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No Deadline Says Bush - White House Press Briefing

White House Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

Q Can we presume that the President is very happy that Mr. Blix says there is no smoking gun in the search for weapons in Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the problem with guns that are hidden is you can't see their smoke. And so we will still await to see what the inspectors find in Iraq and what events in Iraq lead to. The report that we understand was conveyed in the meeting up in New York this morning said that the work of the inspectors is still underway, they continue to gather information. And the report also cited a number of concerns and a number of problems in what Iraq has been doing.

Q But it wouldn't be disappointing, would it, if there were no weapons there?

MR. FLEISCHER: We know for a fact that there are weapons there. And so -- the inspectors also went on –

Q What's the search all about if you know it so factually?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me cite to you what was -- what the inspectors have said at the United Nations. And this if from their reports. "In order to create confidence that it has no more weapons of mass destruction and proscribed activities related to such weapons, Iraq must present credible evidence. It cannot just maintain that it must be deemed to be without proscribed items so long as their is no evidence to the contrary."

Now, continuing in the words of the inspectors, "A person accused of illegal possession of weapons may indeed be acquitted for lack of evidence. But if a state which has used such weapons is to create confidence it no longer has any prohibited weapons, it will need to present solid evidence or present remaining items for elimination under supervision."

And they continue, "If evidence is not presented which gives us a high degree of assurance, there is no way the inspectors can close a file by simply invoking a precept that Iraq cannot prove the negative. In such cases, regrettably, they must conclude, as they have done in the past, that the absence of a particular item is not assured."

So while they've said that there's no smoking gun, they said the absence of it is not assured. And that's the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is Iraq is very good at hiding things.

Q The heart of the problem is there is a lack of confidence in anybody speaking the truth there, isn't that –

MR. FLEISCHER: Are you accusing the inspectors of not speaking the truth when they say that it's not assured?

Q No, I think they're speaking the truth, and the country won't accept it.

MR. FLEISCHER: So when they say the absence of the particular item is not assured, you accept that as the truth. You agree with the President. I'm very proud.

Q I mean, the point is, wouldn't you be happy if there were no weapons there? MR. FLEISCHER: There would be nothing that would make the President happier than there being no weapons in Iraq. And the best way to make certain that there are no weapons in Iraq is for Saddam Hussein to disarm himself of the weapons he has.

Q The inspectors have also said that there's no deadline to their inspections. They need time. Prime Minister Blair has said that they need time and space, that the January 27th report that they'll deliver should not be seen as any kind of deadline. And Secretary Powell said that, as well. Is this an indication that the President is willing to let the inspectors go at this for a good, long while?

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, I've never heard the President put a time line on it. The President wants the inspectors to continue to do exactly what they are doing, which is to do their level best to carry out the search, given the fact that Iraq has thrown up hurdles and isn't complying in all aspects, continuing with what the inspectors have reported in New York.

They cited a number of issues that are real causes for concern by the United States government. And among the things that the inspectors themselves have said are discrepancies and inconsistencies. These deal with special munitions, illegal imports on a relatively large number of missile engines, contradictions involving the chemical agent VX, inadequate response by Iraq to provide the names of all personnel who have been involved in weapons of mass destruction programs. Indeed, the inspectors found that the list that Iraq provided of who has been involved in the weapons of mass destruction programs left out known names of people who have been involved in the weapons of mass destruction programs.

The inspectors themselves have concluded that Iraq failed to make a serious effort to respond to this information that the world has required. Inspections that the IAEA conducted, which the IAEA, per their rights under the U.N. resolution, asked to be conducted in private without any Iraqi minders were rejected. The inspections could only take place if Iraqi minders were in the room -- hardly a welcoming environment if anybody has information that they want to share. And so there were a number of things that were said that still give cause for concern in this report.

Q But is the President willing to give the inspectors the time and the space that they say they need, the months that they say they'll need in order to determine the answer to the question?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I have not heard the President put a time line on it. The President has said that he wants the inspectors -- the President has said that he wants the inspectors to be able to do their jobs, to continue their efforts, and that's what we support.

Q The head of the IAEA said today that the suspect aluminum tubes Iraq has obtained were not used for -- or not suitable for enriching uranium. Do you still maintain that Iraq has an active nuclear weapons program?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let's be clear on what he said. What Mr. ElBaradei has said is, "While the matter is still under investigation and further verification is foreseen -- so it's not a closed matter -- the IAEA's analysis of data indicates that the specifications of the aluminum tubes sought by Iraq in 2001 and 2002 appear to be consistent with the reverse engineering of rockets. While it would be possible to modify such tubes for the manufacture of centrifuges, they are not directly suitable for it. It should be noted, however, that the attempted acquisition of such tubes is prohibited under the United Nations resolutions in any case."

So it remains a cause for concern that they are pursuing acquisition of elements that are banned to them, that have purposes that still can be used for military purposes. And we do have concerns about their potential of developing nuclear programs. As you know, we have always been explicit on this topic. We have always said that we know that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction of a biological nature. We know they have weapons of mass destruction of a chemical nature. We have not said that conclusively about nuclear. We have concerns that they are seeking to acquire and develop them, of course.

