George W. Bush photo

Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer

April 01, 2003

The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

2:30 P.M. EST

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I have no opening statement. I do need to be in the Oval at 3:00 p.m., so I'd like to move as quickly as we can today. Let's start.

Q: Ari, a week ago, President Bush was saying that Saddam was losing his grip on power. In a way, this seemed to indicate he believed Saddam was alive. Now the message from the administration is one of doubt that Saddam is alive. Has something happened in the last week, or are you just -- are you trying to sow doubt among the Iraqi leadership?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that, as the President has always said, and members of the administration have said when asked, is Saddam alive, we say we don't know, because we do not know. The fact that he failed to show up for his scheduled appearance today raises additional questions. But I think it's also fair to say, given the fact that we don't know if he's alive or not, when the President refers or other people in the administration refer to Saddam Hussein this or Saddam Hussein that, it's almost now a generalized term for the Iraqi regime, because we don't know if he's alive or dead.

Q: How was General Garner picked to be the -- to head the post-war Iraqi occupation?

MR. FLEISCHER: My understanding is he was picked by Secretary Rumsfeld as part of the team that the Secretary has assembled that is working in coordination with other offices in the United States government, including AID and State, on the reconstruction of Iraq.

Q: Does he have any qualifications? I understand he may be an arms dealer?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know anything about that, Helen. Given the fact that the appointment is Secretary Rumsfeld's, you might want to talk to the Secretary. That's a DOD question.

Q: What is the President doing right now to try to resolve disputes within the administration, specifically Pentagon and State, over administering aid for the Iraqi people? It appears that some of it is being held up now at the port in Umm Qasar.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, there is an existing plan and structure for the administration of aid for Iraq. And this is something that was planned going in. This is part -- a follow-up to Helen's question. General Garner is, of course, working on that from the Defense Department, and as well as officials from State, from AID. They all will have a role.

The role really begins with the security of Iraq, and that's why it begins at DOD, because this is going to become an outgrowth of the military operation, to liberate Iraq, to disarm Iraq; and from a security point of view, to allow for the greatest administration, as quickly as possible by the Iraqi people. That will include a role for others, including the United Nations, as I mentioned. So it's all part and parcel of the original plan. And it's just a part of the discussions that are routine around here, that involve the various agencies.

Q: What does the President view as the United Nations role? Will it be restricted to humanitarian aid, or does he see a role for them in terms of administrating?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the statement that the President made in the Azores talked about a U.N. role in two part, one part being humanitarian and the other part being in the reconstruction.

Q: As an administrative overseer of the interim authority?

MR. FLEISCHER: In some role. I think the exact role remains to be seen. Obviously, the United States being on the ground, providing the security is going to have a substantial role to play, and we want to make certain and welcome the role that others can play as well. The exact nature of those roles is yet to be determined.

Q: I heard your answer to Randy, that we don't know whether Saddam is alive or dead. No one is implying that you have definitive proof. But do you have any more intelligence that leans you one way or the other? Has there been more intelligence now than there was last week?

MR. FLEISCHER: There is still nothing hard or concrete to report. I think when I got asked about this on the day after the military strike, I said we don't know how Saddam is feeling today. We don't know how he's been feeling for a couple weeks.

Q: Do we know anything more than we did two weeks ago?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think, again, we don't have anything hard, concrete to report. I think if we did we would want to share that. Or if Iraq had something --

Q: What do we have that is soft and interesting? (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: Switch it around, though. If you're in Iraq, if you're part of the Iraqi regime, if you're part of the leadership structure, especially, if you had something hard or concrete to report, such as that Saddam was alive, the question is why aren't they showing it? And particularly today, after they advertised, Al Jazeera did report it, that Saddam Hussein would, himself, address the Iraqi people and he failed to show up, it does raise interesting questions.

But the bottom line is we don't know. We don't know, and therefore we're going to be guarded in what we say, because we don't know. He could show up, but he hasn't yet.


Q: Can you answer his last question?

Q: What do we believe?

MR. FLEISCHER: We believe that we don't know.

Q: Following-up on Campbell's question, have you said anything lately about the French preference to have U.N. administration over all of postwar Iraq, versus any kind of U.S. control?

MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, the United Nations will have a role.

Q: But they want to have the controlling role.

