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White House Press Conference

Aired March 28, 2003 - 12:36   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go to the White House now and listen to Ari Fleischer answer reporters' questions.
ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... of Spain about events in Iraq.

He currently is having lunch with the vice president. And later today the president will meet with commanders of national veterans service organizations, and he will give remarks in the Rose Garden about the war in Iraq, the progress that's being made, and the service and the sacrifice of those who are in our armed forces.

Before I take your questions, the United Nations Security Council has just moments ago voted unanimously to reauthorize the oil-for-food program. The president would like to express his thanks to the United Nations Security Council for this unanimous action. This will be a way to help take care of the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people using Iraqi resources.

The president is pleased with this outcome.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: On the event you talked about earlier today, you said that the president's going to talk about some of the atrocities that the U.S. says have been committed by Iraqi troops. Yesterday, you talked in graphic terms about some of the things that have been done.

Is this part of a campaign or part of a need he sees to continue to education, continue to justify the war to the American people?

FLEISCHER: Well, no, I think it's part of describing the horrible reality that Saddam Hussein is putting his people through. And this is one of the reasons the president talks about it. He's talked about it repeatedly. He talked about it repeatedly last fall. He talked about it during the winter. He talked about now as the war, indeed, has begun.

The actions that Saddam Hussein has been taking have been brutal toward his own people. They have been previously, before the United States engaged in this action to disarm him from his weapons of mass destruction. He continues in that path today.

QUESTION: Why is it important to keep telling people this?

FLEISCHER: Because it is important always to speak out on behalf of those who seek liberty. And this is one reason why the president believes so strongly that once the Iraqi people see that Saddam Hussein and those around him will be removed from power, they will welcome freedom. They will be a liberated people.

There are, indeed, those who are fighting alongside of Saddam Hussein who have always been loyal to him, who want to preserve their power, and therefore are willing to go to extraordinary means, in terms of the death squads that are existent on the ground to enforce the will of Saddam Hussein. The president will describe it for as brutal as it is.

QUESTION: Ari, did the president sign off on sending 100,000 more troops to Iraq? And has he asked other members of the coalition to contribute more?

FLEISCHER: Just to be clear, all along, as part of the original plan, there was a flow of forces into the region that had been signed off on a long time ago. So all flows of forces in now are part of that. And so there was no need for any new decisions to be made on this. This was all part of the preexisting plan.

QUESTION: Do you know what it brings it up to?

FLEISCHER: The last numbers I saw were just under 250,000. DOD can give you updates.

QUESTION: Yesterday, in London the French foreign minister declined when asked directly to say who he hoped would win in Iraq. Has this been noted here?

FLEISCHER: I just cannot imagine that any nation that's an ally of ours would not have a thought about that. It's important that Saddam Hussein be disarmed. And we certainly would not imagine that any nations, even those who did not support of our actions in the United Nations Security Council, could express anything other than that they hope that the coalition would be successful.

QUESTION: Well, he declined to say.

FLEISCHER: And that's how I would diplomatically reply.

QUESTION: Ari, there seems to be some level of frustration on the part of the president with the press coverage and indeed our questions. One senior official characterized some questions about the battle plan and the timing and the press coverage as silly.

So, A, does the president think it's appropriate for the public, the news media to question him at all about the conduct and the progress of the war?

FLEISCHER: Absolute yes.

QUESTION: And what would he advise the public about what is an appropriate way to evaluate progress?

FLEISCHER: OK. One is the president is very much focused on winning the war and working with the military planners on the mission. That's where he is at. That's what his focus is on.

I do think that there is something that people are watching that took place previously in the Afghanistan theater, for example. Just several weeks into the Afghanistan theater people said, "Why isn't it over?" I think there's been some sense of that already just one week into the Iraqi theater that you've seen some bit of that in the press coverage about it.

I think from the president's point of view, any questions about how long it will last are, of course, are entirely legitimate questions. He's answered them. He has said it will last as long as it needs to last. That's something that has been said repeatedly by many members of the administration. Secretary Rumsfeld has said it. I've said it. The president has said it. So the president understands people want to know, but it's also an unknowable issue.

But I do think there is a difference between asking that question and the suggestion that, "Why isn't it over already?"

And that's where I think there's some...

QUESTION: Does anybody ask the question, "Why isn't it over already?" Or would that be your interpretation...

