Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I have no opening statement, so I'll be more than pleased to take your questions.
Q President Putin has just said that pulling out of the ABM was a mistake. And once again reiterating that the treaty is a cornerstone of world security. What's your reaction to that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Ron, I think there is much more to his reaction than that. I do not believe that you have all of it. And we will take a look at his reaction in its entirety as the government receives it. And so I will withhold on any reaction until his statement is received in its entirety, because there is much more to it than what you've just indicated.
Q Like what?
Q That doesn't change the fact that he thinks it's a mistake.
Q Good -- very good point. (Laughter.) And also, can I take from your answer that you -- the administration was given advance notice of what the President was going to say?
MR. FLEISCHER: This morning in Moscow, when the official notice was delivered to the Russian Foreign Ministry, our Ambassador Vershbow delivered it to the Acting Foreign Minister. And during that meeting, the United States government was given some type of indication about what Mr. Putin might say.
So I would refer you to his comments in their entirety, and also note, of course, that Mr. Putin has said that the strength of our relationship, even on an area where we may disagree with missile defense, remains strong in many areas. And those areas are constructive and important to both nations, the strategic mutual interests that we have will continue to guide our relationship beyond today's announcement.
Q But, Ari, despite the fact that the President is taking great pains to portray this relationship as extremely cordial and warm and growing, it doesn't change the fact that the United States and Russia couldn't reach a deal; through numerous meetings, they still couldn't reach a deal. So what went wrong? Where was the failure that led to the United States having to defy Russia and other allies who support the ABM Treaty and to unilaterally say that's it, we're out?
MR. FLEISCHER: A couple of points. One, the President has made it plain that the United States intended at some point to move beyond the treaty. And there were a series of discussions that were held to see if anything could be done to accommodate the President's desire to develop a robust testing system that would protect our country within the constraints of any type of agreement within the treaty.
And in the course of the discussions the United States had with Russia, it became clear that no arrangements could be reached that would be satisfying to both countries because in order to properly test, the United States did not want to put itself in the position where there could be misinterpretations or disagreements about the exact nature of the treaty -- did this particular test violate the treaty, did that particular test violate the treaty -- even if the treaty had been somehow amended.
And so the President's judgment was that the most productive way to proceed to maintain good relations would be to proceed with clarity. And that clarity is to move beyond the treaty so that the United States will not be inhibited in any way from developing robust testing systems.
Q Could I follow on one point? Is it -- was one of the major sticking points that Russia -- to what you were saying -- wanted to be consulted in advance of each test, and that's something that the United States was not willing to do?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it wasn't a question of the United States not being willing to do. The United States is going to be very cooperative with Russia as we move forward in describing the tests. But the issue is, in order to test technology like missile defense, one test could lead to another test to a different type of test. It is impossible to, in advance, suggest to anybody, including Russia, here is the exact list of tests we're going to take, because we could have tests one through seven, for example, and as a result of what we learn in those tests, have a different test to test eight.
So it's impossible to lay out with the precision and clarity every step along the way, or to anticipate if every one of the testing regimes would possibly violate a hoped for amendment to the treaty, for example. So the President made the judgment that it is best to proceed with clarity and in a way that no one can misunderstand. And that way we cannot violate a treaty, because we're no longer party to the treaty.
And I think it's no surprise to anybody if the Russians would indicate that they would have preferred the United States to stay in the treaty. But that's why I said that it's not unexpected, but you need to take a look at what Mr. Putin said in its entirety, because it was much more constructive and broad than that.
Q But it appeared for a time, before the President met with President Putin in Crawford, that a deal was possible under which the U.S. would be able to test with Russia's agreement that it didn't break the treaty -- in other words, to bend the interpretation. Was the decision that that wasn't possible made in the meeting between the two men in Crawford, or did it come later?
MR. FLEISCHER: The decision that that would lead to further difficulties and points of confusion as lawyers wrangled about whether the test did, indeed, interfere with the amended treaty, that really became clear to both parties in the talks leading up to President Putin's meeting here in Washington, prior to arrival in Crawford. I think that's when it then became clear that the best course was the course the President outlined today, from President Bush's point of view.
If that path had been pursued, it was the President's judgment it would have lead to incessant wrangling about whether or not every component of every test honored this amended agreement. And one of the reasons the President has proceeded like this is because he thinks the United States' relationship with Russia should be based on less wrangling, not more. And the ABM Treaty would stand in that way.
Q Let me just follow up. Did the President and Putin then agree to disagree when they met?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it was clear what course the United States was going to take. And I think it was also clear about the broad strength of the U.S.-Russian relationship, which has developed very strongly throughout the year. And then the fact grew even deeper and richer in the meetings in Crawford.
