The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
11:45 A.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good morning. The President began with an intelligence briefing, followed by his FBI briefing. And then he met with the President of Panama, where they discussed trade between the United States and Panama. The President thanked the President of Panama, President Moscoso, for her country’s excellent law enforcement and security cooperation along the Panama Canal. He congratulated the country of Panama, the people of Panama on the 100th anniversary of independence. And he thanked the government of Panama for their support on Article 98 action on international agreements.
The President will, at 12:25 p.m., make remarks at the Corporate Council on Africa’s U.S.-Africa Business Summit. The President will announce there his agenda for Africa. This is in anticipation of the President’s upcoming trip to Africa. And the President will discuss at quite some length the situation in Congo, Liberia, Sudan. He’ll announce a new $100 million anti-terrorism effort, particularly to include airport and seaport security. And he’ll talk about his already announced initiatives dealing with helping the people of Africa in the fight against hunger, the fight against AIDS, to improve education, and to develop the country and the continent, and to increase trade.
Later this afternoon, the President will meet with the Prime Minister of Mauritius, and I anticipate that trade will be the topic at those discussions, as well.
With that, I’m more than happy to take questions. Campbell.
Q: Ari, yesterday we asked you about General Abizaid’s comments during his confirmation hearing, when he said that it was perplexing that they had not yet found weapons of mass destruction. You said you had not yet seen the report. Presumably, you’ve had a chance to go through his comments. Do you agree that it’s perplexing that they have yet to find WMD?
MR. FLEISCHER: And let me thank you for giving me the opportunity to look at it, which I’ve done. I’ve read most of what he said yesterday, and indeed, he did say that it was perplexing in that sense that we had not yet found it. He also went on to say — and I quote him — “I’m confident we will show that there was deception. I’m confident we will show that there was deception. I’m also confident at some point it will lead us to actual weapons of mass destruction.”
And then in explaining as the senators pressed him on what he meant by perplexity, the General stated that, “Before the war, we picked up the movement at the depots. We thought that meant that they were certainly moving things forward for use of military operations. It may very well have been that they received the order, quite to the contrary, to get rid of them. But I don’t know. And I think we won’t know for a while.”
And I think he’s stating the obvious, that we haven’t found the weapons yet. Given the fact that we have intelligence which we strongly believe in and continue to believe in, that is perplexing. I think it’s similar to what the President said when he talked about, in an interview, I think, with NBC, when the President said he understands that people may be skeptical until the weapons are actually found. So I think it’s a rather plain English description of the process and the fact that we haven’t discovered them yet. But he also stated in there his confidence that we will.
Q: But, Ari, it’s completely different than what the White House has said about the same issue. The President has always said it’s not surprising, you’ve said it’s not surprising that we haven’t found them, because they’ve engaged in a program of deception and denial for the past decade. He’s saying it’s perplexing. Which is it?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think it’s just as the President said, he understands that people will be skeptical until they’re found.
Q: But that’s not what — that’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying it’s perplexing. You’re saying it’s not surprising. So you’re at odds.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, when he says — when General Abizaid says, as he said to the senators yesterday, “Before the war we picked up the movement at depots that we thought meant they were certainly moving things forward for use in military operations. It may very well have been that they received the order, quite to the contrary, to get rid of them.” That deals —
Q: So is he incorrect in saying it’s perplexing? Or should he be saying it’s not surprising, based on the pattern of deception and denial?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I’m kind of perplexed by what the difference is between perplexing and surprising.
Q: Well, if you’re perplexed, you don’t understand it. If you’re not surprised, you expected it.
MR. FLEISCHER: Given the fact that they have been hiding, just as he talked about — he stated in here, how they have been — “I’m confident we’ll show there was deception” — I think it fits the same remarks the President said when he said he’s — he understands people’s skepticism.
