Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer - March 20, 2003
For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 20, 2003
Press Briefing by Ari
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
Makeup of coalition of the willing
Status of Saddam Hussein/videotape
Relations with Russia
President's role in mission
Opening strike/effect on overall plan
Burning of oil wells
Benchmarks of success of mission
Financial cost of war
President's phone calls
Security of the American people
Role for the United Nations
Length of war/President's remarks
When the President decided to go to war
Executive order on assassination
Strategic Petroleum Reserve/energy supplies
12:32 P.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I'd like to give you a report on the President's day, and then take whatever questions may be on your mind.
The President began today when he received a 6:00 a.m. phone call from his National Security Advisor providing him with an overnight update on events in Iraq. The President arrived at the Oval Office at 6:55 a.m. Upon arrival he later had his intelligence briefing, followed by an FBI briefing. He met with the Secretary of Defense. As we speak he is having lunch with the Vice President.
He will convene a Cabinet meeting later today, at which the President will welcome the pool. The President at the Cabinet meeting will discuss the developments in Iraq, remind the Cabinet of the importance of this mission, of disarming Saddam Hussein. And he will also, on the domestic front, remind the Cabinet Secretaries of the importance of pushing ahead with a busy and important domestic agenda, even in the middle of international events.
Tonight the President will meet with the President of Cameroon in the Oval Office, and he will have dinner with the President of Cameroon.
Before I take your questions, there's one item I would like to point out to you. The President would like to thank the growing number of nations that have joined in the coalition of the willing to disarm Saddam Hussein. As of today, there are more than 35 countries currently committed to the coalition, and that number is growing. Contributions from nations include direct military participation; logistical, intelligence and political support; specialized chemical and biological response teams; over-flight rights; and humanitarian and other aid.
Nations include -- and this is just a partial list -- Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom. Turkey, of course, today in their parliament, voted to grant over-flight rights to the United States and to the coalition.
It's no accident that many members of this coalition recently escaped from tyranny and oppression and they understand what is at stake in bringing freedom and liberation to the Iraqi people, as the mission of disarmament continues. All told, the population of coalition of the willing is approximately 1.18 billion people around the world. The coalition countries have a combined GDP of approximately $21.7 trillion. Every major race, religion and ethnic group in the world is represented. The coalition includes nations from every continent on the globe. And for this, the President is grateful.
And I'm happy to take your questions. Ron.
Q Has Saddam Hussein or any of his leadership been killed or captured?
MR. FLEISCHER: Any questions dealing with anything operational will, as was the routine in 1991, has been made clear on many occasions, be addressed by the Pentagon, not by the White House.
Q Is there any indication that Saddam Hussein will accept exile, and is that offer still on the table?
MR. FLEISCHER: We continue to hope that Saddam Hussein will leave Iraq. We continue to hope that Iraqi generals will not follow orders. It is not too late for them to do that. It is very important, and the President has said, that Iraqi generals, Iraqi troops lay down their arms and not engage in combat. This is not their battle, this is not their war. This is a war to disarm the Iraqi regime from its weapons of mass destruction. It would be a welcome event if Saddam Hussein were still to flee.
Q Was the mission a success, in general terms?
MR. FLEISCHER: Ron, here in the very early days, the earliest hours of the disarmament mission, I'm not going to provide a play-by-play coverage of it. The President has every confidence, as the American people do, in the men and women of our military to achieve their objective, which is to disarm the Iraqi regime. He has every confidence that will be done. But I'm just not, as a general matter of principle, going to provide a daily and nightly tick-tock like that. But when I say the President has every confidence, it's for good reason.
Q Ari, you've emphasized the support that the coalition is getting, but there's been substantial criticism, as well, particularly from President Putin of Russia. What's your response?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, the President is very gratified by the growing list of nations that support the coalition's efforts. The differences that the President has had, and the United States has, with a few other nations are well-known. There is nothing new to that. The President understands and respects the opinions of leaders like President Putin. Nevertheless, that will not deter the United States and the coalition of the willing from disarming the Iraqi regime.
Q Is it going to damage U.S.-Russian relations?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think in the many conversations that President Bush has had President Putin, the two of them have stressed that, while on this issue they disagree about whether the use of force is appropriate to disarm Saddam Hussein, relations between the United States and Russia are too important for anybody to let them be damaged. The President doesn't believe they will be, no.
