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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, March 14, 2003 (Full Transcript)
And at 3:00 p.m. this afternoon the President is going to have a rather unusual meeting here at the White House. This weekend is the 15th anniversary of Halabjah. This is a chemical attack -- an attack on the people of Iraq with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein. The President will meet with three people who were affected, either they directly or their families, as a result of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons.
In that single order that Saddam Hussein gave to use chemical weapons, the Iraqi regime killed thousands of Iraq's own citizens. Whole families died while trying to flee clouds of nerve and mustard agents descending from the sky. Many who managed to survive still suffer from cancer, from blindness and respiratory diseases, miscarriages and severe birth defects as a result of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons.
The President will meet with these three individuals. They will be available to talk to the press at the stake-out afterwards, to discuss what a brutal dictator Saddam Hussein is and how, if force is used, the people of Iraq, ill for the first time in decades be able to live in freedom and security with Saddam Hussein no longer engaging his torture.
Two announcements for you. The President will meet with Prime Minister of Pakistan on Monday, I'm sorry, on March 28th. The leaders will discuss bilateral, regional, international issues, as well as our close cooperation between the United States and Pakistan on the war on terror.
One final announcement. The President will travel to the Azores on Sunday to meet with Prime Minister Blair, Prime Minister Aznar, Prime Minister Barroso, to discuss how best to proceed to make it unequivocally clear to Saddam Hussein that there will be serious consequences if he fails to disarm. The President has said all along that he will exhaust every option. He is travelling to meet with leaders, to share his assessment of the threat to peace posed by Saddam Hussein's defiance. The leaders will discuss all final diplomatic options.
QUESTION: Ari, what is it that the President thinks can be done, and what is he prepared to do to revive what appears to be a failing second U.N. resolution?
What is this supposed to accomplish?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this meeting will discuss all final diplomatic options. I think you can see this meeting as a sign of the determination of the President to go the last mile. And meeting with these leaders affords the President the opportunity and the chance to review this diplomacy as it's brought to its conclusion.
QUESTION: What signs does this administration have that there is any reason to believe that a second resolution can win approval at this point?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we shall see. This remains an important issue for the future, it's one of the purposes of the meeting. And we shall see, ultimately, what role the United Nations will play. We shall see.
QUESTION: But, again, Ari, there are no --
MR. FLEISCHER: David, we're going to -- I want to keep moving.
QUESTION: Wait a second, but the question still stands.
MR. FLEISCHER: Last question, David.
QUESTION: Doesn't the American public have a right to know what signs of any progress there is? Because there are plenty of signs of failure?
MR. FLEISCHER: Sure, we'll see if there are, indeed, signs of progress to the point where the United Nations will bring it upon itself to act. As you know, all along I've not made any predictions about it. Conversations are continuing, and we shall see, ultimately, what role the United Nations plays.
The President continues to hope and work and go the last mile so that the United Nations will play a role.
QUESTION: The President and you, in his stead, have repeatedly said he doesn't need this resolution. So why should we not be skeptical of his apparent attempt to bend over backward to get the resolution? Why is this anything more than a last minute attempt to look good for the benefit of Tony Blair, primarily, and to look like he's trying to make peace? He's said he's going to go to war if he doesn't get it. What's the difference?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because the President does think it's important to go the last mile for diplomacy. And this is important to our friends and our allies, and if it's important to our friends and our allies, it's important to President Bush.
QUESTION: But it's not as important to us, obviously, because we keep saying he doesn't need it.
MR. FLEISCHER: And that's a statement of fact. The United States -- and the President has said it repeatedly -- does not need a second resolution or an 18th resolution, based on legality and based on the fact that it's important to disarm Saddam Hussein. But because it is important to our friends and allies, it's important for President Bush.
QUESTION: So this trip is for the benefit of our allies?
MR. FLEISCHER: And if it's for the benefit of our allies, it is, by virtue, therefore, beneficial to the United States. We are in this together.
QUESTION: Will you ask -- Ari, will you ask the President for me and for many, many others, has he really weighed the human cost on both sides, starting a war to go after one man?
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, this is not a war to go after one man. This is a war, if there is a war, to go after one regime led by Saddam Hussein that possesses weapons of mass destruction that can take the lives of millions.
That's why the United Nations called on Saddam Hussein to disarm. It is because Iran -- Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction and that is the core of the issue. They have not disarmed.
QUESTION: How do you know they do, when they haven't been discovered? We've had inspections, and so forth -- and many other countries have weapons of mass destruction, including us.
