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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, September 6, 2002 (Full Transcript)

MR. FLEISCHER: Good morning. The President began his day today with three phone calls to world leaders. The President spoke with President Chirac, of France; President Putin, of Russia; and President Jiang Zemin, of China. The President, in each of his conversations, said he was calling because he wanted to make sure that the United States was consulting with our allies around the world. He told these leaders that he valued their opinions.

The President stressed that Saddam Hussein is a threat and that the United States was going to work together with the world to make the world more peaceful, and we welcome their role and their involvement.

The President said to each of the three leaders that he has not made any decision about the next course of action to take. And the President also informed each of the three leaders with whom he spoke that following his speech at the United Nations next week, the United States will send a group of American officials to each of the nations' capitals to consult further with our allies.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Will the President inform these leaders if he intends to -- when he makes a decision on war or peace?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President said in his meeting with congressional leaders last week that he will of course continue to consult and inform these various leaders, as well as congressional leaders, about any actions we may or may not take.

QUESTION: He will inform them --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has said that we will work with the rest of the world and that he will consult.

QUESTION: The question has been raised in several circles, Ari, as to why all of this talk now, 60 days before an election? Why not six months ago? Why not wait until after the election? What's the sense of urgency immediately on this issue?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the threat from Saddam Hussein is more than 10 years old. This is a threat that has grown worse since the Gulf War ended, since Saddam Hussein has continually violated the accords that he entered into. And that was then expressed very clearly as a problem that was growing worse when Congress acted in 1998 and enacted the policy of regime change.

It's a long known threat. Congress, to its credit, began to focus seriously on this threat with the hearings that Senator Biden conducted in the Senate earlier this summer. So the Congress is already moving in this direction, focusing on the threat that Saddam Hussein poses, inviting witnesses, experts to come before and describe Saddam Hussein's ongoing attempts to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. And this is why the President has said it is important for the Congress to focus on the growing threat. And Congress is doing so and the President is pleased.

QUESTION: But if this is 10 years old, why has it suddenly come to the crunch point, at this point?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's come to this point because of Saddam Hussein's actions, because Saddam Hussein's disregard for international law. It's the same issues that propelled Congress to take a look at this when they conducted the hearings earlier this year, this summer, just months ago. And so the President has spoken out repeatedly about the need to protect America from these threats and this is a problem that began when Saddam Hussein started to violate the agreements he made with the world 10 years ago and it's continued today and has escalated.

QUESTION: I don't mean to monopolize your time here, but is there a sense that if this is not taken care of in the next 60 days, that there is a threshold of threat past which we may not be able to counter?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is very worried about the horrible consequences of inaction, because the horrible consequences of inaction can lead to another attack. And Saddam Hussein is a leader who has shown that he will use the weapons he possesses. He stands alone in the world as the most militaristic leader in the world with a desire to use the weapons that he obtains. And make no mistake, he continues to seek to obtain those weapons.

QUESTION: But, Ari, you told us that in the meeting he had with the congressional leaders a couple of days ago that they asked him, did he want them to pass a resolution before they adjourned. And he said, yes.


QUESTION: Why -- why -- I mean, to narrow John's point and to narrow the time frame, why is it so important that this be done by the end of October?

MR. FLEISCHER: This was a topic that did come up in the meeting. One senator did ask specifically, do you think that it's important for Congress to take this action prior to Congress's departure? And the President said, yes. And no objections were raised.

Now, the reason is because of the growing threat that Saddam Hussein presents. And the President thinks it's very important for Congress to focus on this and focus on it in a timely fashion.

Congress, to its credit, already has begun the process through the hearings that have started in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And the President knows that there is sufficient time for Congress to do this well, to do it thoughtfully, to do it right -- but to do it in a manner that the Congress will live up to its obligations, because the President is very worried, based on the information that he has and based on the history of Saddam Hussein's efforts to acquire and use weapons that inaction can lead to harm and grave consequences to our country.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: What did the President want from the three leaders he spoke to today? Because the Russians, now, and the French have already reacted to the phone calls, saying that the President still -- those Presidents are still -- are not in favor of any unilateral American efforts, and they still think the United Nations ought to be the one to act, and they think it'll destroy the war on terrorism.