FLEISCHER: I think that we are seeing some areas, for example, just like in Afghanistan. One newspaper today on its front page reported that the Marines and the Army are quote/unquote, "bogged down." Now, I don't know anybody who would support that notion from the military point of view, that our troops are bogged down. Yet that is what one newspaper reported this morning.

QUESTION: You did very little to lower expectations in the run- up to this. Even if you didn't raise them yourself, you did nothing to lower what we were hearing from the Pentagon and from other outside pundits about how well, how quickly this war would go.

FLEISCHER: I could not dispute that more strongly. And let me cite it for you.

If you take a look at what the president said on October 7 in Cincinnati in a major speech to the country, the president said, quote, "Military conflict could be difficult. An Iraqi regime faced with its own demise may attempt cruel and desperate measures. There is no easy or risk-free course of action."

That's what the president said some six months ago, five months ago. And certainly in many of the statements that I've made from this podium, I said even prior to any action beginning, I said on March 18, I think people have to prepare for the fact that it may not be short.

On March 21, even before the air campaign began over Baghdad, in my morning briefing, I was asked about talks for unconditional surrender, how were the talks for unconditional surrender. I said that I think it's important for the American people to remember that this still can be a long, lengthy, dangerous engagement. This is, as the president said, the opening phase. It can be a long, lengthy, dangerous engagement because this is war.


QUESTION: Wait a second, can I follow up, Ari. I didn't get to follow up on my...

FLEISCHER: You've had about three or four.

QUESTION: No, that's not true, Ari, and I'm going to follow up on my question, which is the following. I wonder if, given the sense that some of the coverage has, in the words of one official, been silly, and some of the questions about expectations in the battle plan, if it would also be deemed silly, these comments from General Wallace, commander of the 5th Corps: "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we wargamed against, because of these paramilitary forces." He went on, "We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight." Are those comments silly to you?

FLEISCHER: I think General Brooks addressed that in his briefing this morning when he was asked that same question. And General Brooks talked about just what the president thinks, that we believe we're still consistent with our plan and how we designed it.

There will always be things that occur on the battlefield. General Brooks said they are not precisely as he calculated them. The strength of the plan is at the ability to adapt to the realities of the circumstances while still focused on what it is we seek to do. And I think that's what the president would approach it as, as well.

QUESTION: Ari, in light of what you just said about the president being careful not to put a timetable on it, how does he feel about the vice president saying it would take weeks, not months?

FLEISCHER: And then what did the vice president say in the next sentence right after he said that?


FLEISCHER: Yes. He said, "I think it'll go relatively quickly, but we can't count on that." He was asked: Weeks, months? He said weeks rather than months, and then his next sentence was, "There is always the possibility of complications that you can't anticipate." And obviously one week into the battle, I don't know that anybody can draw any conclusions about duration to judge whether the vice president is precise or not, is accurate or not. And so...


FLEISCHER: Certainly, there's always complications. There's weather, there are other factors that take place. But that doesn't change the fact that the plan anticipates flexibility and is built for flexibility.


QUESTION: ... your rebuttal on Cheney on the sense where he says, "There is always circumstances that you cannot anticipate." Are you saying your plan did not anticipate (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: He said, "I think it'll go relatively quickly, but we can't count on that." Obviously he's allowing for flexibility, and allowance always are a part of any plan.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) allowing for circumstances that we don't anticipate?

FLEISCHER: I think the point here, as you've heard it repeatedly from administration officials, that we cannot predict how long it will go. I think on June 13, 1944, would somebody had said to the Allies, "You've had one week after D-Day, when will it be over?" These things are not knowable in the course of war. But as the point the president made was that we will prevail, whatever the length of time it is. That's the focus of our mission, and the president has been guarded in what he has said about predicting the length of it. And that's why I cited to you what he said in Cincinnati. The president has always talked about it in those terms.

QUESTION: Given what General Wallace and other commanders down the line that we're hearing from embedded reporters are saying, that this is a greater level of resistance, there's more fight in the Iraqis than they were expecting. What would be the harm? I mean do you have a policy of not acknowledging at this level, the political leadership level, what the soldiers on the ground are saying, that it may be easily overcome, it may be part of the exigencies of war, but that we are a little bit surprised at the level of Iraqi resistance?

FLEISCHER: Again, I think General Brooks addressed it, and I think it's always been understood that there was going to be resistance. This is war. There is going to be resistance. There is going to be fighting. That's why the president said what he said in Cincinnati in October.

