George W. Bush photo

Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer

June 25, 2003

The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:30 P.M. EDT

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me fill you in on a busy day here at the White House. The President began it this morning with an intelligence briefing, followed by his usual FBI briefing. Then the President met with a bipartisan group of congressman in the House of Representatives to talk about the importance of making progress and enacting Medicare legislation into law, so that seniors can get prescription drugs as part of a modernized Medicare program.

Following that meeting, the President has been in a series of meetings and is currently having lunch with the leaders of the European Union. They had a meeting in the Oval Office and they had an expanded meeting in the Cabinet Room, where they discussed a wide variety of issues. I'll be happy to get into that.

Later this afternoon, right after this briefing, the President and the leaders of the European Union will hold a press availability in the East Room. And then, following that, the President will welcome down to the White House a group of undecided members of the House of Representatives who are looking at the Medicare legislation. The President will urge them to become decided, and become decided in favor of helping seniors to get prescription drugs as part of a new Medicare program.

He'll also have his regular meeting with the Secretary of State later today. And then he will sign into law the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003 in the Oval Office this afternoon, which reauthorizes the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment program that's aimed at preventing child abuse and family violence, protecting and treating abused and neglected children and victims of family violence, and eliminating barriers to permanent adoption. It also addresses circumstances that may lead to child abandonment.

That's the President's schedule for the day, and I'm happy to take questions. Steve.

Q: What can you tell us about the Hamas truce that's been reported?

MR. FLEISCHER: I've seen the reports on the wire. I cannot give you any official U.S. government confirmation at this time, so I leave it where it is, as a news report I've seen on the wire.

Q: Encouraging?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly anything that reduces the level of violence or eliminates violence in the Middle East is encouraging. But make no mistake that what is important here is the dismantlement of terrorism and terrorist organizations. That is, at the end of the day, the purpose and the objective of the Israelis and the Palestinians working together to dismantle terror.

Q: Do you have any indication from Israel -- I know it's early, but do you have any indication from Israel they could live with the conditions that are attached to this cease-fire from Hamas?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I've seen reports on the wire. The U.S. government has not received any official confirmation, so I really don't have anything to go beyond that. These reports literally just hit.

Q: If it's true, would it affect the President's call today, renewed call for a cutoff in Hamas funding?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, nothing changes the President's determination to cut off funding for terror as part of dismantling terror. Terror is terror, and terror needs to be fought in all its forms. And the President raised this in the Oval Office with the leaders of the European Union, and he called on all member nations of the European Union to do everything in their power to cut off funding specifically for Hamas, the President said.

Q: General Abizaid is up on the Hill today talking to the Senate, talking about intelligence. He said intelligence served us throughout the campaign and was very accurate on the tactical level, probably the best I've ever seen on the operational level, and perplexingly incomplete on the strategic level with regard to weapons of mass destruction. Would you agree with that, and what does it mean?

MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't seen the statement, it's the first I've heard of it. So let me study it and I'll see if there's anything I can offer.

Q: What would -- does the White House regard the intelligence, the pre-war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction as perplexing, given the fact that they haven't been discovered yet?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, John, I haven't seen this report, so I'd like to take a look at it. Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers talked about intelligence yesterday in their briefing from the Pentagon, so it's a topic -- specifically on WMD -- that has been gotten into before, and I think what they said yesterday is pretty clear.

Q: Following on that, Senator Joe Biden, just back from Iraq, is up on the Hill today, where he said that there's no question in his mind that the administration hyped the evidence on weapons of mass destruction to create a sense of urgency to deal with Iraq. And he also charged that the administration failed to generate enough support to be able to deal with the enormous problems that you should have known that you would face after the war.

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I think that there's no truth to that. I think, frankly, all you need to do is take a look at the consistency of what this administration, previous administrations, numerous Democrat and Republican senators, including House members, Democrat, Republican alike, have said for now a decade. You need to take a look at the debate that the senators, themselves, got into in 1998 when they passed the regime change legislation, if you want to see what the senators, themselves, said about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and weapons of mass destruction programs.

