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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 16, 1998
                          PRESS BRIEFING BY

                          The Briefing Room

7:18 P.M. EST

MR. BERGER: You've heard a good deal over the last hour or so from the President, Secretary Cohen, General Shelton, Secretary Albright. I want to basically take your questions. Let me simply reconstruct some recent history and take you back to November 14th when the President decided to pause to halt the military strike when Saddam Hussein essentially caved into the demand that we had made that he fully cooperate with UNSCOM.

At that time, as you recall, Saddam, the Iraqi officials sent a letter to the Security Council indicating that they would commit to full and unconditional cooperation with UNSCOM. And the President on November 15, when he said he was pausing or staying the military action, was very clear that he wanted to test whether or not Saddam Hussein would, in fact, comply with the commitment he had made. And he outlined five criteria with which that would be judged.

And I would point out that on the night of November 14 -- 13, I guess -- 14 -- the last thing that we put in place was a phone call at 3:00 a.m. in the morning to Secretary Annan to make clear that these were the -- these five elements of compliance were the same way in which he saw compliance. And he said that that was, in fact, the case. And they involved resolving all outstanding issues with UNSCOM, giving inspectors unfettered access, turning over all relevant documents, acceptance of all WMD resolutions and non-interference with the weapons inspectors. And Prime Minister Blair and the President on the 14th and 15th made it very clear that they needed then to test that proposition.

On the 17th of November, UNSCOM began to test Iraq's cooperation. The timetable for that effort was established by UNSCOM and its Chairman, Richard Butler. It completed its work on Sunday and reported to the Council yesterday. UNSCOM's conclusion is unambiguous. Iraq did not provide the full cooperation it promised on 14 November. They wrote -- the report noted that, "Iraq's conduct ensured that no progress was able to be made in the field of disarmament." And finally, perhaps most significantly, that "the Commission's not able to conduct its substantive disarmament work." In short, the Commission has essentially said it's not able to function. It has been essentially eviscerated.

Under these circumstances, the President, I believe had no choice but to take military action. He proceeded on the recommendation of all of his national security advisors, and in particular, the recommendation of his military advisors, that if he acted he should do so swiftly with the least possible warning and the greatest degree of surprise for the greatest degree of effectiveness of the strikes themselves.

Now, the President and the Secretary have outlined the objectives here. The objectives of this military action are to attack his weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery production capability and to attack his military capability to threaten his neighbors and, in so doing, to degrade both. And the mission will continue until such time as we believe the objectives have been completed.

Q If I could follow up on that, the President said, talking about timing, and one of the reasons for acting today, he wanted to avoid initiating a military strike during Ramadan, or words to that effect. Does that suggest, since Ramadan will start in four or five days, that this will be completed, or can you continue a military strike during Ramadan?

MR. BERGER: Well, there is no artificial deadline for this action. The President expressed the sensitivity that we have to the holy month of Ramadan and said in particular that he understood that initiating military action during that period would be particularly offensive. But, as I say, there is no -- I'm not going to specify how long this will go on.

Q Then you're suggesting that it might continued then, by emphasizing that the initiating was the key word.

MR. BERGER: I would not rule that out.

Q Sandy, would you respond to this, which has already been reported, that the air strikes, that the attack itself will end before Ramadan begins -- that's been reported -- and I want to ask you how you can conceive of this as more than a so-called slap on the wrist or pin prick -- how it can be possibly equated to what was advertised a month ago as a massive strike severely punishing Saddam? You can't do it in three days, can you?

MR. BERGER: Well, I think that this is a substantial military action. I don't want to discuss the details of it. It is no less than what we had contemplated in November.

Q In duration?

MR. BERGER: I'm not going to discuss duration. Nor did we discuss duration in November. But I believe this will be a substantial strike, and I believe, hopefully, it will accomplish its objectives. Now that UNSCOM is not on the ground to help detect WMD and to be a deterrent against WMD reconstitution, we will seek to do, through air strikes, some of that work. It's obviously not as good as UNSCOM, but there is certainly a diminution in his capability that we can effectuate. And, by hitting his military infrastructure, we can reduce his ability to threaten his neighbors.