Q: Yasser Arafat today said that a formal announcement of the cease-fire may be coming soon. Is this something the White House is concerned about, to have him in this out-front role? Does it show that Abbas really isn’t the real power and isn’t the one, as the White House would like to see out front?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President is less interested in who is speaking and more interested in who is acting. And by acting, he means who is taking actions to actually reduce the violence and to dismantle Hamas. That’s where the President’s focus is; less interest in who happens to be speaking at any one time.
Q: You guys have said over and over and over that you don’t want Arafat in the frontline role. And here he is playing that very role at a very crucial moment.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the United States has been unequivocal, and we will continue to deal with Prime Minister Abbas because he can deliver on peace. But the United States, obviously, doesn’t control everything that everybody in the region can say. Different people have freedom to speak. That doesn’t mean that their voices count in the halls of this government.
Q: Doesn’t it show that Abbas — that Arafat — I’m sorry — is helping to deliver on peace, if he’s the one who’s out front talking about a cease-fire, which is something that all the sides have wanted?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President is less interested in who’s talking and more interested in actions. That’s the real measure. Will Hamas be dismantled? Will violence diminish — will the violence stop? That’s action, not rhetoric.
Q: By announcing a cease-fire is in itself action, isn’t it?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you have to refer your question to Palestinian authorities about different people speaking. You know the point of view of the President and the Secretary of State.
Q: Has the White House still received no heads-up on Supreme Court resignations?
MR. FLEISCHER: Right. Nothing new to share.
Q: And when or if there is a vacancy, should we continue to be guided by the President’s statement in the 2000 campaign that he would pick someone who would be in the mold of Justices Scalia and Thomas?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President made many statements in the campaign about this topic and they are all operative. I’m not certain that you just accurately quoted the President, though. I don’t think he said, pick somebody. I think he talked about people he respects. When it came to pick people, he talked about picking people who were from the mainstream and who were not going to be — who would not — write laws, but who would be strict interpretations of the Constitution. But in any case, unless there is an announcement, there is no vacancy.
Q: Ari, the measures you outlined for dealing with African regional conflicts this morning fall short of — in a couple areas of what’s been urged by the United States. Britain has urged the United States to lead an international force in Algeria. And Kofi Annan has called on the United States to support expansion of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo. My question, is the United States open to further steps than what you outlined this morning?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know the President will begin his remarks shortly, so you’ll hear in some greater length what the President thinks about each of these topics. And I think the best thing is just to let the President’s remarks speak for themselves when he gives them. He’ll be beginning in just a little over 20 minutes or so.
Q: Okay. Does the President support the provision of $200 million to rescue AmeriCorps? The supporters say the program faces crippling and unexpected budget cuts.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President, one, was disappointed by the funding levels for fiscal 2003, and that’s why his budget for the upcoming fiscal year represents sizeable increases in funding for AmeriCorps, so it can have 75,000 volunteers, up from its current level which is 50,000. As a result of an accounting fix in the formula that Congress uses to determine the funding levels for AmeriCorps, we are already making some progress toward pushing above the 50,000 figure this year. And we’re going to continue to work with Congress to get the funding up for the ’04 levels — to the ’04 levels he requested.
Q: So do you think the program can be spared, the severe cuts in staffing that —
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think it remains to be seen. The President believes in AmeriCorps. The President thinks AmeriCorps is doing good work across America, helping communities, and providing very valuable outlets for people to make contributions and to work hard for different communities across the country. That’s why he’s supported a rather large increase in the number of volunteers. So the President is on record. He is working to accomplish it. He’s going to fight for it. We can’t get everything we always seek with the Congress, but the President wants to do it.
Q: Ari, can you go back on the questions we were beginning to pursue this morning on what the significance was of this finding in the backyard of some pieces of a centrifuge and some plans. Have you been able to learn any more —
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes.
Q: — about that? And what the origin of them was, what the supplier country was, and whether the equipment found was significant enough to make more than one prototype centrifuge?
