Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force appeared to have some interest in early 2001 in Iraq's oil industry, including which foreign companies were pursuing business there, according to documents released Friday by a private watchdog group.
Judicial Watch (search), a conservative legal group, obtained a batch of task force-related Commerce Department papers that included a detailed map of Iraq's oil fields, terminals and pipelines as well as a list entitled "Foreign Suitors of Iraqi Oilfield Contracts."
The papers also included a detailed map of oil fields and pipelines in Saudi Arabia and in the United Arab Emirates and a list of oil and gas development projects in those two countries.
The papers were dated early March 2001, about two months before the Cheney energy task force completed and announced its report on the administration's energy needs and future energy agenda.
Judicial Watch obtained the papers as part of a lawsuit by it and the Sierra Club (search) to open to the public information used by the task force in developing President Bush's energy plan.
Tom Fitton, the group's president, said he had no way to guess what interest the task force had in the information, but "it shows why it is important that we learn what was going on in the task force."
"Opponents of the war are going to point to the documents as evidence that oil was on the minds of the Bush administration in the run-up to the war in Iraq," said Fitton. "Supporters will say they were only evaluating oil reserves in the Mideast, and the likelihood of future oil production."
The task force report was released in May 2001. In it, a chapter titled "Strengthening Global Alliances" calls the Middle East "central to world oil security" and urges support for initiatives by the region's oil producers to open their energy sectors to foreign investment. The chapter does not mention Iraq, which has the world's second largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia.
Commerce Department spokesman Trevor Francis said: "It is the responsibility of the Commerce Department to serve as a commercial liaison for U.S. companies doing business around the world, including those that develop and utilize energy resources. The Energy Task Force evaluated regions of the world that are vital to global energy supply. The final report, released in May of 2001, contains maps of key energy-producing regions in the world, including Russia, North America, the Middle East and the Caspian region."
A spokeswoman for the vice president did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Friday.
A two-page document obtained with the map and released by Judicial Watch lists, as of March 2001, companies in 30 countries that had an interest in contracts to help then-President Saddam Hussein develop Iraq's oil wealth.
The involvement of Russia and France has been documented. Also on the list were companies from Canada, Australia, China, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, India and Mexico. Even Vietnam had interest in a service contract and, according to the paper, was close to signing an agreement in October 1999.
So far nearly 40,000 pages of internal documents from various departments and agencies have been made public related to the Cheney task force's work under the Judicial Watch-Sierra Club lawsuit. The task force itself has refused to turn over any of its own papers.