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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, January 15, 2003
Q: Ari, on Iraq -- there have been some reports that Saddam Hussein has sent emissaries around to at least one Arab state to potentially discuss exile. Has any of this crossed your radar screen at all? Is this something that the White House has picked up on?
MR. FLEISCHER: You've known from repeated statements from both the State Department and here that if Saddam Hussein were to leave his country, that would be a welcome event.
Q: But are you hearing that he actually has someone out there --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think at this point it's very hard to assess if Saddam Hussein has any interest in that.
Q: The President has said that the difference between North Korea and Iraq is that diplomacy is somehow running out with Iraq, even though they've had a decade of broken agreements with North Korea, as well. So isn't the real difference here that North Korea has nukes and Iraq probably doesn't?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, actually, you say "a decade" with North Korea -- the facts of the matter in terms of North Korea's violating the agreed framework, the agreed framework was entered into in 1994. And North Korea began to violate it in the late 1990s, and that information didn't become knowable to the federal government and acted upon until the summer of 2002. And as soon as it was known, we acted upon it. And so I really differ with your time frame here to compare the two.
Q: Isn't the possibility of war pretty much off the table mostly because North Korea has nukes and any war would be devastating in terms of casualties?
MR. FLEISCHER: The issue is exactly as the President framed it. The issue is that the President believes that this can be settled peacefully with North Korea through the use of diplomacy. And that's why we're working together with the other regional nations.
Q: Ari, the President said yesterday he was sick and tired of games and deception from Iraq. And yet on the ground, the inspectors, at least, are telling the press there on the ground that they're getting where they want to go when they want to go there. And Hans Blix said yesterday that there are months more of work to be done by these inspectors. What specific games and deception was the President referring to?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me make a couple points on that. Number one, if you saw some of the statements that were made by Dr. Elbaradei of the IAEA in Moscow this morning, he made clear that the inspectors are not satisfied with what Iraq has been doing. As he put it, "I intend to impress upon Iraq" -- this is a quote from Dr. ElBaradei -- "the need to shift gear from passive cooperation to active cooperation."
And if you recall in the report that was made to the United Nations by the inspectors, they cited a whole series of deceptions and evasions that Iraq is engaged in, including on the substantive level, inconsistencies in Iraq's -- and discrepancies with Iraq's description of its special munitions, illegal imports involving a relatively large number of missile engines, contradictions involving the chemical agent VX.
These are all items that Dr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei cited in their dealings with Iraq in just the couple-week or more-than-one-month period that the inspectors have been on the ground. They've also cited the list of scientists that Iraq turned over to the inspectors as being an absolutely inadequate list that failed to make a serious effort. So all is not so good from the inspectors' point of view as they review Iraqi cooperation and compliance.
As to some of the things that the President is talking about, I want to remind you that throughout the early to mid-1990s when there were suspicions about what type of programs Iraq had involving weapons of mass destruction, Iraq denied it had weapons of mass destruction. That lie was laid to rest when it was later discovered in 1995 that the head of Iraq's military industries defected. And he blew the whistle on the Iraqis and they lied about what they had.
And then, as the inspectors departed Iraq in the 1990s, here's what they knew was left behind that remains unaddressed today that gave rise to what the President said yesterday. The regime forced to admit that it produced more than 30,000 liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents. The inspectors concluded that Iraq likely produced two to four times that amount. That's a massive stockpile, and it's never been accounted for and it's capable of killing millions. It remains unaccounted for. The Iraqis did not account for it in the most recent briefing they gave to the United Nations.
Q: Ari, some so-called experts are saying that with a big buildup of U.S. troops and weapons in the Persian Gulf area, America is too far down the road to war to turn back. Does the President feel the same way?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has made no decisions about whether or not we will go to war. Indeed, much of this still depends on Saddam Hussein, whether Saddam Hussein will get the message that time is running out and he needs to actively comply with the inspections and the inspectors.
Q: Will Turkey allow us to use its bases and ports to attack Iraq? How much will that cost us?
MR. FLEISCHER: As always -- and I think you're used to this by now -- any dealings on anything operational, you need to check with the Pentagon.
Q: Ari, how does the fact that there are no black Republicans in Congress affect the message that the President -- the message that you've been stressing today, a message of the national goal of diversity?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there's never been a black President yet, it still remains an important goal. So I don't think it matters whether or not somebody is of one race or another; it matters what the policies and the ideas are that they espouse. And that's how this President approaches it. This is about policy, this is about helping people, and doing so in a way that treats people fairly and provides opportunity.
Q: As titular head of the Republican Party, does he feel that this might pose a credibility problem for him on this issue, when there are no black Republicans in Congress?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, as I addressed it, that this is a matter of substantive issues and policy and that's how the President has been approaching it.
Q: Has a decision been reached on how to address the problem of surface-to-air missiles and commercial airlines? And, secondly, who would pay for that? Are the airlines going to end up having to pay for those safety features?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, as I indicated this morning, there continue to be conversations about that and I anticipate you can -- those conversations will continue. There are many different types of ways to provide increased protections to the traveling public from the remote threat of this possibility. And those are all being discussed by the FBI, by the Transportation Security Administration, the FAA, National Security Council, et cetera.
Q: But you said steps have been taken care of this morning. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, as I said to you this morning, Bill, there's -- some of the steps -- some of these things involve proliferation. Some of these steps involve things that, as I indicated, the traveling public will never be able to know about.
Q: Ari --
MR. FLEISCHER: Go ahead.
