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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Briefing

Aired March 20, 2003 - 12:32   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: The president began today when he received a 6:00 o'clock phone call from his National Security adviser providing him with an overnight update on events in Iraq. The president arrived at the Oval Office at 6:55. Upon arrival, he later had his intelligence briefing, followed by an FBI briefing. He met with the secretary of defense. As we speak, he is having lunch with the vice president.
He will convene a Cabinet meeting later today at which the president will welcome the pool. The president, while at the Cabinet meeting, will discuss the developments in Iraq, remind the Cabinet of the importance of this mission, disarming Saddam Hussein, and he will also, on the domestic front, remind Cabinet secretaries of the importance of pushing ahead with a busy and important domestic agenda, even in the middle of international events. Tonight the president will meet with the president of Cameroon in the Oval Office and will have dinner with the president of Cameroon.

Before I take your questions, there's one item I would like to point out to you.

FLEISCHER: The president would like to thank the growing number of nations that have joined in the coalition of the willing to disarm Saddam Hussein. As of today, there are more than 35 countries currently committed to the coalition, and that number is growing.

Contributions from nations include direct military participation, logistical, intelligence and political support, specialized chemical and biological response teams, overflight rights, humanitarian and other aid.

Nations include, and this is just a partial list, Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom.

Turkey, of course, today, in their parliament, voted to grant overflight rights to the United States and to the coalition.

It's no accident that many members of this coalition recently escaped from tyranny and oppression and they understand what is at stake in bringing freedom and liberation to the Iraqi people as the mission of disarmament continues.

All told, the population of the coalition of the willing is approximately 1.18 billion people around the world. The coalition countries have a combined GDP of approximately $21.7 trillion. Every major race, religion and ethnic group in the world is represented. The coalition includes nations from every continent on the globe. And for this, the president is grateful.

And I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Has Saddam Hussein or any of his leadership been killed or captured?

FLEISCHER: Any questions dealing with anything operational will, as was the routine in 1991, has been made clear on many occasions, will be addressed by the Pentagon, not by the White House.

QUESTION: Is there any indication that Saddam Hussein will accept exile? And is that offer still on the table?

FLEISCHER: We continue to hope that Saddam Hussein will leave Iraq. We continue to hope that Iraqi generals will not follow orders. It is not too late for them to do that.

It is very important, and the president has said, that Iraqi generals, Iraqi troops lay down their arms and not engage in combat. This is not their battle. This is not their war. This is a war to disarm the Iraqi regime from its weapons of mass destruction.

It would be a welcome event if Saddam Hussein were still to flee.

QUESTION: Was the mission a success in general terms?

FLEISCHER: Here in the very early days, the earliest hours of the disarmament mission, I am not going to provide a play-by-play coverage of it. The president has every confidence, as the American people do, in the men and women of our military to achieve their objective, which is to disarm the Iraqi regime. He has every confidence that will be done. But I'm just not, as a general matter of principle, going to provide a daily (inaudible) the ticktock like that. But when I say the president has every confidence, it's for good reason.

QUESTION: You've emphasized the support that the coalition is getting. But there's been substantial criticism as well, particularly from President Putin of Russia. What's your response?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, the president is very gratified by the growing list of nations that support the coalition's efforts. The differences that the president has had and the United States has with a few other nations are well known. There is nothing new to that. The president understands and respects the opinions of leaders like President Putin. Nevertheless, that will not deter the United States and the coalition of the willing from disarming the Iraqi regime.

QUESTION: Is going to damage U.S.-Russian relations?

FLEISCHER: In the many conversations that President Bush has had with President Putin, the two of them have stressed that while on this issue they disagree about whether the use of force is appropriate to disarm Saddam Hussein, relations between the United States and Russia are too important for anybody to let them be damaged.

FLEISCHER: The president doesn't believe they will be, no.

