Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer April 22, 2003
For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 22, 2003
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
12:30 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I have no opening statement, so let's take questions. Mr. Fournier.
Q When the President, who appoints the Federal Reserve chairman, says that Alan Greenspan has done a good job and should get another term, can I assume that that means he intends to appoint Alan Greenspan?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we put that out for you because that's what the President said and I thought it would be helpful for you all to know what he said as quickly as possible. The words speak for themselves. I have not asked the President that logical follow-on question. But obviously, the President has given Chairman Greenspan a very strong endorsement, and his words speak for themselves.
Q Do you think they speak loud enough that we can say that the President says that he intends to nominate Alan Greenspan for --
MR. FLEISCHER: My advice to you would be to lean pretty far forward, but you've seen the President's words. It's a specific question I would need to put to the President to give you a precise answer to your specific follow-up.
Q Will you post it later on today?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, let me try to do that.
Q Secondly, Senator Santorum said the other day, in talking about landmark gay rights legislation, quoted, "The Supreme Court says that you have a right to consensual sex within your home, that you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery, you have the right to anything." Does the White House agree with those views?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have not seen the entire context of the interview, and two, I haven't talked to the President about it. So I really don't have anything to offer beyond that.
Q Do you need context?
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't talked to the President about it; I haven't talked to Senator Santorum. So I just don't have anything for you on it.
Q But is the White House satisfied to just let those words fly through the air?
Q They've been out there for a couple days now.
MR. FLEISCHER: I just don't have anything more on it.
Q Well, why -- because you're unaware that he said that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because I've been a little busy focusing on other activities and events, and I haven't talked to the President about it.
Q Perhaps you've been focusing then on the U.N. inspections in Iraq.
MR. FLEISCHER: I have been focusing on that. (Laughter.)
Q You indicated earlier that the U.S. wishes to have the coalition -- that would be mainly us -- look for weapons of mass destruction. Do you see no role for the United Nations weapons inspection teams in a postwar Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President is looking forward, not backward. And we will reassess the framework designed to disarm the Iraqi regime given the new facts on the ground and the fact that the Iraqi regime that created the environment for the inspectors previously to go in no longer exists. We'll work with Security Council members, the United Nations, and our friends and allies on the issue of the post-Saddam Iraq and how best to achieve our mutual goals. But make no mistake about it; the United States and the coalition have taken on the responsibility for dismantling Iraq's WMD.
Q Take it up one step further. In order for the sanctions to end, technically, Iraq has to be certified as free of weapons of mass destruction. Is this something we wish to ignore? Or is this something we want the U.N. to do? Or do we consider the stance of Russia and France, which now are insisting on objections on oil sales to be somewhat, shall we say, cynical?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President called for the removal of sanctions on the Iraqi people because they no longer serve a useful purpose. The sanctions were created to target the Iraqi regime, to deny Saddam Hussein and his henchmen money that he would divert from the oil program to use to build palaces or to buy weapons. Clearly, the sanctions were not very effective because Saddam Hussein continued to benefit from the money that came into his country.
The regime is now history. The sanctions should become history, too, because the Iraqi people need help. And removing the sanctions leads to help for the Iraqi people. And that's what's first and foremost on the President's mind. The sanctions were an action taken against a regime that no longer exists.
Clearly, the United Nations, when they vote on a resolution, they have the power to pass a resolution, given a new reality. That which came before, that no longer exists need no longer bind the United Nations in any future vote that they take. And so we will see what the United Nations does. The President views this as an important issue of humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq, and we hope the United Nations will take the right action.
Q What does the U.S. want the U.N. to do? And will the U.S. sponsor a resolution?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it still is in the early stages. But as the President said last week, we want the United Nations to lift the sanctions. And we will work with members of the United Nations to help make that happen. The Iraqi people deserve nothing less.
Q -- something else, in fairness. Senator Kerry criticized, in a press release, the White House for being silent on the Santorum remarks. So if you want to rebut that, get your voice in that story, could you post that, as well. When you talk to the President about Greenspan, if you could ask about Santorum, I'd appreciate it.
MR. FLEISCHER: I'll see if I have anything or not.
Q Is the administration promoting Ahmed Chalabi for a top job in Iraq? And have you looked into his record? He seems to have had some trouble in banking in Jordan.