MR. FLEISCHER: And under Resolution 1441, Saddam Hussein was compelled by the United Nations Security Council to immediately, without condition and without restriction disarm. He has not done so.
QUESTION: You haven't found anything yet in the --
MR. FLEISCHER: That doesn't prove that he doesn't have it, Helen, it just proves that he's able to hide it.
QUESTION: But that doesn't prove they are either.
MR. FLEISCHER: And the inspectors will also be the first tell you that during the '90s they missed of what he had, too, if they hadn't been told about it from defectors.
QUESTION: Ari, you said there's a little more diplomacy, a little more time left. Chile today, on behalf -- apparently -- of the undecided nations has proposed adopting five of the British benchmarks, the strict tests for Iraqi compliance, and extending the deadline three or four weeks. Is that too much diplomacy, too much time? Or would the President be open to three to four weeks to test these benchmarks?
MR. FLEISCHER: And, of course, I was asked several days ago about whether or not the President would be open to extending the deadline 30 to 45 days -- now you could say that's 26 to 41 days. If it was a non-starter then, it's a non-starter now.
QUESTION: All right, let me just ask you one broader question here. In the past several weeks we've seen the administration go from discouraging a second resolution to desperately seeking the vote of nations like Guinea. We've seen the President go from saying, put the cards on the table, there will be a vote -- to Secretary Powell saying, maybe not. We've seen European officials say the administration told them the road map for peace in the Middle East would not be published until after any war with Iraq -- to the President walking out into the Rose Garden doing it today. And we had you yesterday saying there's no travel, and now he's going to the Azores.
It looks like an administration in chaos.
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me begin with your first erroneous statement. As you said, a nation "like Guinea." I don't know what that means. Guinea is a sovereign nation and a proud member of the Security Council. And if you believe in the United Nations and believe in multi-lateralism, then nations like Guinea deserve their place on the Security Council with an opportunity to say how they think. That's how the President approaches, with respect, each of these nations.
On the rest of your statements, you have seen a continuation of the diplomacy. And what you have seen as the diplomacy reaches its final path, there are multiple options to reach that final path. The one area that unites all those options is the President's determination to go the last mile on behalf of diplomacy
QUESTION: And he's willing to flip-flop several times to get there?
MR. FLEISCHER: I disagree with your characterization of it.
QUESTION: Ari, would an Iraq war slow down this Middle East road map?
MR. FLEISCHER: In fact, the question that said something about there will be no road map until the end of the war, I'm not aware of anybody who has made such a statement. The President --
QUESTION: Chris Patton.
MR. FLEISCHER: Do you have anybody in the United States government who has made such a statement?
QUESTION: He said that he was told by officials in the United States government.
MR. FLEISCHER: I can't speak to that. I'm not aware of any United States official who would have said that there will be no road map. The President has always said -- if you go back to the June 24th speech -- that what we needed to have was an environment in which both Israel and Palestinians can have confidence, until they're side-by-side in peace.
As the Palestinians reformed and as the security situation got better on the ground, the President has observed there was a change in events in the Middle East, with the naming of a Palestinian prime minister. The President hopes that this will be a key moment in which the Palestinians, themselves, are showing more signs of serious, meaningful reform. And if that is the case, the President has said he will send a road map forward, exactly in keeping with what he said on June 24th.
QUESTION: You said the new prime minister should have real authority. Are you worried that Yasser Arafat would have too much authority or too much influence over the new prime minister?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's a question mark. And it's an important question mark to resolve. Yasser Arafat has not shown a history of being willing to relinquish power in reality. And so it is an important issue to determine whether or not the Palestinians are, indeed, engaging in meaningful reforms.
The President hopes so. If they are, this President is prepared to take action.
QUESTION: We're very possibly just days away from going to war. Yet, the President has yet to share with the American public in any detailed way his best assessments of what military and civilian casualties might look like, what the terrorist threat reprisal possibilities are, what the costs of this war might be, what the burdens of occupation and rebuilding might be.
If a determination is made to go to war, is the President going to share his best thinking on this with the American people before the shooting starts?
MR. FLEISCHER: We are rapidly approaching the final diplomatic moments.
And in the event the President makes the determination that he must go beyond diplomacy and that force must be used, he will, indeed, have much information to share with the American people.
QUESTION: Including addressing those specific questions?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to predict every --
QUESTION: Before or after the shooting starts?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to predict every eventuality of remarks the President will make. But I think the American people will hear what they're expecting to hear from the President at a serious time like this.
MR. FLEISCHER: Mike.
