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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Scott McClellan, November 18, 2002 (Full transcript)

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon. Let me just start off with a world leader phone call the President had this morning….

The President congratulated the Prime Minister for the European Union's having reached agreement with Russia on November 11th concerning Russia's Kaliningrad region. Both leaders agreed on the importance of maintaining strong international pressure on Iraq to give up all weapons of mass destruction and fully comply with its requirements under the United Nations Security Council.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: These continued missile firings in the no-fly zones, taken in toto, could they constitute a material breach that was serious enough for us to take it to the U.N.? Or do we want to see material breach in the area of weapons?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, John, the goal here with the new strong resolution out of the United Nations is disarmament. However, within that resolution, it makes very clear that Iraq needs to stop hostile acts against members who are carrying out previous U.N. resolutions and the --

QUESTION: Sure, which is why I asked the question.

MR. McCLELLAN: Right. And the United States -- the United States believes that firing upon our aircraft in the no-fly zone or British aircraft is a violation, it is a material breach. And what that -- what the U.N. resolution allows us to do is it gives us the option, if we choose, to take that to the Security Council.

But make no mistake about it, our aircraft will continue to respond accordingly when fired upon in the no-fly zone.

QUESTION: Understood. But if they continue to fire on us in the no-fly zones, will we take that, in toto, to be a pattern of obstruction or misbehavior that we'll consider taking to the U.N.? Or do we want to see a material breach on the weapons inspection front before we go to the U.N.? Are we willing to tolerate these firings?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I emphasized -- no, we're not. I mean, we will respond accordingly. But we reserve that option of taking that to the Security Council when it comes to our aircraft in no-fly zones. But the issue here is disarmament, and this goes to the heart of the intentions of Saddam Hussein and his regime. Is he going to comply and cooperate with all the United Nations Security Council resolutions as called for under the resolution.

QUESTION: But, Scott, it seems that, if we're taking the President at his word, zero tolerance means zero tolerance, and this is a material breach. Why isn't the administration exercising the option to return to the U.N. and say, this thing is over before it starts? Or is there a point of view that, okay, we have to make some kind of threshold judgments about when we're going to throw in the towel?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I think that's something that we will assess and review and use that option as available to us if we so choose to pursue it with the Security Council. But --

QUESTION: Why not pursue that if there's already a material breach?

MR. McCLELLAN: It goes back to what I emphasized. The ultimate issue here is the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein. I continue to emphasize our policy is one of zero tolerance when it comes to disarmament, and that's what we will continue to pursue.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Won't it be hard for the President to keep the focus on Iraq and not have to explain, well, why aren't we looking -- why are we looking at Iraq now which is not as immediate threat as perhaps some of these new bin Laden warnings which many European countries are very concerned about. There has been an increase in alert warnings in different European capitals.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President's highest priority remains the protection of the American people and winning the war on terrorism. But when we talk about protecting the American people, there are new threats in the 21st century that we have to address. And as we've pointed out, we believe that the threat posed by the regime in Iraq is a continuation of the war on terrorism. But as we've also pointed out, the President begins every day focused on the war on terrorism. And we're going to continue to working with the more than 90 countries that are in a coalition working to wage and win this war against terrorism and bring these people to justice, wherever they are.

QUESTION: Scott, now that the weapons inspectors are on the ground in Baghdad, the next established date is December the 8th, when Saddam has to come up with a list of his weapons of mass destruction. Yet, he continues to say that he has no weapons of mass destruction. There seems to be a standoff. What happens on December 8th if he doesn't produce a list?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this is getting into ifs and hypotheticals. He has until December 8th. It makes clear in the resolution that false statements or omissions constitute a material breach. And then you mentioned the inspectors -- keep in mind that the inspectors are a means to disarmament. This is about disarmament. This is not about the inspectors. And this is about disarming Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. Let me go back here, Helen.

QUESTION: Yes. You were going to get, I hope, some reaction from the President on the new Woodward book. And also the Iraqis are saying that you're not just hitting radar targets or whatever, you're hitting civilians in villages, every night. We're bombing them every night now.

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that regime says a lot of things. Much of it we know in the past has not been true.

QUESTION: You never have reporters on the scene. You never -- how do we know you're not hitting civilians in Iraq and so forth? And why the step-up bombing? You want a pretext?

MR. McCLELLAN: If you look at the history, it's Saddam Hussein, -- the one that has repressed innocent people --

QUESTION: That's not the answer to the question. You've already established that.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- the United States military goes out of its way to target only military operations.

