The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document
Operation Iraqi Freedom

Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, March 19, 2003 (Full Transcript)

QUESTION: Has the President consulted with any former Presidents besides his father in terms of -- and does he have the endorsement for the war on Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Helen, as I told you this morning, you need to address to former Presidents what they would say about whether or not they support the President's endeavors. In any case, any communication that the President, himself, has with former Presidents I leave as a private matter between Presidents.

QUESTION: Well, has he consulted with any outsiders at all, outside of the government?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, anything involving the Presidents, I always leave, as is protocol, that as a matter of privacy among the various Presidents. And the President has relied extensively on the information that he has from his meetings with the security team, as well, of course, with foreign leaders whose counsel he seeks on a regular basis.

QUESTION: You mean Americans?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, foreign leaders whose counsel he seeks on a regular basis.

QUESTION: Ari, can you confirm that the administration has asked Iraqi opposition leaders here in this country to return to Northern Iraq and be in position?

MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I saw there was somebody on the Hill who suggested that yesterday, and I cannot confirm that. I've not been able to get that confirmed; I don't know.

QUESTION: Is the administration talking to these people? And would you like to have them in position, and how do you envision them --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course, we talk to those people, yes. And as you know, there are programs underway, working with them, training them, in Hungary. And there was a meeting in Northern Iraq that a White House representative went to several weeks ago.

And the purpose of these contacts and the purpose of this dialogue and meetings is because the government of Iraq must be run by Iraqis in the future. And we have always said that this will be a government that comes from within inside Iraq, as well as Iraqis from outside the country. And so, of course, we have conversations with those people. This is all part of the planning for a post-Saddam Iraq.

QUESTION: How long do you expect that American forces would be in control of the country, before you were able to hand over --

MR. FLEISCHER: It's impossible to say. It will be as long as is necessary to do the job right, to provide the security atmosphere for Iraqis to govern their own country. It will be as long as is necessary, but not a day longer.

QUESTION: What about the administration's expressed expectation that the Turks, if they go into Northern Iraq, will be under the command of coalition forces? Have you gotten that confirmed?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's the same statement I made yesterday. We've made our point --

QUESTION: Have you heard anything back? Is it under discussion?

MR. FLEISCHER: We've made our point; we think our point is well understood.

QUESTION: Okay. And then, one other thing -- Ambassador Negroponte, at the U.N. this morning, told the other members of the Security Council that he looks forward to working with them in the days and the weeks ahead on issues that the Security Council will be involved in. Can you outline with any specificity what the President thinks the role of the U.N. will be, going forward?

MR. FLEISCHER: Sure, and this was addressed in the meeting in the Azores and a communique that was issued following the meeting, that talked about the role of the United Nations. This was a joint statement by the four leaders. And in there, President Bush said, as well as the other leaders said, that it's important for the United Nations to have a role in the humanitarian aspects of rebuilding Iraq. And so that's -- you may want to just go back to the exact document to find the precise words. But, clearly, there is a role for the United Nations in the future of Iraq in terms of that humanitarian aspect.

QUESTION: Do you expect any political role? In some of these other situations, there have been U.N. officials who have assumed responsibility for civil administration, in Kosovo, East Timor, places like that.

MR. FLEISCHER: I'd refer you to the exact language in that document. I've not brought that document with me. But that is the document that sets forth the policy and says it in precise terms.

QUESTION: With eight hours to go to the deadline, have you gotten any indication from the Iraqi government that Saddam plans to step down?

MR. FLEISCHER: No. With just a short amount of time to go before the deadline, we have not received, unfortunately, any indication from Saddam Hussein that he intends to leave the country.

QUESTION: The subsequent question I have for you is, the President in his speech two nights ago described the Iraqi threat as one that could be one to five years into the future to obtain either a nuclear weapon or something that could strike us, a non-imminent threat. In the President's mind, is he in this action, setting a precedent that the United States could now act, either preemptively or preventively, depending on how you define it, against a threat that is not an imminent one against the United States?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, here's how the President approaches this. He believes, number one, based on the reviews conducted by the attorneys, that there already exists a legal basis both in international law, as well as in domestic law, for the use of force to disarm Saddam Hussein. And that is also found in Security Council Resolution 678 and 687, as well as 1441. The President also believes that there is a gathering threat from Iraq, that with the failure by Saddam Hussein to disarm of his weapons of mass destruction presents a threat to the security of the United States. And therefore, he has come to the conclusion that after exhausting the diplomacy, that military force must be used if Saddam Hussein does not get out of the country.