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not certain that that's an accurate statement for what the U.N. wants. I think it remains to be seen exactly. The U.N. is a -- members of the Security Council. But there are some serious facts on the ground involving the United States and the United Kingdom and others who are there working with the Iraqi people. But the fundamental issue is not whether it's the United Nations or the United States that will administer Iraq, the Iraqi people will administer Iraq. Iraq can be and should be and will be, in the President's judgment, administered by the Iraqi people from both inside and outside Iraq.

Q: Has the President taken any role in calling anybody, talking to anybody about the dispute that is simmering between some active-duty and off-duty military over the plan of the war?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I don't know if you saw what General Myers said, but I think General Myers has addressed that issue.

Q: I did, but that isn't the question I asked you.

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think the President is bothering on that level. I think when you see --

Q: Really? It doesn't trouble him at all?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think when you see how General Myers expressed it and Secretary Rumsfeld expressed it as so many layers down, I don't think anybody could put it more authoritatively, more clearly, or more concisely than General Myers did.

Q: So the President is --

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not aware that he's bothering --

Q: -- he believes that the war is progressing on plan?

MR. FLEISCHER: There's no question you know where the President stands on how well the war is progressing, correct.

Q: I've got a couple of questions on the periphery of things. There's a poll out in Le Monde, one of the leading French newspapers, that a quarter of the French people hope Iraq wins this war. That's combined with, obviously, overwhelming opposition to the war; the government's efforts to obstruct U.S. diplomatic and, in some ways, military efforts. Can the President still consider a country like that an ally?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I haven't seen it and so I'm not going to comment on anything involving the percentage of French who would think that. I don't know that to be the case or not to be the case. Obviously, the foreign minister of France spoke, and then very quickly updated what he said in regard to his sentiments about it. We have relations with the government. The government of France has spoken.

Q: Another peripheral issue. Franklin Graham, the preacher who spoke at the President's inauguration, has said and who has also been quoted as calling Islam a very wicked and violent religion, has said that he is in contact with United States officials in Jordan for his charity, Samaritan's Purse, to work inside Iraq as coalition forces stabilize the south. Is the United States government encouraging Samaritan's Purse and other explicitly evangelical charities to go to work in Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, any questions about that would have to be addressed to State Department or Jordanians or any other authorities. It's not a White House matter, so I really don't have anything on it.

Q: Ari, this morning you said that Saddam Hussein bears some of the responsibility or the responsibility for civilian deaths in Iraq, including the deaths of seven women and children at the checkpoint yesterday. At a minimum --

MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, I didn't apply it directly to the checkpoint; I made that as a general statement.

Q: Is there concern here that, at minimum, incidents like this hold the risk of inflaming opinion, anti-U.S. opinion in the Arab world and around the world in general? And does -- do incidents like this in turn put the U.S. military in an untenable position of having to choose between self-protection and worrying about all these political implications?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President's point of view is it's not untenable that this is part of the difficulty that our military faces, and the President believes that the military is facing it well. The fact that Saddam Hussein would use suicide bombers if the regime would engage in the most despicable tactics that they have does suggest the very nature of this regime.

And you saw it, it was reported by many of the embeds in Iraq about putting innocent women on a bridge in between the United States and Iraqi forces. Now, who would do something like that? What kind of depravity is that, to take an innocent Iraqi woman and put her in between a fire-fight? That's the nature of the regime that we deal with here. So, no, from a military point of view, it's something that the President knows and the military will be able to deal with and move forward on.

I can just tell you, just before I came out here, there was a report on one of the cables that showed an Iraqi citizen saying on camera, "Saddam no, America" -- and he gave a thumbs-up, like that. So we're starting to see some of the more visible signals now from the public of Iraq as the operation of Iraqi Liberation goes forward and people feel more free to speak out and I think you'll see more of that.

Q: On a related issue, you've always said that the occupation of Iraq would not last a day longer than necessary. Given the nature of the resistance that we've seen on the ground there, including suicide bombings, forces mingling themselves with civilian populations, is there some concern here that -- and is it fair to assume that the occupation is going to be longer, more dangerous, more expensive than it might otherwise have been?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think it's impossible to make any judgments about that at this early period of time. I've seen other reports now about the improving situation in and around Basra. So I think it's impossible to make any predictions about longer term. The statement still applies; we'll stay as long as necessary and not a day longer, as the President has put it.

