William P. Barr, President Bush's nominee for attorney general, opened his confirmation hearings yesterday by generally defending the Justice Department in which he has served for 2 1/2 years, especially its much-criticized inquiry into criminal activity at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

Barr, who received a mostly friendly reception from the Senate Judiciary Committee, acknowledged that until last summer, federal prosecutors were conducting separate inquiries into BCCI with "very little coordination."

He said he has ordered a review of how the department pursued the investigation, but asserted, "I believe our record is fairly good and much of the criticism of the office is unfair."

Barr also defended other Justice Department actions during the 15 months he served as deputy attorney general and three months as acting attorney general, including:

The department's August request that a federal judge lift an injunction against anti-abortion protesters who were blocking access to abortion clinics in Wichita, Kan. Barr told Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that the department believed the demonstrators were "lawbreakers . . . treading on other people's rights" who "should be dealt with," but in state court, not federal court.

The administration's use of lawyers from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel to identify potential discrepancies in University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill's testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In response to questions from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Barr said he did not know whether White House and Justice Department officials, with Bush's approval, decided they needed to directly attack Hill's credibility to blunt the force of her testimony.

Asked if Thomas was the best candidate for the vacancy, Barr answered: "I believe he was."

Three of the eight Democrats on the 14-member panel voiced support for Barr in the 3 1/2-hour hearing, adding to the administration's sense of confidence that he will be easily approved. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) said he favors Barr's nomination. Sen. Herbert H. Kohl (D-Wis.) said he was "inclined to support" it. And Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) said he believes "the president has chosen someone honest and capable."

Republican senators stressed Barr's relative lack of political connections, saying he was nominated purely because of his legal talent. "William Barr is just a lawyer's lawyer, that's all," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).

The 41-year-old law graduate of George Washington University opened his remarks by saying: "I never thought I would be named attorney general. I never thought, frankly, I would serve as deputy."

When he discussed the job with Bush, Barr said, "I observed there were others who had greater stature." Bush responded that he wanted the department run professionally and with integrity, Barr said.

Asked what his priorities would be, Barr listed drug enforcement, violent crime, civil rights enforcement and white-collar crime. He said he also wants to "anticipate the slumbering giants" with programs to undercover fraud in areas of insurance, pension funds, computers and health care.

Barr tried to reassure committee members that he would cooperate with them, citing "an all-nighter" once in the Capitol working out legislative language with Simon. Legislators have complained that former attorney general Dick Thornburgh, defeated last week in a bid for the Senate, ignored their inquiries and concerns for most of his tenure.

"Mr. Thornburgh viewed the Congress as a nuisance and when he appeared before the committee always seemed to have someplace more important to go," Leahy said.

On other matters, Barr promised DeConcini he would continue to concentrate on problems at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, long considered the stepchild of the department, saying: "INS has suffered from underinvestment for a long time."

Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) told Barr to expect further questioning about his views of the reach of presidential powers and about BCCI. The hearing is expected to end today.

Barr told Biden he would take personal responsibility for the department's performance on the BCCI case as of July, when he said he became involved. He said 37 federal prosecutors in five cities are now working on the BCCI case under the oversight of a Justice Department task force. They have not sought more indictments because they don't yet have the evidence, Barr said, and must track down some of it overseas.

"From a personal standpoint, it would be great if I could just throw down an indictment and say: 'See guys?' . . . {But} we have to support the indictments with evidence," he said.