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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 4, 2002
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
12:25 P.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I have a brief announcement to begin, and then I'll be happy to take your questions. The President will welcome Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen of Finland to Washington on December 9th. Finland is a good friend of the United States and an active supporter in the global war on terrorism. The President and the Prime Minister will discuss a number of key issues of mutual and bilateral interest.
And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.
Q Ari, the chief Iraqi liaison officer, in a news conference this morning, said that the declaration they will make to the U.N. will not include any admission of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. Since you have said repeatedly that the administration believes they have weapons of mass destruction, what's the next step?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one of the reasons that the President is skeptical about Iraqi compliance is because of their past statements that were then contradicted by actual facts. And in this case, I remind you that in the '90s Iraq also denied that they had weapons of mass destruction, only for weapons inspectors to find those weapons of mass destruction. And then the weapons inspectors proceeded to destroy as much of it as they possibly could. It remains an issue we believe and we have said publicly they continue to have weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons and chemical weapons.
So this is not a new statement by Iraq. The last time they made it, events proved them false.
Q Okay, but that said, they're going to say it in the declaration before the U.N. So does this mean that that is a breach and a reason that the U.S. could then go to the U.N. to take military action? Or are we going to let this play out? The inspectors say they're going to go back in January --
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me try to review with you the steps that will be upcoming. And the President is less interested in any of these statements that Iraqis happen to make; he is more interested in what they put in writing and present, per their obligations to the United Nations Security Council.
On December 8th, the Iraqis have said that they will turn over, per their obligations to the U.N., a declaration of their weapons programs. That is up to the Iraqis to determine the length of it, what it says, the language it will be in. We have various reports that it may be hundreds, if not thousands of pages long. It may be in more than one language. We'll have to see what the Iraqis turn over.
It will then go to the United Nations, and then the United Nations will review it through the Security Council. It will be shared with member states of the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly. And then the United States will carefully review it. We will take the appropriate amount of time to review it, to assess it, to study it. And then only at that point will I be able to indicate what the United States thinks of it. And I don't know because it depends much on what the Iraqis say and how much they provide how long that process will take. But it begins on the 8th.
Q If I can try one more time. I mean, we know what they're going to say, if the officer is speaking on behalf of the country, which is, we have no weapons of mass destruction. There will be new stuff in the declaration, but nothing that is prohibited. So, given that, are they not already in defiance?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President will wait until they make the formal declaration, as required by the United Nations Security Council. However, the last time the Iraqis said they had no weapons of mass destruction, they turned out to be liars.
Q Can I follow up on that? You said, events proved them false and facts contradicted them. What facts contradict them now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we'll find out. Let's wait to see what they publish.
Q Well, are there -- will you wait to develop facts?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's what I just indicated. The Iraqis will turn this document over, and we are less interested in any of their public statements now, and more interested in what they actually put in writing when they provide this document to the United Nations Security Council. At that point, we will study it, we will assess it, we will review it. And then the inspections, of course, will accelerate beyond that.
Q So you won't have a statement about whether or not that would be a material breach of their resolution --
MR. FLEISCHER: I can't predict any future statement. We haven't seen what the Iraqis said yet.
Q Well, let me ask you then, based on their statement and your previous statements -- they say they don't have weapons, it's the position of the United States that they do. Can you prove that?
MR. FLEISCHER: We have said publicly that based on our information, they indeed have weapons of mass destruction. And this is why I remind you -- the Iraqis don't exactly have a good track record of honesty and truth-telling when it comes to the declaration of what they have. That's why the work of the inspectors is important. And that's why the President insisted on the return of the inspectors.
This is why the President refers to this as 10 years of defiance. We've heard Iraqi lies before. After all, when the Iraqis recently said, in the '90s, they had no weapons of mass destruction, how do they explain the fact that they proved that they had them?
Q But what proved that they were lying were facts established by the inspectors.
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct.
Q Is that what will happen this time?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's the purpose of having the inspectors there. That's what the President hopes the inspectors will be able to do.
Q So the inspectors will disprove any lie by the Iraqis?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's the purpose of having the inspectors there. Whether the inspectors ultimately will be able to disprove any lie by the Iraqis remains to be determined. That depends on the resources of the inspectors. It also depends substantially on the compliance of Iraq with the inspection regime.
