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 Home > News & Policies > February 2003

Denial and Deception

Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, February 25, 2003 (Full Transcript)

QUESTION: Ari, given the fact that the President has talked about the potential conflict with Iraq as a continuation of the war on terror, if an opportunity presents itself, would the President authorize the assassination of Saddam Hussein, and did he tell a U.S. senator that, in fact, he would do that?

MR. FLEISCHER: The executive order that deals with these matters remains in place. And that guides the --

QUESTION: What is that?

MR. FLEISCHER: There is an executive order that prohibits the assassination of foreign leaders, and that remains in place. So that's the answer to your question. Now, of course, in the event of military conflict, command and control are different matters, it is well-known, in accordance with previous practice and the law. And that is reflected in anything the President would have done or said.

QUESTION: But the question is, if the opportunity presented itself, would he rescind that order and take that shot? So did he say that to Senator --

MR. FLEISCHER: I've looked into it; I can't confirm that he did say it. I do not see that --

QUESTION: Did you ask him about it?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President doesn't recall if he said it or didn't say it. The staff doesn't recall the President saying it. But bottom line remains the same, the executive order is in place, and so it's a hypothetical that doesn't exist.

QUESTION: Well, but it's not a hypothetical in the sense that this is, as he says, a continuation of the war on terror. And we know it was rescinded with regard to Osama bin Laden. Why shouldn't it be rescinded with regard to Saddam Hussein? And we know that the President wants to avoid war by having him exiled, or something else, so would this be an --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think there is no question the world would be better off if Saddam Hussein would leave Iraq, would disarm, and the situation could be resolved differently. That remains the President's hope. And in the event anything changes, and nothing is planned to change, I will let you know. But there is nothing that has changed it, it remains in place. That's the facts.

QUESTION: -- a question I want to ask on a different subject. Can you explain, first, what you meant by the rules of engagement or military conflict? I assume that means the executive order does not apply in military conflict. Could you explain it --

MR. FLEISCHER: It's the longstanding policy about command and control.

QUESTION: And how would that apply to the potential assassination of a leader of a country that we are invading?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that in the event there were hostilities, all military commanders could be part of a war operation. I don't think it would surprise anybody to think that if we go to war in Iraq and hostilities result, command and control and top generals, people who are in charge of fighting the war to kill the United States troops, cannot assume that they will be safe.

QUESTION: Including the head of that --

MR. FLEISCHER: Of course, including Saddam Hussein. of course.

QUESTION: The directive actually says that?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, we're talking -- we're not talking about the directive. We're talking about in the event of war.

QUESTION: I want to follow up, if I could, on the question the President was asked about sacrifice. He was asked, what sacrifice, if we were to go to war, would face U.S. troops, their families, and the American public. He just mentioned that U.S. troops will be put in harm's way. Won't there be greater sacrifice on the families and the American public? And if so, what sacrifice could the public, troops, and their families expect to see if we go were to go to war?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the immediate sacrifice is already being felt by military families, as they have seen before when their loved ones were deployed. The military life is a very honorable and worthy way of life, which is why so many Americans volunteer for it. And we're a better nation for it, thanks to them. And part of that is the sacrifices that families make; that husbands make when their wives are deployed, that wives make when their husbands are deployed, and that families make then their parents are away. And that has been part and parcel of the American tradition.

And the President, as he visits military bases, enjoys very much meeting with military families and talking to them and assuring them that he will do everything possible to bring their loved one home safely. And America's military is not a stranger to these type of sacrifices. They are already making them.

QUESTION: -- if we get to go to war, what sacrifices U.S. troops or families and the American public?

MR. FLEISCHER: To state the obvious, if we go to war, lives can be lost. And the President is keenly aware of that. And the only reason to go to war would be to save lives, in the President's judgment.

QUESTION: Dr. Blix has said this morning at the U.N. that he's received a number of letters from the Iraqis which, apparently, report the destruction of chemical and biological weapons. It says that they reported a warhead filled with liquid, and he was asked if this amounted to substantive cooperation, and he answered, yes. Your reaction?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this is exactly what the President predicted, that as the pressure grows on Iraq, Iraq will all of a sudden -- and this is the very nature of the problem with Iraq -- that all of a sudden, Iraq will start to discover weapons that they said that they never had, and they'll produce documents when they said they gave them all to us already. They already gave the United Nations, and swore to it, a full and final, complete declaration of all the weapons they produced, per Security Council Resolution 1441. Lo and behold, as the pressure grows, new documents are produced. Lo and behold, as the pressure grows, they find weapons when they said they didn't have any. Lo and behold, why Saddam Hussein cannot be trusted.