QUESTION: It just seems like you're unwilling, as a matter of policy, to acknowledge that the president and the political leadership of this government might have miscalculated, not in any fatal or even dangerous way, but might have miscalculated the response of the Iraqi army.

FLEISCHER: I can only tell you the president's approach. And the president's approach remains exactly as the president described it to you. The president has faith in the plan. He believes that the plan is on track, it is on progress, it is working. Saddam Hussein will be disarmed.

And the president, as I made repeatedly clear on any number of occasions, is not going to sit in the White House as the play-by-play commentator on every battle and every day's mission.

The military is in charge of the day-to-day operations. They are very available and you have their briefings, and they will be talking about these things.

QUESTION: May I ask, then, one overall assessment that he might have made at this point? Given that level of fight that's being seen in the Iraqi -- and as you just said, these are Saddam loyalists -- is it possible that it's more than that? Does the president have any judgment as to whether these aren't just soldiers who are being terrorized to fight, and not just essentially gangsters who are loyal to Saddam, but these are Iraqis who believe they are acting as patriots, defending their country from an invasion?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think there's a certain element, of course, that is very deeply invested in Saddam Hussein staying in power. After all, they are the ones who have carried out his brutality. They are the ones who have turned on their own people. They are the ones who have terrorized and tortured Iraqis. They are the ones who previously authorized the use of chemicals against the Iraqi people.

They of course don't want the Iraqi people to be free, because they know what the future holds for them as the ones who enforced the terror. Of course they don't want the Iraqi people to be free, and that's why they'll turn on the people and support Saddam Hussein. Whatever numbers they are, whatever numbers they may be -- whatever numbers they may be, they are insufficient for the American military.

QUESTION: So there are no Iraqi nationalists, not Saddam loyalists, not terrorists, but no ordinary Iraqi nationalists who are fighting for their nation. It's only, in the president's judgment, fanatics, dead-enders, as Secretary Rumsfeld said, fighting solely...

FLEISCHER: I don't know that it's my job to psychoanalyze the Iraqi military.

They may fight for whatever their reasons.

QUESTION: So the commander in chief has made no assessment of what's happening on the ground there?

FLEISCHER: He does. He's continually shared it with you. You heard it yesterday.

QUESTION: Ari, before I get to my question, your use of an analogy to June 1944, I'm just trying to figure that one out. Are you saying that this military operation is of the complexity or meeting a resistance similar to what the U.S. forces met at...

FLEISCHER: No, I'm talking about expectations. I cited two military analogies. I cited Afghanistan, where after some three weeks into the Afghanistani theater there were a number of questions on how come it's not over yet, will it be successful, where's the Northern Alliance, they're incapable of doing anything. And of course, literally days after those criticisms were raised, people saw Mazar-i- Sharif fall and Kabul fall.

So there are plenty of historical analogies people can point to when people look at the progress and ask questions.

QUESTION: You don't mean to draw an analogy between the complexity of the post-D-Day operation and the complexity of this operation? FLEISCHER: No, not every analogy is a perfect analogy, and the point I was making is, one week into an operation, we are hearing questions about why isn't it over yet. The president's addressed how long will it take. He said it's not knowable. It will take as long as necessary.

QUESTION: The key element of the integrated political and military strategy was the hope that you'd be able to turn over some local government functions in the first towns to fall to local Iraqis and then ultimately create an Iraqi interim authority. Now that it appears that that will be a more difficult and delayed process, particularly in the south, can you tell us how that is going to affect your ability to make the case in Baghdad and elsewhere that in fact you are coming in as a liberation force?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, after one week, I don't know that you can draw any conclusions about the timing of it.

But the purpose of it is unchanged, and the purpose of it remains that the president believes that Iraq should be governed by the Iraqis, from both within and without. Iraq certainly does have a large infrastructure, a civil society who are capable of governing the country and handling particularly some of the municipal work, the services that get provided outside the security arena. And the ability for this to take root and to develop and grow will depend on the security environment on the ground.

So as the fighting drops off in any one region, as security is enhanced, I think you're going to see the very things that we talked about develop. But of course it can't develop until the security situation is addressed.

QUESTION: Had there been a hope that this process would have started one week in?

FLEISCHER: I had not heard any specific timing of it. I think the hope is, because this is the best way to protect the Iraqi people, that'll happen as soon as possible.