Q You indicated earlier this morning that you could inform us of how the President is being informed about the inspections. Is he being informed? Does he get reports on a regular basis? How does he know -- these bellicose statements that he's making. And the first law of journalism is never to assume, and I don't think the White House is aware of that.
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, the first law is never assume?
Q Never assume.
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not sure what that means, Helen. But in any case, the President does receive reports on a daily basis in his morning briefings.
Q From whom?
MR. FLEISCHER: As a result -- it's the National Security Council team, the security team. Dr. Rice and others. And I'm not going to get into the specifics --
Q But is it coming from the source?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to get into the specifics of what he is told in these briefings, but you can presume the mechanisms that are set up through the United Nations is they have their inspectors on the ground who conduct their inspections. Then there is actually a very slow process where the inspectors then, through their official channels, get back to the United Nations Security Council, through their direct relationship with the Security Council. The Security Council then receives the information, and that's the official flow of the information. The United States then would be in a position to receive it from the United Nations.
Q That's how we're getting it then, through the security?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's the official loop of the information. And I don't think you're going to be surprised to see that there will often be a lag between some of the leaks that come out on the ground immediately in Baghdad and the official channels that the information flows in.
Q Ari, the U.N. resolution clearly states that any false statements or omissions in the declaration due on the 8th will constitute further material breach. Will a false statement or an omission on that document be a trigger for war?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President, again, will look forward to seeing the assessments and the studies of the document that Iraq presents on December 8th. This will be the beginning of a process. We will, the administration will review the information that we receive from the Iraqis. We have our own ways of determining whether something seems to be accurate or not --
Q I understand that, but will a false statement on that declaration be a trigger for war?
MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, this December 8th will be the beginning of a process. The trigger for war will be decided by Saddam Hussein, and only Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein has within his ability the means to avoid war. The President has said war is his last resort. Now, Saddam Hussein has to disarm. And Saddam Hussein has to figure out what the President means when the President says zero tolerance. The President hopes that Saddam Hussein interprets that to mean that he must do what he promised the world, and that is disarm. The burden is on Saddam Hussein.
Q Well, if an omission or a false statement in the declaration does not automatically constitute a trigger for war, then what teeth are in that resolution?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me just say, when it comes to anything that you, as you put, is a trigger for war, if there were such a trigger for war, you would hear about that from the President and not from the staff. But the process begins on December 8th, and that is the path that the President sought to put into motion. And this process is now beginning.
Q Talk about the acceleration of inspections after the 8th to verify the Iraqi declaration. Can you talk a little bit about sort of how -- what acceleration means, and does it involve a widening of the number of people on the ground, sort of troop support, U.N. -- what does it mean to accelerate and --
MR. FLEISCHER: Under the plan that the United Nations has put in place to verify Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions, the United Nations is sending a growing number of inspectors into Iraq, and these inspectors will have a additional equipment that allows them to do their job. And the amount of equipment and the amount of inspectors grows over time, per the United Nations' plans.
What you have seen in the last five or six days or so has been the very, very beginning of a process where they have a small crew of people inside Iraq with a limited amount of equipment. You can anticipate that more people and more equipment will be arriving.
Q Do you know how much that grows from the small -- to what levels and --
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't have the precise numbers of people, whether it's going to go from 17 to 111 -- I'd the have that. I don't keep that. That's the United Nations.
Q Prior to the action on -- earlier this fall we were talking about a robust inspection process, and that was described as involving troop support in some way to protect the inspections on the ground. Is that anticipated as an accelerated -- as the inspection process accelerates?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the terms of the inspectors going to it was determined by the 15 to nothing United Nations Security Council vote, which, of course, the United States pushed for, and troops was not a part of that.
Q First, on the first few days of the inspections, it's been a little confusing what the President's remarks were really aimed at. Does the White House regard these first few days of inspections as a meaningful indication of anything?
