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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, April 2, 2003 (Full Transcript)

QUESTION: How is the President reacting to the stress of the war? There's an article that suggests in quotes from his friends that he feels he's being tested, that he feels burdened by this. How would you --

MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I can only say that I think the people who are talking are not people who have spent much time with the President. Because my read of having seen the President is the following -- and I see him often -- I think it's fair to say that the hardest part was the lead-up to the decision to use force. I think for any Commander-in-Chief, for the President, for this President -- that, to him, represented the most difficult time of deciding whether or not force must be used, knowing that it would put American men and women in harm's way.

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    Once the decision was made, this is a President who is very comfortable, who is very steady with the decision made. And that's what I see in him. These are serious times. We are a nation at war. And the President is always cognizant of that. Tomorrow, when the President goes to Camp Lejeune, he's going to meet with some families whose servicemen or women have lost their lives in Iraq. And that is something the President thinks about. But he also keeps in mind the purpose of the mission, the nature of the mission, the importance of the mission. And that's what I see in him.

    QUESTION: Do you feel that he feels burdened and that he feels that he is being tested?

    MR. FLEISCHER: No, I really can't say that. I think -- when you say burdened, I don't know how to define what the word burdened means. I think any time a President of the United States authorizes the use of force, when this President has authorized the use of force, he understands the serious nature of that. But when he does so because he feels so strongly and so deeply, and has he has shared with the public the important reasons why force has to be used, the President is somebody who has set his sights on a mission and is proud of the men and women who are carrying out the mission, and he is resolved to see it through.

    He is comfortable with the decisions that are made. And I think that you'll see tomorrow at Camp Lejeune that it's going to be a private meeting with the families. As you know, the President does think carefully about these decisions to put people in harm's way. And he cares deeply about that.

    QUESTION: Ari, has the U.S. any contact with the Iraqis, or any third- party intervention to end the war?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Not that I know.

    QUESTION: Ari, can I follow up on Ron's question? You said he had a hint of it earlier in the day and he knew something was going on. Did he know that there was a rescue mission underway to try to get one of the POWs?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I really am not going to go into any more depth than that, than what I said. Just, without being specific, there was some generalized information, obviously of a highly classified nature. And -- but as far as the timing, the tactical aspects, he did not.

    QUESTION: I'm not asking about any of that. I'm asking -- and I know it's classified, but now everyone knows that DOD received intelligence that Jessica Lynch might be alive and that they were going to launch this special operation mission to get her.

    MR. FLEISCHER: Campbell, I'm just not at liberty to get into any more specifics about what it was that the President got hinted.

    QUESTION: I'm trying to get a sense for how much the President is tuned in to the daily developments on the ground. I mean, this is a big deal, obviously.

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, obviously, when I say he's tuned in, he's tuned in. He's tuned in; the Secretary informed him about it at ten of 5:00 p.m.

    That was part of the regular briefing that the President receives on all events, particularly something like this. But on many of the different events in the theater, the President is told about it. Earlier in the day he received some generalized information about some possibilities -- or this possibility, and I just leave it at that.

    QUESTION: Possibilities of what?

    MR. FLEISCHER: This possibility, that what transpired later in the day may happen.

    QUESTION: What transpired later in the day?

    MR. FLEISCHER: The rescue. And that was singular.

    QUESTION: Iraq has a debt, an external debt of about $100 billion. It's a huge burden, obviously, even with its oil reserves -- run up by Saddam Hussein, unelected dictator, building palaces and weapons. And there is --

    MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, he was elected. He had 100 percent he said.

    QUESTION: I stand corrected. There is a proposal out there that once Saddam Hussein and his regime are gone, that the people of Iraq should not be burdened with this debt, that it should be forgiven, partly to liberate them from this conduct of Saddam Hussein, and also to teach banks and corporations and countries who lent such a tyrant that kind of money a lesson not to do it in the future. Does the President have a feeling on what should be done with Iraq's debt?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I think that all of these issues are going to be the issues that are going to be part of the reconstruction effort. And these decisions will get made with the international community. Obviously, there are a number of nations who have money that is owed to them -- owed by the state. The state will continue to exist. And so, therefore, it is still an important issue. The people of Iraq will have a role in this, as well. So I don't think anybody can tell you what the outcome will be.

    The one thing that is certain is Iraq is a wealthy nation. Iraq has vast resources. Iraq will have -- unlike Afghanistan, for example -- Iraq will have a huge financial base from within upon which to draw. And that's because of their oil wealth. And that should serve benevolent purposes in the future, should serve peaceful purposes, should serve trade purposes in the future. It has a future, also, where the trade sanctions will get lifted one day.

    QUESTION: So you aren't ruling in or out debt forgiveness for Iraq?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, I'm just saying I think it's too soon for anybody to give any assurances on one way or another. As I said, state-to- state relations continue, even if a regime is changed.