Q: There are reports coming in from the states that approximately 1 to 2 million Americans are being knocked off the Medicaid roles in connection with the general austerity policies which the states are forced to impose on their budget, of which usually Medicaid is the second largest expense that they have. Given that these people are not going to receive the benefit of the tax cut, does the President have anything to offer them --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, on the federal level, Medicaid is an entitlement. And so, therefore, no matter what the number of people are on Medicaid or whatever the status of the federal budget is -- in good times or bad -- if you qualify under federal law, you are entitled to it. And so that provision remains in effect to provide the maximum amount of services to low-income people who have health care needs.
Q: But effectively, the law is being changed, that there are limitations being placed. Not only are people being deprived of Medicaid, but also the benefits that were generally offered are being cut because of the necessity to cut the budget. Last year there were 75 senators who proposed a larger federal contribution to Medicaid. And that was opposed by the White House. Would the White House -- given the new circumstances now, serious circumstances for these people -- change its mind with regard to the federal --
MR. FLEISCHER: No. And I just gave you the answer to how the federal role in Medicaid works.
Q: Ari, two things. Last week Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said that soldiers drafted to service in the military, "added no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services." The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation called this an egregious slur and a great insult to the memory, sacrifice and valor of those who lost their lives in Vietnam. One Vietnam vet, Thomas Gohan (phonetic), of Rochester, New York, said this, as a draftee who spent a year of his life in Vietnam: "I would like to suggest that perhaps my inferior service to our country wouldn't have been necessary if those proud, flag-waving patriots like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the rest of the cowards had come forward to enlist. I would like to see Secretary Rumsfeld repeat his speech in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day."
Does the President agree with Secretary Rumsfeld that soldiers drafted to service added no value to the United States armed service?
MR. FLEISCHER: Russell, Russell, Russell, while I'm honored that you chose -- in the face of a Rumsfeld briefing at the same time as mine -- to come here, I'm sure that if you took the entire text of what Secretary Rumsfeld said to Secretary Rumsfeld and asked him, and shared with him the entire context of what Secretary Rumsfeld said, you would have thought twice about taking any one statement. I think if you look at everything Secretary Rumsfeld said, you'd have a very, very different picture.
Q: Can I have a second question?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. Connie.
Q: Thank you. I'm reading the President's speech to the African nations, and he thanks them for their support and friendship in the war against terrorism. How much assistance has Africa given? I understand there's quite a bit of anti-Americanism now and sentiment against an Iraqi war in Africa.
MR. FLEISCHER: How much assistance have they given in which issue?
Q: The anti-terrorism.
MR. FLEISCHER: There are several nations in Africa, all have contributed in the war against terrorism, and are proud to do so, and work shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States. As always, our policy is that it's up to each nation to describe what their efforts are. But obviously, there are many African nations that are involved. Africa has been a victim of terrorism. Kenya is one of the most prime examples of a nation in Africa that has repeatedly been victimized by terrorists.
Q: Part of the political swirl around this Michigan case is coming from conservatives who fear that the President is not going to go all the way and call for the abolition of racial preferences in college admissions. Is the President worried about losing political support from both his right and his left on this deal?
MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, the President is approaching this in a substantive way.
Q: How much ground is the President willing to give in the Senate in order to get a compromise through on his tax bill?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, if you're asking me to negotiate in public, I thank you for the honor, but that's something that the President is not going to do. The President is going to fight for the bill that he proposed. He understands that Congress, of course, has an important role to play and they are just beginning the process of playing that role. But let the process begin and the President is going to fight for the plan that he sent up there.
Q: How difficult is the battle going to be in the Senate?
MR. FLEISCHER: That remains to be seen.
Q: Ari, on the Venezuelan crisis, is the President directly involved in the negotiations to form the so-called group Friends of Venezuela? And why is the United States opposed to the inclusion of Brazil in that group?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is being led by the Organization of American States and is being handled principally by, as you would expect, the diplomatic channels through the State Department. This is an issue which the administration continues to monitor and monitor closely, because of the delicacy of the situation involving Venezuela and our hopes that the difficulties and the violence there can be resolved through peaceful, democratic and constitutional means.
Q: One more on the topic of race. Does the President consider racial diversity a plus when it comes to hiring people within the White House or within the administration?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I defer on all questions until you see the President's --
Q: You can't defer something that has nothing to do with this case.
MR. FLEISCHER: I just did.
Q: Wait a second, Ari. I don't think -- I think people expect to have that question answered when it comes to hiring practices at the White House. It doesn't relate to college admissions. I'm asking you whether he believes --
MR. FLEISCHER: In the obvious context of what is about to happen and is pending, in terms of you being able to hear from the President about this --
Q: It has nothing to do with the case. It's an issue. Has anybody within the White House ever said that it was a plus, that racial diversity was a plus within the White House when it came to hiring, or within the administration?
MR. FLEISCHER: April.
Q: Ari, back on the balance issue. When -- I'm going to try to phrase it to get an answer out of you -- when was there a balance in racial diversity in America where affirmative action or affirmative access is not needed?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think that you will see a point here very soon where you will have many of these answers to your questions. And I think it's appropriate that these come from the President, who is in the middle of these decisions.
Q: And you also said something -- wait a minute, you also said something important, the first black President. You said, that's a major goal. Tell me about that. Why is it such a major goal?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the question was, is it because there are no Republican members of Congress, does that affect the ability to make sound judgments about issues as important as policies involving race and affirmative action.
My point was, it's not so much the color of somebody's skin as much as the policies they espouse that help lift our nation up and bring us together, particularly from the government point of view, because good ideas come from everybody in our government, not only based on the color of somebody's skin.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
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