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Excerpts from the Press Gaggle by Ari Fleischer, January 30, 2003 (Full transcript)

Q On the question of exile for Saddam Hussein, is the administration prepared to propose something in a specific and detailed way to back such a move? Or will it simply be satisfied to say publicly, as the President did today, that that would be a good thing if that were to emerge out of the region, if the Saudis push that or if others pushed that and Saddam were to agree? And a second piece to that, any indications? Is the world getting any indication that Saddam would agree to such a thing?

MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, it would be a very desirable event if Saddam Hussein were to leave Iraq. That would be one way for peace to be preserved. And the President hopes that can happen. Whether it will happen or not, I don't think anybody can guess or count on. The only person who know whether that will happen is Saddam Hussein. And the most likely way to make it happen is through continued growing pressure on Saddam Hussein. The less pressure, the less likely it is. The more pressure, the more the likelihood. But it's very hard to assess how likely it will be. And it's very hard to understand what Saddam Hussein has done, let alone to predict what he will do.

As for the question about how that would be treated, this will be an international matter. This is not a matter for the Americans to decide. It would be something that would be discussed in concert with friends and allies. And I couldn't possibly guess or speculate what any outcomes may or may not be.

Q But the pressure is being brought to bear primarily by the United States. We're the ones who have the troops there in the largest numbers. So if we're really committed to putting that on the table, is this administration prepared to put together a concrete proposal to suggest to Saddam that he might take?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think the first thing that would be important is for Saddam Hussein to leave. And again, as I indicated to you -- you are accurate in pointing out that much of the military presence is America. But any such matter -- whether it would or would not come up -- would be an international matter, not a uniquely American one.

Q Are you saying he has leave first?

Q Ari, on your weeks and months formulation, is this a rejection of calls for more times for the weapons inspectors? And is it a deadline?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, number one, the reason the President said weeks not months is because he does not want to repeat the mistakes of the '90s, where Saddam Hussein once again games the world, strings things out and continues to hide his weapons. There does come a point at which the world can judge whether or not Saddam Hussein is complying and is disarming. It doesn't take a long time to know if Saddam Hussein is disarming or not. And the President has expressed that as weeks not months.

Q Does that mean that the President would not agree to an extension of the mandate of the weapons inspectors?

MR. FLEISCHER: The extension -- there is no time period for the inspectors. The inspectors have a mission until their mission is deemed by the United Nations Security Council to have run its fruitful course.

Q So by saying weeks not months, has he effectively set a deadline?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, the President has said that he has not made a decision about military action, if that's what you mean. But the President is clearly sending a message to Saddam Hussein and to our friends and allies that there is no point in repeating the mistakes that have been made before which allowed Saddam Hussein to bob and weave, to hide and to dodge, to cheat and retreat. We will not repeat and return to that era. (Laughter.)

Q I don't know whether I can follow that poetry. (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: What do you have? (Laughter.)

Q Not even going to go there.

Q Cheat and retreat.

Q In terms of this idea of weeks not months, if the President is as certain --

MR. FLEISCHER: That was inadvertent, by the way. (Laughter.)

Q When you got it, you got it. (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: I wouldn't even know how I said it if you didn't laugh.

Q If the President is as certain as he was in the State of the Union address on Tuesday night that Saddam Hussein is not disarming and is playing, as you say, cheat and retreat with weapons inspectors, why does he feel the need to wait at all? And in terms of making the decision, what more evidence does he need? Because as you have been quick to point out, you already have all the authorization you need to go to war, if necessary.

MR. FLEISCHER: In the phone calls the President is making to world leaders, and in his meeting with Prime Minister Berlusconi, the President is emphasizing how important it is to let diplomacy run its course to the greatest degree that it can solve this problem. The President is serious about consultation. The President is serious about diplomacy. He hopes it will work, and he wants to give it time to work. But diplomacy never works if it's diplomacy forever in the face of a threat like Saddam Hussein. And that's a lesson the world has seen over the last 10 years, unlimited diplomacy leads to unlimited running around by Saddam Hussein to continue to develop his weapons.

Q Sure. But you also said zero tolerance last fall. The President has said that he's in material breach. He's said he's not cooperating with weapons inspectors.


Q And he is not disarming. He's said that he is in violation of Resolution 1441. Zero tolerance? Where's the zero tolerance?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President will let you know when it reaches the point where it is down to zero. The President has said that it is the final phase. He does have zero tolerance. If you're asking why isn't there military action today, the answer is because the President is serious about consulting with our friends and allies, as he promised he would do.