    QUESTION: Can I ask a more specific question? Does the United States know now that forces are within 15 miles, perhaps closer to Baghdad, the day after this regime falls -- literally, the day after -- who runs the financial system in Iraq? Who runs its diplomacy? Who runs its oil fields?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this will be part of the whole reconstruction effort.

    QUESTION: But we don't know that yet?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think when the day the Taliban fell, did we know the name of the new President of Afghanistan? No. The point is, the best way to ensure the future stability of a country is to take care first of the security matters, which is first, to make certain that the regime is disarmed, to make certain that Saddam Hussein and those around him are not in power. And things will evolve, and I think things will evolve in different parts of the country at a different pace. Already you're seeing some talk by the British of empowering Iraqi officials to run certain affairs in some of the areas that they have now controlled.

    And so, again, I think you're going to see different things, different regions of the country. But broadly, the effort is designed to make certain that security is enhanced. They'll be additional handovers of roles to the Iraqi people from both within and without.

    QUESTION: There seems to be a new big push going on towards Baghdad at the moment, and the Pentagon said today that the toughest fighting may be ahead of us still. One of the criticisms of this administration is that the rationale for the war has seemed to change over time. So, for the record, at this point, would you say what -- how would this administration define a victory?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has been unequivocal. He said it in his speech in Philadelphia, he's been saying it on all his remarks, and I think this is something you've heard repeatedly out of the Pentagon: this mission in Iraq is about the disarmament of the Iraqi regime. It is also about making certain that Saddam Hussein and those around him are no longer in power so they can do this again to the Iraqi people or to the world. Those are the two missions.

    QUESTION: It has to be both things in order to be a victory? One or the other doesn't --

    MR. FLEISCHER: It always has been. And that is the purpose of the military effort.

    QUESTION: Can you tell us what the threshold is for Defense officials coming to the President and asking for some sort of fresh authorization, aside from any classified matters? Are there circumstances under which they must come to him for a fresh authorization?

    MR. FLEISCHER: You know there is really nothing that's been brought to my attention like that. What happened is, here, the President develops a war plan with the experts, with the National Security Council, with the DOD, with the generals, with the CINC, with the Secretary of Defense. The plan is approved. And Tommy Franks' job is to carry out the plan. And that is what is happening.

    I can't, off the top of my head, Jim, give you an example of something that only the President can authorize. But, again, I think it's important to understand the President's approach to how wars are won -- the President's approach to how important it is for the Commander-in-Chief to make certain that there is accountability by asking questions about the mission so that people in charge of the mission can answer to the President about how the mission is being conducted and carried out.

    But the President wants to make certain that the commanders in the field know that they are comfortable making the calls and making decisions.

    That's part of the whole military approach, too. When you talk to top military officials, they'll tell you they don't micromanage the actual levels on the battlefield. There are decisions that are made by lieutenants. There are decisions that are made by captains. There are decisions that are made by majors, et cetera. And that's how the President thinks wars are best won.

    QUESTION: The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has called for a postwar conference sponsored by the U.N. of Iraq's various -- leadership of Iraq's various ethnic groups, with the hopes that one of them would emerge as the next leader. Is the U.S. endorsing this plan? And, if not, why?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we'll continue to work with all parties about the leadership of Iraq. But I think that, again, as the President has made clear, the leadership of Iraq will come from the Iraqi people. There are those who have lived and suffered under Saddam Hussein's regime that the President thinks should have very important role in the governance of their own country. There are people who fled, have lived abroad who also should have an important say and role in the future of their country. And we will continue to work with these groups on the exact formulation of the best structure, the best form of government.

    QUESTION: So this particular forum, you believe, sponsored by the U.N. is not the best structure?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there are numerous forums. We're going to take a broad look.

    QUESTION: Ari, briefly on the Lejeune visit tomorrow and the remarks the President is going to make in public, the Pentagon today was just reporting the destruction of two divisions, U.S. forces within two dozen miles of Baghdad. Is it safe to assume the President's going to again underscore how much of the fight still remains ahead?

    MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President will talk about the progress being made in the war. And he continues to be pleased with the progress that is being made. But as was pointed out, the Pentagon today, difficult days, difficult times very well may lie ahead. And so I think as much progress is being made, people have to be tempered, calibrated to the reality of the situation on the ground and not go too far in one direction or another. Events are as they are, and progress is being made.

    QUESTION: And last thing, there's been a lot of discussion in the British press about the annoyance that the Brits have that they are not allowed to be in on the business. What is the President's response to Mr. Blair, or anyone in that government, about whether the Brits can compete for that business?

    MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President does not decide who gets contracts. These are issues that are to be decided by the USAID, as part of their contracting authorities and their decisions.

    QUESTION: As far as the President is concerned, the British would qualify if they can do the work?

    MR. FLEISCHER: The President wants to make certain that all the rules are followed. He believe they're being followed, and USAID makes these calls.

    QUESTION: And that would be the same for the French?

    MR. FLEISCHER: USAID makes these calls.