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Excerpts from the Press Gaggle by Ari Fleischer September 24, 2002 (Full transcript)

QUESTION: Ari, the British dossier that was released this morning makes no mention of any link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Does the President still believe that there is a link between the two, and what evidence is there to support that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that's not the immediate question that the President has asked, as he considers what steps are necessary to protect the American people, because he views the threat from Saddam Hussein of being a threat in and of itself, as a result of Saddam Hussein's military activities, his arms buildup and his history of using those arms.

As for September 11th, what we do is that there are al Qaeda operating inside of Iraq. But the United States has not gone beyond that. The President believes that what is known about Saddam Hussein, based on his decade of defiance and his arms buildup, is cause enough for the world to need to take action.

QUESTION: Ari, if I could just follow up, the congressional resolution and the draft that you sent to the Hill list that as one of the reasons to justify possible action against Iraq. And then Secretary Rumsfeld just today also mentioned that as again another justification --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, to be clear, what the resolution sent up to the Hill mentioned was the growing awareness of the risk that America faces since September 11th; the fact that our nation is no longer as safe as we once perceived that we were prior to September 11th -- that's what the resolution cited. And then it went on to talk about al Qaeda operating inside of Iraq.

QUESTION: That's just in Northern Iraq, as I understand it, right in the Kurdish controlled area?

MR. FLEISCHER: Iraq is Iraq.

QUESTION: Yes, but one part of Iraq is controlled by Saddam Hussein. Another part is controlled by the Kurds. That makes it a vastly different --

MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, the information we have is that they are operating inside of Iraq. But again, the point that the President made in his speech to the United Nations did not rest on whether Saddam Hussein was involved on September 11th or not. The point the President made to the United Nations and that he makes to the American people is that we face a threat from Saddam Hussein because of who he is and what he has done.

QUESTION: Okay, not to drive you crazy, I just want to be clear, are we talking about Kurdish controlled Northern Iraq, or the part of Iraq that Saddam --

MR. FLEISCHER: Campbell, I would have to take a look at an exact detailed map and have a more precise briefing on the exact coordinates of where they are and where they may move to.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: On Iraq, Ari, and weapons inspections, disarmament versus the U.N. resolution under Chapter 7, Kofi Annan yesterday said that his understanding of the agreement that he knocked out with Naji Sabri was for unimpeded inspections. An Iraqi official today said he would welcome inspectors in with unfettered access. Do you still need a Chapter 7 resolution at the U.N.?

MR. FLEISCHER: This really is no longer a matter of what Iraq says; this is a matter of what Iraq has done. If what Iraq said mattered, we wouldn't have thought they invaded Kuwait, would we? They said that that was a part of Iraq, and they denied the original invasion, didn't they? And so Iraq's words have really lost any value. What does have value is protecting the world from Iraq's threats. And this is just another example and it's the latest example of Saddam Hussein trying to wiggle out of things and trying to buy time in an effort to fool the world once again.

Just yesterday, Iraq, in state-run press, said that passage of another U.N. resolution would be wicked and would lead to no inspectors returning. Today they said, unfettered inspectors returning. Their story just constantly changes. The one thing that doesn't change is their threat.

QUESTION: So are you concerned that this may again blunt the momentum that you've managed to rebuild at the U.N. Security Council for a Chapter 7 resolution?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think that people have seen Saddam Hussein as somebody they don't rely on. So efforts continue and the conversations continue and we'll continue the diplomacy along the timetable that the United Nations has outlined.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Do these actions and this flare-up in the violence complicate the President's efforts to build international support for confronting Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I have not heard the President say that, Terry, no.

QUESTION: You don't think they do?

MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't heard the President say that, and I think that the threat the world faces from Iraq is so clear and is of such urgent nature that the world is going to continue to focus on this. And the events in the Middle East have long been very difficult and complicated vis a vis Israel and the Palestinians and the Arabs, but we've seen again in that situation an ability to work well with the Arab nations and others and all parties and with their responsibilities to try to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. What's happening in Iraq is really a separate matter with the world and the U.N.

QUESTION: Ari, is it important for the President that the Congress act first on the Iraq question before the U.N. takes it up -

MR. FLEISCHER: Really the President has not set a sequence in motion or asked for a sequence to be set in motion. As a practical matter, it does appear that the schedule of the House will go first on this matter. But again, these are determinations that will be made by House leaders and then Senate leaders, and then by the United Nations. But the President is looking for action in both, but I have not heard him talk about sequence.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Al Gore made some very critical remarks yesterday regarding the conduct of President Bush's foreign policy with respect to Iraq. What was the President's reaction?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President's reaction was that, one, the President, regardless of any things that are said in the political arena, is going to continue to unify our country and to provide leadership to take action against Saddam Hussein's threat. And the President is very pleased with the fact that the country has rallied behind his message and his call for action. And the President is going to continue to work with the great many Democrats in the Congress who see it differently from the former Vice President and who will work with this White House.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Ari, if I can go back to Jacobo's question regarding Germany. What is the difference between the President of the United States going to a fundraiser for a Republican candidate and talking about Saddam Hussein and Iraq, and the administration in German deciding that it's a viable election issue to criticize the U.S. position on Iraq? What's the difference between the President of the United States doing that and the Germans --

MR. FLEISCHER: Are you equating the United States' discussion of Germany with discussion of Iraq?

