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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, September 18, 2002 (Full Transcript)

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the President's day, and then I'm happy to take your questions.

The President began with a bipartisan meeting with the leaders of Congress, at which the President discussed many of the remaining items that are pending on the congressional calendar -- to promote economic security, job development, and focus on the domestic agenda, as well as the situation with Iraq. At his morning meeting were Speaker Hastert, Leader Daschle, Minority Leader Lott, and Minority Leader Gephardt..

The President also this morning met with the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, where he paid tribute to a person that he views is a great man who helped bring about the end of communism. During that meeting the President discussed with President Havel what the President said -- President Bush said this to President Havel -- "It's important to speak with moral clarity and when you see wrong, to speak about the wrong you see." They spoke about the situation vis-a-vis Iraq; they spoke about NATO expansion.

QUESTION: How much of a delay do you think this entreaty to the United Nations that Iraq has made will put into this process that the President has started at the Security Council? And do you foresee a situation under which inspectors could go back into Iraq without the backing of a tough U.N. resolution?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know that there will be a delay. The United Nations Security Council has not previously set a vote, the timing for a vote. And based on the consultations that Secretary Powell has had, and the fact that most of the people he's consulted with have now returned to their capitals for consultations, the process is ongoing. And we'll see exactly the timing of the United Nations Security Council action. But I don't think you can interpret any recent events to suggest there will be a delay. I think the U.N. is moving at the pace that it was going to.

QUESTION: And on the second part of that, can you foresee a situation under which the inspectors, UNMOVIC, will go back into Iraq without the backing of this new resolution that the President is seeking?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the point the President made to the United Nations is something has to be different this time, that the world needs to learn the lesson that when Saddam Hussein deliberately sought to mislead, to evade, and to play games with the arms inspectors, whose purpose was to enforce the U.N. resolutions, and that's why the President wants this to be different this time. He wants something meaningful and something significant out of the United Nations, and he's hopeful that that will happen.

That remains to be seen, John. That will be part of the results that we are waiting for to see from the United Nations.

QUESTION: I'm sorry. Does he have a basic problem -- problem with the basic structure of UNMOVIC? If you're talking about it not being like the last time -- UNMOVIC isn't what UNSCOM was.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has a basic problem with the structure of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It is Saddam Hussein's Iraq that has frustrated the good works of the inspectors. The inspectors have worked diligently and tried their best to get information about what is happening in Iraq. And that's why I think I can cite to you some of the statements that have been made, for example, by the former chief U.N. arms inspector, Richard Butler, who -- his reaction to what Saddam Hussein said in the letter that was sent to the United Nations is: "But what we really needed to hear is that you can inspect without conditions, that you can go anywhere anytime. The letter," he continues, "did not say that. That is a black hole. That is a significant omission," Butler said. "It is a very snaky letter." And then Butler added that if inspectors did not have unfettered access to Iraqi facilities, they do not have, "a snowball's chance in hell" of establishing whether Iraq had nuclear, chemical or germ weapons. "Iraq's basic position is to say that it has no weapons of mass destruction. That is a black lie." That's what the former head of the U.N. inspectors has said about the most recent developments from Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Ari, is regime change still the policy of this administration?

MR. FLEISCHER: Of course, it is.

QUESTION: And if so, what incentive, then, does Saddam Hussein have to disarm?

MR. FLEISCHER: One, this was decided on in 1998 in one of the most bipartisan acts that the Congress took, and that was signed by President Clinton. To suggest in any way that because Saddam Hussein has not shown a willingness to abide by the very terms that he agreed to with the United Nations should mean that the United States should change its policy of regime change makes no sense.

Regime change was the policy because, as President Clinton said at the time, Saddam Hussein has violated all the agreements that he entered into, and the only way to get the policies implemented to protect the peace, in President Clinton's judgment at that time, was through regime change. What's happened in the four years since? The inspectors have gone away, and Saddam Hussein has continued his efforts to have weapons of mass destruction.