And so what the administration has said is exactly what the best analysts in the intelligence agencies have reported for a considerable period of time, and that is that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons and the means to produce them. That is what we said. We said it for good reasons, for accurate reasons. We've said repeatedly by this administration, by the previous one, and by many in both parties. And we stand by it.

Q: The fact that you haven't found any stockpiles of tactical weapons, does that not suggest that there might be something to this idea that the sense of imminence, the sense of urgency that was expressed might have been overstated?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think it suggests that they have hidden them and that they will ultimately be discovered. I think when you take a look now operationally -- and you were there, certainly, John, you were in the field -- when you see facts that our military discovered that the Iraqis had chemical protection uniforms, they had atropine that is used to protect Iraqis from the effects of chemical weapons, the manner in which we conducted the military campaign was conducted in a manner to protect our troops from worse-case scenarios. Anything else would have not protected the men and women of our military as they deserve to be protected in the conduct of a war. So, of course, we proceeded the way we did on the fear that they had the weapons of mass destruction and were willing to use them.

Q: And could you also speak to his charge that you failed to generate broad enough support to deal with these problems that you're dealing with now in Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: Frankly, I think that the support from the American people has been so broad and so long-lasting, that it existed prior to the war, and it exists -- continue today.

Q: He's talking about international support.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think, internationally, the world recognizes how much better off we are without Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq. I don't know that anybody is now saying that Saddam should be restored to power in Iraq, or that the reasons that were given for the war were insufficient for the actions that we took.

Q: I don't mean to monopolize your time. But that's not the charge he's making. The charge he's making is that you didn't get broad enough support in the international community to deal with these postwar problems.

MR. FLEISCHER: I just don't think that's the case. I think we had sufficient support from abroad, with a couple major exceptions, such as France and Germany. But beyond France and Germany, there was widespread world support for the military operation. Certainly, the number of nations that contributed in the overflights, that contributed support, that contributed in other ways to the military operation in Iraq suggests just the opposite, that the world, by and large, with some major exceptions, shared the President's perspective about the threat that the Saddam Hussein and Iraq posed. And that's also why we have the support of many nations around the world in our post-Iraq phase.

Now, the war just ended a little while ago when it came to major operations. And this President is going to continue to be steadfast and patient. He understands that people are going to be critics. It won't stop him from continuing to complete the mission in Iraq.

Q: I want to follow up on John's point, because this is the man that you've nominated to replace Tommy Franks as head of CentCom. He's on the Hill, this is his confirmation hearing, and there's now a report I think you need to look at. I mean, he just flat out said, I think it's perplexing that we haven't had found weapons of mass destruction.

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, again, this is a standard practice that you've seen. I've not seen all his remarks; I just walked out here and John has informed me of a sentence that he said as part of a paragraph that you reported. I'll take a look at it. You may want to talk to the Pentagon. But I'm not going to comment on something I haven't seen or heard.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the attack on British forces yesterday, and the dozens of attacks against U.S. and British forces over the last several weeks? Did the President -- it's been a little more than two months now -- did he declare the war over too soon?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think if you take a look at what the President has said -- the President, in his remarks on the Abraham Lincoln, warned the American people that Iraq remains a dangerous place. And it's dangerous because there are still elements that are loyal to Saddam Hussein, that are still members of the Baath Party, who want to do today what they've done for decades, which is kill and torture and bring harm to the people of Iraq. And the United States is there to help the people of Iraq and, therefore, they're attacking the United States and, in this case, British forces.

But when you take a look at the level of violence inside of Iraq, it is impossible to argue anything other than violence has, indeed, come down as a result of America's military operations. We're talking about a regime that engaged in mass murder; tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of its own citizens were killed or tortured by the Iraqis. The level of violence has, indeed, come down.

