WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Clinton administration sidestepped comment today on a published report it was seeking broad new authority from Congress to plan and mount covert operations against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

``I don't comment on intelligence operations; I don't comment on covert operations,'' White House spokesman Mike McCurry said.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary William Cohen also refused to comment on the report in today's Wall Street Journal.

``I wouldn't comment on any report pertaining to intelligence matters,'' Cohen said at a photo session with Romanian President Emil Constantinescu.

The report said the administration had sent a classified notice, or ``finding,'' to Congress seeking approval to tap secret contingency funds within the defense and intelligence budgets for the operation.

The secret initiative would ``go far beyond past efforts by the Central Intelligence Agency to encourage resistance inside Iraq.'' The effort would be ``a combined overt-covert strategy to weaken and potentially oust the Iraqi leader.''

The report cited unidentified government officials familiar with the talks with Congress as the source for the information.

Congressional leaders have long expressed frustration over being able to deal with Saddam, and have on several occasions considered ways to mount operations against him.

In April, Congress voted to provide $10 million to Iraqi opposition groups to set up a new Radio Free Iraq program. However, the legislation has yet to go to President Clinton, who has threatened a veto over another section tying U.N. payments to anti-abortion restrictions.