QUESTION: Is regime change, though, part of the goal of what you're trying to accomplish through the U.N.?

MR. FLEISCHER: The goal of what we're trying to accomplish through the U.N. is exactly what the President laid out last week, which begins with disarmament and Iraq's honoring the resolutions to destroy all their weapons of mass destruction; to cease the repression of minorities; the return of prisoners that were taken in the '91 war; to renounce Iraq's involvement with terrorism; to permit no terrorist organizations to operate in Iraq; and to cease its violation of the oil-for-food programs. Those are the issues the President brought to the attention of the United Nations.

QUESTION: Ari, if I could follow up on Sandra's question. Now that the President has secured the bipartisan agreement of the leadership of Congress to pass a resolution authorizing him to use force, is he prepared to share with the American people, to level with the American people, about what the use of force actually, practically means? For instance, is the administration, now that this debate is underway and will take place in the next couple of days, prepared to say how long will American soldiers be in Iraq, should the President use this authority he is seeking?

MR. FLEISCHER: Make no doubt, if this gets to the point where the President decides that force is the route to go in order to preserve the greatest chance for world peace, and for regional peace, the President will, of course, speak to the American people. The President is in the middle of a process where he began at the United Nations talking to the world about the importance of the United Nations showing its relevance. And the President has started this process as a result of the consultations not only with the Congress, the United Nations, but, of course, the American people have a right to hear what the President thinks. And that, if it comes to that point, the President will do that at the appropriate time.

QUESTION: But the Congress is now at the sticking point, at the point at which members and senators have to decide, based on what their constituents' view is, in part, to give the President the authority to use this force. They now have to make the decision. And don't they need the answer to the question, if we give you this force, this authority to use force, how long will American soldiers be in --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President will continue to talk about this publicly and in various forums and in various ways. And at the appropriate time, in his judgment, he will talk to the American people more directly about it.

QUESTION: One more question. He expects the Congress to vote to authorize him to use force before he answers the question how long American soldiers would be expected to be in Iraq and what government the United States would support, post Saddam?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think Congress is asking the appropriate questions in the hearings that it has, so that Congress can make the appropriate decisions as they approach a vote on a resolution. And I think Congress is satisfied with what they are hearing from the President and are hearing from the administration witnesses that are going up there this week, today, tomorrow and the next day. Anything beyond that, I don't want to speculate about the timing of it, but the President understands, of course, the importance of talking to the country about it. It's a vital part of the job of the President.

QUESTION: ... the President and the administration have said consistently there cannot be and should not be any negotiations with Iraq, whether the issue is weapons inspections or anything else.

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Mr. Blix, the head of the inspections part of the U.N., has had meetings with the Iraqis. He's supposed to have more meetings with the Iraqis. There's talk about another meeting in Vienna two weeks from now. Is that not negotiating with the Iraqi, even if they're "practical arrangements"?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, what you're seeing there is actually some of the more technical conversations that would be expected. These are not negotiations with the Iraqis about the terms of inspection. Obviously, there are some rather mundane things that go in to having inspectors depart one country and arrive into another country. That's not the same, though, as the terms of the inspections.

QUESTION: You're confident there are no discussions about, say, as under the previous regime of inspections, giving notices when you're going to --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President's position is that Iraq lost a war and, as a result of the loss of the war, they negotiated and accepted the terms of the armistice. That is not up to negotiation. That is the word that Iraq gave as the condition for ending the war that they lost. And that will not be renegotiated. These technical conversations are of a different sort.

QUESTION: On the prisoners issue, are we -- do we have any idea how many prisoners there are, how many of them may be of United States origin? And, if we don't know, have our allies been negotiating or discussing at all with Saddam Hussein?

MR. FLEISCHER: There is one unaccounted for American still remaining as a result of the war in 1991.

QUESTION: Prisoners was plural, so --

MR. FLEISCHER: And there are many from other nations, including many Arab nations and many other nations that were part of the coalition. I'd have to take a look to see what the hard number estimate is. There is an estimate for it. I don't have a copy of that with me. Let me see if we can't provide that to you, Ellen. But, yes, there is.