Q Ari, you noted that Turkey had granted over-flight rights. What did we offer Turkey in exchange for over-flight rights? And Turkish troops are now moving into Northern Iraq. Are they working with U.S. in Northern Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: In terms of Turkey, this was a vote put to their parliament. Their parliament voted for it. Turkey, of course, is a NATO country and a NATO ally. Previously, there had been discussion of a package of aid for Turkey that was contingent on Turkey's acceptance of a total cooperation package. That did not develop, and that package is not on the table, and that package will not be on the table. So we appreciate Turkey's acting as they have. I have nothing for you on the second part of your question.
Q Can I just ask on a different subject, with the war having begun, you said that this is essentially in the hands of the military planners, that most of the day-to-day stuff you'll refer to the Department of Defense. But to what extent is the President involved in decision-making on operational issues?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has given the military the broad parameters, and of course, the definition of the mission. And the mission is the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. The President then delegates to the Department of Defense the operational details of how best to accomplish that mission. The President monitors it very closely. The President speaks, as you know, repeatedly throughout the day, in the private meetings that I mentioned, with Secretary Rumsfeld. He receives updates from the National Security Advisor throughout the day, as well, to ascertain whatever facts are the latest. He asks questions to verify what progress is being made, and that's the President's role.
Q But they no longer -- the military no longer would require a final go-ahead from the President now that things have begun?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, there is a war plan that has been developed over a considerable period of time that the President was involved with the stages of the development of it, the approval of it throughout those stages, and now that plan is being implemented.
Q What's the current assessment of the White House about that videotape shown in Baghdad shortly after the strike of Saddam Hussein or someone looking very much like him speaking to the Iraqi people?
MR. FLEISCHER: We have reached no conclusions about that videotape as to whether that is or is not Saddam Hussein, or what time that may or may not have been prerecorded. We have reached no conclusions.
Q So there's a doubt as to whether or not that's even Saddam?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, obviously, there are two issues in play: Is it Saddam Hussein, or not? We've reached no conclusions. Was it pretaped, precanned? We've reached no conclusions.
Q And then on Turkey, did you just tell Campbell that Turkish forces may be entering Iraq --
MR. FLEISCHER: Campbell said to me that Turkish forces were entering Iraq. I said to her I have nothing on that.
Q Is part of the agreement with Turkey that they will be under the unified commander structure of the coalition?
MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing has changed from any of our previous conversations on it.
Q Could you walk us through the execute order last night, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me back up one step. I've been getting many questions from the press, as is appropriate at a time like this for what the press calls tick-tock, or what people understand as tell us everything that happened and every step along the way, how decisions were made, which, of course, is an issue of very important historical value. As you can imagine, the military planners -- Secretary Rumsfeld, Dr. Rice, the Vice President -- the people who are in the room with the President for these meetings are focused on other things right now. They are focused on winning a war. That's their first mission and that's where their time is being spent.
I have confidence that at the appropriate time, we will have sufficient information to pass along, more of a tick-tocky nature that is appropriate and is important, and it's the White House determination to try to provide it. But at this point, I'm very constrained in how much details I can get into as a result of what the principals are spending their time on.
Q Ari, does the President have any second thoughts about whether by launching a limited opportunistic strike last night against the Iraqi leadership, he gave up any of the element of surprise of the main attack or complicated its execution in any way?
MR. FLEISCHER: I believe your words were, limited opportunistic strike. The President's words were, the opening phase of disarmament. And that's how the President views this. This was the opening phase, the early stages of disarmament, as part of a broad mission whose goal is the disarmament of the Iraqi regime. And in that mission, the President has every confidence that it will be achieved. So the answer is, no.
Q Both the President and Secretary Rumsfeld over the last few days have warned the Iraqis against sabotaging, destroying oil wells. Secretary Rumsfeld suggested this morning that that, in fact, was happening. To what degree do you have concerns that that would complicate your ability to finance reconstruction efforts there, and more generally, what efforts are you making to reach out to other countries at this point to pay for reconstruction there?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me make several points on the question of the situation involving energy and this action that we have seen. We have received reports from our forces that a small number of oil wells in Southern Iraq are on fire. We have no additional details or no information on the extent of the damage. And the exact nature of the extent of the damage is a terribly important thing when it comes to actually determining if this is a serious event or a not as serious event.
