Bush defends record on Iraq, intelligence, economy
President takes questions at news conference
By Sean Loughlin
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Facing criticism at home and abroad over the administration's rationale for war with Iraq, President Bush on Wednesday declared that he takes "personal responsibility" for everything he says and predicted history would prove his actions were justified.
Though no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, the president said he is confident that deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had a weapons program.
"I'm confident the truth will come out, and there is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States' security and a threat to peace in the region," Bush said -- 90 days after declaring major combat operations over .
Bush, in his first formal news conference since March, rejected congressional criticism that has intensified in recent months on matters relating to U.S. intelligence, the Iraqi war and the broader war on terrorism. And he said his program of tax cuts was boosting the economy, despite some analysis to the contrary.
"There are hopeful signs," Bush said, citing low interest rates, strong housing starts and improving manufacturing indexes.
Meeting with reporters in the Rose Garden, the president strongly defended National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who, along with the CIA, has come under fire for a now-retracted line in Bush's State of the Union Address about Iraq's alleged nuclear ambitions.
Asked whether he took responsibility for the line -- in which, citing British intelligence, Bush said Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa -- the president replied, "I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course."
His endorsement of Rice was unequivocal. "Dr. Condoleezza Rice is an honest, fabulous person, and America is lucky to have her service," Bush said. "Period."
Bush, who heads for an extended break at his Texas ranch this weekend, declared that Iraq was growing more secure by the day, despite continued U.S. causalities there and the fact that Saddam remains unaccounted for.
"I don't know how close we are to getting Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "You know, closer than we were yesterday, I guess. All I know is we're on the hunt."
On other matters, Bush:
• Declared a "real threat" remains from al Qaeda, including the possibility of more hijacking attempts. "I'm confident we will thwart the attempts," he said.
• Said White House lawyers are looking at ways to "codify" the idea that marriage should be between a man and a woman, a proposal that has gained ground among conservatives in light of a Supreme Court ruling that said consensual gay sex could not be penalized.
• Expressed his confidence in Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, describing him as "a person who has got the will to work for peace."
• Said "serious progress" is being made in efforts to work with North Korea's neighbors to convince that country to abandon its nuclear program.
• Sounded an enthusiastic note for his re-election campaign. Asked how he could spend $170 million on a primary campaign when he has no opponent, Bush responded, "Just watch."
• Took a hands-off approach to the gubernatorial recall election in California, describing himself as "an interested political observer" and saying it was a decision for state voters.
• Reiterated his vow to spend $15 billion on fighting AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. "The commitment is there, absolutely," Bush said.
• Called on the House and Senate to resolve their differences on bills providing for a prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare for senior citizens.