Q And do the Blix statement, the ElBaradei statement, do they make it harder for you to persuade world opinion that Iraq is a threat?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think when you hear the list of concerns that Hans Blix and Dr. ElBaradei have delineated about the failure of Iraq to comply fully with all their obligations, it gives ongoing cause for concern to the world. They have said that they have not gotten everything they have sought, they have not gotten everything that they need, that the inspections need to continue. And they also walked the United Nations through how they are now getting more material and more resources themselves so they can better do their jobs, which we were very pleased to hear.

Q Ari, going back to the timetable, you said you've never heard the President lay out a timetable. But he said and you've said that January 27th if a very significant day.

MR. FLEISCHER: That's true.

Q Is it a deadline?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President has not said it's a deadline. The President has said it's –

Q What do you plan to determine by January 27th?

MR. FLEISCHER: We will hear from the inspectors. So we want to hear what the inspectors are able to find about their abilities in Iraq to find and pursue whether or not Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, and to ascertain what type of compliance Iraq has been providing to the inspectors.

Q So your expectation is that they will be able to give you that information in just the next couple of weeks?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's an important reporting date. And we will see what the inspectors have to say in this three-week period.

Q And if they say, we need months more to go do our jobs?

MR. FLEISCHER: I can't speculate. Let's see what they say.

Q Well, presumably, we're not sending thousands of troops to the region, spending millions of dollars deploying them now if the administration is willing to let them sit there and twiddle their thumbs for six months while the inspectors do their job.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the fact is that the presence of the military has an effective influence on diplomacy and making sure that Saddam Hussein understands that he needs to comply, because if he doesn't, the United States has the means and the ability to make him comply.

Q So that's why the troops are there now, to send that message?

MR. FLEISCHER: It certainly does send that message. And the President has said that either Saddam Hussein disarms, or we will disarm him. It's a serious message.

Q Why did Secretary Powell grant permission for the North Koreans to travel? Is there some expectation that this is a breakthrough or could be a breakthrough in easing the tension?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, no, I wouldn't say that. I think he did it because Governor Richardson, a former U.N. Ambassador, made the request and there was no reason to turn it down.

Q On the interviews, one of the problems in the past, according to Blix, is what the concerns of the scientists themselves are. And in fact, in the two cases you referenced the scientists themselves asked for Iraqi government minders, perhaps out of necessity. How do they get around that fact? And what is the U.S. doing to help address some of the logistical concerns that Blix expressed about interviews with scientists, either outside the country or in private?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you've put your finger on one of the ongoing issues that make matters difficult for the inspectors. In fact, the IAEA in its report up in New York continued to say that, the IAEA's efforts to draw such conclusions will be greatly facilitated by the active cooperation of Iraq -- not only in continuing to secure access to locations, but importantly, in providing documentation, making available Iraqi personnel for interview and encouraging them to accept IAEA modalities for such interviews, and providing IAEA with any physical evidence which would assist in reaching its conclusions.

So IAEA has said to the United Nations Security Council that they require more cooperation from Iraq if they are able to make valid judgments about whether Iraq is pursuing nuclear weapons, and they have the tools available to them, per the United Nations' resolution, to interview Iraqi scientists, scientists who aren't on the list that Iraq provided, and to do so in a place and a time where they think they'd be most productive, not necessarily limit it to Iraq.

Q Are there things that the U.S. is doing to facilitate these things? There were logistical problems, as Blix put it, sometime before and we have been led to believe that the U.S. was offering to eliminate any obstacles that might present themselves.

MR. FLEISCHER: Specifically, I don't know the answer to that question. And generally, the answer is, yes, of course, we're working with the inspectors as part of the international community to help them to have the tools to do their job. They also, as I indicated, have new equipment arriving in the country that makes it easier for them to do their jobs.

Q One clarification on the President's stimulus plan, or one question for you on that. Senator Daschle said yesterday that the President's plan is obscene and something for which he should be embarrassed. The partisan lines seem to be pretty well entrenched, at least on part of the President's plan.

MR. FLEISCHER: I suppose you could say that some Democrats have an interesting way of wishing the President a happy new year. The President still is going to work with Democrats on the Hill, despite the fact that there very well may be some Democrats on the Hill who don't want to work with the President, at least on this issue.

Q If I could ask you one other thing –

MR. FLEISCHER: Jim, we're going to keep moving. We're receiving complaints from the back of the room that we haven't been getting to them.

Q That's because you slow down on the first row so much.

MR. FLEISCHER: The second row is slowing me down, too.

Q I'll limit it to two. Is there not a contradiction, on the one hand, for the President to say publicly he will have zero tolerance for Iraqi non-compliance, and for the administration to say the burden is not on the inspectors to find things, the burden is on Iraq to show what happened to its weapons programs -- and then on the other hand, say, as you just said, that even the inspectors say Iraq left out names of scientists known to be working in the weapons program, has not accounted for mustard gas, other chemical agents known to be there in the last violation? Why doesn't the President say, zero tolerance, failed the test?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this is why I began this by saying, taking the broad view about what we learned in New York today. What we learned in New York today gives further concern for people who want to keep peace, because Iraq has failed to comply with the United Nations resolutions. The President has said that he will have zero tolerance for this. The President has also said that Saddam Hussein will have to figure out exactly what zero tolerance means and when he means it.

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