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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, January 24, 2003 (Full transcript)

QUESTION: Does the President, therefore, believe that that refusal constitutes a material breach of the U.N. resolution 1441?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President does not look at this as a lawyerly matter of the word. The President looks at this as a practical matter of whether or not Saddam Hussein has any intention of disarming. And Saddam Hussein is engaging in a constant pattern now, and an increasing pattern of defying the inspectors, refusing to cooperate, showing the inspectors facilities in which he knows that nothing will be found, but all the while thwarting the goodwill and the good intentions of the inspectors to carry out their mission by stopping them from engaging in the practices that history has shown are the most successful practices in discovering what weapons he has.

QUESTION: What you dismiss as a lawyerly matter is the very framework that the President is committed to by having that sort of language inserted into the resolution. So the question is, does he consider this the end of the line, or has the administration made a determination that, despite the views of what the inspectors are there to do, that it is willing to allow the inspections regime to go on a little bit longer than maybe the President would like in an effort to shore up support internationally and even here at home for a potential war?

MR. FLEISCHER: The real issue is, is Saddam Hussein making the end of the line come even closer by his unacceptable behavior.

QUESTION: Can you answer that last part of the question, Ari?

MR. FLEISCHER: What was your last part, David?

QUESTION: Is the administration, despite its views about what the inspectors are supposed to be doing, what Saddam should be doing, is the administration prepared to allow inspectors to have more time in an attempt to shore up support internationally for a potential conflict?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has not put a definitive timetable on it. They clearly are still carrying out their mission to the best of their ability. They are working on the time they have, but time is running out.

QUESTION: The inspectors, as you know, regard the appearance before the United Nations Security Council on Monday as just another interim report, not the sort of wrap-up report which was envisioned by the U.S. when this process began. Do you expect the President to address that on Tuesday, since the process of the U.N. won't be over until Wednesday?

MR. FLEISCHER: Bill, the United States has consistently called it an important date. I don't know that anybody has said it is a wrap-up date or a final date or a deadline. I'm not aware of anybody saying that. It's an important date. We want to hear what they have to say. And I think that when you look at what the inspectors are reporting, why they are saying that they have gotten what they call "some cooperation" from Saddam Hussein, they are also the first to say, the inspectors, themselves, that they are not given the cooperation they need when it comes to interviewing the scientists and they are not given the cooperation they need and demand about being able to fly U2 surveillance aircraft over sites in Iraq. They are not getting what Iraq had committed to do. And again, under the U.N. resolution, it is not a question of negotiation, it is an obligation.

QUESTION: Would you address the perception that the U.S. wants this over with sooner rather than later?

MR. FLEISCHER: There is no question the United States wants Saddam Hussein to disarm sooner rather than later.

QUESTION: Back to the scientists. The Iraqis say that they've asked these scientists to cooperate with the inspectors and the scientists don't want to be interviewed in private, they want the minders there.

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I think what they said is, "We did our best to push the scientists, Lt. General Hossam Mohammed Amin, the chief Iraqi liaison officer to the U.N. inspectors, said, but they refused to make such interviews without the presence of Iraqi officials." In a totalitarian police state like Iraq, that's laughable. There's no credibility to that.

Saddam Hussein has called the inspectors spies. In Iraq, if the President of Iraq, who does not exactly have a history of being a peaceful man toward those who have any dissent toward his opinions, calls the inspectors spies, he is sending a very powerful message to his scientists, don't meet with them, because if you meet with spies, you know the history of what's happened to people who defy my will. And the environment that has been created by Saddam Hussein as an environment that is hostile to whether or not the world will see whether he had weapons of mass destruction, because he wants to hide what he has from the world.

QUESTION: Are you aware of specific instances of intimidation?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let me share with you two things that have taken place, and these are very indicative. These are things that took place in the past that are indicative of the future.

You're very familiar with the case of Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel*, Saddam Hussein's sons-in-law who were killed in 1996 by Saddam Hussein. They were lured back into Iraq after they left the country. They were promised that all had been forgiven when they left the country, brought back in under different pretenses, and instantly executed at the order of Saddam Hussein.