Q We do know something that -- you said, the President wants to let diplomacy run its course, but we know that course won't extend more than eight weeks from today.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President said weeks not months.

Q So we will be either at war, or Saddam will have disarmed within eight weeks?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President said weeks not months. I think Saddam Hussein needs to figure out what that means. And hopefully, it will help to disarm. If it doesn't, the President has made clear, he will lead a coalition to disarm him.

Q And it is important for the American people to know, as well, that it's a matter of weeks then.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President did say it for a reason.

Q And could you just clear up one thing that's caused some, perhaps misunderstanding and anxiety, and that's, what specifically is the administration's doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons in any war with Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's exactly as I said last week and as Secretary Rumsfeld has said, that America's policy involving nuclear weapons is to not rule anything in, not rule anything out. We do not comment about potential use of nuclear weapons.

Q Is there any greater likelihood that nuclear weapons would be used by the United States in this war than in any previous conflict?

MR. FLEISCHER: It is a deliberately ambiguous statement.

Q Senator Kennedy had a speech yesterday. Are you going to be able to provide the undeniable proof to silence the critics?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think people will judge the information that they already have had. I think that most Americans, even before the State of the Union, agreed that Saddam Hussein was a threat and that they would support the judgment if the President were to make it to use force to remove the threat from Saddam Hussein using weapons of mass destruction that we all know, the United Nations knows and others know that he has. And we'll just leave it at that.

Q Back to the question of exile. Would the administration support an effort by the Saudis or by the international community, generally, that would specifically include amnesty from war crimes or any other charges?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let's be more specific on David's previous question. And again, the President thinks it would be in the interest of peace if Saddam Hussein were somehow to be convinced to leave the country. But beyond that, I'm not prepared to speculate about what may or may not happen. Again, that's a matter for not just the United States to have an opinion about, but the international community, and I'm not speculating.

Q But without going into details, though, have there been discussions between administration officials and other nations about what some sort of exile package might look like?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not going to speculate about it. I think there are some things that the less said, the better, so that Saddam Hussein leaves the country. Now, don't take that to mean one way or another, but I'm just not going to speculate on the topic. The hope for peace is that Saddam Hussein leaves.

I think it's not only the hope for peace, but the hope for the future of the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people deserve a government where they're the people of Iraq. It is the Iraqi people who have to suffer under a totalitarian state and a brutal regime. It's not just American servicemen and women and people around the world and people in the region who would be spared from harm's way if Saddam Hussein were to leave. That, itself, is important. But what about the people of Iraq? They would be the biggest winners if Saddam Hussein were to leave.

Q Ari, the President mentioned something that was mentioned earlier, the aluminum tubes as part of the list of evidence that the U.S. thinks that Saddam Hussein has got weapons of mass destruction. But the IAEA and other world officials -- Mohammed ElBaradei, actually, specifically said that it's just not there, that is not what that it's intended to be used for in Iraq, that it's really just conventional. Isn't there a concern that when the President and the White House make statements like that it's going to undermine your overall argument of this Mt. Everest of evidence that you say exists?

MR. FLEISCHER: No. And I'll give you three reasons why, in the President's judgment. Number one, Mohammed ElBaradei and the IAEA said that the importations of these tubes is illegal and violates the policies that Iraq committed itself to, regardless of what the IAEA has so far judged them to be. They said Iraq's actions in importing them are, in and of themselves, a violation. That should be a cause for concern, number one, about whether Iraq is disarming.

Number two, on the tubes, the IAEA has said that their investigation remains open. They have not reached final conclusions about this. On that point, therefore, to point three, there are continuing discussions with the IAEA in which information is being shared about this information. The preponderance of evidence is that Iraq attempted to procure high-strength aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment. We stand by that statement.

Our technical analysis at the extremely tight manufacturing tolerances and high-strength materials indicates the tubes far exceed any specifications required for non-nuclear capabilities. Iraq attempted to procure the tubes covertly. The cost of the tubes is far greater than what one would pay for if the tubes were just to be used for artillery. Iraq has devoted substantial efforts to concealing its nuclear program in the past. It's not surprising that it would attempt to mislead the inspectors on this issue and the inspectors have left it open because they want to continue to hear from us and to work on this before final conclusions are reached. The President stands by every word he said.

Q Is this intelligence that's already been shared with him?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's an ongoing process.

Q Will Secretary Powell outline some of that? Because it's an interesting statement --

MR. FLEISCHER: I know you will be there on Wednesday next week, so you'll find out Wednesday.

