Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official
The Briefing Room
4:02 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just recap points that the President made this afternoon in addressing this question. The first is that these defections highlight how isolated Saddam Hussein has become inside Iraq. Even his closest advisors are concluding that his policies are ruining the country.
Second, this demonstrates that the President's policy towards Iraq of refusing to discuss lifting sanctions until Iraq has met all of its U.N. obligations is working. Clearly, there's greater pressure on Saddam than ever before.
And finally, King Hussein's decision to grant asylum to these individuals is an act of courage. The President spoke to the King Tuesday night and assured him that the United States would be behind him in the event of any Iraqi retaliation of any kind.
So this is potentially a very significant development and one which we'll be watching closely over the days ahead. I'll be happy to respond to any questions you may have on the details of this.
Q: What access could you tell us did these two high-ranking officials have? Did they know everything that Saddam has in chemical, nuclear or any other kind of weapon?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: These were people from the inner-most circle of the regime. Hussein Kamel, the elder of the two brothers, has been responsible for Iraq's military industrial complex for years. He was at one point head of Iraq's nuclear program. He knows everything about Iraq's efforts to hide from U.N. weapons inspectors, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction since the end of the war. So he's in a position to know everything, to use your terminology, and to reveal a great deal about what's going on inside the regime.
His brother, Saddam Kamel, was a very senior official in Iraq and Saddam Hussein's personal bodyguard; again, right at the core of the regime, right where it lives. There are probably in Iraq today, outside of Saddam's two sons, no one more close to him, no one who had a more authoritative position within the power structure.
Q: Do you have any other evidence of more widespread dissension in Iraq at the moment?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have seen over the past several years a steady deterioration in the coherence of the Iraqi power structure. It has reached, going back a year or more, levels of institutions on which he depends heavily, such as the Republican Guard. We have seen a series of refinements of his own protective arrangements. He used to rely on the Republican Guard exclusively. He had to create a special Republican Guard unit to protect him. And more recently, he's developed new specialized units. Clearly, there is a fragmenting going on in the system that keeps him in power and protects him.
We have also seen as the sanctions have bit harder month after month fragmenting within the ruling elite itself, including Saddam's immediate family. We have seen in the last several months repeated reports of squabbling among family members, squabbling between this individual and Saddam Hussein's sons. Clearly, this is a regime under pressure and the defections are an indication of how serious it's become.
Q: Well, do you think his days are numbered?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to predict that from this podium. Those kind of predictions have been made too often in the past. But this is probably the most serious setback he has suffered since the mutinies immediately following the Gulf War.
Q: What more can you tell us about what these two have been communicating to the Jordanians about the situation there and why they left?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, they only came out on the 8th, and so we don't have a lot of details yet at this point. We have been communicating closely with the Jordanians since they arrived, but I really don't have any details in terms of what their immediate agenda is, what they intend to do, how much they're prepared to reveal. Those are unknowns at this stage.
Q: How much of a threat does there seem to be of Iraqi retaliation for these defections? And related to that, apparently, a Marine expeditionary force is going to conduct joint exercises with Jordanian troops. When does that start and how does that fit into all of this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, when you're dealing with Saddam Hussein, I think his record suggests you always have to be prepared for the possibility at least that he will resort to use of force or threaten the use of force. As a practical matter, Iraqi forces are not traditionally -- have not been traditionally deployed in a manner threatening to Jordan. They have been deployed to the south, they've been deployed towards Iran, and they've been deployed to the north. It would not be an easy thing for him to redeploy those forces in a way to threaten the Jordanians, but you have to be prepared for the contingency that he would do that.
We have not seen any signs since this occurred of a change in Iraqi dispositions, although there are fluctuations in the level of readiness of the Iraqi Army from time to time and it's something we watch very carefully. We don't see anything directly related to this, is the answer to your question.
Q: How about the Pentagon exercise --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is an exercise that has been scheduled, it's not directly related to this event. But it is one element of an existing military relationship with Jordan which is important to both countries. And as the President said, we have reassured King Hussein that we are prepared to deal -- help him deal with any potential threat from Iraq.
