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White House Press Briefing

Aired March 21, 2003 - 14:31   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Stan by for a second, guys. I want to go the White House. Ari Fleischer, the press secretary, is now briefing reporters. We're going to keep this picture, even as he answers reporters' questions.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: ... Leader Pelosi and Leader DeLay, to inform them of the latest situation in the gulf.

The president then taped his radio address. And he has departed for Camp David.

With that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Can you say whether Iraq is the end goal here? Some of the president's advisers have said they thought it would be good to go on to other countries in the region to democratize or liberate. What is it? Can you clarify for the American people...

FLEISCHER: Who has suggested that?

QUESTION: Perle, for one. Richard Perle.

FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of anybody who works for the president who has said that. There may be outside people who have some thoughts.


QUESTION: ... Iraq is the sole goal?

FLEISCHER: The president has made it repeatedly clear to the American people, as he said in his address to the nation the other night, that the purpose of this is the disarmament of the Iraqi regime.

QUESTION: Ari, has the president watched any of the unfolding events in Baghdad, do you know?

FLEISCHER: Obviously the president having authorized the mission, was aware of the mission, knew when it would begin, et cetera. And I don't think he needs to watch TV to know what was about to unfold.

QUESTION: I was wondering if he had any comments on the impact...

FLEISCHER: No, the president's approach is to gather the information about what is happening in its totality. He receives the information from his advisers, people who have a sight on all areas of what is under way. The president is aware, of course, the American people, as they watch these events unfold. But he gets his information in a totality.

QUESTION: And may I follow up on that. The president has spoken many times of the special burden and the special responsibility he has as commander in chief, sending young Americans into harm's way. And has he ever spoken of -- he's also talked about liberating Iraqi people from this brutal regime. But have you heard him talk about this other responsibility, which may weigh on him heavily today, and that is for the death of innocents, for the Iraqi moms and dads and children who may, despite our best efforts, be killed?

FLEISCHER: There's no question about that. And I think the president worries about it from two points of view. One, in terms of the present mission. This is why the president and the Department of Defense work so carefully and we have such a modern military that is capable of engaging in precision strikes so that the targets are indeed the military targets.

As always in war, there is risk. There will be innocents who are lost. And the president deeply regrets that Saddam Hussein has put innocents in a place where their lives will be lost.

The other portion of what the president remembers when he thinks about the innocents are the 3,000 innocents who lost their lives on September 11 in the United States. And if it were not for the worries that the president had about an Iraqi regime in defiance of the United Nations possessing weapons of mass destruction, which he fears could again be used against the United States, you might not see this developing.

QUESTION: Just to clarify Terry's question. You said the president doesn't need to watch TV to know what's going on in Iraq. But you're telling me -- these are pretty astounding images -- he doesn't have a television on somewhere? He's not watching what's going on?

FLEISCHER: The president, again, understands the implications of the actions that he has launched to secure the disarmament of the Iraqi regime to liberate the people.


QUESTION: The question, though, is he watching TV or not?

FLEISCHER: The president may occasionally turn on the TV, but that's not how he gets his news or his information.

QUESTION: I'm not suggesting it is. But we just want to try to get...

FLEISCHER: From time to time he might.

QUESTION: Can I ask, on a different subject, there was a humanitarian crisis in Iraq even before the bombing began, in terms of food shortages. After what we saw today, this massive attack on Baghdad, that situation is clearly going to be much, much worse beginning tomorrow. What specifically is the administration planning to do when the sun comes up?

FLEISCHER: Well, one, that's not necessarily true. The destruction of a palace that's Saddam Hussein's, the destruction of a military facility may not have anything to do with the feeding of the Iraqi people.

In all cases, the United States is leading the effort, and along with the military come massive waves of humanitarian relief in the form of food, in the food of medicine, in the form of everything that may be necessary to help protect and to feed the Iraqi people. We will see if any of that is indeed necessary to the degree that has been anticipated and planned for. But you should not necessarily leap to that conclusion based on what you saw on TV today.

