WASHINGTON -- After Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, senior aides to President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III imposed a "gag order" to restrain the release of information about earlier U.S. aid to Iraq, according to testimony and documents made public yesterday.
According to this information, the aides also closely monitored the administration's response to congressional inquiries at a time when records were altered that concealed information from Congress.
Worried that details of their efforts to aid Saddam Hussein in the years before Iraq invaded Kuwait would embarrass the administration, White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, Baker confidant Robert Kimmitt (now ambassador to Germany) and Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher Sr., now Mr. Bush's campaign chairman, all kept tabs on congressional requests for records, according to testimony yesterday before the House Judiciary Committee.
The top aides to these men, under what one Commerce Department official described as "daily supervision" from their superiors, ordered changes in U.S. export license records. These changes transformed the description of a billion-dollar order for heavy trucks from "military" to "cargo trucks" and initially concealed the names of the departments that authorized the exports.
A later report by the inspector general called the changes "unjustified and misleading," and the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into the episode.
Yesterday's hearing was designed to determine if a special prosecutor is needed to investigate aid provided to Iraq before the gulf war. Committee Chairman Jack Brooks, a Texas Democrat, said a decision should be reached by early next month.
No evidence was presented at the hearing to indicate that Mr. Gray, Mr. Kimmitt, Mr. Mosbacher or other senior officials personally ordered the changes in the description of the billion-dollar order for trucks of the type used by modern armies to haul supplies and tow artillery.
Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. of New York, the ranking Republican on the committee, who said the special prosecutor statute was supposed to apply only to high-level officials who may have conflicts of interest, added, "There is no hard evidence that a covered person under the statute has been implicated in this case, nor has there been a showing of a conflict."
But information from the inspector general's office, released yesterday, indicated there was some pressure from above. Iain Baird, the director of the Office of Export Licensing, has told questioners from the inspector general's office that Dennis Kloske, undersecretary of commerce, told him there was a "gag order" that had been imposed in the fall of 1990.