That summarizes it for him. In terms of precedents, et cetera, David, I think some people have made the case -- and different people will have different historical views of these things -- but you can look at the Cuban missile crisis, of course, where there was a decision made without the United States being "attacked" to conduct a quarantine or an embargo, which, of course, international lawyers will tell you is an act of war.

And so I think you're going to find the historians, legal scholars will have differing conclusions about these matters. But the conclusion the President reaches is that Iraq's failure to disarm presents a threat to the people of the United States and, therefore, he is prepared to use force.

QUESTION: Even if you were absent the U.N. resolutions, if they didn't exist, he would still think he would have justification under the current circumstances?

MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question about that.

QUESTION: The report that came with -- the seven-page report, one of the points it makes in trying to make the case that moving against Saddam would help the war on terrorism is that detained Iraqis could help identify terrorists living in the United States. I'm assuming, first of all, by "detained," we're talking about folks who have been captured in the war. Is that correct?

And, secondly, what evidence do we have, what reason do we have to believe that detained Iraqis would be able to point us to suspects living in this country?

MR. FLEISCHER: Ron, let me re-read the report to take a look at that provision, in particular. When I read it -- let me take a look at that, in that particular regard. The report focuses on -- as the congressional requirements dictate -- Congress, when it passed the resolution with huge bipartisan support last fall, laid out several reporting requirements imposed on the administration if a decision was made to use force. The report was required either immediately before or within 48 hours of the use of force. It said before, or 48 hours afterwards.

QUESTION: -- for this provision is, is making the argument, as required by the resolution, that a movement against Iraq would help on the war against terrorism. In that section the claim was made that it would help identify terrorists here. If you could provide some guidance as to how we can make that claim.

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. What the report required on the question of terrorism, is that in connection -- this is reading from the law that triggers the formal requirement to put together the written report, which was sent last night -- and now I'm reading from the October 16, 2002 statute.

"In connection with the exercise of the authority granted in subsection to use force, the President shall, prior to the exercise of such force, but no later than 48 hours after, make available to the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate, a determination that" -- here's the piece on the terrorism section -- "acting pursuant to this joint resolution is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations or persons who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11th." The report walks through that this is consistent with that.

QUESTION: Right. And I think you understand -- I'm not challenging that, I'm just asking about the one, what I think is a new rationale, a new explanation for why the United States thinks it would help --

QUESTION: Ari, you mentioned this morning that there was evidence of some "unease" in senior Iraqi circles. Could you share with us any evidence to that effect? And also could you share with us some of the factors the President will consider, sort of the pros and cons, as he picks the time of his choosing?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think that you can see from ample public reporting, from the many communications that have been had with the Iraqi people through the form of leaflets and other things that are very publicly known, there is unease throughout Iraq.

QUESTION: Any evidence that senior officials in that government are trying to defect, have attempted to defect?

MR. FLEISCHER: Anything about any one individual or another is not something that I would be able to get into. If something like that were to happen, I would imagine it would be a matter of time before it is publicly known. But there's nothing I can get into on that.

QUESTION: And the various factors?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's safe to say that the President, having made the speech he made to the nation about the gathering threat and the decision that force will be necessary if Saddam Hussein does not leave, will work very closely with the will work very closely with the Department of Defense and with the military planners on what, indeed, makes it a moment of our choosing. The President will be guided by the best military advice available, and that will help shape his decision.

QUESTION: Ari, sort of repeating my question from this morning, and following on that one. Since the President has not expressly promised not to begin military operations before the ultimatum, the 48-hour ultimatum ends, therefore, we could expect military operations to begin at any point in time?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm just not going to get into any speculation about when military operations can begin for what I imagine you all know are the obvious reasons. Why would anybody want to give that away?

QUESTION: Right, but the White House does not believe it is constrained by the 48-hour ultimatum to stop Hussein not to begin any military operations before that time?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President's language spoke for itself about Saddam Hussein and 48 hours to avoid military conflict, and that the use of force can begin at a moment of our own choosing. I'm just not going to go beyond that.

