Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, May 7, 2003 (Full Transcript)
QUESTION: Ari, is the President disturbed that you have not found weapons of mass destruction, you have not found Saddam Hussein, you have not found bin Laden, you have not found the anthrax dealer? I mean, it seems to me all of these things are a dead-end. What's his feeling?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the President looks at this at two levels: one is the accomplishment of the overall mission, and, two, some of the component parts of the overall mission. In terms of the fight against those who attacked our country on September 11th, the al Qaeda, harbored by the Taliban, there is no question this has been a successful mission. The abilities of al Qaeda have been severely diminished, and the President is grateful for that happening.
Obviously, Osama bin Laden has not been captured. But as you look at all the operations -- just ask Khalid Sheik Mohammed how he feels about our ability to track people down. So, over time, the President is confident that there will be additional arrests. But this is about more than one man as the President has repeatedly said. The mission against al Qaeda continues.
Vis-a-vis Iraq, clearly this, too, was a successful operation, a successful operation. The Iraqi regime is no more. The threat is no more from the Iraqi regime. And as you can see from the deck of 55 cards, there has already been, in a short period of time, tremendous success in capturing these people or having them be turned in.
As for Saddam Hussein, and as for the latest -- this tape that is in the news, we don't know if the tape is genuine or not. It's being studied. We don't know if he's alive or not.
QUESTION: Well, we went to war, didn't we, to find these -- because we said that these weapons were a direct and imminent threat to the United States? Isn't that true?
MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely. One of the reasons that we went to war was because of their possession of weapons of mass destruction. And nothing has changed on that front at all. We said what we said because we meant it. We had the intelligence to report it. Secretary Powell said it.
And I may point out to you, as you may know, there is a news conference at Department of Defense today at 2:00 p.m. to discuss one element in this.
And so we have always had confidence, we continue to have confidence that WMD will be found. He's had a long period of time to hide what he has in a variety of different places, and there is a whole protocol of the search that is underway, that is being conducted in a very methodical fashion.
QUESTION: But would he have been able to use them despite shock and awe and so forth, I mean, really made them operable to contend with the U.S. forces?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think one of the reasons that he did not use them was because of the successful manner in which the military campaign was carried out, both in the days leading up to the actual fighting, and then when the fighting began.
QUESTION: Ari, there's some reports that Germany now may have offered the United States help in the U.N. resolution to lift the sanctions. Are you optimistic that -- has Germany come forward and offered this kind of help?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we will continue to work with all the members of the Security Council on the lifting of the sanctions. The President's position, as you know, is that the sanctions should be lifted. I don't want to speak for the German government. But Germany, I think, has an interest in working closely with the United States, and we want to listen to them and hear their thoughts. So we will continue to pursue this and consult with all our allies.
QUESTION: What about Russia? Has there been any signs from Russia that they're more accommodating than they were in the past?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not prepared, and I think it's still early at the United Nations' process. No resolution has been offered yet. I think the diplomats continue to consult among each other on the language of the potential resolution. And so I'm not prepared to go down country-by- country on something that's under discussion.
QUESTION: Will there be a resolution next week?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not going to predict a date. The date that everything is backed up against is June 3rd, when the current terms for the oil-for-food program expire. The diplomats will make that decision when they think the time is right.
QUESTION: Would you like to have one before Powell's trip next week to Russia and Germany?
MR. FLEISCHER: The diplomats make the decision when they believe the time is right.
QUESTION: Ari, everybody is getting into this trap a little bit about whether WMD will be found, which may not be the issue because, A, you may not find them, they may have been destroyed. Or as the President said, they may have been dispersed. Which raises the question that they could have somehow been spirited out of the county by terrorist groups and the like. What information do you have about that eventuality happening? And isn't it presumptuous to presume that the American people are safer when you can't account for whether weapons have been taken out of the country, or weapons materials have been taken out of the country?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the real threat here came from a nation state, headed by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen who showed they were willing to use weapons of mass destruction before. That's what --
QUESTION: Well, what --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's the basis for saying that people are safer. If you're asking the question, on what basis does the President conclude people are safer, that's the answer.
QUESTION: I thought the concern was if it falls into the hands of al Qaeda -- wasn't that the rationale?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm continuing. The President said that the removal of the regime has diminished the threat and increased our security. And I think that can go -- that's unquestionable. It was, after all, the regime that used weapons of mass destruction in attacks previously. Of course, we always have concerns about anyplace that has weapons of mass destruction passing them along. But given the routing of the Iraqi regime, it certainly makes that much harder to do. Any type of organized efforts, organized movements are harder for the disparate people in the regime to carry out now, those who may be hiding or who are still among the 55. So it's a question --
QUESTION: It wasn't too hard for them to get three trailer trucks of American hundred-dollar bills out of the country.
MR. FLEISCHER: It's a question of diminishing their abilities. It's not a question of eliminating the abilities for terrorists to do things --
no. That's why when the President gave the speech on the aircraft carrier, he said that there still are risks, that the fight against terrorism will continue to go on. And that is the case.
But make no mistake; the threat has been diminished. The threat from terrorism has not been eliminated, and the war against terrorism must continue.
