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Denial and Deception Denial and Deception

Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, February 27, 2002 (Full Transcript)

12:35 P.M. EST

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. The President began his day this morning with an early phone call to President Putin of Russia. The President called to discuss the situations in both Iraq and in North Korea. They agreed about the importance of working together on the issue involving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and they exchanged views on the status of the events concerning Iraq. And they discussed the importance of their consultations with each other.


With that, I'm happy to take your questions. Ron.

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    QUESTION: A couple quick ones. First, has the administration been given any assurances from Russia that they will not veto the resolution? And are there any questions that you would have liked to have seen Saddam asked in that interview?

    MR. FLEISCHER: On your first question, it was a good conversation. The United States and Russia work together. And I will not characterize beyond that anything that the Russians may have indicated. And you can, of course, contact any Russian officials. But we will have ongoing consultations.

    QUESTION: Saddam -- questions to Saddam?

    MR. FLEISCHER: On the second, I don't think it's my place to suggest questions that otherwise could have been asked.

    QUESTION: You tell us all the time how we should do our jobs. I'm serious, do you think there's a question that you would have liked to --

    MR. FLEISCHER: I like to have those conversations privately. And if -- (laughter.)

    QUESTION: You do it right there all the time.

    MR. FLEISCHER: Today, I decline the high honor.

    John, the question leads to you.

    QUESTION: A draft copy of the UNMOVIC report, the latest weapons report which will be given to members of the Security Council in the next couple of days seems to paint a picture that Iraq has not fully cooperated. But it also seems to indicate that there is more cooperation than was there before. Can you still sell the case for war to the Security Council given this latest report -- which a lot of people thought that this would be the turning point?

    MR. FLEISCHER: One, I can't comment on a report that has not yet been issued. I've seen some wire discussions of it, which strongly suggest that there's been a real lack of disarmament by Iraq. We'll see exactly what the report says and have a statement following the report's being released by Hans Blix.

    QUESTION: Would you agree with the premise of the question, though, that this next report will be a turning point in this crisis?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that Mr. Blix's remarks before the United Nations on March 7th will be important. The United States will see what he has to say, as this comes down to the wire.

    QUESTION: Ari, the United States is preparing to end the Iraqi regime. And now the President is talking about rebuilding it. And all he's telling the American people about this is that it could be terrific for Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. But when it comes to our commitment financially, the cost in human lives, the level of sacrifice, he says, well, it won't be easy. Don't the American people deserve a little bit more meat on the bones than that?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I can redo yesterday's briefing, if you like, but on the question of --

    QUESTION: I read it, I read it and I watched the speech, and it led me to that question.

    MR. FLEISCHER: The question of costs, exactly as I indicated yesterday, at the appropriate time as the issues are more knowable and the costs are more discernable, that will be sent up to Congress for their purview and review. On the question of lives, I think it is impossible to say, if force is used, the question --

    QUESTION: Ari, you're parsing the question. The issue here is, the President is talking -- he extols the virtues of rebuilding Germany and Japan. He talks about how ending the Iraqi regime could lead to peace in the Middle East. But he doesn't talk about sacrifice. When is he going to do that?

    MR. FLEISCHER: In the event the President decides to use force, the President will have more to say.

    QUESTION: And it's okay that we just all wait around to have that discussion?

    MR. FLEISCHER: These are judgments the American people will make, David. And the President will have further remarks, if he deems it necessary, and if he decides to use force.

    QUESTION: Ari, could I just follow up on that last question I had? I'm sorry, I tried to get something out there.

    MR. FLEISCHER: Did you forget your own follow-up?

    QUESTION: No, he jumped in on top of me. (Laughter.) Do you believe that this will be the last Blix report to the U.N. Security Council before this issue is resolved one way or another?

    MR. FLEISCHER: The President has made abundantly plain that this is a matter of weeks, not months. He made that statement several weeks ago, and that is what the President has indicated on timing.

    QUESTION: Do you accept the premise of his question that you are selling a war?

    MR. FLEISCHER: No, I do not.

    QUESTION: You did, though, basically by --

    MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you for affording me the opportunity to correct the premise of a question I otherwise previously would have and should have corrected.

    QUESTION: You're welcome. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Last night, the President talked about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last June, he said, "Israel should immediately halt -- immediately -- halt all settlement activities in the occupied territories." Last night, he says, "As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity must end." Why did he retreat on that?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, I want to take a look at the full context of his June remarks and see precisely the order in which the President said it and the context that surrounds what he has said. But the position is --

    QUESTION: The language speaks for itself, "immediately halt all settlement activity."