The United States and its international partners anticipated that Saddam Hussein's regime might attempt acts of sabotage against oil wells. By doing so, Saddam Hussein is trying to destroy the wealth of his own people, and once again showing the world that he lies, because if you recall in a recent interview that Saddam Hussein did with CBS News, he was asked if he would take this step, and he said he would not, that the Iraqi regime does not burn its own oil wells. Clearly we have some evidence already this morning, a small number of cases, to the contrary, which is a reminder of what this war is about, the very fact that Saddam Hussein will lie. And the issue is, his lies about his possession of weapons of mass destruction.
World energy supplies are more than adequate to compensate for any disruption these acts may cause. Saudi Arabia and other major energy suppliers have increased production and their exports are proceeding normally in this regard.
Q And on the issue of reconstruction costs --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's impossible to make any estimations based on this action. As I mentioned, it's a small number of wells. And the extent of the damage is not ascertainable at this time.
Q Ari, what are the President's benchmarks for success in this campaign?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's benchmark for success is the disarmament of the Iraqi regime. That is what has brought the world to war, in this case. What has precipitated the use of force was Saddam Hussein's refusal to go along with the United Nations resolutions that required him to disarm. And in this action, the United States is enforcing the resolutions of the United Nations.
Q How will you know when disarmament has occurred?
MR. FLEISCHER: It will be a series of military events that you are now witnessing. And you will be kept informed throughout the progress of those events.
Q What about Saddam Hussein?
MR. FLEISCHER: You'll be kept informed of the progress of all events, including the leadership structure of Iraq.
Q No, I'm sorry, what I meant was, what has to happen to him, what has -- to his status -- for this campaign to be a success?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the focus is on disarmament. And disarmament is achieved as a result of numerous military actions that are being taken. And command and control is one of those actions that gets taken in the course of combat. And I'm not going to go beyond that and make any predictions of outcomes for any individuals.
Q Ari, I had two questions. First on Saddam Hussein, in response to Helen's question, you said the administration would still welcome it if he left Iraq. Is that a reflection that it is at least the early belief that he survived last night attacks? And if Saddam Hussein or anyone in the senior leadership requested safe passage, is it too late for that now that hostilities have begun? Or would the United States --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, you should not read my answer to be one way or another on anything involving bomb damage assessment. As you know, bomb damage assessment is ongoing. And you should not take that answer to be one way or another. You should take that answer to be a repetition of the statement that's been made often here about Saddam Hussein should leave the country.
Q And on the question of safe passage, if he or anyone in the senior leadership suddenly requested it now, would the United States say, yes, or would the United States say, too late?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, if Iraqi leaders turn themselves in, that would be a very welcome event.
Q Turn themselves in -- that's not safe passage.
MR. FLEISCHER: Turn themselves in or leave the country. Requesting safe passage means you're turning yourself in, in essence, because you are contacting somebody for the permission to pass through. Any step that would remove Saddam Hussein from power will be welcome.
Q Ari, I have a follow-up to Mike's question, and then I have a separate one. Are you saying that regime change -- I assume you're saying remains the policy goal in this campaign.
MR. FLEISCHER: One thing you can rest assure of is after a military action is taken to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime, we have no intention of leaving Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq.
Q And the President said two weeks ago that once hostilities began, he would inform the American people or Congress on the range of possible costs, financial costs.
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct.
Q When can we expect that?
MR. FLEISCHER: No date has been set. It is a matter that is under review, and once a determination is made it will be provided.
Q I would like to talk for a moment, if we could, about the President's role in the general planning for this. We have had the general idea that the President had already given the go-ahead to the military, authorized them to move at their discretion when the circumstances were best, is that accurate?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q But in this case, he had to be involved in making the decision and giving the execute order for this particular operation for what happened last night. What did the President have to be involved in that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think you're going to see in the course of combat numerous operations of various natures take place. There will be many discussions here at the White House. I do my best to give you a description of the meetings that the President has without getting into the details of those meetings. And it's during the course of those meetings that the President is informed about progress in the military action. And the President is informed; the President lends his judgment. And there are different matters that require different levels of approval, and if all -- it's a matter of the ongoing conduct of the operation.