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, there are going to be a number of people, many of whom live inside Iraq and have lived there under the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, and others who fled Iraq some time ago, whatever the period of time is, who now desire to return to Iraq to help their country. Our job is not to pick who will be in what position. This is something that's going to evolve from the bottom up, from the Iraqi people up, with our assistance. The United States is pleased that so many people, including Mr. Chalabi, have chosen to leave the comfort of the United States for Iraq. It's a sign of a country that has a bright future, when people want to return to it like this. So we welcome the fact that he is there to help make a brighter future for the Iraqi people --
Q But do we know his background?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I don't have specific knowledge about everything in his background, but clearly he is one of the people the United States has looked to as a possible way of helping the Iraqi people. There are many others, as well.
Q But, Ari, the truth is that --
MR. FLEISCHER: Terry.
Q But can I just follow up on that, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: David, you've -- we're not going to jump around like that. We're going to come back, and come back later.
Q If he's following up, I've got a different subject.
MR. FLEISCHER: Go ahead.
Q All right. You spoke of the new government evolving up out of the Iraqi people. It seems that one of the choices before the Iraqis, and one that we're hearing a lot from Shiite Muslims is an Islamic state, perhaps modeled along the Iranian government. Would the United States support that?
MR. FLEISCHER: The goals of a liberated Iraq, from the point of view about what type of government the United States seeks, is a democracy, a country that welcomes different religions, that has freedom of speech, freedom to worship, free press. Those are the goals that we look to in the reconstruction. We want to make certain that elements of the previous Baathist regime are not able to return to positions of power. Those are the parameters under which we are working. Beyond that, we have faith that working with the Iraqi people, they will sort through all the variety of issues. We want to make sure that it's a united Iraq that represents the Shiites, the Sunnis, the Kurds, others as well.
Q But if the majority of the Iraqi people, who are Shiite Muslims, chose an Islamic state as the government that they wanted, what would be the United States response?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I outlined to you the parameters that we are working with the Iraqi people on, and it has to be in accordance with those principles of democracy and freedom and tolerance. That is our goal. And that's not inconsistent with a state that has religious elements to it. Certainly you can have a state that has a religious -- has religious elements to it that welcomes openness and worship and freedom.
Q But we would oppose political elements in Iraq that wanted to set up a state that didn't express tolerance for all religions, that didn't respect freedom of speech? We would oppose that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Clearly, one of the issues that the previous Iraqi regime used to pit one group of Iraqis against another was religion. Saddam Hussein, in many ways, and his Baathist leaders kept themselves in power by pitting Sunnis against Shiites, by oppressing the Kurds. And the President has said repeatedly that one of the goals of this is a liberated Iraq will be a united Iraq where all parties will feel free to worship and to live in peace.
Q So those Iraqis who might want a state along the lines of Iran's are out of luck when it comes to --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Iran certainly is not an example of a democracy or a country in which people are free. So, certainly, we want to make certain that out of the liberation of Iraq is not replaced by another different type of dictatorship.
Q Just one more related. There's a Saudi paper reporting that a direct channel of communication has opened between the United States and Iran through Iran's U.N. ambassador and Mr. Khalizad, the special envoy to Afghanistan. Is that true?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not familiar with it in regard to that specific channel. But clearly we do have channels where we talk to the Iranians. We did it before. We did it, for example, in the rebuilding of Afghanistan through the Bonn Conference.
Q Back on Mr. Greenspan, Ari. Has the Chairman indicated to the President whether he wants another term?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to give you that information. I don't know. I just wanted to report to you what the President said.
Q And why does the President want him to have another term?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because he thinks he's done a very able job stewarding the economy --
Q -- toward tax cuts, for example.
MR. FLEISCHER: The President thinks he has done a very able job as a steward of the economy, making certain that we have the proper monetary policies in place. And the President was asked a direct question about it today in a meeting with other reporters, and so that's the President's answer on the question he got.
Q Ari, on the weapons inspections again, you very strongly indicated this morning that the administration was opposed to them going back to Iraq. Other administration officials have said on background the last few days that they're very much opposed to it. What is the downside of having a hundred or so people in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction? Isn't that more eyes on the problem?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, what I said this morning is we're looking forward, not backwards. The regime is gone and we'll need a new framework. That's what I said, and I said we'll look forward to working with the United Nations on it.
Q To answer my question specifically, what is the -- what does the administration consider the downside of having them in Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we have a coalition that is working on the ground to dismantle Iraq's WMD programs, and we think that's going to be effective. We think it will get the job done, and the bottom line is the President wants to focus things on the most effective to get the job done.
