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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, December 2, 2002 (Full transcript)

QUESTION: Weapons inspectors in Iraq have now visited a couple of sites that both the President and Prime Minister Blair pointed to specifically as possible sources of new construction and new development of Iraqi weapons programs. It doesn't seem they found anything. What's the President's assessment of Iraqi cooperation --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President's assessment of Iraqi cooperation is that it is far, far too soon to say. The regime is just beginning -- the inspection regime is just beginning. They will continue to increase their numbers and their efforts. And the President has not reached any conclusions; it's too early to reach any conclusions.

QUESTION: Does it undermine the President's credibility at all that these sites were pointed to by him and by Prime Minister Blair as very suspicious, and inspectors and reporters went there and didn't seem to find anything?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think there's widespread agreement that those sites were the sites in which Iraq previously violated United Nations accords, and it underscores the President's concern about Iraq moving things around and the fact that in the '90s they did say they weren't in violation of the United Nations charters, they were living up to the United Nations charters. And everyone recognizes that they violated the U.N. resolutions at those sites. Just because they're not violating it at the same site today doesn't mean that Iraq can be taken at its word.

QUESTION: That's not what the President said. But let me raise a broader question here. Back in August, the Vice President said that there was a danger in weapons inspectors going back into Iraq because it would perhaps convince the world that Saddam was back in the box, as he put it. Is that possibly what we're seeing here, as the inspectors show up at sites and don't find anything?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I would encourage you, one, to listen to the President's speech this afternoon. The President is going to talk about the inspections in Iraq and what they mean and the importance of the December 8th deadline for Iraq to provide the United Nations, and therefore, the world, with a list of its weapons programs in violation of the United Nations resolutions.

Two, I don't think that it's fair to compare one week's worth of preliminary work to four years worth of the absence of inspectors. That's why the President's conclusion is it's much too soon to make any judgments.

QUESTION: Does the President hope that there will be no weapons there?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President wants --

QUESTION: I mean, everything you say is so negative. It doesn't sound you people really want to not find anything there.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think everything Saddam Hussein has done has been so negative that this President is accurately and realistically describing facts to the world. And as a result of the President accurately describing facts to the world --

QUESTION: But you're going in with such a negative attitude.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's fair to say the President has gone into this with a can-do attitude to preserve the peace, and if it hadn't been for the President's efforts and leadership and willing to state facts realistically, there would be no inspectors inside Iraq, would there be? There wouldn't have. It was the President who caused this to happen.

QUESTION: Have they ever threatened the United States? Has Iraq ever threatened the United States?

MR. FLEISCHER: Only when they shoot at our pilots. Only when they attack their neighbors and America's interests abroad.

QUESTION: During the Gulf War when we were shooting at them.

MR. FLEISCHER: They were shooting at our pilots just recently.

QUESTION: You continue to tell us that the President is very skeptical that the Iraqis will cooperate. So in the event that they do, as they have so far, do you have a plan B? What happens if this actually doesn't turn up anything? Then what do you do?

MR. FLEISCHER: I urge you to wait until the President's speech this afternoon, and we will see precisely what the President says. And then there is also this interesting question about what will Iraq do when they have to honor the United Nations resolution and provide a list of their weapons that they hold in violation of United Nations resolutions. It's up to Saddam Hussein to produce that list.

QUESTION: You're assuming in your answer that they have weapons of mass destruction which they are hiding. They say they do not; you say that they do.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the history of people who accept Saddam Hussein at face value and take his word for accurate is one of disappointment because they have been deceived. Saddam Hussein does not exactly have a track record of telling the world the truth. So he, on December 8th, has to indicate whether or not he has weapons. Let's see what he says. If he declares he has none, then we will know that Saddam Hussein is once again misleading the world.

QUESTION: How will you know?

MR. FLEISCHER: We have intelligence information about what Saddam Hussein possesses.

QUESTION: So you say that you do have information that he has these weapons.

MR. FLEISCHER: It's no secret. We've said many times -- you've heard the President say repeatedly that he has chemical and biological weapons, and he has missiles that can reach an access of 150 kilometers, all three of which are violations of his sworn commitments to the United Nations.

QUESTION: One quick follow. What happens on December 8th?

MR. FLEISCHER: December 8th will mark the beginning of a process, a process of verification to find out whether or not Saddam Hussein is indeed telling the truth, and whether or not he has indeed disarmed. That will mark the beginning of that process. If Saddam Hussein indicates that he has weapons of mass destruction and that he is violating United Nations resolutions, then we will know that Saddam Hussein again deceived the world. If he said he doesn't have any, then I think that we will find out whether or not Saddam Hussein is saying something that we believe will be verifiably false.

QUESTION: It's a process -- what do you mean?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's a process of verification. That's the purpose of the President going to the United Nations and asking the world to support the effort to put the inspectors back into Iraq. And that process is now, as you know, underway and just beginning. So the inspectors will then begin, and increase their efforts to find weapons of mass destruction and obtain information.