Q In other words, in this particular case, the timing and the nature of the operation required presidential approval that would not have been required just for the beginning of the war, as it had been planned for some time?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, there will be numerous items in the conduct of the war that involve operations at differing levels. Some of those levels may involve discussions or approval from the President; others may not.
Q Can you give us some sense of to what extent the information that was received last night that prompted this particular mission jumped the schedule that had been anticipated and planned?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I'm really not going to get into any type of operational decision-making or timing issues, things of that nature. That's not something that I can do.
Q First of all, do you have any readout on phone calls?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President has been making a large number of phone calls over the last several days now, to leaders all around the world. He has reached out to leaders in every corner of the world, from a number of Arab leaders, who are important, to leaders in other nations and other continents. It's a very large volume of calls between yesterday and today. I did not bring with me the specific list of all those calls. It's a large number today.
Q Can you post it, as is your policy, to let us know?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, let me see what I can do on providing more specifics later. And the calls are still ongoing, too.
Q And the point of the calls?
MR. FLEISCHER: The point of the calls is to touch base with world leaders about the military operation, to talk to them about the purpose of the mission -- the purpose of the mission being, as we've discussed, the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Q Now, we know, in hindsight, as we all saw on TV last night, we know how the President opened this war. Why did he open it this way? There are many ways you could do it. Why this way?
MR. FLEISCHER: Jean, that's a question that gets right to military recommendations. Why did the President follow the recommendations of the military? He followed the recommendations of his national security team because he believes those recommendations are the best way to win the war and to disarm Saddam Hussein. He relies on their judgment and expertise. He lends his thoughts to it, and the action was taken.
Q But what was his expectation? I mean, this is a done deal, we all know what it is, it's not a secret. What was his expectation?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's expectation of all actions military will be to pursue the disarmament of the Iraqi regime. That's what this is about. The reason war has been brought upon us is because Saddam Hussein refused to disarm. This did not have to unfold this way. The President gave Saddam Hussein every opportunity to disarm the way other nations have disarmed when they wanted to disarm. And that meant complying with the United Nations resolutions. Saddam Hussein failed to avail himself of that opportunity, and then, therefore, he brought this upon himself. And pursuance of this will now be done through military operations, and the President's only objective in making determinations about which military plans are best is what will lead to the disarmament of the regime.
Q But did the President hope that a strike at the leadership of the Iraqi military and government would, in fact, disassemble the military and make the operation either end soon -- end quicker, or go easier if he could not have the leadership?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, there are millions of Iraqis who are yearning to be free. There are many who are in the military and other places of importance in the Iraqi regime who, if they had freedom, would make different decisions. It's the leadership level at the top that has imposed this tyranny on Iraq and has brought the world to the point of the use of force. Clearly, the world will be better off without these leaders in place. This is all part of the conduct of war.
Q Just to close the loop on Jean's question, that was his expectation for last night's mission; was it fulfilled?
MR. FLEISCHER: As you know, all bomb damage assessment is being reviewed by the Pentagon and appropriate authorities.
Q Wait, wait, one more question, please. Can you tell us why Rand Beers has resigned his position as the National Security Council's Chief of --
MR. FLEISCHER: He informed the National Security Council that he would leave for personal reasons.
Q Which were -- was his departure connected in any way with his feeling that the beginning of a war against Iraq would undermine the mission --
MR. FLEISCHER: I see no evidence that would support that. He has informed the National Security it was for personal reasons.
Q Ari, do you read anything into the Iraqi response thus far to the attack? I mean, they fired a couple of scuds and apparently set fire to a couple of oil wells.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that's a question best addressed to military analysts. I see any large number of them on TV. (Laughter.) I think that's not a question that I can answer for you.
Q But you see, when we quote those analysts, you usually criticize us for not going to the people who know. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: On this case, I refer you to the Pentagon. (Laughter.)
Q Ari, do you have anything new on the timetable for bringing supplemental up to --
MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing new since Ed asked the question just a few minutes ago.
Q Yesterday, Secretary Ridge suggested that there will be money for homeland security. Can you give us an idea what kind of figures the White House is working with at this point?
MR. FLEISCHER: There will, indeed, be money for homeland security in the supplemental appropriation bill that will be sent up to the Congress. The amount of that money will be discussed when the supplemental is sent to the Hill.
