The Export-Import Bank's decisions normally attract about as much attention as meetings of the Federal Maritime Commission. But the peculiar chain of events surrounding the Ex-Im Bank's deliberations last month on a $500 million loan guarantee for a Russian oil company has created a buzz in Washington.

It's a complicated story of lobbying and bureaucratic infighting, but I'm devoting a second column to it because it raises an important question: Did the Clinton administration and the Central Intelligence Agency overstep their bounds by helping a big Western oil company that was locked in a bitter commercial dispute with the Russian loan applicant?

Here's a brief summary of what happened: A month ago, the Ex-Im Bank was nearing a final decision on its loan guarantee to Tyumen Oil Co. After months of study, the bank's directors had concluded that the loan met the bank's normal test of creditworthiness. But they were facing an unusual pressure campaign to reject the loan, led by BP Amoco, which was battling Tyumen for control of a Russian oil field known as Chernogorneft.

BP believed Tyumen had used improper tactics to acquire Chernogorneft at a bankruptcy auction for $180 million, even though it was potentially worth far more, and BP had an ownership claim of its own. BP hoped that Ex-Im rejection of the loan would give it bargaining leverage against Tyumen. Joining BP in its lobbying campaign was global financier George Soros, who had also invested in the oil field, and the powerhouse lobbying firm, Patton Boggs.

Through the fall, pressure had mounted on Ex-Im Bank Chairman James Harmon, including a proposal to tighten congressional oversight, a warning that congressional committees would investigate his conduct and leaks to newspapers of damaging information about him. I wrote about Harmon's courageous stand to defend Ex-Im's independence in an earlier column.

What made the private lobbying campaign unusual was that it was accompanied by heavy pressure from the administration to reject or delay the loan. Stung by criticism that it hadn't done enough to fight Russian corruption, the administration apparently had decided to draw a firm line with Tyumen. It wanted to send a message that if a Russian company tried to cheat Western investors like BP and Soros, it would pay a severe price.

Helping coordinate the administration's efforts to persuade Ex-Im to reject the loan was the National Security Council's top Russia specialist, Carlos Pascual. As it happened, he had worked closely in the past with BP's man in Moscow, Peter Charow. The two had become acquainted during the mid-1990s, when Charow was head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. And Charow and Pascual had both been involved in deliberations of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, the top-level clearinghouse for Russian-American contacts.

Pascual said that he met with Charow four or five times after he joined BP about two years ago, and that he attended a meeting Charow had with NSC and Gore staffers on Sept. 22 to discuss the Tyumen matter. But Pascual says the prior relationship with Charow "didn't affect our judgment about the Tyumen matter in any way."

"This decision was based on the merits and the facts. The NSC's recommendation to the secretary of state to stop the loan was mine alone," said national security adviser Sandy Berger in an interview Friday.

As Ex-Im neared a decision, the NSC asked the CIA to analyze information about Tyumen and make it available to the bank's directors and other concerned agencies. That's standard procedure--Ex-Im, too, was asking for CIA help--and the agency provided several analytical reports and some raw intelligence.

In mid-December the CIA delivered one piece of raw intelligence that had special impact on Ex-Im directors. It was a 29-page investigative report on Tyumen, classified "Secret."

Despite the classification, it actually was a private document. A CIA cover letter said it had been "commissioned by an international oil company, and produced by a Russian security firm that employs former members of the Russian security service," according to CIA spokesman Bill Harlow. Most sections of the report dealt with ordinary corporate issues, such as "management," "shareholders" and "general structure." But 2 1/2 pages were labeled "criminal situation" and included some detailed allegations about Tyumen management.

The document had been commissioned by BP, according to an informed source outside the U.S. government. But that information was not conveyed to anyone at Ex-Im, despite the bank directors' requests to know the origins of the report so they could evaluate its spin.

The CIA won't discuss who might have commissioned the report. But a senior intelligence official said: "The agency's source was not an international oil company, nor was the agency in any way induced to pass this along by an international oil company. We didn't identify the company that commissioned the report because we didn't want to compromise the individual who gave it to us."

But was it kosher for the CIA to pass along a private report by one party in a dispute, stamp it "Secret" and distribute it? The senior intelligence official said the CIA's action was "appropriate" and "not all that unusual in how we support senior intelligence customers." He added that CIA analysts later gave Ex-Im officials a briefing on Dec. 14 in which "we gave them our take on the Tyumen report," which was that it tracked other information the agency had gathered.

The lobbying campaign against the Tyumen loan worked. Although Ex-Im stood its ground, the State Department intervened Dec. 21 and ordered that the loan be halted on "national interest" grounds. Tyumen a day later caved to BP's pressure and negotiated a settlement that will give the British oil company a 10 percent share of the Chernogorneft field.

The outcome was probably good for Russia, and it sent the right signal about U.S. opposition to unethical business practices there. But in sending a message to Moscow about corruption, we may have corrupted our own policy process.