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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

White House Press Conference

Aired March 10, 2003 - 13:21   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. Let's go live to the White House.
Ari Fleischer just beginning to address reporters there.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: ... Congress to congratulate President Jiang on years of service to his country.

The presidents recalled their common commitment to seeking peaceful means to keep the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, while expressing hope for a peaceful solution in Iraq. The president emphasized his determination to defend the security of the American people.

The presidents agreed on the importance of developing U.S.-China relations, and they talked about the need for continuing and ongoing consultations about the situation vis-a-vis Iraq.

The president also this morning spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi regarding the situation in both Iraq and North Korea. The president thanked the prime minister for his support for the U.S.- UK-Spanish resolution and for Japan's efforts to work with other nations in order to maximize pressure on Iraq to disarm. Both agreed that a peaceful resolution of the issue depends on Iraq's actions.

The two leaders also noted that North Korea's nuclear weapons program is a threat to the entire international community and agreed to continue working for an international approach to ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions while maintaining close United States- Japanese-Republic of Korea coordination.

The president also today spoke with President Mbeki of South Africa. President Bush shared his view -- or expressed his view -- that the lack of Iraqi compliance presents a grave threat to world peace and to the United Nations' credibility.

President Mbeki reported on the South African team sent to Baghdad to convey information on South Africa's voluntary disarmament of weapons of mass destruction.

Both leaders agreed that Iraq must make a strategic decision to disarm. They also discussed the importance of the unique nature of the U.S.-South African bilateral relationship, and President Bush congratulated President Mbeki on the Congo peace process. The president also today spoke to the sultan of Qaboos to review with him the current situation in Iraq and to thank him for Oman's years of reliable and steady friendship and support for the United States. The president noted that if hostilities were unavoidable, the United States would seek to provide humanitarian aid, relief and support to the people of Iraq so that they are cared for.

The president is approximately halfway through with the phone calls he was making to foreign leaders today. Later this afternoon we will get you an additional readout of the other calls the president is making to world leaders. Obviously, there are many more to come.

The president also today had an intelligence briefing, had an FBI briefing, convened a meeting of the National Security Council.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Ari, the Russians are promising to veto this new resolution. How much more damaging would that be than a French veto alone?

FLEISCHER: One, I note the foreign minister has indicated that that is a possibility. Adn the president certainly hopes that it will not come to that from the Russian point of view. The president would be very disappointed if Russia were to take a stand that would be a setback not only for peace, because it's important to (inaudible) disarm Saddam Hussein, but also for the freedom and the liberty of the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: Is the president talking to Putin? And what did Jiang tell the president...

FLEISCHER: The call was just as I indicated. They're going to continue to consult about events in Iraq.

QUESTION: No commitment regarding abstain...

FLEISCHER: I think continued consultation is probably the best way to describe it. And what was your first part there?

QUESTION: Whether you're talking to Putin.

FLEISCHER: Oh, he has in the past. As you know, he talked to President Putin, I believe it was on Thursday of last week, if I recall, or Wednesday of last week. Adn if there are any other phone calls we'll keep you informed.

QUESTION: There seems to be a hardening of the position by this White House towards this U.N. process. It began with the president, while you're engaged in diplomacy, the not very diplomatic saying, "Look, it's time for everybody to show their cards," and forcing the vote. And now, this morning, on the record but off camera, you were making the point, at least suggesting that if the United Nations fails to pass the second resolution that it would be a moral failure on the part...

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: ... of the United Nations.

A, would you explain that point of view and that shift now that we're seeing?

QUESTION: And, B, does this reflect the fact that the president feels like this is going down, it's not going to go (inaudible)?

FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, if a nation vetoes, then that expresses the will of the United Nations, regardless of whether or not the United States, Spain, England, Bulgaria, the other nations are able to reach nine or 10 votes, which we are continuing to work very hard to do and to strive for, and we'll see what the ultimate outcome is. There could be a veto. There also could be nine or 10 votes still. We are working very hard on that.

The president has made a couple points very clear. One is, if the United Nations fails to act, that means the United Nations will not be the international body that disarms Saddam Hussein. Another international body will disarm Saddam Hussein. So this will remain an international action, it's just the United Nations will have chosen to put itself on the sidelines. That is the United Nations Security Council will have.