QUESTION: You hear in this press room every day what will be the dollar cost of war. What will be the human cost? The President has never been on a battlefield. Does he -- has he gotten any estimate of how many people will die in this? And I have a follow-up.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President approaches -- and I'm going to answer your question -- the President approaches it first from the question of, if the world fails to act, what will be the human price around the world of Saddam Hussein either directly attacking with the biological and chemical weapons that he has, Americans and America's interests abroad --

QUESTION: -- be contained now?

MR. FLEISCHER: Can I answer your question? The President approaches it in the issue of, if Saddam Hussein is not brought to justice by the world, does not disarm, what will be the price on the world, the human price on the world? How many lives will be lost as a result of Saddam Hussein this time ordering a chemical or biological attack against Americans, when we know he's done it against his own people before?

The President also asks the question, if Saddam Hussein is able to get weapons into the hands of terrorists who would strike at our shores, what is the price the American people would pay if that happens?

QUESTION: What has he done --

MR. FLEISCHER: If the President makes the judgment to go to war, it's impossible to predict what the price will be, in terms of lives. You heard the President today say in the Oval Office, one of his greatest worries are the innocents of Iraq, who will be targeted by Saddam Hussein for killing, by Saddam, in an effort to create another ploy around the world where Saddam kills his own people and tries to blame it on somebody else.

QUESTION: What has he done in the last 12 years? And why do you keep subliminally linking up 9/11 with the Iraqi thing? Do you have an actual link? Can you really prove it?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the point the President makes about 9/11 is that prior to 9/11 it was much easier for the American people to sit back and think that terrorism was something that affected maybe our embassies abroad or people in other countries in faraway lands. After 9/11 it became very clear that there are people who have a clear desire, and they will do it again if they can, to attack the United States.


MR. FLEISCHER: They can be any number of people. And what we do worry about is them getting their weapons from the Iraqis, and then coming to the United States to commit more crimes.

QUESTION: But could they get them from the Chinese, the Russians, the United States, Russia?

MR. FLEISCHER: They can get them from any number of places. I think it's far likely --

QUESTION: So why the focus?

MR. FLEISCHER: Because I think, in the President's judgment, based on intelligence, it's far less likely that they will get them from, as you just said, Helen, the United States than it is Iraq.

QUESTION: I'd like to come back to the question of assassinating Saddam Hussein. Senator Fitzgerald says he had a conversation with the President in which he, George W. Bush, said he would rescind the executive order banning assassinations of foreign leaders if he had a clear shot at Saddam Hussein. Is Senator Fitzgerald making that up, is he mistaken? What are we to -- there's a credibility contest here, and I'm just wondering how to resolve it.

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think it's that case at all. First of all, the President, as I said to you, has left the executive order in place, hasn't he. The executive order is in place. Now, I can't speak for every conversation that anybody has. I know that Senator Fitzgerald is not quite certain of the date it took place or where it took place. It may have been a year ago, he says. So I think there is some uncertainty in Senator Fitzgerald's mind about it.

But what is not uncertain is that the executive order is in place. And what's not uncertain is that the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein. And the President hopes that this issue can be resolved peacefully by Saddam Hussein leaving Iraq. And if Saddam Hussein and all his top officials were to leave Iraq, the world would be a better place.

QUESTION: So the executive order remains in place?


QUESTION: If I could ask about the substance of what Senator Fitzgerald is saying. Is the President prepared to rescind that executive order if he gets good enough intelligence to give him a, "clear shot," and assassinate Saddam Hussein?

MR. FLEISCHER: Much like Mr. Gregory's question, my answer is the same. You're talking about a hypothetical, and if something were to change, I would try to keep you informed. But it remains in place.

QUESTION: One more question. The Prime Minister of Bulgaria, out at the stakeout, said that in the context of his conversation with the President on Iraq, "The topic of possible guarantees for Bulgaria came up."

MR. FLEISCHER: That's what I was alluding to when I said that the President, in his meeting with the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, talked about the friendship; he made clear that Bulgaria can count on United States' friendship. And Bulgaria, along with other nations, of course, we have a strategic partnership with, we have an interest in. Bulgaria, of course, has bases. And so there are issues that would, of course, have to be discussed with the United States Congress. But Bulgaria has the friendship of the United States, the President said. No specifics, though, Terry. It was a generalized conversation -- not specific.