QUESTION: Ari, you noted that Turkey had granted overflight rights. What did we offer Turkey in exchange for overflight rights? And Turkish troops are now moving into northern Iraq. Are they working with U.S. forces in northern Iraq?

FLEISCHER: In terms of Turkey, this was a vote put to their parliament. Their parliament voted for it. Turkey, of course, is a NATO country and a NATO ally.

Previously, there had been discussion of a package of aid for Turkey that was contingent on Turkey's acceptance of a total cooperation package. That did not develop and that package is not on the table and that package will not be on the table. So we appreciate Turkey's acting as they have.

I have nothing for you on the second part of your question.

QUESTION: Can I just ask on a different subject? With the war having begun, you've said that this is essentially in the hands of the military planners, that most of the day-to-day stuff you'll refer to the Department of Defense. But to what extent is the president involved in decision-making on operational issues?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has given the military the broad parameters and, of course, the definition of the mission; and the mission is the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. The president then delegates to the Department of Defense the operational details of how best to accomplish that mission.

The president monitors it very closely. The president speaks, as you know, repeatedly throughout the day in the private meetings that I mentioned with Secretary Rumsfeld. He receives updates from the national security adviser throughout the day as well to ascertain whatever facts are the latest. He asks questions to verify what progress is being made. And that's the president's role.

QUESTION: But they no longer -- the military no longer would require a final go-ahead from the president now that things have begun?

FLEISCHER: No, there is a war plan that has been developed over a considerable period of time that the president was involved with the stages of the development of it, the approval of it throughout those stages. And now that plan is being implemented.

QUESTION: What's the current assessment of the White House about that video tape shown in Baghdad shortly after the strike of Saddam Hussein or someone looking very much like him speaking to the Iraqi people?

FLEISCHER: We have reached no conclusions about that video tape as to whether that is or is not Saddam Hussein, or what time that may or may not have been prerecorded. We have reached no conclusions.

QUESTION: So there's a doubt as to whether or not that's even Saddam.

FLEISCHER: Well, obviously there are two issues in play. Is it Saddam Hussein or not? We've reached no conclusions. Was it pre- taped, pre-canned? We've reached no conclusions.

QUESTION: OK. And then on Turkey, did you just tell Campbell that Turkish forces may be entering in Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Campbell said to me that Turkish forces were entering Iraq. (OFF-MIKE) I have nothing on that.

QUESTION: Thank you. Is part of the agreement with Turkey that they will be under the unified command structure of the coalition?

FLEISCHER: Nothing has changed from any of our previous conversations on it.

QUESTION: Can you walk us through the execute order last night, Ari?

FLEISCHER: Let me back up one step. I've been getting many questions from the press, as is appropriate at a time like this, for what the press calls ticktock, or what people understand as, "Tell us everything that happened and every step along the way, how decisions were made," which of course an issue of very important historical value. As you can imagine, the military planners, Secretary Rumsfeld, Dr. Rice, the vice president, the people who are in the room with the president for these meetings are focused on other things right now. They're focused on winning a war. That's their first mission, and that's where their time is being spent.

I have confidence that at the appropriate time we will have sufficient information to pass along, more of a ticktocky nature, that is appropriate and it is important.

FLEISCHER: And it is the White House determination to try to provide it. But at this point, I'm very constrained in how much details I can get into as a result of what the principals are spending their time on.

QUESTION: Ari, does the president have any second thoughts about whether by launching a limited, opportunistic strike last night against the Iraqi leadership he gave up any of the element of surprise of the main attack or complicated its execution in any way?

FLEISCHER: I believe your words were "limited, opportunistic strike." The president's words were, the opening phase of disarmament. And that's how the president views this. This was the opening phase, the early stages of disarmament as part of a broad mission, whose goal is the disarmament of the Iraqi regime. And in that mission, the president has every confidence that it will be achieved.

So the answer is no.

QUESTION: OK. Both the president and Secretary Rumsfeld, over the last few days, have warned the Iraqis against sabotaging, destroying oil wells. Secretary Rumsfeld suggested this morning that that, in fact, was happening.