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay. I have some additional guidance for you on it. I’m not going to be able to answer all of those questions, but let me start at the beginning on this topic. The head of Iraq’s pre-1991 centrifuge uranium enrichment program, Dr. Mahdi Ubaydi, approached United States officials in Baghdad and turned over a volume of centrifuge documents and components that he had hidden in his garden from inspectors since 1991. The doctor told us that he was interviewed by IAEA inspectors most recently in 2002, but he did not reveal any of this to the inspectors. Dr. Ubaydi told us that these items, the blueprints and the key centrifuge pieces, represented a template for what would be needed to rebuild a centrifuge uranium enrichment program. He also claimed that this concealment was part of a secret, high-level plan to reconstitute the nuclear weapons program once sanctions had ended.
Those are the facts about what the United States government has learned from this Iraqi scientist. And that is his description of the material that was found, indeed, in his garden.
Q: If I could pursue it for just a minute. Obviously, the U.N. had found the nuclear program after the first Gulf War, had announced that it was then dismantled. We knew they had the knowledge, but they said that they had dismantled the pieces. Are you telling us that what you have found is essentially some remnant pieces that the IAEA had not gotten when they shipped everything else out of the country?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think what this says is that buried in one scientist’s garden was a template for what would be needed to rebuild their centrifuge uranium enrichment program. And according to this very scientist, this is information, these are materials that were deliberately hidden, with the purpose being to produce them once the sanctions had been lifted from the country in an effort to reconstitute their nuclear program.
Q: So, Ari, can you give us a sense of the scale and scope of this? Are there many scientists who we don’t know about who are providing information? Or is this considered a breakthrough?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we’re hopeful that this example will lead to other Iraqi scientists stepping forward to provide information. We have maintained right from the beginning that the best way, based on the history of what was discovered in the ’90s, to obtain information is as a result of Iraqis providing information to the United States, just as this scientist has.
This case also illustrates the challenge that the international community faces in Iraq, as we search for evidence of weapons of mass destruction programs that were designed to elude detection from the very scientist who often would not share with the international inspectors what they knew and where they had things hidden.
Q: Can you comment on the Supreme Court decisions, two historic cases, one on affirmative action? Does the President believe that there’s any circumstance in which it’s appropriate to consider race as a part of determining admissions?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course, the Supreme Court has spoken. The justices have ruled. And the President, as he said, felt — believed this was a carefully balanced decision. And it represents — as the President said, he applauds the decision in that it represents a way to get diversity achieved on our college campuses, and to do so without imposing quotas.
Q: Does he believe that there’s any circumstance in which it is appropriate to use race as a factor in determining admissions?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I’d refer you right back to what the President said in his statement. He applauds the fact that the Court recognizes the importance of finding diversity on campuses. The President thinks it’s appropriate to do so in a race-neutral way, in a way that increases diversity and does so without quotas.
Q: And on the Texas sodomy case, does the President believe that gay men have the legal right to have sexual relations in the privacy of their own home?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think on this decision, the administration did not file a brief in this case, unlike in the Michigan case. And this is now a state matter.
Q: So he has no position on this?
MR. FLEISCHER: It’s just as I indicated, the administration did not file a brief on this — as, I think, you know.
Q: Ari, back on the Iraqi scientist. Why isn’t this evidence that, in fact, Iraq had literally buried its nuclear program, that it was not operative, and that they — and that it was not a current threat to the United States?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, nobody said it was operative. In fact, people have said, clearly, that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction of a biological and chemical nature. We expressed concerns about the development of a nuclear program, but nobody ever maintained that Iraq had nuclear weapons. I think the question is, did this good scientist, under orders, bury this for the purpose of hiding it and bringing it out later? Or did he bury it for the purpose of getting rid of it? And as he has indicated to the United States, he buried it for the purpose of letting the inspectors leave the country, having sanctions be removed, and then using it to reconstitute a nuclear program.
