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Thursday, June 17, 2004

The knives were out for Scottie Mac this morning. Sorry for the length, but it's all worth reading:

Q Scott, I'm a little confused, and it could be a factor of age, but I'm just wondering, you were saying this morning that the findings of the 9/11 Commission, which definitively say that there was no collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, are completely consistent with your position that there was such a collaborative relationship. And I'm just wondering if you could explain how those two disparate thoughts are completely consistent.

MR. McCLELLAN: Sure. If you go back and look at what the September 11th Commission said, they talked about how there had been high-level contacts between the regime in Iraq and al Qaeda. And they specifically pointed out to contacts between Iraqi intelligence officials and bin Laden in Sudan; and they talked about other contacts. And if you go back and look at what Secretary Powell outlined before the United Nations, this was back in February of 2003, he talked about how we know -- this is quote, "We know members of both organizations met repeatedly and have met at least eight times at very senior levels since the early 1990s. In 1996, a foreign security service tells us that bin Laden met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Khartoum and later met the director of the Iraqi intelligence service." So he talked about some of contacts in his presentation to the United Nations.

Q Right, but the 9/11 --

MR. McCLELLAN: And that is perfectly consistent with what the September 11th Commission talked about in their report yesterday.

Q But here's where the two positions diverge, and that is that the 9/11 Commission says, yes, there were these contacts, but they did not result in any kind of collaborative relationship. It means the same thing as you and I contact each all the time, but I don't think anybody here at the White House would account you of having --

MR. McCLELLAN: John, we made it clear a long time ago --

Q -- a collaborative relationship with me.

MR. McCLELLAN: We made it clear a long time ago that there is no evidence to suggest that Saddam Hussein's regime was involved in the attacks of September 11th.

Q But they say -- the 9/11 Commission is saying, not only is there no evidence to support that or any collaboration in any other attacks on America, but no evidence to support any kind of collaborative relationship which you have claimed.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, if you go back and look at what Secretary Powell said, and look at what Director Tenet said -- let me point out what Director Tenet said, as well, let me read you facts because you're talking about impressions, let's talk about the facts. I think you need to look at the facts, and look at exactly what was said prior to the decision to go into Iraq and remove that regime from power.

Here's Director Tenet to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in a letter October 7, 2002:

"We have solid reporting of senior-level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade. Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda had discussed safe-haven and reciprocal nonaggression. Since Operation Enduring Freedom, we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad."

So those are the facts. And I think if you go and look back at what the September 11th Commission report said yesterday, it's consistent with that report.

Q Scott, let me try to take a stab at this because I think one of the things that you're asserting there is a statement from the Director of Central Intelligence, who has since resigned, who apparently was the same one who told the President that it was a slam-dunk case.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's not trying to say he resigned for reasons other than were personal reasons.

Q People can make up their own minds.

MR. McCLELLAN: As he cited, for family reasons.

Q Okay, but they can make up their own minds.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, well, you're trying to lump it all together, though.

Q I'm pointing out that he resigned. And he also said -- you quoted him as saying that -- he's also the one who told the President that it was a slam-dunk case that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Today -- as of today, there are not. And isn't the issue that whatever the intelligence was about ties, any kind of relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq, that for the Vice President of the United States two days ago to assert deep, long-standing ties is, at its most charitable, an overstatement of what the evidence shows?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, he's actually referring to exactly what Secretary Powell outlined before the United Nations and what Director Tenet outlined in open session to members of Congress. So, again, I would go back to what we stated were the facts and what we knew. And if you --

Q But that's in direct contradiction to what the 9/11 Commission has found.

MR. McCLELLAN: And if you look back at what we said, we said that -- we said all along that Saddam Hussein's regime supported and harbored terrorists, and that there were ties to terrorism -- including al Qaeda. And if you go back and look at what was outlined before the United Nations -- Secretary Powell goes to talk about how there was support for suicide bombers in the Middle East who sought to undermine the peace process, who sought to undermine the road map.

Q But, Scott, you're trying to make such a technical --

MR. McCLELLAN: Director Tenet --

Q -- argument, cherry-picking what you want to see.

Q Not Iraq.

Q And not only that, this President has said that he thought that Saddam Hussein would like to use al Qaeda as a forward army, as one of his forward armies. The 9/11 Commission is saying, contacts a relationship don't make.

MR. McCLELLAN: David, you're just ignoring the facts. You're not looking at what Director Tenet said. You're not looking at what Secretary Powell said before the United Nations.

Q Scott, do you really think people buy this?

MR. McCLELLAN: And I think that you can seek to drive a wedge, but there is no wedge there between what the September 11th Commission said and what the facts --

Q Between what the facts are and what the reality is.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and what the facts are. You're talking about impressions; I'm talking about facts.

Q No, I'm also talking about facts. The President said he thinks that al Qaeda would like to be a forward -- that Saddam wanted to use al Qaeda as a forward army -- his words from, I believe, October 2002 at a Michigan rally.

This commission has said after its own investigation, and you were the ones who set up the commission, that there was no collaborative relationship. So the conclusion -- the question and conclusion seems to be that administration overstated the evidence that exists.

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me finish what I was saying a minute ago, David. I appreciate your comments, and I'd like to make some myself because there are important facts that I think are being ignored here in this discussion. The facts were very clear. They were outlined by Secretary Powell before the United Nations.

Q Repudiated --

MR. McCLELLAN: They were outlined by Director Tenet to members of Congress.

Q Powell wants know why the intelligence was wrong, doesn't he?

