THE WHITE HOUSE Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR SAMUEL BERGER
The Briefing Room
5:05 P.M. EST
MR. BERGER: Good afternoon. From the beginning of the current crisis in August, Saddam has had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate that he's prepared to come back into compliance and cooperate fully with the U.N. inspectors, with UNSCOM. Given his long history of avoiding his obligations, we have every reason to be skeptical, because we've seen this before: broken and unfulfilled promises, so-called positive answers that turned negative over time.
We have been more than patient. We agreed to the Iraqi promise in Geneva last fall to resume cooperation. We agreed to the commitment Saddam gave to Secretary General Kofi Annan in February to come back into compliance, and we agreed to give that the benefit of the doubt. We agreed in September to a comprehensive review of Iraq's compliance record. And now we've waited for three and a half months since Saddam stopped inspections.
The Iraqi letter sent today to Secretary General Annan is neither unequivocal nor unconditional; it is unacceptable. Iraq accepts in this letter a comprehensive review, which was proposed by the Security Council, but on its own unacceptable terms -- terms which the Security Council already has rejected.
In a sense, he's saying to the national community, the Security Council, "I will come into compliance if you accept my terms, not if I accept your terms. This would only set up a new crisis a few weeks down the road when the review does not meet Iraq's criteria. In short, instead of simply complying with the requirements of the Security Council, Saddam is saying that the Council should comply with his requirements. This is the world turned upside down.
We will be consulting with our friends and allies about next steps.
Q So, Sandy, what are you asking of the Iraqis at this moment?
MR. BERGER: We have said from the beginning that what we expect to see from the Iraqis is a clear declaration, a clear statement that they will fully cooperate with UNSCOM and comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions. We do not see that in this letter.
Q For the last several days, at least the last 72 hours, U.S. officials have said the time for negotiation is over. What would you say to critics who would say that by letting this now string out, when you have said it's unacceptable, that's what you're doing with Saddam -- negotiating.
MR. BERGER: We're not negotiating. We have said from the beginning that what we expect to see is a clear statement -- a public clear statement from Saddam Hussein that he intended to cooperate with UNSCOM and to comply with the Security Council resolutions. Instead, we have a letter, and particularly an annex, filled with conditions which are unacceptable to us.
Q Two questions. Number one, if the Iraqis had not included the two-page addendum, would that have been acceptable? And number two, when you say that you want a public statement from Saddam, are you saying --
MR. BERGER: From the Iraqis, I said.
Q Okay, you're saying from the Iraqis. Would that be another letter?
MR. BERGER: Well, I'm not going to prescribe what the Iraqis ought to do. They've had plenty of time to comply. And this letter is unacceptable.
Q What about the first half of the question? If they had not sent a two-page addendum, would that have been acceptable?
MR. BERGER: You know, if I were six foot four, I would be a better basketball player.
Q Who is making the policy here, the U.S. or the U.N.? And isn't the United States beholden to the U.N. decision?
MR. BERGER: Obviously, the U.N. has indicated, passed a number of U.N. resolutions, calling upon the Iraqis to fully comply with Security Council resolutions, indicating that its failure to comply was a flagrant violation and indicating that there would be severe consequences if it did not comply.
Now, obviously, we would prefer always to be in concert with our allies and in concert with the Security Council. In the final analysis, of course, we have to make our own judgments about what is in the United States' national interest.
Q They are meeting tonight, aren't they?
MR. BERGER: The Security Council? I believe the Security Council is meeting.
Q You mean we would not abide by their decision?
MR. BERGER: I don't know that they're being asked to make a decision. We are simply saying the letter we received today is not an acceptable statement from the Iraqis, given their history. It is a highly conditioned statement. It is a statement which asks us to accept this on their times. It will only lead to confusion in the future. And it is not acceptable as we have received it.
Q Mr. Berger, but the U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, just a few minutes ago, described the Iraqi letter as a step in the right direction, that perhaps needs some clarification -- but he welcomed it, as have the Russians, the Chinese, many leaders in the Arab world, the French. Aren't you afraid that the U.S. and the British governments will be isolated if it goes to war?