QUESTION: Do you deny any civilians have been killed?

MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, I would refer you to the Department of Defense. That's not information that we discuss or that I have before me at this point.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: …..You just said that false starts or omissions constitute material breach, and Secretary Powell and others have said that. How can -- is the United States prepared to prove that? How do we know if Iraq says they're clean, they destroyed everything in the past four years --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let's let the deadline -- let's see what they do with the deadline. And then we'll be prepared to discuss it further at that point. But there are specific deadlines spelled out in the resolution. The next one being December 8th for Iraq to report what programs or weapons it does have. And we'll see what they report.

QUESTION: Inspectors are saying that they would need to disprove, on the ground, any claim by Iraq that it has no weapons of mass destruction. In other words, they would have to go inspect. Would the United States want to see inspections as a way of disproving an Iraqi claim? Or are you going to bring out -- are you prepared to prove it otherwise?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think we're jumping a little bit ahead here. Let's let -- see what happens December 8th, see what's reported and then we'll go from there. But our position is very clear, and our position is also one of zero tolerance. They need to state the facts and report the facts to the Security Council. If they don't, then that's a violation. That is a material breach --

QUESTION: But how do the facts get established?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and then we go back to the Security Council.

QUESTION: How do the facts get established?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, let's let this take place. Let's not jump ahead of where we are at this point. And then we'll have more to say at that point.

QUESTION: We're not jumping ahead. They're moving, they're on the ground now.

MR. McCLELLAN: Hold on one second. Terry, you had a follow-up, I think.

QUESTION: Well, it's on a different subject. If you come back to me.


QUESTION: On the same subject, in light of the scenario that you've just outlined, how are we to understand Secretary Rumsfeld's comments this weekend that we are looking for a pattern of behavior with the inspections?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure which specific comments you're talking about. I'll be glad to go back and look at them.

QUESTION: In other words, zero tolerance suggests that the very first inkling of any omission or untruth on Iraq's part is adequate to use force. But a pattern of behavior suggests that you're looking for a few violations that add up to --

MR. McCLELLAN: Without commenting directly on some comments I have not seen, we have been very clear in stating that our view is zero tolerance, that Saddam Hussein does not need to be playing games at this point. No cat and mouse. It is time for him to comply and cooperate and disarm. This is about disarmament. And for too long, for 16 resolutions, for 11 years, Saddam Hussein has defied these resolutions. And it is now time for him to come into compliance once -- one final opportunity. That's what this is. And the President's view is very clear: zero tolerance when it comes to the resolution.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: If the policy in Iraq is zero tolerance, and you believe that these no-fly zone incidents could be material breaches, are you sending the wrong message to Iraq that might be confused so that they believe the U.S. zero tolerance policy really isn't a zero tolerance policy?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, actually, if you go back, those no-fly zones are enforcing previous resolutions to protect innocent people living in those areas from someone who has shown his willingness to repress them and attack them. But, no, I disagree with that. This is part of Saddam Hussein finally showing that he is not going to play any games, that he will comply and cooperate and work toward disarmament. So this goes to showing his intentions. And that's very important as we move forward.

QUESTION: But are you sending a mixed message to Iraq by saying, we have a zero tolerance policy, and yet you now have three or four different no-fly zone violations from the U.S. point of view?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think our message could be any clearer to the regime in Iraq and to Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Why is the message not that the firing in the no-fly zone is a relatively minor thing? Given not only that you do not pursue a material breach violation of the Security Council resolution, but the knowledge that our pilots use them as training missions, why should we not see the attacks in the no-fly zone as being more valuable to us than taking the violation to the U.N. Security Council?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, be more valuable to us?

QUESTION: We would rather respond militarily than take it to the U.N. Security Council. It is more valuable for us to target the air defenses, to do the firing, to fly the missions, than go to the U.N. Security Council. So why should we consider the Iraqi firing on U.S. and British warplanes threatening at all? They haven't hit any. We don't expect them to hit any, and we're not concerned enough about it to take it to the U.N.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the first part of your question, we do respond accordingly. Second part, the U.N. resolution says, and in paragraph 8 it spells out, as part of this strong new resolution it says they need to not take hostile action against members enforcing previous resolutions. We take this resolution by the Security Council very seriously, and this is the United Nations Security Council showing that it is relevant, that it is not going to put up with any more games. And so --

QUESTION: I know, but that's not what I'm saying, Scott. We take the resolution seriously, but we don't take the actions seriously. They're not threatening to us in any way --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, any time someone fires on our aircraft we take it seriously. And we will respond accordingly, as we have been, and we will continue, as we've indicated, to reserve that option to take it to the Security Council. Again, it goes to his intentions to comply and to demonstrate that he will comply and cooperate.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: By saying you're going to wait until December 7th -- December 8th for that deadline, are you ruling out then the possibility? I mean, you said you have this option of citing material breach for the no-fly zone, but then you're saying you're going to wait until December 8th to see how he complies with the disarmament or the declaration of weapons?