Q: Before the President approved the war plan, did anyone indicate to the President that the plan might include too few troops to do the job as safely as possible?

MR. FLEISCHER: Mike, you heard General Myers on that today, and I don't think he could have addressed it any more authoritatively. From all the conversations the President has had with the planners, this was the plan that was agreed upon, it was discussed robustly, everybody understood what it called for, and was checked off on.

Q: And what is your assessment of the progress so far of the hearts and mind element of the campaign?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated, you're already starting to see increasingly visible signs of Iraqis speaking out for freedom and helping the United States and the United Kingdom and Australia. Some of the information that you've been getting from Iraqis has led to direct actions on the ground, as the military briefers have shared from CENTCOM. And so the only reason that Iraqis would be providing that is if they, themselves, are taking sides. And obviously they're taking sides with the United States and against the oppressive Iraqi regime.

Q: Ari, the Democrats saying that they're hearing from governors of both parties that there just isn't enough money to pay for the homeland security laws and the things that they have to do locally. They proposed doubling the amount of money that the President proposed in the supplemental. Is that something -- have you talked to them? Is that something at all that the President would go for, or would it be something that he would potentially veto if --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, the House Appropriations Committee is today scheduled to pass the President's proposal for a supplemental that includes $4.2 billion of increased funding for homeland security. Here are the facts on previous spending. For 2003, government-wide homeland security funding was doubled the level provided prior to September 11th attacks. Prior to September 11th, the funding was at about $20.6 billion for 2003. The funding almost doubled to $37.9 billion. So it has almost doubled already, government-wide.

The President has proposed another increase in the supplemental. And the President made the proposals he's made, in addition to the increase proposed in the '04 upcoming budget, above and beyond the supplemental, because those are the amounts that we have judged to be the proper and the full amounts necessary to protect the homeland. So we'll take a look, see what the Congress does with it. But I think you'll see that a majority will speak out shortly. And the President looks forward to actually taking his proposal.

Q: If he gets a bill that comes from Congress that has more money, what would he do?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let's wait and see. We're going to have a vote today and you'll see whether or not members of Congress on a majority basis agree with the President's proposal. They'll shortly have their chance to vote. And we'll see what they say. The President has proposed rather large increases for homeland security, deservedly so.

Q: Ari, just to follow-up quickly on Saddam's fate. If he were dead, that clearly would be welcomed by this White House. But wouldn't that also be not so great in the sense that that implies even though the top of that government is gone, that the rest of it is still very much determined to fight?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I guess the question is, do people know it? I think that once -- if that is the fact, and word gets out around Iraq, that can have implications. I think, obviously, those who have made their living at Saddam's side don't want information about his health to be revealed. They have a stake in keeping him as alive as can be. And, again, we don't know if he is or is not.

Q: And yesterday when the President -- in his remarks in Philadelphia, was he saying that because of the war that we started in Iraq, the chances are greater that we may be attacked in this country again?

MR. FLEISCHER: Okay. I just want to correct one thing. You said, "the war that we started in Iraq." That's not the President's approach. Iraq failed to disarm, per the resolutions passed by the United Nations. And we are acting to make certain that the regime is disarmed and that Saddam and the regime is changed by the use of force.

What the President reiterated in Philadelphia yesterday was a reminder that he has issued previously about the risk that we face as a country given the world of terrorism. This is something that we saw on September 11th. It remains with us. We have been making tremendous efforts to make certain that no more terrorist attacks take place. But it's a reminder, a timely reminder from the President. Certainly, the fact that we are engaged in conflict with Iraq and that Iraq would like to strike us in any way they can adds to the situation, but it's a combination of factors.

Q: I don't want to get in a debate with you, but I think there would be some people who would say that we actually did start the war.

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm aware there are some people who would say that.

Q: On Saddam Hussein again, would you just review the evidence for a moment, that on the one hand he is alive and well, and on the other, that he is either seriously wounded or dead? What are the pieces of evidence for you to look at?