QUESTION: No, I'm trying to basically equate it in a political realm. Since we've seen partisan politics here in this country where people run on different issues --

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not aware that the President is running against any other countries. The President is making a case about the threat that Saddam Hussein poses. The President is not running against any of our allies in any of the meetings that he goes to and speaks about the threat that the world faces. He will speak about the threat the world faces from Iraq. Ken, you've heard the President at, as you say, fundraisers or any speech -- the President does not talk about our allied nations in that context.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Ari, I wanted to ask two questions about the British report. The first is, could you talk us through briefly what the process was between Britain and the U.S. on coordinating on this report? Obviously, it involved some level of declassification, since they refer frequently to the Joint Information Center, of which we're a part. Could you tell us a little bit about who approved the report and why it came --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's obvious to say that the United States has close relationships with intelligence communities around the world, particularly in the nations like Britain that are most allied with us. And we often work shoulder to shoulder to help prevent problems from becoming life-threatening and to share information. One of the things the President repeatedly stresses to foreign leaders when they come to the Oval Office, particularly since September 11th, is the importance of information-sharing, intelligence-sharing, so that we can be aware of what they're aware of, in order to further protect our country.

In the case of this report, we are aware, of course, what the United Kingdom was working on in the report. But make no mistake, this is their effort, this is their work, this is their product. We were aware of it, and we agree with their findings.

QUESTION: Did you review -- did the White House review a copy of it, go through the declassification?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know. I'd have to take a look and ask a number of people who work here to see at what stage they saw it. Obviously, we were aware of it prior to its coming out. But I don't know the answer specifically on what day somebody here may have actually taken a look at it.

QUESTION: One specific question that grows out of it. Vice President Cheney, in the course of his speeches, San Antonio and the one that preceded it, and I think Dr. Rice have both said at various points that at the end of the Gulf War Saddam was six months to a year from a nuclear weapon. There's nothing in this report to back that up, and in fact at one point the report says that a --

MR. FLEISCHER: One to two years.

QUESTION: -- crash program did not appear to have made much progress. Can you tell us where Dr. Rice and Vice President Cheney got that --

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, our information is that -- at the time of the Gulf War we believed that Saddam Hussein was three years away from the development of a nuclear weapon. And then based on the assessments we received from the inspectors who were in Iraq, subsequent to that, and on other intelligence information, the conclusion of our community here was that it was six months to 12 months away from development of a weapon.

The point, though, whether it was six months, 12 months, one year or two years, is how close do you want to cut it before Saddam Hussein gets his hands on what he wants? And it's too close right now. The other issue, you always need to ask yourself when you heard that Saddam Hussein is x period of time away from developing a nuclear weapon, at what point did that clock start? It's not as if the 6-month or 12-month or one-year clock starts the day a reporter asks somebody in the government the question. The clock could have started three months ago, six months ago, a year ago. We don't know. We don't know because inspectors aren't in the country, and because Saddam Hussein is using every means at his disposal to develop his nuclear weapons in the utmost secrecy, because that's what he wants more than anything else. What type of chances can the world take to allow Saddam Hussein any type of margin for our error in the calculations of how long he has?

QUESTION: To get back to Al Gore's speech yesterday, which you dismiss as those having been made in the political arena. As I remember, Gore talked about his views in a substantive way. I wonder, does the President brook no dissent on this issue? After all, the President, himself, talks about the war in very overtly political arenas almost every day.

MR. FLEISCHER: What makes you say that anybody would brook no dissent? The President talked about it this morning very respectfully in the Cabinet Room. Of course.

QUESTION: And he also does in political fundraisers.


QUESTION: I think Al Gore's speech was -- he talked about it on a substantive, in a discussion in which he had some very different views. So I wonder why you simply dismiss it as a political comment.

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm rebutting what you said about "brooks no dissent." I think that's an overstatement about the President's reaction to a question, and the President discussed it. But I think it's fair to say that as the debate unfolds on Iraq in a number of places -- some which are official government business places, such as the United States Congress, where elected officials are; and some which are places where people may want to return to public arena, and there's a political process for which they need to go through -- people are going to be entitled to their opinions and they will give them. That's proper. That is what the former Vice President should be doing.