Q Ari, a couple of things. Secretary Rumsfeld this morning, and you, have said that the coalition continues to grow. But, frankly, many of these countries aren't in the position to offer an awful lot of military hardware or military resources. We know that they're offering some logistical support here and there -- chemical and bio weapons hazard treatment and training, things like that. But are there any nations besides the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia that are providing direct military assets, personnel equipment, things like that?
And, the second question, can this war be considered a success, ultimately, if Saddam Hussein is not either captured or killed? Because one of the rationales going into it has been the possibility and likelihood that he, one day, would team up with terrorists and share with them weapons of mass destruction. The Middle East is a very volatile region. If he's able to escape somewhere, a man of his resources with the kind of contacts the U.S. government insists he has, wouldn't he then still be able to make that kind of exchange that the White House has been so afraid of all along?
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, two points. Interestingly, while, again, there are, indeed, a large number -- and this gets to the political issue about is there international support for the actions the United States has taken, which is a terribly important issue. Does the United States have allies in the endeavor as a measure of political support, stated expressed opinion from governments around the world? The answer is overwhelmingly, yes, representing more than one billion people on all continents around the world.
In terms of the combat alone equation -- and I remind you, you can't have combat if you don't have over-flight rights, if you don't have basing rights, et cetera. So it's really a broad issue.
Q But in '91 --
MR. FLEISCHER: But narrowing it down to exactly the issue of comment, which is only one slice of how to measure the world's involvement, in terms of actual combat operations, boots on the ground, it's interesting because to lay out the comparison, in 1991, the United States provided in the mid-70s the percentage of the armed forces in the region, itself. In this endeavor, the percentage is a little bit higher, but not much. It's comparable, it's mid-80s. And so what you can see is, when the decision is made to engage in combat like this, like in 1991, or here in 2003, the fact of the matter is the United States of America does provide the overwhelming bulk of the support for the operation. That's what a reflection about the capabilities, the size of our military.
The President is very, very pleased to have the operations of other nations in the world, both in military sense, in terms of the over-flight rights. There are nations that have provided chemical and biological training units. They are small in number, but they are important in terms of the measurement of those countries' commitment to this cause. And so the numbers really are not that far off from what it's been before. But the numbers of the coalition, I think, are large and are growing. That's important, to recognize the coalition of the willing is growing. And I'm not sure I can say that about the opposition in this case.
On the second point you asked about if Saddam were to leave the country, would he be able to -- the issue is the weapons that Iraq possesses and whether Iraq would pass those weapons off to terrorists. I think it's safe to say that anybody who would leave the nation would not be able to leave with those weapons.
Q So you're ruling out the possibility --
MR. FLEISCHER: The risk is that a regime led by people like Saddam Hussein would continue to work to build weapons, which then, because they are in power, they have the covert ability to pass those weapons on to others. That's the purpose of the mission.
Q I guess, my question is, though, if he were to somehow get away, wouldn't there be the possibility, wouldn't there be the fear certainly within the CIA and the FBI that he still had access --
MR. FLEISCHER: That he would carry a nuclear weapon with him?
Q No, no, that he --
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not sure that's --
Q No, I mean, let's be realistic. The man has a network within his own country. It will take a while to dismantle that. And wouldn't it be possible and, in fact, more than possible that he could maintain contact with people who had these weapons and that they could somehow be transferred to terrorist groups?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think one of the purposes of the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's regime is to dismantle the networks that supported him in the building or in the transfer of those weapons.
Q Ari, if the United States is at war, and if you assert that the United States has the right to target the Iraqi leader and his inner circle as part of command and control, does that make the President and the White House a legitimate target for Iraqis?
MR. FLEISCHER: Somebody -- a reporter asked me that question a few weeks ago and my answer this is my answer now; you can tell anybody who wants to know the answer to that to get their own international lawyer, I won't do it for them.
Q I ask you in general terms -- obviously, we're seeing tremendous security around here -- is the President confident in his own safety here?
MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely.
Q Okay -- can I ask one more thing, Ari. Just in general terms, that's a fear, obviously, that Americans, in general, have in terms of their own security. We've seen the terror level go up to orange. Is there any thought that now that war has actually begun that that might change sometime in the near future?