MR. FLEISCHER: The White House, President Bush regards these first several days of inspections in the precise words that the President used -- the beginning of a process. I've said that it was too soon to say what any of these preliminary inspections with the limited number of inspectors on the ground means to whether or not Saddam Hussein will indeed disarm. And I think it's pretty logical that the process is beginning. They have a small number of inspectors on the ground now, with not as many resources as they will have. After 11 years of defiance, after four years of the absence of inspectors, six days is not even close to enough time to determine whether Saddam Hussein is cooperating or complying with his mandate to disarm.
But it is the beginning of a process that the President thinks is an important process, that he called for, and he's pleased to see that the process of inspections is again resuming.
Q Now, when that declaration comes out, I gather what you are saying is we will take that declaration, the inspectors will then go and check the assertions by the Iraqis that they don't have these things, and that you seem to be saying the U.S. would wait until there was evidence to the contrary, rather than to just declare a declaration they have no weapons as false on the face of it.
MR. FLEISCHER: I said nothing about what the United States would do after we get it. I'm reserving judgment for the events to take place. I'm not going to speculate about what a future event may be about a document that we have yet to see.
Q The question was, do we intend to wait for evidence that it's false, or just declare if false if they claim they have nothing when --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I said that we will begin, upon receipt of the Iraqi document through the United Nations, then into the hands of the United States government, we will wait to study it, to review it, to assess what it means. And that could take -- I can't predict how much time it will take because that depends on what the documents says, how voluminous or how short it is. But it will be a process, in and of itself.
Q How much concern is there that this could be a quagmire, that you could have months of no clear evidence one way or the other that the Iraqis do or do not have weapons of mass destruction?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that's up to Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein can create a quagmire if he wants to. He certainly did in the 1990s. The President hopes that the inspection regime will be tough enough and vigorous enough to get at the bottom line, which the world wants to see, and that is that Saddam Hussein disarms. If it is a quagmire, it's because Saddam Hussein turned it into one.
Q To follow up on Jim's question, I guess the first five days of inspections, there's no assessment by administration -- I mean, do you feel like it's a meaningless process, that there's no sense of encouragement that there has been access granted to these presidential palaces, that this has gone without incident?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think this is -- don't interpret this to mean literally 365 days, but you're asking how did the year go based on the first morning of the first day. And it's an impossible assessment to make this quickly. That's why I've said it's too soon to say. You heard it directly from the President. I don't think this is complicated -- the President said that these last several days with the inspectors there is the beginning of a process. His statement that he is not encouraged and his skepticism is based on 11 years of empirical evidence and behavior from Saddam Hussein which he violated United Nations resolutions and did everything he could to thwart the inspectors.
So I don't think anybody can draw conclusions based on five days, and that separate and apart from the bigger picture about, do you trust Saddam Hussein.
Q Do you think Blix is characterizing his assessment when he says he's encouraged by what has taken place in the last five days?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that he is a good man with a very difficult job, and he is doing his level best. And he will have additional resources as time goes along here, with more inspectors on the ground. And it's very important that they have the means and the ability, and that Saddam Hussein provides them with the cooperation so that they can do their job in a full, vigorous manner. That way, the world knows that the inspectors can check to see if Saddam Hussein has weapons or if he's moving around and hiding them and burying them and dividing them and diversifying them and putting them in small places that are hard to find in a country the size of France.
Q If I could switch topics temporarily, I assume -- what does the President think these days of the idea of ending the so-called double taxation on dividends?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is reviewing and continues to take a look at the economic data that comes out on a regular basis. And if he has anything further to announce about any policy, whether it's that one or anything else on the economic horizon, he'll indicate it. I'm not going to presume to start going down the line, potential announcement by potential announcement or something that may not be in a potential announcement --
Q But does he like the idea?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know how to answer that without giving you any indications that -- if I say to you, he likes it, you'll say, will he do it. If I say, well, he likes it, but he won't do it, you'll say, well, why wouldn't he do it if he likes it. (Laughter.) So I prefer just to let the President explain his likes and dislikes.
Q You figured out my strategy. (Laughter.)
Q While Iraq continues to deny that it has weapons of mass destruction, the North Koreans have admitted that they have a nuclear program under way. Today, the North Koreans rejected an effort by the International Atomic Energy Agency to go in and begin inspections of that program. Why not the same tough line with the North Koreans, who have a program, indisputably, as with Iraq, which may or may not?
