THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR SANDY BERGER, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE WILLIAM COHEN, AND CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS GENERAL HUGH SHELTON
The Briefing Room
11:44 A.M. EST
Q Sandy, what do you say to criticism that Saddam Hussein keeps jerking the United States around, that he is able to provoke a crisis and then end it on his timetable?
MR. BERGER: I think, as the President has indicated, he is more isolated today than he has ever been before since the Gulf War. We were able to build a consensus against Saddam Hussein. We said from the beginning that our preferred outcome was to get the UNSCOM inspectors back in. Saddam Hussein yesterday, finally, last night, made an unequivocal, clear statement that the UNSCOM inspectors could come back in unconditionally. We will test that. If it works, what the President said will play itself out. If it doesn't work, if they do not comply, we are prepared to act as the President indicated.
Q Sandy, will you act without warning, because that was the same thing you said last time in February -- testing it and then a month or two later they again interrupt things and then there are warnings again. Will you again go back to the Security Council if in a month or so they deny access --
MR. BERGER: We don't believe we have any obligation to go back to the Security Council.
Q I would like to ask -- you don't have any obligation?
MR. BERGER: We do not believe we need any Security Council authority, particularly under these circumstances. We don't believe we needed it last night or yesterday, and we certainly don't believe --
Q Or even from Congress?
MR. BERGER: -- we need it under the circumstances if, in the face of this, Saddam Hussein does not fulfill the clear obligations that he made last night.
Let me add one thing and let the Secretary and the General answer something. When I came out here last night, we had a four-page letter from Saddam Hussein that a pack of Iraqi lawyers couldn't have figured out. It was convoluted. It was conditional. It was ungrammatical. And it was perfectly -- thoroughly unclear.
What happened after Prime Minister Blair and the United States government said we refuse to accept that, notwithstanding the fact that many were prepared to accept that, is that we received actually two additional letters -- the President said three, but two -- very clear, very understandable, saying unconditional compliance, rescission of the decisions of August and October -- clear, simple statements.
Now, we will test that. We will see whether or not the actions follow the words. I think that we had an obligation to test that before we launched a military attack. If in fact the actions do not meet the words, obviously we will have to consider other actions.
Q Mr. Secretary, may I ask you a question, sir -- actually a three-part question, if I may. First of all, would you clarify for the record, was a cruise missile strike ordered by the Commander in Chief? Second, did this country or any other inform Saddam Hussein that such an air strike was imminent? And thirdly, will the deployed buildup that you ordered deployed continue in the Persian Gulf?
SECRETARY COHEN: As the President indicated, we were prepared to act. The President did issue an order. And as we know, that order was rescinded based upon the fact that the Iraqis indicated they were about to capitulate. And that is precisely what they have done.
They ran it up to the end. They saw two things. They saw, number one, that we were serious, this not an empty threat; and number two, that we were substantial in numbers and capability. As a result of that demonstration of force and also the diplomatic initiatives that had been taken, namely all of the support that we had throughout the Gulf and the Security Council, they finally came to the conclusion it was the wise and prudent for them to do to capitulate to the demands of the United States.
Secondly, as we have indicated, we have a significant force in place which can be augmented within a very short timeframe, and we've indicated by our actions that we can augment that very quickly. We continue to have forces flowing into the region. We will make a judgment in terms of whether or not we should have enough on hand and it can be again increased on a moment's notice if we have to do so.
Q What is the timeframe you're saying between the rescinding and the order? How much time does Saddam have before the military strike hit Baghdad?
SECRETARY COHEN: I won't go into any operational details other than saying it was close, and I would say very close. It was close.
Q Secretary Cohen, by President's language -- he used some very strong words -- was he calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein? And if so, what can the United States or the world community do to facilitate that?
SECRETARY COHEN: He was not calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. What he was saying is that we are prepared and will work with opposition forces or groups to try to bring about, at some future time, a more democratic type of regime that's more responsive to its people and not engage in the harsh and brutal repression of them. But that's something in a long-term goal, and we have taken steps in consultation with Congress to put into place Iraqi Free Radio. And we will continue to take other measures that will hopefully build a more significant opposition in the future.
Q Is the U.S. subsidizing opposition groups?
SECRETARY COHEN: We're not getting into a subsidization. Congress has indicated it would like very much for us to pursue this program. We will work with Congress and work with other groups on a very prudent, systematic, step-by-step basis. We're not going to take any premature action but rather build long-term support, hopefully, for a different type of regime.
Q Mr. Secretary, will you be keeping the same strength of force in the Gulf for several months in order to act immediately, because the last time in February, you drew down, and now it takes awhile to get those forces back. Will it truly be without warning next time?
SECRETARY COHEN: As we've indicated, we don't need very much time. We have a significant force on hand. We had the forces on hand that could have taken action on a moments notice. We also indicated that in order to give the President more flexibility for different military options, we augmented that force. We can flow the forces in and flow them back but maintain a steady force there that is more than adequate to deal with Saddam Hussein.
Q Sir, a follow-up, does this indicate, though, a change of the fact that you're now saying, no warning. Is this a change of policy, a strengthening of those words?
SECRETARY COHEN: We've indicated in the past that we have more than adequate forces on hand to take and exercise a military option at any time. That still will remain the case.
Q But, Mr. Secretary, bringing the forces in and out and back and forth, does that create, or are you concerned that it creates, a credibility problem for the administration when there are constant threats and military strikes that never materialize.
SECRETARY COHEN: Not at all. It's no credibility problem. As a matter of fact, we had the total support of our Gulf friends. We have all that is necessary for us to carry out a military operation. They understand that we can increase those forces or decrease those forces, depending upon the nature of the threat. And we'll continue to do so.