To what degree do you have concerns that that would complicate your ability to finance reconstruction efforts there? And more generally, what efforts are you making to reach out to other countries at this point to pay for any reconstruction there?

FLEISCHER: OK. Let me make several points on the question of the situation involving energy and this action that we have seen.

We have received reports from our forces that a small number of oil wells in southern Iraq are on fire. We have no additional details or no information on the extent of the damage. And the exact nature of the extent of the damage is a terribly important thing when it comes to actually determining that this is a serious event or not a serious event.

The United States and its international partners anticipated that Saddam Hussein's regime might attempt acts of sabotage against oil wells. By doing so, Saddam Hussein is trying to destroy the wealth of his own people and once again showing the world that the lies. Because if you recall, in a recent interview that Saddam Hussein did with CBS News, he was asked if he would take this step, and he said he would not, that the Iraqi regime does not burn its own oil wells.

Clearly, we have some evidence already this morning, a small number of cases to the contrary, which is a reminder of what this war is about, the very fact that Saddam Hussein will lie. And the issue is, his lies about his possession of weapons of mass destruction.

FLEISCHER: World energy supplies are more than adequate to compensate for any disruption these acts may cause. Saudi Arabia and other major energy suppliers have increased production and their exports are proceeding normally in this regard.

QUESTION: And on the issue of reconstruction costs and other countries'...

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's impossible to make any estimations based on this action. As I mentioned, it's a small number of wells, and the extent of the damage is not ascertainable at this time.

QUESTION: Ari, what are the president's benchmarks for success in this campaign?

FLEISCHER: The president's benchmark for success is the disarmament of the Iraqi regime. That is what has brought the world to war in this case. What has precipitated the use of force was Saddam Hussein's refusal to go along with United Nations resolutions that required him to disarm. And in this action, the United States is enforcing the resolutions of the United Nations.

QUESTION: How will you know when disarmament has occurred?

FLEISCHER: There will be a series of military events that you're now witnessing, and you'll be kept informed throughout the progress of those events.

QUESTION: What about Saddam Hussein?

FLEISCHER: You'll be kept informed of the progress of all events, including the leadership structure of Iraq.

QUESTION: What I meant was, what has to happen to him, what as to his status be for this campaign to be a success?

FLEISCHER: You know, I think the focus is on disarmament, and disarmament is achieved as a result of numerous military actions that are being taken, and command and control is one of those actions that gets taken in the course of combat. And I'm not going to go beyond that and make any predictions of outcomes for any individuals.

QUESTION: Ari, I have two questions. First on Saddam Hussein. In response to Helen's question, you said the administration would still welcome it if he left Iraq.

FLEISCHER: Yes.

QUESTION: Is that a reflection that it is at least the early belief that he survived last night attack?

QUESTION: And if Saddam Hussein or anyone in the senior leadership requested safe passage, is it too late for that now that hostilities have begun or would the United States...

FLEISCHER: No, you should not read my answer to be one way or another on anything involving bomb damage assessment. As you know, bomb damage assessment is ongoing. And you should not take that answer to be one way or another. You should take that answer to be a repetition of the statement that's been made often here about Saddam Hussein should leave the country.

QUESTION: On the question of safe passage, if he or anyone in the senior leadership suddenly requested it now, would the United States say yes or would the United States say too late?

FLEISCHER: Well, if Iraqi leaders turn themselves in, that would be a very welcome event.

QUESTION: Turn themselves in...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Turn themselves in or leave the country. Requesting safe passage means you're turning yourself in, in essence, because you are contacting somebody for the permission to pass through. Any step that would remove Saddam Hussein from power will be welcome.

QUESTION: Ari, I have a follow-up to Mike's question and then I have a separate one. Are you saying that regime change -- I assume you're saying remains the policy and goal in this campaign.

FLEISCHER: One thing you can rest assured of is, after a military action is taken to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime, we have no intention of leaving Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq.