Q Would there be too many people involved? I can't -- does that mean you feel you have sufficient people in Iraq now doing the job? You don't need more?
MR. FLEISCHER: We have high confidence in the ability of the people who are there now to do the job.
Q Do you think the weapons inspectors were competent?
MR. FLEISCHER: We have high confidence in the people who are there now to do the job.
Q Ari, would the President support a delay in a cut in the top income tax rate in order to decrease the size of the tax-cut proposal?
MR. FLEISCHER: No.
Q He does not support that. Did Secretary Snow misspeak when he told The Wall Street Journal that the administration would support that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Secretary Snow did not say that to The Wall Street Journal. If you read the story, you'll see there's no quote from Secretary Snow saying that. There is a reference, but it's not tied to anything Snow said. I think it was a misread of what the Secretary was saying. The Secretary understands -- in fact, he said that in order to give the most oomph -- the Secretary's word -- to the economy, it's vital that all the rates be cut and cut immediately, the acceleration of the rate cuts take place immediately to give the most oomph to the economy.
That's particularly true when you take a look at what we've always said about the stimulus package pending on the Hill. There are two parts to it. The 100-percent dividend exclusion, which the President will fight for, is a longer-term growth piece. The acceleration of the child tax credit, the marriage penalty relief and income tax rate reductions, all of that has an immediate impact on the economy. Delaying that delays help to people who are looking for work. And that's why Secretary Snow and the administration have consistently said those pieces need to be accelerated across the board so they are effective immediately.
Q Okay, would the White House then -- is it correct that the White House does support, though, cutting dividend taxes initially by only 50 percent, and then phasing in a full repeal over 10 years?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President is going to fight for a 100-percent exclusion on dividends. He believes that is the right policy. He wouldn't have proposed it if he didn't think it was right. He thinks it's still right. In fact, when you look at the economy, it's even more right now.
We'll work with Congress on the entire economic package. Congress has an important role to play here. After all, they craft it. And so we are working with the Ways and Means Committee and others on the exact details of it. But make no mistake, the President is going to fight for 100-percent exclusion.
Q Ari, there's been talk about lifting sanctions against Iraq in stages. How does the White House see that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President said that he wants to have the sanctions lifted. Of course, this is a United Nations matter, and we will work, as I indicated at the top, with the United Nations on the exact way to get this done. We will look forward to listening to our friends and hearing ideas there.
But make no mistake -- why should any nation support imposing sanctions on the Iraqi people now? Sanctions equaled Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein is gone. It is wrong now to leave sanctions on the people of Iraq. They don't deserve it.
Q But there is a linkage with weapons inspections and the U.N. has to determine that there are no further weapons of mass destruction there before they lift those sanctions.
MR. FLEISCHER: Clearly, the United Nations has the ability to pass new resolutions that supersede old resolutions, particularly when the old resolutions were predicated on the existence of a regime that is now gone. Certainly you don't have to repeat what you did before when circumstances change. So the United Nations has at its disposal the ability to lift sanctions forthright if they so choose. The President hopes they will.
Q But how can you expect the Security Council to prove something like that? There's a lot of opposition in that Security Council to any idea of de-linkage.
MR. FLEISCHER: It's very hard to imagine the Security Council would want to inflict any more harm on the Iraqi people than they've already been through under the regime of Saddam Hussein. This is not about the Iraqi people; this is about Saddam Hussein -- sanctions were about Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi people do not deserve to be under sanctions from the United Nations.
Q If you do not allow U.N. inspectors back into Iraq, then what is the administration's plan for ensuring a chain of custody that would be internationally recognized, including by members of the Security Council?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that the procedures that have been put in place that you've had described to you in great detail from the briefers in the Gulf about the process that is underway for the coalition forces to search for weapons of mass destruction. The information that we are receiving as a result of the capture of certain individuals, the thousands of pages of documents that we are now receiving as a result of the successful liberation of Iraq, the analysis of these documents and the interviews with others who are associated with the programs are just beginning. And we've been very transparent and visible about all of that.
And I think that there will be no question in the eyes of the world, including the reporters who remain in Iraq, at the end of the day when the analysis is complete, that the process has been one of integrity, one of reliability and one of accuracy. Who has been more cautious than anybody in confirming some of the preliminary reports about findings of WMD? It's been the United States and the United States military.
