Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, March 19, 2003 (Full Transcript)
QUESTION: Has the President consulted with any former
Presidents besides his father in terms of -- and does he have the
endorsement for the war on Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Helen, as I told you this morning, you
need to address to former Presidents what they would say about whether
or not they support the President's endeavors. In any case, any
communication that the President, himself, has with former Presidents I
leave as a private matter between Presidents.
QUESTION: Well, has he consulted with any outsiders
at all, outside of the government?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, anything involving the Presidents, I
always leave, as is protocol, that as a matter of privacy among the
various Presidents. And the President has relied extensively on the
information that he has from his meetings with the security team, as
well, of course, with foreign leaders whose counsel he seeks on a
QUESTION: You mean Americans?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, foreign leaders whose counsel he seeks
on a regular basis.
QUESTION: Ari, can you confirm that the
administration has asked Iraqi opposition leaders here in this country
to return to Northern Iraq and be in position?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I saw there was somebody on the
Hill who suggested that yesterday, and I cannot confirm that. I've not
been able to get that confirmed; I don't know.
QUESTION: Is the administration talking to these
people? And would you like to have them in position, and how do you
envision them --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course, we talk to those people,
yes. And as you know, there are programs underway, working with them,
training them, in Hungary. And there was a meeting in Northern Iraq
that a White House representative went to several weeks ago.
And the purpose of these contacts and the purpose of this dialogue
and meetings is because the government of Iraq must be run by Iraqis in
the future. And we have always said that this will be a government
that comes from within inside Iraq, as well as Iraqis from outside the
country. And so, of course, we have conversations with those people.
This is all part of the planning for a post-Saddam Iraq.
QUESTION: How long do you expect that American forces
would be in control of the country, before you were able to hand over
MR. FLEISCHER: It's impossible to say. It will be as long
as is necessary to do the job right, to provide the security atmosphere
for Iraqis to govern their own country. It will be as long as is
necessary, but not a day longer.
QUESTION: What about the administration's expressed
expectation that the Turks, if they go into Northern Iraq, will be
under the command of coalition forces? Have you gotten that
MR. FLEISCHER: It's the same statement I made yesterday.
We've made our point --
QUESTION: Have you heard anything back? Is it under
MR. FLEISCHER: We've made our point; we think our point is
QUESTION: Okay. And then, one other thing --
Ambassador Negroponte, at the U.N. this morning, told the other members
of the Security Council that he looks forward to working with them in
the days and the weeks ahead on issues that the Security Council will
be involved in. Can you outline with any specificity what the
President thinks the role of the U.N. will be, going forward?
MR. FLEISCHER: Sure, and this was addressed in the meeting
in the Azores and a communique that was issued following the meeting,
that talked about the role of the United Nations. This was a joint
statement by the four leaders. And in there, President Bush said, as
well as the other leaders said, that it's important for the United
Nations to have a role in the humanitarian aspects of rebuilding Iraq.
And so that's -- you may want to just go back to the exact document
to find the precise words. But, clearly, there is a role for the
United Nations in the future of Iraq in terms of that humanitarian
QUESTION: Do you expect any political role? In some
of these other situations, there have been U.N. officials who have
assumed responsibility for civil administration, in Kosovo, East Timor,
places like that.
MR. FLEISCHER: I'd refer you to the exact language in that
document. I've not brought that document with me. But that is the
document that sets forth the policy and says it in precise terms.
QUESTION: With eight hours to go to the deadline,
have you gotten any indication from the Iraqi government that Saddam
plans to step down?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. With just a short amount of time to go
before the deadline, we have not received, unfortunately, any
indication from Saddam Hussein that he intends to leave the country.
QUESTION: The subsequent question I have for you is,
the President in his speech two nights ago described the Iraqi threat
as one that could be one to five years into the future to obtain either
a nuclear weapon or something that could strike us, a non-imminent
threat. In the President's mind, is he in this action, setting a
precedent that the United States could now act, either preemptively or
preventively, depending on how you define it, against a threat that is
not an imminent one against the United States?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, here's how the President approaches
this. He believes, number one, based on the reviews conducted by the
attorneys, that there already exists a legal basis both in
international law, as well as in domestic law, for the use of force to
disarm Saddam Hussein. And that is also found in Security Council
Resolution 678 and 687, as well as 1441. The President also believes
that there is a gathering threat from Iraq, that with the failure by
Saddam Hussein to disarm of his weapons of mass destruction presents a
threat to the security of the United States. And therefore, he has
come to the conclusion that after exhausting the diplomacy, that
military force must be used if Saddam Hussein does not get out of the
That summarizes it for him. In terms of precedents, et cetera,
David, I think some people have made the case -- and different people
will have different historical views of these things -- but you can
look at the Cuban missile crisis, of course, where there was a decision
made without the United States being "attacked" to conduct a quarantine
or an embargo, which, of course, international lawyers will tell you is
an act of war.