And I think it's fair to say is that as the process unfolds, both politically and substantively, you're going to see a variety of opinions expressed in the Democratic Party on this. There may not be unanimity in the Democratic Party on this; they're probably won't be unanimity in the Republican Party. But that process will continue. And the President is going to work very closely with members of the House and Senate. He's already had members of the Democrat Caucus from the House here to build support for the resolution. And the former Vice President is going to differ with many other Democrats in the Congress on this question when the Vice President opposes what the President is doing. Many Democrats in the Congress support what the President is doing. That's the Vice President's right.

QUESTION: But to look at it politically, though -- look at it politically for a second. Does the Gore critique provide cover to some Democrats who heretofore have been reluctant to criticize the President?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think only Democrats can judge whether or not, one, they are seeking cover and, two, whether this provides it if they were seeking it.

QUESTION: Can I follow on that? Did the venue and the fact that he may be running for office make his speech a political speech?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think I'd be hard-pressed to say that his accusation that the President is following on this foreign policy because of the President's, according to Al Gore, desire to appeal to far right was a non-political statement, itself.

QUESTION: Well, when the President touts his policies on Iraq at a political fundraiser is he not making Iraq a political issue?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the American people have come to the judgment and the conclusion the President is focused on the problems of Iraq for serious governmental reasons.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Ari, just to follow something you said earlier. When you -- I'm paraphrasing -- you said approximately that it doesn't matter anymore what Iraq says. Does that mean that the United States was basically giving up on inspections since, presumably, you'd have to have some guarantees from Iraq --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, it means Saddam Hussein has no role as a negotiator of what the United Nations will do. This is a matter that now the United Nations has to decide. Saddam Hussein long ago forfeited his right to decide because he acted when he, in 1998, as a matter of practicality, threw the inspectors out.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Ari, some members of Tony Blair's own party -- say there's nothing new in the dossier Blair delivered to his Parliament. Is there a smoking gun?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think there was new information in there, particularly about the 45-minute threshold by which Saddam Hussein has got his biological and chemical weapons triggered to be launched. There was new information in there about Saddam Hussein's efforts to obtain uranium from African nations. That was new information. But on this whole question of new information, this is not about whether or not there is something new. There is something a decade long that indicts Saddam Hussein and threatens freedom for people in the region and the United States. So no one has said that without anything so-called new, the case against Saddam Hussein should go away; it doesn't.

QUESTION: My second question --

MR. FLEISCHER: We're going to try to keep moving; there are a lot of hands up. Deb.

QUESTION: Ari, how does this dossier fit into our efforts to get a U.N. resolution? And can you sort of give us your sense of where we are in trying to get a new U.N. resolution?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I answered the question earlier about where we are in the United Nations, as they are in the middle of the drafting and the negotiating process. And I think that every different piece of evidence is helpful as the world considers what type of threat Saddam Hussein is. And I think the American people have come to their conclusions about it. And we are continuing to work with diplomats around the world and particularly on Perm Five and the other members of the Security Council, the other 10 members of the 15-member Security Council, which, after all, will be the entity that conducts the vote.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Yes, Ari. Should we regard the British dossier as the final or definitive word on what is known by Western intelligence about his weapons programs?

MR. FLEISCHER: I can't predict the future. I don't know if any other information is going to come out. But, again, I don't think this rests on piling one more foot on to Mount Everest. The mountain of evidence against Saddam Hussein is plenty high already.

QUESTION: But did you know of any plans for the U.S. to do something similar?

MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, I'm not going to predict the future.

QUESTION: Now, on the missiles, they note -- one of the interesting things here was they note an ongoing program to develop missiles with a thousand-kilometer range or more. Does that conform to U.S. knowledge about his missiles, and is that something that is surprising, given the last three or four years?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'll just say the dossier is consistent with our information on the topics raised in the dossier. And I would point out again that Saddam Hussein agreed to, in writing, disarmament of all missiles with a range of greater than 150 kilometers, as part of the terms for ending the Gulf War. Obviously, he is again in violation of one more provision that he swore he would uphold -- which is why when he says he'll let the weapons inspectors in, why does anybody believe him today, when he consistently lied about everything yesterday?

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Is the administration comfortable with efforts ongoing on the Hill to make it clear that in the resolution the use of force would be focused only on Iraq and not on other potential targets in that region?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, there is no question. We have said so publicly; you've heard that from senior administration officials. The focus is Iraq. What other nation would be the focus? Of course, it's Iraq. And there is language in there about international peace and security in the region, which is taken directly out of previous United Nations resolutions. This language matches United Nations resolutions.

And so we'll work with Congress on the language. And certainly there's no harm done in fixing a problem that's not there. But at the same token, I guess the United Nations could have language that the United States Congress finds objectionable, because the Congress thinks the United Nations went too far. This is basically boilerplate diplomatic language that has been found in previous U.N. resolutions dealing directly with Iraq on the question of Iraqi compliance.

If people on the Hill have objections to that language, we'll talk to them about it, explaining clearly that it is focused uniquely on Iraq, and we'll work with them on the drafting of it. I really don't think that's going to be any type of considerable point in the end. If changes are sought, we'll work with Congress.