MR. FLEISCHER: It just comes down to, we don't know. We don't know if he is alive or if he is dead. The ways that you would know is if you would see him in a live broadcast. If he was alive, if he showed something contemporaneous, if he would speak about an event that just took place that day, or the night before, then you might have information that he is alive and said something contemporaneous. We have not seen that, but we don't know. Proof that he would be dead would be if you saw a body. We don't -- we haven't -- we don't know.

Q: Ari, it's no secret that the President really doesn't like to see shows of disunity amongst his leadership, at least public shows of that. You had a war plan, everybody signed off on it. We now have had days in which people inside the military and outside the military have raised questions about troop levels, et cetera. Does the President find that counterproductive, and has he asked anybody to cut it out?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think that General Myers expressed it, and I think very articulately today, and I really don't have anything to add beyond that. I can't explain anything that any unnamed colonel says to a newspaper. There are many, many, many, many colonels out there. One unnamed one happened to say something. Is that indicative of a wider school of thought? I think General Myers expressed that view.

Q: But did the -- but does the President find it irritating? I mean, everybody signed off on this, you're in the middle of a war, and whether they're named or not named, the chatter is out there.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President does his work with the military leaders and the military planners, the people who are hard at work on winning the war. And that's where his focus is, and that's who he talks to, and that's why he's as satisfied as he is.

Q: Did the President ask General Myers to make the kind of definitive remarks that he made today?

MR. FLEISCHER: I have no idea.

Q: Ari, is the White House getting any complaints or concerns being expressed about -- from the Republicans on the Hill, that the way the war is going so far might be impacting them politically?

MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing that I've heard of, and I've been in many of the meetings with members of the Congress. And I have not heard any of that.

Q: Nothing at all?

MR. FLEISCHER: I have not.

Q: Ari, the Camp LeJeune trip has now been formally announced. I was wondering if you could maybe help explain how this trip is a little different than, for instance, going down to CENTCOM, or going up to a Coast Guard installation at the Port of Philadelphia?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the point the President is making is he is visiting many of the places that are involved in Operation Iraqi Liberation. And this is why the President thinks it's so important to go and express the country's support for, not only the servicemen and women who are fighting for us, but also their families, who are making tremendous sacrifices with their loved ones being away. And the President thinks it's very important for him, as both President and Commander-in-Chief, to spend time with the military and with their families and to speak to the nation. They are the ones fighting this war.

Q: Will there be a specific time set aside for families, in addition to the address?

MR. FLEISCHER: We'll give you scheduled updates, yes.

Q: Do you anticipate that that's something that may be in the works?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, we'll have more for you closer to the trip.

Q: Ari, one of the problems that the administration has had in selling this war, particularly overseas, is doubts about our motives regarding Iraqi oil. And the President has said repeatedly that it is a resource that belongs to the Iraqi people, that they'll derive the benefits from it once this is over. But Prime Minister Blair has put together a proposal to have the U.N. administer, essentially, an Iraqi oil trust. Is that something that you can talk to us about?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the U.N. does administer an Iraqi oil trust right now.

Q: No, I mean in the post-war set-up, a very controlled circumstance to make sure that the Iraqi people --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the U.N. just passed something like that. The U.N. passed something that the oil money that Iraq does receive currently and will still receive today and tomorrow is controlled by the United Nations under the Oil For Food program. That remains an United Nations program. The President was gratified that the United Nations passed it once again. But certainly, down the road, the President sees a day when sanctions will be lifted and the Iraqi people will be free to have all their resources at their own disposal.

Q: Ari, can I ask you about something that Secretary Rumsfeld alluded to, rumors of negotiations between someone in the coalition and the Iraqi regime? Where are these rumors coming from?

MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I don't know the exact rumor that he was citing, but this is a town of many of rumor. Perhaps, one of the DOD reporters is asking that follow-up to Secretary Rumsfeld in his briefing now. But I don't know which rumor exactly he cited, but I think the answer is what's most instructive.

Q: Two questions. One, what does the President expect Powell to get out of the Turkey trip?

MR. FLEISCHER: The visit to Turkey is meant to discuss with a NATO ally United States-Turkish relations. We are pleased with the fact that Turkey has honored what it told us it would do. It said it would not cross the border; it has not. Despite many a rumor that said they had or they would, they have not. And the Secretary of State is going to talk to Turkey about the importance of that continuing to be the practice, which, indeed, Turkey has done. And we enjoy important bilateral relations with Turkey. They remain a NATO ally.

