President Takes the Offensive With Press

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

News conferences have never been President Bush's favorite venue, which is probably the main reason he's held fewer than any modern president. But any discomfort he felt yesterday was for the most part well concealed.

In the face of repeated skeptical questions on the Iraq war and whether he acted within the law in ordering a domestic spying program, Bush apparently decided that a passionate offense was his best defense. In a morning event in the White House East Room, he answered questions for 56 minutes, sometimes conveying humor, sometimes impatience, but never anything less than full confidence in his own answers.

For most of the time, Bush's mood was casual and crisp. He admonished reporters to refrain from long questions and -- amid concern that he is overreaching on his own powers -- joked that he had signed an executive order to ban them. On the question of domestic surveillance in fighting terrorism, Bush acknowledged civil liberties concerns and said he would ask the same questions if he were sitting in the reporters' seats.

On one occasion, however, his exasperation was obvious when a reporter asked Bush if he was arguing for the "unchecked power of the executive."

The morning's dominant impression was of a president who feels so strongly about his own presidential prerogatives that he was ready to take on all comers who might disagree. He said that as commander in chief he has responsibility for defending the nation against an extraordinary threat, and that he needs extraordinary tools to do so.

Members of Congress from both parties have criticized the spying program, which involves the National Security Agency's eavesdropping, without court orders, on the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens suspected of having terrorist ties. But Bush was undeterred, vowing to maintain the surveillance as long "as the nation faces the continuing threat of an enemy that wants to kill American citizens."

He said whoever leaked the secret program to the press has compromised his administration's efforts to avert another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. "My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war," Bush said. "The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy."

To a Washington Post reporter who asked about "unchecked" power, Bush retorted: "To say 'unchecked power' basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject."

Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas who has closely followed Bush's political career, said the president seemed to grow increasingly frustrated as reporters continually asked him about whether the domestic spying program infringes on the civil liberties of Americans.

"I sensed kind of a latent indignation in him," Buchanan said. "He feels frustrated that people are questioning his right to do what to his way of thinking is so obviously necessary to protect the country."

The lonely burden of a chief executive during war was a continuing theme for Bush during the joust with reporters. At times, he seemed convinced his critics had forgotten that the United States is enmeshed in a war with what he often calls a new kind of enemy.

"After September the 11th, one question my administration had to answer was how, using the authorities I have, how do we effectively detect enemies hiding in our midst and prevent them from striking us again?" Bush said.

Although his administration has been battered by allegations that it has tortured terrorism suspects in secret prisons in several locations across the world, Bush betrayed no hesitation in extolling his own commitment to nurturing democracy in Iraq. Referring to prisons run under Saddam Hussein, he said, "You know, you find these secret prisons where people have been tortured, that's unacceptable," he said, adding that the lingering bitterness complicates the task of national reconciliation in Iraq.

If few can fathom the immense responsibilities on his shoulders, Bush said he understands the concerns of those raising questions with him. Asked about a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, he said he understands the debate about whether a withdrawal timetable is a good idea. Asked about his low approval ratings, he said he understands that "everybody is not going to agree with my decisions."

In regard to the Senate filibuster that has stalled consideration of expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, he said the administration needs as many investigatory tools as possible to ferret out budding terrorist plots. He reminded reporters that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many people were angry that U.S. intelligence agencies were unable to make sense of a number of disparate clues to the plot before it unfolded. He said he understands that people wonder why the agencies could not connect the dots.

When the question of race prejudice arose, Bush acknowledged some pain. The issue exploded into full public view after Hurricane Katrina, when opinion polls found that a majority of African Americans believed the federal response to the disaster would have been faster had most of the victims not been black.

"One of the most hurtful things I can hear is 'Bush doesn't care about African Americans,' " he said. ". . . First of all, it's not true. And, secondly, I believe that -- obviously, I've got to do a better job of communicating."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company