QUESTION: And the president said two weeks ago that once hostilities began he would inform the American people and Congress on the range of possible costs, financial costs.

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: When can we expect that?

FLEISCHER: No date has been set. It is a matter that is under review. And once a determination is made, it will be provided. QUESTION: I'd like to talk for a moment, if we could, about the president's role in the general planning for this. We've had the general idea that the president had already given the go-ahead to the military, authorized them to move at their discretion when the circumstances were best. Is that accurate?

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: But in this case, he had to be involved in making the decision in giving the execute order for this particular operation for what happened last night. Why did the president have to be involved?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think you're going to see in the course of combat numerous operations of various natures take place. There will be many discussions here at the White House. I do my best to give you a description of the meetings that the president has without getting into the details of those meetings. And it's during the course of those meetings that the president is informed about progress in the military action. And the president is informed. The president lends his judgment. And there are different matters that require different levels of approval. And it all is a matter of the ongoing conduct of the operation.

QUESTION: In other words, in this particular case, the timing and the nature of the operation required presidential approval that would not have been required just for the beginning of the war as it had been planned for some time?

FLEISCHER: Again, there will be numerous items in the conduct of the war that involve operations at differing levels. Some of those levels may involve discussions or approval from the president, others may not.

QUESTION: Can you give us some sense of to what extent the information that was received last night that prompted this particular mission jumped the schedule that had been anticipated and planned?

FLEISCHER: No, I'm really not going to get into any type of operational decision-making or timing issues, things of that nature. That's not something that I can do.

QUESTION: First of all, do you have any readout on phone calls?

FLEISCHER: The president has been making a large number of phone calls over the last several days now to leaders all around the world. He has reached out to leaders in every corner of the world, from a number of Arab leaders who are important to leaders in other nations and other continents. It's a very large volume of calls between yesterday and today. I did not bring with me the specific list of all those calls. It's a large number today.

QUESTION: Can you post it, as is your policy...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: Yes, let me see what I can do on providing more specifics later. The calls are still ongoing, too.

QUESTION: And the point of the calls?

FLEISCHER: The point of the calls is to touch base with world leaders about the military operation, to talk to them about the purpose of the mission; the purpose of the mission being, as we've discussed, the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's regime.

QUESTION: Now, we know in hindsight, as we all saw on TV last night, we know how the president opened this war. Why did he open it this way? There are many ways you can do it. Why this way?

FLEISCHER: That's a question that gets right to military recommendations. Why did the president follow the recommendations of the military? He followed the recommendations of his national security team because he believes those recommendations are the best way to win the war and to disarm Saddam Hussein. He relies on their judgment and expertise. He lends his thoughts to it. And the action was taken.

QUESTION: But what was his expectation? I mean, this is a done deal, we all know what it is, it's not a secret. What was his expectation?

FLEISCHER: The president's expectation of all actions military will be to pursue the disarmament of the Iraqi regime. That's what this is about.

The reason war has been brought upon us is because Saddam Hussein refused to disarm. This did not have to unfold this way. The president gave Saddam Hussein every opportunity to disarm the way other nations have disarmed when they wanted to disarm, and that meant complying with the United Nations resolutions. Saddam Hussein failed to avail himself of that opportunity and therefore he brought this upon himself.

And the pursuance of this will now be done through military operations. And the president's only objective in making determinations about which military plans are best is what will lead to the disarmament of the regime.

QUESTION: But did the president hope that a strike at the leadership of the Iraqi military and government would, in fact, disassemble the military and make the operation either end quicker or go easier if he could knock out the leadership? FLEISCHER: Clearly, there are millions of Iraqis who are yearning to be free. There are many who are in the military and other places of importance in the Iraqi regime who, if they had freedom, would make different decisions. It's the leadership level at the top that has imposed this tyranny on Iraq and has brought the world to the point of the use of force. Clearly, the world would be better off without these leaders in place. This is all part of the conduct of war.

