Press Briefing During Middle East Trip by Counselor to the President Ed Gillespie and Press Secretary Dana Perino (Excerpts)

January 14, 2008

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Q This is addressed to both of you, if you could answer. My question is based to some extent on the exchanges that the President had with my Fox News colleague, Greta Van Susteren. In your own discussions with the President about the NIE and its central finding that the weaponization aspect of the Iran nuclear program has been suspended, do you find that the President fully accepts this conclusion? Or is there any -- has the President expressed to you, are you aware of any feeling on the President's part that, however sincere the analysts might have been, they might have gotten it wrong? Has he admitted the possibility at all in his mind that the analysts may be wrong about this?

MS. PERINO: I've not heard the President express anything but support for the intelligence community. But I think what he has said, and he has repeated both privately and publicly, is that he does not believe that the NIE that was produced -- was it two months ago -- should provide anyone any comfort that Iran is not a threat. In fact, it underscored for him and for many others, as we've learned from around this region, that they also believe that Iran remains a threat.

And the very fact that they were hiding their weaponization program from the world, that nobody knew about, should not give anyone comfort that all of a sudden now we know that they had one, and that they halted it. What the international community has called on them to do is to halt their enrichment of uranium. And we are united in that, and we are going to continue to press for sanctions.

But there is no doubt that across the world the NIE that was put out by our intelligence community did cause some confusion. And one of the things the President has done at every stop is to tell them that he believes that Iran was a threat, they are a threat, and they will continue to be a threat if they are allowed to have a nuclear weapon. He believes that they have the right to have civilian nuclear power. He has provided, along with his international partners, a way for Iran to come to the table and have a negotiation for civilian nuclear power if they verifiably suspend. And so until we see that, I think that we will remain concerned and skeptical, and continue down the diplomatic path.

Another point that the President has made when this has come up is that he does believe that this problem can be solved diplomatically.

But I also want to underscore for you that it is a mistake to think that these meetings that the President has had across this region have been about Iran. If it has come up, it has been brief. Now, I'm not there, sitting at the President's shoulder, or by his side, when he has one-on-one meetings, but I can tell you, in the meetings that we have been in -- and we have been very fortunate on this trip to have been included in everything except for the one-on-ones -- my observation is that while it has come up, what they were looking for was reassurance from President Bush that he agrees -- that he still believes what he had said before the NIE came out. And the fact is that that is what he believes.

Q But my question was not about perception or misperceptions of the report's findings, or the implications, or whether or not Iran remains a threat. My question to you is whether or not the President admits at all in his own mind of the possibility that the central finding was actually wrong?

MS. PERINO: Again, I said he has complete confidence in the intelligence community. They work very hard to get as much information as they possibly can. They brought this new information to the attention of their superiors back in late August. They said they were going to need some more time to vet it out before they were able to fully understand it. And intelligence is not an exact science and they continue to seek out more information. But the President agreed with the intelligence community that it was important to get this information out so that everyone knows what they're dealing with. And again, the fact that the Iranians had a secret, covert program that they were hiding from the world should not give any of us comfort.

Q This is for Ed again. I'm going to try once on the oil question. These are four countries that are -- are major producers of oil in the world. Did the President at any time bring up with any of these rulers, either in a private session or in group sessions, the Americans' concern about the high price of oil?

MR. GILLESPIE: Yes, they talked about oil. The President made the point about the -- part of his agenda is alternative fuels and alternative sources of fuel. They talked about the nature of the market and the vast demand that's on the world market today for oil. That was a point that was obviously made in the course of these conversations by our friends, and that's a legitimate and accurate point. So there has been discussion of oil and energy, along with other issues that have come up in these talks.

Q Did those leaders in any way indicate some possible ways they're going to -- of mitigating against those high prices?

MR. GILLESPIE: I don't want to characterize -- I'm more comfortable letting other governments characterize the nature of the conversation from their perspective.

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MR. GILLESPIE: I'm going to make another point, Jim. I failed to mention, in his discussions of alternative energy, the President also mentioned nuclear energy as an important source of energy in the future.

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Q Thanks. Some of us who have had an opportunity during this trip to talk to foreign policy officials of governments in countries where the President had visited, have heard from them that their message was, they don't want the U.S. meddling in their relations with Iran, that they can conduct their own dealings through their own channels. Is that something that the President was told in any way, shape, or form by them?

MR. GILLESPIE: I did not hear anything like that. I think -- and the President was sharing his view of concerns about Iran and I think he was making clear, as Dana pointed out, in terms of the NIE, that the fact that they are continuing to enrich uranium, they are continuing to test and deploy ballistic missiles, delivery systems, and that they had a secret weapons program that they have halted, but that clearly -- in response, by the way, to international pressure -- that doesn't mean that they couldn't start again, and that that is a concern of the United States. And we wanted to share -- the President wanted to share that that's a continuing concern, and that the -- our view of the NIE is that it reinforced that concern.

They shared views, as well, again, which I'm not going to characterize, but I don't think -- I didn't hear anyone suggest along the way in any of the meetings that I was in that this not a legitimate concern for the President, and that they also -- that they saw the -- Iran as an important relationship for them, as well, obviously here in the region.

MS. PERINO: Yes, I would just add, of course, many of these countries have had relationships with Iran for a long time, and actually the President thinks it's important that they do have those relationships, because one of the things that we can do to help the Iranian people realize their dreams and to get out from under the isolation that their current government is making them live under -- is having channels to provide for dialogue is not a bad thing at all. In fact, the President encourages it.


MR. GILLESPIE: Thank you all. See you tomorrow.