QUESTION: You mentioned the language in the letter sent to the Hill that said, if a decision to take military action is made, then this notification would go to Congress. Should we interpret this as a sign that the President has, in fact, made the conceptual decision to use military force?

MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question about that. The President made that clear to the American people in his speech the other night.

QUESTION: So we have crossed that point. He just hasn't made the decision about exactly when forces would, in fact, move against Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President made very plain to the American people that as a result of Saddam Hussein's failure to disarm, and his possession of weapons of mass destruction, he has come to the determination that the only way to enforce the United Nations resolutions now is through the use of force. He gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq in order to avoid military conflict.

QUESTION: As we're on the brink of war, is there any kind of message the White House wants to send to Iraqi forces? I mean, perhaps an appeal to surrender, or assurances they'd be protected if they gave up?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President's message to Iraqi forces is this is not your war. This is your regime; don't follow the orders of the regime. The Iraqi people are the innocents who are caught in between. And the President would very much like to see the Iraqi people save their lives, the Iraqi military save their lives, by laying down their arms and by not following their orders.

QUESTION: Ari, two things. At 8:00 p.m., what should the American public understand as it relates to potential war with Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: At 8:00 p.m. tonight, the American people will know Saddam Hussein has committed his final act of defiance. The President has urged Saddam Hussein to leave the country so that military conflict can be avoided. At 8:00 p.m., we will know whether Saddam Hussein has chosen to do that, or not. We have no indications that he has chosen to do that, unfortunately.

QUESTION: My second question, why is it that the State Department last week declined a proposal from former Congressman Walter Fauntroy, with a group of ecumenical ministers who went to Iraq and met with Tariq Aziz about total disarmament -- why did the State Department say, no, this is a no-deal issue?

MR. FLEISCHER: We have made it abundantly clear from the very beginning that this is not a negotiable matter with Iraq. Iraq must comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions and immediately, and fully, and unconditionally disarm. That's not a negotiable position.

QUESTION: And Ari, this was last week, and they said they would have total disarmament in exchange that you could buy their oil with U.S. dollars --

MR. FLEISCHER: If that was the case, you'd have thought Iraq would have done it. It's not a quid pro quo. Iraq needed to have followed the binding resolutions of the United Nations.

QUESTION: Ari, for awhile now we've been asking when the President is going to have an open discussion with the American people about the benefits and the costs of any war. Yet in his speech last night -- or Monday night, we didn't hear anything from the President about the potential risks of this war. Why hasn't he --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President warned the American people there will be sacrifice in this road ahead. The President made that plain. And if you're asking the question of costs, in terms of dollars, not human lives --

QUESTION: I'm asking about human lives.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President said that. The President said that in his speech the other night that there would be sacrifice. And I think the American people understand that. The American people clearly have seen what has been developing for months and months and months, as a result of the diplomatic endeavors that the President tried, while making plain and certain to the American people and to Iraq that if Iraq did not disarm, force would be used. And the American people understand that if force is used, lives may be lost, indeed. I think there's no question the country understands that.

QUESTION: But do you think that they really understand the potential for the loss of human life here if they're using recent wars, like Afghanistan or the first Persian Gulf War, which were very different from this?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's no question the American people understand that. I think if you just talk to people in the street, they'll tell you they understand that there are risks to life, and the President has made that clear.

QUESTION: Saddam Hussein is holding tight just like Hitler in 1945, as far as at this hour, a little over seven hours to go for the deadline. And how is the President holding up in the most difficult decision of his life as a President, as a citizen, as a commander-in-chief -- so are we looking also at the same time, when we go and attack -- the U.S. forces go to attack Iraq, they are looking Saddam Hussein dead or alive?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that the President has thought about this for a considerably long period of time, and has thought about this carefully. And if force is used, the President will authorize force, knowing that it was in the cause of peace to disarm Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction, so that Saddam Hussein cannot use weapons of mass destruction later at a time and place of Saddam's choosing, which would leave us at the most vulnerable.

You know, one of the things that's interesting here is we seem to have gone from a debate at the United Nations process where people said, you haven't proved he has weapons of mass destruction, the inspectors haven't been able to find where Saddam is hiding them, to now rampant speculation that Saddam Hussein has chemical, biological weapons that he is getting ready to unleash on American forces. And I think we've seen that in all the coverage from this. That's the very point. If people now accept the premise that he does have weapons of mass destruction, the world could not afford, in the President's judgment, to allow Saddam to make the timing clear from his point of view about when he would use them. If he has them, that's the risk, that's the problem. If he has them, the world cannot afford to let Saddam pick who he would use them on and when he would use them, especially if the world was not prepared to take counter-measures.