MR. BERGER: I will let the Secretary General characterize this for himself, whether this is a step in the right direction. The fact is that it is not an acceptable response as far as we're concerned.
Q How long does Saddam have to give you an acceptable response?
MR. BERGER: That is not something that I'm going to comment on. We will --
Q Is there a unlimited time?
MR. BERGER: There certainly is not unlimited time. We have said all along that we are ready to proceed, but we will proceed on the basis of our timetable.
Q There were some reports that the President had already this morning signed an order, or given the order, to begin air strikes, perhaps as early as this evening, before the Iraqi letter was given to the United Nations. Are those reports accurate?
MR. BERGER: We were poised to take military action and we remain poised to take military action.
Q Sandy, Kofi Annan has said that he wants to see --or through his spokesman said -- that he wants to see the relief workers of the United Nations return immediately to Baghdad. And there was a report out of that region that they are ready to respond. So do we want to see the relief workers now go back to Baghdad?
MR. BERGER: We have always said that we would like to see this resolved peacefully, but on acceptable terms. The terms in this letter -- which say, for example, that the burden of proof is on UNSCOM to prove that Iraq is out of compliance, which says that there have to be changes in UNSCOM and the Executive Secretary, Mr. Butler, those are not acceptable conditions to us. So we are not prepared to proceed on this basis.
Q So they should not go back?
MR. BERGER: That is a matter for the Secretary General to determine.
Q If you had launched tonight, you would have done so with cruise missiles, Tomahawks aboard seven Navy ships in the Gulf, maybe CALCMs by B-52s. The Joint Chiefs, we understand, would prefer to wait until all the military assets which have been ordered deployed would be in place, which could take 10 days to two weeks. Are you going to wait that long?
MR. BERGER: Well, we have tried since the beginning of this crisis to provide the President with a range of military options and diplomatic options. And I believe we have done so. I believe that the President, if he decides to act, has a great deal of latitude with respect to when and how he does that.
Q Sandy, even in the best case, if you've got this clear public statement from Saddam, what good would that do? Because if he says it today, he could violate it tomorrow.
MR. BERGER: Well, we haven't received it, so let's wait.
Q Does it concern you that Iraq decided to take this last action only hours, if not minutes, before the U.S. was due to launch strikes? In other words, do you have any concerns that Iraqi intelligence might be so good that they learned about this military action and then decided to make this latest offer?
MR. BERGER: Well, I think you don't have to be a high-priced Iraqi intelligence officer if you're watching any one of your networks to know that something's up.
Q Obviously, they did this action before they --
MR. BERGER: This came as a result of a Security Council meeting yesterday, and then the letter that was sent by the Secretary General last night, which was responded to today.
Q Do you consider this letter more of a stalling tactic than an honest attempt to end the crisis?
MR. BERGER: We don't consider the letter to be responsive to our concern that in order for us to accept the proposition that there will be compliance, there has to be a clear, unequivocal statement to that effect by the Iraqis, that they will to comply with the Security Council resolutions and cooperate with UNSCOM. What we have instead is a letter, and particularly an annex, that's got more holes than Swiss cheese.
Q Mr. Berger, it's widely believed -- to use your words -- that the United States was poised to strike, perhaps as early as today. It's not clear why, if the letter is unacceptable, we would not have gone ahead and done it.
MR. BERGER: Well, I think we did not receive the letter until sometime around midday and obviously wanted to examine the letter and make a determination for ourselves as to whether or not it was a serious letter or not.
Q So you're saying you could proceed on your timetable, as you put it, now because the letter is unacceptable. That's where you are.
MR. BERGER: I would not rule that option out.
Q Mr. Berger, based on anything you know, do you have any reason to believe that Kofi Annan gave assurances to the Iraqi government that if they allowed the weapons inspectors back in to go ahead with their unfettered inspections, the U.S. would acquiesce or support or go alongwith a lifting of the sanctions, based on any communications from the U.S. government to the U.N. Security General?
MR. BERGER: I certainly hope not because that would not have been an accurate representation.
END 5:15 P.M. EST