MR. FLEISCHER: Interesting, because none of that was said by those leaders in those phone calls -- "destroy the war on terrorism" -- nobody discussed that, nobody said that. The purpose of the call was to begin this process of collaboration, to do exactly what the world would expect and exactly what the world deserves, which is a free exchange of information, a discussion about the consequences and the risks. And this is the beginning of a process. The President urged them to pay attention to the speech that he's going to give at the United Nations next week. It's important for the President to continue to make the case about why the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein. And, as the President indicated, he has not made a determination about the best way to achieve our mission of removing the threat that Saddam Hussein poses.

But I think there is unanimity of agreement that Saddam Hussein poses a threat, and various leaders around the world are going to continue to think about the best response to it.


QUESTION: Ari, two quick questions. One, just to follow, when the President goes to the U.N. next week, I am sure he must have seen those ads, the U.S. dues to the U.N., is the taking the check with him? And, two, over 1,400 people have filed in New York a case against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, and they are alleging that he's behind 9/11. And if that is going to help President Bush when he makes his case, and whether he's requesting or asking the United Nations members to join with him in attacking or going after Saddam Hussein?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, on any type of legal situation, a lawsuit, I'm not going to comment about anything on that. And the President will give that speech next week, and you'll be able to hear it, and I'm sure you will. It will be an important address.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Ari, two questions. One, if the President felt there was such an immediate need to deal with Saddam Hussein, why didn't he tell the leaders -- make the case directly, say, "I want you to pass this before recessing," not when he was asked by a lawmaker? Why didn't he say, "And I want this done before you leave in November"?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, scheduling is always a decision that is up to the members of the Congress to make. Leaders of the Congress run their institutions and schedule the votes as they see fit. Many issues get raised in the course of a conversation that the President has with the Congress.

Members of Congress can make no mistake about where the President stands. The President believes it is important to pass this before they leave.

QUESTION: And you know that lawmakers say they're going to have these hearings. I know you said the hearings have already begun --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: -- but doesn't the President -- you said that there should be this dialogue, doesn't he believe that there should be as long as it takes for Congress to have these hearings to really discuss this issue? And if it happens --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President thinks it's vital for Congress to do this well and to do it right. The President thinks it's important for Congress to use its time wisely, and to have thoughtful, careful hearings. The President is pleased that the Senate has already begun the process. Senator Biden has demonstrated leadership on this issue.

And the President believes there is sufficient time for the Congress to do this well, to do it thoughtfully, to do it carefully, to listen carefully to the administration witnesses and other witnesses who will be sent up to the Hill. But the President does not think that wait until next year is an answer.

QUESTION: You've given us a readout on what the President said in his calls, and you said there may be some disparity with the reports of this divide on the war on terror. Can you give us a readout on what the leaders said back, then? Any sort of specific "we're with you/we're not with you, here are my concerns"? Anything that fleshes out their response to the President?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the fair way to summarize what the foreign leaders said to the President is that they were welcoming of the President's call, they welcomed the President's consultation, and that they are open to the President's ideas and they want to listen. They have some thoughts of their own, of course, and it's not my place to describe their thoughts, that's up to those leaders to discuss them, of course.

QUESTION: Did anybody use the phone calls as a platform to strongly say, "I'm against this"?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President did not hear that message. But the President heard messages of openness, a willingness to listen. But it is fair to say that each of these three leaders has various thoughts of their own, and they will express them. I'm sure they already are.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Two questions. One, there's a report out of the United Nation that new aerial reconnaissance shows new construction activity in Iraq, in sites that had previously been used for nuclear usage activity. Can you comment on that? Do you know about that? What does it mean, if it's true?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, without talking specifically about any intelligence information, this is a troubling report. Given the fact that Saddam Hussein has thrown weapons inspectors out of Iraq, it is not surprising that Saddam Hussein may seek to develop nuclear weapons and may be making progress. That's the whole problem with not having the inspectors there. So reports like this are not surprising, but they are deeply, deeply troubling.

QUESTION: Have we confirmed the analysis of those --

MR. FLEISCHER: This is where I have to draw a line and not be able to talk specifically about intelligence information. But this is an example of the threat that the world faces. This is the risk the world takes. And this is where the President will work with the Congress and the world community, to make this very important judgment about where the scale tips between taking action to protect the peace and failing to take action, which can make all of us vulnerable to war.

QUESTION: But those images are commercially available, so it's not exactly classified intelligence.

MR. FLEISCHER: But I speak from the point of view of the government and the information the government has at its disposal.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Can you elaborate on what you just said. Why is it that after waiting 10 or 11 years you can't wait three more months? What's the crucial --

MR. FLEISCHER: I answered that at the beginning, because of the growing threat that Saddam Hussein possesses.