QUESTION: Do you have any information on the whereabouts of Tariq Aziz and whether he's been shot or defected?

MR. FLEISCHER: I've seen the reports on the wire; I have no confirmation.

QUESTION: Secretary Powell said that there's 30 countries, I believe, that expressed support for the United States position, and 15 others that have secretly said -- indicated something. Can you give us any idea how many of these countries are willing to send military personnel to take part in this campaign?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think, as always, unless those nations explicitly authorize us to speak about who was using -- sending combat or forces in there, it's not my place to name them. It's their place to name them for themselves.

There may be a moment where, after sufficient authorization is given from foreign governments, more can be said or will be said. But I think it's fair to say, when you take a look at the entire coalition of the willing, what you see are a sizeable number of nations that share the United States people's commitment to disarming Saddam Hussein, and also to the reconstruction of Iraq. And this coalition will speak in numerous ways as different nations contribute differently to it.

There will be a number that are involved in various ways and forms, in combat, or in providing chem or biological teams in the event that Saddam Hussein uses weapons of mass destruction. There will be larger numbers that help in the supply, the over-flight. And other countries, of course, too, that contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq.

QUESTION: Ari, two questions. The meeting at the United Nations this morning, certain foreign ministers went -- Colin Powell didn't go, nor the British Foreign Minister, nor the Spanish Foreign Minister. Hans Blix has presented, or is presenting a report on disarmament. What does the White House think of that meeting going on today?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's the prerogative of the United Nations to continue to receive reports that, interestingly, the report continues to show that there are serious questions about Saddam Hussein's disarmament. And so the report is part of a series of items that raise questions that get to the core of the issue. Saddam Hussein has not given the world confidence that he has disarmed. That's what has brought the world to the verge of going to war against Saddam Hussein, so he does disarm.

QUESTION: Second question. I think the White House has stated its position that it would like the United Nations to help in the reconstruction of Iraq. And I've heard some reports that maybe the oil money from Iraq's sale of oil could be used for reconstruction. Is that something the White House would like to see?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's no question that the Iraqi nation possesses a number of resources. They are a wealthy nation and they have the ability to do what wealthy nations should do -- and that is to turn their wealth to peaceful purposes, rather than military purposes.

The oil-for-food program is a humanitarian program implemented through the United Nations to provide food to the people of Iraq in the face of a dictatorship that takes all its resources away from the people, doesn't feed the people and, instead, builds palaces and builds bombs. And there's no question that the President believes, and much of the world community, including the United Nations, believes, that Iraqi wealth should be better used to serve the causes of -- the humanitarian causes of the Iraqi people, including providing for their food, their medicine, et cetera.

QUESTION: Just following on Peter's question, the President sees this as a unique threat, but he's not at all concerned that others will see this as a template for them to take their own preemptive strikes elsewhere?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President believes this is a matter that was pursued diligently through the United Nations, is based on United Nations Security Council Resolutions 678, 687, and 1441; and that, given the actions of Saddam Hussein, the threat that he presents, the fact that he himself has authorized military attacks on his neighbors before, that he possesses weapons of mass destruction, that this is a circumstance unlike any other found on the Earth.

QUESTION: Ari, opponents of the war in Iraq contend that it will increase terrorism, while the majority of our country seems to believe that decisively removing Saddam will demoralize the terrorist network worldwide. And my question, how does the President assess the psychological effect of this massive military action on the minds of terrorists?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think on two levels. One, you can already see that the effort to fight terrorism worldwide, even with the buildup of force in dealing with Iraq, has been very, very successful. Al Qaeda has been severely disrupted. While threats do, indeed, remain, and concerns are present, al Qaeda has been severely disrupted. They have lost their ability to train in Afghanistan, they're on the run, they're scattered throughout the world, it's not safe for them anywhere. They know that at any given moment, any of them can be, like their brethren before them, picked up and brought to justice. And that has a powerful deterrent effect. And the President also believes that the use of force against Iraq will similarly send a powerful deterrent message to terrorists around the world that the United States will do what it takes to prevent terrorist attacks against our country.

END 12:59 P.M. EST

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