QUESTION: All right. But are we to assume that Bulgaria's support is, in part, contingent on financial or other guarantees?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think Bulgaria's support has been early and robust.

QUESTION: The U. S. Ambassador to France says a French veto would be very unfriendly. Is that a fair statement?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course, we'll continue to work diplomatically at the United Nations with all the other nations. And France has a role to play, and we will see exactly what role they play and how this comes to be. I can assure you, based on the conversation the President had several days ago with Prime Minister Chirac, relations remain friendly. Of course, we are interested in what France will do. We are interested in what all nations on the Security Council will do. It is important.

QUESTION: What about John Bolton's statement to the Russians saying that war is coming? Do you stand by that statement, as well?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, actually, I looked in the newspaper, and that's not an accurate quote from what Mr. Bolton said. The paper does report that that's what Mr. Bolton said. And I think it's a senior administration official describing what they say Mr. Bolton said. And they didn't say war is coming, they used different words.

But I talked to Mr. Bolton this morning, and Mr. Bolton has had his own event in Moscow where he has already said publicly that he made clear that we look forward to working with Russia and other nations on the Security Council, and that this remains an issue that can be settled peacefully, that the President hopes to avert war. But, clearly, the President has made plain, as everybody here knows, that if Saddam Hussein does not disarm, the President will assemble a coalition to disarm him. So there remains a possibility for peace; there remains an off ramp. The only person standing in the way of the off ramp is Saddam Hussein. If Saddam Hussein disarms, we can take the off ramp.

QUESTION: Two questions. First, back on the assassination issue, you were somewhat short of an ironclad guarantee that the presidential order is in place permanently. What you seem to be suggesting was if that changes, let us know. What you're saying essentially is the President has the right to rescind that at any moment, since it is a presidential directive, and you're saying he retains the right to do that if he gets the clear shot that was being discussed?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I said I'm not going to speculate about the future. If you're asking a procedural question, then you know the procedure as well as I do. But if you're asking about a question that is hypothetical about, tell me what the future will be, will an executive order be in place or not in place, the only answer is, it is in place, it remains in place. If anything were to change -- and this is not an indication that this may change -- but if anything were to change, I would do my best to let you know. But there's nothing I can indicate for you.

QUESTION: The second question, about Secretary Powell's trip. The President has made it clear on several occasions that he wants to solve the North Korea problem in harmony with South Korea and with China. There was very little we saw in the public statements of either the Chinese or the South Koreans to suggest that, in fact, they're headed in that direction. Do you have any reason to believe that we are now any closer to putting together that kind of a coalition than we were before the Secretary --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's no question there is a coalition of Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States who sees this issue eye-to-eye and shoulder-to-shoulder. We all believe that the North Korean peninsula, the Korean peninsula needs to be denuclearized. Now, it is important for all to put their shoulder to the wheel to work together to put pressure on North Korea to help make that a reality.

We continue to discuss that with our allies. Some nations do more publicly; some nations do more quietly. We'll continue to work together, however, to get the same message to North Korea.

QUESTION: The President started the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, especially, after 9/11. And I hope he has seen today's Washington Post editorial, and which I have been saying for many months, that al Qaeda and Taliban are -- they have a hub in Pakistan and they are regrouping. Since President and U.S. is engaged with the war in Iraq, they are trying to get advantage attacking the -- and also, the Washington Post said that Musharraf has come back to telling the Indian government, the world's largest democracy. My question is how is the President going to deal with this one front where he started, and now Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President made clear in his speech to the country on September 20, 2001, just some nine days after the attack, that this is a global war against terrorism. And since the United States launched the counter-strike against al Qaeda, who carried out the attacks on September 11th, al Qaeda has been dispersed into many different places. They have been rattled, they have been dismantled in part. They still remain an organization that tries to regroup, and they are regrouping wherever they can. And that's not only in Afghanistan or in portions of Pakistan, but around the globe. And this is why the President is involved with our allies in a global effort to make certain that we continue to disrupt their activities.

Now, there are portions of Pakistan that are very hard to police. But Pakistan is a stalwart ally of the United States intelligence his effort. They have been and they remain. They do their very level-best and they cooperate very strongly with the United States in our efforts to bring al Qaeda to justice, wherever they are.

QUESTION: Ari, I want to ask a question about the economy, but first, one more try on this assassination issue. You're saying the President recalls none -- nothing about any conversation with Senator Fitzgerald on this general subject?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think given --

QUESTION: Is it possible he said something to the effect of if -- not in the context of the assassination ban, but in the context of if there's a military action, I sure hope we get a shot at him, or something like that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Given the fact that, in this case, the Senator is not even sure what day, and it could have been a year ago, that he's not quite certain, I think this is fairly understandable. But no, there's nothing to add beyond what I've indicated on the topic.