MR. FLEISCHER: The reason is because not every nation is the same, and not every foreign policy needs to be put into a photocopier. The world is much more complicated than that. And the President's foreign policy is reflective of those nuances and those important differences between how to make certain that peace is protected by dealing with different regions of the world in different ways. The world is not one place, in terms of how nations need to be treated. Different solutions work differently in different regions.
The difference between North Korea and Iraq, in the President's judgment, is that Iraq for 10 years has defied 16 United Nations Security Council resolutions, has repeatedly promised to disarm and has never done so. And that is not the case in North Korea, where they are not under these United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Now, in terms of what North Korea has said in this instance, their rejection of the IAEA resolution to open its facilities to inspection is another disappointing example of North Korea's isolationism, which will only hurt the people of North Korea. And we are working with our regional partners to try to find a peaceful solution to this issue.
Q And what do you do now to keep the pressure up --
MR. FLEISCHER: We will continue to apply this pressure to North Korea by working in partnership with Russia and China, who together put out a joint statement calling on North Korea to make certain that they comply with their obligations, concerning the agreed framework, as well as Japan and South Korea.
The region has a peaceful interest in working together so North Korea comes into compliance with international norms. The isolationist path that North Korea has put itself on only hurts the people of North Korea and it has risks for the rest of the world. And that's why we want to work together with our allies to help North Korea so they honor their obligations.
Q The Washington Post reports that former President Clinton told New York University -- this is a quote -- what was done to Tom Daschle was unconscionable and they -- that is the Republicans -- have a destruction machine, we don't. And my question is, what is the reaction of the titular leader of this party regarding an alleged destruction machine, and to Esquire Magazine's poll of 1900 men, which the Washington Times reports the result of Mr. Clinton was voted, quote, the most loathsome living American?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, on your first question, Lester, I don't know what that was a reference to by the former President. I can tell you that we are very proud to have a policy machine with which many of the American people agree.
Q Wait a minute --
MR. FLEISCHER: You got two in that one question, Lester. We're going to keep moving. That was two. I counted.
Q Can I go back to the inspectors? The difference in tone between what Kofi Annan and Hans Blix is saying, and what the President has told us is striking. Does he disagree with their assessments that, so far, the Iraqis have been cooperating? Does he think they have been suckered by the Iraqis?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, it's exactly as I indicated. The President believes -- I answered about Hans Blix, but Kofi Annan, as well -- they are both good, gifted and able people who do a very difficult job. And the President looks forward to continuing to work with them on this.
Q Were they wrong to make any sort of judgment this early? You just said, it's too soon to tell.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think different people are free to look at different days' worth of activities and come to their conclusions. The President is looking at the totality of what can help Saddam Hussein to disarm.
Q Can you bring us up to date on where things stand on the search for an SEC -- new head of the SEC? It's been almost a month since Harvey Pitt resigned, and is the White House concerned about the message this sends to people about lack of enforcement discipline?
MR. FLEISCHER: Holly, as with all personnel, I just don't speculate about who may or may not be named, as well as the timing of any potential nominees?
Q Do you expect anything in the next few weeks or after --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that would be speculating on the timing of a nominee. As you know, it's standard White House policy.
Q Ari, can you tell us about -- anything about the Arab American al Qaeda suspect, what he's believed of having done, any connections to September 11th?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is in regard to the stories out of Israel, about the detention of an American citizen?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have seen the media stories about this. I continue to try to obtain verification through official means, and I do not have anything to verify. I'm going to continue to monitor it. If anything comes up, I will share it with you. But I have been looking into it, and there's nothing at this point that I have to verify.
Q An unrelated follow-up. Senator Schumer is sending a letter to Prince Bandar complaining that, much like some of the criticism the White House has had for the Palestinians, the Saudis speak with two voices, one in English and one in their own country in Arabic, and they say very different things in terms of the war on terror and the relationship with Israel, et cetera. Is it the feeling that the Saudis do have to take steps similar to what you had asked Arafat to do, in terms of making sure that their message is the same in English and Arabic?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I haven't seen the letter, and so I cannot comment on that. There is nothing that I have heard from anybody inside the administration about a dual language concern. In fact, our assessment, as you well know, is that Saudi Arabia is a good partner in the war on terrorism, and they are a good partner who can do more. And we continue to work with them, so we can do more together.