QUESTION: Following up on your respect for Guinea, what would be the harm, and would there be any benefit, to having a representative or some representatives of the six middle, undecided Security Council nations in the Azores?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the meeting is a chance for the co-sponsors of this resolution to speak and to meet. It's for those nations that are standing by 1441 as the sponsors of this resolution to meet. So that's the purpose of the meeting. And that's why they're getting together.
QUESTION: The purpose of the meeting is to get a resolution, what would be the harm?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not aware that it's even an eventuality or a circumstance that anybody else has suggested, let alone the leaders of those nations. So this is a meeting of the leaders that I've mentioned.
QUESTION: British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, in part, the reason for recommitting to the Middle East peace process is to show a sense of even-handedness -- the suffering of the Iraqi people, the war on terror, as well as the suffering of the Palestinians and the Israelis. Is there any recognition from this administration that those two conflicts have not been treated even-handedly? And I have a follow-up.
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's approach has been one that all parties have responsibilities. And that's what he said on June 24th when he cited specifically the responsibilities of Israel to peace, the Palestinians to peace, and the Arab nations to peace.
QUESTION: And how do you respond to the suspicions that the administration is talking about this recommitment to this road map -- released road map, as a part of the strategy to win support in the U.N. Security Council on the second resolution?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you could easily ask the question, if the President didn't go today, you could say, now that the Palestinians have appointed a Prime Minister, or are on the verge, perhaps, of appointing a Prime Minister with real authority, why isn't the President saying anything? Is it not important enough for the President?
The point is, action is taking place on the ground in the Middle East in accordance what the President called for on June 24th. Failing to note what took place by the Palestinians would be an omission of the President's duties to work toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I think it would be surprising if the President did not speak out at a time like this.
QUESTION: But, Ari, is there no recognition that might even look suspicious at this time, the timing of this to talk about recommitting to the Middle East road map at the same time they need the votes for the --
MR. FLEISCHER: If you're suggesting that the Palestinians have chosen this moment to appoint a Prime Minister as suspicious, I think that's something you need to take up with the Palestinians.
QUESTION: -- the administration's reaction, its recommitment to the road map?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, if you're suggesting that it's appropriate for the President to stay silent as the Palestinians are on the verge of, perhaps, appointing a powerful or independent Prime Minister, I think that's a rather unusual statement to make that the President should remain silent at time like this.
QUESTION: Ari, you are tying the release of the road map -- which the Russians, at least, say has been held up only by the United States among those in the Quartet -- to your acceptance of the power of the Prime Minister the Palestinians have chosen. And you're announcing a summit on Sunday that doesn't involve any of the half dozen members of the Security Council whose votes you need to get the resolution passed that you want. Where is the substance in either of these diplomatic gestures?
MR. FLEISCHER: It'll be in the conversations that are held among these leaders. And, you know, I think this notion that somehow these undecided nations want to attend the summit is something that's not borne out by anything that I have seen. I'm not aware that any of them are saying they wanted to go.
But the purpose of this is to give diplomacy this last final chance. And that's important for these leaders to pursue.
QUESTION: Ari, why do they need to do this in person? Why do you need a summit meeting? What needs to be accomplished that can't be accomplished in a conference call?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because it was the determination of the three leaders that as it reached the point of finality, from a diplomatic point of view, where the best course to proceed is to meet with each other, to talk in person.
These leaders have been talking repeatedly on the telephone -- in fact, I should have mentioned, the President also spoke to Prime Minister Blair on the phone today -- and they've been talking repeatedly. They've reached the judgment that the best process now is to meet in person.
QUESTION: But, I mean, clearly, the President has been doing a lot of telephone diplomacy because it's effective. So why do they -- I mean, it looks like it's just a --
MR. FLEISCHER: Because they reached a conclusion that it's also effective to meet in person and to speak on the phone. I was asked before this trip, how come he's not traveling? Now he's traveling.
QUESTION: Ari, you speak of a summit of three leaders. But the Prime Minister of Portugal, Manuel Barroso, who is a host, is going to participate in the meeting with the other three leaders.
MR. FLEISCHER: We'll be publishing the exact schedule, but of course the
Prime Minister of Portugal will be there. He is the host of this meeting. The three co-sponsors, the three members of the Security Council are the United States, Spain and the United Kingdom.
QUESTION: And the duration. Do you have a -- how many hours the summit will take place? Is it only on Sunday?
MR. FLEISCHER: It's a day trip. We will be providing to all the press, as usual, the exact itinerary.
QUESTION: Ari, Tony Blair seems be fighting for his political life right now.
He was here more than a month ago, supporting President Bush. Why is the President not thinking of traveling to England to help him, his friend, who is in trouble primarily because of his actions with the President?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the Azores was chosen as a logical meeting spot that is roughly in between all three nations. It's, from a logistical point of view, the easiest place for all three to go.
