Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, February 25, 2003
QUESTION: Ari, given the fact that the President has
talked about the potential conflict with Iraq as a continuation of the
war on terror, if an opportunity presents itself, would the President
authorize the assassination of Saddam Hussein, and did he tell a U.S.
senator that, in fact, he would do that?
MR. FLEISCHER: The executive order that deals with these
matters remains in place. And that guides the --
QUESTION: What is that?
MR. FLEISCHER: There is an executive order that prohibits
the assassination of foreign leaders, and that remains in place. So
that's the answer to your question. Now, of course, in the event of
military conflict, command and control are different matters, it is
well-known, in accordance with previous practice and the law. And that
is reflected in anything the President would have done or said.
QUESTION: But the question is, if the opportunity
presented itself, would he rescind that order and take that shot? So
did he say that to Senator --
MR. FLEISCHER: I've looked into it; I can't confirm that he
did say it. I do not see that --
QUESTION: Did you ask him about it?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President doesn't recall if he said it
or didn't say it. The staff doesn't recall the President saying it.
But bottom line remains the same, the executive order is in place, and
so it's a hypothetical that doesn't exist.
QUESTION: Well, but it's not a hypothetical in the
sense that this is, as he says, a continuation of the war on terror.
And we know it was rescinded with regard to Osama bin Laden. Why
shouldn't it be rescinded with regard to Saddam Hussein? And we know
that the President wants to avoid war by having him exiled, or
something else, so would this be an --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there is no question the world would
be better off if Saddam Hussein would leave Iraq, would disarm, and the
situation could be resolved differently. That remains the President's
hope. And in the event anything changes, and nothing is planned to
change, I will let you know. But there is nothing that has changed it,
it remains in place. That's the facts.
QUESTION: -- a question I want to ask on a different
subject. Can you explain, first, what you meant by the rules of
engagement or military conflict? I assume that means the executive
order does not apply in military conflict. Could you explain it --
MR. FLEISCHER: It's the longstanding policy about command
QUESTION: And how would that apply to the potential
assassination of a leader of a country that we are invading?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that in the event there were
hostilities, all military commanders could be part of a war operation.
I don't think it would surprise anybody to think that if we go to war
in Iraq and hostilities result, command and control and top generals,
people who are in charge of fighting the war to kill the United States
troops, cannot assume that they will be safe.
QUESTION: Including the head of that --
MR. FLEISCHER: Of course, including Saddam Hussein. of
QUESTION: The directive actually says that?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, we're talking -- we're not talking
about the directive. We're talking about in the event of war.
QUESTION: I want to follow up, if I could, on the
question the President was asked about sacrifice. He was asked, what
sacrifice, if we were to go to war, would face U.S. troops, their
families, and the American public. He just mentioned that U.S. troops
will be put in harm's way. Won't there be greater sacrifice on the
families and the American public? And if so, what sacrifice could the
public, troops, and their families expect to see if we go were to go to
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the immediate sacrifice is
already being felt by military families, as they have seen before when
their loved ones were deployed. The military life is a very honorable
and worthy way of life, which is why so many Americans volunteer for
it. And we're a better nation for it, thanks to them. And part of
that is the sacrifices that families make; that husbands make when
their wives are deployed, that wives make when their husbands are
deployed, and that families make then their parents are away. And that
has been part and parcel of the American tradition.
And the President, as he visits military bases, enjoys very much
meeting with military families and talking to them and assuring them
that he will do everything possible to bring their loved one home
safely. And America's military is not a stranger to these type of
sacrifices. They are already making them.
QUESTION: -- if we get to go to war, what sacrifices
U.S. troops or families and the American public?
MR. FLEISCHER: To state the obvious, if we go to war, lives
can be lost. And the President is keenly aware of that. And the only
reason to go to war would be to save lives, in the President's
QUESTION: Dr. Blix has said this morning at the U.N.
that he's received a number of letters from the Iraqis which,
apparently, report the destruction of chemical and biological weapons.
It says that they reported a warhead filled with liquid, and he was
asked if this amounted to substantive cooperation, and he answered,
yes. Your reaction?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this is exactly what the President
predicted, that as the pressure grows on Iraq, Iraq will all of a
sudden -- and this is the very nature of the problem with Iraq --
that all of a sudden, Iraq will start to discover weapons that they
said that they never had, and they'll produce documents when they said
they gave them all to us already. They already gave the United
Nations, and swore to it, a full and final, complete declaration of all
the weapons they produced, per Security Council Resolution 1441. Lo
and behold, as the pressure grows, new documents are produced. Lo and
behold, as the pressure grows, they find weapons when they said they
didn't have any. Lo and behold, why Saddam Hussein cannot be trusted.