Q: There's not -- you were saying that you see no changes in things. I thought the Pentagon just finished briefing to the effect that they're seeing some mobilization of units. They may not be able to link them directly to this, but that they are seeing --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me ask my colleague to address this question because it gets to a level of detail that's beyond my technical competence. The point I was addressing here is I don't think there's a direct relationship between what has just occurred with respect to the defections and what we've been seeing.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In point of fact, it's probably too early for this to have had any direct relationship. There is some movement and some activity that is taking place that I would -- mobilization is probably too strong of a word because that implies some sort of country-wide effort. But there is certainly movement in the military that looks like preparations for either a large exercise or some sort of operation.
Q: Is it possible that those movements might be related to a coup against Saddam? Do you see any evidence thereof?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, that would be unlikely.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I mentioned, there have been fluctuations in the level of readiness of Iraq's Army repeatedly over the past several years, and so I would caution against jumping to any conclusions with respect to these signs that we're seeing.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because they do have the same look that an exercise would have. And in point of fact, as I pointed out earlier, it's too early for this to be directly a result of the defection. So it could still even be an exercise or a large inspection.
Q: What prompts the new warning? Are we concerned that Saddam might move, or are we more wanting to get out the message that his power appears to be failing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, the reason for the President's stating this afternoon that we have reassured the King in this regard is that something very potentially significant has happened within Iraq, and the actors involved in that event are now in Jordan. And the King has granted them political asylum. This is a serious setback for Saddam Hussein, and in the past he has responded to emergencies on occasion by lashing out militarily or at least by threatening the use of force. So we think it's entirely appropriate that these assurances have been extended and we don't want them to be a secret.
Q: Do you see a potential domestically?
Q: What are these squabbles in the inner circle about? Do they revolve primarily around sanctions strategy, or something else?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll let my colleague comment on this as well, but my sense is that you can trace a lot of this back to the sanctions problem that Iraq has and has been dealing with for years. You're dealing with a limited resource base. You're dealing with a shrinking resource base, as the effect of the sanctions grows over the months and years. And you're dealing with a power structure in which there is less profit and resources to go around and people are inevitably competing for what is available in terms of actual concrete resources, in terms of influence. And I suspect that there is a sense in which there is a debate ongoing about the best way to get out of sanctions.
I would not presume to have a solid lock on that debate because the workings of the Iraqi regime are something that we don't have a clear sense of.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that hits it right on the head. There are different branches within Saddam's family and they do compete for things like profit from the limited trade that does take place in the wake of sanctions. And sanctions have put an incredible amount of pressure on the regime. And that is contributing to pressures within the family. And this is the first time they've really bubbled up to the surface significantly.
Q: You don't know what the actually rift was between these brothers-in-law and --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The actual incident that prompted this defection? No.
Q: Who is debriefing the Kamel brothers and is there a chance that the United States could get in on that debriefing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to be able to get into the details of exactly how, where, or through what modalities they're being debriefed. Obviously, this is something in which we have great interest. We are communicating closely with the Jordanians, but I really don't what to go beyond that.
Q: Do you know they're going to definitely spill the beans?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I suggested earlier, I don't know what their intentions are. I can't make that prediction at this point.
Q: Are they still in Jordan?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q: Wasn't there also a report that one of Saddam's sons, not sons-in-law, but one of his sons had asked to see King Hussein?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: His son, Odai, is in Amman today. I don't know if he's still there. He may be leaving. But he was there for meetings with Jordanian officials. I can't confirm whether he saw the King. Do we know that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't think he did.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But our assumption is it is related to the defections in some way. We have no idea what his mission was. It probably wasn't a pleasant conversation.
Q: Did the Jordanians consult with the United States before offering asylum?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q: You seem to be suggesting that the more likely, the more natural response of Saddam is to strike out rather than consolidate, become more insulated, grab on to what power he has --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't mean to suggest that. We honestly don't know.
Q: Is it likely that he would hunker down and --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's hard to quantify, but the point that I would like to stress is that when you're dealing with this man with this regime, you have to be prepared for the worst. And the assurances that have been extended by our government to Jordan are based on that understanding of the nature of the Iraqi regime and its past record.
Q: So are we -- what actions then are we taking to be prepared?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President has asked that a range of military contingencies be examined. That process is underway. I obviously can't get into any details on that.