QUESTION: Just one final question. President Chirac of France said today that he would not support a U.N. resolution that would give the U.S. and Britain the authority to administrate in Iraq. What's your reaction? FLEISCHER: Well, as was said at the statement in the Azores, we will continue to work with the United Nations. The president does believe the United Nations has a role in the future of Iraq and the reconstruction of Iraq. The president would hope that nobody would stand in the way of the humanitarian reconstruction of Iraq.

QUESTION: Ari, Secretary Rumsfeld made mention of the surrender discussions that are going on, and he also made mention of third parties being involved. Is there anything you can tell us about that in terms, you know, what level they're going on?

FLEISCHER: No, I think Secretary Rumsfeld addressed it. And I think you heard him say that much of this the unit-to-unit type of communication.

The president made his message clear in a way that was unequivocal. He gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave the country to avoid military conflict. The president wishes Saddam Hussein had left the country so that this would not have come to pass. Saddam Hussein made his choice.

QUESTION: Speaking of Saddam Hussein, can we just go over the tape one more time? And just give us your best read on what the tape tells us and what it does not tell us and what you know and can tell us about Saddam Hussein's fate?

FLEISCHER: The tape has been analyzed by the Central Intelligence Agency. And their analysis has led them to believe that the tape is indeed the voice of Saddam Hussein. But no conclusions have been reached about whether it was canned ahead of time or not. There is insufficient information for anybody to draw a conclusion about that.

QUESTION: The larger question, does that tell us anything about where he is, how much control he's got?

FLEISCHER: No. The fact that Iraq released a tape doesn't tell anybody anything about where Saddam Hussein is or is not.

QUESTION: Can I ask one additional question about Camp David this weekend? The president's going to be spending the weekend there. Can you describe what his plans are for the weekend? Will he be able to, you know, keep in touch?

FLEISCHER: Sure. There will be a meeting of the National Security Council tomorrow morning. The principals; the vice president, Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld, Direct Tenet and others, of course. Dr. Rice will be joining the president at Camp David for participation in the NSC meeting.

Camp David, as you can imagine, has every modern communication. It's a Marine facility, has everything that anybody needs.

QUESTION: Let me, first, follow on Campbell's question. The resolution that...

FLEISCHER: I thought you were going to ask about watching TV.

QUESTION: I may. The resolution that the U.S. would propose in the U.N. would do what, would turn over the administration of Iraq's oil monies to the U.N. or to the U.S. and the U.K.?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the exact form of any resolution is still a matter of discussion. The exact role of the United Nations is a matter that people have to talk about.


FLEISCHER: Well, it all deals with the oil-for-food program, for example. The oil-for-food program is a program administered through the United Nations. We are in discussions now about the administration. We hope that the United Nations will act on the oil- for-food program so that the revenues can continue to go and be used to feed the Iraqi people, that will result from Iraqi oil. That's important. That's a United Nations program.

QUESTION: But would the U.S. and the U.K. control it or would the U.N.?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's a United Nations program, I just said. Oil-for-food has long time been a United Nations program.

QUESTION: Ari, the president has had very little visibility over the last couple of weeks. He's come and addressed the American people twice. We've seen him once or twice, twice this past week in very carefully regulated sessions where he has chosen not to take questions. Is he deliberately going out of his way to avoid putting his personal stamp on the leadership of this war, perhaps because his father was criticized for personalizing the war with Saddam too much?

FLEISCHER: No, but I think from the president's point of view, particularly in the early stage, the very onset of a military operation, the president thinks that it is most appropriate to let the Defense Department officials, who have direct supervision responsibility for all aspects of the military plan, to take the questions, to answer the military operational questions because they are the most expert in it.

The president has spoken out today. He spoke out yesterday.

If you question is, when we he take your questions? I assure you, he looks forward to doing it. You may have your opportunity soon.

QUESTION: My question really is, is he trying to avoid becoming too identified with the war?