There's a scientist named Muayad Hassan Naji Janabi. He was killed in Amman, Jordan, in 1992. He attempted to defect. He wanted to leave. He was tracked down by Iraqi security agents and executed. And as you well know from your reporting, this is a common practice for Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Are you aware of specific instances of the inspectors that we have -- that the U.N. mission has tried to talk to this time around who have been intimidated at some point?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think, given the fact that Saddam Hussein calls the inspectors spies, what more intimidation do you need for him to encourage people not to meet with people he calls spies. Imagine that you're an Iraqi scientist and you have information you would like impart, and you don't want Iraqi minders sitting there to impart the information, and you heard your president say, these inspectors are spies -- that is an atmosphere of intimidation environment designed to stop them from doing what the United Nations has called on Iraq to do, which is to make them fully and immediately available -- which is why the statement from the Iraqi general is a laughable statement.

QUESTION: Who in this country, beside the President and his courtiers, want to go to war with Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of anybody here who wants to go to war with Iraq, Helen. But the President very much wants to protect the peace by making sure that Saddam Hussein cannot engage in war against us.

QUESTION: He's aware that there is widespread opposition to war in this country?

MR. FLEISCHER: Do you think that the majority of the Americans are opposed to war with Iraq, Helen?

QUESTION: I think so. What do you think?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think if you take a look at all the public surveys on this issue, there's a lot of Americans who believe that Saddam Hussein does, indeed, pose a threat. And they believe --

QUESTION: They'll give their brothers, their husbands, their children?

MR. FLEISCHER: -- and they believe that if the President, knowing what he knows, makes the determination that the best way to protect the American people from the risks that we have seen our nation is vulnerable to --

QUESTION: So he believes people want to go to war?

MR. FLEISCHER: -- is to disarm Saddam Hussein from having weapons of mass destruction, the President will make a case --

QUESTION: We have weapons of mass destruction. Eight other countries have them.

MR. FLEISCHER: And how many resolutions has the United Nations passed urging us to not have the weapons that we have that have successfully kept the peace for 50 years?

QUESTION: How many other nations have defied U.N. resolutions and gotten away with it?

MR. FLEISCHER: None like Saddam Hussein on a measure that has been this unequivocal, where the world has called on him --

QUESTION: I could give you chapter and verse otherwise.

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm aware that you try to.

QUESTION: Does the President feel that relations with Western Europe, particularly with Germany -- where we have so many troops based -- and France, demands more of his role now in terms of contacting either of those leaders, especially in advance of his State of the Union address?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President will continue to contact world leaders and to reach out and talk to different people. As you know, he talked to President Putin yesterday. He looks forward to the visit of Prime Minister Blair. And we will continue to inform you of the phone calls and the conversations the President makes. Up and down the government, Secretary Powell continues to consult very closely with world leaders, and the President will continue to work with them.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that the angry words back and forth over the last few days are hurting his cause, as opposed to helping the promise -- any kind of promise of diplomacy?

MR. FLEISCHER: You know, there is a very identifiable history of the United States relations with Europe, where European nations, European people were split and divided. The United States, working very closely with European nations and with European governments, saw a policy that it thought was in the interest of peace, developed it, worked it with our allies, advocated it, pushed it through, successfully so.

In the early 1980s, for example, after the Soviet Union deployed SS20 intermediate-range missiles into Europe, there were massive street protests throughout Germany and throughout Europe against the counter-deployment of Pershing missiles by the United States, along with European governments -- massive street protests.

We worked together with the European leaders and the European government. We counter-deployed, put the Pershing missiles into Western Europe. And it was one of the ways that through peace, through strength, the world became a much safer, better place, with tens of millions in Eastern Europe now living free.

