Office of the Press Secretary

March 14, 2002


[excerpts on Nuclear Posture Review, GAO Lawsuit]


Q: Ari, I was hoping you could help me understand two things that the President said yesterday during the press conference, when he was asked about the nuclear posture review. The first thing he said was, first of all, the nuclear review is not new. It's gone on in previous administrations. Did he mean by that to say that the process of doing a nuclear review was not new, or the content of this one was not new?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me state something clearly. "We continue to maintain a nuclear deterrent, absolutely devastating in its destructive power. Anyone who considered using a weapon of mass destruction against the United States or its allies must first consider the consequences. We will not specify in advance what our response will be, but it would be both overwhelming and devastating." That was said by Secretary of Defense William Perry in 1996. Let me continue.

"We must maintain nuclear forces sufficient to deter any potential adversary from using or threatening to use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies, and as a hedge against defeat of U.S. conventional forces in defense of vital interests." That was said by then Secretary of Defense William Cohen in January of 2000. And that's what the President was mentioning, that this is not a new policy. In fact, the most new element of all the nuclear posture review is President Bush's follow-through on its campaign promise to unilaterally lower the level of offensive nuclear weapons, as he announced, down to 1,700 from 2,200.

The broader point the President was making yesterday is that, to keep the peace, it's important to have deterrence, and that is the ongoing context in which previous administrations have discussed nuclear posture review, and the President yesterday.

Q: If I can follow up on that. When he said yesterday the President must have all options available to make a deterrent have meaning, is it his belief that the new nuclear posture review, the one just conducted, gives him new options, particularly in regard to dealing with nonstate actors?

MR. FLEISCHER: It maintains all options. And that's been the position of the government for quite a period of time, that --

Q: Do you think it creates any new options for him? I didn't ask whether it closed any off, but whether it creates new ways.

MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, the newest element in there is the reduction in offensive nuclear weapons. But when it comes to the United States sending a clear message that we will -- we have the ability to deter and the consequences will be severe of any nations that use WMD, I would just again refer you right back to what was said by Clinton administration officials; properly so.

Q: I just want to follow on that, because the Clinton administration officials are saying that it was never a Clinton administration policy to have contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states such as Syria or Iran. And that's where they see a big difference between what this administration is putting forward and what they did. How do you respond to that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I just cite exactly what was said by Secretary of Defense William Perry in 1996.

Q: But they talked generally; they did not talk about -- talking about targeting or using against a non-nuclear state.

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, this is Secretary Perry in 1996: "We continue to maintain a nuclear deterrent, absolutely devastating in its destructive power." And then he continues, and he says, "Anyone who considered using a weapon of mass destruction against the United States or its allies must first consider the consequences." And that says "anyone."

Q: So this administration is saying there is absolutely no change in policy between this administration and the Clinton administration when it comes to nuclear -- the use of nuclear arms?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's a consistent policy, as I read those two previous statements.

Q: I'm wondering again, going back to the President's press conference, if he misspoke or mischaracterized the lawsuit by the GAO. I think the President talked about the GAO asking for transcripts, among other things. I believe the GAO is not asking for transcripts anymore.

MR. FLEISCHER: Actually, as that has been explained to me by our White House attorneys, that's a matter of legal dispute. That is what the GAO has publicly said. The GAO has publicly indicated that despite their previous request for transcripts, for information of what specifically was discussed in meetings, they subsequently said, no, we're no longer requesting that -- publicly.

According to our lawyers, when they take a look at the legal analysis of the pending court case -- and that is, after all, what is determinative -- they say that's not clear; that the manner in which the GAO has presented their papers indicates that they still are seeking information that goes into some of the specifics.

But the President's more general point goes right back to a very important issue that the President is determined to take a strong stand on, and that is prerogatives of the executive vis-a-vis the legislature. And since Watergate and Vietnam, the longstanding diminution of executive power to the legislature. And the President does see this as an important issue about his right as President, and rights of future Presidents, to receive the counsel and the advice that the they seek.

It's not far removed to say that if an organization, indeed, the Congress or GAO specifically, is able to demand and receive every name of everybody the President meets with, it's not far from that to find out everything they talked about. So it's a consistent point that the President is making in defense of the executive prerogatives which are protected under the Constitution. And the GAO is determined to take it to court; the President has said, that's where we'll see you.

Q: So you're saying a list of names --


Q: There's been a lot of debate in this GAO debate about the diminishing of presidential authority. There's been a lot of general talk about it, but no specific talk. How, over the years, has the President's authority been diminished?

MR. FLEISCHER: In multiple ways. I think when you look statutorily at some of the areas -- take, for example, appropriations -- much of the domestic spending done now is earmarked, far more than it ever was before, removing the Executive Branch's ability to take a look on the merits in a broad, national sense, to decide what programs should or should not be funded. Depending on the various program, you will see earmarks in giant excess of where they used to be, where Congress will decide exactly where the money gets spent, often because of the power of a committee chairman or because of arrangements that are made between members of Congress to decide where money gets spent. You see it in several of the restrictions on the administration's ability in matters military that Congress has put restrictions on the Executive Branch. And, of course, the President obeys anything that is statutory law of the land.

I think you've also seen it throughout the last decade in terms of many of the investigations that took place of the Executive Branch. The sharing or the yielding of information by the Executive Branch to the Congress as investigations were launched and as investigations accelerated. That's been a longstanding, gradual process. And the Executive Branch is a co-equal branch of government.


Q: Ari, just a quickie. The leak on the nuclear posture review, has that been personally embarrassing to the President, now that Ivanof is in town? And will it hurt U.S.-Russian relations, particularly with the big summit coming up?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think U.S.-Russian relations are very strong, and continue to be. And I think it's interesting, because there have been many an issue that people have said would be a setback, will reignite a Cold War. And those analysts continue to be proved wrong about the enduring strength that President Bush and President Putin have been able to create in U.S.-Russian relations. The President is looking forward to his trip to Russia in May, and I anticipate that you will see a continued growth in the strength of U.S.-Russian relations.

Q: Ari, to follow up, has it been embarrassing that the leak took place now?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think from the President's point of view, he looks at this as a matter of -- he takes classified documents seriously. Classified documents were meant to remain classified. And I think that the President would regret that anybody in the United States government in any position, whether in the Executive Branch or the Legislative Branch, would take it upon themselves to release classified documents.

Q: Can I just follow up on that? You say there's nothing new in there, in that nuclear posture review. But it does seem to call for --

MR. FLEISCHER: No. I said the most new element in there was the reduction in offensive weapons.

Q: But some people feel that really the newest thing in there is the call for smaller-than-now-exist nuclear weapons. And of course critics say -- and the President was asked about this yesterday -- this makes the possibility of nuclear was more likely. Isn't it true that this does call for smaller nuclear weapons, and isn't that an important new development?

MR. FLEISCHER: It does not call for the development of new nuclear weapons, and the President has not directed the Department to undertake such action. It's always under the purview of the Department of Defense to modify existing weapons as appropriate, and that's a different matter.

But I'd refer you back to what I said earlier: The President believes that the best way to keep the peace is through deterrence, and it's through having a strong military and sending an unequivocal message to anybody who would do us harm that they ought not even think about doing the United States harm because the United States will protect itself.

Q: You're saying that if the yield from these weapons is smaller, that's not a new weapon?

MR. FLEISCHER: Now you're above my pay grade, when you start wanting to talk about yields and throws and throw-weights. I think you ought to talk to DOD on that.

Q: Thank you.

MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.