QUESTION: You hear in this press room every day what
will be the dollar cost of war. What will be the human cost? The
President has never been on a battlefield. Does he -- has he gotten
any estimate of how many people will die in this? And I have a
MR. FLEISCHER: The President approaches -- and I'm going
to answer your question -- the President approaches it first from the
question of, if the world fails to act, what will be the human price
around the world of Saddam Hussein either directly attacking with the
biological and chemical weapons that he has, Americans and America's
interests abroad --
QUESTION: -- be contained now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Can I answer your question? The President
approaches it in the issue of, if Saddam Hussein is not brought to
justice by the world, does not disarm, what will be the price on the
world, the human price on the world? How many lives will be lost as a
result of Saddam Hussein this time ordering a chemical or biological
attack against Americans, when we know he's done it against his own
The President also asks the question, if Saddam Hussein is able to
get weapons into the hands of terrorists who would strike at our
shores, what is the price the American people would pay if that
QUESTION: What has he done --
MR. FLEISCHER: If the President makes the judgment to go to
war, it's impossible to predict what the price will be, in terms of
lives. You heard the President today say in the Oval Office, one of
his greatest worries are the innocents of Iraq, who will be targeted by
Saddam Hussein for killing, by Saddam, in an effort to create another
ploy around the world where Saddam kills his own people and tries to
blame it on somebody else.
QUESTION: What has he done in the last 12 years? And
why do you keep subliminally linking up 9/11 with the Iraqi thing? Do
you have an actual link? Can you really prove it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the point the President makes about
9/11 is that prior to 9/11 it was much easier for the American people
to sit back and think that terrorism was something that affected maybe
our embassies abroad or people in other countries in faraway lands.
After 9/11 it became very clear that there are people who have a clear
desire, and they will do it again if they can, to attack the United
MR. FLEISCHER: They can be any number of people. And what
we do worry about is them getting their weapons from the Iraqis, and
then coming to the United States to commit more crimes.
QUESTION: But could they get them from the Chinese,
the Russians, the United States, Russia?
MR. FLEISCHER: They can get them from any number of
places. I think it's far likely --
QUESTION: So why the focus?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because I think, in the President's
judgment, based on intelligence, it's far less likely that they will
get them from, as you just said, Helen, the United States than it is
QUESTION: I'd like to come back to the question of
assassinating Saddam Hussein. Senator Fitzgerald says he had a
conversation with the President in which he, George W. Bush, said he
would rescind the executive order banning assassinations of foreign
leaders if he had a clear shot at Saddam Hussein. Is Senator
Fitzgerald making that up, is he mistaken? What are we to -- there's
a credibility contest here, and I'm just wondering how to resolve it.
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think it's that case at all. First
of all, the President, as I said to you, has left the executive order
in place, hasn't he. The executive order is in place. Now, I can't
speak for every conversation that anybody has. I know that Senator
Fitzgerald is not quite certain of the date it took place or where it
took place. It may have been a year ago, he says. So I think there is
some uncertainty in Senator Fitzgerald's mind about it.
But what is not uncertain is that the executive order is in place.
And what's not uncertain is that the world would be better off without
Saddam Hussein. And the President hopes that this issue can be
resolved peacefully by Saddam Hussein leaving Iraq. And if Saddam
Hussein and all his top officials were to leave Iraq, the world would
be a better place.
QUESTION: So the executive order remains in place?
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct.
QUESTION: If I could ask about the substance of what
Senator Fitzgerald is saying. Is the President prepared to rescind
that executive order if he gets good enough intelligence to give him a,
"clear shot," and assassinate Saddam Hussein?
MR. FLEISCHER: Much like Mr. Gregory's question, my answer
is the same. You're talking about a hypothetical, and if something
were to change, I would try to keep you informed. But it remains in
QUESTION: One more question. The Prime Minister of
Bulgaria, out at the stakeout, said that in the context of his
conversation with the President on Iraq, "The topic of possible
guarantees for Bulgaria came up."
MR. FLEISCHER: That's what I was alluding to when I said
that the President, in his meeting with the Prime Minister of Bulgaria,
talked about the friendship; he made clear that Bulgaria can count on
United States' friendship. And Bulgaria, along with other nations, of
course, we have a strategic partnership with, we have an interest in.
Bulgaria, of course, has bases. And so there are issues that would, of
course, have to be discussed with the United States Congress. But
Bulgaria has the friendship of the United States, the President said.