Q Is this the end of UNSCOM, then? Are you talking about, now, a policy of military containment? And if not, what are you looking for from Saddam at this point?

MR. BERGER: Well, I think it's very important to recognize -- let me say this first. If, at some point, Saddam Hussein were to decide to allow UNSCOM back in and to cooperate with it fully, that would be a welcome development. I think it is a highly unlikely development.

But the fact of the matter is, UNSCOM has been ineffective for some time. And that's what Richard Butler said on Tuesday. He said, we can't do our job. And for UNSCOM, it can stay in Baghdad, but it's a sham, is essentially what he's saying, because of the deception; because of the tactics and techniques that have been escalating, particularly over the last year. It is ineffectual; it is not able to do its job by its own judgment. And therefore, to have a Potemkin UNSCOM in Iraq doesn't make much sense. It doesn't provide much deterrence against WMD activity.

Q But I don't understand how this will. I mean, can military containment provide an effective means to limit his building of weapons of mass destruction?

MR. BERGER: Well, I think there have been several elements to a containment policy. I think there have been basically four. One has been the economic sanctions, which we will endeavor to maintain in place. Those have deprived Saddam Hussein of $120 billion that he would otherwise have to reconstitute his military. Not just WMD; his tanks, everything else. Unless he's in full compliance with the resolutions, and there's no -- that doesn't seem to be over the horizon, we will seek to maintain the sanctions.

Number two, we've sought to maintain UNSCOM as a mechanism to help detect and deter the reconstitution of his WMD program. Number three, we've had a credible threat of force, which says, basically, if you act recklessly; if you threaten your neighbors, we're going to act. And number four, we've tried to hold together the support from the region and from other key allies.

If UNSCOM is essentially ended by Saddam Hussein, and if we take no action as a result, two of those four elements have been destroyed -- UNSCOM and the threat of force. Because the threat of force will be meaningless if, under these circumstances, the President did not act.

Q Sandy, had you had the plan already set up that, if Butler's report came back as you probably expected that it would come back, that this attack could start at this time? It didn't take you very long to start the attack. Was this already in the planning stages?

MR. BERGER: We began planning for this on November 15th, after the last episode. We did so by putting our forces in a position and in a posture that could act very quickly. We knew soon thereafter that there would be a series of inspections roughly during this week. I don't know that we had a judgment as to whether Saddam Hussein would comply. I mean, one would think that since at the end of this, had there been full cooperation, there would have been a comprehensive review in the U.N. to look at all of his compliance that maybe for three weeks he could have figured out a way to comply.

It suggests to me, and it suggests to the President, that he has no intention of complying. Even when three weeks down the road had he complied and cooperated, he would have had a comprehensive review, which would have looked at all of the issues.

Q What do you say to the Republican critics who are spitting mad about this, they think it's to distract from impeachment. Eagleburger said it smells to high heaven. Trent Lott is against it and so forth. I mean, is there -- can you appease them in any way?

MR. BERGER: Well, I could only say this, that this in an action taken by the President solely on the basis of his best judgment of what is in the national security interest of the United States, both with respect to the action and the swiftness with which he acted after Butler's report. It is an action that was supported by all of his national security advisors, military, foreign policy, and otherwise. And no other factor was permitted to alter that.

Q Does that include that his best judgment is that his impeachment is not in the best interest of the United States?

MR. BERGER: No, I think -- I don't even know what that question means. It's kind of cute, but anyhow -- it means that that was not a factor in the President's decision-making.

Q Sandy, when did it become apparent that a decision about military force was imminent? And when did the actual final decision get made?

MR. BERGER: I think that it became clear, John, on Tuesday, when we -- we had some indication of Butler's conclusions as early as, I think, Sunday. But we had basically had his final conclusions on Tuesday, I think -- that we were on the plane, literally coming back from the Middle East.

