President Bush authorized covert plans last year to support the election campaigns of Iraqis with close ties to the White House, but government and intelligence officials said yesterday the plan was scrapped before the January vote.
Some officials with knowledge of the original proposal said the Bush administration backed down after congressional objections, but others cited concerns within the intelligence community that the effort was likely to backfire.
The White House would not comment on classified matters or confirm whether such a plan existed. But National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones acknowledged in a statement that before the vote, "there were concerns about efforts by outsiders to influence the outcome of the Iraqi elections, including money flowing from Iran."
Jones said that 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 U.S. should take in response. In the final analysis, the president determined and the United States government adopted a policy that we would not try to influence the outcome of the Iraqi election by covertly helping individual candidates for office."
Jones would not say whether any political parties had benefited from covert support. The State Department openly gave money to help parties organize for what the White House called Iraq's first free and democratic election.
An article in the upcoming issue of the New Yorker magazine reports that despite congressional objections, the White House went ahead with the plan to bolster the campaign of Ayad Allawi, who had been installed by the United States as Iraq's interim prime minister in 2004 and who worked closely with the CIA during his years as an Iraqi exile. Allawi, a secular Shiite, did better than expected in the election but not strongly enough to retain his leadership role.
Several details in the article, including the assertion that the program was carried out by former CIA officers and relied on funding not controlled by Congress, were disputed by officials within the White House, State Department and Congress.
Although the president does not need congressional authority for a covert operation, any such plan would require congressional funding controlled by the House and Senate intelligence committees. Officials said it would be unusual for the White House to go ahead with such a plan without that money.
Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.,) the House intelligence committee's senior Democrat, would not discuss classified information. But she said in a statement that "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."
Asked about the New Yorker article yesterday on CNN's "Late Edition," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), a Republican member of the Senate intelligence committee, also declined to discuss details: "All I can say is that the administration has tried everything to try to bring about a successful conclusion over there."
Other officials would not comment for the record. But privately, there was wide agreement that the plan, first reported by Time magazine in October 2004, had been approved to counter the heavy organizational and financial support that religious Shiite parties were receiving from Iran.
"I don't believe we actually did provide covert support in the end, but the gray area may have been did we ever consider it?" said one intelligence official who would discuss the classified proposal only on the condition of anonymity. "Early on, the administration had approved a policy and then, talking to the working level, they saw there was little chance of success and that it was more likely to backfire."
One week before Iraqis went to the polls on Jan. 30, the United Nations' top election official, Carina Perelli, criticized U.S. military forces for distributing material urging Iraqis to vote. Perelli and other U.N. officials said they were concerned the military involvement was compromising efforts to convince Iraqis that they were directing their own elections. Perelli said at the time that she and the top U.N. election official in Iraq had been "asking, begging military commanders" to stop handing out the material.
A U.S. official who was heavily involved in preparing for the vote said U.S. officials ultimately offered a variety of less organized Iraqi parties support in the form of "cell phones, printing billboards and pamphlets and poster bills advertising the electoral choices. That is what we eventually opted for, and the truth is, the effort ended up not helping the parties that we wanted to help most."
Larry Diamond of Stanford University, who was an adviser to the U.S. occupation, said he urged the White House a year before the vote to "set up a transparent election fund to help not just Allawi, but a lot of parties that weren't being helped by the Iranians."
Diamond, whose book, "Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq," was recently published, said he did not know how the administration handled the issue in the end.
"But I don't think we can simply take the administration's word for it. I think we need an independent congressional investigation to find out what really happened," he said.
Diamond said that details revealed in the New Yorker article would likely cause "significant damage to us and our credibility in Iraq. I also think it will do damage to Allawi because it will further the impression of Allawi as a U.S. agent and a U.S. pawn." Allawi was not reachable to comment, and much of the new Iraqi leadership was in Iran for a state visit.