Q Ari, Prime Minister Blair is on record saying that he would like a second Security Council vote on use of force in Iraq. What's the administration's thinking at the moment about whether a second resolution would be desirable or possible?

MR. FLEISCHER: And, just as I've indicated, we will continue to consult with our friends and allies about the next course. The President does think that the United Nations is important. He hopes that they will prove to be important by taking meaningful action that results in the disarmament of Saddam Hussein so this can be resolved peacefully. But the -- as you know, the President has also said that if Saddam Hussein does not disarm, he will lead a coalition to disarm him.

Q But, you've already demonstrated that you think -- the United States -- this is important by sending Secretary Powell up there next week. On the second resolution, has there been a decision made on whether we will seek a second resolution?

MR. FLEISCHER: The decision is we will continue to consult.

Q You talked about diplomacy running its course. Could you just give us some idea what to expect, beginning with Secretary Powell's comments and running at least through the next report from the arms inspectors, which will be on the 14th of February? What do you foresee happening? What does the U.S. want to happen during that critical period?

MR. FLEISCHER: There is one thing the United States wants to see happen and that is for Saddam Hussein to disarm. That's what this is all about. Everyone of these actions, everyone of these steps, every shipment of troops is all aimed at one thing; that's the disarmament of Saddam Hussein so the threat to the world and to the region can go away.

Toward that end, what you are seeing now is a very active window of diplomacy involving the President's personal time making a series of phone calls -- which will continue -- a series of personal meetings -- which will continue -- meetings and phone calls by the Secretary of State, by others in the government. You're seeing a very active diplomacy of a kind that you saw, frankly, around the September-October period, as well. That will continue. It won't continue forever. It will continue for a finite period of time as the President has said.

Following that, I think this is then where the President will have to make a judgement about whether Saddam Hussein will indeed disarm on his own, or whether he will have to make the decision to use military force to disarm Saddam Hussein.

Q In that context, how important then is the next report from the arms inspectors on the 14th of February?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to speculate about a report that hasn't been made yet.

Q But it's obviously part of this sequencing and the last one was quite important. This is the next benchmark, if you will, about whether or not the Iraqis are actually coming clean. One would think it would weigh fairly heavily.

MR. FLEISCHER: Today is January 30th and I can't speculate about a report that is two weeks out in terms of gauging it's importance. We already know from the last report that Iraq is not compliant.

Q Ari, when the President made his remarks today, when he was talking about the issue of exile, he was careful to make the point the goal here is not just to remove Saddam Hussein, but to disarm. And so, whoever comes -- if Saddam Hussein leaves, it's not an automatic that this conflict is over depending on who comes in. So can you flesh out what the administration's concerns are in that area in terms of obtaining the goal of disarmament?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly. If Saddam Hussein were to leave and the son stayed behind and the son had weapons of mass destruction, the world would be just as much at risk. The President views this as how to promote peace, and the way to promote peace is to make sure that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, just as they promised and pledged that they would not have them, and to change the regime.

Q Now, how deep in the regime does this -- would this have to go?

MR. FLEISCHER: I couldn't speculate a guess. It has to go to the point of peace. It has to go to the point where Iraq will join its proper place around the world as a peace-loving nation. And it has a peace-loving people, and so perhaps there will be a leadership in Iraq one day with a peace-loving leadership.

Q But clearly when the White House aims at the goal of disarmament and the leadership in Iraq that is also committed to that, are you all not talking about Saddam Hussein and all his top advisors are all going to be --

MR. FLEISCHER: I can't speculate -- as I indicated, I can't speculate and I don't know names.

Q This is really a follow-up to Jean. The President's words were, speaking of Saddam Hussein and the possibility of his exile, "and should he choose to leave the country along with a lot of the other henchmen who have tortured the Iraqi people, we would welcome that." That -- if you take his words literally, that appears to set a pretty precise condition that it's not enough for Saddam to leave, it has to be --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's why it's called regime change. Certainly, nobody would want to leave in place an infrastructure where they could just come back and do it again. So the point the President is making I think is a fairly obvious one, that the regime leadership has to leave, so, therefore, a new leadership can emerge that is focused on peace. I think, otherwise, you would just continue to see turmoil and strife and an Iraq that was to remilitarize. And the President does not think the world wants to repeat this position. This is a chance for the world to deal with this in a fundamental way.

Q How widespread does that have to be? How many people are we talking about --

MR. FLEISCHER: I can't make those judgments.

Q Can you set some minimum benchmarks --

MR. FLEISCHER: I can set you the principles, and the principles are, deep enough so that the leadership that emerges is a leadership dedicated to peace, not war.