This is a very cautious, a very accurate approach. And I think that at the end of the day when the weapons are found, there will be no dispute among people about -- no dispute among reasonable people about the very issues that you raised. You've been watching the process yourself. We have many reporters there.
Q But reporters are not trained inspectors. Reporters often don't know what they're looking at. And the people at the United Nations who do this -- (laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: Wait a minute. (Laughter.)
Q With all due respect to us --
MR. FLEISCHER: That's why I say I think the process will be a transparent one. I think it's one that the world will receive the assurances that Iraq has been disarmed. But that should not be confused with the purpose of having sanctions imposed on the Iraqi people previously. Those sanctions were there to prevent Saddam Hussein and his regime from using weapons of mass destruction. I don't think there's any question anymore that people fear that the regime will come back to use these weapons of mass destruction; they simply won't.
Q Newt Gingrich today characterized the build-up to the Gulf War and then the prosecution of it as six months of diplomatic failures followed by a month of military success. Do you have a problem with that characterization, and what is it? And I have a follow-up to that.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President viewed the diplomatic process as a very important process that allowed for the military success to take place. And the process that the State Department followed and Secretary Powell led was the President's process. This is a process that the President decided on in his speech to the United Nations in September. And the fact of the matter is the State Department and Secretary Powell did an excellent job at ushering through that process. There were others who complicated the process in the Security Council. That in no way is reflective of the State Department or what the President thinks about the State Department or Secretary Powell's superb efforts.
Q Mr. Gingrich also called the prospect of Secretary Powell going to Damascus to meet with Bashar Assad ludicrous. And he sharply criticized the Quartet, saying it was wrong for the U.S. to place, in effect, a veto at the hands of the United Nations, Europe and Russia in Middle East peace negotiations. Do you have a problem with either of those?
MR. FLEISCHER: One of the things that I think you have seen in the President's conduct of foreign policy now for some, almost two and a half years, when you go back to the P-3 incident in China, when you go back to take a look at what happened in the lead-up to the events and military operation in Afghanistan, and now in Iraq, you see a President who lays out in very clear moral terms the beginning of a debate and what he stands for. He's willing to speak, in terms of good and evil, black and white, right and wrong. And then he empowers Secretary Powell and the State Department to conduct the diplomacy required to help make the end goals that he seeks doable.
And that is exactly why this President has been so successful in his conduct of foreign policy. He believes in diplomacy; he applies diplomacy. Secretary Powell is an able, able diplomat. And that is the President's approach. And it's been a proven and successful approach.
Q But Gingrich says specifically, if you're talking about speaking in terms of good and evil, that what's wrong about Powell going to Damascus is Bashar Assad. He's a dictator, and Powell says it is wrong for a U.S. official to meet with him.
MR. FLEISCHER: The United States has diplomatic --
Q Gingrich -- I'm sorry, Gingrich says it is wrong --
MR. FLEISCHER: The United States has diplomatic relations with Syria, and we intend to use those diplomatic relations to good purposes, to further America's goals in the region. And that's where the President will press diplomacy to support the President's policies.
Q And on one final thing. The Quartet, in giving what amounts to, in Gingrich's consideration, veto power to Russia, the EU and the United Nations in Mideast relations -- is that, in fact, the case?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the future of the road map is up to Israel and the Palestinians. Those are the parties that will determine the acceptance of the road map. The Quartet was helpful, of course, in producing the road map. We worked with the quartet on the road map. The road map will, hopefully, be offered soon to the parties, as soon as the Palestinians are able to move forward with the confirmation of their new Cabinet. And then it will be a matter for the Israelis and the Palestinians to move forward productively.
Q Two things. On Mr. Greenspan, you said that he has had -- the President believes he's done an able job as a steward of the economy. I wonder if you can be more specific about what Greenspan has done that reflects positively on -- in the President's view, and why is now the time to make clear that he should have a second --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, on your second point, because he was asked. The President was in a roundtable with some 10 or 12 financial writers this morning, and it lasted some -- almost 45 minutes. And the President was asked a direct question and he gave a direct answer. So that's why, on the timing. So I refer you to your colleagues on why they asked the question today. He answered it today.
Q There's nothing that the President was trying specifically to do, to make clear --
MR. FLEISCHER: No. It's actually -- it's a sentiment I've heard the President express privately. And today he got asked about it, so it was in a public forum and he was able to say it publicly.
