San Diego Union-Tribune


23-Feb-2001 Friday

Bush concentrates on agenda in first formal news conference 

George E. Condon Jr. 

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, holding his first formal news conference since taking office, gave a vote of confidence to the FBI director and said last week's attack on Iraq accomplished its goal even if most of the U.S. bombs missed their target.

In a nationally televised session from the White House briefing room, the president sought to keep his administration's focus on his own agenda and to remain aloof from the Clinton pardon controversy.

Throughout the session, he showed a relaxed style that was heavy on broad statements and short on specifics. On the eve of his meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he seemed uncertain about the rapid reaction force proposed for Europe but opposed by his administration. He promised to answer the question after he meets with Blair.

Repeatedly, Bush sidestepped questions about former President Clinton's pardons.

"It's time to go forward. I've got too much to do ... to be worrying about decisions that my predecessor made," he said.

In the wake of the disclosure that the former president's brother-in-law was handsomely paid for work on some of the pardons, Bush was asked if he has given any advice to his own relatives.

"My guidance to them is `Behave yourself,' " he said. "And they will."

On his attacks last week on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's radar sites, the president expressed confidence that the bombings had done what he wanted them do.

"We had two missions. One was to send a clear signal to Saddam, and the other was to degrade the capacity of Saddam to injure our pilots," he said. "I believe we succeeded in both those missions."

The president protested China's assistance in rebuilding Iraqi military facilities.

He also expressed concern about possible national security damage wrought by Robert Philip Hanssen, the veteran FBI official arrested this week for spying for the Soviet Union and Russia.

But he gave a vote of confidence to Louis Freeh, the FBI director now under attack for failing to order routine polygraph tests of senior agents.

"I have confidence in Director Freeh. I think he does a good job. I have confidence in the men and women who work at the FBI," Bush said.

He also did not directly answer when asked if the spy allegations might damage U.S.-Russian relations.

Instead, Bush promised to be "very straightforward" in his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He seized on recent comments by Putin to suggest the Kremlin may be more open to U.S. missile defense plans than previously thought.

"I took that to be encouraging," he said.

Looking ahead to his speech to Congress next week and the introduction of his plan to cut taxes, the president repeatedly stressed his resistance to major changes in the size of that cut.

"Some are saying it's too small, some are saying it's too large, and I'm saying it's just right," he said with a chuckle.