Q: The Vice President’s words were, they are reconstituting a nuclear program —
Q: Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: And I think that’s based on —
Q: — evidence of an active reconstitution?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is one piece. It was certainly not the only garden in Iraq. But also, the Vice President was aware of a matter that is in dispute between the United States and the IAEA involving centrifuges, as you know.
Q: Ari, we always knew that Iraq had the capability, and this is evidence that Iraq had the capability. But it is not evidence that it was a current threat to the United States, or that’s what your critics are saying. Why was — why is this evidence that Iraq posed a nuclear threat to the United States if this material had been buried since 1991?
MR. FLEISCHER: Be mindful of what I said; this is evidence that Iraqis — an Iraqi scientist was hiding information from the inspectors. And the purpose of this was to bring it back out, to unearth it after sanctions were lifted against Iraq for the purpose of reconstituting a nuclear program. The fear, of course, is that Iraq would reconstitute a nuclear program and, therefore, obtain nuclear weapons. And I remind you that in the early 1990s, the inspectors were prepared to give Iraq a clean bill of health when it came to a nuclear program. And only as a result of information that was obtained by Iraqi defectors did we later learn that Iraq was far, far closer to having nuclear weapons than the international inspectors ever thought.
Q: You just said that this is not the only garden in Iraq. Do you expect to have similar finds like this in upcoming weeks and months?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated, we’re hopeful that this example will encourage other Iraqis with knowledge of Saddam’s WMD programs to come forward.
Q: Ari, can you tell us something about the meeting President Bush held with the President of Panama?
MR. FLEISCHER: I just did.
Q: Sorry, I was covering her.
MR. FLEISCHER: You missed it. I’m sure it’s exactly what she said to you. The President congratulated Panama on their 100th anniversary of independence. He thanked the President for her nation’s strong support on security cooperation along the Panama Canal. They talked about trade. That’s the heart of the issues.
Q: Second question, Ari, has do to with the fact that —
MR. FLEISCHER: He also thanked her for the Article 98 cooperation, which was important.
Q: Second question has to do with the fact that almost daily an American soldier loses his life or are wounded in Iraq. Is the government considering any additional measures? Because we hear talk of reducing troops. Is there any chance there may be an increase, at least of police force, or people who special in security issues?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think all these issues were discussed at great length by Secretary Rumsfeld at his news conference yesterday — the day before yesterday. And the Secretary is always looking at the force structure to make sure it’s the most efficient and effective force structure to bring greater security to Iraq. As you know, the number of joint patrols that are being operated with Iraqi policemen has gone up substantially. But Iraq remains — particularly in certain regions of Iraq — a dangerous place, where there are loyalists who are loyal to Saddam Hussein, who killed and tortured Iraqis, and now they seek to harm Americans. That’s why it’s important, in the President’s judgment, for us to make certain that we maintain our presence there to finish the job to help rebuild Iraq.
Q: On the Iraqi matter, are you saying that it is less of a case of an impending threat from Iraqi nuclear programs, and more of a question of Iraqi intent and the lengths to which they were willing to go to conceal?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I’m referring specifically to what is known in this one scientist’s garden. And what is known in this one scientist’s garden is he hid this equipment, and the purpose of hiding it, according to him, was to bring it back out later, after the inspectors left the country and after sanctions were removed, for the purpose of reconstituting Iraq’s nuclear program.
Q: So an indication of Iraqi intent, even though it wasn’t an ongoing program.
MR. FLEISCHER: In this one scientist’s case, that’s exactly right. In this one scientist’s case, an example of intent.
Q: Now, I gather that he is conveying to U.S. authorities what he was told by the people who told him to bury it. I mean, was there a sense of when they were going to bring these things out? Was it just after inspectors left, after sanctions had been lifted? What’s the —
MR. FLEISCHER: According to what he told us, after sanctions had been lifted. And if you recall, there was discussion during the 1990s about lifting the sanctions. The United States helped defeat that effort, but there was discussion that would have made this immediately relevant if sanctions had been lifted.