No specifics, though, Terry. It was a generalized conversation --
QUESTION: All right. But are we to assume that
Bulgaria's support is, in part, contingent on financial or other
MR. FLEISCHER: I think Bulgaria's support has been early
QUESTION: The U. S. Ambassador to France says a
French veto would be very unfriendly. Is that a fair statement?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course, we'll continue to work
diplomatically at the United Nations with all the other nations. And
France has a role to play, and we will see exactly what role they play
and how this comes to be. I can assure you, based on the conversation
the President had several days ago with Prime Minister Chirac,
relations remain friendly. Of course, we are interested in what France
will do. We are interested in what all nations on the Security Council
will do. It is important.
QUESTION: What about John Bolton's statement to the
Russians saying that war is coming? Do you stand by that statement, as
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, actually, I looked in the newspaper,
and that's not an accurate quote from what Mr. Bolton said. The paper
does report that that's what Mr. Bolton said. And I think it's a
senior administration official describing what they say Mr. Bolton
said. And they didn't say war is coming, they used different words.
But I talked to Mr. Bolton this morning, and Mr. Bolton has had his
own event in Moscow where he has already said publicly that he made
clear that we look forward to working with Russia and other nations on
the Security Council, and that this remains an issue that can be
settled peacefully, that the President hopes to avert war. But,
clearly, the President has made plain, as everybody here knows, that if
Saddam Hussein does not disarm, the President will assemble a coalition
to disarm him. So there remains a possibility for peace; there remains
an off ramp. The only person standing in the way of the off ramp is
Saddam Hussein. If Saddam Hussein disarms, we can take the off ramp.
QUESTION: Two questions. First, back on the
assassination issue, you were somewhat short of an ironclad guarantee
that the presidential order is in place permanently. What you seem to
be suggesting was if that changes, let us know. What you're saying
essentially is the President has the right to rescind that at any
moment, since it is a presidential directive, and you're saying he
retains the right to do that if he gets the clear shot that was being
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I said I'm not going to speculate about
the future. If you're asking a procedural question, then you know the
procedure as well as I do. But if you're asking about a question that
is hypothetical about, tell me what the future will be, will an
executive order be in place or not in place, the only answer is, it is
in place, it remains in place. If anything were to change -- and
this is not an indication that this may change -- but if anything
were to change, I would do my best to let you know. But there's
nothing I can indicate for you.
QUESTION: The second question, about Secretary
Powell's trip. The President has made it clear on several occasions
that he wants to solve the North Korea problem in harmony with South
Korea and with China. There was very little we saw in the public
statements of either the Chinese or the South Koreans to suggest that,
in fact, they're headed in that direction. Do you have any reason to
believe that we are now any closer to putting together that kind of a
coalition than we were before the Secretary --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's no question there is a
coalition of Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States
who sees this issue eye-to-eye and shoulder-to-shoulder. We all
believe that the North Korean peninsula, the Korean peninsula needs to
be denuclearized. Now, it is important for all to put their shoulder
to the wheel to work together to put pressure on North Korea to help
make that a reality.
We continue to discuss that with our allies. Some nations do more
publicly; some nations do more quietly. We'll continue to work
together, however, to get the same message to North Korea.
QUESTION: The President started the war against
terrorism in Afghanistan, especially, after 9/11. And I hope he has
seen today's Washington Post editorial, and which I have been saying
for many months, that al Qaeda and Taliban are -- they have a hub in
Pakistan and they are regrouping. Since President and U.S. is engaged
with the war in Iraq, they are trying to get advantage attacking the
-- and also, the Washington Post said that Musharraf has come back to
telling the Indian government, the world's largest democracy. My
question is how is the President going to deal with this one front
where he started, and now Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President made clear in his speech
to the country on September 20, 2001, just some nine days after the
attack, that this is a global war against terrorism. And since the
United States launched the counter-strike against al Qaeda, who carried
out the attacks on September 11th, al Qaeda has been dispersed into
many different places. They have been rattled, they have been
dismantled in part. They still remain an organization that tries to
regroup, and they are regrouping wherever they can. And that's not
only in Afghanistan or in portions of Pakistan, but around the globe.
And this is why the President is involved with our allies in a global
effort to make certain that we continue to disrupt their activities.
Now, there are portions of Pakistan that are very hard to police.
But Pakistan is a stalwart ally of the United States intelligence his
effort. They have been and they remain. They do their very level-best
and they cooperate very strongly with the United States in our efforts
to bring al Qaeda to justice, wherever they are.
QUESTION: Ari, I want to ask a question about the
economy, but first, one more try on this assassination issue. You're
saying the President recalls none -- nothing about any conversation
with Senator Fitzgerald on this general subject?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think given --
QUESTION: Is it possible he said something to the
effect of if -- not in the context of the assassination ban, but in
the context of if there's a military action, I sure hope we get a shot
at him, or something like that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Given the fact that, in this case, the
Senator is not even sure what day, and it could have been a year ago,
that he's not quite certain, I think this is fairly understandable.