On your first question, the President views Chairman Greenspan as a very wise monetary steward; that Chairman Greenspan has a very steady hand at the helm of the monetary policies for our country; that he has very good judgment, sound judgment that is reassuring both to the President and to markets. And the President thinks that the decisions he's made on monetary policy represent a longstanding series of actions by Chairman Greenspan recognizing his knowledge of the economy.
Q Now, Mr. Snow -- you said that the Journal misread what the Secretary said about the --
MR. FLEISCHER: Top rates.
Q -- supporting the top rate.
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes.
Q And you made a point that he was not quoted directly to that effect. My understanding is that he did directly say that to the Journal. Are you saying now that the Treasury is telling you something different?
MR. FLEISCHER: If you look at the story, there's no direct quote from the Secretary on that question.
Q No, I understand that --
Q Can we look at the transcript?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, and I wouldn't have said if it didn't get this from Treasury, talking to Treasury, from their people who were in the interview. Sure.
Q Did you look at the transcript and can you release it?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I just talked to Treasury and Treasury filled me in.
Q Any reason why you can't release the transcript?
Q Ari, there are reports out of Baghdad about a number of civilians, including children, being killed and injured by cluster bombs that were dropped by U.S. forces during the battle in Baghdad. A number of critics say that it was inappropriate for the United States to use a weapon like cluster bombs in an urban area because of precisely what's happening now, unexploded bombs being picked up by children, blowing up, killing them or maiming them. Do you have a response to that?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know this is something that came up in many of General Brooks' briefings, and I would just refer you to the very information that he gave when he was asked similar questions. The decisions -- the President has delegated to the field commanders the ability to use different munitions as they see fit to carry out their mission. Clearly -- and I'm not speaking to the specifics of this -- but there are always going to be accidents in war, and we regret each and every one of them. But General Brooks answered repeatedly questions about the decisions that the commanders in the field make about the appropriate choice of weapons to use, given any different circumstance in the field.
Q Well, the President has also said, though, that as a matter of policy, we've tried to use force in a way that minimizes civilian casualties. What the critics are saying is that the use of cluster bombs is inconsistent with that general policy.
MR. FLEISCHER: You should take a look at the transcripts of what General Brooks said. And I believe most of these -- I think you also need to take a look at the premise about whether this was used in Baghdad or out in operations in a broader area.
Q Ari, every day we get reports of one Iraqi leader or another being captured, but still nothing on Saddam Hussein. What's the latest on Saddam Hussein?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, on the premise of your question, I think there has been a lot of encouraging and heartening news about how effective the United States' operations have been, thanks to the work of the Iraqi people, in capturing many of the people in the deck of 55. Hardly a day goes by where we don't learn about somebody new of some significant nature who was captured and who's in that deck. Nothing new to report on Saddam Hussein. Still no information about whether he's alive or dead.
Q Any confidence that you're going to have a definitive answer in the near future?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we have a definitive answer in that he is no longer in power. And that's vital. That helps ensure the future safety and stability of the regime. I've always said that it will help to know in terms of having clarity for the American people and certainly for the government -- to know if he is alive, to know if he is dead. It would provide clarity, but we don't know. And that is where things stand.
Q Ari, on the tax cut, does the President believe directly that Senator Voinovich is one of those people that he can get to come around to his idea and put specific pressure on him?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to go down person by person, or name by name. But the President does think it is very important that a majority be found in both the Senate and the House to give final passage to the tax plan, as it emerges from the Ways and Means and the Finance Committees. The leadership is going to be deeply involved in that. So given how close Congress is, it is always a difficult process to find a majority and put a majority together. But nevertheless, this President is determined to fight for it, because he thinks that many people's jobs depend on it.
And the smaller the tax cut, the fewer the jobs that get created. The larger the tax cut, the more that jobs get created. And certainly if you're one of America's unemployed or if you're one of the people who has given up looking for work because you want the economy to come back stronger, you need to have a bigger stimulus in the economy, you need more growth in the economy. And those are the people on whose side this President is going to fight.
Q Any other specific trips he might be planning?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes.
Q Along those lines?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes.
Q Can you tell us something about them?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not at liberty, unfortunately, to say right now. But you can be assured they'll be significant additional actions the
President will take, including travel, to make the case for the tax proposal. Keep in mind, Congress is still in recess this week. They only come back next week. We haven't even yet seen the first mark-ups in the various committees on the tax plan. But the timing looks pretty good for the President to make his case.
Q OPEC says that it hasn't received any request from an Iraqi representative to attend its meeting on Thursday. Can you tell us who is going to be representing Iraq at that meeting?
