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 Home > News & Policies > April 2003

Operation Iraqi Freedom

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

QUESTION: Could I just ask you one question on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? The President said, while we may not have proof that they're actually there now, we may never get that proof that the weapons actually existed, the best we may hope for is some proof that there was a program, but at least we know now that Saddam Hussein will never be in a position to use them. One of the basic premises that this nation was being sold on in terms of why war was necessary was because he was actually in possession of these weapons; not just that he had a program, but the weapons actually existed. It appears now that that may not be the case.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, it's the opposite of what the President has said. Let me read to you exactly the words that the President used, because they've been quoted about, not precisely, both at the gaggle this morning. And let me just read directly from what the President said. Yesterday, in his remarks at the tank plant in Lima, the President said that, "The regime of Saddam Hussein spent years hiding and disguising his weapons. He tried to fool the United Nations, and he did for 12 years, by hiding these weapons. And so it's going to take time to find them, but we know he had them. And whether he destroyed them, moved them, or hid them, we're going to find out the truth." So the President has always said they had them -- they had them right up to the war. And then in the interview with Tom Brokaw, the President was even more explicit when he said, they may have hid some of them, they may have destroyed some of them, they may have dispersed some of them. Clearly he's saying, some of them. And the President answered without any hesitation or equivocation when he said he is confident that we will find out.

QUESTION: But, again, the word "may," "may," "may" appears in all of those statements, which is to suggest that there was no definitive proof that he had these weapons. And without that definitive proof, does it not undermine one of your basic premises of launching a war against Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: Only if you presume that it's possible to destroy something that you never had. And clearly, when the President says that we have evidence now that we are gathering that shows that they may have destroyed some of them on the eve of the war -- they couldn't have destroyed them if they didn't have them. And just because it happened on the eve of the war, that proves what the President is saying about in the months leading up to the war, that the real cause of insecurity and the threat that Iraq presented was that they had weapons of mass destruction. Our fear all along was they were going to use them. We can't explain why they may have destroyed some of them. Perhaps over time we will find out what drove them to do that. Perhaps it was the fear of actually being discovered, caught red-handed with the very weapons we said they had.

QUESTION: The requirement of the U.N. resolution was that they destroy them. So if they destroyed them on the eve of war, doesn't that eliminate the pretext for going to war? If they didn't have them any longer?

MR. FLEISCHER: First of all, they always denied that they had them. Second of all, we said that we have some evidence they may have destroyed "some" of them on the eve of war, and the only reason we were able to even learn that now is because we went to war because they had them. They didn't make any announcement that they may have destroyed some of them, because, after all, they said they never had any. So it actually proves the case, when you think about it, that if Iraq did, indeed, destroy some of them on the even of war, they had them, they lied to the United Nations about them, they lied to the world about them, they lied to the United States about them, and they fooled the inspectors when it came to having them. How could they have destroyed them if they didn't have them? Now, that's some of them. They may have destroyed some of them, as the President said. And as the President also pointed out, and has been reminded on a regular basis from the Gulf, there's ongoing search operations that are now really just beginning. We've searched some 90 sites, and there are hundreds more to go. And as the President made clear again, as we continue to talk to the people who have come into our hands, we continue to gather more evidence, more information that we will act upon.

QUESTION: Are you basing what you're saying on hard evidence that's been gathered that weapons were destroyed, or are you speculating?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, it's based on information and some reporting that the President has seen.

QUESTION: So you are saying that Iraq destroyed weapons of mass destruction?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm saying -- I'm quoting what the President said -- they may have destroyed some, they may have dispersed some. The investigation is continuing, and as time goes along, we'll continue to gather more information as we talk to the people involved.

QUESTION: Now, before the war the administration was saying that field commanders in the Iraqi army were given orders allowing them to use WMD. Do we believe that was still the case, or was that wrong?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, that was the information we had, that was correct information that we had. Why didn't they do a whole lot of things? We still don't know. Why didn't they blow up dams? Why didn't they destroy more of the oil fields? Why didn't they use the WMD? It very well may be part -- part of the explanation may be the successful military campaign that was carried out that prevented them from doing many of the worse-case scenarios that we feared they'd do.

