report, if we look forward a bit, will be at the end of January. What is the significance of that date? And what is the -- what importance does the administration place on that juncture in this entire process?

MR. FLEISCHER: When the President when to the United Nations on September 12th and he asked the United Nations to vote to return the inspectors to Iraq, the President began a process to give Iraq one last chance to comply with the world community and to prove, in fact and in deed, that they disarmed. Almost two months later, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to send the inspectors back. This is a process that is working it's way through internationally and in consultation with the United Nations that the President wants to see continue. The President wants to see the inspectors have all the tools they need so they can do their job. And he anticipates that there will be additional inspections beyond anything that is decided today. That's important.

The continuation of the inspections in Iraq will continue to yield helpful information so we can determine whether or not Saddam Hussein will actually disarm. Those procedures involve additional meetings and additional consultations with the United Nations Security Council, and also with our friends and allies. And so this process has begun. The point of the process is to test finally whether Saddam Hussein will in fact disarm. And there will be a series of events as this process unfolds.

QUESTION: But there is a report today and there are some suggestions from officials that that point at the end of January is the point at which the U.S. believes it will have enough information to make a definitive judgment about whether or not Iraq is cooperating or not. Do you in fact look at that date in late January as that --

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm just not prepared today on December 19th to speculate about what any one date in late January means in finality. What I can assure you is that there is a process under way and it's a process designed to keep the peace by testing whether or not Saddam Hussein will indeed disarm. As this process moves forward, we will have additional information about whether Saddam Hussein is or is not serious and, as the President has said, this is Saddam Hussein's last chance.

QUESTION: Ari, do you share the view that Iraq is now in material breach? And, if it is, how swiftly do you feel the world needs to react? Are you willing to let the U.N. set the time table for that?

MR. FLEISCHER: As I've indicated, the answer to that question will be coming from the diplomats, who the President has assigned to work with the United Nations. This is as a sign of our determination to consult with our allies to work through the process the President has outlined when he went to the United Nations on September 12th.

The consultative process is a very important process. The diplomacy of working with our allies is important. Make no mistake, the President is determined if Saddam Hussein does not disarm, the United States will lead a coalition to disarm him. And in the process, we want to continue to work very closely with our allies, in consultation with our allies, and that's why the diplomats are engaged in the meetings they are. It is not my position right here from this podium now to presume what an outcome will be of something that is right now, as we literally speak, in diplomatic circles.

QUESTION: So then, a decision on a reaction to a declaration of material breach will come only out of the United Nations?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I'm saying a decision about whether or not this is a material breach, in the opinion of the United States government or in the judgment of the United States government, will come from other officials, not from me.

QUESTION: Ari, how much does it concern the White House that Syria is boycotting the Security Council meeting?

MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, they showed up. Syria showed up. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Ari, first of all, I must thank the President and First Lady for opening their house last night. They were so gracious, and we were treated like state guests.

MR. FLEISCHER: Very kind of you.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Ari, back to Iraq and the process that you've spoken about. You seem to be giving a fairly substantial role to the inspectors in trying to have them interview Iraqi scientists. A, what is that? And, B, is there any indication -- are you having to press the inspectors to do this, or are they resisting you in some fashion?

MR. FLEISCHER: Two points. One, the reason that the United States thinks it's important for scientists and people involved in the weapons program of Iraq to be interviewed is because this is about making sure that peace can be protected by Saddam Hussein disarming.

One of the best ways to know if he is disarming is to talk to the people who are involved in making the arms in the first place. If he hasn't included his arms in the declaration, obviously he's got something he's hiding. One of the best ways to know what he's hiding is to talk to the people who are more deeply involved in it than the people who have produced their declarations.

So the purpose of talking with them is to preserve the peace by knowing what Saddam Hussein is developing and hopefully to ascertain as much information as possible about where it may be and what the extent of it is. History has shown that that often is the best and most effective way to catch Saddam Hussein in his lies and to determine the truth about what Saddam Hussein is doing.

I think if you take a look at some of the statements that have come from the inspectors, they, too, believe that that is part of their mission. It is part of their charge under Resolution 1441 and the U.N. resolution, and we anticipate that they will use all the tools at their disposal to carry out their mission.

QUESTION: Soon? Immediately?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the exact modalities of it are to be determined by the inspectors on the ground. But we do anticipate that they will do so. It is part of their charge, given to them by the 15 members of the Security Council.

QUESTION: So if an admission is not an material breach, is that the next level then that we're going to, in order to catch Iraq in material breach, is to have these scientists give us the information? Or have the inspectors somehow --

MR. FLEISCHER: Whether it is or is not a material breach, it is important for the inspectors to use every tool at their disposal, including the interview of scientists and people involved in the weapons program. That's per the U.N. resolution.

QUESTION: Yes. It's actually a process question, would that constitute a material breach then? Seeing as the information that's out there now seems to suggest that an omission from the report would not be a material breach we're looking for. So what's the next level of material -- what would constitute a material breach?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know that this is a matter of gradations and levels. This is a matter of whether Saddam Hussein is going to disarm and whether the inspectors have the tools they need to do their jobs. And clearly, talking to scientists is one of the tools.

Mr. Fournier, you didn't -- well, you did have a question in the first round.

QUESTION: I didn't hear anything.

QUESTION: You don't want me to repeat that question, do you?

MR. FLEISCHER: He asked -- he asked if we were disappointed about something. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: The President has been saying all along he has zero tolerance for Iraq, and what I want to know -- since you're not going to be able to come back to us later, if material breach is declared that is -- that can be used as justification for war under U.N. resolution, why don't we just go in now? Why wait another six weeks and try to get support?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, this will be something that Secretary Powell and Ambassador Negroponte will get into a little bit later. But what is important here is ascertaining whether or not Iraq has made the strategic decision to disarm. And we want to make certain that he is not engaged in further acts of defiance.

If you want to know how the President approaches this process, I recommend go back and take a look at exactly what the President said in Prague on this question. And let me read this to you. The President said, "Should he again deny that his arsenal exists, he will have entered his final stage with a lie." And the President looks at this as a stage. The President looks at this as a process. And the President will look at this in a very deliberative fashion and in a fashion in consultation with our allies.

Make no mistake, the President has said if that happens, Saddam Hussein is entering his final stage with a lie. The exact time period of this final stage will be determined by Saddam Hussein, because Saddam Hussein must disarm.

QUESTION: Are we in the final stage?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President will be the one to make that determination and we will see exactly what Saddam Hussein does. But clearly the President has said --

QUESTION: There are omissions and problems. Based on that quote, we're in the final stage with a lie.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think once you are advised of whether or not the United States has come to the conclusion that Saddam Hussein is in material breach, that would mean that the final stage is beginning with a lie.

QUESTION: Are we going to hear from the President, Ari?

MR. FLEISCHER: We'll always let you know. At this point, there is nothing scheduled. And in the event there is -- you won't hear from him today on this topic. Secretary Powell is going to be talking today.