QUESTION: Is it new -- do we have new evidence recently, even if you're not going to detail it to us now, that suggests the threat is getting worse?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me discuss this question of new evidence. I was asked just earlier about the question about new information from the United Nations suggesting that Saddam Hussein is indeed making progress developing nuclear weapons. There was a report yesterday about a drone that Saddam Hussein is developing that he did not have during the 1991 war, which is capable of carrying biological agents for the purpose of spraying on populations. You can call these pieces "new information."

But I think it's fair to say that there is already a mountain of evidence that Saddam Hussein is gathering weapons for the purpose of using them. And adding additional information is like adding a foot to Mount Everest. There already is a mountain of evidence that shows that Saddam Hussein, since the Gulf War and prior to the Gulf War, has sought to develop weapons for the purpose of using them.

Now, as we saw on September 11th, when our enemies have weapons, they do not hesitate to use them against the American people.

QUESTION: If, as you say -- if as we've discussed, the President wants a vote out of Congress before the election because he is, as you put it, very worried about the horrible consequences of inaction, is there that same sense of urgency with getting something out of the United Nations Security Council, because --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has spoken out -- the President has spoken about his request to the Congress. And I cannot indicate to you any additional action the President may or may not seek to take.

QUESTION: There may be a good deal of reluctance on the part of people at the Security Council to give a green light.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President will continue the consultative process with the Security Council and others in the world. And he will give a speech on that next week.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: You spoke a few moments ago with respect to Iraq, about the horrible consequences of inaction. But can't there feasibly be horrible consequences of action, if Iraq were attacked and it retaliates against Israel, and as some members of the Arab community have warned, all hell will break loose in the Middle East?

MR. FLEISCHER: These are the difficult judgments that people may have to make, including the President, including the military, including the Congress. And of course, many people made a similar argument in 1991, and in good conscience voted against authorization of force in the Persian Gulf War for some of those very reasons. But the President is determined that if it comes to this matter, and the President has not made a decision, that the United States will be capable, in working with our allies, to execute any plans. And the President is deeply worried, again, about how much longer can the world wait and the American people wait before we take the risk that it is too late, and that Saddam Hussein, with his proven history of using the weapons he develops, will indeed use them once again. That is what, in many ways, this issue comes down to. Francine.

QUESTION: A couple of questions. Does the President or the White House feel that the current making the case before the Security Council, and the speech to the U.N., and the hearings in Congress, and so on -- that that is sufficient in making the case to the American public? Or does the White House have plans to, you know, gear up for some kind of tour of the country on this issue, or address, or something like that?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President -- this is a democracy, and it's fundamentally important that if it gets to the point where a decision is made to use military force, that the American people support the action taken. That is a vital part of how democracies approach these difficult issues. And the President will continue in his remarks to the public to talk about the threat that Saddam Hussein poses.

The President, as you know, came back this week, met with the Congress. On his travels yesterday, he discussed publicly his concerns about Saddam Hussein developing weapons of mass destruction because of his fear that he will actually develop them for the purpose of using them. And this is a subject the President will continue to speak out about as the debate unfolds.

QUESTION: So is he planning anything special, or the White House planning anything special, in terms of taking this subject on the road to the American people? Or is it happening right now?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it continues to unfold. This weekend, for example, the administration will have several of the administration's leading experts appear to take questions from reporters on the Sunday shows. The Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of State will take questions on shows that are watched by millions, with the purpose of having this discussion, this debate, which is an essential part of our democratic system. And that will continue to be the pattern and continue to be the case.

QUESTION: And my second question real quick.

MR. FLEISCHER: Third question.

QUESTION: That was a follow-up on the first question. The President said, or has been saying, that he supports the debate in Congress. But yesterday in Kentucky, he also said, you know, my mind is made up about regime change. So is the White House concerned that this gives the impression that we can have all the debate we want in Washington, but the President's mind is, you know -- he's pretty sure and it's not going to affect him?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, to be fair, Congress's mind is made up about regime change. Congress voted in the House, for example, 360 to 38 for a policy of regime change. It was approved unanimously in the Senate, and signed by President Clinton. So the basis on which the Congress, Democrats and Republicans, and the President start these discussions is that it is our joint policy that the threat needs to be removed, the regime needs to be changed.

Now what is happening is there is a legitimate discussion about the best means to accomplish regime change.