QUESTION: Just to close the loop on Jean's (ph) question. That was his expectation for last night's mission. Was it fulfilled (OFF- MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: As you know, all bomb damage assessment is being reviewed by the Pentagon and appropriate authorities.

QUESTION: Can you tell us why Rand Beers has resigned his position as the National Security Council's (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: He informed the National Security Council that he would leave for personal reasons.

QUESTION: Is his departure connected in any way with his feeling that the beginning of a war against Iraq would undermine the mission (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: I have absolutely no evidence that would support that. He has informed the National Security Council it was for personal reasons.

QUESTION: Ari, do you read anything into the Iraqi response thus far to the attack? I mean, they've fired a couple of Scuds and apparently set fire to a couple of oil wells. FLEISCHER: I think that's a question best addressed to military analysts. I see any large number of them on TV. I think that's not a question that I can answer for you.

QUESTION: But, you see, when we quote those analysts you usually criticize us for not going to the people who know.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: Well, in this case I would refer you to the Pentagon.

QUESTION: Ari, do you have anything new on the timetable for bringing the supplemental up or estimate on just how (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: Nothing new since Ed (ph) asked the question just a few minutes ago.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Secretary Ridge suggested that there'd be money for homeland security in that. Can you give us an idea what kind of figures the White House is working with at this point?

FLEISCHER: There will indeed be money for homeland security in the supplemental appropriation bill that will be sent up to the Congress.

FLEISCHER: The amount of that money will be discussed when the supplemental is sent to the Hill.

QUESTION: Ari, a couple of things. Secretary Rumsfeld this morning and you have said that the coalition continues to grow. But, frankly, many of these countries aren't in a position to offer an awful lot of military hardware, military resources. We know that they're offering some logistical support here and there, you know, chemical bio-weapons hazard treatment, training, things like that. But are there any nations besides the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia that are providing direct military assets, personnel, equipment, things like that?

And the second question, can this war be considered a success ultimately if Saddam Hussein is not either captured or killed, because one of the rationales going into it has been the possibility and likelihood that he, one day, would team up with terrorists and share with them weapons of mass destruction? The Middle East is a very volatile region, if he's able to escape somewhere, a man of his resources, with the kind of contacts the U.S. government insists he had, wouldn't he then still be able to make that kind of exchange that the White House has been so afraid of all along?

FLEISCHER: OK. Two points.

Interestingly, while, again, there are, indeed, a large number -- and this gets to the political issue about, is there international support for the actions the United States is taking, which is a terribly important issue. Does the United States have allies in this endeavor is a measure of political support. Stated, expressed opinion from governments around the world? The answer is overwhelmingly yes, representing more than one billion people in all continents around the world.

In terms of the combat alone equation -- and I remind you, you can't have combat if you don't have overflight rights, if you don't have basing rights, et cetera, so it's really a broad issue -- but narrowing it down exactly to the issue of combat, which is only one slice of how to measure the world's involvement, in terms of actual combat operations, boots on the ground, it's interesting, because to lay out the comparison, in 1991 the United States provided in the mid- 70s the percentage of the armed forces in the region itself. In this endeavor the percentage is a little bit higher, but not much. It's comparable. It's mid-80s.

And so what you can see is, when the decision is made to engage in combat like this, like in 1991 or here in 2003, the fact of the matter is the United States of America does provide the overwhelming bulk of support for the operation. That's a reflection about the capabilities, the size of our military.

The president is very, very pleased to have the operations of other nations in the world, from the military sense, in terms of the overflight rights. There are nations that have provided chemical and biological training units. They're small in number, but they're important in terms of the measurement of those countries' commitment to this cause.

And so the numbers really are not that far off from what it's been before, but the numbers of the coalition, I think, are large and are growing. And that's important to recognize, the coalition of the willing is growing, and I'm not sure I can say that about the opposition in this case.