MR. FLEISCHER: That is always a daily determination about whether it goes up or it goes down. There's nothing that's been brought to my attention that would indicate it's going to do either of the above.
As far as the security and the comfort of the American in their homes and in their places of business, the President understands that for many people in this nation this can be a tense time. The President understands that. And he's very sensitive and caring about that. The President is
confident that the steps that have been put in place by the Department of Homeland Security, the improvements made to homeland security since September 11th are effective. But there are no guarantees. But the President does believe that one of the most important, effective ways to protect Americans in the homeland is to stop attacks abroad before they can gather on our own shores. And the biggest threat that we worried about in the case of Saddam Hussein was that if the world allowed him to, if the world sat on the sidelines, Saddam Hussein would, indeed, one day bring those weapons to our shore to attack our people. This action is taken to protect our people so that day never arrives.
Q Ari, now, within 24 hours of the war, more and more people -- more and more countries are joining the United States against Saddam Hussein, including many from the Arab countries. Now, what is the reaction from the more Muslim countries in the area now -- so what role the United Nations will play in this war?
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, it's not my role to speak for the other nations in the region, Muslim or otherwise. They are sovereign; they speak for themselves. In terms of the role of the United Nations, I think that's an issue that's broken into two parts. Regrettably, the United States was not able to enforce its resolutions requiring Saddam Hussein to disarm. And as a result of the importance of the United Nations and the importance of the resolutions they passed calling for disarmament, force has been used to make certain that those resolutions are meaningful. The President is disappointed that the United Nations Security Council failed to act to keep the peace.
Looking ahead toward the future, there is indeed a very important role for the United Nations in the humanitarian efforts and the reconstruction efforts that lie ahead. That is, indeed, important. The United Nations has fulfilled that role in all corners around the world with ability in the past, and the President will look to them to do that again in the future.
Q Ari, you talked about the coalition growing. Have any nations joined since the war began last night, or are we sort of locked in at the number that we had prior to the hostilities commencing?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think it's fair to say the list is growing.
Q Can you name any?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have a list. Let me see what I can do about disseminating the entire list of it. I'd like to be able to do that.
Q A follow-up. You said that it's no accident that a lot of these countries were recently under tyranny and oppression, they escaped tyranny and oppression. Do you think countries like France have forgotten what it's like to live under tyranny and oppression.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think countries in Eastern Europe that are so supportive of this effort remember what it was like to live under tyranny and oppression. And that's one of the reasons they have been so stalwart in standing shoulder-to-shoulder on behalf of the cause of freedom. They knew what it was like to live under the thumb of others. They see in the Iraqi people a history that they, themselves, suffered through recently. And from that, that is a reason that their support is so strong for this endeavor.
The President remembers fondly going to the streets -- going to Romania, for example, and on the streets of Romania were hundreds of thousands of Romanians cheering the United States of America and cheering the message of President Bush when he went there. The President will never forget that.
Q Ari, I don't have the exact quote in front of me, but the President last night took the opportunity to warn the public that this conflict may take a little bit longer than has been predicted. I wanted to know what moved him to ask that, since the administration has made no predictions? And how long does he think the public's perception of this conflict will last?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, the President did think it was important to say to the country that we do not know what the duration of this will be, we do not know how hard it will be, but he wants to prepare the country for the possibility. We hope it will not be the case. But the President wants to prepare the country for the possibility that this may be longer and harder than some have suggested. That's why the President said it.
Q Well, who has suggested it would be quick and easy that he was referring to assuage the feelings of the public?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there are any number of analysts, again, who have their own opinions and are free to express them.
Q Ari, over the last few days, there were several steps leading up to this moment. Obviously, the President was in the Azores. He gave Saddam the 48-hour deadline Monday night. He notified Congress on Tuesday. At what point in this process did the President become convinced that all options, short of war, had actually been exhausted?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that the process began for the President when the will of the United Nations was not followed by Saddam Hussein. And that played itself out over a considerable period of time. The fact of the matter is that if Saddam Hussein had wanted to disarm, he would have disarmed on the first day the inspectors got to Iraq, by showing them and providing them the weapons that he had. Instead, he engaged in a game of hide-and-seek, hiding the weapons that he had, calling the weapons that he has, such as the Al Samoud II missiles -- if you remember in that same interview that he carried out with CBS, he denied in that interview that he had weapons that violated the United Nations resolutions prohibiting weapons of -- ballistic missiles in excess of 150 kilometers.
