President Clinton on Monday criticized laws that automatically impose sanctions on countries for behavior that Americans find unacceptable.

He said such legislation put pressure on the executive branch to "fudge," or overlook, violations so that it would not have to carry out the sanctions.Clinton made his unusually frank remarks during an appearance before a group of about 60 evangelical Christian leaders at the White House. They were meeting with Sandy Berger, the national security adviser, in the Roosevelt Room.

Specifically, Clinton asked the group to withdraw its support for pending legislation that aims to reduce religious persecution overseas by imposing trade and aid sanctions on repressive regimes.

Clinton made clear just how difficult it is for his administration to produce honest analyses about a country's behavior when Congress passes laws that require him to impose sanctions the moment a country violates what Congress defines as good behavior in a variety of areas. These include human rights, drug cooperation and efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

Clinton singled out punitive legislation against Russia, Iran and Cuba as examples of congressional foreign policy initiatives that box him in.

"What always happens if you have automatic sanctions legislation is it puts enormous pressure on whoever is in the executive branch to fudge an evaluation of the facts of what is going on," Clinton said. "And that's not what you want. What you want is to leave the president some flexibility, including the ability to impose sanctions, some flexibility with a range of appropriate reactions."

At another point, he repeated his charge, saying that automatic sanctions "creates an enormous amount of pressure in the bowels of the bureaucracy to fudge the finding."

Clinton did not say that the administration had "fudged" facts to avoid imposing sanctions. But the Clinton administration, like its predecessors, has been criticized for ignoring or excusing obvious violations of U.S. sanctions laws to justify continuing to do business with certain countries.

Clinton's remarks provided a rare opportunity to observe him in a private setting in which he did not expect reporters to be present.

The meeting was not listed on his public schedule, and he was told only later that a reporter had been invited to attend.