    MR. FLEISCHER: Because, if I recall, the President also, in those remarks, talked about the Mitchell Accords, and the Mitchell Accords and the Mitchell process also agreed to that, as progress is made on peace. And I want to make certain that if the President referenced Mitchell in those remarks, that would set up the context in which you asked that question, and therefore, there is no shift.

    QUESTION: There is no shift at all?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think you have to look at the speech in its entirety.

    QUESTION: On a different matter, what role will the Turkish troops in Northern Iraq play?

    MR. FLEISCHER: We continue to discuss with Turkey the terms of the discussions that are underway dealing with how to compensate Turkey in the event that there is a war, because of the economic cost that Turkey had previously incurred in 1990 and 1991. And the question of military is part of that. I think it's been made very clear to Turkish officials that as part of this that it's important for us, just like with all allies in a coalition, to coordinate all efforts and for us to work together. That's been made plain.

    QUESTION: Will there be Turkish troops in Northern Iraq? Why? What's their role? And what do you say to the Kurds who very much fear that that is essentially an attack by an historic enemy?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Again, this is still being discussed. There still remain an "i" or two to be dotted and a "t" or two to be crossed. And so until it is all agreed to, as the saying goes, nothing is agreed to. So I cannot yet report to you conclusively what the finality of this agreement will be. But I can assure that it has been expressed very plainly to Turkish officials and to all that as an alliance, we coordinate, we work together. And the United States has expressed very publicly, directly, that the goal -- if force is used -- is to make certain to protect the territorial integrity of Iraq.

    QUESTION: President Karzai said he needs some help. Are you prepared to offer any new assistance beyond what's already in the pipeline?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Much of the discussion they had in the Oval Office focused on reconstruction. They talked about such issues as water supplies in Afghanistan; farming in Afghanistan; electricity in Afghanistan. The President asked for and received an update on the road that the United States, Japan and Saudi Arabia have contributed money to, the construction of and the progress of the road being built. That was something, if you recall, that came out of the discussions up in New York following a visit to the United Nations last fall.

    The United States is providing assistance to Afghanistan. We will continue to do so. Private-sector assistance can grow, and there are other forms of assistance from nongovernmental organizations that are available, too. So it's part of our ongoing approach to help Afghanistan. There was no specific discussion of any one area of increase.

    QUESTION: Today, besides the call with Putin, what is the U.S. doing to round up votes on the Security Council? Can you tell me anything specific? There must be many phone calls back and forth?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there are -- here's what I think what you can expect, broadly speaking. And I've informed you of the President's phone call this morning. There will, of course, be meetings and phone calls that the Secretary of State will be involved in, and Secretary of State -- the State Department will be available to you to read any of those out or give you indications of the Secretary's meetings. I think the Secretary has some meetings today, and I would anticipate that these things will come up.

    The Secretary of State, of course, was here for the meeting with President Karzai. And there very well will be other people, throughout various areas in the State Department, and Dr. Rice, of course, who could be making phone calls.

    QUESTION: -- the Vice President?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Always possible. But I track the President's phone calls. I don't have that information, Elizabeth, about the Secretary of State's phone calls, for example. But I know it's available to you.


    QUESTION: Ari, I know there are obviously differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. You, and the President's remarks last night, seem to be saying that the U.S. can do for Iraq what it did for Afghanistan.

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the point the President was making is that in the event that force is used, just as you're seeing in the Afghani people -- a yearning to be free, a yearning to be entrepreneurial, a yearning to engage in democracy -- the President believes that that same yearning exists around the world, and of course, exists in the people of Iraq.

    The people of Iraq have been tortured; the people of Iraq have been denied the ability to have their own God-given rights exercised because they live under a tyrannical dictatorship that tortures and kills. And the President does believe, deeply, that when you remove that layer of government at the top that has kept the Iraqi people oppressed, their natural rights to be free will emerge. And the President does have beliefs that they will emerge in a democratic direction.

    QUESTION: One of the things that's been talked in the last -- talked about in the last few days is that one of the generals is saying that it will take several hundred thousand troops to be in Iraq. And whether or not that is nation-building or not, obviously those troops have to provide the security and the circumstances in which nation-building can take place. One, how do you make the distinction between having troops there and being involved in nation-building. And two, do you have any pledges at all from other nations that they will take part in the post-Saddam era in providing security in somewhat the same way that we have in Afghanistan?