MR. BERGER: Let me just add one thing. I don't think there was any -- in terms of credibility, I don't think there was any credibility gap of Saddam Hussein last night. He understood that we were prepared to use force, and that is why he backed down.
Q But, Sandy, don't you think in the Arab world, they're going to look at it and say, okay, Saddam won again?
MR. BERGER: No, I don't believe that's true. And I don't believe that's what they're saying. I believe -- listen, we have said from the beginning, and they've said from the beginning, that the best outcome here is for him to back down, let the UNSCOM inspectors in, and do their work. He's backed down. Let's see if he lets the UNSCOM inspectors in. Let's see if they can do their work.
We have to be able to take "yes" for an answer when we say that, if he capitulates, it is a better outcome here to test that and see whether UNSCOM can get back in and do its job.
SECRETARY COHEN: Let me add one thing to what Sandy is saying. We just had a Gulf Council resolution, the GCC just passed a resolution last week saying, we want Saddam to reverse his decision; if he doesn't reverse his decision, then he must bear the full consequences of his actions. Very direct language on their part, saying, reverse, Saddam. Saddam has now reversed his course of action.
Q What would have been the human cost in terms of an air strike, a continuous -- in casualties?
SECRETARY COHEN: Well, it has always been our policy to try to minimize damage and injury to innocent people. We can talk about collateral damage all -- on all occasions; whenever we take military action, that is a concern that we take into account. And all of our planning took that into account.
Q Mr. Secretary, given the fact that you had Saddam back down when the jets apparently were in the air and all the missiles were targeted, it's very easy to understand why he might be willing to back down with that kind of pressure. But the question that keeps coming back, I'm sure, for the American people is, how can you be sure that he's going to be good to his word when he's never been good to his word in the past. Why do you believe him?
SECRETARY COHEN: I think the President addressed this issue. Number one, there is as broad an international consensus about Saddam Hussein as there's ever been. There's never been this kind of international consensus that he has to abide by these obligations.
He was completely isolated. There was not a country -- not France, not Russia, not China, not anyone -- supporting him. And then when he saw that the Gulf states also, along with Egypt and Syria, passed that resolution, I think that he understood he no longer has any friends that he can seek to divide either the Council or the allies. And so I think that, in combination with our strength on hand, and with the commitment that the President has laid out -- that he has the following obligations, and it's very clear what the President said -- he not only has to allow the inspectors back in to conduct their inspections, he now has to agree, and through Kofi Annan, who has accepted this, he must have an affirmative duty to supply information that he has withheld in the past. Those will be the tests that we are looking for, and if we don't see it in his actions, then there are other consequences that flow from it.
Q How much damage has been done, given the interruption -- how much damage has been done to the inspectors? And how much information have you lost in the ability of Saddam Hussein to move his weapons around during this time?
MR. BERGER: Well, I think a more definitive answer has to come from UNSCOM. There has been monitoring up until the last week or so, so that all of the sites that were under monitoring supervision have been -- cameras have been working up until UNSCOM withdrew earlier this week. But clearly, with UNSCOM out, he could reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction in a matter of months, not years.
So we now have -- we will now test the proposition of whether or not he'll let UNSCOM back in to do their job and avoid that potential of reconstitution. If he does not, as the President has indicated very clearly, we are prepared to act.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.
Q Joe, may we ask General Shelton a question, sir? General, with all the stand-downs and alerts, what is the morale of the troops like in this situation and their readiness factor?
GENERAL SHELTON: First of all, let me say how proud I am of the trained and ready force that we have maintained in the Persian Gulf, in particular the ones that are deployed right now, as well the Crisis Response Force that Secretary Cohen referred to and that we're in the process of deploying at this time.
The morale of the troops that are involved in this operation which, of course, our forward deployed our first-to-fight, is very high. They are professionals; they understand their business. But those of us in uniform always understand the price of war, that war is a very dirty business. And so that any time that we can be a part of bringing about a peaceful solution, we're always happy for that. Thanks.
MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.
Q Joe, was the President up all night meeting with his national security team?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think he was up well past midnight but not up all night.
Q Where did Sandy sleep?
MR. LOCKHART: Where did Sandy sleep?
Q Did he pay $250,000?
MR. LOCKHART: Say again?
Q Where did Sandy sleep? In the Lincoln Bedroom?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I think he slept somewhere near his office. We really are doing logistics questions here.
Q -- about when the decision was made?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me put that on hold, and I'll try to do that in another forum.
Q The President's travel plans for Asia.
MR. LOCKHART: As I told you yesterday, the President hopes to resume the trip -- the Japan, Korea, Guam portion of the trip. At the earliest, later this afternoon, hopefully, we can give you some more logistical information on how that will happen.
Q Joe, is there any more detail you can give us, tick-tock, on who the President was meeting with last night and how late he was up, what time he got --
MR. LOCKHART: I'd rather put that off and talk to you at another time on that.
Q Is this crisis over now, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: Terry, you've had enough people who are more qualified than me to ask that to. I said I'd do some logistics here.
Q Joe, a lot of the polls from the American public are suggesting that people are sick and tired of spending millions of dollars to go to Iraq and build up force and then pull back when Saddam says, okay, I'm going to do what I'm supposed to do, and then go back and do the same thing and the circle all over again. What are you saying -- what is the administration saying to these people who are sick of spending these millions of dollars when this thing could have been taken care of yesterday?
MR. LOCKHART: Okay, I'm not familiar with the polls you're talking about. I think the American public supports the President and the military as we pursue our vital national interests around the world.
Q What is the President going to do the rest of the day?
MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any -- he doesn't have a schedule. We'll let you know if that changes.
Q Anything tomorrow?
MR. LOCKHART: Tomorrow, as far as his schedule, let me look into it.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 11:55 A.M. EST