Diplomat's once-bright career is held hostage by Iraq-gate

September 13, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- To congressional critics, he is "Mr. Iraq," a key architect of the Bush administration's failed accommodation toward Saddam Hussein in the months before the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

To his defenders, he is simply a competent and dedicated Foreign Service officer who carried out policies framed by his superiors.

Whatever the answer, the once-bright career of James P. "Jock" Covey, the former No. 2 official in the State Department's Middle East bureau, is in limbo.

Nominated last spring as assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, Mr. Covey finds his confirmation process placed on hold in a dispute between the administration and Congress over access to documents detailing his role in the Iraq affair.

Mr. Covey originally was scheduled for a Senate confirmation hearing May 19. But the hearing has been delayed at the request of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., as long as the department refuses to comply with abroad and detailed Helms request for documents on administration Iraq policy bearing Mr. Covey's name.

The department says it is willing to work out Foreign Relations Committee access to the documents -- some of them highly sensitive -- if the panel would then move forward with a hearing. But the committee has failed to provide that assurance, an official said, and appears caught in its own dilemma about whether to delve further into the Iraq matter.

Mr. Covey's experience in the affair has many ironies.

One is that Congress, which forced creation of a new South Asia bureau over department objections, so as to give greater attention to India and Pakistan, is now delaying full operation of the bureau.

Another is that "Iraq-gate" is supposed to be the Democrats' issue against President Bush in this election year, but it's a Republican, Sen. Helms, who is causing the trouble, although the nominee has also been harshly criticized by a Democrat, Rep. Henry Gonzalez of Texas, chairman of the House Banking Committee.

Still another is that top policy makers who have acknowledged failure in the pre-war treatment of Iraq are emerging from the controversy unscathed while a mid-level diplomat is taking the heat.

The case opens a window on the confusing ways of policy making, a world of multiple memo drafts with various authors in different agencies, "talking points" prepared by staffers for higher-ups and diplomatic cables dispatched under a secretary's or ambassador's name but very often written by others.

The process often obscures where clear responsibility lies. But it is sometimes ripe for manipulation by mid-level officials with their own agenda. Such an official was Mr. Covey, Mr. Helms' staff says.

"This is Mr. Iraq," said William C. Triplett, GOP counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Mr. Helms is the ranking Republican.

While Secretary of State James A. Baker III and other top officials were distracted by the collapse of the Soviet empire, he theorizes, officials in the Near East bureau, with Mr. Covey in the lead, pushed forward a policy toward Iraq that led to disaster.

Mr. Helms, a frequent critic of the State Department bureaucracy, consistently opposed administration efforts to improve relations with Iraq in the period after the Iran-Iraq war, which ended in 1988.

Reams of documents already released to other congressional committees detail a series of administration moves to improve the Iraq relationship, despite growing concerns over Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction and a criminal probe of irregularities in U.S. agriculture credits.

Some contain Mr. Covey's name. One, sent to Undersecretary Robert Kimmitt in the spring of 1990, seeks to counter efforts in Congress and some government agencies to isolate Iraq.

"Recent Iraqi actions -- especially the London smuggling arrests and Saddam's threats against Israel -- have deeply eroded political support for the relationship with Iraq our interests require," the memo stated. ". . . We need to respond forcefully and visibly to irresponsible Iraqi actions while leaving open the means to resume our limited engagement as circumstances and our interests dictate."

It proposed, as a signal, that agriculture credits be suspended. But to avoid conflict with stated policy against using food as a foreign-policy weapon, the suspension would be called a review. Mr. Gonzalez has since charged that Mr. Covey deceived Congress and the public.

Mr. Covey was present at a May 4, 1990, congressional meeting on proposed Export-Import Bank credits for a project to export trucks to Iraq. At the meeting, according to Mr. Triplett, Mr. Covey unsuccessfully sought support for the project from a Helms staffer.

Documents subsequently obtained by Congress show that the firm seeking to make the deal, Volvo-GM, knew that the Iraqi purchasing end was controlled by the military and in particular Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel al-Majid.

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