QUESTION: Ari, you mentioned this one remark by the president last October. Do you believe that the administration has adequately prepared the public for the cost, duration and difficulty of this conflict?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I think there's no question about that. I think the American people, from the very beginning when they heard the president on September 12, 2002, talk about the possibility of the United States using force to disarm Saddam Hussein, they started to understand that if we're going to use force, it, of course, entails sacrifice. The president said that on September 12.

On October 7 in Cincinnati he made the statement that I referenced way back then about the military conflict could be difficult and no easy or risk-free course of action.

Fort Hood, Texas, many of you were there on January 3, early this year, the president said, addressing troops: "I know that every order I give can bring a cost. We know the challenges and the dangers we face."

And let me remind you also that 62 million Americans watched live as the president on January 28 gave his State of the Union. In his State of the Union the president said the following: "Sending Americans into battle is the most profound decision a president can make. The technologies of war have changed; the risks and the suffering of war have not.

"For the brave Americans who bear the risk, no victory is free from sorrow. This nation fights reluctantly because we know the cost and we dread the days of mourning that always come."

Sixty-two million Americans watched that live.

And I think that's one of the reasons that the American people have accepted the way they have the realities of this war, the risks of this war, and still support it as strongly as they do.

QUESTION: Two quick questions. One, if we can, back on General Wallace quickly. The president was briefed by General Franks repeatedly in the months leading up to this on those war games and on the planning and on the strategy and was involved in the re-edits of the plan and the shaping of the plan.

Does the president agree or disagree with the statement that says the enemy we are encountering is not the enemy we had war gamed against?

FLEISCHER: Again, General Brooks addressed that question. And I'm sure this is going to be a topic that comes up at Secretary Rumsfeld's briefing. I've told you everything the president thinks about it. That's the president's approach. That's his view. And I think you'll get more information from DOD as well.

QUESTION: And one of the questions that has been -- that perhaps is premature has been, you know, "Where are the weapons of mass destruction?" And so, let's accept the fact that that is a question to be answered weeks or months down the road when you have a secure environment inside Iraq, that the focus now is on the military operation.

Does the administration want to do that, provide the inventory, look at the sites, go looking and finding and cataloguing on its own as a military operation? Or when there is a secure environment inside Iraq, would you prefer that the U.N. come back in and be the agency that does that?

FLEISCHER: At the end of the day, after the fighting is over and the military needs are first taken care of and secured to protect our troops who are currently on the ground, where we have very real fears about Iraq using chemical weapons against our troops, as evidenced by the fact that Iraqi military units have been found to have chemical protection gear, I think that that remains a point to be discussed with the international community. It's not something that has been ruled out.

There is going to be a role for the United Nations in the future of Iraq. And that's important, in the president's judgment. So we have never ruled out anything involving the use of inspectors or anything else down the road. I think it's just too soon to say.

QUESTION: Ari, you've not challenged the perception expressed by many here today that the president is frustrated at some of the commentary and questions about the war's progress. How has he expressed that frustration?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, that's why I've said to you that the president's focus is on the events and the mission and the planning.

That's where his focus is. And I don't share every private conversation that I have with the president, but again, I think when you pick up the front page of one of today's major papers and you see it says that the Marines and the Army are bogged down, you can only scratch your head.

QUESTION: Ari, on the question of the president's direction of the war, does it require his specific authorization to send additional troops beyond those who are already in theater?

FLEISCHER: Well, again...

QUESTION: And if so, has he...

FLEISCHER: ... on the existing flow of troops, that was pre- written. That was pre-done, and so it's flowing according to the previous decisions that the president had made and delegated.

Anything in the future, you know, I'd probably have to talk to one of the lawyers to find out what the necessities are. I really don't know. I think that DOD certainly has sufficient flexibility under the way it works to do call-ups as they see necessary. But that has not happened.

QUESTION: Well, there were a lot of deployment orders for 100,000 troops or more, but we're now led to believe that they're actually movement orders, that they're actually taking people who were on standby to go, and that they're actually being sent.

Has the president made some sort of judgment that additional troops are necessary, particularly before any attack on Baghdad itself?

FLEISCHER: No, these judgments are made by DOD. This is all part of the pre-written plan.

QUESTION: So the president has no involvement in that in any particular way?