MR. McCLELLAN: And again, if you'll let me finish, I would like to go through some of this, because this is an important discussion to have. It's important for the American people to have the complete picture, and to have all the facts before them. And that's exactly what this administration put before the American people in a very public way. Secretary Powell, one of the key things he talked about in his remarks was -- and let me just go back to those remarks -- quote from Secretary Powell's remarks:

"Iraq and terrorism go back decades. Baghdad trains Palestine Liberation Front members in small arms and explosives. Saddam uses the Arab Liberation Front to funnel money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers in order to prolong the intifada. And it's no secret that Saddam's own intelligence service was involved in dozens of attacks or attempted assassinations in the 1990s. But what I want to bring to your attention today is the potentially much more sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder. Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants."

And he goes on to talk about Mr. Zarqawi. We certainly have seen Zarqawi up close during --

Q After the invasion.

MR. McCLELLAN: He was in Iraq prior to the invasion, David. And it's important to point that out to the American people. He had a safe harbor in Iraq. He received medical treatment in Baghdad. And that's what Secretary Powell talked about. And certainly, when you're talking about a post-September 11th world, this President is not going to rely on the good intentions of Saddam Hussein to protect the American people. Saddam Hussein had a long history of using weapons of mass destruction, of supporting and harboring terrorists, and he had a long history of oppression in that country. He certainly knew what was going on in that country. This was a police state in Iraq. And the world is safer and better off because Saddam Hussein has been removed from power.

Terry.

Q The New York Times says the President should apologize to the American people. Also, are you saying that the 9/11 report is wrong? Is that what you're saying that you reject the findings?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm saying that it's consistent with what we have said.

Q It is not consistent. They said this business on the nexus -- sinister nexus is not so.

MR. McCLELLAN: Where did they say that?

Q It's in the story.

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay.

Q No collaborative relationship.

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Terry.

Q Well, I'll pick up on that, if I may.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well -- and we never said that there was operational ties involved in attacks on the United States. Let's be very clear about that. The President talked about that just a short time ago.

Q What are people supposed to conclude, that they're having lunch with each other?

MR. McCLELLAN: A short time ago in his remarks.

Q You talk about deep, long-standing ties. What is that supposed to mean?

MR. McCLELLAN: Saddam Hussein supported and harbored terrorist groups --
Q Why don't you just say the commission is wrong?

MR. McCLELLAN: All right.

Q Well, because the terms that you did use, "deep, long-standing ties -- sinister nexus," and the President himself saying, "By removing Saddam Hussein we have removed an ally of al Qaeda," that means they are working together. Did Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda work together, where and when?

MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree with your characterization about --

Q Well, what does "ally" mean?

MR. McCLELLAN: But Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda had a common enemy: It was the United States of America. And when you talk about a regime that has a history of supporting and harboring terrorists, and has a history of using weapons of mass destruction on its own people and on its neighbors, and then you look at the world through the lens of September 11th, the President made the absolute right decision to go in and remove that regime from power.

Q That's an argument. Those are not facts.

MR. McCLELLAN: One of the most dangerous --

Q That's just an argument. The facts as determined do not bear out that argument.

MR. McCLELLAN: One of the most dangerous threats we face in this day and age is the nexus between outlaw regimes with weapons of mass destruction and --

Q But you didn't find any.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- terrorist organizations. And the President acted, based on the information that we outlined, and that you can go back and look at. It's public information. Secretary Powell speaking before the United Nations --

Q Who has repudiated his own testimony.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and Director Tenet testifying before Congress about these ties.

Q And just to button this down, the President stands by his statement that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were allies.

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, if you go back and look at the facts --

Q I'm asking what the President would say today.

MR. McCLELLAN: He stands by saying that Saddam Hussein's regime had ties to terrorism, including al Qaeda. And the basis of that is what I pointed out in Secretary Powell's remarks and Director Tenet's remarks. And that is consistent with what the September 11th Commission said. The relationship and contacts go back over the last decade.

Q One more on this.

MR. McCLELLAN: And they have a common enemy in the United States of America.

Q That's your definition of allies. One more on this: the information you are pointing us to all comes from before the war in Iraq. In other words, it comes from that same -- we now know, certainly, when it comes to weapons of mass destruction -- deeply flawed intelligence. Since then, the substantial majority of the leaders of Saddam Hussein's regime have been captured and interrogated, and we also have, as the President likes to tell us, two-thirds of the leadership of al Qaeda captured and interrogated. Is there anything new that you can add, because the 9/11 Commission, the only new fact they added was that two senior leaders of al Qaeda denied that there were any ties at all.

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, what they said was that there were high-level contacts, going back for quite some time. And that's consistent with what we said prior to going into Iraq and removing that regime from power.

Q But I'm asking whether there is new information since the war, developed from all of these leaders that we have captured on both sides. We now have in our custody leadership of this alliance on both sides. What have they told us?

MR. McCLELLAN: What do you want to dispute that Secretary Powell said and Director Tenet said? I mean, let's talk about the facts, because those were the facts that we outlined before making the decision to go in and remove that regime from power. And so let's talk about those facts.

Q Have they been borne out by these --

MR. McCLELLAN: It's nice to talk about these impressions and the way people are trying to spin certain things, but let's talk about the facts.

Q I'm looking for facts.

MR. McCLELLAN: Let's not ignore those facts. Well, the facts were before the United Nations, through Secretary Powell's statement, and they were before Congress, through Director Tenet's testimony.

Q What have we learned since then, from all this intelligence?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, obviously you learn more post the decision to go into Iraq, and you learn more as you get information from those detainees. And I'm sure that Director Tenet can talk to you about those issues and give you a read on that. That's a very general question you're asking me right here, right now.

Q Is there anything else that goes to the notion of an al Qaeda-Iraq alliance?

MR. McCLELLAN: But if you go back and look at what we outlined, and the facts, we stand by that.

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