Now, what's unfortunate is that Americans have been subject to the violence. But it's because the United States is involved in a noble mission and noble cause, which is to see through the reconstruction of Iraq, which does put our men and women in the military in harm's way. And the military is performing its abilities under difficult circumstances in some regions of the country, and doing it well. Many regions of the country, outside of this triangle of Sunni area, north of Iraq, are, indeed, very calm.

Q: Ari, is it your sense -- we're hearing that the cease-fire agreement was delivered to Yasser Arafat and not to Mahmoud Abbas. Is it your sense that that, first of all, might be the reason why it's taking so long for you to find out formally? And, second of all, does it give you any concern that Arafat is still the man that they are dealing with because they are saying flat out that they just don't like the way Mahmoud Abbas is --

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I can only comment on the wire reports I have seen. We in the United States government have not yet received any official information about this. But as I indicated in the first question, anything that reduces the level of violence is a step in the right direction, but it's only a step. What's important is the dismantlement of organizations that engage in terror, because otherwise, there is always the possibility that some of these organizations, they get breathing space, they reserve time or save their energy for more combat later, and more terrorist operations later.

Q: Can I just follow up on the issue of the Middle East? Which countries in the EU exactly does the President think are not performing adequately in terms of stopping the funding of Hamas?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President didn't get into specific country by country, and I think this is an issue that the European Union is looking at. Hamas is interesting because it is a terrorist organization, but Hamas has what they have represented to other countries as a so-called political wing. The President's point is that terror is terror, and that all funding needs to be cut off. So I think you could talk to different European nations and hear their thoughts about it. The President's point covered all.

Q: So there's no specific concerns about any specific countries --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President talked about it in a general sense today with the European guests.

Q: Ari, back on WMD. Many of your critics are saying that the fact that you're saying patience for WMD, patience for Osama bin Laden, patience for Saddam Hussein signals failure. What are your thoughts about that?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's just no merit to that whatsoever. And I think that's why the American people are so calm and are -- frankly, I think their center of gravity is very strong as they approach the post-Iraq days. The American people are worried about casualties because we're a caring country. Nobody likes to see any American die in combat, or any American be killed or injured in an accident on a deployment the size of Iraq. And so nobody likes to see any reports of any casualties. But the American people, I think, have a deep and fundamental and a lasting understanding about the importance of the mission in Afghanistan, and the success we've had in routing the al Qaeda -- even though not all have been captured, but many have been brought to justice.

I think the American people have that same sense of gravity and sense of balance as they look long-term at America's security interests in the post-Iraq phase. And that's why I think you see that some critics will be willing to engage in revisionist history that's really not resonating very much with the country at large.

Q: And another question on his upcoming Africa trip. Many critics, once again, are saying that it's just patronizing to go to Africa, especially when you have a President who is so against affirmative action, and he's going to go to a place like Senegal which is known for slave-trading there, and not apologize for slavery. You've made it clear that you will not even deal with that issue. Talk about that.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President is very much looking forward to this trip to Africa. This was a trip that was originally scheduled in January; the President had to postpone it. And he said he would carry out the trip later this year, and he, indeed, is. And the trip will be from July 7th to the 12th. And the focus of the trip is going to be on trade. It's going to be on promoting democracy. Indeed, there are several success stories in Africa that the President is going to put on the world's map for all the world to see, that, indeed, democracy can be a part of the African story. The President is going to talk about his initiative to help fight AIDS in Africa. And the President will also be visiting Goree Island. And so I think you're going to hear from the President on the topic of slavery and about democracy and about how to help people forward in life and how people progress, thanks to democracy and freedom.

Q: But if he goes there, why not an apology?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think you'll hear the President's remarks in their full context when you hear them. And the President is looking forward to the trip and reflecting about history and about the future.