Q: Do you see domestic-based threat to the King by his decision to do this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The King's domestic base?
Q: Domestic threat to the King as a result. I mean, we're talking about a threat from the -- a perceived possible threat from outside.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right, right. I think that the King has shown a very solid ability to read the mood in Jordan with respect to Iraq. Certainly my assumption is that he feels that he's on solid ground in that score in this case as well.
Would you want to comment on that from an analytical standpoint?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that's a minimal risk. I think since Desert Storm, as well, the people of Jordan have shown sympathy to the people of Iraq perhaps, but lessening sympathy to Saddam. So I think the statements that have come out tend to support that. And I would not see, at the moment, at least, a domestic threat to the King.
Q: Is there any talk at all about moving him outside the country? I mean, you said there's nothing right away, but any long-term possibilities?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Don't want to speculate on long-term possibilities there in Jordan today. And the King has indicated that they may stay there. So I just don't know where that will come out.
Q: On the same issue, is there any mention at all that they might, or any chance you've heard that they might seek asylum in the United States?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That issue hasn't come up.
Q: Can you just give us, on sanctions, just a little bit of a rundown on what he would have to do to have the sanctions lifted, what are the reasons for them right now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is not a secret. It's all spelled out in black and white in the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions. They are contained in Resolution 687 and 688, which respectively ended the Gulf War and established conditions for the cease fire, and responded to Saddam's treatment of minorities in Iraq after the war. 687 lays out a number of specific requirements, including that he account for all past weapons of mass destruction programs fully. I think he had to do that within 50 days after the passage of that resolution. It's a debate that's still going on -- and that he accept long-term monitoring of his capability to regenerate those kinds of capabilities; that he give a full accounting for all missing Kuwaitis as a result of the war; that he return all Kuwait military and other assets that were plundered from Kuwait during the war; that he make a clean break with terrorist activities. And of course, they're continuing to house terrorist groups in Baghdad. That's 687, correct?
Resolution 688 deals with the problem of internal repression and mandates that it cease and that he allow observers, international observers to ensure that it has stopped. Those are the steps of obligations, all of which he is in violation of four and a half years after the war ended.
Q: Just to clarify one point -- the President has asked that a range of contingencies you say be considered or recommended to him?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's under review.
Q: They're under review. Is there any time frame that he mentioned?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He has made an assurance and he's asked the relevant expertise be brought to bear to determine what may come up and how we would meet it if it did.
Q: But no time frame? He doesn't want it in two weeks --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to get into those kind of details.
Q: Do we know the identity of maybe some other of the defectors? Do we know all -- I was thinking in terms of -- the missile person who was very familiar and ran the missile program for a while -- any of these high-ranking people in addition to the two main ones, the brothers?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, it's the two brothers; it's the two daughters of Saddam to whom they're married; it's the grandchildren including his eldest grandchild; and it is, as I understand it, personal staff who are accompanying them. Is that fair?
Q: We haven't seen any other --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Otherwise we don't have anything on that.
Q: You've said that it's not clear just what access the U.S. will have. It's fair to say, I guess, given the relationship with Jordan, that you're viewing this as a good opportunity to glean quite a bit of information.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to speculate on what information may come from it. Clearly, there is a potential for opening up some insights we have not previously had into the nature of this regime and what it's doing in important areas.
Q: But are you getting any signs that Jordan is not going to be cooperative?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: None whatsoever.
Q: Have they been cooperative with the Jordanians -- the defectors?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't have a detailed enough description of exactly what those conversations have involved to be able to give you details of that at this point.
Q: There's no indication that they're stonewalling or anything like that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: None whatsoever. And the circumstances are these people have sought asylum in Jordan. It has been granted. I assume there is a dialogue going on there of some sort.
Q: Where exactly are we at in terms of Jordan's debt relief right now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Jordan's debt relief was signed into law a month ago, three weeks ago --
Q: The rescission bill.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The rescission bill. The provision was contained within the rescission bill, and it's done.
Q: Have the payments been actually made?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Have the payments been made? I'm not sure that it's a question of payments being made, but it -- basically, it's off the books.
THE PRESS: Thank you very much.
END 4:20 P.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269833