WASHINGTON — President Bush, in his first full-fledged news conference, declared the military strike against Iraq a success Thursday despite the sub-par performance of U.S. missiles. “We got his attention,” he said of Saddam Hussein.
Fielding questions for a half hour, the president also said he was “deeply concerned” about the FBI spy case but gave agency director Louis Freeh a vote of confidence. “I think he does a good job,” Bush said two days after FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen was arrested and accused of spying for Moscow.
By turns confident and cautious, Bush answered more than a dozen questions after opening the White House briefing room session with a defense of his tax-cutting and budget-tightening plans.
Bush, who will outline his budget priorities in an address to Congress on Tuesday, said he would increase spending for popular education and Medicare programs while reducing the rate of growth in the federal budget overall.
“Some are saying it’s too small. Some are saying it’s too large,” he said of his 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut proposal. “I’m saying it’s just right.”
From policy in China and Colombia to President Clinton’s pardons, Bush discussed a wide range of topics. He was often repetitive, and frequently glanced down at his notes, particularly when the topic was foreign policy.
A punctual president, Bush started and stopped the news conference on time.
In his opening statement, he promised to offer a “reasonable and balanced budget” that will include an 11 percent increase for education and a 10 percent increase for Medicare. The higher Medicare budget is mostly automatic growth attributed to inflation and an increase in the number of people in the program, though a fraction is due to Bush’s push for a state prescription drug benefit.
He promised to “slow the rate of growth” in the federal budget, but didn’t say what programs would be cut to do so.
On Iraq, Bush said last week’s airstrike was ordered both to warn Saddam that he won’t be allowed to build weapons of mass destruction and to diminish Baghdad’s ability to attack patrolling U.S. and British planes.
“I believe we succeeded in both those missions,” Bush said.
Pentagon officials say results of the strikes were mediocre at best, with damage detected on about 40 percent of the targets. Bush said he looked forward to the Pentagon’s review.
He said he was troubled by reports that China was helping Iraq build a more sophisticated and effective air defense.
“We’re concerned about the Chinese presence in Iraq,” Bush said, and the administration is “sending the appropriate response” to Beijing. On that point, White House officials said Secretary of State Colin Powell has expressed the administration’s concern.
As for the spy case, Bush declined to say whether polygraph tests should be used to root out spies in the FBI, noting the issue is part of an internal review.
He said, “We will find spies, and we will prosecute them.”
The president indicated the Hanssen case would not derail U.S. relations with Moscow. Bush said he would deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin “in a very straightforward” manner.
He welcomed statements by Russian leaders suggesting they are open to discussing missile defense and other nuclear issues. Moscow has previously expressed alarm over Bush’s proposal to build a defense shield, saying it might be viewed a threat.
“Their words indicate that they recognize that there are new threats in the post-Cold War era, threats that require theater-based, anti-ballistic missile system,” Bush said.
Several questions posed to Bush dealt with Clinton’s last-minute pardons, including one supported by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s brother. Bush declined to give his opinion on the matter, saying, “It’s time to go forward.” But he also said Congress and the Justice Department have a right to investigate.
Declaring he is not worried that Clinton is overshadowing his first days in office, Bush said: “I think I’ve got the Congress’ attention.”
He said he has given his family guidance about ethical matters — “Behave yourself” — and predicted that they will.
Bush fields questions from reporters nearly every working day at the White House, but Thursday’s session was his first formal news conference. Aides gave reporters just 60 minutes notice and chose the briefing room rather than the more formal East Room setting.
In the 30-minute session, Bush also:
—Said the United States’ involvement in Colombia should be limited to training to reduce drug trafficking. “I, too, am worried about ever committing the United States military to an engagement in that part of the world.”
—Rejected a suggestion that he might be violating the Constitution by allowing religious groups to bid on some federal projects. “I don’t believe it violates the line between the separation of church and state,” he said.