    MR. FLEISCHER: One, the rule would be just as you said, it would be security, the purpose of maintaining some level of troops in Iraq after the fighting has stopped. And it will be a level -- I think if you talk to the Pentagon you will see there's, I'll call it an update on that figure that was provided -- you will find out that the purpose of these troops is to be there for security purposes, so that wars do not break out, that there is no resurgence of fighting in any pockets or any areas. That's vital to preserving the stability of a post Saddam Hussein. It's unclear about whether or not there would be extensive fighting or would not be, if the force is used. That remains to be seen.

    There was a third part of your question?

    QUESTION: Well, you say there's going to be an update on that figure --

    MR. FLEISCHER: I think if you'll talk to the Pentagon, you'll see that figure is --

    QUESTION: Growing smaller, is it?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think they have reviewed the original figure, and there's another figure that was made available that was smaller.

    QUESTION: Okay. The other part of the question was whether or not you have any pledges of assistance during this period.

    MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, thank you. When the President says this will be a coalition of the willing, and it will be a coalition that numbers many, he has good reason to say that. Now, the specific roles, specific missions is something, as you know, that I will not be at liberty to get into unless those nations offer it and say it first. So there will be a variety of different missions for different nations. And if force is used, I think it will become clear.


    QUESTION: Ari, can you give us a closer look on the inside as it relates to presidential considerations relating to war? Many who are opposing war feel that the President made his mind up a long time ago to go against Saddam Hussein. Has the President heard or is he listening to any words of opposition? And if so, what is he listening to, how is he still keeping his mind to go to war?

    MR. FLEISCHER: One, the President did not make his mind up a long time ago to go to war. The President made his mind up a long time ago that Saddam Hussein must be disarmed. And that's why he went to the United Nations. The United Nations, the world hopes, when it passes resolutions can enforce the resolutions it passes; otherwise, what is the purpose of passing the resolutions? And that's why the President, in September, went to the United Nations. And that's why the President continues to work with the United Nations on this matter.

    What the President believes is vital to peace is that Saddam Hussein not possess weapons of mass destruction. And that's what's driving the President on this.

    QUESTION: But is he listening to anyone who is in opposition? Like you say, he's meeting with this gentleman later on today. He likes to hear his words. Is he meeting with anyone who feels that it's wrong, it's a bad time, the economy, this that, the other? Is he meeting with --

    MR. FLEISCHER: Certainly, April, as you know, the President regularly meets with members of Congress who have opinions, and they're not shy about expressing their opinions. The President meets with foreign leaders, some of whom see things in similar ways, subtly different ways that the President does. And the President, I think, also is aware and follows public opinion. But the President has said repeatedly, one way or another Saddam Hussein will be disarmed.


    QUESTION: Quick question -- who at the White House at the high levels watched the interview Dan Rather made with Saddam Hussein? And who informed the President --

    MR. FLEISCHER: I did not do a TV guide this morning, so I don't know what people did when they got home last night. Many of them may have still been here, for all I know.

    QUESTION: Did the President watch it, Ari?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, I'm sure people watched it.

    QUESTION: I mean in the White House.

    MR. FLEISCHER: I don't have a listing of who watched what show last night on TV.

    QUESTION: If he could watch, did the President get --

    MR. FLEISCHER: I know "Joe Millionaire" was not on last night, so there was other viewing available. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: If the President didn't watch it, who would have briefed him on it?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President had a pretty good understanding what Saddam Hussein was going to lie about. And so his lies, his propaganda -- the way I sum up last night's show was it was 60 minutes of lies, propaganda, and deception.

    QUESTION: Did you see it?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I saw it.

    QUESTION: Did the President see it?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know.

    QUESTION: Following up on a question from this morning, has the White House heard yet from any of the Arab states regarding the President's remarks last night, officially -- one way or the other?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I have not gotten any reports. The State Department, typically, is the collector of such reports from their embassies. I have not seen any reports.

    QUESTION: Unrelated follow, please? I realize you don't comment about American troop movements. But I wonder if you might have an assessment of the Iraqi troop movements. Apparently, they're putting equipment into the city --

    MR. FLEISCHER: That also would be covered by the Defense Department, as far as any discussions about movements.

    QUESTION: Ari, this morning you cited lack of terrorist -- yes, lack of terrorist financing as one of the advantages of ending Saddam Hussein's rule. I just want to clear up, you weren't actually suggesting that Saddam Hussein is in the same league as countries like Iran in terms of financing terrorist groups like Hezbollah?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I made two points, and one of them -- to be crystal clear -- is, yes, Iraq finances terrorism. Iraq provides funding for suicide bombers who have been one of the greatest sources of instability between Israel and the Palestinians. Yes, emphatically, yes.