QUESTION: I know that, but you're making these pronouncements without answering the direct question, which is, what does this administration know about not only what has been found -- you're still checking -- but what weapons materials or actual weapons may have been taken out of the country?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we don't have anything concrete to report on that. The President has said that some may have been destroyed, some may have been dispersed -- he didn't indicate to where they may have been dispersed. It certainly is possible they were dispersed to various hiding places throughout Iraq. So it's not a question that we have reliable information to know of.
QUESTION: Or outside of Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President didn't specify when he said where they may have been dispersed to.
QUESTION: Was that what he was indicating?
MR. FLEISCHER: He didn't specify, and as I indicated, we have no --
QUESTION: Don't we deserve some specificity on this?
MR. FLEISCHER: It may not be knowable with precision. The President has said that they were dispersed, and not all of that is knowable.
QUESTION: Ari, the President yesterday talked about his confidence that the weapons of mass destruction programs, evidence of programs would be turned up. And other administration officials have talked about capabilities and programs. Before the war, many administration officials, right up to the President, talked about actual weapons, battlefield munitions, stockpiles, locked and loaded, ready to go, as the administration claimed there were orders to field commanders, you can use them. Does the administration still say that kind of capability will be found in Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think if you continue to look you'll find a common thread in the statements made by administration officials repeatedly -- and Dr. Rice said in some of the interviews she gave with foreign journalists just this week, where she expressed again the confidence of the administration that WMD will be found. And there are a variety of forms of that, and our statement covers all those forms. You're accurately pointing out that as we learn more about the Iraqi program, we're finding information about just-in-time delivery mechanisms that they have. But that doesn't substitute for the previous statements about finding WMD.
QUESTION: So it is still the administration's claim that Iraq had battlefield munitions, WMD weapons ready to go that simply haven't been found yet in Iraq, but they were there?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, when you look at many of the things that were found in Iraq in terms of all the chemical protection units and suits that the Iraqi military officials had, the atropine that is used to protect somebody from a chemical weapons attack, all of which were in the hands of Iraqi officials, it's kind of odd that they would have all that equipment for their own forces on the field -- that's typically what you would employ if you're in a chemical environment.
So, no, no changes on it, Terry. It's going to be a long process, and that's what's driving this. And the search is underway. We made no predictions about how long it will take -- it may take a while. And we will continue to develop information; as I indicated, there will be some information forthcoming on what may be known so far.
QUESTION: Is there a broader point, though, to the visit? Is something going to emerge from the state visit, I mean, in terms of new agreements growing forth from the relationship that's developed over the last few months?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the State Department may have something to say today in regard to designation of terrorist organizations in Spain. The United States and Spain have a very strong relationship, and the President is very grateful to Spain for the leadership they took in helping to free the world from the threat of the Iraqi regime.
QUESTION: Your answer to Terry's question on WMD, if I understood it correctly is that there's no change in the administration's prewar assertion that the Iraqi regime had chemical weapons basically ready to go and on a hair trigger or something close to it.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the position always was, and what I was saying is the position today, was that they had weapons of mass destruction. I've not made any statements about hair trigger. I don't think if you search a transcript you'll find my using the word "hair" -- (laughter) -- or "hair trigger." Sorry, Ken, that was not addressed at you.
QUESTION: Nor would I. (Laughter.) Striking "hair trigger" -- (laughter) -- for a number of reasons, there were statements that those weapons were ready to go, were in the hands of -- well, operational, in effect, that orders had been issued that commanders could use them. And there's no change in that assessment of the situation?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I clearly the manner in which we conducted the military campaign, that was plain for all to recognize that that was our operation assumption.
QUESTION: If that is still the administration's position, that puts you at odds now with the British government, because Defense Secretary Hune gave an interview with the Times of London last week in which he said that the intelligence they now have is that the chemical weapons in possession of Iraq were, in fact, dispersed last fall when the inspectors came back into the country, as part of a way to hide them, and that when the war began, Saddam was essentially unable to retrieve them, and that those weapons were not available for use when the war started. Can you square that --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think there's a deeper context to all of that and to what Secretary Hune would have referred to, or Minister Hune would have referred to, and that's exactly what the President said when he said that some may have been destroyed, some may have been dispersed. But clearly we continue to have concerns as the battle was fought that we could be subject to attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. And one of the reasons it's possible that we did not was because of the very conduct of the war, the warnings that we're issued immediately prior to the war and the manner in which the war was carried out. Thank goodness that we were not.
QUESTION: Well, certainly, thank goodness. But Hune's statement to the Times of London was they couldn't use them, they were not available for use when the war started. Was that -- do you agree with that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think you have to refer to the whole context of what he said and the timing of when he said it.
QUESTION: He said flatly that they weren't available for use, that they had been dispersed and were simply not able to retrieve them. Is that true?
MR. FLEISCHER: The issue still is, when are we going to find them; not exactly what precise intelligence was available that still could have been differed about on what the Iraqis may or may not have been able to do after the conflict began, and as the military situation on the ground changed Iraqi options and abilities.
QUESTION: Ari, Spain was not only a major ally of the United States in trying to get sanctions against Saddam Hussein to work, and then for the military option when Saddam Hussein would not cooperate with the United Nations, but now the word seems to be trying to get the United Nations to lift the sanctions. Spain is a member of the Security Council. Will President Bush ask President Aznar for Spain to play a bigger role in trying to get that passed?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I anticipate that that will be an issue that they talk about this evening, the reconstruction of Iraq is on the agenda. They'll talk about it. Spain is a member of the Security Council, so I do anticipate that will come up.