Q: Also you pointed out that Saddam was a no-show today, talked about you don't know how he's feeling. Torrie Clarke said that we've seen neither hide nor hair of him. Is the administration essentially daring the regime to prove Saddam is alive?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, Bill, I just think it's appropriate today, given the fact that -- certainly my phones lit up and there was a lot of interest around the White House and here in terms of what I received from the press corps, about what everybody saw on the bottom of their screen, "Saddam to appear live at noon." Well, he didn't.

Q: Are you taking some measure of satisfaction that it has not been able to produce him?

MR. FLEISCHER: It is what it is. Either he's alive or he's dead. Either which way, his regime will be disarmed and his regime won't last.

Q: There have been reports in the Canadian press that the President might be reconsidering his May 5 visit. Does he still plan to go?

MR. FLEISCHER: It remains a scheduled item, and if there are any updates, we'll keep you updated. But it's on the schedule and I haven't heard otherwise.

Q: Ari, on the issue of the Supreme Court today, many are protesting primarily some of what the President is talking about in his amicus brief filing. What are your thoughts as to some of the protesters who say many in the military, 50 to 57 percent of the military that are fighting in Iraq are minorities and, when they come back, indeed, affirmative action could be changed, they wouldn't be able to go to the University of Michigan, and the fact that they're laying down their lives possibly for this country?

MR. FLEISCHER: There's not a connection. We are a nation of laws, and that's why we have a Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court makes its judgments on the basis of law and the two sides that have presented to it, and that is the process that the Supreme Court is in the middle of now. They don't make their judgments about any segment of the population involving one important endeavor or another important endeavor; they make their decisions based on the laws presented in a courtroom.

Q: If I can follow up on that. It's no -- it's no surprise if the administration got 9 percent of the African American vote in the last election, and you're looking for a larger percentage of the black vote come the next election. But could you tell me this: do you think that it's a slap in the face to African Americans that this amicus brief came out the way it did, and especially on Dr. King's birthday? Many are still upset about that.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think that the timing of it, of course, was dictated by the timing that the Court gave for amicus briefs to be filed and for the Justice Department to weigh-in. And they did. The President made the speech, very public speech on January 15th and expressed his thoughts about this matter, and now it's in the hands of justice.

Q: Ari, besides the fact that Saddam didn't show up for the speech today, what did you make of the rhetoric? What did you make of the message that the Information Ministry delivered?

MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing new, nothing original. More rhetoric of a regime that is losing its grip on power.

Q: The call for a jihad, the call to fight them to the death, that sort of thing?

MR. FLEISCHER: More rhetoric by a regime that's losing its grip on power.

Q: On the Arab-Israeli conflict, there was a major co-Israeli conference that just ended. And the majority opinion there was that this road map is a non-starter, that it's just a sop to appease certain parties. Is there any realistic hope for passage of a road map --

MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely. And it's something that was stressed to the delegates at that conference, it's something that was very important to the President. The President has said that the road map is a very important document that will be presented to the Israelis and the Palestinians in a formal sense shortly, upon the confirmation of Abu Mazen. And it remains a very important way forward for the two sides to start to see a way forward in terms of real, practical, on-the-ground actions on the political side and on the security side.

Q: I think it's fair to say that the last few trips that the President has made have been with a military security bubble. Are there any plans for him to venture out more directly, into a public space where people who have strong feelings one way or the other would be able to attend and see him --

MR. FLEISCHER: I assure you -- and those who travel the motorcade route, you're familiar with this -- it doesn't matter where he's going; people are free to come out on the roads and give him the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down, and they do. Presidents are always greeted by protesters -- and that doesn't matter whether he's going to a military facility. Or Philadelphia, yesterday, of course, he drove through Philadelphia's main streets to get to the place he was going. There was a smattering of protesters there, some for him, some against him.

Q: Ari, in any of the various TV appearances of Saddam Hussein on Iraqi TV, has the White House seen any evidence whatsoever that he has mentioned anything that has occurred since the war began?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, there is nothing that I could point to. There are some generalized statements, of course, that were made that were rather vague enough to be anticipated statements. But nothing more concrete that anybody could report.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.

END 3:00 P.M. EST

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

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