But no, there's nothing to add beyond what I've indicated on the
QUESTION: Ari, we've seen a lot of thrown out numbers
about the cost of a potential war. Clearly, there have been costs
already accrued from the deployment. What efforts have been made and
are being made, are being contemplated to get others in this coalition
to share the costs?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated this morning on the
same question, that, as always, nations around the world will
contribute in different ways to the mission. It's not my place to
speak for other nations around the world. I do not expect you will see
a repeat of what happened to the same degree in 1991 with the sharing
that took place at that time. But nations will contribute in varieties
of different ways.
QUESTION: My question is, what efforts are we making
to get, to seek contributions? I'm not asking you to predict what
governments will do.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in all cases when we talk about the
coalition of the willing, conversations involve a variety of different
means that different nations are in a position to assist with. It can
be political; it can be intelligence sharing; it can be basing or
overflights; it can be combat, in some cases. That's the tenor of the
discussions -- it's broad and it asks people to contribute as they
QUESTION: Yes, though you and other officials have
said the President has not yet made the decision to go to war, is it
fair to say that the administration has decided that the inspections
have reached a dead-end?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President has not come to the
conclusion that the inspections have reached a dead-end. But the
discovery of the R-400 bomb in Iraq this morning leads one to the
following question: Iraq, on April 3rd, 1991, was instructed under
Resolution 687 to destroy all the weapons it has. Given the fact --
and when they were instructed to destroy those weapons under 687, they
were given 45 days to destroy them. Given the fact that another weapon
has been found today, 4,294 days after they were instructed to destroy
all their weapons, it does raise questions about whether Iraq ever
intends to comply with disarmament or not. When we keep finding
weapons that they say they never had, and when they were given a 45-day
time frame in which to disarm, 4,000 days later we're finding more.
QUESTION: One other question, if I may. Canada, in
an effort to find some middle ground that might keep the Security
Council together on this, has suggested the idea of some sort of
deadline of a few weeks, at which point if Iraq has not fully disarmed,
then the Security Council would move forward with other options. Does
that hold any attraction at all for the administration, if it were a
matter of a few weeks?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, the President has said this
will be settled in a matter of weeks, not months. And the last time
Iraq was given a deadline by the United Nations Security Council, or
one time in this instance where they were given a specific deadline to
destroy, they were given 45 days, and just this morning, 4,000 days
later, we found another weapon.
QUESTION: This morning the President said, again,
that he doesn't think he needs this resolution. Is that message
intended -- what is that intended to do? Because it could be the
signal to other countries that you're -- either get on board or the
train is leaving; less a message about what he thinks is important, as
a signal to them, that now is your last opportunity.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President's message is this is a
chance for the United Nations to be relevant. There is no question
about it. After all, if the United Nations passes a resolution that
says, Iraq must disarm immediately, and then the United Nations says,
immediately really means 12 years, what kind of signal are they sending
to the next proliferator? What message are they sending about the
ability of the international system to maintain the peace and fight
And this is why the President has changed the equation in New York,
and he has said it is important for the United Nations to have value
and to have meaning for resolutions to be backed up. Otherwise, it's a
paper society. It's not a meaningful society to keep the peace.
That's what's at stake here.
QUESTION: But does he intend to signal to the other
countries that it's now or you're not in --
MR. FLEISCHER: The signal has been sent. The President
sent the signal September 12th when he called on the United Nations to
be relevant. Go back to his September 12th speech. This is what's at
stake, the message that work up the Security Council and the members of
the U.N. on September 12th. It still remains to be seen whether the
United Nations heard that message, after four years of inaction on
QUESTION: But it seems to echo the reports of what
Bolton told Russia, which is essentially, the President is saying, I'm
going to do what I'm going to do.
MR. FLEISCHER: Jean, you know very well the President has
said that one way or another Saddam Hussein will be disarmed. He hopes
it will be through the United Nations.
QUESTION: Two questions; one relates to your answer
to Jim's question. The fact that Iraq is dribbling this stuff out late
and under pressure, you take the lesson that they can't be trusted,
that they don't intend to comply. Could that not be turned around and
used by the French and others to make the argument that the pressure is
working; inspections are working; inspections backed by pressure,
backed by the threat of armed force are slowly wringing this stuff out
of Iraq and there's no need to --
MR. FLEISCHER: Here's the problem with it: Iraq this
morning says they found an R-400 bomb, which is not a small item. The
United Nations inspectors, when they left the country, said there were
400 such weapons unaccounted for. Now we found one; where are the
other 399? How much time does Saddam Hussein want to dribble those
out? The inspectors said when they left the country that Iraq had
30,000 unfilled chemical munitions; the inspectors have found 16.
