Monday, April 30, 2007

Rice: Imminent Threat Doesn't Mean a Threat That Someone Will Strike Soon

Interview on ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Washington, DC
April 29, 2007

QUESTION: Welcome back to This Week.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you. Good morning, George.

QUESTION: So I've talked to many Republican and Democrats on Capitol Hill. Here's what the possible compromise looks like: the Democrats drop the deadline timeline for withdrawal, but benchmarks for the Iraqi Government to meet are written into the bill. Can the President accept that?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the President has said that he will not accept anything that constitutes a timeline for American withdrawal. And he certainly, after he gets the bill that's there, he's going to veto it, and then he said that he wants to invite the leadership down to the White House to talk about how we move forward together, because everyone would like to move forward together.

Now, as to benchmarks, let's remember that these are benchmarks that the Iraqi Government set for itself. We are doing everything we can to impress upon the Iraqi Government the importance of getting their national reconciliation --

QUESTION: So you have no objection to them being in the law?

SECRETARY RICE: The problem is that if you try and make consequences about these benchmarks, you're tying the hands of General Petreaus and the hands of Ambassador Crocker. We shouldn't tie our own hands in using the tools that we have to help the Iraqis along with national reconciliation. It's quite possible to send a strong message to the Iraqis, as Secretary Gates did, as the Congress is doing, that the American people do not have limitless patience in this. And the President himself, in every conversation with Iraqis, is telling them exactly that.

QUESTION: Yet it doesn't seem to be working. You say the Iraqis want to meet these benchmarks -- a new oil law, a de-Baathification law, constitutional reforms. But The Washington Post reported this week that little or no progress was being made on these benchmarks. It quotes the Administration's old ally, Ahmed Chalabi. He says, "They're all up in the air. They are certainly not going to be produced in any timetable that is acceptable within the context of the current political climate in the United States."

General Petraeus said we're going to reevaluate everything in September. Must the Iraqis meet the benchmarks by then?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, clearly we're going to be evaluating along the way, but given that this plan is really just underway, the plan that the President launched in January, we believe it prudent and right to take a hard look in September. I don't think we'll wait till September, by the way, to begin to look at how we're doing and how the Iraqis are doing. But I would say this, George: It is not just the American context that's important here; it's the Iraqi context. Iraqis will lose patience with their own government if they can't move forward on reconciliation. This is a point that Ambassador Crocker, that General Petraeus is making to the Iraqis every day. They are making some progress.

QUESTION: So Prime Minister Maliki will lose his job; is that what you're saying?

SECRETARY RICE: No, I'm just saying that the Iraqis themselves -- we support Prime Minister Maliki and I think he is trying to do what is best for his country. But he also needs help. He needs help from Sunni leaders. He needs help from Kurdish leaders. The oil law, for instance, is very close to being completed. They need to complete it. We're making that case. And I think they will finally make progress on that.

QUESTION: This summer? Will they complete it this summer?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think they have to. The --

QUESTION: What happens if they don't?

SECRETARY RICE: If they don't, then they're not going to be making the kind of progress on national reconciliation that gives the Iraqis a view of a future together.

QUESTION: But how about the Americans? How much longer can Americans sacrifice if the Iraqis aren't going to make the decisions they need to make?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, Iraqis are sacrificing, too, George. They're dying in large numbers. Every day, Iraqis get up to face terrible circumstances because groups like al-Qaida continue to blow up innocent people. Members of this Iraqi Government have lost many members of their own families, sacrificing to make a national unity government work. This is very, very difficult.

But you're right; the United States is paying in blood and treasure. Iraqis -- the Iraqi leadership is being told and I think they understand that the kind of Iraq that there is going to be is up to them. We can't give them a united Iraq. Everyone needs to pull together in that country and there are examples where it is happening. In Ramadi, in Anbar, a province that used to mean by its very name that the terrorists were in control, is a province now where the sheikhs, the leadership, the tribal leadership is coming together not just to fight the foreign fighters and the al-Qaida but also to start to rebuild the province.

QUESTION: That may be true, but American casualties are up 53 percent this year over the first quarter of last year and civilian casualties, even though we're not getting the full picture from the Iraqis, are also up this year.

SECRETARY RICE: There's no doubt that the violence post-Samarra bombing of February 2006 has been very dramatic. And frankly, the al-Qaida idea there, the al-Qaida strategy under Zarqawi to set Iraqis against one another was a strategy that had some success. But you're seeing now with the President's plan efforts to give the Iraqis some breathing space using American forces along with their Iraqi counterparts to try to provide population security --

QUESTION: How much time do they have?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we need to give it some time to work. But the President and General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker talk every -- practically every -- certainly every week about how these timelines have to move forward. What we don't want to do, George, is to tie our own hands so that we cannot act creatively and flexibly to support the very policies in Iraq that we're trying to support.