Q: Can you remind us of the one incident you were mentioning a moment ago, where the IAEA was on the verge of saying — or inspectors were on the verge of saying that there were no nuclear weapons in Iraq?
MR. FLEISCHER: Just as I said. In the early 1990s, the IAEA was close to delivering a clean bill of health for Iraq on nuclear programs, only to learn from defectors that Iraq did, indeed, have a program to try to develop nuclear weapons. And it was judged that without the war Iraq would have been able to develop — the first war, the 1991 war — Iraq would have been able to develop nuclear weapons much sooner than IAEA ever expected.
Q: You made the point that the centrifuge in the gardens is an example of Iraqi intent to deceive and intent to reconstitute a banned program when they had the opportunity to do so.
MR. FLEISCHER: Keep in mind, I’m reporting to you what the Iraqi scientist told the United States. These are really his explanations of why this material was buried in his garden.
Q: My question is, it is not an example of something else, specifically the success of the international program of sanctions and inspections in disrupting an illicit program to the point where significant pieces of an important piece of equipment had to remain buried in a garden —
MR. FLEISCHER: Surely. And that’s one of the reasons the United States, in the ’90s, opposed efforts to lift the sanctions. And that’s why the President went to the United Nations and said, send the inspectors back in there. The more pressure on Iraq, the President judged, the better. But clearly, given Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with the inspectors has shown that in 2002 the IAEA spoke to this scientist — did he tell them what was buried in his yard, for the scientist — for the international community to find it in 2002? No, he would have been killed if he did.
Q: Certainly not. But doesn’t it show that that decade-long, 12-year-long effort to constrain and to contain Iraq’s illicit weapons programs was pretty successful?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it also was very close to being lifted. Sanctions were very close to being lifted. And keep in mind that the inspectors had been removed from the country for four years. And during that four years, we are still now just learning what Saddam Hussein was doing with his weapons program.
Q: Nobody was talking about lifting sanctions in 2002. Doesn’t it at least partially undermine the administration’s argument that it was necessary to go to war —
MR. FLEISCHER: I’m hard-pressed to understand how the discovery of this nuclear equipment, which would be a template to reconstituting a program, that was buried in a scientist’s backyard undermines the case the administration was making. It seems to me rather the opposite.
Q: President and Tony Blair addressed the Iraqi people. Many Iraqi people now — at the end of the war. Many Iraqi people now don’t identify with Mr. Bremer, they identify with the President. Does the President have — given some of the security concerns that Iraqi people justifiably have now, does the President have any plans to address the Iraqi people again, either directly going there, television, radio, whatever? And if not, why not?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, there’s nothing immediately planned, except for the obvious fact that every time the President speaks publicly now the Iraqi people can, in growing numbers, hear about it as a result of the fact that there’s a free press in Iraq for the first time. And there are satellite capabilities in Iraq now, that people can receive news and information. So the President’s words are carried around the world. And now, for the first time, the Iraqi people do get to hear and see what President Bush says.
Q: Are there attempts by the U.S. government to interview some more scientists, find them, assuming there’s lists —
MR. FLEISCHER: Of course.
Q: Can you give us some sense of that?
MR. FLEISCHER: It’s part of the ongoing mission, that is, both the mission headed by David Kay, from the CIA’s point of view, in cooperation with the Department of Defense, who provides much of the logistics and the ability to move around Iraq and carry out the work of the group that is charged with finding where the weapons of mass destruction are. That includes conversations with officials; it includes reading gigantic amounts of paper, which takes time, translate them, have experts who are fluent in Arabic read them, and some of the papers could be in English. But it involves going through these documents and talking to officials. This is all ongoing.
Q: Ari, I have two questions. One is on the California trip, another one on Supreme Court, but just one quick clarification. You said the scientist approached U.S. authorities. When did he approach U.S. authorities?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don’t have the precise dates of when the first contacts were made with the scientist.
Q: Would it be this year, though?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don’t have the dates.
