Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials
The Roosevelt Room
7:15 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We just want to give you a very quick readout on the meeting between the President and Prince Saud, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, who was accompanied by the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar.
They met in the Cabinet Room. They talked about 15 minutes. After that, Prince Saud continued with Mr. Lake in his office for another half an hour -- a briefing as well. The President made clear two things: Number one was an ironclad commitment to the security of Saudi Arabia; and number two was his absolute determination to stand firm against any threats from Saddam Hussein and to ensure that he live up to the demands of the Security Council resolutions, and that he not be able to threaten or bully the Security Council, UNSCOM or Kuwait.
You heard Prince Saud on the record, so let me just confirm that he made very clear to the President that Saudi Arabia was of one mind with the United States in this regard and that King Fahd will stand with President Clinton in the face of any possible threats.
I gather there's some kind of wire report that the Saudis are not letting U.S. aircraft land. I can categorically deny that. He also denied it on the record. And the Saudis have made clear that, as I said, they will stand with us and work with us fully.
Q: To clarify, the report said they wouldn't let them use as a launching pad for attack, I think. Can you deny that as well?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're not talking about attacks, so I don't think that's an issue at the moment. What we're concerned about is Saddam Hussein's intention.
Q: Is there any request from the Saudis, any formal request to deploy troops or preposition anything or allow planes to land there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we're engaged in ongoing discussions with them. I think you're aware of the troop movements and I don't want to go into any more specifics than that. But we are, as the President said, taking the necessary measures, and that requires us to also consult with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Q: Just to clarify the position whether we can stage from Saudi bases, you say that's not an issue at this point. We have airplanes there, as I understand it. If the Iraqis were to menace the Kuwaitis or the U.N. force there, can we launch air strikes from Saudi bases on Iraqi troops?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to get into details. I would just stick with what I said, and I would refer you to what Prince Saud said, that Saudi Arabia has made very clear that they stand shoulder to shoulder with us, and that there will be full cooperation with us.
Q: Do you really think they're going to invade Kuwait again?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Helen, I can't read Saddam's mind.
Q: I mean, are they that close? Have they done --have they crossed the line or anything?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. No. So far their forward elements of these two Republican Guard divisions that have taken up positions near the border --
Q: How near, sir?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't have an answer for that, other than near the border.
Q: Do you know how many kilometers south of Basra?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You were reporting an official saying 30 to 40 kilometers. I heard you say that. That sounds accurate.
Q: What does -- have they said anything publicly in terms of the troop movements?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The only thing that I saw -- I don't know whether you've seen it -- the only thing I've seen today was a statement from a Ministry of Information official saying that movement of their troops was an internal affair.
Q: What's the best analysis of the administration as to what the Iraqis are really up to? Is it just bullying -- trying to bully, trying to intimidate?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, if we look at the statement that came out of the Revolutionary Command Council a couple of days ago -- a very threatening, ugly statement -- I think it was focused on the UNSCOM report by Ambassador Ekeus that is going to be made on October the 10th. And the message was basically, after October 10th, lift the sanctions, or else. So one possible explanation is that he -- Saddam Hussein, that is -- wants to use the threat of force as a way of somehow leveraging some concessions from the Security Council in the context of that report.
You might want to comment on discussions in the Security Council, but our reading today is that that has, as you might expect, been -- if that is his approach, it's been totally counterproductive; that the Security Council's members are very concerned by these reports of troop movements, and that far from demonstrating his peaceful intentions, which he is required to do under the U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, what he appears to be doing is demonstrating his nonpeaceful intentions.
Q: Can you elaborate on what Madeleine Albright said about his weapons of mass destruction and the reactivization of his biological warfare program?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Only that he has never come fully clean with Ekeus and UNSCOM about his biological weapons program. That's been a gap in the weapons monitoring.
Q: What about his nuclear program?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are still some gaps in accounting for his nuclear program in our view. Ekeus has focused on setting up a long-term monitoring system for nuclear, chemical, biological and missiles -- longer-range missiles. That is what he will be reporting on now. He has previously reported on the gaps that still remain in terms of his accounting for weapons he always has. The report on October 10th will be about the long-term monitoring system. And from what he's been saying, what he will say there is that it's provisionally operational, but he does not have the monitoring system in place for chemical or biological weapons programs.
Q: Is the resistance rumors that there was an internal dissention or some sort of rebellion -- does that have any validity? Some sort of upset in the --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There have been a number of reports of increasing frequency over the last six months of internal coup attempts, explosions, these kinds of things. Some of them we've been able to confirm; others we don't know. I think what is clear is that the sanctions are beginning to bite, that his base is eroding. And I think that may have some explanation, may be some part of the explanation here on his part; that his patience has worn out, that he doesn't think Tariq Aziz's strategy for slipping out of the sanctions noose is going to work.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are increasing defections, as well, from his armed forces.