So Saddam will be disarmed by an international group. But from a moral point of view, as the world witnessed in Rwanda and as the world witnessed in Kosovo, the United Nations Security Council will have failed to act once again.

Adn this is becoming a trend for the United Nations Security Council, where on the most important security issues around the world they're leaving regions of the world in which humanity is suffering from ethnic cleansing, is suffering from mass killings, and in the case of Iraq, suffering from the possibility of the use of weapons of mass destruction.

The United Nations Security Council is from a moral point of view leaving the people of these regions on the sidelines. And from the president's point of view, that's a regrettable development, if it happens.

QUESTION: Can I just follow on that? So if they vote with you, then they're living up to their obligations, but if they oppose the United States they're immoral.

FLEISCHER: I didn't say they were immoral. I said that from a moral point of view what are the people of Iraq to think when it comes to who is it who fought for their freedom and liberty? What were the people of Kosovo to think? What were people to worry about with the ethnic cleansing about the role of the United Nations Security Council? Those are the issues. (CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... that dissent within this deliberative body is not really condoned by the United States? FLEISCHER: Different nations have different points of views. That's the point of view of the United States. Other nations that will vote differently are free to express their point of view from their point of view. That's the point of view of the president. This is a moral issue and the president hopes that action will be taken. Doesn't suggest that if they don't take action they are immoral.

But the president does believe that when the people of Kosovo ask who they are to thank for the end of ethnic cleansing, they cannot thank the United Nations Security Council. The president of Rwanda himself expressed similar thoughts about waiting for the United Nations Security Council, and after waiting, a million people died.

So these are important issues to be discussed, frankly and openly, and these are the implications.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Are you suggesting seriously that a failure to pass the resolution because one of the permanent five vetoed, even though there may have been nine or 10 votes, would be some sort of moral victory? You get nine or 10 votes, but you...

FLEISCHER: The moral issue is an issue that I think you will hear expressed by the people of Iraq, that in the event hostilities ensure and the Iraqi people are freed from a cloak of a brutal dictatorship that tortures, that kills, the people of Iraq will know who to thank. That'll be a moral issue. That will be a moral matter. That's an approach to this issue.

And nations are certainly within their right, certainly within their judgment. They will express that from their own point of view of a moral position. And their position will be no less moral than the United States' position, but the people of Iraq will know in their hearts who led to action that led to their freedom and who didn't.

QUESTION: So you are trying to build nine or 10 votes for this, even though it may be vetoed, for that reason, to express this moral clarity?

FLEISCHER: Well, the reason the president is proceeding is because the president said he would. The president does think it's important, and the time is coming, and it will happen this will, for the nations of the Security Council to raise their hand and take a stand on the immediate disarmament of Iraq.

QUESTION: If the president bombs Iraq, which he apparently plans to do, it will be in defiance of a U.N. vote, because only in terms of self-defense and you're attacked can you really retaliate under the U.N. Charter. It will also be immoral. And how do you know what the Iraqis think? You think they'd rather be dead and have liberty? And what is this liberty? You're going to send 3,000 missiles over in 48 hours, according to all the plans I've read. How many people are going to survive that?

FLEISCHER: Number one, on the legal basis of it, under United Nations Security Council Resolution 678, the United States...

QUESTION: It doesn't wipe out the charter.

FLEISCHER: Of course it doesn't wipe out the charter, it reinforces it, and that's why it would be legal via United Nations previous resolutions, as previous United States presidents have shown.

The United States military will of course take every step to minimize the loss of innocents. There are no guarantees that it'll happen.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: And I just would like to remind you that if the standard was, if the United Nations Security Council did not act, how many Muslims would have been killed in ethnic cleansing in Serbia? By that standard, if you judge legitimacy by whether the United Nations Security Council... (CROSSTALK)

May I finish?

If by that standard you judge legitimacy, by whether the United Nations Security Council acted, then you would think you would need to restore Slobodan Milosevic to power, because he was removed without the United Nations Security Council approval. That was regime change in Serbia, wasn't it?

QUESTION: Wait. The U.N. didn't change the Slobodan Milosevic regime, the people of Serbia did. The goal of that...

FLEISCHER: With a little help from NATO and the United States.

(LAUGHTER)

I suppose he might still be there had it not been for NATO and the United States.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... we allowed that conflict to end with him in power. And I won't get into an argument about the history, I want to talk to you about...