QUESTION: On that subject, can the White House assure the American public the President will choose the means of removing Saddam Hussein that doesn't substantially affect the price of oil in the American economy? Is he confident that can be done?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me state the objective, Wendell, from the President's point of view. The objective is to remove the threat. The threat is in the form of weapons, and the risk is that the leader of Iraq has shown a determined willingness to use the weapons he possesses.

He did so when he invaded Iran, and attacked Iran in a war that lasted eight years and took more than a million lives. He did so when he attacked Kuwait. He did so when he launched missiles against Saudi Arabia, against Iran, and also against Israel. And he is doing so since the Gulf War in his relentless pursuit of additional weapons.

He has a history of using the weapons he develops. No one should fool themselves into thinking that he is developing these weapons for the purpose of harboring or keeping these weapons, as history shows just the opposite.

The President's objective is to remove the threat. And he has not made a decision about the best manner in which that threat will be removed. But that is the objective.

QUESTION: I'm sorry, Ari, I didn't hear an answer to my question. I want to know if the President feels the regime change that he is committed to can be accomplished without substantially affecting the price of oil and the United States economy?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is not focused on this matter as a question of oil or a question of anything of that like. The President is focused on this as a matter of the security of the American people and protecting the American people and preserving the peace.

QUESTION: In that case, let me follow. Is that because the President feels that the risk that Saddam possesses is so great that the effect of regime change on the economy is almost irrelevant?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is focused on this as an issue of how to protect lives of people who could be at risk. I do think it is important for Congress to take action on the energy legislation that is pending on Capitol Hill, because no matter what decision the President makes, the United States will always be better off with a policy that provides more energy independence.

QUESTION: But that has no effect on the immediate consequences --

MR. FLEISCHER: I've shared with you the President's focus, that's all I can do.


QUESTION: Ari, two questions on inspections. In the course of the telephone conversations today, did a discussion come up about whether it would be wise -- with any of these leaders -- to go and press for inspections within the U.N., either for diplomatic purposes or actually to determine what was on the ground? And then I have one more inspection question.

MR. FLEISCHER: David, the conversations were more general in nature.

QUESTION: Inspections never came up?

MR. FLEISCHER: The conversations were more general in nature.

QUESTION: Second is, is it still the position of the White House and does the President agree with Vice President Cheney's comments in his first speech last week that going ahead with inspections would be dangerous, because it would provide false comfort that Saddam was in the box?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, nothing new on this topic. The contention is still the same that if people think inspectors alone would do the job, the purpose of the inspectors is to make certain that Iraq has disarmed. And that's the function of the inspectors is to make certain that disarmament takes place.

QUESTION: Ari, I didn't ask about inspections alone. The question was, would the very process of going down that road be dangerous, as the Vice President suggested?

MR. FLEISCHER: For anybody who thinks that inspectors alone would do the job, it could provide false comfort, because the purpose of the job is to make certain that Iraq does not possess those weapons, that they indeed are disarmed.


QUESTION: Ari, a few moments ago, in response to Deb's question about new evidence, you cited the reports of the drone plane. But those have been known for several years, and British intelligence passed that information to us several years ago. The question is, does the President have new evidence -- and by new evidence I mean evidence gathered over the last six months or so -- that would underscore the urgency with which he is making this case to the American people and which would disabuse anyone of the notion --

MR. FLEISCHER: Dick, as I said earlier, the United States will continue -- the administration will continue to work with the Congress. As you know, that there was a classified briefing yesterday provided for the four congressional leaders. And while I'm not at liberty to discuss, of course, what was discussed in that, I made the point earlier about adding one more foot to Mount Everest. It doesn't change the fact that Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world. There is already a mountain of evidence that suggests that Saddam Hussein is pursuing weapons for the purpose of using them, and using them potentially against our friends, our allies, and even ourselves.

QUESTION: For the sake of argument, you frequently cite the '98 congressional resolution, which much of this evidence was included in. So the question is, if it was an urgent matter then, why didn't -- why wasn't it pursued then, why wasn't it the first order of business for this President when he took office? What has changed in the last six months? Does the President have new evidence that he thinks bolsters his case? And will he share that with the leaders on Capitol Hill?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President believes, based on the information we have, that Saddam Hussein presents a real threat to the world, to the United States, because of his willingness and his ability to acquire weapons. And that's what the President believes.

QUESTION: You mentioned the President as being clear about getting congressional approval. Can you give us some greater clarity on his thinking about seeking some form of U.N. approval, particularly in the light of the pressures on Tony Blair?

MR. FLEISCHER: I can only report to you what the President has said, and that is, he will continue to consult with leaders around the world and with the United Nations.