WASHINGTON -- President Bush notified Congress last fall that the administration was undertaking increased covert actions Iraq intended to foment a coup against Saddam Hussein and support it with U.S. military forces if necessary, administration officials said yesterday.
The officials were responding to published reports that a new presidential finding related to efforts to oust the Iraqi leader had gone to congressional intelligence oversight committees.
The finding, a formal statement of the national security justification for the covert activities, is required before the Central Intelligence Agency can tap funds designated for such activities. The document was signed by the president before planning and contacts began in late November, these officials said.
Reports of the presidential finding came as the director of central intelligence, Robert M. Gates, was undertaking an unpublicized mission to the Middle East to consult with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt about the political, military and covert steps the Bush administration is taking to bring about Mr. Hussein's downfall, administration officials said.
The officials who discussed the finding said that they were doing so to clarify any mistaken impression that presidential authorization had followed, not preceded as required by law, the covert activities and military contingency planning that began late last year.
Reports referring to a presidential finding appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Friday and the Los Angeles Times yesterday.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, interviewed yesterday on CNN, the cable TV news network, would not discuss reports of covert planning against Mr. Hussein. But he characterized Mr. Hussein's hold on power as "considerably weaker" than at any time since the end of the Persian Gulf war.
Mr. Bush, returning Friday from California, would not discuss any covert planning with reporters, and said: "Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers."
Referring to Mr. Hussein, he said: "I'd like to see him out of there. I'll just leave it right there."
Since November, the finding has likely been updated several times as a CIA contingency fund of about $20 million, which is designated for covert operations, began disbursing money for the activities described in the broad-based document initially submitted.
In that document, the officials said, the president informed the oversight committees that the administration was going to conduct covert operations aimed at undermining Mr. Hussein's center of power in Iraq, including contacts with Iraqi military leaders and opposition groups in an effort to organize or foment a successful coup.
The Bush administration has been sending out frequent messages in various ways on its desire to see an end to Mr. Hussein's regime, and those statements themselves may well add to the pressure on the Iraqi leader.
Since last summer, U.S. diplomats and CIA officers in Amman, Jordan, and other exit points from Iraq have found that an increasing number of influential Iraqis traveling in and out of the country are willing to provide information about discontent inside the country, especially among Mr. Hussein's core group of supporters at the top of the military and ruling Baath Party, as well as in important families in his hometown, Tikrit.
From contacts such as these, CIA officials learned that a gun battle had erupted in November between the security forces of two of Mr. Hussein's closest relatives. At the time, Mr. Hussein had removed one of the relatives, Hussein Kamal Hassan, from his post as defense minister and replaced him with another relative, Ali Hassan Majid, who had governed Iraqi occupation forces in Kuwait.
The presidential finding authorizing covert work was necessary for CIA officers to switch from their roles as intelligence collectors to active organizers working with dissidents in the Iraqi power structure, one official explained.
The document discussed increased funding for propaganda broadcasts into Iraq with the assistance of Saudi Arabia, whose leadership has been pressing Washington to undertake a large-scale covert program. The goal would be to divide the Iraqi military by building a network of opposition forces that could challenge Mr. Hussein's control of the countryside and ultimately challenge his stronghold in Baghdad, where he is protected by five Republican Guard divisions.
Officials familiar with the anti-Hussein program said they believe that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had agreed to cooperate both in financing a covert venture and in providing logistical support for whatever military or paramilitary operations might then evolve.
In Washington, the presidential document provided the legal authority for the White House on Nov. 21 to instruct Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to prepare a detailed report on how the United States could respond to different types of coup situations that could unfold in Iraq.
General Powell reportedly submitted his report to the White House in early December, and it was considered in detail during a Dec. 12 meeting by a group called the Deputies Committee, composed of senior national security aides.
General Powell argued that the United States could support a coup by Iraqi military units if the Iraqi commanders asked for air support and other help in advance. But General Powell said that such an effort would require sending a large number of United States air and ground combat forces back to the region to ensure success.