For Immediate Release
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
(Pretoria, South Africa)
July 9, 2003[...]
PRESS GAGGLE WITH ARI FLEISCHER TO THE TRAVEL POOLUnion House
Pretoria, South Africa
[Excerpts on discredited Iraq/Niger/uranium link]
Q: What's the final language, Ari, your final position on the State of the Union speech and the uranium -- I know they were working on stuff last night, but I never got a chance to read it.
Q: Is this on the record?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, we're back on the record. After the speech, information was learned about the forged documents. With the advantage of hindsight, it's known now what was not known by the White House prior to the speech. This information should not have risen to the level of a presidential speech. There was reporting, although it wasn't very specific, about Iraq's seeking to obtain uranium from Africa. It's a classic issue of how hindsight is 20-20. The process was followed that led to the information going into the State of the Union; information about the yellow cake was only brought to the White House's attention later.
But there's a bigger picture here, and this is what's fundamental -- the case for war against Iraq was based on the threat that Saddam Hussein posed because of his possession of weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological, and his efforts to reconstitute a nuclear program. In 1991, everybody in the world underestimated how close he was to getting a nuclear weapon. The case for going to war against Saddam is as just today as it was the day the President gave that speech.
Q: Ambassador Wilson said he made a case months before that there was no basis to the belief --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, he reported that Niger denied the allegation. That's what Ambassador Wilson reported.
Q: Was that report weighed against other --
MR. FLEISCHER: And of course they would deny the allegation. That doesn't make it untrue. It was only later -- you can ask Ambassador Wilson if he reported that the yellow cake documents were forged. He did not. His report did not address whether the documents were forged or not. His report stated that Niger denied the accusation. He spent eight days in Niger and concluded that Niger denied the allegation. Well, typically, nations don't admit to going around nuclear nonproliferation.
Q: But he said there was a basis to believe their denials.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's different from what he reported. The issue here is whether the documents on yellow cake were forged. He didn't address that issue. That's the information that subsequently came to light, not prior to the speech.
Q: Walk us through how much, if any of this --
MR. FLEISCHER: It was based on the national intelligence estimate; it was based on contemporaneous reporting leading up to the speech, which with the advantage of hindsight we now know that the yellow cake ties to Niger were not accurate. But again, in 1991, the world underestimated how close Iraq was to obtaining nuclear weapons. There is a bigger picture here that is just as valid today as it was the day of the speech.
Q: Are we going the other way now in overestimating their ability to reconstitute --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, obviously the regime is gone, they're not reconstituting anything anymore.
Q: But that really wasn't the question. Did we overestimate his capacity for doing this before the regime was --
MR. FLEISCHER: It remains clear from the United Nations and others that Saddam had biological weapons, chemical weapons that he had not accounted for. Those are weapons of mass destruction. We continue to learn about the Iraqi nuclear program, information such as the scientist who had buried material in his garden for the purpose of bringing it out after the sanctions were imposed. The concerns are valid. The yellow cake report may have turned out to be inaccurate, but the broader concerns remain valid.
So it's important to get this in context. It's important to understand whether one specific sentence based on yellow cake was wrong, that does not change the fundamental case from being right.
Q: Does this increase the onus or the need to come up with significant discoveries of WMD that so far haven't been found?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the American people continue to express their support for ridding the world of Saddam Hussein based on just cause, knowing that Saddam Hussein had biological and chemical weapons that were unaccounted for that we're still confident we'll find. I think the burden is on those people who think he didn't have weapons of mass destruction to tell the world where they are. We know he had them in the '90s, he used them. So just because they haven't yet been found doesn't mean they didn't exist. The burden is on the critics to explain where the weapons of mass destruction are. If they think they were destroyed, the burden is on them to explain when he destroyed them and where he destroyed them.
Q: What's the estimate on how long it will take, and what more access, if any, they need --
MR. FLEISCHER: It will take as long as it takes until they're discovered. The world is safer.
Q: Ari, back on the State of the Union, is there anything that the White House, that the administration is going to do differently to prevent something like that from happening, like how a piece of information that does not rise to the level that should be included in a speech, that ends up being inaccurate --
MR. FLEISCHER: There's always a thorough vetting process. We'll continue to follow the vetting process. But it is the nature of events that information can later be discovered after a speech -- and when that happens, as is in this case, it's important to be forthright, which is what this administration has done -- to discuss it openly, and that's what this administration has done.
Q: When you talked about the contemporaneous reporting right before the speech, what exactly do you mean?
MR. FLEISCHER: There was the national intelligence estimate, intelligence community.
Q: So you had other reports about Niger and about the yellow cake from Niger.
MR. FLEISCHER: -- part of the intelligence community's reporting leading up to the speech --
Q: There wasn't a lot --
Q: Some British --
MR. FLEISCHER: -- which subsequently -- no, the President in the State of the Union cited the British report. But there had been an independent American report which in the instance of yellow cake, subsequently turned out not to be valid. But keep in mind, again, we've said that about the yellow cake for an extended period of time. This administration has been forthright.
Q: Is there anything else to link Saddam Hussein's attempt to acquire weapons to Africa, now that this yellow case -- Niger thing has been discussed?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, there was other reporting. But as I said, it didn't rise to the level of sufficient specificity. But there was other reports, yes.
Q: Is the President still concerned about Africa being a source -- potential source for these weapons?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, because the regime is gone. The regime is gone. You know, just because something didn't make it to the level where it should have been included in a presidential speech, in hindsight, doesn't mean the information was necessarily inaccurate. It means it should not have risen to his level.
This is the nature of some intelligence information. But, again, this is why I go right back to the bigger point, why did we go to war. We went to war because of chemical weapons, biological weapons. And as you know, in the case of nuclear, there are other issues that go into nuclear, not just yellow cake. So, again, that's why I urge you all to just keep this in perspective about what this one sentence means. And we have been honest about discussing the one sentence -- and I think that it's a case to be fair to the administration.