QUESTION: Ari, we've seen a lot of thrown out numbers about the cost of a potential war. Clearly, there have been costs already accrued from the deployment. What efforts have been made and are being made, are being contemplated to get others in this coalition to share the costs?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated this morning on the same question, that, as always, nations around the world will contribute in different ways to the mission. It's not my place to speak for other nations around the world. I do not expect you will see a repeat of what happened to the same degree in 1991 with the sharing that took place at that time. But nations will contribute in varieties of different ways.

QUESTION: My question is, what efforts are we making to get, to seek contributions? I'm not asking you to predict what governments will do.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in all cases when we talk about the coalition of the willing, conversations involve a variety of different means that different nations are in a position to assist with. It can be political; it can be intelligence sharing; it can be basing or overflights; it can be combat, in some cases. That's the tenor of the discussions -- it's broad and it asks people to contribute as they see best.

QUESTION: Yes, though you and other officials have said the President has not yet made the decision to go to war, is it fair to say that the administration has decided that the inspections have reached a dead-end?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President has not come to the conclusion that the inspections have reached a dead-end. But the discovery of the R-400 bomb in Iraq this morning leads one to the following question: Iraq, on April 3rd, 1991, was instructed under Resolution 687 to destroy all the weapons it has. Given the fact -- and when they were instructed to destroy those weapons under 687, they were given 45 days to destroy them. Given the fact that another weapon has been found today, 4,294 days after they were instructed to destroy all their weapons, it does raise questions about whether Iraq ever intends to comply with disarmament or not. When we keep finding weapons that they say they never had, and when they were given a 45-day time frame in which to disarm, 4,000 days later we're finding more.

QUESTION: One other question, if I may. Canada, in an effort to find some middle ground that might keep the Security Council together on this, has suggested the idea of some sort of deadline of a few weeks, at which point if Iraq has not fully disarmed, then the Security Council would move forward with other options. Does that hold any attraction at all for the administration, if it were a matter of a few weeks?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, the President has said this will be settled in a matter of weeks, not months. And the last time Iraq was given a deadline by the United Nations Security Council, or one time in this instance where they were given a specific deadline to destroy, they were given 45 days, and just this morning, 4,000 days later, we found another weapon.

QUESTION: This morning the President said, again, that he doesn't think he needs this resolution. Is that message intended -- what is that intended to do? Because it could be the signal to other countries that you're -- either get on board or the train is leaving; less a message about what he thinks is important, as a signal to them, that now is your last opportunity.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President's message is this is a chance for the United Nations to be relevant. There is no question about it. After all, if the United Nations passes a resolution that says, Iraq must disarm immediately, and then the United Nations says, immediately really means 12 years, what kind of signal are they sending to the next proliferator? What message are they sending about the ability of the international system to maintain the peace and fight proliferation?

And this is why the President has changed the equation in New York, and he has said it is important for the United Nations to have value and to have meaning for resolutions to be backed up. Otherwise, it's a paper society. It's not a meaningful society to keep the peace. That's what's at stake here.

QUESTION: But does he intend to signal to the other countries that it's now or you're not in --

MR. FLEISCHER: The signal has been sent. The President sent the signal September 12th when he called on the United Nations to be relevant. Go back to his September 12th speech. This is what's at stake, the message that work up the Security Council and the members of the U.N. on September 12th. It still remains to be seen whether the United Nations heard that message, after four years of inaction on Iraq.

QUESTION: But it seems to echo the reports of what Bolton told Russia, which is essentially, the President is saying, I'm going to do what I'm going to do.

MR. FLEISCHER: Jean, you know very well the President has said that one way or another Saddam Hussein will be disarmed. He hopes it will be through the United Nations.

QUESTION: Two questions; one relates to your answer to Jim's question. The fact that Iraq is dribbling this stuff out late and under pressure, you take the lesson that they can't be trusted, that they don't intend to comply. Could that not be turned around and used by the French and others to make the argument that the pressure is working; inspections are working; inspections backed by pressure, backed by the threat of armed force are slowly wringing this stuff out of Iraq and there's no need to --

MR. FLEISCHER: Here's the problem with it: Iraq this morning says they found an R-400 bomb, which is not a small item. The United Nations inspectors, when they left the country, said there were 400 such weapons unaccounted for. Now we found one; where are the other 399? How much time does Saddam Hussein want to dribble those out? The inspectors said when they left the country that Iraq had 30,000 unfilled chemical munitions; the inspectors have found 16. Where are the other 29,000? And how much time can we give Saddam Hussein to dribble those out?