Q Ari, Otto Reich has been acting -- had been acting as the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America through a recess appointment which came to an end. There have been some rumors circulating that the President will not renominate him under the new Congress. Can you address that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, if I were to answer that, Holly would come right back and say, why did you speculate on that personnel issue and not on my personnel issue. No, Jacobo, it's in the same category. I just don't speculate about potential appointments on any position, unless there is an announcement to be made.
Q Why have a cookie-cutter policy here? (Laughter.) That might be good for one agency, but perhaps for another --
MR. FLEISCHER: If you were foreign nations, I would treat you with that same nuanced approach. However, you are not foreign nations.
Q I thought we were.
MR. FLEISCHER: Americana.
Q Ari, can you answer a follow-up? How does the President view the job that Mr. Reich did as an interim appointment?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President thinks that Otto Reich is serving his country ably and well. He is a fine public servant who has helped bring democracy and freedom to Latin America and Central America, and is very proud of him.
Q Does he know his background?
Q Reaction to the habeas corpus --
MR. FLEISCHER: The ruling was just handed down. It's approximately 100 pages, and so our attorneys are reviewing it as we speak. If I have anything additional, I will provide it later. I do note the court did uphold the President's constitutional authority to direct the military to detain unlawful enemy combatants in order to protect the American people in this war on terrorism.
There are additional provisions dealing with habeas corpus rights, the right to an attorney that is limited to habeas corpus. And if we continue to look through the opinion in its entirety, that is the one area -- that narrow area of habeas corpus is also importantly part of this decision.
Q Will you appeal that part --
MR. FLEISCHER: Ken, our lawyers are reviewing it now, and I have no indications one way or another. The decision was just handed down.
Q Ari, are we to take your earlier response on North Korea versus Iraq, if you will, to be an indication that the administration views North Korea as less of an immediate threat to the U.S. and its allies than it views Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's a view that we believe that diplomacy can be successful in North Korea, and that the President, while he hopes that diplomacy will be successful in Iraq, is prepared if necessary, as a last resort, to use force to make certain that we protect the American people from the threat, the unique threat that Iraq presents.
Q Which poses the most immediate threat to the U.S. and its allies, Iraq or North Korea?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think they both possess threats to the United States and the United States' interests, and the President deals with each of them accordingly. I haven't heard the President make a delineation one above the other. Iraq, of course, does have a history that North Korea does not have of engaging in war against its neighbors, in resorting to the deadly use of massive force, including weapons of mass destruction against its neighbors, including the invasion of sovereign nations.
Q Ari, is the U.S. involved in this present fighting going on in Iraq between the Kurds and al Qaeda sympathizers? Is the U.S. giving any support to the Kurds?
MR. FLEISCHER: There's nothing that's been brought to my attention on that matter, Connie.
Q How much time is the President and staff devoting to foreign policy issues, or are they all on the back burner now while everybody focuses on Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think just because there's a large focus in terms of what is covered on Iraq doesn't indicate that other issues are not on the front burner. As the President indicated just an hour or two ago, about the ongoing hope for peace process in the Middle East and the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people and the security needs of Israel. All these issues remain deeply engaged. In fact, Secretary Powell will hold a news conference in Colombia in approximately one and a half hours, as a sign of our continued engagement around the world.
Q I know the President said earlier today he had not seen yet the Pew report, but I'm wondering anyone here at the White House had been briefed on it.
MR. FLEISCHER: The report has been received in the White House and we will review it. It has not yet been reviewed.
Q No further response?
MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing beyond what the President said earlier.