QUESTION: Ari, getting back to John's question, I recognize that the Blix conversations are viewed as technical conversation, but often the devil is in the details. So has the White House reserved some kind of right to accept an agreement that is reached between the inspectors and the Iraqi government, the right to review it and decide whether that meets the standard that the President has set?

MR. FLEISCHER: This is not a negotiable item for the Iraqi government to decide what the terms of inspections are. This is not for them to negotiate. This is for them to accept and to do as they have promised to do.

And I'll give you an illustration of why. Last night, Tariq Aziz, the Foreign Minister of Iraq, in explaining the letter that was sent to the United Nations, said, "If the inspectors come and act honestly, professionally, in order to check the truth, to search for the truth, we can reach the truth within a reasonable period." Based on Iraq's actions in the 1990s, when they lied, when they deceived, when they created such a climate that the inspectors could not do their jobs, who is Iraq to judge what is honest, professional, or the truth? They have no qualifications to make those judgments. In fact, history has shown that any judgments they make turn out to be lies.

QUESTION: So, are you just confident that Blix will negotiate, or anyone else who is negotiating here on how they go in, where they go, all of that -- will just meet the needs of the White House? Or does the White House withhold the right to take a look at that agreement and say no, that doesn't work for us --

MR. FLEISCHER: What meets the needs of the world community is disarmament. That is the bottom line. This cannot be --

QUESTION: That is the goal --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, that is more than the goal. That is what has to happen in order for the world to know that Saddam Hussein does not pose a threat -- as well as the other actions that the President outlined at the United Nations involving the return of prisoners, et cetera.

And in order to know that is the case, any inspection regime has to be far different from what it was in the past. It has to be set to a different standard, the bar must be much higher. Why repeat the mistakes that were made that led to cat-and-mouse games throughout the '90s? Who in the world wants to play that game again?

QUESTION: A two-point question if I may. With France and Russia saying that the letter from Iraq is satisfactory, it does seem improbable that the United States will be successful in getting a strong resolution through the Security Council without a veto. So my two-part question is, one, if the inspectors go back into Iraq under the previous rules and the previous resolutions, and they do their work and are able to do an unfettered inspection, one, how will the Bush administration evoke a regime change? And, two, if the inspectors are not allowed to do their work, will the United States go back to the U.N. again or will it take unilateral action at that time?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, your premise that under the existing inspecting regime, arms inspectors could go back into Iraq and have their work carried out unfettered is not borne out by any of the events of the last decade. There is nothing in Iraq's behavior that would suggest that inspectors going into Iraq under the existing terms could have anything other than opposition, confrontation, inaction, as a result of Iraq's blocking tactics.

And that's why, I think -- let me share with you again something that Richard Butler, the United Nations special -- excuse me, the UNSCOM executive chairman, said on July 31st of this year in his testimony before Senator Biden and the Foreign Relations Committee. He said, his quote is, "It's essential to recognize that the claim made by Saddam Hussein's representatives that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction is false. Everyone concerned, from Iraq's neighbors to the United Nations Security Council to the Secretary General of the United Nations, with whom Iraq is currently negotiating on the issue -- everyone, simply, Mr. Chairman, is being lied to. From the beginning, Iraq refused to obey the law. Instead, it actively sought to defeat the application of the law in order to preserve its weapons of mass destruction capabilities."

And he continued, "Now, I've given this briefest recollection of that history because, Mr. Chairman, I put to you and your colleagues, it shows two things. One, Iraq remains in breach of international law. Two, it has been determined to maintain weapons of mass destruction capability at all costs."

These are the words of the experts who have a history and experience of personally dealing with the obstacles put up by Iraq. And so that is why the President feels so strongly that anything that is done now must indeed be done differently so that the world can know that disarmament will be carried out.

QUESTION: How do you do things differently? I mean, if the U.N. will not act, if you cannot get a strong resolution with teeth through a Security Council, if the inspectors going back in are nothing more than a charade, then how will the United States evoke a regime change and bring about disarmament?