And the reason for that -- there is so much more to the U.S.-Russian relationship than a 30-year-old treaty. Russia is moving in the general direction of the West, a future Russia lies with the West, the prosperity of Russia does. And the United States welcomes that.
The President has repeatedly said that he welcomes a future role for Russia in the World Trade Organization. As you know, NATO 20 sees a role for Russia in a consultative fashion. The President has proposed to the Congress that they eliminate the restrictions that have been imposed on Russia as a result of the old Jackson-Vanik laws. So there is so much more that is positive in the relationship between the United States and Russia, and I think the two leaders have agreed that that's where the focus should properly lie.
Q On that, Ari, the President also said he wanted to formalize this new relationship, strategic relationship. Does that mean that he is aiming to get some kind of document, treaty or otherwise, that he and President Putin could sign which would encompass perhaps missile defense, size of nuclear stockpiles, joint defense planning, that kind of thing?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think on the topic of the reduction of offensive weapons, which is another area the United States and Russia share, the President has made a commitment to reduce the number of weapons in the United States' nuclear arsenal to include between 1,700 and 2,200. Russia has indicated that they are interested in a similar reduction.
The President has always said that he is open to whatever form that would take, whether that is codified in some type of document or other, or whether or not that's something the United States will simply proceed and do. The President is indicated an openness to the form.
Q So formalizing the relationship that he was talking about relates only to the size of the nuclear stockpiles, not to some new agreement about missile defense parameters, or not some new agreement about joint defense planning Russia's role in NATO?
MR. FLEISCHER: Nobody's ruling out other documents that would be presidential statements or codifications in whatever form they take. There have been a variety of different issues in which the U.S. and Russia collaborate, particularly on offensive weapons I've indicated he's open. But on missile defense, no. I do not think that it is not in the cards of missile defense. The President could not have been plainer in his remarks in the Rose Garden today.
Q One more. The President said he had consulted, obviously, with President Putin extensively. Who else did he consult with? This is something that could damage the coalition, arguably, since there were a lot of nations who didn't want to see this. Did he talk in particular to China?
MR. FLEISCHER: He did. The President, this morning, called President Jiang of China. As well, he has spoken this week with Prime Minister Blair, with President Chirac, with Chancellor Schroeder, with Mr. Koizumi. The President has had a series of consultative discussions with the leaders around the world. In addition, the Vice President and the Secretary of State had a series of conversations. The Secretary of State, of course, met with many leaders in his recent travels.
And so, the United States has done exactly what the President committed to do, which was to consult, to talk to various nations --
Q What was their reaction?
MR. FLEISCHER: And I'll let each nation characterize it for itself.
Q Since you've told us about it, you should give us their reactions. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: I was going to give you as much as I can give you, while I don't speak for the other governments.
Q You know we're not going to be able to call China and so forth.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, your phones work. You have reporters there.
Q When he talked to those leaders, did he tell them --
MR. FLEISCHER: But let me answer Helen's question. The reactions vary from leader to leader, and again, I will leave it to them and to their able spokespeople to give you more specifics, but --
Q What was your --
MR. FLEISCHER: Wait a minute. The President, in his conversations, number one, everybody appreciated the fact that the President had consulted with them. Two, on the case of China, for example, President Jiang said to the President he looked forward to further, high-level dialogue about this topic. And other leaders just recognized that the President had always said he was going to do this, and they recognized that the President kept his word, did what he indicated what he was going to do.
So I think you will be able to get additional reaction from the governments; they will, most likely, have public statements.
Q They didn't really like it, is what you're really saying, but they had no alternative --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think again, different leaders say different things. As you know, right from the beginning of the year, Europe has basically been of several minds about this topic. The President has all along had widespread support for these from Spain, from Italy, from Hungary, from Poland. There have been many nations that strongly do support this.
Q To break the treaty -- they all had supported that?
MR. FLEISCHER: They've always understood the United States' statement about the need to develop missiles defenses and they supported that.
Q Ari, you mentioned that before Putin even got here that they sort of had an understanding of what was going to happen. Why then did weeks pass after Putin left that we're getting the announcement today from the President? I think some find it curious that in the middle of all this hoopla we -- ABM at 10:00 a.m., tape at 11:00 a.m, -- it gets sort of washed under the events. What took so long --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, there's -- it's, I think, bizarre to think there could even be a connection between the two; that doesn't serve any purpose. The President, in fact, spoke to President Putin on Friday last week and informed him that he would be making the formal notification, and that's why the formal notification took place today.
Q Any reason why -- since they knew before he even got here that they were going to do this, why wasn't it sooner after the Putin visit?
MR. FLEISCHER: There's no reason. You have to pick a date. I think your question, no matter what date would be picked, could be a similar question. The President chose this as the date, and formal notification, as I said, was delivered this morning in Moscow.