Q: In the meetings this morning with the European leaders, did the President talk about the European ban on genetically- modified food --


Q: What was the European reaction?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President raised that -- just prior to everybody leaving for lunch, the President raised the issue. And I think it's fair to say it's a matter that the European Union is looking at seriously. The President made his concerns known directly. He talked about the importance of helping people around the world who may be starving to be able to receive food, to be able to grow food that is genetically modified; it's safe, it's healthy, it's scientifically proven.

And some officials indicated that, of course, the European Union has imported genetically-modified soy beans and corn; therefore, they don't have a blanket opposition to genetically- modified crops, which is a good opening, a good sign of, perhaps, a willingness by the European Union to listen to the President's concerns.

Q: In the meeting this afternoon with the Republican leaders, do we have a -- how many is he going to be meeting with and the names of the people?

MR. FLEISCHER: We'll do just as we did this morning. This morning we released to you the list of members from the first meeting the President had on Medicare, the bipartisan meeting. We'll, as a White House tradition, release it again this afternoon.

Q: The message to them is what?

MR. FLEISCHER: The message is to help America's senior citizens by getting them the prescription drugs they deserve as part of the modernized Medicare. That's the President's message to them. And the group this afternoon is largely an undecided group of Republicans. And so the President wants to use his powers of persuasion to talk to them about the logic and the merits of the bill.

Q: Is he frustrated by their resistance?

MR. FLEISCHER: This is our democratic process in action. I don't think the President expects to have a 535-nothing votes on issues as major as this. But what the President is doing is using the weight of the White House, the strength of the White House, and his own personal time and effort because it is that important to make sure our nation's seniors get prescription drugs.

Lester, your hand is up.

Q: Ari, the President had a positive reaction to both of the Supreme Court decisions on the University of Michigan racial admissions policy. But the 5-4 law school decision allowed the continuation of skin shade as one criterion of admission. And my question, that's the first of two: Does the President care about the historic plea that "someday, my children will be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin"?

MR. FLEISCHER: Of course, he does. And this is why the President issued a statement applauding the Supreme Court's finding that diversity is an important goal on college campuses. That's exactly what the President believes in. That's what he did as governor. And he believes that it can be done without quotas. And this is what he supported in this case, and the President viewed the case as a careful balance.

Q: We've seen the photographs of Israeli soldiers dismantling settler outposts, and of the Sharon-released Arab terrorists who blew up Zion Square on July the 4th as one of the 100 prisoners that Israel released. But we have not seen even one thing done by the Palestinian Authority as required by the road map, or last month and this month. And my question: Why, when the President has sent our troops halfway around the world to fight terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, does he and Secretary Powell try to persuade Israel not to fight terrorists right in their own backyard?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President is focusing on the best way to fight terrorism, which is by Israel and the Palestinian Authority working together, as they are increasingly doing, to fight terror.

Q: But they haven't worked together in dismantling terrorism, Ari.

MR. FLEISCHER: And isn't that the point, that they have not previously worked together to dismantle terrorism when Yasser Arafat was in charge --

Q: And they won't, Ari.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Lester, you're free to do differently.

Q: Ari, back on the EU. Did anything that the President serve at lunch today contain genetically-modified -- (laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: Well they're eating now, and the President did jokingly say as he got up from the table, let's go eat some genetically-modified food for lunch. (Laughter.) So he --

Q: So he's fairly confident that there were --

MR. FLEISCHER: He said it with a big smile and everybody laughed. And I'm here with you, I'm not there eating the food.

Q: Can you check and see whether, in fact, there was anything in the menu?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it was the usual White House fare.

Q: Which is very genetically modified? (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: Which in that building, especially, is delicious. In this building, it's very good. (Laughter.)

Q: Secondly, can you -- anything else on the EU agenda? Aviation treaties, other things that were brought up?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, there will be considerable announcements following this. And of course, the President will get to this in his news conference. I could get into it for you now, but the President is going to be doing that shortly in his press availability. Thank you for the correction, John Roberts.

Q: Yes, on the bio-engineered food, what is --

MR. FLEISCHER: You just lost your question.