So throughout that period, the President saw that Saddam Hussein was not complying, that Saddam Hussein was continuing to possess the arms that he had. That led over time to the period that it has brought us to now. I think that the chances grew slimmer and slimmer in the President's mind that this could be resolved peacefully the more Saddam Hussein defied the United Nations. The final decisions were made -- plans were made developed, of course, as you know. I think the final decisions, of course, to use force were made only recently.
Q Was there a point where the President said, that's it, we have nothing left?
MR. FLEISCHER: There was really no one sharp demarcation. It was the process of watching Saddam Hussein defy the United Nations.
Q Ari, since this issue is going to come up probably repeatedly until Saddam's fate is known, why do you see questions about that as operational when getting rid of him one way or the other is the President's ultimate goal?
MR. FLEISCHER: Right. And again, I want to express my sympathy to the White House press corps. I understand your desire to get the operational, even at the most important aspects, answered --
Q I'm just asking why you see that as operational.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I'm going to give you the answer to that. The fact of the matter is, whether a target is, as Secretary Rumsfeld said this morning, leadership, command and control, or whether it is a military target on a battlefield, it is a question of the bomb damage assessment that must be done in order to determine the outcome of a military operation, no matter what the target of a military operation. That is the purview of the Pentagon. That was the precedent that was established in 1991 in terms of operational details being discussed by the Pentagon. That's the course that the President thinks is the most appropriate way to share information with the American people now.
Those are important questions. Those are questions that deserve answers. That's why the Pentagon is set up to provide them.
Q Again, for the record, a question that's come up before, what's the status of the executive order banning the U.S.-backed assassination of foreign leaders?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have been informed of no changes in that. But, of course, we are in the middle now of military conflict. And as General Myers said this morning, in military conflict, command and control are legitimate targets.
Q Ari, you said one of the messages to the Cabinet today is to keep your eye on the ball as far as the domestic agenda goes. You guys lost a close vote on ANWR yesterday; a big tax cut fight looms; the economic is still struggling along. Realistically, how will the President be able to carve out enough time for these kinds of issues, given the huge demands as Commander-in-Chief -- having gone to war?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, two points: One is it is wise and it is appropriate, and the President believes and hopes that it should be continued that the Congress continue its efforts on the domestic agenda. Congress should not pause. Congress needs to continue its progress for the American people to create jobs and economic opportunities, to promote energy independence, to improve education, all while military conflict is underway. The President believes that continues to be terribly important.
Interestingly, throughout this process -- and I've reported this to you throughout this week -- the President has daily briefings on domestic affairs, what is pending in the Congress. That continues to be an important area. He spends considerable time in the Oval Office. And a fair portion of that time is devoted to domestic matters, as well.
Q Ari, has the President had any private meetings or any meetings with any religious or spiritual advisors in the last 24 or 48 hours about this?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know, and it's not my practice to ask the President about his personal faith or how he would practice it.
Q Ari, given the reports of these fires in the oil fields in Iraq, why hasn't the administration tapped the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is intended for emergencies like this? If not now, at what point? What price does oil have to go to, or how low does the price have to get before they would tap those reserves?
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay. Again, I do want to just remind you about what the facts are as we are able to ascertain them in what's a changing situation. But the facts are that it is a small number of oil wells, and it's unclear about what the extent of the damage is. So, just to frame it right.
I do want to draw your attention to two statements that have been made about the energy supply situation. These came out earlier this morning. This is from the International Energy Association, which exists for the purpose of monitoring energy supplies around the world, and maintains a reserve of some 1.2 billion barrels of oil, including some 599 million barrels of oil -- million barrels of oil here in the United States.
"With the initiation of military operations in Iraq, we are monitoring developments as they relate to the supply of oil to oil markets. We are in close communication with our member countries of major oil producers and with OPEC. Producers are confident that they can keep the market adequately supplied, and we have been assured they will make every effort to do so." That was the statement made by Mr. Claude Mandil, the International Energy Administration's Executive Director, issued this morning.