Similarly in 1991, in the events that led up to the Persian Gulf war, there was tremendous opposition. There were many people who said, let sanctions take place, do not engage yet in military force, let it take its time. The argument of, let sanctions take place, is similar to the arguments that people are making now, about let the inspectors continue their work. Of course, back in 1991, if the argument, let sanctions take place, had taken hold, Saddam Hussein would still be sitting in Kuwait and most likely be occupying other nations, as well.

And so the President looks at this as a matter of the importance of consultation, respecting those who differ with him on this issue, and building a wide coalition -- and it will be wide -- of those who see it his way and agree. And make no mistake, he will listen, he will consult, but he will lead.

QUESTION: Is there any discussion of a possible compromise under which the inspectors would be given, say, a month more in exchange for allies reassurances that they won't drag it on any longer?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, number one, the President has -- it is because of the President's actions that the inspections are there. And helpfully so. The inspectors are doing their best in an environment where Saddam Hussein is doing his worst. The President has not put a timetable on how long the inspectors should be there. They were there yesterday; they are there today and working; they will be there tomorrow and working.

We wish them every success and are providing them with every means possible to help them to be successful. The problem the world will have to confront one day is, if Saddam Hussein continues in his efforts to defy them, to stop them, to not live up to the very obligations that Saddam Hussein committed to when the United Nations passed these resolutions, what then will the world do? Will the world choose to do nothing, or the world choose to recognize that Saddam Hussein is not cooperating? These decisions have not yet been made.

QUESTION: You said that the President said that Saddam Hussein, to protect the peace, must allow these scientists to be interviewed. Does he consider this a cause for war?

MR. FLEISCHER: If the President reaches the point where these accumulation of events lead up to the conclusion that war is the only way to protect the peace, the President will say that. He has not reached that point yet.

But clearly, when you look at the behavior of Saddam Hussein and when you look at the statements that have come from the inspectors themselves, it is impossible to reach the conclusion that Saddam Hussein is cooperating. He is not. And he is not cooperating because he is hiding, hiding his weapons of mass destruction.

QUESTION: Ari, John Bolton, in Japan, made it clear that the United States has some evidence that they're going to give over to the world very shortly. Can you elaborate on that? What kind of evidence is he talking about, in what form?

MR. FLEISCHER: This is nothing new. This is something that you've heard many people say. Secretary Powell said it recently about the United States would make it's case. And in the course of events, as I've indicated, the President, others in the administration, will have information to say as developments warrant.

You've seen this week, in the speeches given by Secretary Armitage and Secretary Wolfowitz the continuation of the importance of dialogue and reasoning. And that will continue. And the administration will continue to share with the world and share with the country why we have such a cause for concern.

QUESTION: -- in speeches, but not really any new hard evidence about what the U.S. thinks that Saddam Hussein actually has -- hard evidence in terms of their weapons. Is this something the President is going to talk about in the State of the Union? Is this -- do you actually believe that there is hard evidence that exists that will bring these countries around and bring the American people around?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is confident that if it gets to the point where he does reach the conclusion, and he goes to the country, he is confident that the country and much of the world will understand the seriousness and the weight of what he is presenting. And that is why, if our democracy does go to war, which is a step the President still hopes can be averted, we will go to war knowing that we have the support of much of the world.

QUESTION: Is that yes to her question?


QUESTION: How does the President feel about launching a war if France and Germany flat out say they won't support it and that he should not do it?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that in the event it does become a matter that the President does believe that we have reached the point of last resort and that force is the only way to get Saddam Hussein to disarm from the weapons that he has, the President's preference would be to have all of the world with the United States and with this large coalition. That may not be possible. That may not be achievable. But will that stop the President and the coalition from doing what it believes is necessary to protect the world? No, it will not. We, of course, want to have the support of as many as possible if it reaches this point.

QUESTION: First of all, thank for commenting on Jim's hypothetical. We can expect that precedent to be observed in the future, I'm sure, as well. (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: Do you have a hypothetical?

QUESTION: No, I don't. I have two questions about Iraq.

MR. FLEISCHER: You're missing an opportunity to roll off of that. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: First of all, the President, in his speech in St. Louis the other day, made reference to "the so-called inspectors." What did he mean by interposing those words, "so-called," in front of the word, "inspectors"?