QUESTION: This week you'll be traveling to the Middle East --


QUESTION: -- to Sharm el-Sheikh for an international conference on Iraq. We just learned this morning from the Iraqi Prime Minister that the Iranians, the Iranian Foreign Minister, will attend this meeting. Will you meet directly with the Iranian Foreign Minister?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I wouldn't rule it out because this is not a meeting about the United States and Iran; this is a meeting about Iraq and about what Iraq's neighbors and interested parties can do to help stabilize the situation in Iraq. If indeed everyone at that table believes that a stable Iraq is indeed in their interest, then there are steps that they need to start to take to help stabilize Iraq.

QUESTION: What will you ask the Iranians to do and what can you offer them in return?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, this is not a negotiating session between the United States and Iran. If I have the opportunity, if the opportunity presents itself, then perhaps --

QUESTION: Will you seek it out?

SECRETARY RICE: -- perhaps we'll have a chance. I would --

QUESTION: Well, that's up to you, isn't it?

SECRETARY RICE: I won't -- I won't rule --

QUESTION: You can go up to him and say let's meet.

SECRETARY RICE: I will not rule out that we may encounter one another. But what do we need to do? It's quite obvious: Stop the flow of arms to foreign fighters; stop the flow of foreign fighters across the borders; stop using advanced IED technology to kill American soldiers; stop stirring up trouble among militias that then go and kill innocent Iraqis. It's quite clear what needs to be done.

QUESTION: CIA Director George Tenet -- former CIA Director George Tenet has a book coming out tomorrow called, At the Center of the Storm. A lot of news in that book. Probably the most startling two sentence of the book go like this. He says, "There was never a serious debate that I know of within the Administration about the imminence of the Iraq threat, nor was there ever a significant discussion regarding enhanced sanctions or the costs and benefits of such an approach versus full-out planning for overt and covert regime change."

Is that true?

SECRETARY RICE: Look, George served very well and we all worked together in very difficult times and I respect him as a colleague. The truth of the matter is the President started a discussion practically on the day that he took power about how to enhance sanctions against Iraq. You may remember that in his first press conference he said the sanctions have become Swiss cheese. We then went through an extended period of what we called smart sanctions review, trying to tighten the sanctions, trying to take off the tables ones that didn't really have to be enforced. We then went -- Colin Powell went to the UN and we had a new committee to try to put together tighter sanctions. We even went so far as to go to certain countries in the neighborhood -- Syria, for instance -- and say tighten down on the illegal oil shipments that are coming in under the sanctions. Don Rumsfeld led a review of trying to tighten the no-fly zones so that we could better police Saddam Hussein's forces.

QUESTION: So it's not true?

SECRETARY RICE: This went on for a very long time. I was very involved in it.

QUESTION: Was there discussions though about whether or not Iraq posed an imminent threat?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, there was certainly a discussion of whether or not the totality of the picture of Iraq -- and yes, the intelligence was very critical here, but it was also that he was challenging us in no-fly zones all the time. It was that we had gone to war against him in 1998 to try to deal with his weapons of mass destruction. It was that the intelligence showed, or it thought, that he had reconstituted his biological and chemical weapons programs and was trying to reconstitute his nuclear program.

The question was how long were you going to wait given that it appeared that the situation was getting worse.

QUESTION: And looking back, do you think Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States?

SECRETARY RICE: I think that -- an imminent threat. Certainly, Iraq posed a threat and the question was was it going to get worse over time or was it going to get better. And our assessment was that it was getting worse because of the way that the intelligence talked about his programs, because he was very aggressive in the no-fly zones, because he continued to talk about Kuwait as a province of Iraq. We had gone to war against him in 1991. We'd gone -- used military force against him in 1998. The idea that somehow Iraq was a benign presence in the Middle East that could continue without weapons inspectors on their territory, just to move along, it seems to me that this makes no sense.

QUESTION: Not an imminent threat?

SECRETARY RICE: George, the question of imminence isn't whether or not somebody is going to strike tomorrow. It's whether you believe you're in a stronger position today to deal with a threat or whether you're going to be in a stronger position tomorrow. And it was the President's assessment that the situation in Iraq was getting worse from our point of view, and we do know that of course Saddam Hussein was subverting the sanctions. The Oil-for-Food program had become a scandal. The Iraqi people were living under Draconian sanctions that were making life more difficult even as Saddam Hussein was putting more and more people in mass graves. This was a threat that needed to be dealt with.

But it was the totality of the picture against Saddam Hussein that led the President to the decision that he made, but only after he had gone to the United Nations yet again in September of 2002 to get another resolution to try to compel Saddam Hussein to finally demonstrate to the world that he was complying with the multiple resolutions under which he was acting.