QUESTION: But when Tony Blair was here, he and President Bush spoke to the nation from the Cross Hall. Why not do that for Tony Blair? Why not President Bush go to London?
MR. FLEISCHER: For the exact reason I gave, because this is a meeting among three leaders, not just two.
QUESTION: Ari, the six uncommitted nations on the Security Council have some commonality in views, and that's, in general, that they seek more time, perhaps a specific list of objectives that Saddam Hussein has to meet.
You've fairly clearly ruled out, for now anyway, the possibility the 30 to 45-day extension is acceptable. But the British -- but there's a lot of overlap between what the British have put forward as a compromise, and what some of these uncommitted nations are seeking. The differences would seem to be in the amount of time involved.
Is it fair to say that this will be a topic of discussion on Sunday? And, more broadly, is the President open to the possibility, anyway, the possibility of some additional time? Not 30 or 45 days, necessarily, but some additional period of time in keeping with the request from the six uncommitted nations and Britain, if he thinks it'll get him the nine votes?
MR. FLEISCHER: The meeting will take place on Sunday. I'm not going to predict every eventuality of the meeting, or every possibility of the meeting.
But, suffice it to say, they will, of course, be discussing how to get the U.N. to act, and to disarm Saddam Hussein.
QUESTION: Ari, in discussing the objectives of this meeting this morning, you indicated that the main hope at this point for avoiding war is a statement from the United Nations so clear, that from the world community so clear, that it would basically compel Saddam Hussein to go into exile. Is that the only hope at this point of avoiding war?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there -- I think there are still two issues that remain at play that have been at the core of this from the very beginning. One is the complete total and immediate disarmament of Saddam Hussein, exactly as called for in Resolution 1441. And the other is for Saddam Hussein and all his top leaders to leave the country.
QUESTION: But realistically, at this point, at this late date, do you hold out any hope that Saddam Hussein is going to disarm in a fashion that would --
MR. FLEISCHER: The only person who can answer that question accurately is Saddam Hussein. The President hopes so. I think realistically, the chances are slim.
QUESTION: But he sees something that would happen at the Azores over the weekend as causing Saddam Hussein to suddenly --
MR. FLEISCHER: Clearly, the more unity there is in the world, the more the ability of the United Nations Security Council to act meaningfully to enforce 1441, the more pressure there is on Saddam Hussein.
QUESTION: Ari, the President often when he remarks often talks about several topics. Why didn't he talk about the summit in his remarks this morning?
Secondly, you just explained a more --
MR. FLEISCHER: He wanted to give me the pleasure of doing that. His remarks were focused on the Middle East. He did not think it would be an issue that you would fail to note.
QUESTION: He often talks about several issues. And, secondly, on -- specifically on France, could you --
MR. FLEISCHER: June 24th, he spoke about just peace in the Middle East, so I really am not sure there is a basis to that -- spoke today about the Middle East.
QUESTION: Explicitly, why do you think that France shouldn't be invited? And, thirdly, could you just answer Dick's question about whether the information will come before the shooting starts?
MR. FLEISCHER: I make no predictions. I can't say anything about when military action will begin.
QUESTION: I know, but the information about him telling about the costs, is that going to come beforehand? And, also, about France, why, explicitly, shouldn't France be --
MR. FLEISCHER: I've always said that in the event the President makes a decision to use force, he will discuss that with the American people prior to that taking place. But this is a meeting for those who are standing by Resolution 1441, and seeking the disarmament of Saddam Hussein under 1441. This is a meeting for the co-sponsors of that resolution.
QUESTION: World Net Daily reports, under President Bush, the Justice Department now admits its predecessors, the Clinton Justice Department, conspired to print factually false information in a Justice Department letter to deprive James Sanders of his civil rights in connection with his investigation of the crash of TWA Flight 800. This is case #EDMY01CB5447JS.
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, what's your question?
QUESTION: Does the President -- is the President glad that his Justice Department has so exposed the Clinton Justice Department?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have not boned up today on KD34963421. Lester, you need to address that, as you well know, to the Justice Department, not to the White House.
QUESTION: Ari, 182 days ago, the President told the United Nations: we expect quick resolution to the issue of Iraq disarmament. And he set a deadline of days and weeks, not months and years. Six months later, he's still waiting. On January the 15th, he announced, time is running out. On February the 22nd, he announced, time is short. My question is, since it is now March the 14th, with no resolution in sight, how can you deny that the President has created a serious credibility gap?
MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, I think you need to be precise in what you say the President said, and apply it to the events the President said need to take place. On September 12th, the President said that it should be weeks not months for the United Nations Security Council to act by passage of a resolution based on his September 12th speech. That, indeed, happened when the Security Council, within weeks, not months, passed the resolution the President asked them to pass. On January 30th, when the President was asked how much longer will the current stage last, he said, weeks not months. I think what you've seen in both cases is the President is speaking precisely.
QUESTION: Ari, I just wanted to ask you why the President thinks now is an appropriate time to open the diplomatic window for Saddam to get out of town?
And whether you'd like to see that language reflected in something the U.N. does, or whether it's just something that should be reflected by what the coalition leaders do in the --
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to get into any speculation about individual wording of any resolutions, or do any public negotiating, other than to say that the world would be very well served if Saddam Hussein were to leave.
QUESTION: But do you foresee the coalition leaders in the Azores addressing the issue of exile and how to achieve that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you have to allow the meeting to take place on Sunday.
QUESTION: What's the coverage plan for Sunday?
MR. FLEISCHER: We're still working on that detail. I'm aware of several of the conversations that have been underway. I'm trying to work through some of the logistical issues that I've been told are present. I want to dig deeply into this. And my approach is always to have the Washington White House press corps travel with the President.
QUESTION: Ari, do we have any assurances from Tony Blair that if we don't get this second resolution that he is with us? And is this meeting on Sunday, is it any part of it for the President to sort of relay to Blair that it's no time to go wobbly if we, in fact, don't get a second resolution?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think Prime Minister Blair has shown nothing but strength and leadership in the cause of disarming Saddam Hussein so peace can be maintained. So I don't think that's even -- that's not an issue.
QUESTION: But when you say it's -- that the second resolution is more for our allies. I mean, that's about Tony Blair. And I guess I'm saying if we're willing to go without a second resolution, can Tony Blair go without a second resolution?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that's a question you need to address to the United Kingdom, not to me -- I don't speak for Tony Blair. The President has been abundantly plain on this issue and he has said the United States does not need a second resolution. But because it's important to our allies, that makes it important to him.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions, if I may. If the United States gets reliable intelligence that Saddam Hussein plans to strike first, has the President given the Pentagon permission to attack before Saddam does?
MR. FLEISCHER: I do not discuss operational issues.
QUESTION: Ari, what's the status of Monday's deadline, now that the resolution remains on the table at the United Nations?
MR. FLEISCHER: No change in that status, no change in the deadline. That remains the resolution that's on the table.
QUESTION: Do you still hope for a vote early next week? Is that still the administration's hope?
MR. FLEISCHER: No change from what I said yesterday. The President continues to push forward on that.
QUESTION: Ari, does the President support NASA's plans for another shuttle flight as early as this fall?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President will be guided by the independent and the judgment of the experts at NASA. They are conducting their independent review of what has taken place. The President is not the scientist who makes these determinations, but he will be guided by the judgment of the scientists at NASA who are in charge of making these judgments.
QUESTION: So if those officials tell the President that it's not too early to do that, he would accept that?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I do not even know if this rises to the level of the President having to make a decision about space shuttle flights. The President clearly, in the past, did not author -- make the decision that a space shuttle would fly. Those are decisions that are made by other officials, not the President.
QUESTION: Ari, how does the President define the progress of diplomacy so far with Iraq? Is he disappointed?
MR. FLEISCHER: With the diplomacy toward Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it remains to be seen. The President is going to discuss all final diplomatic options now with our allies. And we will see whether or not the President will end up, because of the United Nations Security Council's actions, as either disappointed or pleased. That is up to the United Nations Security Council.
QUESTION: Ari, the President said in his press conference it's important for countries to show their cards and show the world where they stand on Iraq. Is that still important to the President, or have events changed sufficient to make him reconsider that?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, it is important. The President is continuing, as I indicated, to push forward. As Secretary Powell said, there are options, and we will pursue these various options as the President pushes forward.
QUESTION: Ari, the President said in his State of the Union address, the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. And since then, the IAEA said that those were forged documents --
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, whose statement was that?
QUESTION: The President, in his State of the Union address. Since then, the IAEA has said those were forged documents. Was the administration aware of any doubts about these documents, the authenticity of the documents, from any government agency or department before it was submitted to the IAEA?
MR. FLEISCHER: These are matters that are always reviewed with an eye toward the various information that comes in and is analyzed by a variety of different people. The President's concerns about Iraq stem from multiple places, involving multiple threats that Iraq can possess, and these are matters that remain discussed.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.