KENNEBUNKPORT, Me. — President Bush acknowledged Friday that the government set up a drug purchase in a park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to get a prop for his televised speech on the Administration's anti-drug strategy.
"I think it was great," the President said, responding to questions about the sting operation. "It sent a message to the United States that, even across from the White House, they can sell drugs. It sends a powerful message to the American people."
Despite the White House enthusiasm, some federal law enforcement officials said they were bothered by the prearranged purchase.
"It was a stupid thing to do," said an official in a federal agency involved in the drug war.
"I agree that the place (of the purchase) doesn't make that much difference, but the idea it was contrived all the way down the line of authority adds up to involving the political process in objective law enforcement," the official said. "We shouldn't be doing that."
White House Disagrees
But White House officials argued that the maneuver was justified, noting that it allowed Bush to dramatize his claim that illegal drugs are available throughout the nation and not just in inner-city ghettos.
As a nationwide television audience watched the Sept. 5 address, Bush reached into his desk in the Oval Office and pulled out a plastic bag that contained rocks of crack, a powerfully addictive derivative of cocaine.
The drug, the President told the nation, was "seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House . . . . It could easily have been heroin or PCP."
It was a brief, but dramatic, moment in a speech that otherwise provided little theater, as Bush outlined the scope of the nation's drug problem and his proposed remedies.
On Friday, he was asked if he specifically had requested a crack purchase in front of the White House.
"I said I'd like to have something from that vicinity to show it can happen anywhere, and that's what they gave me. It was a legitimate drug bust," the President said.
"The man went there and sold drugs in front of the White House," Bush said. "That's the bottom line. That's what the man did. I can't feel sorry for him."
Asked if he thought it was proper for a federal agent to lure a suspect to Lafayette Park to enhance the President's speech, Bush responded: "Every time that some guy gets caught selling drugs, he pleads that somebody is luring him someplace . . . . This is probably what he'll argue to get off."
Besides, Bush argued: "That's what you do whenever you make a bust--you bring somebody someplace."
The President appeared puzzled and angered by the questioning from reporters who accompanied him on a tour of a tree farm in Wells, Me., a few miles south of his vacation home in Kennebunkport.
"I don't understand," Bush said at one point. "I mean, has somebody got some advocates here for this drug guy?"
According to White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, the drug purchase was arranged by the Drug Enforcement Administration at the request of the Administration.
"We're glad that they did it," Fitzwater said. "The venue doesn't matter. You can buy drugs at 14th and U (an inner-city intersection in Washington) or at the Washington Monument."
Details of the purchase were disclosed Friday by the Washington Post. In order to make the buy in Lafayette Park, a square block of fountains, paths, shade trees and benches not known as a drug market, the DEA had to entice a suspected drug dealer to move a meeting point several blocks to carry out a sale, the Post reported.
The suspect, a teen-ager, was confused and asked the undercover agent arranging the purchase: "Where the (expletive) is the White House?" the newspaper reported. Told it was the President's home, he replied: "Oh, you mean where Reagan lives."
Fitzwater said that when the White House explained to the drug agency what it wanted to do, the reply came back: "No problem."
"There was no deception involved," he said. "The DEA does these kinds of stings all the time. That's how they make most of their drug arrests."
But Gerald M. Caplan, a George Washington University law professor and former general counsel for the District of Columbia metropolitan police department, said it was hardly a typical drug purchase.
"They're not really selling crack regularly in Lafayette Park. It's the equivalent of buying it across the street from the police station. There's a lot of law enforcement there," Caplan said.
"That's why I find it troubling," he continued. "It looked like a publicity stunt. It took some effort to lure this guy to the park so the President could make his speech."
But a DEA spokesman defended the incident.
"Our setting the time, place and circumstances of these buys is standard operating procedure," said Cornelius J. Dougherty, the spokesman.
James Gerstenzang reported from Kennebunkport and Ronald J. Ostrow from Washington.