WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration rebuffed House Democrats yesterday and refused to seek the appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate whether officials violated the law by trying to aid Iraq before the Persian Gulf war.
The decision may spare President Bush some political embarrassment in this year's campaign, but the attorney general insisted that politics did not influence the decision. Democrats immediately attacked the decision as part of a politically motivated cover-up.
House Democrats requested an independent prosecutor in a letter to Attorney General William P. Barr on July 9. Mr. Barr responded yesterday that there was no basis for a special prosecutor because the Democrats had not provided specific, credible information to suggest that high-ranking officials had committed any crimes.
Mr. Barr said the Justice Department itself could investigate the actions of lower-level officials, including the alteration of Commerce Department documents relating to the approval of export licenses for Iraq.
The Democrats' request for a special prosecutor "fails to identify any particular person alleged to have committed a crime, or to describe any particular acts alleged to constitute a crime," Mr. Barr said.
His decision appears to be final. The law on appointing special prosecutors says the attorney general's decision "shall not be reviewable in any court."
Democrat Jack Brooks of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Barr's decision was "stonewalling, plain and simple."
Campaigning in Philadelphia, Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, said he was "really troubled" by Mr. Barr's decision.
"It appears there is a lot of evidence there, and I understand the attorney general thought there wasn't enough evidence," said Mr. Clinton. In the absence of a special prosecutor, he said, the Justice Department will have "an extra heavy responsibility to look into the apparent irregularities."
Mr. Bush has repeatedly asserted that the conduct of foreign affairs is his greatest strength, but congressional investigators have challenged that contention with evidence suggesting that the administration strengthened Iraq with economic aid and sophisticated technology before the gulf war. Administration officials say they were trying to moderate Iraq's behavior, but they admit their effort failed.
In his combative response to House Democrats, Mr. Barr said: "The criteria for invoking the independent counsel statute are not present." He said that the Democrats had offered "vague and conclusory allegations" that were "wholly inadequate" to justify a request for a special prosecutor.
Mr. Barr warned the Democrats: "Repeated and unjustified attacks on the integrity of the department tear down the institution and undermine our ability to advance justice. As attorney general, I believe strongly that we cannot allow the criminal process to be used as a political weapon or for partisan purposes."
But House Democrats said it was Mr. Barr who was playing politics. Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas, chairman of the Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs, said, "Mr. Barr is playing a dangerous political game in a desperate effort to protect the Bush administration."
Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said the administration was "hiding in technicalities."
Because Mr. Barr's decision cannot be challenged in court, Congress is likely to intensify its investigation. "The court of public opinion is open for business 24 hours a day, and that court will not be satisfied with the subterfuge concocted today," said Mr. Brooks.
From 1986 to 1990, Iraq got more than $4 billion in loans and letters of credit from the Atlanta branch of an Italian bank, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, and congressional investigators say Iraq used some of the money to buy technology for weapons.