Q Ari, on the memo that was written by the Chief of Staff regarding bonuses for federal political appointees, was the President aware of that before it happened? And two, is the President going to increase in the budget money for those kinds of bonuses so that career -- the pool for career employees is not diminished?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in terms of the pool, the pool is sufficient given the fact that there are 1.8 million civil servants, and restoration of the political employees means an additional 2,000 people are added to a pool of 1.8 million people, not all of which, in fact, very few of which will receive bonuses. And so this policy is a restoration of a longstanding bipartisan policy that has been pursued by multiple American administrations because it's the views of these previous administrations and this one that federal workers deserve to be rewarded for good work, and there should not be a distinction between those who do good work because
they're civil and those who do good work because they're appointed. Good work is good work, and good work by the federal government's employees, all of whom are paid by the taxpayers, should be rewarded.
Q Then why exclude White House employees from it?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'd like to find that out, myself. (Laughter.) I can tell you this, for example, Senate confirmable employees at the agencies are not eligible for bonuses, per the statute. That's the law of the land. I don't know all the legal issues involving the White House, but the White House is not covered underneath this. I urge you all to get that reversed, but the White House is not covered.
Q How much is the bonus that they get?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's in the thousands of dollars, Helen, and I don't know -- the top range I think is between $10,000 and $15,000, just a little bit over $15,000, if I recall.
Q That should bring them up to par with the civil service?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, these are performance bonuses. Just as in the private sector, it's an incentive for the most -- hardest working employees who are able to do the most concrete, measurable work on behalf of the taxpayers, an incentive program to give them bonuses, much like everybody receives in the private sector.
For many years, going back at least 30 years, this has been a program that made no distinction between appointed employees and civil service employees.
Q Do civil service get the same bonuses if they perform well?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. That's correct.
Q Does the administration feel that Brazil, under its newly-elected President, will be a reliable partner in the war on terrorism?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President, as you know, looks forward to his meeting with the newly-elected President of Brazil, and when he spoke to the President-elect after his announcement, he said he looked forward to working with him on a range of issues; especially trade and regional issues of that nature are what's predominant in our relationship with Brazil. We look forward to working with him on all kinds of issues, including the war on terrorism.
Q What kind of role would the administration like to see Brazil play in the hemisphere in terms of security?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in terms of security, the role, of course, is to work together to make certain that we can combat terrorism. Terrorism is a global concern, and we will, of course, discuss that with Brazil. The focus of much of this war is not as pronounced, of course, fortunately, in that area of the world as it is in other areas of the world, but nevertheless, we look forward to all cooperation with Brazil, both in terms of security issues, but also trade and other economic matters.
Q Ari, why bring Elliott Abrams back to the White House, especially someone who was involved -- well, who had to have a pardon by the President during the Iran-Contra scandal?
MR. FLEISCHER: First of all, he's not being brought back to the White House; he's continuing his fine work for the White House. He currently works here. And the President thinks of Elliott Abrams just as I indicated about Otto Reich -- they are both warriors for democracy. They have both done outstanding jobs serving our country and leading to the advent and the development and the advance of democracy, which has improved the lives of people around the world.
Q -- why give him such a role?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because he's an outstanding federal worker who has an outstanding record. And the President is very pleased to see his promotion.
Q -- anything to keep him out of certain areas?
MR. FLEISCHER: Obviously, he was hired by this administration because of the outstanding work he has done for our country. And I think if you take a look, particularly in Latin and Central America, at nations that were not governed by democracies, and the advent of democracy that swept Latin and Central America in the '80s and throughout the '90s, Elliott Abrams played a very important role in that. And we are honored and pleased to have him work here at the White House.
Q -- role in something that is very questionable --
Q Ari, I just wanted to follow up on Iraq for a second. If the beginning of the process is Saturday, and the United States has its own independent ways to verify the truth or fiction of what is presented by Iraq, is it the U.S. intention to put together it's own assessment and make that public pretty much immediately after receiving material? Or work entirely through the U.N. and come to some unanimity of assessment through the U.N.?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated upon receipt of Iraq's declaration that will be a process in itself of studying what Iraq has said. And I can make no predictions about what our response would be because that will presume knowledge of what Iraq will submit. And I have no such knowledge.
So it depends on Iraq says. We will study it, assess it, and take the necessary time to review it. And then I think it will be made clear to you, we will certainly at some point down the road, after December 8th, have something to say about it. And we will make that known.
Q On the process, the President believes that he is fully free to express the U.S. assessment independent of the U.N. assessment?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think every member of the United Nations is free to express their assessments. It's also important to continue to work with the United Nations. And we will.