Q: And on the Supreme Court, has President Bush or yourself given any further thought to Senator Daschle’s proposal to have the President confer with Senate Democrats before naming any possible prospective —
MR. FLEISCHER: Sure, it’s just as I described before. The President does believe in the importance of consultation. That’s why his chief counsel has already met with several of the Democrats who have sent letters to the White House. But the President has not ruled in or ruled out what actions or meetings or different things he may or may not do for a vacancy that does not exist.
Q: And on the trip to California tomorrow, the opponents of the Gray Davis recall are saying they are going to use Bush’s trip as a way to push him to change his opinion about not giving any formal stance on that. What is his position on that?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is a matter for the people of California to decide.
Q: And if they call on him to stand — take a stand on the recall —
MR. FLEISCHER: He will say he just did. This is a matter for the people of California to decide. That’s the President’s view.
Q: Ari, regarding the President’s forthcoming trip to Africa, there have been widespread reports of tens of thousands of blacks held in actual slavery today, with Newsweek publishing photographs of slaves in Mauritania, and the Baltimore Sun sending two writers to buy and free slaves in Sudan. When the Clintons visited the African nations adjacent to these slave countries, I can recall no report that either of them said anything about this enormous evil of black slavery today. And my question: President Bush will surely speak out about this slavery in Africa, won’t he, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated yesterday, the President, during this trip, will visit Goree Island, and the President will talk about —
MR. FLEISCHER: — the President will talk about slavery, he will talk about freedom, he will talk about democracy.
Q: An American woman, Sarah Saga, whose father kidnapped her in 1985 and took her to Saudi Arabia, spent 10 days in the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, before escaping to the United States. She was fearful of her father and husband, whose permission, under Saudi law, she needed to leave Saudi Arabia. And my question: Am I correct in presuming that President — that the President, as a compassionate leader, is deeply concerned about Ms. Saga, and many other American women so held hostage, or will you leave us in doubt of the President’s concern by an evasion that bucks this question to the State Department?
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, there are agencies that are responsible for having the specific information about specific cases.
Q: But I want to know what the President thinks.
MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that the best way to serve the country is to have the experts review individual cases. As a broad matter, the President is working very closely with Saudi authorities to encourage additional reform within Saudi Arabia. As for any specific case, it’s not a buck, it’s the direct answer. You need to talk to the people immediately responsible for the specifics.
Q: Thank you, Ari. That’s good.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you, Lester, for your evaluations. (Laughter.) Go ahead.
Q: Two quick questions. One is, do we have more about General Musharraf’s meeting with President Bush? And another one in this connection is that he may be famous here with President Bush, but back home, he has a lot of problems domestically because two of his four provinces there have declared Islamic —
MR. FLEISCHER: I think this was all addressed at length, and there
was a rather long background briefing immediately following President Musharraf’s visit, here in the White House press room.
Q: And second, when the Prime Minister of India was in China, he made two statements — one, that Tibet is part of China. And second, the U.S. is worried about India and China relations now from his visit.
MR. FLEISCHER: India and China proliferation, is that what your question was?
Q: Relations between —
MR. FLEISCHER: Relations?
Q: Relations, and also India declared that Tibet is part of China.
MR. FLEISCHER: I don’t think the topic with India-China relations came up in the meeting with President Musharraf.
Q: Two questions, please. Earlier in the year, the President announced a plan to tentatively source over 400,000 federal jobs. Democrats in Congress are attaching language to appropriations bills for each of the agencies to prevent that. Is that something that the President would veto if those bills came to his desk with that language in it?
MR. FLEISCHER: On competitive sourcing?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think if you recall, the Office of Management and Budget made an announcement about the administration’s proposals on competitive sourcing to ensure the taxpayer dollars are spent in the wisest fashion, and that the work force works in the most effective way. And competition is the best way, in the President’s judgment, to do this in many cases. I’m not going to get into any discussions of vetoes on bills that are only now just moving, but the President made the announcement because he believes in it.