FLEISCHER: But history is very relevant here, because you're judging the Security Council.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Slobodan Milosevic was not removed from power by military action. Full stop. Period.

FLEISCHER: Well, it certainly undermined his ability to stay in power, if I recall.

But the point is, the United Nations Security...

QUESTION: That wasn't the goal.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: The United Nations Security Council failed to authorize military action in Serbia. A different international coalition, in that case NATO, was formed to do so.

The question Helen was asking seemed to say that without Security Council approval military action might not have legitimacy.

FLEISCHER: It did have legitimacy, and as a result of the military action Slobodan Milosevic fell from power.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about, you and others have said that by this deadline Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime must take a strategic decision to disarm. And diplomats at the United Nations and others have noted that's kind of a vaporous phrase. It's very hard to see what it actually means. How do you tell when someone's had what one of them compared to a religious conversion?

Is the president open to providing some kind of specificity, some kind of benchmark, "Here's what we need to see specifically from Saddam Hussein," as either part of this resolution or around it?

FLEISCHER: Here's what's happening in New York and what you can expect. The ambassadors at the United Nations and others are in the final stages of diplomacy in New York in anticipation of a vote that'll take place this week. The exact form of the vote, what the exact content will be voted on remains a matter of consultation and discussion among various nations. Some nations have suggested such things as benchmarks. There are ideas that are being explored and looked at.

And so it is too soon to say what the final document that will be voted on will include. It's too to say what the exact date will be. I've indicated it will be this week. But there is an important phase of diplomacy under way as we speak. That diplomacy is marked by some level of flexibility within the diplomacy. But the bottom line remains the same: It must lead to the immediate disarmament of Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: So just to button this down, you're open to -- or you aren't ruling out this notion of benchmarks, specific tasks that the Iraqi regime must take. And is the 17th a drop-dead date or is there a little bit of wiggle room in there, could it slide a day...

FLEISCHER: What I've indicated is there's a diplomatic process under way in which consultation is important, listening to the ideas of various nations is important. That's under way as we speak. I have not indicated whether anything is final in the language that has been offered in the amended version of the resolution.

QUESTION: Ari, first, what indications do you have about the possibility of Iraq moving explosives into oil fields? And how would you respond to that? FLEISCHER: One, I cannot confirm those reports. I'm not in a position to have evaluated them. Let me just suggest, and this is if we enter into hostilities, this will be a pattern that will be repeated many times, just as in 1991, anything dealing with operations, with movements would be questions that have to get referred to the Pentagon, not the White House.

QUESTION: OK. And secondly, is the United States prepared to accept the damage that's being done to international institutions and alliances as a result of the debate over Iraq? And if the U.S. fails this test that you have set up for it -- if the United Nations fails this test you have set up, what sort of structure or relations do you see emerging afterwards?

FLEISCHER: Here's what's at stake in the United Nations and in international organizations. Given that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction that are prohibited to him, what is the lesson for the next country that has weapons of mass destruction or nuclear weapons, such as Iran or North Korea, where we fear they are developing their programs to have weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons? How then does the world enforce anti-proliferation arrangements if the methods set up by the international community are not effective?

And that is being tested now in the United Nations Security Council. There are issues that need to be thought through from an international point of view. And the focus is, as the president has said, will the United Nations Security Council be relevant?

There's another point to be made, and that is, will the United Nations Security Council be effective? Will they be effective in stopping proliferators from obtaining weapons? If they're not effective, then the world has to examine these issues carefully to find the best means of finding an effective solution.

QUESTION: Do you think changes may be need at some point?

FLEISCHER: Clearly, given the fact that after 12 years where Iraq has -- some thought Iraq was contained, sanctions have been tried, diplomacy's been tried, inspections have been tried and it has not worked, I think there does need to be a second look.

QUESTION: Ari, if I could just follow the point that you've made here. This morning you've said that if the United Nations failed to confront Iraq proliferators would celebrate. You mentioned North Korea and Iran, as you just did, before.

On the flip side of that, would you then say that if we do confront Iraq, either within or outside the United Nations context, does that suggest that the natural continuation of President Bush's policy is that we will confront Iran and North Korea by whatever means we need to, either within the U.N. or outside? That, in other words, Iraq is the first step...