Q The Japanese government decided yesterday to send Aegis to the Indian ocean in order to join the U.S.-led fight against these terrorists. The plan has been passed three times over the past year. So it's the first-time decision, and a big, big decision for the Japanese government. Could you tell me -- comment?
MR. FLEISCHER: I will make my comment a broad one. The President is very pleased with the cooperation of Japan on numerous fronts in the war on terrorism. I never make it my habit to discuss anything operational of a military nature. So I'm not giving any response on that individual point. But as a broad matter, the President is very grateful to Japan and the people of Japan for their support of the United States in the war on terror.
Q A question on Mexico. The President has until today to present an appeal in federal court in San Francisco to open the border to the Mexican trucks. Certain environmental groups in Los Angeles present a decision to the court that has been accepted. And the border is closed now for the Mexican trucks, in contrast what the President ordered last week. Has the President sent an appeal already?
MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, the border is open per the President's directive. The President honoring our commitments to NAFTA and also to safety here at home, has put in a place a system for trucks driven by Mexican drivers that comply fully with all federal, state, and local laws and regulations pertaining to trucker safety, that they would have the rights to drive on American roads.
A group that opposes the President's commitment to NAFTA and to safety has filed a stay against the President's decision. The court has not ruled on the stay, and so the President's decision is in effect. And I don't have anything more for you on that, other than the President's decision is in effect. The procedures will go through the courts, as per usual. And I can't guess what the timing of the courts will be.
Q The President said earlier today that he believes al Qaeda was behind the Kenya attacks. How high is your confidence in that? And does that rule out this other group -- al-Itihaad al-Islamiya? Or because of their perceived connections to al Qaeda are they still in the ball game?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I don't have anything I can share with you on any other groups. I can simply say to you that the President expressed his beliefs because he holds them. I think the President in reviewing the information he has is in a position that he could express what he believes.
Q Have you made any definite connections?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think if the President thought it was definite, he would have said, it is definite. It is. The President -- quoting his words said, I believe it was al Qaeda. So the President is saying, following up and sharing with you the suspicions that you've heard previous quarters.
Q Ari, it's been widely reported that a Russian scientist may have shared a vaccine-resistant strain of smallpox with Iraq. Do you have any information on that?
MR. FLEISCHER: We continue to have concerns about Iraq's developmental weapons of mass destruction and whether or not Iraq has a weaponized program involving smallpox. I'm not at liberty to discuss any information about that. But, of course, we have concerns. And the derivation of it is not something I can get into.
Q Do you have any sense yet when the President's plan about who you may vaccinate is going to be ready or announced?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, there is nothing new to report on that topic. And especially in terms of the timing of the report. There is nothing new to indicate on it. It remains a matter that the President is reviewing?
Q You were saying -- on the quagmire question, you were saying it's up to Saddam Hussein. But if, in fact, his actions leave us in limbo, then isn't that a trap for the U.S.? Doesn't put the administration in a difficult position in the sense that he may not do anything that creates such a bright line, it would unit the Security Council in military action? Isn't there a risk here for the U.S. if this sort of thing gets -- drifts off into some limbo for who knows how long?
MR. FLEISCHER: Jim, let me make it as plain as I can -- from the President's perspective. The real reason the inspectors are back in Iraq after a four-year absence is because President Bush went to the United Nations and created a new climate and put the spine in the United Nations and the Security Council so the inspectors could get back into Iraq. This is a process that the President launched and the President created and the President has a real abiding interest in seeing work.
The President has also put the world on notice -- including Iraq -- that war is not his first resort. He wants to avoid war. But he is determined to protect the American people, hopefully through the inspectors who can make Saddam Hussein disarm. But if Saddam Hussein does not disarm, the President has made it abundantly clear that he will protect the American people as a last resort by using force and assembling a coalition of the willing, if necessary.
But make no mistake, the reason the inspectors are there now is because President Bush wanted them there and got the United Nations to put them there as a result of the diplomacy and the efforts that were launched at the United Nations. The process is just beginning. The President is content to let the process move forward.
END 1:05 P.M. EST
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