MR. FLEISCHER: I can't, I don't have that information. I don't know if you may want to check with the Department of Energy or ask that question out in the Gulf. I don't have that.
Q Can you tell us, at least, if it will be an American or an Iraqi?
MR. FLEISCHER: Like I just said, I don't have that information.
Q Ari, can I go back to the United Nations sanctions question, and I guess follow up on Bill's question about the French role, especially the Russian role. These are countries that fought sanctions in the past, and now seem to want to keep them. Do you not see something, at least ironic, and maybe cynical, about this? And I have a follow-up, if I could.
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is going to stand on principle and stand with the Iraqi people to get the sanctions removed. You've accurately stated history -- other nations had in the past sought the removal of sanctions, even while there were significant questions about whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I don't speak for those countries, but the President looks forward to taking this action at the United Nations, and hoping that the -- all nations in the Security Council, or at least a majority, will support the lifting of the sanctions to help the people.
Q The President's not frustrated or disappointed with their --
MR. FLEISCHER: This hasn't even moved forward in the United Nations yet. The timing just has not gotten to that point. Clearly, the President was frustrated previously by some of the actions the United Nations took and the United Nations Security Council took. We hope that won't be the case. But if it were the case, it wouldn't be the President's frustrations that matter most, it would be the lives of the Iraqi people.
These sanctions impose hardships on the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people deserve to be able to keep the money that is their money from the export of their goods, including oil and including other material that they have, so they can do what other nations do across this Earth, which is trade freely. And the United Nations should not sit in opposition of the rights of the Iraqi people to rebuild their country through free trade. We support free trade. We believe it's good around the world, and we believe the Iraqi people, too, should benefit from it.
Q With that in mind, and given that before the war the President said he would not be bound -- let's see how he phrased it -- he would not have his hands tied by the Security Council from asserting America's interests, would he reserve the right to act unilaterally to go outside the sanctions if he felt that was in Iraq's interest and America's interest?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let's begin this on a hopeful note. The United Nations has a chance to do something good for the people of Iraq, and the President hopes they will.
Q Ari, there was a scare today with powder substances in the mail system, and that brings us back to over a year ago. From this podium, you said the person or persons involved in anthrax attacks will be caught. What is the concern at the White House that that person has not been caught as of yet, and there are people who are surviving, barely, from the anthrax attacks of last year?
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, a couple points, April. One, the investigation remains underway. Indeed, nobody has been caught at this time. I'd have to go back and check the transcript. I don't believe I ever made any predictions about what would happen. I said the investigation will continue, which, indeed, it has. And, unfortunately, if you go back in history, there have been crimes that have been committed where people have taken years and years to get caught. In some cases they haven't. I can't make predictions here about what's going to happen. But it remains an open investigation.
Q A follow-up. The investigation into anthrax falls under Homeland Security.
MR. FLEISCHER: The FBI.
Q But it's still kind of Homeland Security.
MR. FLEISCHER: Not the investigation.
Q Well, but it's terrorist related, so it's a war on terrorism, per se. And some are saying, outside of this venue, that the White House is just not doing enough as it concerns issues of terrorism here in this country. What do you say about that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I reject that entirely. I think if you take a look at the series of actions that have been taken, thanks to the Congress, thanks to the increased funding that the President sought and that the Congress passed, thanks to the Patriot Act, thanks to the new creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which the President proposed and the Congress enacted, many additional steps have been taken.
You know, there's been no shortage of people who predicted that retaliating against the Taliban and al Qaeda would lead to increased terrorism at home. Fortunately, those predictions have not come true. Many people predicted that a result of taking military action in Iraq, we'd be less protected at home. Thankfully, those predictions have not come true. Let's hope they never come true. So, I think many people have made many things -- made many statements that have borne out to be wrong.
Q France, Germany, and Russia say they want to play a central role in the rebuilding of Iraq. Wouldn't the forgiveness of the $100 billion owed to them by Iraq be a good start?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this is something that we've talked about before. And these are decisions made by sovereign nations, and that's a matter for those nations to take up with the future Iraqi government. They have it at their disposal if they so chose to forgive that debt.