(CROSSTALK) FLEISCHER: I think you're watching unfold an example with North Korea where the United States is dealing with the situation of North Korea seeking to obtain nuclear weapons through diplomacy and through a multilateral approach. The point is, what's the most effective way to enforce anti-proliferation regimes so that nations do not come into possession of these weapons, particularly these rogue nations? That's the bottom line, is what is an effective mean to stop them from arming up with these types of weapons of mass destruction. And in different regions different solutions may be required.

QUESTION: Following on the same point, I noticed that when you described the conversation with Prime Minister Koizumi, you said that there was an agreement to continue working on an international approach with North Korea. But in your discussion of the conversation with President Jiang...

LEISCHER: You can make the same statement there as well on the phone call.

QUESTION: To work within an international framework.

FLEISCHER: Yes. There's no question that China has been part of working in a regional solution on this issue.

QUESTION: Did the president express any disappointment that China has not been more activist in its interventions in North Korea?

FLEISCHER: No.

I want to remind you that I've said on previous occasions, when you take a look at the five nations in the region that are involved -- and those are Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and of course the United States in this instance -- that different nations are contributing, some more publicly, some more privately, as is some of the history of their diplomacies.

QUESTION: Some not at all?

FLEISCHER: No, I haven't said that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: OK. Just for the sake of accuracy and different impression, the missile, of course, that they have tested is a cruise missile. It is not the type of missile they previously said they would not engage in any further testing of. This was a land-to-sea cruise missile very similar to the one they tested some two weeks ago, three weeks ago.

But the president indeed believes it's important for that nations in the region to put significant pressure on North Korea to get them to dismantle their nuclear program. And the president thinks the most effective way to do that is through all nations working together on it. It is not a bilateral matter. It is not a unilateral matter. It is a matter for all the nations in the region, because the risks are present for all the nations in the region. And that's why the president is working it in that manner.

And just as if the decision is made to use force in Iraq, it too will be done with a number of nations in a multilateral manner. The difference is here it will be done in a multilateral manner, but the president believes diplomacy is the best and most effective way to disarm North Korea.

QUESTION: Can you clarify Secretary Powell's statements this weekend, as well as your own, about the unmanned drone that was discovered -- these recently discovered drones in Blix's report? Is this new information? Is it new evidence, or...

FLEISCHER: This is new information, and we are aware of the reports regarding UNMOVIC's discovery of Iraqi production of not only the drones, but munitions capable of dispensing chemical and biological weapons. They too also have undeclared UAVs or drones, unmanned aerial vehicles.

The drone in this case has a 24-foot wingspan as well as a second undeclared vehicle that were constructed from converted L-29 drop tanks which are auxiliary full tanks for L-29 model Iraqi aircraft. UNSCOM discovered that Iraq has used modified drop tanks to spray simulated anthrax in the past.

The fuel capacities of these drones may violate the 150-kilometer imposition on Iraq separate and apart from the fact that it can contain chemical or biological weapons.

There is a meeting in New York of the Security Council at 3:30 today. It is a closed session, and I anticipate that this is something that may come up.

QUESTION: Now you say it's new information. Is it new information because they have not presented this before, or is it new information to this administration? And was this something the administration was...

FLEISCHER: No, this was technically an appendix that was added very late to the cluster report that I referenced when I briefed on Friday. It was not discussed by Mr. Blix in his oral presentation, and it may come up today in the private session the United Nations Security Council is having.

QUESTION: But was it something the administration knew about prior to receiving the report on Friday?

FLEISCHER: If it was prior, it was so immediately prior that as we look through a 200-page document and then found the appendix added at the end, we only became aware of it at that moment.

QUESTION: And the purpose of the... FLEISCHER: We always had fears and suspicions, as you know, of a UAV program operating in Iraq, as Secretary Powell had talked about previously, and as other newspapers had reported.

FLEISCHER: What's new here is that the U.N. may have discovered something on the ground.

QUESTION: And do you believe that Blix intentionally buried this information?

FLEISCHER: No, I have not said that. No.

I think that this is one of the issues that member states of the Security Council look forward to learning more about. It's important to learn more about this.

QUESTION: Does it appear, though, that he may have done it?

FLEISCHER: That's why there are questions, and I'm sure those questions will get answered.