Q: What's his SCUD capability now that he --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let's focus on the defections for a moment because you may have seen reports here that he is facing such a problem with defections now that he's taken a particularly barbaric action of cutting off the left ears of deserters that are captured and marking their foreheads with crosses tattooed into their foreheads. And this is --
Q: Tattoos of crosses?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Crosses, an x. No, it's not a Christian cross.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And we've seen reports of up to 1,000 such people having their ears cut off.
Q: Who are these people?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: These are deserters from the army.
Q: How rapidly is the troop movement taking place?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We see them moving quickly. I think that a lot has been going on in the last 48 hours. They seem to be moving quite rapidly.
Q: How soon will they be at the border if they are --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there are forward elements already there. But I don't think we have a good estimate of how long -- full divisions.
Q: What is his Scud capability now? That was such a big thing in the element of the Gulf War, especially Scuds that could reach Israel or other countries that could draw more --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, it's a good question. UNSCOM believes that they have accounted fully for his scuds. Our intelligence community questions that. We think that there are still, perhaps, upwards of 100 that are still unaccounted for.
Q: One hundred what?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There may be 100 unaccounted for. UNSCOM has been undertaking very thorough searches, and they feel that they've accounted for them all. But our community doesn't agree with that assessment.
Q: Has North Korea been shipping them weapons at all through this interim?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not as far as we can tell. There has been a total arms embargo on Iraq, as well as the sanctions. So the armed forces are in much, much weaker condition than they were at the time of the Gulf War. Not only have they suffered from the Gulf War itself, the punishment that was meted out at that time, but they've also had great trouble refurbishing. They've had problems with spare parts, they've had problems with morale.
However, having said all of that, the Republican Guard units are the elite units and they make sure that they look after them. And so they still have a considerable capability. We don't take it lightly. But, obviously, in terms of what they had before the Gulf War compared to what they have now, it's in a much weaker position.
Q: Why would they go into Kuwait now, really? I mean, they couldn't hold the territory. They couldn't. What is their purpose?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It could be detracting attention from internal hardship. We have seen several statements by Iraqis that have pointed to outside sources as being the ones responsible for the terrible hardship that the Iraqis are feeling. They've pointed at us, they've pointed at the Kuwaitis, and they've made threats if the boycott -- sorry -- if the sanctions aren't lifted, we will act, because we won't let our people continue to be deprived in this way.
Q: Could you give your estimate of the -- the last time we went through this it was sort of an America leading, informing the coalition and then shaping the opinion of the Security Council and getting us to where we are now -- I think the 16 resolutions. The coalition has now disbanded somewhat. How do they put that back together? Is it possible, or is it going to be a U.S. action, or can the United Nations be put back into the same gear?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that the coalition has remained remarkably coherent over -- what is it, now, almost now four years. And one of the reasons that I think he is maybe doing this is precisely because he has recognized that the coalition is still pretty much in shape and that there is an international consensus for full compliance with all the U.N. resolutions. There have been some tactical differences about when is the right time to put a timetable on lifting of sanctions, and so on, with the French and the Russians looking to do that. But they, too, have been absolutely clear-cut about the need for full compliance with all the U.N. Security Council resolutions.
So I think that the consensus is still there, and his actions are only going to consolidate it further.
Q: The President has committed personally, though, to lead this and make this right, as the Prince tells us. That's the correct interpretation of this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q: And what do you expect this week -- what are you looking for in the next 48 hours?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We will be watching very closely. As the President said, we will watch it very closely. And, as you know, we have already taken actions to make sure that there is the capability to deter him. And if deterrence fails, as it may in his case, that there is an ability to defend Kuwait.
Q: Do we have any --
Q: As it "may" in this case; deterrence may fail in this case?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, just because Saddam, you know, wasn't persuaded the last time. So one can't tell whether he will be persuaded this time.
Q: Are you going to the Security Council tomorrow?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are discussions at the Security Council today.
Q: Have we made high-level contacts with Kuwaiti officials?
Q: For a new resolution?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I don't think -- we have enough resolutions.
Q: Any high-level U.S. contacts with the Kuwaiti leadership?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. (Laughter.)
Q: At Secretary Christopher's level?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We've had the Kuwaitis in the State Department today for briefings.
Q: Syrians, too?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the President saw the Syrian Foreign Minister this morning.
Q: What kind of assets, other than air power, do we have in the region presently?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You need to ask the Pentagon those kinds of questions.
Q: We have preposition equipment --
Q: Well, basically, there are just these two divisions that the U.S. -- nothing else. In the original --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In the area.
Q: But they were previously there, or they've just been sent.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, they were previously there.
Q: So they have six divisions altogether now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: When the two finally get there they will have six divisions.
Q: And each division is about 10 or 12,000 troops?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. They'll end up with about 65,000 when they're all --
Q: And how much above normal --
Q: And the other four are not Republican Guard, though?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I think that's right. I'm not exactly sure that that's right. There may be some other Republican Guard.
Q: In the past they said all the Republican Guard were in Baghdad.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm just not sure.
Q: So how many divisions are normally around there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are four, normally, in the south. Four divisions in the south.
Q: So this is two divisions of about 12,000 more than normal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's right.
Q: 12,000 each?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
END 7:30 P.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269426