Q You mentioned his son. Would his son and the other family members who are part of the regime, at a minimum, have to go?

MR. FLEISCHER: Ken, I didn't bring the family tree with me.

Q Lteser has a fifth question which I'll be glad to carry for him. (Laughter.) The last time Prime Minister Blair was here, there was a lot of talk about evidence linking Iraq with continued pursuit of chemical, biological, nuclear weapons, and they referenced an IAEA report up at Camp David. It turns out this was a report that actually had been out a couple years before. Next week, Secretary of State Powell goes to the U.N. Once again we have assurances that the case convincingly can be made that Iraq has continued down this path. Will he be able to present to members of the Security Council new -- and by that I mean evidence gathered in the last three to six months, by whatever means our intelligence, intelligence from allied nations -- that will close the loop on this evidentiary-wise, and prove that this is an ongoing and current concern?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me make a point on this issue of so-called new evidence versus existing known evidence. It doesn't matter if it's new or old if it can still kill you. So whether there is information that is one day old, or one year old that Saddam Hussein has biological and chemical weapons, the impact is not whether the information is new or old; the impact is whether he has them or not. That's what's at stake here. So whether Colin Powell has new information or old information, the point is, is the information accurate describing that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. That's what's at stake here.

Q Some of those who have been reluctant to go along with us have, in essence, asked the question, what's the urgency, what is a sign that this is an imminent, like, immediate threat?

MR. FLEISCHER: And in that point what the President would tell you is that, one, Saddam Hussein has committed to giving up the weapons of mass destruction, and if the United Nations is to have a meaningful place in our world, the United Nations resolutions vis-a-vis Iraq to give up the weapons of mass destruction must be enforced. Otherwise, the world can never rest easy because he'll continue to have them.

Two, September 11th changed everything for the United States and, indeed, for this President. While the notion of containment may previously have made some sense prior to September 11th, September 11th changed everything because it shows that we are indeed a vulnerable country, that threats to us cannot be contained. As the President said in his State of the Union speech, imagine if any of the hijackers on September 11th had not only driven their planes into buildings, but were armed with a vial, a canister, a crate of a biological or a chemical weapon. The damage done to our country would have been massive. The risk remains and the risk is nowhere greater than under Saddam Hussein.

Q Ari, you said that the President has not made a decision on military action. Hasn't he made a decision, though, that if Saddam doesn't disarm within these weeks -- however many weeks we're talking about -- that at the end of those weeks that he's made a decision that he will have to resort to military action? I mean, he's made some sort of decision here in the last couple of days.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that it's been well-known for months when the President says that if Saddam Hussein does not disarm he will lead a coalition to disarm him. So the question is, how could disarmament best be achieved. The President continues to hope it can be achieved peacefully through growing pressure. And certainly the op-ed that ran today from eight European nations, and additional letters that have now, interestingly, started to come in from a couple other European countries, makes the case that pressure will grow.

Q Could you maybe describe what decision, if any, he has made in recent days? His thinking seems to have shifted somehow. You're talking about weeks, not months; you're talking about -- you pointed out this intense diplomacy and you likened it to the September-October period last time, which was right before we waged war. So what has changed in his thinking? Has he reached a final straw now?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I likened it to September-October when people said that nobody would follow the United States, and the United Nations passed a resolution which unanimously people followed the United States.

Q Ari, during the lead up to the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was given a deadline for getting out of Kuwait. Obviously -- or presumably, such discussions of a deadline are part of the ongoing diplomacy. Could you share with us in general what some of the President's thinking on the value of a deadline or --

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, what the President has said is this is the time for diplomacy, and he meant it. In the event he makes the judgment that diplomacy is insufficient to protect the peace, at that point, and on the timing of the President's determination, the President would then come to the country and discuss this at far greater length. And I'm not going to go beyond that.

Q I'd like to go back to the aluminum tubes. Are you saying that the administration knows more than the inspectors do? Or are you saying that you're looking at the same evidence and reaching different conclusions? Because while you're right, the inspectors say it's an open case, they clearly say the evidence to date tends to back the Iraqi view of this, as opposed to the United States view.

MR. FLEISCHER: And it's a matter of some technical provision, technical matters, and technical people are talking about this.

Q But do you know more than they do?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know I can say that, yes or no. I think both the IAEA and the United States are in a position to know quite a bit, and we work together on these things -- that's the point.