MR. McCLELLAN: With his disclosure of weapons of mass destruction programs and --

QUESTION: Right. So are you saying you will at least wait until December 8th on the issue of the no-fly zone, whether that constitutes a material breach?

MR. McCLELLAN: I wouldn't necessarily draw that conclusion. But there are different issues within the same resolution.

QUESTION: Scott, what kind of support would the President like to see from the NATO allies on Iraq? A statement of support, we'd like to see pledges of military support, both?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it was expressed. We may see that. I'm sure it will be discussed, but again, the primary purpose of the NATO summit is to talk about enlargement, robust enlargement around NATO, transforming NATO to meet the threats of the 21st century, and the new relationships that we have with countries like Russia. So that's the primary purpose. Let's let the meetings take place and then we'll go from there.

QUESTION: What I'm getting at is if one of the purposes of the new NATO is to face threats of the 21st century, and the President has identified Iraq as one of those principal threats, why is he not asking the Alliance to formally commit to military action to enforce what he thinks needs to be enforced?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's let the meetings take place. I think that NATO countries understand the importance of disarming Saddam Hussein and disarming the regime in Iraq.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Is the White House saying that, in and of themselves, that the firing on British and American warplanes, even though that might be a material breach, would not constitute a cause for war, in and of themselves?

MR. McCLELLAN: I would just emphasize that we reserve the option to take that to the Security Council. And again, I would emphasize that this goes to showing his intention to comply and cooperate. But in the meantime, our aircraft will respond when fired upon.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Scott, first, Mexico has proposed to lift the sanctions against Iraq if there were not found any weapons. And now President Fox has criticized President Bush because he believes maybe he overreacted in this question of Iraq and the war against terrorism. How the White House is taking these statements?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm not familiar with the particular statement you're referring to. But again, I think the President's views are very important -- are very clear. The United States is speaking with one voice; the United Nations Security Council is speaking with one voice -- Mexico included in that -- that Saddam Hussein must disarm. And that's what we'll continue to pursue.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: You noted a while ago the American tradition of welcoming immigrants. Many thousands of those immigrants, of course, have come from Iraq over the years, have become citizens. Can you confirm that this administration has undertaken a policy of targeting American citizens of Iraqi descent for special surveillance or other action in the run-up to potential war against Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I'm aware of the news reports that your question is based on. And I'm not going to get into the accuracy of those news reports that are based on intelligence matters because, as you know, we don't speak about -- we don't discuss intelligence matters from the podium. So without discussing any particular reports, I would go back and emphasize that we are going to do everything we can to protect the American people, but do so in a way that respects our Constitution, protects people's rights and is based on the law, and within the law. Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Well, if I may follow-up on that. It is not intelligence, it is a policy that would segregate certain American citizens for special treatment by law enforcement. And essentially, the President's answer is, trust me with your liberties. Which is fine, he seems like a trustworthy guy. But that's not the way the system works. The founding fathers set it up so the President is not the final arbiter of liberty. And one of the ways of checking potential abuses of power is the free flow of information. So I ask you, do Iraqi citizens -- American citizens of Iraqi descent have a right to know whether or not they're being targeted?

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me make a couple of points. One, everything we do must and will be within the rule of law and within our Constitution. Everything we do will be consistent with the Constitution.

QUESTION: But how will we know?

MR. McCLELLAN: Hold on -- hold on. Let me make a few points. The war on terrorism came to our shores on September 11th in a very vivid and tragic way. Al QUESTION:aeda was responsible. We also know that there are sympathizers out there who also want to harm America. And that's why I made the point that the President's highest priority is the protection of the American people, and that we're going to do everything we can to continue protecting the American people. But we will do so consistent with our Constitution. The FBI has investigative guidelines that are based on the law. They must adhere to the law and the Constitution. And when it comes to what you referenced, such as surveillance, searches and seizures, there are strict legal requirements regarding surveillance and searches and seizures -- requirements that are based on the Constitution and based on applicable law. And that includes the requirement that agents must obtain court orders. So the point I made that we are going to do everything consistent with the Constitution and with the law is based on those comments.