WASHINGTON -- On its face, it seems to be a criminal act.
In preparing a document to be submitted to Congress in late 1990 listing all U.S. technology exports to Iraq, someone at the Department of Commerce removed a critical phrase identifying the military nature of a facility north of Baghdad where the exports were headed, according to internal department records.
The original, classified record of the export license -- for sensitive U.S. electronics equipment -- said, "According to our information, the end-user is involved in military matters." When the list was turned over to Congress, that sentence was gone. It was also erased from the permanent computer file at the Department of Commerce.
The alteration -- depicted clearly in records obtained by the Los Angeles Times -- was one of 68 deletions of military designations for goods licensed by the Department of Commerce for export to Iraq between 1985 and 1990.
The mystery behind those changes stands at the center of an approaching showdown between Congress and the Bush administration over calls for an independent counsel to investigate the administration's prewar assistance to Iraq. The House Judiciary Committee, which is weighing whether to seek an independent counsel, will hold a hearing on the issue Tuesday.
To Democrats and some Republicans, the altered list represents the strongest argument for appointing a special prosecutor to investigate whether officials violated the law in trying to conceal the extent of the administration's aid to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, especially aid that helped him build his enormous war machine.
Sending the altered list to Congress may have violated a number of laws, including those against obstructing a congressional investigation and making false statements to Congress, and may have involved a conspiracy, according to a former federal prosecutor.
"There is a great deal of concern over these documents and the changes," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. "They are certainly a factor in determining whether an independent counsel is needed."
Democrats contend that the Department of Justice cannot fairly investigate the episode, in part because the commerce secretary at the time the changes were made was Robert A. Mosbacher, now chairman of President Bush's re-election campaign.
An internal Department of Commerce memo indicates that Mr. Mosbacher or someone on his staff may have had a role in preparing the export list.
At Tuesday's hearing, Assistant Attorney General Robert S. Mueller III and a deputy will tell Congress the alterations are the focus of a criminal investigation, making an independent counsel unnecessary, according to sources familiar with White House strategy.
In an attempt to neutralize another issue raised by Democrats and a federal judge, Mr. Mueller will also contend that federal prosecutors moved as quickly as possible in investigating $5 billion in loans to Iraq by the Atlanta branch of an Italian bank.
The testimony by Mr. Mueller and a deputy is the only bone the administration appears willing to offer the committee. Concluding that Democrats will vote to seek a special prosecutor anyway, the White House decided not to allow testimony by the other officials sought by the panel.
"These hearings, to some extent, are just camouflage," said a Republican official.
Mr. Bush has made clear his anger at the prospect of an independent counsel, telling reporters last week that it was a "political inquest" and a "witch hunt."
The president seems willing to accept a certain level of political damage by acknowledging the failure of his effort and that of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, to persuade Mr. Hussein to mend his ways by giving him aid and sensitive technology. But Mr. Bush insists that no laws were broken.
"I know what we did," the president said at a June 4 news conference. "There wasn't anything illegal."
But Mr. Bush's denunciations -- and the decision to give the Judiciary Committee as little cooperation as possible -- have stoked the political fires on an issue that has been simmering for months.
While the vote may not come Tuesday, Democratic insiders say it is virtually certain that the committee will seek a special prosecutor. All that is required is support from a majority of the committee's Democrats.
With the vote, the committee will send a letter to Attorney General William P. Barr spelling out where it believes government officials may have violated laws. Mr. Barr will have 30 days to begin a preliminary investigation or explain why none is merited. If he finds that a special prosecutor is needed, a three-judge panel will pick one.
Like his predecessors, Mr. Barr is no fan of independent counsels. In an interview, he complained that the position has too much power and is not accountable to anyone.