WASHINGTON — On June 12 of last year, Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher met with key aides to confront the contents of a three-ring binder that threatened to tarnish the Bush Administration at the height of its glory.
It was the summer of 1991, and President Bush was still basking in the glow of the allied triumph in the Persian Gulf War. But even as the parades and television clips were creating an aura of political invincibility for the President, senior Administration officials were grappling behind the scenes with the prospect of seeing that victory turned to ashes.
Congressional committees were demanding access to a vast collection of classified cables, presidential orders, internal memos and raw notes. The material came to be known within the Administration as the "Iraq papers."
As commerce officials gathered that day, on the table before them was the binder filled with potentially damaging documents: presidential orders mandating favorable treatment for Iraq, interagency records raising alarms over technology sales to Baghdad, a memo invoking the name of the White House in overruling Defense Department objections to the export of computers to an Iraqi military facility.
The following account shows how the Administration systematically sought to keep some of its most sensitive Iraq papers under wraps, while trying to avoid a full-blown confrontation with Congress. It is based on previously undisclosed records, documents released by congressional committees and interviews with officials on both sides of the disputed strategy.
The Administration's circle-the-wagons strategy has become a central focus in the controversy over the ill-fated U.S. policy toward Iraq that has dogged President Bush for months. And if the independent counsel sought by Congress is appointed, the possibility of a cover-up is certain to be on the investigative agenda.
The Iraq papers described a history of assistance to Baghdad dating back to the early days of the Bush Administration and beyond. Their release would document the extent of that aid, as well as the escalating objections within the Administration to the policy of conciliation toward Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Full disclosure would undoubtedly stir public concerns over the Administration's role in Iraq's massive prewar military buildup.
With so much at stake, the debate was carried on at the highest levels. Secretary of State James A. Baker III had a say in which documents to provide. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft advocated restricting congressional access. A plan was broached in which Mosbacher would risk a criminal contempt charge by refusing to turn over material. And President Bush's concerns were invoked on numerous occasions.
Some key details of the Administration's strategy are missing. Not all of the Iraq papers have been turned over to Congress. The White House has refused to comment or permit key officials to testify.
Nonetheless, some in Congress and elsewhere say they have seen enough. They suspect a cover-up, possibly a criminal one. The House Judiciary Committee contends that only an independent counsel can cut through the screen of contradictory statements and missing documents that conceal the extent of the Administration's dealings with Iraq.
To the Administration, charges of a cover-up are deliberate distortions by Democrats who, seeking political gain, want to criminalize legitimate decision-making. Officials say the strategy amounted to nothing more than a responsible effort to respond to congressional requests while observing the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
"This exercise was about seeing whether there were documents over which the White House might want to assert executive privilege," said an official who attended many White House meetings. "If it is a conspiracy for a bunch of lawyers to sit down and figure that out, then I quit."
The Administration's strategy was rooted, at least in part, in the legacy of Watergate. As the Richard M. Nixon Administration saw firsthand, a congressional inquiry can pose a significant threat. Ronald Reagan and his aides had a similar brush with that threat in the congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal.
"One thing that now occurs in the post-Watergate era is the fear of an impeachment effort, not because someone has done anything wrong, but because someone else could present a theory of a kind of conduct that will be regarded as impeachable," says Terry Eastland, author of a new book on the presidency and a former senior Justice Department official who was involved in the Reagan response to Congress in Iran-Contra.
Those fears do not necessarily translate into a cover-up, Eastland says, but they can provide a psychological motivation for executive branch officials to gather every relevant scrap of paper and reassess every decision to see where they might be vulnerable to a congressional inquiries.