Q Ari, going back to the statement you made earlier, you referred to mistakes of the '90s. Who made those mistakes?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that mistakes were made collectively that allowed Saddam Hussein to think that he could once again defy the world and keep his weapons of mass destruction. I think that's one of the issues that was very prominent last November, when the Security Council voted unanimously for a much tougher resolution than the resolutions that guided the collective will of the Security Council throughout the '90s.

Q Well, there were two administrations, obviously, in the '90s. Are you assigning blame to one of them?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, it's just as I indicated. It was the collective judgments of the '90s that had weaker resolutions in place that Saddam Hussein was able to defy.

Q Who is to blame for that?

MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, the collective will that led to the tougher resolutions.

Q Ari, my question is related to Bob's question, just a little bit different. Will the President and British Prime Minister Blair set a deadline for Saddam Hussein to disarm; a deadline for war if he does not?

MR. FLEISCHER: The purpose of this meeting is to consult, to listen carefully to Prime Minister Blair's idea. And then Secretary Powell will, of course, be up in New York. So, no, you will not see that this weekend at Camp David, no.

Q Senator Daschle and Congresswoman Pelosi, among others in Washington, and senior members of Tony Blair's own Labor Party in London have urged the Prime Minister to act as a restraining influence on President Bush. Is that a realistic assessment of Mr. Blair's potential influence, and how would you characterize that influence?

MR. FLEISCHER: The United States and the people of Great Britain have a very powerful bond, and that is shared by the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. The two don't see everything eye-to-eye; the two differ on issues sometimes. And that is a sign of a great and healthy relationship between two strong democracies. And I anticipate that the Prime Minister will share his judgments and his wisdom with the President. The President looks forward to hearing it and the two will work as they always have, together, to secure peace.

Q On the issue, though, of Iraq, is it at all fair or accurate to describe Mr. Blair's influence as being in any way that of restraint?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that you have to ask the questions appropriately to British officials, who can make the judgments about any of the Prime Minister's thoughts. But I think that this is a question of to restrain Saddam Hussein, not to restrain anybody else.

Q Following on from my colleague's question, would you still agree, as if often said in London, that there is a special relationship between Britain and the United States?

MR. FLEISCHER: I just indicated that in different words, but of course there is. And it's a relationship that is special because of the relationship between the people of the United States and the people of Great Britain.

Q So how much influence will Mr. Blair have on the President, when the final decision, or if a decision is taken to go to war with Iraq -- how much influence --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President very much values Prime Minister Blair's advice and consultation.

Q Does the United States still have plans in place for an American or international caretaker to, in effect, take over and help the Iraqi people after Saddam Hussein?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has made clear that if there is a decision to use military force, the United States will be committed to preserving security for the people of Iraq; that we will work closely with iraqis inside and outside the country to protect the territorial integrity of Iraq and the unity of Iraq.

Q Ari, if the President is serious about diplomacy and believes there's a narrow window left for peaceful disarmament, why is the President only reaching out to those countries that have come out in support of U.S. policy and a possible war? Why not arrange meetings with the leaders of France and Germany and other --

MR. FLEISCHER: First of all, there aren't very many nations to talk to in that regard. It is not a large number. And as we all know, Germany has said they are unalterably opposed to support. The President understands that. I've never said there won't be any other conversation with any other nations.

But to set the record straight, the President is spending more time talking to people who support his position because most European governments do.

Q Ari, when you referred to additional letters just now, what were you referring to?

MR. FLEISCHER: Additional letters?

Q You were talking about -- you said the eight who have signed the editorial --

MR. FLEISCHER: I saw one report on the wire that Albania has sent a letter very similar to the message that was received earlier. And I also saw a report that one of the Baltic nations has publicly announced that they, too, stand with the United States. So I think you're seeing a developing story.

Q Ari, once again, Germany and France have maneuvered and kept NATO from discussing providing aid to the United States in case of military conflict. You have said before that the President accepts that some people will stand on the sidelines, but how does he feel about what is amounting to actual instruction?

MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, the President appreciates the overwhelming majority of NATO nations who want to work in support of the American position. NATO works by consensus and the President is confident that in the end, consensus will be achieved.

Q -- a military caretaker in Iraq, does that plan still hold under the scenario that Saddam takes his top lieutenants and goes into exile?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, what holds is that the United States is committed to the preservation of freedom and security in Iraq. The United States, if it gets to the issue of military force, will not walk away. The United States will do what is necessary to help preserve the peace -- into the future.

And as the President said today, that in the event there is military action, it will be immediately accompanied and followed by humanitarian action, food action, medical supplies action for the people of Iraq.

Q Understood. Should Saddam choose exile, will that plan for military caretaker still be in effect?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let Saddam choose exile first.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.

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