But I want to remind you that much of this depends on Saddam Hussein's cooperation. The inspection regime cannot work on its own, without the cooperation of the Iraqi government. Iraq is a country the size of France. If they desire to hide things or move things, they have the means and the ability and the history of doing so. The inspection regime substantially depends on the cooperation of Iraqi officials.

QUESTION: I'm curious about why you're saying it's just the beginning of the process on Sunday. If Iraq, as you say, using your hypothetical, if Iraq declares Sunday it has no weapons of mass destruction, why should that begin a process? Why should that not end it? Why don't you stand up and verify that they're lying and have them suffer the consequences?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the timing, if there's anything that goes beyond that, will be determined by the President, and Saddam Hussein will have to figure out what the timing is. But I share with you the President's approach that this is the beginning of the process, and I make no statements to you about how long that process will be.

QUESTION: In terms of moving the process forward after the 8th, is there a mechanism that's in place for the President to share the broader intelligence that he's -- with specifics that he knows about -- to compare that against the Iraqi statements?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has shared much information with the American people in many of his speeches, including his speech in Cincinnati, for example, where he is trying to find the appropriate level of information that can be shared without endangering sources or methods. But suffice it to say the inspectors, of course, as is well-known, will have access to intelligence information from not only our government, from other governments, and that means they will be in the strongest position to do their job so that we can know if the Iraqis are telling the truth, or not; we can know whether or not he has disarmed.

QUESTION: The theory would then be that you have the statement from Iraq on the 8th of what they have and what they don't have. Then information, if it hasn't already been, would be transmitted to the inspectors on the ground so that they could then go to cross-check, basically, against the Iraqi declarations, and at that point, presumably there would be some sort of unveiling of further information? Or would it all be kept at the classified or background level with the inspectors?

MR. FLEISCHER: Under the U.N. resolution, the report that Saddam Hussein must file on December 8th is to be filed with the United Nations Security Council. They will be the recipient of Saddam Hussein's cataloging of what weapons of mass destruction he has, or perhaps he will say he has none. This is up to Saddam Hussein. That will get filed with United Nations Security Council, and of course, that will provide some level of information -- or maybe no information for the inspectors to proceed and to do their jobs. And beyond that, I'm not prepared to say what type of information may or may not be declassified. I can't guess.

QUESTION: -- reports are circulated and then member countries comment on them, is that right?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'd have to take a look at the exact resolution. As a practical matter, this would become -- depending on what Saddam Hussein says or lists, this will become information then for the inspectors to use to fulfill their mission to make certain that he disarms.

QUESTION: Ari, if the Iraqis were to declare they have no weapons of mass destruction, would the President require proof from the inspectors to the negative, or does he already have indications that would disprove that claim?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I don't want to say with specificity what every potential hypothetical could or could not be.

QUESTION: But does he have enough information now to act if Iraq claims they don't?

MR. FLEISCHER: It was President Bush who made the determination to go to the United Nations and ask for the inspectors to be put back into Iraq. And the President successfully urged the world to take this action after four years of the inspectors being absent. And I think the world is pleased now that the inspectors are going in. The President wants to allow the inspectors to do their jobs, and that's what the President's approach will begin with.

QUESTION: Is he confident they can, they could find --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we'll find out. We'll find out.

QUESTION: Ari, two on the Iraq question. Has the administration given already the head of the inspections teams its most sensitive intelligence about suspected weapons sites, or has the administration deliberately held back some of that information to let Saddam go first, to let him file on December 8th?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know. I don't know the sequence in which that information gets provided. Suffice it to say that all nations want to work with the inspectors; the inspectors want to be able to have the best information to help them to do their jobs. The exact sequencing or the exact nature of any information that is passed on to them, I don't have that information.

QUESTION: We are quoting a source within the inspections saying that Iraq has admitted to the inspectors that it did try to buy those aluminum tubes that the President, the administration made an issue of some months back, and that Iraq is saying that they were for conventional rockets, not for nuclear weapons, as the administration has alleged. A, have you received such reports from the inspectors? B, do you accept that on its face and is that, in and of itself, a violation worthy of moving to the next level?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm aware of the report that CNN aired ont his topic and I will say this is something that the President has said publicly, that Iraq did, in fact, seek to buy these tubes for the purpose of producing, not as Iraq now claims conventional forces, but for the purpose of trying to produce nuclear weapons. And so it's, on the one hand, mildly encouraging that Iraq would now admit to what it's been doing. But on the other hand, a lie is still a lie, because these -- they sought to produce these for the purpose of production of nuclear weapons, not conventional.

And I remind you that conventional weapons, missiles that have a range in access of 150 kilometers, are prohibited to Iraq under its agreements with the United Nations.

QUESTION: Do you have any concern that they may be deliberately pleading guilty to misdemeanors, if you will -- okay, we violated the past regime here, we tried to buy these tubes, we did this -- so that people would say -- the administration might say, see, he's lying, but others might say, see, he's getting religion, let's let all this play out for months?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President has one point in mind. This is about disarming Saddam Hussein. He plays games. He's done this for a decade. He has a way of finding half-truths that try to get him off the hook with the world. And the President went to the United Nations to make the point that this has been a decade of defiance by Saddam Hussein who is very good and very clever at finding ways to deceive the world, including the inspectors. And the inspectors' task is a very difficult task, given the ease and the nature of what you can move around, weapons, thanks to mobile laboratories and hiding things underground and putting things in places that are hard to find.