This not about Saddam Hussein being given time to dribble out the weapons that he says he never had in the first place; it's about complete disarmament so the world can breathe easy that Saddam Hussein is not hiding the weapons that he has for the purpose of using them against Americans or others, just as he's used weapons against his own people and other nations.

We're going to have to keep moving here because --

QUESTION: I have two questions, Ari. The first one, you said twice today that the world would be better served if Saddam Hussein were to leave Iraq.

Is the United States willing to give any guarantees if he leaves that he won't be persecuted or prosecuted --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that would remain an international issue. That would be a matter for the international community to discuss. But let's hope we can get to the point where it becomes a matter of discussion.

It would be good for the world. It would be good for everyone if he would leave.


QUESTION: The front of the Washington Post yesterday, on the front page reported that it felt many people in the world increasingly think that President Bush is a greater threat to world peace than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Why do you think that millions of people around the world hold that view?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think that -- number one, the President is going to do what he thinks is right representing the American people. And when you look at what the American people think is right, the American people strongly support the President's efforts to bring peace and to make certain that Saddam Hussein is disarmed so that he cannot harm the peace. That's the President's focus.

QUESTION: But why do you think millions of people hold that view?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to judge it. I can tell you that I've seen the President travel abroad. And for example, when he was in Bucharest, hundreds of thousands turned out in the streets of Bucharest to welcome the American President.

QUESTION: What does the administration make about this terrorism threat against the America's Cup participants in New Zealand? And is there a message here to America's friends, even if they oppose the efforts against Saddam Hussein?

MR. FLEISCHER: Connie, I don't have anything specific on that threat. I have seen the reports of it. But again, it's a reminder why this is a worldwide fight against terror wherever we may find it.

QUESTION: Is it accurate to presume that the President can rescind his order regarding assassination just with the stroke of his pen? And therefore, could he just rescind it one minute and have Saddam dead the next?

MR. FLEISCHER: This has been answered before. It remains in place, and you know the procedure with executive orders.

QUESTION: I know it remains in place, but in order to get rid of it, all it would require is a stroke of his pen?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's an executive order.

QUESTION: How do you get from the latest U.N. resolution, and, in effect, all the previous U.N. resolutions to a top-to-bottom regime change? That issue is not addressed in any of these resolutions.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has always, from September 12th forward, approached this on a two-pronged policy. One is to rally the international community in the cause of disarmament. And the President has called on, and the United Nations has called on Saddam Hussein to disarm. We continue to hope that he will do so peacefully.

It remains also the policy of the United States for regime change. Clearly, if Saddam Hussein will not disarm, and if force is used, you would not think for even a second that if we use force we'll use force for the purpose of leaving Saddam Hussein in charge.

QUESTION: Did we just unilaterally glom that on to the U.N. resolution, and say, okay, the U.N. approves this --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, think it through logically. If force is used, can you conceive of a scenario where we would use force and say to Saddam Hussein, now that we've gone to war, please stay in power?

QUESTION: How about enforced inspections?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's the whole issue. How do you enforce inspections when it's 4,000 days after a 45-day deadline, and we now, this morning, find a new weapon that they always said that they did not have. It points out how the inspections don't work. We hope they can work, but it points out that in the hands of Saddam Hussein, who, by design, will thwart the inspectors, the inspections may not work. And take the case of the Al Samoud II missile. Hans Blix has said that they are prohibited weapons. They must be destroyed. And while we thought that Saddam Hussein would indeed destroy them, you know what he said yesterday.

QUESTION: Ari, when you said earlier -- the executive order aside -- when you said earlier that in the event of hostilities, military commanders, including Saddam Hussein, cannot assume that they'll be safe. Did you mean that they would be -- might be targeted? Or that they could be hit by some, say, stray bullet or bomb?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's not my place to talk about specific targets or sites. You'd have to talk to DOD. But again, to state the obvious, if we go to war, you can assume that the top commanders of Iraq are going to be under the suspicion of being the ones leading the war, of course. And they should not assume they'll be safe.

QUESTION: I'm not talking about hardened targets. I'm talking about people, when I said they'd be targets --

MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question that if you go to war, command and control are legitimate targets under international law.