Q: Thank you. Ari, my question is related to Ellen’s. Opposition to U.S. and British forces in Iraq seems to be escalating. How is the President going to handle this? And is he concerned that it will become a major issue of his reelection campaign?
MR. FLEISCHER: It’s just as I answered when I talked to Ellen about that. The President, of course, is deeply concerned and regrets every loss of life, whether it’s American, whether it’s British, as well as those who are wounded. After all, he is the person who has met with many of these wounded, has met with the families of many of those who have died. And he takes these things hard and he understands what it could mean to a family when a life is lost.
The President also understands what it means to the future of security for the United States and for the region to make certain that the mission that the United States and our allies started is completed. And that means finishing the job to help rout those who, left to their own devices, will continue the killing of others, as well as Americans. And these people are the loyalists, they’re the Baathists, they’re the Fedayeen. And this is why the mission continues — and the mission is not complete; the President is determined to finish it and do so right.
Q: Ari, since you said the President feels something close in his heart at the death of illegal immigrants, my question is, how the White House is thinking about the proposal by some Democrats in the House that to combat the illegal immigration threats — people make money with the illegal immigrants — to give rewards up to $1 million, and even legal residence to the people who give the names and information to lead to dismantle this?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have not talked to the President or seen anything from White House staff indicating one way or another on that. The President’s views on these matters are well-known. The President wants to welcome immigrants legally to the United States. He thinks it makes for a richer, stronger, better country. And he also wants to continue his efforts into increasing democracy and trade around the world so that people have opportunities and better lifestyles and economic chances at home.
Q: The weapons trailers that were discovered in Iraq — has the President established any different procedures or expressed any concern about consensus-building among the intelligence, whether it’s Defense, the CIA, or State, so that when he is dependent on making public remarks on their findings, that there is a consensus?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think you’re seeing that the process is a very active interagency process, that the national intelligence estimate, which is the one document which speaks most conclusively about information the administration judged in leading up to the war, is an interagency collaboration. That is the full vetting of all documents. When there is a NIE requested, it involves all agencies. And, of course, the different agencies all work to carry out their missions where they have the most expertise. That’s how the system works.
Q: What about the analysis of the trailers?
MR. FLEISCHER: And that was an analysis by the Central Intelligence Agency, and by the Defense Intelligence Agency, very public and well-known, conducted by the experts.
Q: So if State Department had any reservations about the analysis being premature, the President is not concerned about that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in this instance, the people with the most authority and the most knowledge and the best ability to be on the ground and to learn the facts, and therefore, to be the strongest sources, have spoken. Now, of course, in any intelligence opinion, there will be others in agencies who are free to express their thoughts and their opinions, and they do so. That’s part of the process.
Q: So just to make this clear, in this instance, the President believes that the CIA and the Defense Department have supremacy in the analysis, not State?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that they, in this instance, have the best judgment because they were in the most authoritative position to have accurate information. It’s not only the President who thinks that, but so, too, does the Secretary of State.
Q: And one other quick question about the gardener, the scientific gardener —
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it was his garden. I’m not sure he was the gardener.
Q: Correct. It would be unlikely that he would be the only scientist who might have pursued the same sort of effort to hide things from inspectors. Do you know whether this particular scientist has suggested any other like-minded Iraqis who the military may be talking to now?
MR. FLEISCHER: I’m only going to deal with that which is known. And this administration is allowing the facts to speak for themselves in this matter. The administration has no need to say it is one way or another way. The facts speak for themselves here. And what other facts emerge will emerge. And that’s part of the process we’re going through.