We had a conference call on the plane, secure conference call. The Secretary and myself were on the plane with the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of Central Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, my Deputy, Jim Steinberg, and Don Kerrick -- Deputies -- and Leon Feurth, the Vice President's National Security Advisor, were on the phone here. We talked it through. We went around the horn and asked everybody what their recommendation was. The recommendation was unanimous the President should go forward.

Q Can I have a follow up on what Helen said? Senator Lott has questioned the timing; he has also questioned the intensity of the attach. And Senator John McCain, who usually backs any military action, has also questioned whether this is just a pinprick action or whether you'll go much farther and really degrade Saddam Hussein.

MR. BERGER: Well, I think it's a little premature to judge the intensity of the action, which has been going on for two and a half hours.

Q But their question is whether it will be --

MR. BERGER: So let's make that judgment after the fact, rather than before the fact.

Q Well, what I was saying was Trent Lott and John McCain basically were saying --

MR. BERGER: Questioned the timing. Let me walk through the timing consideration again, because it is certainly a question that we knew would be raised. It was the very strong view of the military people, when we began thinking about the prospect of this after November 15th -- after the President basically laid down the marker, the word of the United States, that if he didn't' comply we would act -- that if we acted, we should act swiftly. We've learned from previous episodes that the longer the time between CNN reporting that we're thinking about acting and actually acting, the more time Saddam Hussein has to disperse his forces, the more time he has to move things that we would like not to be moved.

And, therefore, the element of surprise here, of tactical surprise, was extremely important. And that should Butler come back and report, I think we didn't anticipate it would be as stark as it is. But should he come back and report clearly that there was a problem, that we should act as swiftly as it was militarily possible. And that basically was a 24-hour period.

Q There's no visible sign of support from anybody but the British. A month ago you had a lot of people lined up. Where is everybody else?

MR. BERGER: Well, based on the phone calls that all of us have made today -- the Secretary of State, myself, Secretary of Defense, the President -- I think there is a good deal of support in the world --

Q They're not out there publicly.

MR. BERGER: Well, if could finish. We made a conscious decision and back in February we put together a coalition of several -- three, four dozen countries that all had participated in the arsenal that was prepared. That is a time consuming process. You have to fit in the extra plane* so that it interfaces with the rest of the operation. It takes weeks to do that. You lose the element of surprise. We decided that we would act with the British, ourselves, with the support of many other countries, but not necessarily with their participation because the process of securing that participation in and of itself would have taken us days and now weeks.

Q How about just an endorsement?

Q Do you know where Saddam Hussein is, and do you care whether he is alive or dead?

MR. BERGER: I suspect we will see that.

Q Sandy, do you care if --

MR. BERGER: Let me just say -- excuse me, Bill -- that yesterday the Gulf Cooperation Council, which consists of all of the Gulf countries, issued a statement saying in terms very similar to the statement that they issued back in the second week of November, that if Saddam Hussein did not comply and did not cooperation, the consequences of his actions would be his responsibility alone. And I take that to be quite a forthcoming statement.

Q Sandy, do you know where Saddam is?

Q Did you specifically seek the support of the congressional leadership? Did you get their support? And are you surprised or dismayed by Lott's reaction?

MR. BERGER: We talked through this period with the congressional leadership, both in the House and in the Senate. Obviously, we would like the support of all members of Congress. It's a judgment they have to make. I noticed that Senator Helms just issued a statement in support of what we did. I believe there are other Republicans and Democrats in the Congress that are supportive.

Q Sandy, do you know where Saddam Hussein is? And does the administration care if he is alive or dead?

MR. BERGER: I just got a quick factual correction. The GCC statement was last week, not yesterday.

Q Do you know where Saddam Hussein is at this moment and does the administration care if he is alive or dead?