MR. FLEISCHER: The exact same thing I said yesterday on that when I was asked. The President was referring to something very similar to what Secretary Rumsfeld said over the weekend on one of the Sunday shows -- the mission of the inspectors is not literally to go and to inspect, as much as it is, as Secretary Wolfowitz walked through yesterday, to verify that actual disarmament has taken place.

The inspectors are not armed with magnifying glasses to go out and look for clues. They are armed with scientific knowledge of how nations that disarm engage in disarmament. Their job is to go in and verify that disarmament has taken place. And so, in some sense, the word "inspector" is a misnomer, but that's the context in which the President said it.

QUESTION: What would you use?

QUESTION: The statement, you mean?

QUESTION: Verifiers.

QUESTION: The Secretary of State has said that the inspections are not working, as a flat statement. This President has an MBA. He prides himself on how much he holds accountability dear. How much longer would he -- even though you say he has no timetable on this, how much longer would he like to preside over or lend his administration's support to a program that his own people have said is not working?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think when you get at what is not working, you have to ask what the cause of its not working is. And the inspections and the inspectors have a history of engaging in acts around the world that do, indeed, work. That was proved by their efforts in South Africa. What's not working in Iraq is Saddam Hussein's compliance with Iraq -- Saddam Hussein's compliance with the inspectors. That's the cause of the inspectors having such a difficult time doing their job. The solution is that Saddam Hussein has to change his ways and disarm. Or President Bush, as he has said, will lead a coalition to disarm him.

QUESTION: My question was about timing, though. My question was, how much longer would this President, who prides himself on holding accountability dear, lend his administration's support to a program which his own Secretary of State has said is not working?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has said time is running out. He hasn't been more specific than that.

QUESTION: Short of the decision to go to war, are there interim things that can be done to fix the process from the U.S. side or the U.N. side?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I said, in the President's judgment, Saddam Hussein's refusal and his intimidation of his scientists is unacceptable. It must cease. This is an act of willful defiance by Iraq toward the United Nations and toward the United Nations inspectors. Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations about refusing to allow the U-2's to fly, per U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, is not acceptable. So these decisions are in Saddam Hussein's hands.

QUESTION: There's nothing that the U.S. can take, for instance, to have a more robust force with the inspectors, for instance, to try to make the situation more --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President made it very plain, repeatedly last fall, that this is Saddam Hussein and Iraq's last chance. They were given that last chance as a result of this vote of the United Nations Security Council resolution. And this will not be another 10 years of defiance by Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Ari, you've said January 27th is an important date. Does that mean it's a critical milepost in deciding whether we should go to war with Iraq? And if it's not, can you be more specific about what happens next and why it's important?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's an important date. And I can't be more specific until the date comes and we know what the inspectors say. It's important to hear what the inspectors have to report.

QUESTION: Is it considered a milepost in deciding whether we go to war?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's considered an important date. All the actions of the inspectors are part of what the President will evaluate because that's how the world will know whether Saddam Hussein is cooperating.

QUESTION: Is the White House looking at it as a trigger point?

MR. FLEISCHER: Important date.

QUESTION: Ari, on Monday, when we listened to Mr. Blix, if he is supposed to be the Chief Verifier, should we listen with confidence that they have received all of the U.S. intelligence that we have available for them to verify and make an interim report?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I believe that Mr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei have both said in the past week to 10 days that they have received actionable intelligence from the United States and they're satisfied with the intelligence they are sharing. I can't speak for them, but I know that's what they've already said.

QUESTION: Well, in response to Dana's question, you seem to suggest that perhaps if the President were to declare war and want the American people and the world to know why, he would have more dispositive information at that time to make a persuasive case. That would suggest that there is something that's not been made available to the inspectors. Is that correct?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, not necessarily.

QUESTION: But possibly?