FLEISCHER: No, these are judgments made by DOD as part of the plan, just as I indicated. QUESTION: Has he questioned in any way, or been advised in any way, that it is necessary to send additional troops to theater in a more rapid manner than was planned?

FLEISCHER: I just am not going to, under any circumstances, start getting into what the president does and does not talk about in his classified briefings.


QUESTION: I'm asking you what he believes.

FLEISCHER: The president believes that DOD has a plan, that there's sufficient flexibility built into the plan, and the president doesn't micro-manage the plan.

QUESTION: Now that the war seems that it may take longer than originally planned, had the United States, is it well positioned regarding oil deliveries and oil supplies?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, you said: May take longer than originally planned. How long was the original plan supposed to last?


FLEISCHER: Well, see, that's my point. This is the premise of the questions, and it's not something that, as the president said, was knowable. The plan will go on for what the plan's duration will be.

QUESTION: As the war goes on...

FLEISCHER: Thank you.

QUESTION: ... is the United States well positioned as far as oil deliveries and oil supplies?

FLEISCHER: Is the United States domestically prepared on oil supplies?


FLEISCHER: I think the markets have very much answered that question. One of the things you have seen since the operation began has been stability in oil markets. In fact, the price has declined as a result of fears that did not materialize on the price of crude oil.

In addition, a major environmental disaster has been averted as a result of the taking of the southern oil fields, which Saddam Hussein has previously tried to light on fire.

One way to look at this, in the southern oil fields, depending on how you want to count them, there are either 500 or 1,000, approximately, oil fields. A handful, a small number, some nine or so, were set on fire. That contrasts to Kuwait, where there were some 700 oil wells put on fire by the departing Iraqis.

So there has been that stability. That's good news for the consumer in America.

QUESTION: Is Venezuela delivering the oil that's expected to be delivering?

FLEISCHER: Venezuela supplies actually have been on a steady uptick for the last several weeks. So that's part of what is the international mix of markets.

QUESTION: Ari, do you have any recent updates on the White House contacts with having troops in Turkey? And secondly, could you update us on any calls the president might have made to families of any troops that have fallen?

FLEISCHER: OK. On the second question, just as I indicated before, whatever communication the president has, he asks to be treated privately.

On Turkey, there is nothing new to report. The position of the United States remains clear.

It's been expressed to Turkish authorities. And there's nothing to report as far as Turkish movements, et cetera.

QUESTION: Ari, on the war supplemental there seems to be some growing numbers of senators, including some in the president's own party, who say they're not willing to give the flexibility, a blank check to both the Pentagon and Homeland Security, and they want itemized spending request. What's the president doing to reverse that?

FLEISCHER: Well, one, I'm not sure how widespread that is. The president is very well aware that from the moment the proposal was made there were some individuals who had some strong objections to the flexibility provisions. I'm not certain that that's the majority, however. So they'll continue to discuss it with the Hill.

I think one thing you're seeing is already the Congress is moving very quickly on the request. Congress has said they'd like to get it done and sent to the president by April the 11th. And already markups are scheduled in the House Appropriations Committee for next week. And then, action on the full floor could come as soon as next week in the House.

And so they're moving quickly. We'll see what the ultimate outcome is. But the president thinks that flexibility is important for DOD to be able to fight this war and to do what they need to do.

QUESTION: What about the move to specify money for National Guard as part of homeland defense?

FLEISCHER: We'll work with Congress on the various, different proposals that they have. And one thing is for sure, the president hopes that this will not be a Christmas tree in March or April. The president thinks it's important to pass the war supplemental and not add to it for items that are unrelated to the war on terror and the war in Iraq. QUESTION: Ari, to follow up on John's (ph) question a little earlier, was the president -- before the fighting broke out in Iraq -- was the president aware of the potential threat from paramilitaries in Iraq?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think there was a widespread of discussion of the variety of threats that could come from Iraqi resistance.

QUESTION: Specifically, was that something, can you tell us...

FLEISCHER: Again, just as an overall general rule, I just don't go into the specifics of the president's briefings.

QUESTION: Unrelated follow please. What is the White House position on the potential for another paramilitary group potentially taking up arms on the side of Britain and the United States, potentially in the south, a group beyond the Kurds. Is that something that the White House would support, or is that something that the White House is opposed to?

FLEISCHER: Well, No. 1, think it's important to recognize what you have here really are...

BLITZER: We're going to break away briefly from Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary.


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