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Bush Lashes Out at Congress’ Probe : Foreign policy: The President charges that the Democrats are conducting a political ‘witch hunt’ as a House panel investigates U.S. aid to Iraq.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Venting his “anxiety” in a bruising election year, President Bush on Saturday angrily accused congressional Democrats of launching a “political inquest” and a “witch hunt” with their investigation of the Administration’s assistance to Iraq before the Persian Gulf War.

“I know politics when I see it,” Bush said as an Earth Summit news conference quickly turned to his troubles at home. “I know political timing when I see it. . . . (And) I must say, this smells political to me.”

The President’s outburst came in response to a question about a formal request by the House Judiciary Committee that he make aides and documents available to provide further details about the failed U.S. policy.

Bush denounced the inquiry as unwarranted and unnecessary, and drew a sarcastic comparison to a separate congressional inquiry into suggestions that he participated in an alleged Ronald Reagan campaign effort to postpone the freeing of American hostages in Iran until after the 1980 U.S. presidential elections.

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“And why the Congress keeps spending the taxpayers’ monies on these witch hunts, I do not know,” Bush said. “And I’m a little sick of it, but there’s not a heck of a lot I can do about it except to express a continual and somewhat mounting frustration as I see now another attack.”

The unexpected force of Bush’s comments appeared to reflect White House concern that attention to prewar U.S. policies toward Iraq could cut into what remains of political dividends from Operation Desert Storm.

The show of strong feeling also came after several difficult days for the President. In Panama City on Thursday, tear gas and gunshots put down a protest demonstration but forced Bush to flee a downtown plaza stage just before he was to deliver a speech.

And on his 68th birthday Friday, Bush found himself isolated among more than 110 world leaders at the Earth Summit here as he defended his Administration’s environmental stands.

Several times in the course of Saturday’s 29-minute news conference, Bush bemoaned what he termed “this screwy year” and “a tough, weird political year at home.” While he continued his refusal to criticize his presidential challengers, he had clearly chosen to use the Democratic-controlled Congress as a proxy.

Speaking of political observers and his own mood, Bush said: “If they sense an anxiety, they may be right.”

Bush insisted that his Administration had “complied fully” with congressional inquiries into the assistance it gave Iraq until just days before Saddam Hussein launched his invasion of Kuwait. He did not say directly whether he would accede to the Judiciary Committee’s request that he allow two senior White House aides to testify about their roles in that matter.

An Administration official said later that Bush would almost certainly maintain his refusal to permit members of the White House staff to appear at such public hearings. The aides whose testimony is sought by the committee are White House counsel C. Boyden Gray and Nicholas Rostow, counsel to the National Security Council.

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Robert A. Mosbacher, the former Commerce secretary who is now the general chairman of Bush’s reelection campaign, also is named on a witness list submitted to Bush by the House panel on Friday.

The Administration official said it was unclear whether the White House had any power to determine whether he would testify.

House Democrats have made clear that they are also preparing to seek the appointment of a special prosecutor to examine allegations of wrongdoing in the Administration’s prewar policy toward Iraq, and Bush responded to those efforts with particular disdain.

“Our policy was well known,” he said, enunciating each word coldly. “We tried to bring Saddam Hussein into the family of nations. That policy was not successful.

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“We did not enhance his nuclear, biological or chemical weapon capability, a charge made recklessly in this political year. And when we failed, and when he took an aggression, the whole world joined with us. . . . And now some of the very people who opposed U.S. action are trying to redeem themselves by a lot of political inquiry. And I don’t think the American people are going to stand for it.”

Bush said he would “wait and see” whether Congress asks Atty. Gen. William P. Barr to appoint a special prosecutor before deciding whether to endorse such a step. But he said he had no doubt that the efforts were “political, purely political.”

He also made plain his irritation at the separate congressional “October Surprise” inquiry that is examining, among other things, an allegation made in a recent book by Gary Sick that Bush himself may have participated in secret meetings with Iranian officials in Paris at a time when he was serving as Reagan’s running mate.

“Incidentally,” the President said as he veered from the Iraq policy inquiry, “I will make one last appeal to Congress and I would say, would you please say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to whether I was in Paris at any time--say nothing of the fall of 1980--because you’re spending millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ dollars trying to prove on the basis of a stupid book that I was there.”

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“Would you please certify to the American people whether this now-President and then-candidate was in Paris?” he added with unmistakable sarcasm.

Except to say that “it’s a little different when you’re on the outside shooting in,” Bush swerved from reporters’ attempts to elicit comments about his campaign rivals. He continued to insist that he will not venture into such territory until after this summer’s Republican convention.

He allowed, however, that he was “getting kind of anxious to get ‘after the convention.’ ”

Bush has showed irritation in the past when news conference questions stray from the White House’s intended focus. But while he defended his Administration’s sometimes-controversial performance at the Earth Summit, he seemed eager at the news conference to address matters with which he is more comfortable.

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With Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin due in Washington on Tuesday for a two-day summit meeting, Bush made clear that he was looking forward to turning his focus to foreign policy matters in which “I don’t need congressional acquiescence every step of the way.”

He said he would assure his counterpart that the United States was “not trying to take strategic advantage of Russia,” as Yeltsin has suggested. And he praised the Russian leader for his candor in disclosing that the Soviet Union held American POWs in the 1950s.

Bush also said he would “rephrase” and clarify his plans for a second Administration in response to plans by his expected Democratic rival, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, to release an agenda for his first 100 days in office.

But it was clear that the President intended for now to continue to focus his reelection campaign more against Congress than Clinton or undeclared candidate Ross Perot.

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“I would say that when you look around at this screwy year, people do seem to be fingering Congress even more than the President,” he said.


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