QUESTION: There are two things here, the unmanned aerial vehicles and the bombs that have cluster sub-munitions, they're called, in other words little balls that come out.

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: Is it the U.S. view that both of these are intended or have the capability of dispersing chemical and biological weapons?

FLEISCHER: There's no question the munitions are capable of dispensing chemical and biological weapons. And based on past reporting that UNSCOM did, there is also a concern about the UAVs being modified for this exact same purpose, which is the spraying of chemical and biological weapons. We're talking about weapons of mass destruction.

QUESTION: Now, the bombs and the little round sub-munitions, the cluster bombs, that is just as new as the UAV information? I wasn't clear which one you were talking about being new. Is that also part...

FLEISCHER: Both pieces of information only became available to us in the final version of the cluster document, the UAVs and the appendix. So this was late-breaking news very late last week.

QUESTION: And the U.S. view is that these are undeclared, potentially prohibited systems.

FLEISCHER: They are undeclared, and we look forward to learning more and hearing more from the United Nations.

QUESTION: Do you have any sense, has UNMOVIC given you any sense of why it is that this was not included in Dr. Blix's report before the Security Council? FLEISCHER: No, this is why I said there are outstanding questions, and all members of the Security Council, I think it's safe to say, look forward to hearing the answers. These are important questions.

QUESTION: Aside from the reported comments on Russian of the foreign minister, has the White House received any direct indication from Russia about what that country's position is on the U.N. resolution and whether or not they now have a firm position to vote no?

FLEISCHER: You know, unless a nation is on the record in public about what their ultimate stand will be, whether they will vote yes, whether they will abstain or whether they will veto, it's not the place of the White House to describe the position of other nations. I cannot do that. We will continue the diplomatic process and continue to talk to Russia, of course.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) find that they reached out to the administration to make clear their position?

FLEISCHER: The last time the president and President Putin spoke, they both talked about continued consultation.

QUESTION: Does the -- the diplomatic push that the president's personally involved in now, does his role in that extend to, you know, carrying the lobbying campaign, the diplomatic campaign himself directly to New York, to the U.N. this week to meet with other leaders?

FLEISCHER: No, the president has no plans to travel, and you should not expect that. When the vote is taking place, the vote will take place at the normal levels of discussion for the United States government.

QUESTION: You said again today, as you did, I think, originally last week, that if the U.N. fails to act Iraq will be disarmed by another international organization...

FLEISCHER: Correct.

QUESTION: ... coalition that the United States has put together. You seem to be equating an ad hoc coalition with what the United States has been able to form around one issue and one task with permanent bodies, like the U.N. and NATO which have charters, run by treaties, have charters and structures. Does the president believe that international affairs can be conducted entirely through ad hoc body like the ones he's...

FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, a coalition of the willing would be a coalition assembled for the purpose of using force to disarm Saddam Hussein. So the answer is obviously yes.

But the point I'm making here is that there are many ways to form international coalitions; the United Nations Security Council is but one of them. They are not the only group that can speak well about international organizations and international efforts. And that is why, if a decision is a made to use force to disarm Saddam, it will be through a large coalition of the willing through many other nations, not just the United States.

QUESTION: But ad hoc coalitions don't have formal rules and structures to make decisions. They make it up as they go along, as the United States has does here with this coalition. Doesn't that play into criticisms that other countries and other people in other countries have made about the United States that we are making up the rules as we go along?

FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of anybody who's said making up the rules as we go along. I think the president has been overt. The mission is to disarm Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Ari, given all the difficulty of pursuing the U.N. routes (OFF-MIKE) September, the (OFF-MIKE) in November, now another vote, is there any second-guessing going on in the White House among those say (OFF-MIKE) have done this?

FLEISCHER: You know, I've talked to the president about that, and the answer is no. The president though this was the right thing to do and thinks it remains the right thing to do for the same reasons he gave in his September 12th speech.

Now, if the vote ultimately does not come out the way that the president hoped it would because of a veto, then I think that the president will remind the world about what he said in that September 12th speech, about the need to have international organizations that are effective in fighting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

FLEISCHER: And, as I said earlier, that if the United Nations does not act that there are other proliferators down the line who will celebrate the United Nations Security Council's failure to back up its own resolutions.

And that's why the president went to the United Nations. The president still is working hard to make the United Nations Security Council the organization that enforces its own resolutions calling for immediate disarmament.