On the second point you asked about, if Saddam were to leave the country, would he be able to -- you know, the issue is the weapons that Iraq possesses and whether Iraq would pass those weapons off to terrorists. I think it's safe to say that anybody who would leave the nation would not be able to leave with those weapons.

The risk is that a regime led by people like Saddam Hussein would continue to work to build weapons which then, because they are in power, they have the covert ability to pass those weapons onto others. That's the purpose of the mission.

QUESTION: I guess my question is, though, if he were to somehow get away, wouldn't there be the possibility, wouldn't there be the fear certainly within the CIA and the FBI that he still had access...

FLEISCHER: That he would carry a nuclear weapon with him?

QUESTION: No, no. That he...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: No. I mean, let's be realistic. The man has a network within his own country. It'll take a while to dismantle that. And wouldn't it be possible -- in fact, more than possible -- that he could maintain contact with people who had these weapons and that they could somehow be transferred to terrorist groups?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think one of the purposes of the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's regime is to dismantle the networks that supported him in the building or in the transfer of those weapons.

QUESTION: Ari, if the United States is at war and if you assert that the United States has the right to target the Iraqi leader and his inner circle as part of command and control, does that make the president and the White House a legitimate target for Iraqis?

FLEISCHER: You know, somebody, a reporter asked me that question a few weeks ago and my answer then is my answer now, you can tell anybody who wants to know the answer to that to get their own international lawyer. I won't do it for them.

QUESTION: Can I ask you in general terms, obviously, we've seen tremendous security around here, is the president confident in his own safety here?

FLEISCHER: Absolutely.

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: I'm sorry, can I ask one more thing, Ari, just in general terms. That's a fear, obviously, that Americans in general have in terms of their own security. We've seen the terror level go up to orange. Is there any thought that now that war has actually begun that that might change sometime in the near future?

FLEISCHER: That is always a daily determination about whether it goes up or it goes down. There's nothing that has been brought to my attention that would indicate it's going to do either of the above.

As far as the security and the comfort of the American people in their homes and in their places of business, the president understands that for many people in this nation this can be a tense time. The president understands that, and he's very sensitive and caring about that.

FLEISCHER: The president is confident that the steps that have been put in place by the Department of Homeland Security, the improvements made to homeland security since September 11 are effective. But there are no guarantees.

But the president does believe that one of the most important effective ways to protect Americans in the homeland is to stop attacks abroad before they can gather on our own shores. And the biggest threat that we worried about in the case of Saddam Hussein was that if the world allowed him to, if the world sat on the sidelines, Saddam Hussein would indeed one day bring those weapons to our shore to attack our people. This action is taken to protect our people so that day never arrives.

QUESTION: Ari, now, within 24 hours of the war, more and more people are -- more and more countries are joining the United States against Saddam Hussein, including many from the Arab countries.

Now, what is the reaction from the more Muslim countries in the area? And also what role the United Nations will play in this war?

FLEISCHER: It's not my role to speak for the other nations in the region, Muslim or otherwise. They are sovereign. They speak for themselves.

In terms of the role of the United Nations, I think that's an issue that's broken into two parts.

Regrettably, the United Nations was not able to enforce its resolutions requiring Saddam Hussein to disarm. And as a result of the importance of the United Nations and the importance of the resolutions they passed calling for disarmament, force has been used to make certain that those resolutions are meaningful. The president is disappointed that the United Nations Security Council failed to act to keep the peace.

Looking ahead toward the future, there is indeed a very important role for the United Nations in the humanitarian efforts and the reconstruction efforts that lie ahead. That is indeed important. The United Nations has fulfilled that role in all corners around the world with ability in the past. And the president will look to them to do that again in the future.

QUESTION: Ari, you talked about the coalition growing. Have any nations joined since the war began last night, or are we sort of locked in at the number that we had prior to the hostilities commencing?

FLEISCHER: No, I think it's fair to say the list has grown.

ZAHN: We leave Ari Fleischer's White House briefing now.

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