And so I think you're going to find the historians, legal scholars
will have differing conclusions about these matters. But the
conclusion the President reaches is that Iraq's failure to disarm
presents a threat to the people of the United States and, therefore, he
is prepared to use force.
QUESTION: Even if you were absent the U.N.
resolutions, if they didn't exist, he would still think he would have
justification under the current circumstances?
MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question about that.
QUESTION: The report that came with -- the
seven-page report, one of the points it makes in trying to make the
case that moving against Saddam would help the war on terrorism is that
detained Iraqis could help identify terrorists living in the United
States. I'm assuming, first of all, by "detained," we're talking about
folks who have been captured in the war. Is that correct?
And, secondly, what evidence do we have, what reason do we have to
believe that detained Iraqis would be able to point us to suspects
living in this country?
MR. FLEISCHER: Ron, let me re-read the report to take a
look at that provision, in particular. When I read it -- let me take
a look at that, in that particular regard. The report focuses on --
as the congressional requirements dictate -- Congress, when it passed
the resolution with huge bipartisan support last fall, laid out several
reporting requirements imposed on the administration if a decision was
made to use force. The report was required either immediately before
or within 48 hours of the use of force. It said before, or 48 hours
QUESTION: -- for this provision is, is making the
argument, as required by the resolution, that a movement against Iraq
would help on the war against terrorism. In that section the claim was
made that it would help identify terrorists here. If you could provide
some guidance as to how we can make that claim.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. What the report required on the
question of terrorism, is that in connection -- this is reading from
the law that triggers the formal requirement to put together the
written report, which was sent last night -- and now I'm reading from
the October 16, 2002 statute.
"In connection with the exercise of the authority granted in
subsection to use force, the President shall, prior to the exercise of
such force, but no later than 48 hours after, make available to the
Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate, a
determination that" -- here's the piece on the terrorism section --
"acting pursuant to this joint resolution is consistent with the United
States and other countries continuing to take necessary actions against
international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those
nations, organizations or persons who planned, authorized, committed or
aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11th." The
report walks through that this is consistent with that.
QUESTION: Right. And I think you understand -- I'm
not challenging that, I'm just asking about the one, what I think is a
new rationale, a new explanation for why the United States thinks it
would help --
QUESTION: Ari, you mentioned this morning that there
was evidence of some "unease" in senior Iraqi circles. Could you share
with us any evidence to that effect? And also could you share with us
some of the factors the President will consider, sort of the pros and
cons, as he picks the time of his choosing?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that you can see from ample
public reporting, from the many communications that have been had with
the Iraqi people through the form of leaflets and other things that are
very publicly known, there is unease throughout Iraq.
QUESTION: Any evidence that senior officials in that
government are trying to defect, have attempted to defect?
MR. FLEISCHER: Anything about any one individual or another
is not something that I would be able to get into. If something like
that were to happen, I would imagine it would be a matter of time
before it is publicly known. But there's nothing I can get into on
QUESTION: And the various factors?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's safe to say that the President,
having made the speech he made to the nation about the gathering threat
and the decision that force will be necessary if Saddam Hussein does
not leave, will work very closely with the will work very closely with
the Department of Defense and with the military planners on what,
indeed, makes it a moment of our choosing. The President will be
guided by the best military advice available, and that will help shape
QUESTION: Ari, sort of repeating my question from
this morning, and following on that one. Since the President has not
expressly promised not to begin military operations before the
ultimatum, the 48-hour ultimatum ends, therefore, we could expect
military operations to begin at any point in time?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to get into any
speculation about when military operations can begin for what I imagine
you all know are the obvious reasons. Why would anybody want to give
QUESTION: Right, but the White House does not believe
it is constrained by the 48-hour ultimatum to stop Hussein not to begin
any military operations before that time?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's language spoke for itself
about Saddam Hussein and 48 hours to avoid military conflict, and that
the use of force can begin at a moment of our own choosing. I'm just
not going to go beyond that.
QUESTION: You mentioned the language in the letter
sent to the Hill that said, if a decision to take military action is
made, then this notification would go to Congress. Should we interpret
this as a sign that the President has, in fact, made the conceptual
decision to use military force?
MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question about that. The
President made that clear to the American people in his speech the
QUESTION: So we have crossed that point. He just
hasn't made the decision about exactly when forces would, in fact, move
MR. FLEISCHER: The President made very plain to the
American people that as a result of Saddam Hussein's failure to disarm,
and his possession of weapons of mass destruction, he has come to the
determination that the only way to enforce the United Nations
resolutions now is through the use of force. He gave Saddam Hussein 48
hours to leave Iraq in order to avoid military conflict.
QUESTION: As we're on the brink of war, is there any
kind of message the White House wants to send to Iraqi forces? I mean,
perhaps an appeal to surrender, or assurances they'd be protected if
they gave up?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's message to Iraqi forces is
this is not your war. This is your regime; don't follow the orders of
the regime. The Iraqi people are the innocents who are caught in
between. And the President would very much like to see the Iraqi
people save their lives, the Iraqi military save their lives, by laying
down their arms and by not following their orders.
QUESTION: Ari, two things. At 8:00 p.m., what should
the American public understand as it relates to potential war with
MR. FLEISCHER: At 8:00 p.m. tonight, the American people
will know Saddam Hussein has committed his final act of defiance. The
President has urged Saddam Hussein to leave the country so that
military conflict can be avoided. At 8:00 p.m., we will know whether
Saddam Hussein has chosen to do that, or not. We have no indications
that he has chosen to do that, unfortunately.
QUESTION: My second question, why is it that the
State Department last week declined a proposal from former Congressman
Walter Fauntroy, with a group of ecumenical ministers who went to Iraq
and met with Tariq Aziz about total disarmament -- why did the State
Department say, no, this is a no-deal issue?
MR. FLEISCHER: We have made it abundantly clear from the
very beginning that this is not a negotiable matter with Iraq. Iraq
must comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions and
immediately, and fully, and unconditionally disarm. That's not a
QUESTION: And Ari, this was last week, and they said
they would have total disarmament in exchange that you could buy their
oil with U.S. dollars --
MR. FLEISCHER: If that was the case, you'd have thought
Iraq would have done it. It's not a quid pro quo. Iraq needed to have
followed the binding resolutions of the United Nations.
QUESTION: Ari, for awhile now we've been asking when
the President is going to have an open discussion with the American
people about the benefits and the costs of any war. Yet in his speech
last night -- or Monday night, we didn't hear anything from the
President about the potential risks of this war. Why hasn't he --
MR. FLEISCHER: The President warned the American people
there will be sacrifice in this road ahead. The President made that
plain. And if you're asking the question of costs, in terms of
dollars, not human lives --
QUESTION: I'm asking about human lives.
MR. FLEISCHER: The President said that. The President said
that in his speech the other night that there would be sacrifice. And I
think the American people understand that. The American people clearly
have seen what has been developing for months and months and months, as
a result of the diplomatic endeavors that the President tried, while
making plain and certain to the American people and to Iraq that if
Iraq did not disarm, force would be used. And the American people
understand that if force is used, lives may be lost, indeed. I think
there's no question the country understands that.
QUESTION: But do you think that they really
understand the potential for the loss of human life here if they're
using recent wars, like Afghanistan or the first Persian Gulf War,
which were very different from this?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's no question the American
people understand that. I think if you just talk to people in the
street, they'll tell you they understand that there are risks to life,
and the President has made that clear.
QUESTION: Saddam Hussein is holding tight just like
Hitler in 1945, as far as at this hour, a little over seven hours to go
for the deadline. And how is the President holding up in the most
difficult decision of his life as a President, as a citizen, as a
commander-in-chief -- so are we looking also at the same time, when
we go and attack -- the U.S. forces go to attack Iraq, they are
looking Saddam Hussein dead or alive?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that the President
has thought about this for a considerably long period of time, and has
thought about this carefully. And if force is used, the President will
authorize force, knowing that it was in the cause of peace to disarm
Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction, so that
Saddam Hussein cannot use weapons of mass destruction later at a time
and place of Saddam's choosing, which would leave us at the most
You know, one of the things that's interesting here is we seem to
have gone from a debate at the United Nations process where people
said, you haven't proved he has weapons of mass destruction, the
inspectors haven't been able to find where Saddam is hiding them, to
now rampant speculation that Saddam Hussein has chemical, biological
weapons that he is getting ready to unleash on American forces. And I
think we've seen that in all the coverage from this. That's the very
point. If people now accept the premise that he does have weapons of
mass destruction, the world could not afford, in the President's
judgment, to allow Saddam to make the timing clear from his point of
view about when he would use them. If he has them, that's the risk,
that's the problem. If he has them, the world cannot afford to let
Saddam pick who he would use them on and when he would use them,
especially if the world was not prepared to take counter-measures.