QUESTION: Ari, you said you're not going to go person-by-person through which Iraqi officials know what about Iraq's WMD. But is it fair to say that we now have in custody enough high-ranking Iraqi officials to get the information that we need on the whereabouts of these weapons?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President said it best in his interview with Tom Brokaw when the President said that as a result of the people we're talking to, the information we have, we are continuing to find out more, and it will ultimately lead to the discovery of Iraq's WMD. So it's --

QUESTION: So you have everything you need, right --

MR. FLEISCHER: It continues to be a process. And we will continue to work through the process.

QUESTION: Can you also say -- why can't you tell us about this evidence that weapons were destroyed? I mean, the regime is no longer there, so you can't really say it's a security threat.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's exactly as the President said, that they could have destroyed, they could have dispersed. There are continuing tests that are underway to evaluate all the information, to have it in its entirety. And that's why the President said it.

QUESTION: He said there was evidence. Why can't you tell us what evidence?

MR. FLEISCHER: Because there are tests still underway. Those tests are being evaluated and we are still going to wait for final and firm conclusions about all of it. But much of this, as I said, is you have embedded reporters who are present who are also giving you very similar reporting.

QUESTION: So it's not definite, it's speculation?

MR. FLEISCHER: Quote the President's words. The President said, they could have destroyed, they could have dispersed. That's how the President said it.

QUESTION: Moving back to this evidence that you were talking about, you said that you have evidence, or there is evidence that Iraq may have destroyed weapons of mass destruction on the eve of the war. Are you willing to go so far as to say you have evidence that they did destroy?

MR. FLEISCHER: You've got the President's words. I can't go beyond what the President said. You know what the President said; he said it very publicly.

QUESTION: -- may have destroyed weapons of mass destruction.

MR. FLEISCHER: Those were the President's words.

QUESTION: Right, so you can't elaborate --

MR. FLEISCHER: -- a "may" or a "could" --

QUESTION: So you can't elaborate on what the evidence is, what you believe it is that they destroyed, where they destroyed it?

MR. FLEISCHER: I leave it just as the President did.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Ari, two questions, please. Do you see any progress in the fight of the United States to get the United Nations to lift all sanctions on Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: I make no predictions, particularly when it comes to potential United Nations votes. But when it comes to the substance of the matter at hand, the President believes it is the right thing to do. I think that he is -- other nations who see it that way. We'll see what different nations think. But clearly, given the fact that the Saddam Hussein regime is gone, the regime against which sanctions were imposed, there is no longer, in the President's judgment, any good reason for sanctions to be maintained on the Iraqi people. He hopes the United Nations will vote and agree.

QUESTION: Next question, the capture of Tariq Aziz. How important is it to the search you're referring to, weapons of mass destruction, the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein, maybe tracking some of the financial operations of the Iraqi government?

MR. FLEISCHER: With each of the individuals who was captured or he turns himself in, they, of course, will be talked to by the relevant experts in the military and other agencies who will try to learn what they know. I'm not going to go person-by- person and talk about what it is they may or may not be saying. But suffice it to say, with every day, with every capture, we continue to learn more from the people who were inside the regime. But we'll see what they ultimately say. We don't know everything they're going to say yet.

QUESTION: Once sanctions are lifted, does the U.S. envision a situation in which the coalition would then have the right to sell Iraqi oil and put it into escrow for Iraqi development until the government came along?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think it depends on the legal issues that still have to be worked through. I think it depends on the timing of which the oil in Iraq is developed to the point that it could be exported. As you know right now, the small amounts of oil that surprisingly have been developed this early after the conflict are being used for internal Iraqi purposes. So there is no exporting issue. So it really depends on some of the mechanical issues about how fast the fields flow, the timing of when it may or may not be exported, the actions of the United Nations. But the bottom line remains the same, and that is the wealth generated from the sale of oil belongs to the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: On Iraq, there's been a lot of resistance from the Shiite groups to participating in planning for an Iraqi national authority, an interim authority. Can that authority have legitimacy if the Shiites don't participate broadly in it?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think there has been some statements made by some in the Shia community that are not reflective of all in the Shia community. The interim authority that is being assembled from within Iraq will be an authority that is going to be broad and inclusive, that will include the Shia groups. I think General Garner talked yesterday about the timing for the creation of it, and we, indeed, remain confident that it will be created just along the lines that we always said, broadly representative of all Iraqi people, including the Shia community. There may be some in the Shia community who have other thoughts about it, and that's the way democracies operate.