Where are the other 29,000? And how much time can we give Saddam
Hussein to dribble those out?
This not about Saddam Hussein being given time to dribble out the
weapons that he says he never had in the first place; it's about
complete disarmament so the world can breathe easy that Saddam Hussein
is not hiding the weapons that he has for the purpose of using them
against Americans or others, just as he's used weapons against his own
people and other nations.
We're going to have to keep moving here because --
QUESTION: I have two questions, Ari. The first one,
you said twice today that the world would be better served if Saddam
Hussein were to leave Iraq.
Is the United States willing to give any guarantees if he leaves
that he won't be persecuted or prosecuted --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that would remain an international
issue. That would be a matter for the international community to
discuss. But let's hope we can get to the point where it becomes a
matter of discussion.
It would be good for the world. It would be good for everyone if
he would leave.
QUESTION: The front of the Washington Post yesterday,
on the front page reported that it felt many people in the world
increasingly think that President Bush is a greater threat to world
peace than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Why do you think that
millions of people around the world hold that view?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think that -- number one, the
President is going to do what he thinks is right representing the
American people. And when you look at what the American people think
is right, the American people strongly support the President's efforts
to bring peace and to make certain that Saddam Hussein is disarmed so
that he cannot harm the peace. That's the President's focus.
QUESTION: But why do you think millions of people
hold that view?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to judge it. I can
tell you that I've seen the President travel abroad. And for example,
when he was in Bucharest, hundreds of thousands turned out in the
streets of Bucharest to welcome the American President.
QUESTION: What does the administration make about
this terrorism threat against the America's Cup participants in New
Zealand? And is there a message here to America's friends, even if
they oppose the efforts against Saddam Hussein?
MR. FLEISCHER: Connie, I don't have anything specific on
that threat. I have seen the reports of it. But again, it's a
reminder why this is a worldwide fight against terror wherever we may
QUESTION: Is it accurate to presume that the
President can rescind his order regarding assassination just with the
stroke of his pen? And therefore, could he just rescind it one minute
and have Saddam dead the next?
MR. FLEISCHER: This has been answered before. It remains
in place, and you know the procedure with executive orders.
QUESTION: I know it remains in place, but in order to
get rid of it, all it would require is a stroke of his pen?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's an executive order.
QUESTION: How do you get from the latest U.N.
resolution, and, in effect, all the previous U.N. resolutions to a
top-to-bottom regime change? That issue is not addressed in any of
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has always, from
September 12th forward, approached this on a two-pronged policy. One
is to rally the international community in the cause of disarmament.
And the President has called on, and the United Nations has called on
Saddam Hussein to disarm. We continue to hope that he will do so
It remains also the policy of the United States for regime change.
Clearly, if Saddam Hussein will not disarm, and if force is used, you
would not think for even a second that if we use force we'll use force
for the purpose of leaving Saddam Hussein in charge.
QUESTION: Did we just unilaterally glom that on to
the U.N. resolution, and say, okay, the U.N. approves this --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, think it through logically. If
force is used, can you conceive of a scenario where we would use force
and say to Saddam Hussein, now that we've gone to war, please stay in
QUESTION: How about enforced inspections?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's the whole issue. How do you enforce
inspections when it's 4,000 days after a 45-day deadline, and we now,
this morning, find a new weapon that they always said that they did not
have. It points out how the inspections don't work. We hope they can
work, but it points out that in the hands of Saddam Hussein, who, by
design, will thwart the inspectors, the inspections may not work. And
take the case of the Al Samoud II missile. Hans Blix has said that
they are prohibited weapons. They must be destroyed. And while we
thought that Saddam Hussein would indeed destroy them, you know what he
QUESTION: Ari, when you said earlier -- the
executive order aside -- when you said earlier that in the event of
hostilities, military commanders, including Saddam Hussein, cannot
assume that they'll be safe. Did you mean that they would be --
might be targeted? Or that they could be hit by some, say, stray
bullet or bomb?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's not my place to talk about specific
targets or sites. You'd have to talk to DOD. But again, to state the
obvious, if we go to war, you can assume that the top commanders of
Iraq are going to be under the suspicion of being the ones leading the
war, of course. And they should not assume they'll be safe.
QUESTION: I'm not talking about hardened targets.
I'm talking about people, when I said they'd be targets --
MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question that if you go to war,
command and control are legitimate targets under international law.