Senior members of Vice-President Dick Cheney's staff were briefed at least twice by the Pentagon on a controversial multibillion-dollar contract to oversee Iraq's oil sector before it was awarded to his former company, Halliburton, early last year, according to a U.S. congressman.
The existence of the briefings, one of which included Mr. Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, appeared to undermine earlier claims from Mr. Cheney and White House officials that the vice-president and his office were unaware of the Halliburton contract before it was announced.
The briefings were spelled out in a letter sent to Mr. Cheney on Sunday by Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who has been a prominent critic of the Bush administration.
Mr. Waxman, drawing on recent interviews with Pentagon staff, also said the Halliburton contract was handled by political appointees from the administration and not career procurement officers, as the White House has claimed.
Although Mr. Waxman acknowledged in his letter that there was no evidence that Mr. Cheney had acted to influence the deal improperly, the information about the briefings is expected to raise new questions about the administration's handling of contracts to rebuild Iraq.
Critics accused the administration of cronyism after it emerged in March 2003 that the Army Corps of Engineers had granted a contract worth up to $7 billion to Halliburton, which was formerly run by Mr. Cheney, to manage Iraq's oil infrastructure. The sole-source contract was awarded without any competition.
Mr. Waxman revealed in his letter that the decision to award the contract exclusively to Halliburton was made not by career civil servants, as is customary, but by a team of political appointees led by Michael Mobbs, a special adviser to Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's undersecretary for defence policy.
Mr. Mobbs said he briefed Mr. Libby and other top deputies on the plan to award the assignment to Halliburton at a meeting in October 2002. The meeting was chaired by Stephen Hadley, the president's deputy national security adviser.
Mr. Cheney's office said it stood by its previous statements, but could not comment on Mr. Waxman's letter because it had not received it.
Responding to the furor over the contract in September 2003, the vice-president told NBC's Meet the Press he had "absolutely no influence of, involvement of, knowledge of in any way, shape or form of contracts led by the Corps of Engineers or anybody else in the federal government".
Halliburton has repeatedly said it won Iraq contracts because of its long record of performance.
Mr. Waxman also referred in his letter to an e-mail from Stephen Browning, of the Corps of Engineers, to Mr. Feith on March 5 2003, three days before Halliburton was notified that it had won the assignment. In it, Mr. Browning said action on the Halliburton contract "has been co-ordinated with VP's office".
"It's clear that they were contacted and that they were in a position to influence the deal," a member of Mr Waxman's staff said on Sunday.