Plan Called for Covert Aid in Iraq Vote

By DOUGLAS JEHL and DAVID E. SANGER

New York Times

July 17, 2005

WASHINGTON, July 16 - In the months before the Iraqi elections in January, President Bush approved a plan to provide covert support to certain Iraqi candidates and political parties, but rescinded the proposal because of Congressional opposition, current and former government officials said Saturday.

In a statement issued in response to questions about a report in the next issue of The New Yorker, Frederick Jones, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said that "in the final analysis, the president determined and the United States government adopted a policy that we would not try - and did not try - to influence the outcome of the Iraqi election by covertly helping individual candidates for office."

The statement appeared to leave open the question of whether any covert help was provided to parties favored by Washington, an issue about which the White House declined to elaborate.

The article, by Seymour M. Hersh, reports that the administration proceeded with the covert plan over the Congressional objections. Several senior Bush administration officials disputed that, although they recalled renewed discussions within the administration last fall about how the United States might counter what was seen as extensive Iranian support to pro-Iranian Shiite parties.

Any clandestine American effort to influence the Iraqi elections, or to provide particular support to candidates or parties seen as amenable to working with the United States, would have run counter to the Bush administration's assertions that the vote would be free and unfettered.

Mr. Bush, in his public statements, has insisted that the United States will help promote conditions for democracy in the region but will live with whatever governments emerge in free elections.

The article cites unidentified former military and intelligence officials who said the administration went ahead with covert election activities in Iraq that "were conducted by retired C.I.A. officers and other non-government personnel, and used funds that were not necessarily appropriated by Congress." But it does not provide details and says, "the methods and the scope of the covert effort have been hard to discern."

Representative Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, issued a statement saying that she could not discuss classified information, noting: "Congress was consulted about the administration's posture in the Iraqi election. I was personally consulted. But if the administration did what is alleged, that would be a violation of the covert action requirements, and that would be deeply troubling."

Despite the denials by some Bush administration officials on Saturday, others who took part in or were briefed on the discussion said they could not rule out the possibility that the United States and its allies might have provided secret aid to augment the broad overt support provided to Iraqi candidates and parties by the State Department, through organizations like the International Democratic Institute.

They said they were basing their comments primarily on the intensity of discussions within the administration about the potential adverse consequences of a victory by Iraqi parties hostile to the United States.

Officials and former officials familiar with the debate inside the White House last year said that after considerable debate, the president's national security team recommended that he sign a secret, formal authorization for covert action to influence the election, called a "finding." They said that Mr. Bush either had already signed it or was about to when objections were raised in Congress. Ultimately, he rescinded the decision, the officials said.

Among those who discussed the matter in interviews on Saturday were a dozen current and former government officials from Congress, the State Department, intelligence agencies and the Bush administration. They included some who said they had supported the idea of a covert plan to influence the Iraqi elections, and some who had opposed it.

None would speak for the record, citing the extreme sensitivity of discussing any covert action, which by design is never to be acknowledged by the United States government.

The current and former officials said the debate was likely to resurface within the administration in advance of the next round of Iraqi elections, scheduled for January.

Time magazine first reported in October 2004 that the administration had encountered Congressional opposition over a plan to provide covert support to Iraqi candidates. The New Yorker account detailed more elements of that debate.

The current and former officials interviewed Saturday amplified how Mr. Bush had initially approved the plan, and how the White House met objections as it notified Congressional leaders, as required by law.

Mr. Bush's precise reasons for rescinding the plan are not clear.

Among those whom Time and The New Yorker cited as raising objections was Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader. The Time report said Ms. Pelosi had had "strong words" with Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Pelosi, Jennifer Crider, said Saturday that Ms. Pelosi could "neither confirm nor deny" that she objected. "Leader Pelosi has never publicly spoken about any classified information and would never threaten to take any classified information public," Ms. Crider said. "That is against the law."

Mr. Jones, the National Security Council spokesman, in words that echoed a statement the White House issued to Time in October, said in a telephone interview on Saturday, "I cannot in any way comment on classified matters, such as the existence or nonexistence of findings."

"But there were concerns about efforts by outsiders to influence the outcome of the Iraqi elections, including money flowing from Iran," he said. "This raised concerns about whether there would be a level playing field for the election. This situation posed difficult dilemmas about what action, if any, the United States should take in response. In the final analysis the president determined and the United States government adopted a policy that we would not try - and did not try - to influence the outcome of the Iraqi election by covertly helping individual candidates for office."