MR. BERGER: Well, I think I've set forward the objectives of the mission; that is, to degrade his military capability and to degrade his WMD and missile delivery capability and I'm not going to go any further in terms of --

Q The Russian Duma is scheduled to vote within the next 10 days or so on START II. Given Russia's obvious attitude toward this military action, do you expect what's going on right now to delay START II even further or even kill it?

MR. BERGER: Well, I would hope not. START II is very much not only in the interest of the United States, it's very much in the interest of Russia. And I would hope the members of the Duma would act in the best interest of the Russian Federation.

Q What is your expectation.

MR. BERGER: I have no expectation with that. I think it was hard to predict before this; we certainly would hope that they would do that.

Q Sandy, half a dozen senators have sent a letter to the President saying it's time to get serious about implementing the Iraq Liberation Act and urging that Saddam Hussein be indicted for war crimes. Is indicting Saddam Hussein something the administration is considering?

MR. BERGER: Well, first of all let me say, as the President said on November 15th, we -- and he said again today -- in the interim we have to contain Saddam Hussein, all the elements that I mentioned to Claire, in terms of sanctions, in terms of use of military force where necessary.

But over the long-term we agree with the Congress that the solution here is a government in Iraq that respects its own people. We intend to proceed on the Iraqi Liberation Act. We have already done a number of things -- most importantly is to change what's called our declarative policy with respect to Iraq, that is, what our stated goals are.

We will work very actively with the opposition. We've already met with them in London. One of the things that's important is to try to bring the opposition groups together in a more coherent, cohesive operation. Right now they're quite divided. We will do -- I think as Secretary Albright has said that we would support and indite Iraq campaign, Radio Free Iraq. This is something that has to be seen as a long-term goal; we have to proceed in a practical, prudent, effective way -- but we have to keep our eye on the goal and be steady about it. And I think we are moving toward that objective.

Q Sandy, on many occasions in the past when Saddam Hussein broke his promises the United States refrained from taking military action. This time Clinton takes action the very eve of his impeachment vote, which is expected against him, and effectively delays that vote. How can you say that this doesn't at least have the perception of "Wag The Dog"?

MR. BERGER: Well, I can't deal with perceptions; I can only deal with realities. The fact is, in those previous instances, what happened was the United States built up our military capability, we threatened force, and he backed down.

Now, in this situation -- having backed down on November 15th, and our setting criteria -- he violated those commitments that he made on November 14th. And the President was very clear on November 14th and 15th of what would happen if he did not fully cooperate.

And what the United States says matters in the world. And the credibility of our word, and the fact that we will carry out what we say we will do, is important. So all I can tell you is that this was -- we have spent countless hours on this over the last two weeks, and certainly over the last several days. And the President has been extremely firm and steadfast in making it clear that the criteria here, that he was going to make a decision on, was what is in the national security interest, and that the fact of the congressional debate would not alter what he saw was his responsibility as President.

Q Sandy, was the attack actually launched last night? Did you start the process -- was the trigger pulled last night? And if so, what was this morning for? What was the meeting this morning about?

MR. BERGER: We just like each other, we like to meet at 7:00 a.m. when we arrive home at 1:00 a.m. I don't really want to get into too many details about timelines here. In a situation like this, the President essentially makes a "go" decision, which he made -- initially last night, but there are points in which, as we know from November 14th, where he can turn the key off. And there was a point today in which the real decision as to whether or not to go forward -- or to stop going forward, I guess, is the best way to put it -- arose.

The President -- we had a principals meeting at 7:00 A.M. The President joined us down in the situation room. We went back through it again; we told him where things were with respect to UNSCOM evacuation; with respect to notification of allies; with respect to support from the region. And, you know, we sort of went around the table again and everybody had their say.

Q Sandy, could you clarify on briefing congressional leaders -- did you do that today? Did you do it last night? Or are you just saying you talked to them in general, after November 15th? And what did they say to you when you -- if you asked them for their support or for their opinion about the wisdom of going forward?

MR. BERGER: I have stayed in touch with former Speaker Gingrich; Speaker-elect Livingston? What is the title -- Speaker Livingston --

Q Congressman Livingston.