QUESTION: You received a subpoena this week from the House Committee on Government Oversight. They want to look into how the White House -- you were National Security Advisor at the time -- handled prewar intelligence. And Chairman Waxman said at the hearing that one of the things he wants to look at is a statement you made on this program back in June 2003. I had asked you about the famous 16 words in the State of the Union about Iraq trying to get uranium from Africa. Here's what you said:

SECRETARY RICE (from video tape): "We actually do go through the process of asking the intelligence community, 'Can you say this, can you say that, can you say this?' The intelligence community did not know at that time, or at levels that got to us, that this --

QUESTION (from video tape): Well, let me show you something --

SECRETARY RICE (from video tape): -- that there were some serious questions about this report."

QUESTION: That statement wasn't true. You and your Deputy had both received memos in October 2002 from the CIA about this intelligence and they had raised serious questions about it.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first of all, George, I have answered these questions for Congressman Waxman by letter and also in the questions for the record as a part of my own confirmation hearing. The fact of the matter is that we have made very -- we made very clear at the time that the Niger issue was in the National Intelligence Estimate. I've said, and I said in my letter to Chairman Waxman, that I did not remember, didn't recall, that there had been a memorandum from the CIA at the time, three and a half months before the State of the Union, saying that this should be taken out of the Cincinnati speech. And Steve Hadley has attested to the same thing. Maybe we should have remembered. We didn't.

But the fact is that this is one of the most investigated issues that I can remember. It was investigated by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. It was investigated by the bipartisan commission of Larry Silberman and Chuck Robb.

QUESTION: Neither one of those groups looked at how the White House handled the intelligence.

SECRETARY RICE: Oh, indeed, how the intelligence was gotten to policymakers, how it got into the speech -- all of these things have actually been examined by Robb-Silberman, by the Senate Intelligence Committee. We've commented on it on the record. Dan Bartlett and Steve Hadley went through an exhaustive discussion of how it happened.

Look, I was National Security Advisor. I feel responsibility for the fact that something got in the President's speech that in retrospect probably shouldn't have. But the fact of the matter is we all thought at the time that it was in the State of the Union that it was a credible claim. It was in the National Intelligence Estimate. It had been in the British report which the President cited and --

QUESTION: George Tenet writes that it had been taken out not out of one speech, not just the October speech. He writes in this book it had also been taken out by you from a September speech.

SECRETARY RICE: George, this claim has been investigated and investigated and investigated. I would just ask people to go back and read the multiple reports about this particular incident. Go back and read all that is on the public record. Go back and read my answers to --

QUESTION: If that's all true, why not just testify? Why not comply with the subpoena?

SECRETARY RICE: Because, George, there is an important principle here and this is a White House matter now. It is the case that the compellence of White House staff -- it's a separation of powers issue to testify before a congressional committee is an important constitutional issue.

QUESTION: But dozens of White House staffers have testified to Congress, including Admiral Poindexter for President Reagan.

SECRETARY RICE: And many, many, many have not on the same principle. I testified before the 9/11 Commission. At the time, the President made clear that he did not consider that a precedent, but that the overwhelming concerns about 9/11 did make it necessary. We're talking about something here that has been investigated and examined and talked about and where I think if people look at the record they will see that the answers are there.

QUESTION: Chairman Waxman says he's going to move to find you in contempt.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, that's the Chairman's prerogative. I respect the oversight responsibilities of Congress, but I frankly think this one has been looked at and looked at and looked at.

QUESTION: So you're not going to comply.

SECRETARY RICE: And what I'm going to do is to concentrate on what I need to do, which is to prepare for this very important meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh a couple of days from now.

QUESTION: One final question. The front page of The Washington Post this morning: "After Katrina, U.S. Did Not Accept Most Offers of Aid." It said that allies offered $854 million in cash and in oil that was to be sold for cash, but only $40 million has been used so far for disaster victims or reconstruction. According to U.S. officials and contractors, most of the aid went uncollected including $400 million worth of oil.

How can that be?

SECRETARY RICE: Look, the fact is that we received a lot of very generous offers from people at the time of Katrina. It was a new circumstance. The United States is, frankly, not accustomed to receiving large-scale foreign assistance offers. We did tell people on a number of occasions that it might be useful to have this assistance go to private concerns like, for instance, the Bush-Clinton effort for Katrina. We thought that that and the Red Cross might be the most efficacious way for people to get their aid there.

But we used a lot of the aid. Some of it couldn't be used. Some of it was in-kind in ways that the United States could not use it. But a lot of it was used and a lot of it is still being used to help the victims. I've been particularly proud of some of the work that's been done with historically black colleges and schools in Louisiana and Mississippi.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, thank you very much.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you very much.


Released on April 29, 2007

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