Q: I wanted to ask about Medicare. How does the administration respond to critics that say that adding a prescription drug benefit to the program might actually cripple it? That it won’t control costs, but that, in fact, costs will continue to escalate in the years — and that this is really — it’s politically a good thing, but practically speaking, it’s bad policy?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is an issue that came up yesterday in a meeting that the President had with members of Congress, and members of Congress looked at existing entitlement programs — some members did — and talked about how their growth has ballooned in terms of cost. The President’s response was that if you take a look at what this new program could get prescription drugs to seniors would call for, it calls, for the first time, for new private sector health care to be offered within Medicare, under Medicare, so that seniors have choices and options, and therefore, competition.
And according to the administration’s estimators, the actuaries, and estimated 47 percent of senior citizens will sign up for this new Medicare program, which is a huge influx of people, into new private sector plans that are better at controlling costs than what the government has done. The experience of government enterprises has been that the cost have grown considerably higher than original projections. By injecting for the first time private sector competition, the President views this as the best way to modulate and to make certain that prices do not grow beyond what was expected.
Q: Moving from the public aspects of it to the private part —
MR. FLEISCHER: Moving from government price-controlled Medicare into — within Medicare, private plans with choices and options exactly like members of Congress have, just like members of Congress have on the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan.
Q: With all this talk about creating jobs and putting Americans back to work, is the President worried about the potential negative effect of this national Do Not Call Registry on an industry that employs almost 450,000 Americans?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you always have to get your fundamentals first when it comes to what actions the government can take. And the President is concerned about people being able to go to their homes, be in their kitchens, be in bedrooms at night, and not get bothered by phone calls that they don’t want from telemarketing organizations; that the public has a right not to receive those calls if they don’t want them. And first things first, from those principles about honoring people’s right to privacy. Jobs get created in our economy through all kinds of ways. But the principle of honoring people’s privacy is an important one.
Q: You said, “first things first” — so you stop the calls and —
MR. FLEISCHER: By that logic, if jobs was the only issue at stake, then the government should just put everybody on the federal payroll because that’s a good policy to create jobs. There are reasons that people have jobs, is because their work leads to consumers who want their product. If consumers don’t want their product, the consumers have a right to speak for themselves.
Q: Have you done any kind of an analysis on how many jobs would be lost as a result of this registry?
MR. FLEISCHER: You may want to log on to Ask the White House tomorrow, and ask the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. That’s at 11:00 a.m., Ask the White House, www.whitehouse.gov. Anything else I can serve up, John? (Laughter.)
Q: Ari, if you could also tell us, has the President ever received an unwanted telemarketing phone call?
MR. FLEISCHER: Probably not since he got to the White House. (Laughter.) He gets other unwanted calls every now and then, however.
Q: The President’s going to California tomorrow to make a couple of fundraising speeches. Does he think it’s important for the Republican presidential candidate, presumably himself, to stay in the California race to the end? Does he think it’s important not only for the national ticket, but for congressional tickets? And does he intend to do that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think political calculations, things of that nature, what states will get contested, is a matter quite a bit down the road, and the campaign will address that. There’s nothing I can get into.
Q: Ari, does the President continue to believe that the trailers found in Iraq were proof of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?
MR. FLEISCHER: It’s exactly as he said.
Q: Ari, just back to the Medicare question. Just to clarify, you said that your actuaries believed 47 percent would leave traditional Medicare for one of the private plans.
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct.
Q: But there have been a number of other studies that —
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct, the Congressional Budget Office has it at a much lower rate.
Q: Yes, much lower. So didn’t the congressional Republicans come back at you and say, you are just asking us to trust your actuaries, that this — I mean, given the difference, you’re saying 47 percent, I think the CBS study was 10 percent.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it actually may have been even lower. But the point is valid. There is a dispute about what percentage will enter into, and this is why actuaries do what they do and make their best judgments. And there are two different points of view on it, and that will be reflected in the vote the members of Congress took.
The question was what does the President think. And the President, based on the actuaries that formed this study, gave his judgment. Time will tell if that’s rather wrong, but the principle of giving people more choices and more options is something this President, as you know, believes very strongly in. And we’ll see what the majority believes.
END 12:24 P.M.