President Bush said Thursday he will reserve judgment about his administration's destruction of CIA interrogation tapes until several inquiries are finished.
The destruction in 2005 of the tapes, showing harsh interrogation treatment of two terrorism suspects, is being investigated by the Justice Department, the CIA itself and by several congressional panels.
Bush stuck to the White House line that he personally did not know about either the existence of the tapes or their destruction until he was briefed earlier this month by CIA Director Michael Hayden.
"Sounds pretty clear to me when I say I have — the first recollection is when Mike Hayden briefed me. That's pretty clear," Bush said.
He also said that he believed the ongoing investigations by his administration, "coupled with oversight provided by the Congress, will end up enabling us all to find out what has happened."
"Until these inquiries are complete, I will be rendering no opinion from the podium," Bush said.
Turning to domestic issues in a year-end news conference, Bush complained that Congress had stuffed a spending bill with hundreds of projects that he called wasteful and instructed his budget director to explore options for dealing with them.
Bush said that a $555 billion measure passed by Congress Wednesday night before breaking for the holidays contains some 980 so-called "earmarks," or projects usually benefiting only one state or congressional district.
"So I am instructing Budget Director Jim Nussle to review options for dealing with the wasteful spending in the omnibus bill," Bush said.
However, without holding line-item-veto powers, Bush's ability to block spending on specific projects appears limited. Presidential authority to strike, or veto, individual projects and other spending items from appropriations bills was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1998.
Working hard to 'minimize' delay
The president did praise Congress for sending him "a spending bill to fund the day to day operations of the federal government. They passed this bill without raising taxes." But he complained that the measure was done so late in the year that it could slow the processing of tax returns to millions of Americans.
He said his administration would "work hard to minimize" such a delay.
Bush spoke cautiously about the state of democracy in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, who has tightened control of the courts and the media and maneuvered to retain power as his term ends. Putin has agreed to serve as prime minister if his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, is elected as president as expected.
Putin was just named Time magazine's "Person of the Year" for imposing stability that restored Russia as a world power.
"I presume they put him on there because he was a consequential leader," Bush said. "And the fundamental question is, consequential to what end? What will the country look like 10 years from now? My hope, of course, is that Russia is a country that understands there needs to be checks and balances."
Bush said he hasn't talked to Putin about his serving as prime minister. "I think we better just watch and see," Bush said.
Bush, who has largely refused to comment on the 2008 presidential campaign, did bite when asked about what it takes to be president.
"You can't be the president unless you have a firm set of principles to guide you, as you sort through all the problems the world faces," Bush said.
"And I would be very hesitant to support somebody who relied upon opinion polls and focus groups to define a way forward for a president," he said, without identifying any such candidates by name.
Turning to Iraq, where Bush's military buildup is generally agreed to have helped reduce violence on the ground both against U.S. forces and Iraqi citizens, Bush said work remains to be done, especially in terms of political improvements in the country.
"Are we satisfied with progress in Baghdad? No, but to say nothing is happening is not the case," Bush said.
And while the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has come under considerable criticism from various quarters, "There is a functioning government."
Bush suggested that people were feeling better about their lives both in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though thousands of combat troops remain in both countries to provide security.