Q Yes, Ari, Hans Blix told the BBC, either this morning or yesterday, that he believes that the United States' claims regarding Iraqi WMDs was based on what he called, shaky evidence. So two questions: A, is the administration still confident that WMD will be found and recovered in Iraq? And the second thing is, if they're not, is the administration willing to go on record as saying that going into Iraq and waging the war was still the right thing to do?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there's no question we remain confident that WMD will be found. One of the things that we all knew, and Hans Blix knew it, is what masters of deception the Iraqis are and how many years they had to perfect their deceptions. I think it's unfortunate if Hans Blix would in any way criticize the United States at this juncture. The United States is working with the Iraqis to build a new country for them, and I think that would just be unfortunate if his position today is to criticize the United States.
Q But the primary motivation behind going into Iraq, at least as expressed by the administration at the time, was the danger presented by Saddam holding these WMDs. Even if they did not exist, does the administration think that going into Iraq was the right thing to do?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I can't share the premise. We know they exist and we're confident they will be found.
Q A few questions on Iraq. A follow-up to Terry's question: Is there concern about the anti-American attitude of some of these massive demonstrations in Karbala -- kind of a follow-up?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, you know, I see the reports about them. And I don't know how anybody has a reliable or accurate way of knowing how widespread some of these thoughts are. When you see crowds and you see some say, America go home, are they speaking for all there? Hardly. Of course, they're not. I think they are speaking as some. And, of course, America wants to go home. We will stay as long as we need to to help provide for the security of the future government, and not a day longer.
But I think it's very hard to assess how widespread that is. I suspect it's felt in some pockets, but not many. I think you've see the Iraqi people welcome the United States in most parts of Iraq. And certainly, as the humanitarian conditions continue to improve, the electricity increasingly comes on line, as the water increasingly flows, as the hospitals increasingly are restored to a condition that Saddam Hussein never brought them up to, I think you'll continue to see increased signs of happiness with having the United States depose the regime and create an environment for a better way of life in Iraq.
So I can tell you this -- that the President's sentiment about what he has seen in the Shia community for the first time in decades, celebrating a major Shia holiday, the President has privately reflected and has reflected about that, that it's a feeling of joy that he has that people are now free to express their religion. So when he sees those stories, that's what he sees. He sees people worshiping. He doesn't worry about any number of people who get quoted saying, America go home. He sees Iraqis coming home.
Q Can I ask one more about the -- all this millions of dollars found, if it's legitimate money, not counterfeit, will it be used for the reconstruction of Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that General Brooks took that question earlier. I don't have anything to add beyond what he said earlier about it.
Q When you say the coalition has taken the responsibility for eliminating any weapons of mass destruction found, are you saying that the inspectors have now become irrelevant to the process, that the process has passed them by?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not casting reflections on anybody else. I'm describing what the United States and the coalition are doing.
Q What about the inspectors? Do they have a role?
MR. FLEISCHER: I choose to look at it in terms of what the United States and the coalition are doing to eliminate the WMD. That's why I say that the President is looking forward, not backward.
Q One other issue. You spoke about the importance of religious tolerance and so forth, and freedoms in a future Iraq. At this sensitive time in a Moslem country, what's the administration's view of religious groups that send in aid packages and so forth that have a religious message stamped on them or within them?
MR. FLEISCHER: If you look at the programs of the United States government, there are rules that apply to the United States government conduct in terms of proselytizing or anything involving humanitarian relief tied to religious activities. Those are rules that we follow. Private organizations are not treated in the same manner, of course, because they are not the government, they are private. And the United States is not -- and I don't think the United States should be -- in a position around the world of telling private organizations how they can practice their religion in one country or another in another.
I don't think that's been part of the American tradition of how our government treats religion. People have the freedom to practice their religion, and they have the freedom to practice their religion around the world. So I understand the sensitivities about what you're asking for in Iraq, but I think greater sensitivities would arise if the United States government, for any reason, started telling private groups how and when they can practice their religions.
Q Could any organization be getting anything into that country now without the U.S. military greasing the skids for them?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, Syria brought things into the country without the United States military being in support of it, so --
Q I'm talking about from our side.
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I don't regulate everything that private organizations do. So we have rules that the government follows.
Q Ari, you were saying before it would be unfortunate if Hans Blix said what he did. But he did. And so the question is, in view of some of the remarks that he has made, including remarks the United States was looking for war, two weeks ago, do we regard Hans Blix as credible and impartial?
MR. FLEISCHER: Credible and?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I'm just not going to cast reflections. Hans Blix had a difficult job to do, and he did his level-best to do it. I simply say in regard to the interview that he gave with BBC today that the blame lies with Saddam Hussein -- unfortunate if he would, instead, criticize the United States of America.