FLEISCHER: I think the American people will make their judgments about what role the president plays. And I think they understand very clearly that this is a president who has made the decision to disarm Saddam Hussein through the use of force after having tried to do it through the United Nations. They watched that whole discussion play out for the last six months. He is the president, he's made his decisions, and the American people are watching it.

QUESTION: Is the president satisfied with the progress thus far in the war?

FLEISCHER: He is. The president believes that progress is being made. The president has tremendous confidence in the men and women of our military, in the leadership of the military and in the plan that has been written to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime and to liberate the people of Iraq.

QUESTION: Ari, the Senate appears ready to pass a budget resolution tonight. Has the president delayed sending up the emergency request for funds for this war until after that resolution passes?

FLEISCHER: No, it's exactly as I indicated for the last several weeks on it. The president has reviewed various estimates about the possibility, the possible cost of action involving military costs and other costs. And the president has said that at the appropriate time he would send it up. And I think that time is coming, but it's just not here yet.

QUESTION: Can I ask one more question about television, just a very direct question? Did the president not see the pictures on television this morning, the very dramatic pictures of the bombs and the explosions over Baghdad, he did not see those?

FLEISCHER: I was with the president just as the operation was beginning at about 1:00, and he was not watching TV at that time. I wasn't with him for the duration of it, so I couldn't answer in all instances about it.

I probably shouldn't answer a question like this in this room, but the resident does not watch a lot of TV.

QUESTION: But there was very, very dramatic pictures. It's hard to imagine that the president of the United States, who ordered this attack, did not see any evidence...

FLEISCHER: I don't know that the president needed to watch TV to understand what it means to authorize military force and to know that the mission has begun, the mission is under way.

QUESTION: So the answer is unclear, we don't know if he saw them.

FLEISCHER: I just described to you where I was with him, but I wasn't with him for the entire duration of what you all saw on TV.

QUESTION: Ari, how does the administration expect allied forces to be greeted in Baghdad?

FLEISCHER: I think that remains to be seen. The president believes, as a result of much of the information that he has heard, that the Iraqi people are yearning to be free and to be liberated. The Iraqi people have lived under a brutal dictatorship led by Saddam Hussein. And the history of mankind shows that people want to be free. And given the chance to throw off a brutal dictator, like Saddam Hussein, people will rejoice.

QUESTION: And may I ask if the administration expects the allied forces to find evidence or remnants of chemical or biological weapons or a reconstituted nuclear program?

FLEISCHER: Well, there is no question that we have evidence and information that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical particularly. This was the reason that the president felt so strongly that we needed to take military action to disarm Saddam Hussein since he would not do it himself.

As the military effort continues, I think you will see information develop for yourself firsthand. This is one of the reasons that there are so many reports present with the military. In many ways, you will have these answers yourselves. You are there. You are on the ground. And you will find the answers, and they will speak volumes themselves.

QUESTION: So you expect the weapons will be found.

FLEISCHER: There's no question. We have said that Saddam Hussein possesses biological and chemical weapons. And all this will be made clear in the course of the operation for whatever duration it takes.

QUESTION: Two questions on Saddam. First, without disclosing any intelligence sources or methods or anything, since the first strike Wednesday night on that compound in Baghdad, has the United States seen any evidence that either Saddam Hussein or either of his two sons are issuing orders, in command of the government, in command of the military, actually in charge of the government?

FLEISCHER: We don't know.

QUESTION: Is that a no, you've seen no evidence, or you don't know?


FLEISCHER: We do not have any concrete facts to report. There are all kinds of rumors about what has happened to Saddam Hussein and his sons, but there are no concrete facts to report.

QUESTION: Earlier today Secretary Rumsfeld said there were unit- to-unit -- U.S. units to Iraqi unit contacts about surrender and the like. But Secretary Powell said that there were channels open through third parties. It seemed to imply to higher-level people in the Iraqi government.

