WASHINGTON -- The head of the CIA, Robert M. Gates, yesterday ordered the agency's inspector general to conduct an investigation into the CIA's misleading and incomplete statements to the Justice Department and a federal judge in Atlanta about a bank fraud case involving billions of dollars in loans to Iraq.
The internal investigation is the first to be publicly ordered by Mr. Gates since he took over as the director of Central Intelligence nearly a year ago. It serves as an acknowledgment of a politically embarrassing error by the CIA on an issue that is dogging President Bush's re-election campaign: the administration's embrace of Saddam Hussein in the years before Iraq invaded Kuwait.
The CIA's public admission of error and promise to investigate was not spontaneous. It came only after Sen. David L. Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat who heads the Intelligence Committee, said on Tuesday that the CIA had misled the Justice Department, the Atlanta federal court and Congress.
For months, some Democratic members of the House, led by Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas, have charged that the CIA has deliberately concealed information about the case as part of a cover-up, a charge that Mr. Bush, the Justice Department and prosecutors in the case have repeatedly denied.
Now the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is staunchly supportive of U.S. intelligence agencies, has stepped forcefully into the debate, adding weight to the charges.
Mr. Boren said yesterday that he suspects the main culprit in the matter is not the CIA but the Justice Department. In an interview, he said he is not ruling out the possibility of a cover-up.
The case involves charges against Christopher P. Drogoul, a banker accused of extending billions of dollars in loans and credits to Iraq from the Atlanta branch of a Rome-based bank, the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, in violation of the bank's regulations.
Mr. Drogoul, who headed the Atlanta branch, pleaded guilty to the charges and admitted that he acted alone, and the government's case is based on the premise that he defrauded the Rome bank. But he later moved to retract the guilty plea, and intelligence reports and the statements of some bank officials indicate that officials in Rome had some knowledge of the fraud scheme and may have approved it.