QUESTION: Ari, two things. Some are questioning the wrong regime was attacked, or hostilities against the wrong regime, when you have North Korea who has nuclear capability that can come here, nuclear capability that is sold to rogue states and possibly terrorist organizations. Many want to know what's worse, nuclear weapons or WMD?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the real issue here is how do you deal with threats. And because you deal with a threat through military action in one region in the world does not automatically mean you must deal with it the same way in a different part of the world. The outcome is what is desirable, and that's where the President's focus on, is removing the threat. The President came to the judgment, after 12 years of watching Iraq defy the world, that military was the only option to remove the threat in Iraq. In North Korea, he believes that diplomacy is the best option to remove the threat of North Korea having these weapons. And that's why we've pursued diplomacy for their dismantlement.

QUESTION: And related follow-up with regard to Dick's question. One of the biggest criticisms that you hear from the elements in the Shia community was the Pentagon's decision to airlift Mr. Chalabi and his forces into the country. At this point, does the White House feel that perhaps an unnecessary advantage was given by that move?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think -- you know, there were four leaders that are recognized that we've been working with for a considerable period of time -- a number of years, actually -- and if you look at legislation passed by a Congress, signed by a Democratic President, it actually provided the statutory support for the Iraqi National Congress. So this is a matter of American policy, signed by a Democratic President. And we've been working with these groups of people and other groups of people who want to contribute to a new and free Iraq. And we're pleased to have people like Mr. Chalabi and many others, who have returned to Iraq to help their homeland.

QUESTION: Ari, if you talk to Arab Americans in Detroit and elsewhere, they're happy to talk about the war, but that's not necessarily the driving issue for a lot of them. They're concerned still about what they see as civil rights violations on Arab Americans --

MR. FLEISCHER: The economy.

QUESTION: The economy, certainly, but also Middle East peace process.


QUESTION: The remarks that he's going to make there, is that the place where we're likely to get a declaration of victory and the end of the war?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to speculate this far in advance about what the President's remarks will be. We'll try to have more information. He has several speeches next week. He will be making remarks aboard the Lincoln when he is there next week. We'll fill you in a little closer to it about what they'll be.

QUESTION: Can you at least say -- I know we've gone over this to a certain extent before, but remind us, the conditions under which the President would be prepared to make such a declaration, that the war is over?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has said that he will be guided by the reports that he receives from his commanders, principally General Franks. He has not received that final report from General Franks yet. And at the appropriate time, when the President is ready, the President will have more thoughts to share with the nation about the mission, what was accomplished in the mission, that the combat phase of the operation has come to a conclusion, and that a new phase, the reconstruction of freedom, is beginning.

QUESTION: Ari, following up on Mark's question. At this point, what help will the President ask Iraqi Americans for with regard to reconstruction in Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think one of the most encouraging signs you see about an Iraq -- the future of Iraq is the fact that the Iraqi community in the United States and in many other countries want to contribute to the future of the country from which they fled or in which they were born. And that's a hopeful sign. If there is a situation on the ground where Iraq had been liberated, but Iraqis around the world wanted to play no role in the future of that government, that would be a very troublesome sign, because there would be a lack of confidence in events on the ground. I think the President is going to express his thanks to these people for being brave, for standing up to Saddam Hussein here in the United States, for speaking out on behalf of freedom and liberty. And he will encourage them to do everything they can to make the future of Iraq a strong and free and prosperous and democratic future.