QUESTION: Another follow-on on the cluster bombs in the drone, if I may: Aside from the U.N. disclosure, does the United States have information of its own, independent, about either of these potential weapons systems?

FLEISCHER: Well, if you're asking me to discuss anything of a classified nature I, of course, cannot do that.

QUESTION: No, more so, in other words, beyond what yield from the appendix?

FLEISCHER: I think on the topic of the drones, and if you recall the president raised that in his speech in Cincinnati last fall, which was a subject of concern that Iraq has been working to develop these. What is notable here that came out the very end of last week from the United Nations is that they may have discovered something.

QUESTION: Can I just have an unrelated follow-up? Just an update on the status of Osama bin Laden. We had some breathless reports toward the end of last week that people were closing in on him. Can you give us an idea of where we are on that right now?

FLEISCHER: Nothing different from what I've said before, and, you know, I think that somebody said to me "Are you close to getting Osama bin Laden?" And my response then, my response today is, I don't know how to measure close; either he is captured or he is not.

QUESTION: Do we still have specific search going on in a specific region of the...

FLEISCHER: You may have to talk to DOD about anything operational.

QUESTION: The president has been reluctant to put forward any cost estimates on what the war might cost, but the Congressional Budget Office did so on Friday suggesting the first month might cost $10 billion, and then $8 billion a month from there on out until it's completed.

But, surely, since the president has been talking so much about reconstruction and making sure that a proper democratic government is allowed to take hold in Iraq, that schools will be rebuilt, that kind of thing, the government must have some idea what the after-cost might be.

FLEISCHER: Well, just as the president said at the news conference last week, that in the event hostilities begin a supplemental will be sent up to the Congress that takes into account best estimates at that time about what costs could be that would include various area of reconstruction as well as military operations.

But unless that happens, I'm not in a position to speculate about what the cost could be.

QUESTION: Why not?

FLEISCHER: For all the reasons I've been giving for weeks on the same question.

QUESTION: Every time you guys put together a domestic policy initiative, there's a cost estimate attached, even in its most preliminary phases.

FLEISCHER: Because the variables of war are totally different from the variables of a domestic cost estimate.

If Saddam Hussein surrenders and Iraq disarms on the first day, in the first hour, that has one dramatic impact on the price. If it appears to be a lengthier price, then we would be in a position to know at that time. Until we have more information it's very hard to make all these assessments with finality.

QUESTION: The March 17th date, does that have significance only in the U.N. context, or is that a date that we're prepared to enforce, or is -- are all bets off once the U.N. acts; if it doesn't approve that date is war on immediately?

FLEISCHER: I think the best way to look at the March 17th date and say, "What is this?" At this point that is the date that has been given by the United Nations as part of the resolution that's been tabled, and so it's part of the diplomatic process about when the diplomacy will be brought to an end.

In the event the president decides to authorize the use of force, we have not indicated what the date may or may not be. Anything of that nature would come from the president himself.

QUESTION: But if the United Nations -- if the president's efforts are unsuccessful, the United Nations does not accept that March 17th date, is the message to those who want more time that there is no more time as of that moment? FLEISCHER: Well, as the president had said, there would be warning to inspectors, to journalists, to others, to get out, and in the event that there is anything further to be said about a date it would come from the president himself. So I can't speculate about whether this would or would not happen, or what the date may or may not be.

The date of March 17th has been set by the resolution that will be tabled, that has been tabled, per the diplomacy.

QUESTION: Two follow-ups, one on Russia. In the president's recent phone calls with Mr. Putin, did he get at all the impression that, "Well, they may not be with us, but at least they're not going to be against us," like which has been quoted in the press? Did he get that impression?

And secondly, on the cost estimate, why is it not appropriate now to have those cost estimates released, given that the Pentagon has made those estimates already? (OFF-MIKE) appropriate time, but why is now not an appropriate time?

FLEISCHER: On your first question, again, it's the place of other nations to characterize their positions. It's not my place to...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... the president's impression, not actually what Putin said.

FLEISCHER: The president's impression is that, if Russia has something conclusive to report, they will report it.