Another statement I want to draw your attention to is from the Minister of Energy and Industry of the state of Qatar, and the President of the OPEC Conference. This morning, he said, as a result of the consultations they have been in, "As a result of those consultations, I am herewith reiterating OPEC's resolve to make up for any supply shortfall resulting from developing events."
And Saudi Arabia and a number of other nations have stepped up their production and have taken steps to promote stability in the markets. We will continue to monitor events in the markets. The President is pleased to see the actions that have been taken by these producers.
This also is an important time to remind the American people and the Congress about the need to provide more domestic supplies, as well as conservation of energy. That way, America will be more energy-independent.
Q But do you have a level, a price level or some kind of level which would trigger the --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in point of fact, the energy market has been rather stable today. In fact -- I'll leave it to the market analysts, you can talk to them to get the exact path that energy prices took once action became known last night. But the trigger for the administration is the event of a severe supply disruption. We have seen no evidence of a sever supply disruption.
Q As part of the long meeting he had yesterday with his Security Council, did he -- did the President at any point give specific directions in this particular operation to avoid civilian casualties?
MR. FLEISCHER: Throughout the process the President has stressed -- going way back, as the military planning began -- that all actions taken by the military need to be done in a way to minimize civilian casualties. And that is also something the United States military takes very seriously and carries out on their own, as well.
Q I understand that. But in this particular meeting where, presumably, he was reviewing actual operational details, was that part of the thinking? Was that part of the decision-making process?
MR. FLEISCHER: Anne, I don't go into details about specific meetings. That's the President's message; it will apply every day, not just on one day.
Q Does it go into his thinking as he's trying to -- as he was going through this process yesterday? Was that part of --
MR. FLEISCHER: It is an important, ongoing direction that the military pursues.
Q Ari, you said the President was not going to be a play-by-play commentator now that the war has started. Why is that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President is focused on the mission, and the mission is the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. He is going to set his sights on that mission; provide the military the resources that they need to carry out that mission. He will not micromanage it; he will empower the military to accomplish it. And that means he is not going to every day, every way, comment on every different development around the world.
We have set up a structure, through the Pentagon, both in the Gulf and here in Washington, so that these questions can be answered. They need to be answered, they should be answered. You have the appropriate people at your disposal to do it.
Q Ari, Maryland's long-time Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, who is the President's fellow Republican, says of the most recent U.N. action, "If the U.N. was good for anything, it would have been something like this. Since the U.N. was no good for this, maybe they are good for nothing." If we applied one year's United States U.N. dues of $800 million to the cost of this war instead of U.N. dues, doesn't the White House think it would be a better use of all that money, as well as an object lesson to the U.N.? And I have a follow-up.
Q Lester, I already answered a question about the United Nations and shared with you the President's beliefs about this.
MR. FLEISCHER: Finley.
Q Wait a minute, wait a minute.
MR. FLEISCHER: Finley. Lester, we're going to keep moving.
Q I have a follow-up.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's not a follow-up. You have a different question.
Q No, it's on the same subject, Ari.
MR. FLEISCHER: You promise, Lester?
Q I promise.
MR. FLEISCHER: It would be a first.
Q The President himself said the United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours. And my question: Why does the President believe we should pay nearly $1 billion a year to what he recognized as irresponsible, rather than to the cost of our -- rising to our responsibilities?
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, that wasn't a follow-up, it was a repeat. (Laughter.)
Q I'd like to follow up on the question before last. Could you amplify a little bit on how the President is mobilizing the powers of his office for war?
MR. FLEISCHER: Mobilizing the powers of his office?
Q For a wartime presidency.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think if you were to put that question to the President, what he would tell you is, unfortunately, since September the 11th, 2001, this has been a wartime presidency. The fact of the matter is that the war on terrorism, the war on terrorism began September 11th, with the attack on our country. And then the President has, unfortunately, been in the position of authorizing the use of force to protect our country in the actions against the Taliban and the al Qaeda.
This is a continuation in many ways of that effort, because at its core, the President's concern is protecting the American people from the Iraqi regime's possession of biological or chemical weapons, which they could pass on to terrorists, who if they could, would use them against us in our country.
So that is the President's approach to this. In pursuit of that, of course, we are a very fortunate nation to have the millions of people we have in the American military who are so able and so gifted in carrying out this mission. That's how the President would approach it.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.
END 1:15 P.M. EST