Q: I already had mine before.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, at the news -- at the press avail.

Q: What is it that the Europeans are doing? Is it just that they're discouraging Africans from planting bio-engineered seeds? Or is that they're also doing something to block the consumption of food aid that might contain bio-engineering?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the issue in a nutshell is the European Union has a series of criteria that must be satisfied in order for nations to export food to Europe. And those criteria do not allow, broadly, for genetically-modified food. The European Union noted two exceptions to that today. But as a result of those authorizations required, continents or nations on Africa, a continent like Africa, nations on Africa are not able to plant genetically-modified food, which would allow them to provide more food for their own people and at the same time have an export market to Europe.

Q: Now does it have any effect at all on food aid that goes to Africa?

MR. FLEISCHER: From the European Union point of view?

Q: Or from here? Does any of this impede in any way --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly it does, because if the United States wanted to work with African nations to help them to feed themselves and to become self-sufficient by providing them the ability to have genetically-modified foods, the African nations would say, well, while this might be helpful to us, it cannot be exported, and therefore -- cannot be exported to a major market like Europe -- and therefore, we will not receive genetically-modified food. So it does have a ricochet effect.

Q: One question on the meeting with conservative members this afternoon on Medicare. One of the objections from conservatives has been that this whole process, while politically satisfying, holds enormous risk to the nation on the fiscal front in future years -- that after the first 10 years, that the cost could explode and that there is no real control in the Medicare reform legislation that would keep it from being --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President doesn't view it that way. The President views this -- and there are estimates from the federal entity that is in charge of the Medicare program -- that as many as, I think it was, 47 percent of the seniors who are currently eligible for Medicare could sign up in the private plans, that would become a choice or an option for seniors. And as result of their entry into private plans, it will create more competition, better price levels, better setting of controls and better fiscal discipline.

Certainly, the very fact that the President's proposal was a $400 billion proposal that has, indeed, been accepted as a $400 billion proposal is helpful. There were efforts by some Democrats to increase that to $800 billion or $900 billion; those efforts were turned back. So there are all the ingredients for fiscal restraint and the President will focus on them.

Let me do this. The President's event is going to begin soon, so I want to keep moving around the room, if you don't mind. If we could just limit to one question.

Q: Going back to the incident involving British soldiers in Iraq yesterday. What is our assessment of the broader meaning of that incident? Does it represent a serious escalation on the part of the opposition that's there?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it represents, as the President warned about, ongoing dangers in a country in which there are people who are loyal to Saddam Hussein or Baath leaders who like the way things used to be. They liked running a country that they no longer can run, and so they're now engaged in violence against the military that has brought freedom to the people of Iraq.

Q: Does it indicate that those people are increasing their capabilities to carry out these kinds of attacks? Certainly, the number of --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think you'd have to talk to DOD for any greater detailed assessments of what it may mean.

Q: Ari, I know coalition forces put out the famous deck of cards with 55 pictures and names. How about the others? Are they also subject to being looked for, or are they considered --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's why they're getting picked up on such a regular basis. I think that they're up to 32 or 33 of the 55 have been picked up. And the figure keeps growing on a regular basis.

Q: I'm talking about the ones that are not on the list of 55, the other people. Are they also being looked for?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think you can presume that other people are being picked up beyond the 55. It's not as if they only have 55.

Q: Up until now, the President has opposed sending peacekeeping troops to the Middle East. How firm is he in that position, particularly in light of this apparent new development with Hamas?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President continues to believe that the most effective steps are steps that are taken jointly by the Israelis and the Palestinians. He's focused on what is effective. And that does not include the sending of United States forces to the Middle East to be peacekeepers.

Q: So there's no circumstance under which he would think it would be appropriate to send peacekeeping forces?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's not in the cards, or there's nothing I've seen about that.

Q: Thank you, Ari.

MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you. My apologies for -- we have a Presidential event.

END 12:55 P.M. EDT

George W. Bush, Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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