Q Along those lines, Ari --
MR. FLEISCHER: Ron, did you have something?
Q Yes. I actually want to follow that -- why did the President tell Putin before he told congressional leaders or the American public they were pulling out?
MR. FLEISCHER: The treaty is with Russia.
Q But formal notification was given today. Why informal notification three days before --
MR. FLEISCHER: Because of the treaty with Russia, and the President thought the appropriate place to make the first notification about a future intent was with President Putin of Russia, the follow -- successor nation to the signatory of the treaty.
Q Back on the treaty for a moment and the conversation with President Jiang. The Chinese obviously have a much smaller nuclear fleet than the Russians do. In the course of the conversation, did the Chinese at any point suggest that they would respond to this by building up the size of their nuclear fleet? And if they do increase the size of their arsenal, do you believe that the decision to build a system that might be able to defeat the current size arsenal in China would be responsible?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, these are issues that came up directly between the President and President Jiang during the President's meeting there in Shanghai this fall. And the President made it clear at that time, as he has done previous times on the phone, that the development of an American missile defense system is not a threat to China, that this is designed entirely to protect the United States and the people of the United States from a launch that would come in the form of a terrorist attack if they were to get their hands on ballistic missiles, or a rogue nation that would seek to harm the United States. Those launches would come in the forms of one or two missiles. That is what the missile defense system is designed to counter.
A nation like China, that has the ability to launch many numbers of missiles at the United States, could not be stopped as a result of a missile defense program. This is not aimed at China. This is aimed at the rogue nations, the terrorist nations of the world that would do harm to the United States in much smaller launches than China would ever be capable of doing.
Q Can you respond to the question of whether President Jiang indicated that he would respond to this by building up the size of his nuclear --
MR. FLEISCHER: The reaction from President Jiang this morning was he looked forward to more high-level dialogue with the President about this.
Q Could I ask about executive privilege, which the President is exerting in terms of the oversight of prosecutors? Previous Presidents, not always cheerfully, but previous Presidents have allowed these documents to go to Congress so they can exercise oversight of prosecutors. What's changed that this President doesn't think that's right?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, actually, I differ with that premise. Previous Presidents -- President Reagan three times exerted executive privilege, and President Clinton four times. So it is not uncommon.
The reason President Bush in this case exerted executive privilege was to protect the effectiveness and the deliberativeness of the justice process. In this case, where after the administration had already turned over 3,500 pages to the House committee in question, they continued to pressure the administration to obtain very specific prosecutorial decision-making memoranda that are the heart of the justice process, the heart of the deliberative process the contains uncorroborated, raw information, raw data that prosecutors weigh to decide whether or not to bring a case forward. And often, especially when a case is not brought forward, release of that information could be harmful to the people in question, when a decision is made never to proceed with the prosecution.
And so, as a desire to protect the privacy of these conversations, the President viewed the attempt to obtain these documents as an attempt that would inhibit the candor necessary to have an effective process of deliberation, as well as a risk to politicizing internal, important judicial, Justice Department decisions. Because if the Justice Department is required to turn these documents over to Congress, it can apply political pressure to a process that should be guided only by law, the rule of law and prosecutors recommendations.
Q -- that both Republicans and Democrats on the Hill as saying that this makes oversight of prosecutors impossible now.
MR. FLEISCHER: And that's why I pointed out to you that 3,500 pages have been provided. But there has been a precedent, and it's well-established, about protection of certain documents that should not be politicized and deserve to be kept private. I would turn that exactly around and say that if documents like this were to be provided by Congress, they would have a chilling effect on the Justice Department's ability to carefully weigh matters of prosecution to decide in which cases prosecution should be or should not be brought.
Q Ari, can you clarify the point at which the administration realized that it was going to be impossible to reach an agreement with Russia on some sort of new regime that would allow missile defense testing?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it became increasingly clear in the lead-up to the meeting in Washington with President Putin that any attempts to create one central agreement on how to move beyond the ABM Treaty would lead to more difficulties rather than less. And so that's when it became clear, and I think that was then -- when the two leaders met in the Oval Office, that's when that became final.
Q Why wait until now to go ahead and make the formal announcement? What was the reason for the delay?
MR. FLEISCHER: There just has to be a date picked at some time. And this is done with an eye toward the future needs of the Defense Department to proceed with missile testing and --
Q So the sense was that there is a test that is about six months out that needs to be done that might --
MR. FLEISCHER: There is a robust series of tests. And as you know, even prior to President Putin's arrival in the United States this fall, the Defense Department walked through a series of tests that they would have engaged in, but they would have bumped into the treaty, as they put it. And so, all along the United States has been concerned at the fact that the timetable to develop a test to protect the country on missile defense was bumping into the ABM Treaty. The bump was about to take place.