MR. BERGER: Congressman Livingston; Congressman Gephardt; Senator Daschle and Senator Lott through this period to basically just keep them abreast of what was happening -- inspections were going to take place; Butler was going to go forward; this was basically the timetable.

So I have talked to them a couple of times a week during this period. Yesterday, Secretary Cohen -- since he was here, and we were on planes with lousy phones -- spoke at length to Mr. Livingston, Mr. Lott and Mr. Gingrich. The President, last night, when we got back home at about 1:00 a.m., called Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Daschle. And then today, he spoke to, I think, all of the leaders this afternoon, before the action commenced.

Q And told them that it was underway, or about to be underway?

MR. BERGER: Told them that he -- today he told them that he intended to proceed, obviously.

Q And did you get support from the Republican leadership there?

MR. BERGER: Well, I don't think it's fair for me to characterize their views. They will speak to that themselves.

Q How worried are you that what you've outlined is essentially, as you put it, a policy right now of military containment, and then in the long-term, perhaps, a new regime. But in between, how do you monitor the weapons of mass destruction program effectively because the case you all have made over and over again is that without UNSCOM you can't do that.

MR. BERGER: I come back to my answer to your earlier question. You assume that UNSCOM was alive and well and functioning --

Q No, no, I don't --

MR. BERGER: What Richard Butler said yesterday was, UNSCOM is sick and ineffective. And I think that it's been their judgment over the past several months that they have become increasingly unable to perform their functions. So when they reach that judgment that they can't do their job, they can stay in Baghdad and stay at the Baghdad Hilton or wherever they stay and go out from time to time. But in terms of effective work, what they have said is that they can't do effective work.

Now, what we can do -- so we have to recognize that fact, what we can do militarily is to destroy some of the facilities that relate to WMD* and the missile systems. We can monitor -- we have, obviously, our own means of intelligence. And to the extent we have any information that -- we have information that they are reconstituting, any of their WMD* programs, we reserve the right to take military action again.

Q You said earlier that it would be a positive development, although you certainly didn't expect it, if Iraq were to allow UNSCOM back in and comply fully. Is there anything that Iraq could now say or do that would encourage the administration to consider bringing to an end more quickly this current series of attacks? Is there anything they can say or do that would cut any ice with you now?

MR. BERGER: I think the -- I think we will conduct and complete the mission as planned.

Q Sandy, going back to the "Wag the Dog" theory real quick -- I know you don't like it, but nonetheless, you have Republicans talking against this timing issue, but you also have friends --

MR. BERGER: Let me just interrupt you for a second. Let's let all the returns come in. I suspect by the end of the night you will see some very prominent -- excuse me, if I can finish -- you'll see some very prominent Republicans being supportive. Senator Helms, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is obviously someone whose views matter.

Q Sandy, but going back to some of the Democrats and some of the friends of the President, Reverend Jesse Jackson just came out less than a half an hour ago and said that especially now that he's going to be holding this rally tomorrow, he said that the motive was clear, but the timing is suspicious.

MR. BERGER: Well, he's wrong. And I'm a great friend and admirer of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, but he's just wrong.

Q You're basically saying that the U.S. will be in a kind of state of war with Iraq from now on until --

MR. BERGER: No, listen -- understand we have had a policy of containment for seven years. This is not the first time we've used military force. The Bush administration used military force after the Gulf War. In 1992 we have used military force once when they -- we learned that they had attempted to assassinate President Bush. We deployed military force when they started to move towards Kuwait.

I think the fact of the matter is that so long as Saddam Hussein is there, he has to be contained. If he believes that there is a credible threat of force, he is less likely to act recklessly. Had we not acted today in view of the conclusion of UNSCOM that it had been rendered ineffective, we would have eliminated the credible threat of force. Saddam Hussein unrestricted or unimpeded by the fear of force is a danger to the region.

Thank you.

Q Thank you.

END 7:50 P.M. EST