MR. FLEISCHER: I am not going to prejudge the action that the Security Council will take. That's the purpose of the Secretary's negotiations with members of the Security Council. But I also urge you, as you say that, in the wake of this letter from Iraq to the United Nations, that the ground has shifted.

You know, people said that when the President went to the United Nations, he wouldn't be successful in moving the United Nations. He was successful, and he will continue to use all tools at his disposal. And the Secretary is engaged in the diplomacy right now to make certain that the result is the strong one that the United States seeks.

QUESTION: Two questions, one on inspections, the other on the congressional resolution. You say that something has to be different this time. Is it not possible that the threat of U.S. military action, in and of itself, has created a different situation, that Saddam Hussein is essentially checkmated from doing anything to interfere with these inspectors because of that threat, and that, therefore, a new U.N. resolution is superfluous?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, on the first part of your question, I think that's true. I think that, given the fact that Iraq showed no movement and the world showed no movement from 1998 until 2002, until President Bush put the issue before the United Nations, demonstrates that the President's approach has at least made people properly focus again on this issue and the threat that Saddam Hussein poses to world peace. Beyond that, I can't make any predictions about what Saddam Hussein will do.

QUESTION: So why is a new resolution necessary if he has this sort of --

MR. FLEISCHER: Because the President thinks it's very important for the United Nations to show that the resolutions that they pass have teeth. What alternative is there? To say that the United Nations plays no role in the world? The United Nations does not preserve the peace?

And this is why the President in many of his meetings following his speech to the United Nations said to the world leaders with whom he met that this is a test to see whether or not this is the United Nations or the League of Nations. And that test remains unanswered.

QUESTION: One on a congressional resolution. After he got back to the Hill, Senator Lott was telling reporters that, in his view, the resolution should focus rather narrowly on the issue of weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi disarmament, and not deal with the question of regime change. Would that be acceptable to the White House?

MR. FLEISCHER: We'll see. We'll keep working with the Congress on the language. I'm just not going to prejudge something that hasn't even been sent up there yet.

QUESTION: On the inspections, one of the things that's difficult to sort out here is that it is clear the Iraqis said the inspectors could come back. It is not at all clear that they are saying they would have unfettered access to sites. The question in my mind is how will the administration be sure that if, in fact, the inspectors go back, that they are, in fact, entitled to go anyplace, anytime? Does that come from the Blix meeting? Does that come from a new U.N. resolution? How do you determine that the inspectors will be able to do what the Security Council has said they must do?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'll tell you, the best way to determine that the Security Council resolutions will be enforced is through Iraq's intentions. The United Nations Security Council can pass resolutions, the United Nations Security Council can put as much teeth as possible into them. But if Iraq's intentions are to thwart the inspectors, at no matter what level they are set, Iraq obviously has something to hide.

If Iraq does exactly what the President set out in his speech to the United Nations and allows for, actually, unconditional inspectors, actual disarmament, anytime, anywhere, anyplace, anybody, if Iraq destroys the weapons of mass destruction, ceases its repression of minorities, returns the prisoners, renounces terrorism, and stops its violations of the oil-for-food program, then they will have done what the President said at the United Nations. But this is a test of the United Nations' relevance, and it's a test of Iraq's intentions.

QUESTION: As I understand it, the administration does not want to send inspectors in there in some half-baked way, without their rights being absolutely clear, and have them wander around for several months and face exactly what happened before. How -- does the administration have a specific way in mind of making sure it has an airtight pledge from Iraq, before inspectors go in, about exactly what their rights are?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, this is what Secretary Powell is talking to other nations around the world about.

QUESTION: So that's what you want out of a U.N. resolution then? That's why you want a new U.N. resolution?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has said he wants the United Nations to act in a way that is meaningful and effective.

