A State Department press briefing sounds like it would be a dreary affair. Well, maybe we’ve become hopeless news geeks, but here at the Wire we think the daily showdown between story-hungry reporters and their slippery nemesis, State Department spokesman James Rubin, is high comedy.
Check out this exchange at the May 24 daily briefing. In his opening statement, Rubin announced the State Department would be providing some “non-lethal assistance” to Iraqi groups who oppose Saddam Hussein. Reporters get inventive in squeezing some details about the plan out of Rubin.
Rubin: I also want to announce that we are planning to forward to the Hill in the next few weeks our plans for initiating a draw-down on non- lethal equipment and training under the Iraq Liberation Act. Under this plan, and in consultation with the Iraqis — that is, the opposition Iraqis — we would provide assistance under three broad categories which will help to build unity among the opposition, develop greater political infrastructure, and enable them to get their message out more effectively.
These categories are: The establishment of an opposition headquarters and satellite offices; training; and public advocacy on behalf of the Iraqi people. This assistance will help the Iraqi opposition build further cohesion and representation of the broad spectrum of Iraqis who oppose Saddam Hussein. There will be a briefing later this afternoon after the meeting here in the Briefing Room with some senior State Department officials who can go into some more detail, but I can try to take some of your questions on this now.
Question: Training in what?
Rubin: It’s non-lethal assistance. Training and civil administration preparing for day-after scenarios for the recovery of an Iraq free of Saddam Hussein. We’re not talking about lethal assistance at this time, so this is equipment from existing Department of Defense inventories that can be used to help them organize themselves and create a more unified front and to be in a better position to get their message out to the Iraqis, who we believe are supportive of their goals.
Question: Could you – just – if you possibly can – one or two examples, as if we could hold this assistance in our hands, what would we be holding?
Rubin: Equipment that would be non…
Question: Not a hand grenade but …
Rubin: A computer.
Question: A computer.
Question: Jamie, maybe I missed this. You said three broad categories and then you came up with … or one?
Rubin: Establishment of an opposition headquarters.
Question: That’s one?
Rubin: That’s one.
Question: Satellite offices is two?
Rubin: No, that’s “and satellite offices.” That would be one.
Question: What’s two?
Rubin: Training of the kind that … in how to organize the opposition and that would be a second. And the third — that’s three, after two — would be public advocacy on behalf of the Iraqi people — that would be in the communications field primarily. But there may be some obvious overlap.
Rubin went on to elaborate on other types of non-lethal assistance the U.S. would provide to anti-Hussein groups:
Question: You said the establishment of an opposition headquarters, here in Washington?
Rubin: Well, the satellite … the offices we would envisage … and it’s obviously something we would be consulting with the Iraqi opposition on … but we would envisage offices … we would not be consulting with the Iraqi government. Let me re-phrase my half a phrase that drew a titter. We would envisage offices in London, New York, and hopefully in the region.
Question: What hotel? (Laughter.)
Rubin: These are … we’re pushing … at least some of us are pushing these questions …because you’re on the record and the briefing is not going to be on the record. So it’s better to get …
Rubin: I think we’ve done about 15 questions by my count.
Question: No, and I say I’m apologizing in a sense for extending what you hope would be just an introduction. We would take all of our questions …
Rubin: No, I was prepared for some questions.
Question: Well, I’m still kind of quizzical about who these groups are … I’m wondering why they aren’t … they’ve been fighting Saddam Hussein from some of the better hotels in London … what is their … what are their credentials? Are they democrats? Are they … have they ever done anything to try to un-horse Saddam Hussein? Are they fundamentalists – against the seculars who run Iraq? There are a lot of reasons not to like Saddam Hussein.
Rubin: And all of them good ones.
Question: Well, some of them, they don’t like his secularism, for instance.
Rubin: Well, we’re not against religion.
Question: I know that, but you …
Rubin: Some might be. We’re not.