MR. FLEISCHER: I would urge you to take a look back at what Secretary Wolfowitz said yesterday. Secretary Wolfowitz referred to Iraq's very able capabilities to hide things and to move things, to have mobile laboratories for the purpose of hiding and moving. That's information that does not allow you to have 100 percent certainty of the coordinates of where something may happen to be at any given second or moment. That would be what an inspector might call actionable. If it were that simple that we could say the mobile laboratories at this longitude and this latitude at this exact moment, things would be much easier. Iraq is more clever than that, and they're aware of our capabilities in some ways.

And so this is what Secretary Wolfowitz talked about yesterday. So when you take a look at what can the inspectors act upon versus what do we know Iraq has, Secretary Wolfowitz addressed that. And therein lies one of the key issues that Saddam Hussein exploits, knowing that he has a massive infrastructure, headed by his son, designed to deceive the inspectors. And so there are differences in terms of what inspectors can do.

QUESTION: How do you know that?

QUESTION: Let me ask you, as audiences listen to Mr. Blix's report on Monday, what does the President think that we should all be listening for? What are the key ingredients of this update that we should all be paying attention to?

MR. FLEISCHER: The key ingredient the President thinks that the world should look for is whether Iraq is complying. Absent Iraq's full compliance, the way South Africa did, the world can have no confidence Saddam Hussein has got rid of the VX gas, the sarin gas, the botulin, the anthrax, the mustard gas that the United Nations reported that he had in his possession at the end of the 1990s. Absent cooperation, absent proof that he's destroyed them, the world can only make one conclusion, and that is that Saddam Hussein is hiding these very weapons.

QUESTION: Ari, the LA Times cites U.S. and British officials saying Secretaries Powell and Straw yesterday seriously considered giving inspectors several more weeks, in exchange for allies' insurance that they will not let inspections go on indefinitely, and that this would help sway the skeptical allies. Are you saying -- are you discounting that report and saying again there is no timetable for inspectors?

MR. FLEISCHER: I have no information to verify that report. You might want to address that to the State Department, but I have no information given to me to verify it.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Ari, there are reports that Saddam Hussein may be seeking to take stockpiles of chemical weapons, park them outside Iraq and hide them there. That, as far as I'm aware, is not an element of his deception that the administration has cited. Is this something the administration is aware of? Has it passed on this information to U.N. inspectors, and would it like the inspections team to be looking at the possibility that he is squirreling away his weapons of mass destruction outside the country?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm aware of the reports, and there's nothing I can indicate one way or another about those reports.

QUESTION: A question about the European allies, sir, how would the President characterize the critical mood among major European allies? And secondly --

MR. FLEISCHER: How would he characterize the what --

QUESTION: The critical mood among European allies, like Germany and France, for example. And secondly, does the President expect them eventually to come aboard and be convinced by his arguments about Iraq and disarmament, et cetera? Or is it more like Secretary Rumsfeld suggested earlier on, it's the old Europe and we better look to the new Eastern European countries --

MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question that European governments are divided with most European governments being in favor of the administration's position that, in the event it becomes necessary because Saddam Hussein won't disarm himself, a coalition should be assembled to disarm him. There are important friends and allies that we have who -- in the case of Germany -- have expressed their unalterable opposition to the use of the military to disarm Saddam Hussein. And there are other nations, such as France, who -- it's unclear what position France will finally take in the end. And the President respects those nations. But the President also sees a great many other nations that do see things differently, that are working in a different manner to help protect the peace.

And the one thing about this debate that I think can't be focused on enough is Europe is not a monolith. European governments represent many different points of view. The one point of view that keeps -- seems to be shared is the point of view of those who would oppose the President -- the President is confident, as I said yesterday, that if the call is made, that Europe will answer the call.

QUESTION: And Europe also being Germany and France, for example?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I said yesterday that's -- I just said Germany is unalterably opposed. And in the case of France, it's possible that when Europe answers the call, France won't be on the line. That's the French prerogative. That's their right.

QUESTION: -- expect to veto in case of a Security Council resolution?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's not clear what the next course will be at the United Nations.

Thank you.

END 11:46 A.M. EST

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