QUESTION: Do you have any information on the
whereabouts of Tariq Aziz and whether he's been shot or defected?
MR. FLEISCHER: I've seen the reports on the wire; I have no
QUESTION: Secretary Powell said that there's 30
countries, I believe, that expressed support for the United States
position, and 15 others that have secretly said -- indicated
something. Can you give us any idea how many of these countries are
willing to send military personnel to take part in this campaign?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think, as always, unless those
nations explicitly authorize us to speak about who was using --
sending combat or forces in there, it's not my place to name them.
It's their place to name them for themselves.
There may be a moment where, after sufficient authorization is
given from foreign governments, more can be said or will be said. But
I think it's fair to say, when you take a look at the entire coalition
of the willing, what you see are a sizeable number of nations that
share the United States people's commitment to disarming Saddam
Hussein, and also to the reconstruction of Iraq. And this coalition
will speak in numerous ways as different nations contribute differently
There will be a number that are involved in various ways and forms,
in combat, or in providing chem or biological teams in the event that
Saddam Hussein uses weapons of mass destruction. There will be larger
numbers that help in the supply, the over-flight. And other countries,
of course, too, that contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq.
QUESTION: Ari, two questions. The meeting at the
United Nations this morning, certain foreign ministers went -- Colin
Powell didn't go, nor the British Foreign Minister, nor the Spanish
Foreign Minister. Hans Blix has presented, or is presenting a report
on disarmament. What does the White House think of that meeting going
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's the prerogative of the United
Nations to continue to receive reports that, interestingly, the report
continues to show that there are serious questions about Saddam
Hussein's disarmament. And so the report is part of a series of items
that raise questions that get to the core of the issue. Saddam Hussein
has not given the world confidence that he has disarmed. That's what
has brought the world to the verge of going to war against Saddam
Hussein, so he does disarm.
QUESTION: Second question. I think the White House
has stated its position that it would like the United Nations to help
in the reconstruction of Iraq. And I've heard some reports that maybe
the oil money from Iraq's sale of oil could be used for
reconstruction. Is that something the White House would like to see?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's no question that the Iraqi
nation possesses a number of resources. They are a wealthy nation and
they have the ability to do what wealthy nations should do -- and
that is to turn their wealth to peaceful purposes, rather than military
The oil-for-food program is a humanitarian program implemented
through the United Nations to provide food to the people of Iraq in the
face of a dictatorship that takes all its resources away from the
people, doesn't feed the people and, instead, builds palaces and builds
bombs. And there's no question that the President believes, and much
of the world community, including the United Nations, believes, that
Iraqi wealth should be better used to serve the causes of -- the
humanitarian causes of the Iraqi people, including providing for their
food, their medicine, et cetera.
QUESTION: Just following on Peter's question, the
President sees this as a unique threat, but he's not at all concerned
that others will see this as a template for them to take their own
preemptive strikes elsewhere?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President believes this is a
matter that was pursued diligently through the United Nations, is based
on United Nations Security Council Resolutions 678, 687, and 1441; and
that, given the actions of Saddam Hussein, the threat that he presents,
the fact that he himself has authorized military attacks on his
neighbors before, that he possesses weapons of mass destruction, that
this is a circumstance unlike any other found on the Earth.
QUESTION: Ari, opponents of the war in Iraq contend
that it will increase terrorism, while the majority of our country
seems to believe that decisively removing Saddam will demoralize the
terrorist network worldwide. And my question, how does the President
assess the psychological effect of this massive military action on the
minds of terrorists?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think on two levels. One, you can
already see that the effort to fight terrorism worldwide, even with the
buildup of force in dealing with Iraq, has been very, very successful.
Al Qaeda has been severely disrupted. While threats do, indeed,
remain, and concerns are present, al Qaeda has been severely
disrupted. They have lost their ability to train in Afghanistan,
they're on the run, they're scattered throughout the world, it's not
safe for them anywhere. They know that at any given moment, any of
them can be, like their brethren before them, picked up and brought to
justice. And that has a powerful deterrent effect. And the President
also believes that the use of force against Iraq will similarly send a
powerful deterrent message to terrorists around the world that the
United States will do what it takes to prevent terrorist attacks
against our country.
END 12:59 P.M. EST