Can you expand on that for us? And is there still an option on the table, whether it be Saddam Hussein or Tariq Aziz or other senior officials in the government, is there an option on the table for them to leave? Or, as one official here put it last night, is the only question for Saddam Hussein, and presumably those around him now, justice?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me put it to you this way. One, I'm not in a position, I'm not going to be able to shed light on every communication that may or may not be taking place.

But two, the president continues to hope that this can be settled in the most peaceful way possible. And the use of force is being pursued to help make this get settled in the most peaceful way possible. We shall see what the ultimate outcome is.

QUESTION: Most peaceful way possible suggests then that you would not -- would the United States government allow Saddam Hussein or somebody at a very high level near Saddam Hussein at this point to leave the country and to go into safe haven somewhere? Is that still an option for, say, the top 25 people in the Iraqi regime?

FLEISCHER: I will just leave it the way I said it. The president continues to hope that this can be settled with the least amount of violence possible. And we shall see exactly what takes place on the ground in Iraq.

QUESTION: The Turkish parliament has voted to permit troops into northern Iraq. What is U.S. policy on that? And what actions do we intend to take in order to see that that doesn't happen?

FLEISCHER: Well, there have been numerous conversations had with Turkish officials. The message has been expressed directly to Turkish officials. And that message still stands. But we have seen no evidence they have taken that step. I saw some wire reports immediately before I came out here saying -- quoting anonymous Turkish officials as saying that the hiccups that had developed in the overflight rights have been resolved. I cannot confirm that.

QUESTION: We have important allies inside northern Iraq who are very much afraid of the entrance of Turkish troops. Would we actually use military force to prevent Turkish troops from entering northern Iraq?

FLEISCHER: You're asking me to speculate about a hypothetical. And I'm not prepared to do that.

QUESTION: I want to talk again about the president's decision making. Obviously there was some delay between when the war began and when the military began the shock and awe campaign. Was that a presidential decision? Or was this something he left up to military commanders?

FLEISCHER: No, the president leaves these matters up to the military commanders. The president has signed off on the war plan. And then the president leaves it to the members of the military, the leadership to make the determinations about what the exact right time it is. They make those on a variety of military factors. And the president believes the best way to be successful in winning a war is to let the experts run the war. He will of course continue to supervise it, to oversee it, to be deeply involved. But he believes the military planners need to make those decisions.

QUESTION: The initial idea, of course, shock and awe, was to sort of hit the whole country and to shock and awe the military, as well as those loyal to Saddam. Instead what we've done, because of the opportunity earlier this week, was to sort of start from a top down to work on Saddam and then on those who are most loyal to him. Is that the kind of decision the president was involved in? Would he have been engaged in discussions about whether or not there was a shift in strategy here?

FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, and I think that's been made very plain to everybody here, is that as a result of a meeting that took place on Wednesday, there was new information received and it was acted upon. And I think what you're seeing is in many ways something similar to what you saw in Afghanistan, with the United States ability not only to be effective, to be accurate, but to be nimble. And this is a part of the transformation of the military. This is a part of the 21st century thinking about how to be effective in the conduct of military affairs.

QUESTION: Can you tell us now if we're at the point that we would have been without that target of opportunity on Wednesday? Is this... FLEISCHER: No, I just don't think that's appropriate for me to get into that type of operational detail and any plans as they may have once existed somewhere.

QUESTION: Looking ahead to the supplemental, which I gather will mature some next week, can you talk a little bit about what you would expect the parameters that the president would like to place on consideration of the bill when it's on the Hill? How much flexibility does he need in terms of managing the money? How wide can that bill be written by Congress to include other domestic issues?

FLEISCHER: Well, the supplemental's primary purpose is to fund military operations. Obviously the build-up of forces in the region and then the actual engagement in combat incurs additional costs above and beyond what had previously been budgeted. That's the purpose of the supplemental.

The president has also let it be known that there will be money in there for homeland security. That will be in there. And we'll see the exact nature and...

BLITZER: All right. We're going to break away from Ari Fleischer's briefing at the White House, briefly, to go over to Baghdad now.


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