Q Does that reduce his credibility, though, as a potential -- I mean, here is somebody who is criticizing the United States and at the same time saying, I want to be the judge of the truth here. Does that impeach his credibility?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President is looking forward, not backward.
Q MSNBC this week reported that Israel's nuclear weapons arsenal rivals that of France and Britain. Given that arsenal, does the President support Syria's call to make the Middle East a region free of weapons of mass destruction?
MR. FLEISCHER: The United States has always supported making the Middle East a region free of weapons of mass destruction.
Q Well, if I could follow up, does Israel have nuclear weapons?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's a question you need to ask to Israel.
Q Ari, a two-part. Palestinian Authority's Minister Saeb Erekat has said that the PA wants Abu Abbas released and not punished for the murder of American Leon Klinghoffer. And my question: Does the President still support the creation of a Palestinian state for people who want to let Abbas off the hook? And if so, how does that fit in with his war on terrorism?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is well-known and on the record for what he believes will create the environment for a more peaceful Middle East, and that includes the creation of a Palestinian state. And that needs to be a state is led by reformers and that will allow Israel to live side-by-side with the state of Palestine in peace and security. That has not changed.
Q Page one of The Washington Times reported that The President authorized health officials to put SARS on the list of deadly communicable diseases which are subject to quarantine, including cholera, diphtheria, infectious TB and smallpox. In Atlanta, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday that putting any disease on the subject to quarantine list is up to the President, and that HIV/AIDS, with which nearly 1 million American are infected, is not on the quarantine list. And my question: Since SARS, with only 200 cases in the United States, has been put on the quarantine list by the President, why has he not done so with AIDS, which has killed so many thousands?
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, the President is guided on these judgments by the scientific community, and in this case, by medical doctors who are experts in how diseases are transmitted. It is not the quantity of people who have a disease, it is the manner in which it is transmitted that puts other people at risk. And that is what guides. If you look at all the diseases that are on the executive order that the President took, it is the manner of transmittal, which is different from HIV-AIDS.
Q But it's being transmitted, isn't it, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: In a very different manner.
Q If I can get back to the tax cuts. You said the President is not -- no trips have been confirmed yet this week? A lot of people in Ohio are expecting him to --
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, I announced this morning the Ohio trip will take place Thursday.
Q Is that -- I mean, what is the President's feeling about his chances for turning around Senator Voinovich by going to Ohio and making a specific pitch there in the Senator's home state?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I'm not just not going to talk about any one person or another. The President is going to work to assemble a majority both in the House and in the Senate so that people can find work, and so the economy can grow faster. The President looks forward to talking to the people of Ohio about why the economy needs to grow more than it is growing, and what the impact of a smaller tax cut would have on economic growth and job creation. The larger the tax cut, the more jobs will be created. And that's the case that the President looks forward to making in all 50 states, including Ohio this Thursday.
Q On North Korea, what do you expect from the talks in Beijing? I mean, those talks do not include Japan and South Korea, and critics say China has a important responsibility. How much Japan and South Korea have responsibilities for the issue?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, we welcome China's willingness to host these talks and to serve as a full member in the initial talks we will have with the North Koreans. We have always said that we seek a multilateral approach. and, indeed, what you will see in Beijing this week is just that multilateral approach.
We also intend to seek through -- to seek throughout this process to include the group, to include initially Japan and South Korea, as well. They will, of course, be very closely kept informed about it. And the purpose of this is the purpose that all nations in the region, including Japan, share, which is the verifiable dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Q I'd like to just clarify the position on Secretary Snow's comments. You said that the administration doesn't support the phase-in of the reduction of the top tax rate. But are Snow's suggestion that the phase-in of dividends can -- or that you can phase in the cut in dividend taxes, and they can place the child tax credit increase and marriage tax relief into a separate bill -- are those still a viable option?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I said, there are all kinds of different ways to get this done. One of the most interesting things about tax policy is it is -- it lends itself to a lot of different ways to accomplish the same result. That's because you're working with a variety of numbers, and so many different things can be accomplished. But what the President is focused on, he wants to make certain that we have a 100-percent dividend exclusion, and we deliver an immediate boost to the economy as a result of the acceleration into this year of those other tax cuts that I mentioned -- the child credit, the income tax rate cuts and marriage penalty relief.
Q Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.
END 1:14 P.M. EDT