This is one of the reasons why the President insisted on strong language in the resolution, so that people who might have information inside Iraq could leave the country to provide that information to the inspectors. Very often the inspectors are able to do their best work as a result of information they receive from sources inside Iraq, who then worry about their own safety and protection. The President wants to make certain the inspectors have every tool available so they can do their job because the history of Saddam Hussein is he will do everything in his power to lie, to deceive, to deny and to hide.

QUESTION: One more quick one if I can. Can you help us at all understand why the administration is so certain Iraq wanted to buy these tubes for nuclear weapons, not as the Iraqis are apparently saying now, for conventional rockets?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not a technical expert, John, but I think if you talk to the people who are versed in the exact methodology for the production of nuclear weapons, what you will find is there are different issues involving the size of the various aluminum tubes that is an indication of the type of weaponry in which they are seeking to develop.

QUESTION: Can I come back to the aluminum tubes, Ari? Has the administration been told of any Iraqi admission on this score, or are you just --

MR. FLEISCHER: I said I was aware of the media report. I'd have to take a look specifically at whether the inspectors have conveyed that to the United States government.

QUESTION: Have we gotten any sort of reports back from the inspectors along the way yet of any sort?

MR. FLEISCHER: The reports from the inspectors go to the United Nations and then there are regular channels so that the United States and other nations that are on the Security Council that authorize the mission of the inspectors, so they can be informed about the progress of the inspectors.

QUESTION: Have we gotten at least -- you said that it's too soon to tell whether there has been any sort of compliance. Are we at least getting a preliminary report from the inspectors?

MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, there is a routine channel for the administration to receive information as the reports are filed with the United Nations, and we do that. The President's conclusion is, it's too soon to make any conclusions.

QUESTION: So there's at least preliminary information passed along?

MR. FLEISCHER: Surely. The inspectors, as they do their job, keep in touch with the United Nations Security Council. The United States, as a member of the Security Council, will monitor all the reports and pay very close attention to them.

QUESTION: Ari, the British government is putting out a list of human rights violations by the government of Saddam Hussein. Amnesty International is saying that this has been known for a long time and Britain has looked the other way, probably the U.S. also. Now they're coming up with this argument and, according to Amnesty this is a way of preparing for war.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I would hope that Amnesty International would welcome a dialogue around the world about human rights abuses, and that when a nation puts out a report, even if it's a report that characterizes or catalogues information that was previously discussed, Amnesty International would treat this as a serious document that describes accurately -- and there's no dispute by Amnesty International about the accuracy of the document -- the facts on the ground in Iraq.

QUESTION: How long is the White House willing to go along with this whole inspection regime and diplomatic efforts at the U.N.? Is there a weeks or months or time limit to --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, President Bush is the one who sought the inspections. President Bush is the one, I think, more than anybody else around the world, who made them happen again after the absence of inspectors.

Saddam Hussein will have to figure out how long the United States intends to go along until we find out what Saddam Hussein is really doing. And the President has made certain -- wants to make certain that the inspections are effective and that the inspectors have every resource they need to do their job. And that's what the President wants to see happen. The President wants the inspectors to be successful.

And the key to the success of the inspectors really rests with Iraq. As much help as the world can give to the inspectors, as many resources as inspectors can have, it remains a daunting challenge to find everything in a country the size of Iraq. And without cooperation from the Iraqis, the chances for the inspectors to be successful is very, very limited. And so the President will continue to very closely monitor Iraq's behavior because what is at stake here is the disarmament of Iraq, so that peace can be preserved.

QUESTION: Is there any time limit he's willing to wait out for this thing?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's something Saddam Hussein will have to figure out.

QUESTION: The General Accounting Office estimates it would cost $200 billion to fight a war in Iraq. Can the economy stand such an expenditure?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, number one, I don't think anybody can know with certainty what expenses would be incurred in a potential war with Iraq. It all depends on the nature of the war and how events unfold. And I have not seen anything in the White House that's any type of reliable estimate.

Too, I think the question in the President's mind is, what is the price of failure to act if, indeed, Saddam Hussein has the weapons that we fear he has and we know he does have them, what is the price of failure to act in terms of protecting the American people. And that's how the President approaches this.

QUESTION: The Russian leader and the Chinese leader issued a declaration yesterday urging to resolve the Iraqi question through political and diplomatic means. Is that being considered? And secondly, they also urged America and North Korea to resume relations. What's your comment on that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly it is being pursued -- resolved differences with Iraq through diplomatic and political means. This is the purpose of the President going to the United Nations and seeking a tough inspection regime. Whether or not Saddam Hussein is willing to settle this through diplomatic and political means remains to be seen.

And I noticed that the Chinese-Russian statement vis-a-vis North Korea continued to call for North Korea to make certain it does not engage in the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and we'll continue to work with our allies on achieving that goal.

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