QUESTION: A few days ago, one of the President's chief economic advisors estimated that the cost of a war in Iraq could be upwards of 2 percent of GDP, or upwards of $200 billion, the one-year costs. It's being reported that the Joint Committee on Taxation is about to embrace dynamic scoring for its revenue projections. And this, of course, would affect things like tax cuts and the effect that it could have on revenues and economic growth. OMB is holding a news conference this afternoon, and I am wondering if the administration is about to embrace dynamic scoring, and what effect that would have on revenue projections, economic growth, and the cost of a war in Iraq.

MR. FLEISCHER: The administration -- Director Daniel's news conference this afternoon is actually on a very different topic. It's a discussion of the revenues that have come in through the third quarter. So it's on a different topic. The administration's focus on estimates is that they should be accurate, regardless of whatever the standard it is. And there is a legitimate academic debate about what the best way to ensure accuracy is.

QUESTION: Well, is OMB about to announce, or is it OMB's intention, the next time it does its budget, to use dynamic scoring?

MR. FLEISCHER: You may want to ask Mitch that question this afternoon. But that's not the purpose of his news conference.

QUESTION: What is that estimate based on, Ari?

MR. FLEISCHER: Which estimate?

QUESTION: The Lindsey estimate from the other day. It was a lot higher than a lot of --

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I can only tell you, just as Deputy Press Secretary McClellan told you the other day, that any discussions about this are premature because the President has not made any decisions. April -- and welcome back.

QUESTION: Thank you. Ari, the President's well into this push for regime change in Iraq and a possible attack on Iraq. But there's still some naysayers, people who feel this is a diversionary tactic, be another "wag the dog" kind of situation. What do you say to those people?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I just think there are so few people who could possibly think that, and they have found so little credibility even within the Democratic Party, that it just should pass unnoticed. It's not worth commenting on. This is a very serious matter, and it's being dealt with very seriously by this administration.

QUESTION: Ari, a minute ago, in response to Jim's question, I believe you said that any attempts to thwart the inspectors would be -- would show that Iraq has something to hide. Is the administration going to view any such attempts as tantamount to a guilty plea by Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: Iraq is already guilty. There are no innocent or guilty pleas remaining for Iraq. Iraq is in possession of weapons of mass destruction, contrary to their promises that they would destroy their weapons of mass destruction. And Iraq, even while the inspectors were in Iraq, sought to develop more weapons of mass destruction. So it's not a question of any further decisions about Iraq's innocence or guilt; Iraq has proven itself guilty to the world.

QUESTION: I guess if I could put it another way, would attempts to thwart the inspections be, in essence, a trap door falling from beneath Saddam Hussein?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President wants to make certain that Iraq is disarmed. And when the question comes down to the inspection way of disarmament, that's why the President has said that this has to be done in an entirely different way, subject to a different standard and a new standard. Otherwise the world would make the same mistakes that we made throughout the '90s. And the President sees no fruitful purpose in the world going down that road again.

QUESTION: Even assuming there is an inspection way of disarmament, as you just phrased it, and Hussein opens up his weapons sites, is there some level of uncertainty with which the administration is prepared to live at the end stage of that process, or do you assume that if this thing plays itself out that we could arrive at a point where we know with an absolute degree of certainty that his weapons of mass destruction have in fact been neutralized or destroyed?

MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question from an American point of view, the best way to know that his weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed is through regime change, no question.

QUESTION: -- said that Dr. Lindsey's comments were premature. Are you saying then that he doesn't speak for the administration, and two, then that Secretary O'Neill is on message when he says it was unwise for him to make that --

MR. FLEISCHER: I didn't say Dr. Lindsey's comments, I said the discussion is premature.

QUESTION: Doesn't Dr. Lindsey speak for the administration?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm saying this discussion is premature.


QUESTION: No, it's not premature. He's already made the comments. It's three days old.

MR. FLEISCHER: And that's my comment on it.

Mr. Kinsolving.

QUESTION: What is the comment? I'm sorry, I don't understand.

MR. FLEISCHER: That discussion of the costs of war are premature because the President has made no determinations.

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