On the second part of your question, I've been answering it the same way for weeks; that in the event a supplemental is sent, you'll have information at that time based on the numbers that are as accurate as final. QUESTION: If the U.N. Security Council and the weapons inspectors maintain their present attitude or pattern, is the Bush administration committed to maintaining its present U.N. dues at the current high level?

FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of anything that would indicate otherwise.

QUESTION: Why not?

FLEISCHER: Because I think that this will require a period of assessment to determine -- when the president talked about the relevance of the United Nations Security Council and if it's not able to act and be relevant or effective, then I think that people would look at that issue in terms of relevance and effectiveness. I've just not heard any discussion about that dealing with dollars.

QUESTION: Ari, given the seriousness of a military operation against Iraq and the feeling in the international community against such a war, even in those countries which have given support to the U.S. on this question, why is the president so averse of going to the United Nations itself, as is proposed by the French, to present -- to make his case personally? Is he not the best person to do that?

FLEISCHER: Because the case will be made. And what will happen up in New York is, the votes will be cast. The case will be made in the days and the moments leading up to the vote, not the show of hands itself. And I think that all, but for maybe an extremely small number of leaders when you look around the world, very few responded favorably to the French proposal to have a summit meeting to cast the vote. That really did not fall on very receptive ears in any pockets of the Security Council, with some exception, but with very, very few.

QUESTION: Ari, you've said today that the United Nations Security Council doesn't have a monopoly on an organization of international bodies, but what it does offer is a certain international legitimacy. I'm wondering where a coalition outside of that would derive its legitimacy from an international conscience.

FLEISCHER: It would derive its legitimacy from -- first of all, the legality is, of course, as I said, expressed in Resolution 687 of the United Nations resolutions. It's also expressed in the Constitution of the United States of America and the president's role as commander in chief. And of course, also there is a vote in the Congress on the question of force in the form of a resolution.

It also is derived from the will of the world to disarm Saddam Hussein so that security around the world can be preserved, and that itself derives a moral legitimacy.

QUESTION: Given what we know about the September 11th hijackers, what progress has been made in the INS of keeping track with Middle Eastern men and their getting student visas?

FLEISCHER: As you know, the Department of Justice, working with other agencies, has been implementing a program to tighten security at the borders, not only in terms of air transit coming in, but in terms of the land entries into the United States. And there has been a significant increase in security and in protecting the country since September 11th. The situation involving actions at the borders is dramatically different from when it was prior to September 11th.

QUESTION: Ari, haven't you, in your response to Bob's (ph) question and Ken's (ph) earlier questions, declared the U.N., in effect, to be irrelevant already?

FLEISCHER: No. As the president said on September 12th, he hopes it will be relevant. And one of the ways the president will measure this -- and it's not only relevance, as I said, it's also is it effective in enforcing its own resolutions about immediate disarmament? And I think the vote, as far as the president is concerned, will be instructive.

QUESTION: As you point to other international organizations, coalitions, so forth as a substitute for the U.N., why shouldn't that be taken as an official administration policy that the U.N. is irrelevant?

FLEISCHER: The president has not reached that conclusion; that's why.

The vote will take. And if the president has anything further, as far in forming his opinions, he may have something to say about that.

But at this point what is happening is, even with the United Nations Security Council vote, of course, there will be members of the Security Council who may vote yes who will not be providing combat troops, for example. So regardless of what the vote is, it will be other nations, as part of the coalition of the willing, that provide the force to disarm Saddam Hussein.

O'BRIEN: We've been listening Ari Fleischer, who was regaling us with a busy day of phone diplomacy at White House. The president contacting everybody, from the president of China to the sultan of Caboose (ph) to persuade them that the United States is on the moral high ground as it embarks on the disarmament campaign aimed at Saddam Hussein.

Talking specifically also to president Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, who apparently sent a delegation to Baghdad to talk about South Africa's effort to unilaterally disarm of weapons of mass destruction, Ari Fleischer saying if the U.N. fails to act, some other world body will in fact do the job, Saddam will be disarmed, according to him.

He put it in humanitarian terms, citing the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1992 Kosovo campaign. In both cases, the U.N. Security Council chose not to intervene. Fleischer saying the United Nations has previously sat on the sidelines, as people died and as injustice was done as a result of vetoes or veto threats.

Ari Fleischer at the White House. We'll be monitoring it, even though we're not bringing the rest of it to you live. Should any additional news come out of it, we'll bring it to you right away.

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