    QUESTION: But are they a major provider in the same league as countries like Iran? And what have they provided that we know of, other than some funding to the families of suicide bombers?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's clear that they are a major provider. As Secretary Powell said when he went up to New York and he listed at the beginning of his speech, Saddam Hussein's long involvement with terrorist organizations.


    QUESTION: Ari, the President last night said that removing Saddam would create new opportunities for Middle East peace. You mentioned one of the reasons earlier, that it would deny terrorist groups certain amount of funding. Are there other reasons beyond that, and would the President follow his Dad's lead in calling for some sort of a Madrid post-conflict peace conference? Is that what he was getting at?

    MR. FLEISCHER: One, the issue about denial of funds for the suicide bombers is important. Clearly, the less resources they have, the less damage they can inflict. Two, I think to state the obvious, what the President was saying last night is the more there are nations in a troubled region that are based on democratic values, who have reform-minded leaders whose dedication is to peace and not instability, the more the likelihood that the Middle East can be a region where peace is achieved. Jordan has achieved peace with Israel; Egypt has achieved peace with Israel. What's so important is for that method, that serious approach to peace to spread. The farther it spreads in the region, the more the likelihood of Israel and the Palestinians being able to achieve an agreement themselves.

    As for anything that would follow, I think it's too soon to say with precision. And one of the interesting factors that, of course, led to some of the confidence that Madrid would be successful is, when you take a look at Resolution 687, which called for the disarmament of Iraq, following the war in 1991, of course, Iraq was supposed to disarm, giving hope to the world that there would be a different style of leadership in Iraq, within 45 days of that resolution's passage in 1991. And of course, today is now 4,296 days since Iraq was given that deadline to completely disarm.

    QUESTION: Ari, as these threat levels go up and down, anxiety levels go up and down, especially in places like D.C. and New York. Is the government suggesting that people should get used to this, this should just become part of the landscape like a weather forecast? Are you concerned about a credibility problem when it goes up, and then two weeks later you pull it back to yellow?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, I think if you take a look at the way people have reacted to all events since September 11th, there is a widespread recognition across the country that September 11th changed many things. And it changed the American people's understanding about whether or not there can be threats here at home. And this is not something that's new to the American people. During World War II, the World War II generation experienced it. Certainly during the Cold War, people practiced drills and accepted the risks of what could happen in the event of a nuclear confrontation. Certainly, in the city -- New York City, you can still walk down the streets and see signs for fallout shelters that are part and parcel to people getting used to domestic threats.

    Every generation has faced different domestic threats. Every generation of Americans has always met those challenges and faced those threats. And so, too, in the era of terrorism, the President has every confidence that the American people will meet whatever the domestic challenge is.

    QUESTION: Ari, the Columbian government keeps insisting that the IRA helps the FARC rebels upgrade their explosives techniques. And as St. Patrick's Day comes up, do you still expect to welcome Gerry Adams to the White House?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I have no information about any upcoming visits. As we have something, we'll announce it. And we continue to work closely with the government of Colombia in their fight against the FARC.

    QUESTION: Is there any indication that Mexico is easing its opposition in the U.N. Security Council to the new resolution?

    MR. FLEISCHER: It's not going to be my place to speculate or to give status reports about various nations' positions as they consider the resolution before them. I think that would have to come from those nations.

    QUESTION: Does the administration view immigration reforms or other things that are on the binational agenda tied to their support in the U.N.?

    MR. FLEISCHER: The President has always viewed immigration reforms, such things as family unification, as an important priority for the United States.

    QUESTION: Is it tied to their support in the U.N.?

    MR. FLEISCHER: They are, in and of themselves, important and worth goals. And with or without Iraq, the President would be pushing them, as you know. He began his term pushing them, and he intends to continue to push them and hope the Congress will agree. This, at all times, would be good times for Congress to agree to family reunification.

    QUESTION: Ari, you mentioned that the President talked with Mr. Putin this morning about North Korea. What exactly was the President pursuing? How far did they get in their discussion about a next step?

    MR. FLEISCHER: The President's message when he talks to these leaders is about the importance of North Korea recognizing that they are only further isolating themselves, which is something that all nations in the region agree. There is a mutual agreement that the world will be safer and the Peninsula will be safer if it's a denuclearized one.

    There are -- many nations have relations with North Korea, and the most important nations in the area that have relations with North Korea, of course, are the Chinese, the Russians, the Japanese and the South Koreans. They have varying degrees of relations. I think it's also fair to say that there are varying degrees of ways of these nations working with North Korea. Some do it a little more overtly, some do it a little more quietly. But in all cases, there is widespread agreement that North Korea is only isolating itself.

    END 1:16 P.M. EST