Reflections on the start of the new year

Consider the events of just a month ago and more, events whose consequences remain with us even as their impact recedes.


Here is what December 2003 looked like:


·         Saddam Hussein is captured. The occupation goes on.


·         A trial is planned. When, where and under whose aegis, as yet unknown. The benefits are as evident as the risks. What if the great dictator talks about Iraq’s many friends in his good old days?


·         Americans are urged to remember Saddam Hussein’s evil deeds, including Halabja and the Anfal massacres, and more. They are not urged to remember that “when 5,000 Kurds were killed, we heard not a peep from the administration about the death of these innocent men, women, and children,” as a U.S. Representative declared in his testimony before the House in the spring of 1992.{1}


·         David Kay, U.S. “head of Iraqi Arms Search” is reported to be considering leaving his post.{2} Iraq’s alleged ‘possession of weapons of mass destruction’ have yet to be found. They are, it appears, no longer of importance in the justification for war.


·         The agenda has changed. Emphasis is now on ‘possession of weapons program,’ rather than the weapons themselves. What remains unchanged is that it is ‘their’ programs and weapons and not ours, or those of our allies, that are at issue.


·         Democracy remains on line. Talk of democracy, that is.


·         As for the U.S. President, he is reassured by his past decision. “I made the right decision for America because Saddam Hussein used weapons of mass destruction, invaded Kuwait….”{3} Behind the retroactive justification of Gulf War II is the reconciliation of son and father.


The scenario makes the reconsideration of earlier U.S.-Iraqi relations all the more urgent. How much do we really know or care to remember? The answer is seemingly paradoxical. We now know a good deal about the nature of U.S.-Iraqi relations prior to Gulf War l, yet for most Americans the known remains invisible. Better yet, among those who know best are members of Congress who participated in hearings held throughout the 1990s. Some of them are currently still in Congress, and are still silent.


“Clearly, it is time for the administration to end its concerted attempt to withhold information from the Congress and the American people. This is a democracy. The people and their duly elected representatives have a right to know what led up to our war with Saddam Hussein.”


The speaker was the Hon. Sam Gejdenson, Connecticut Congressman, Chair of the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade, Committee on Foreign Affairs. The date was May 29, 1992. The occasion, House Hearings before the Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs to discuss “White House Efforts to Thwart Congressional Investigations of Pre-War Iraq Policy: The Case of the Rostow Gang.”


Images of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s visits to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, when he was sent as special envoy by then President Reagan, are by now commonplace. But what becomes clear from these and other hearings held in the 1990s is that the first Bush administration used “the intelligence agencies, not just the State and Commerce Departments, but the Agriculture Department, and the Justice Department to facilitate a program of aiding and abetting Saddam Hussein.”{4} As the same hearings confirmed, major U.S. corporations were encouraged by the administration to do business with Iraq. National Security Directive 26, issued by the first Bush administration on Oct. 2, 1989, after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, endorsed the U.S. “tilt” towards Baghdad, no longer justifying it in terms of Iran’s feared victory.


The Senate Committee that held hearings on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs was chaired by Donald W. Riegle Jr. of Michigan. His Committee included a number of Senators, some of whom continue to serve and most of whom have remained silent on the subject of past U.S. policy toward Iraq.


Among those serving on Riegle’s Committee were Alan Cranston, California; Paul Sarbanes, Maryland; Christopher Dodd, Connecticut; Bob Graham, Florida; John F. Kerry, Massachusetts; Alfonse D’Amato, New York; Phil Gramm, Texas; Connie Mack, Florida; Pete Domenici, New Mexico’ and Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania.


On Oct. 27, 1992, Riegle’s Committee convened to begin its investigation of “United States Export Policy Toward Iraq prior to Iraq‘s Invasion of Kuwait.” As the Chair stated in his opening remarks:


“we now know that between January 1985 and August 1990, when the invasion of Kuwait took place, the executive branch of our Government approved 771 different export licenses for sale of dual-use sensitive equipment to Iraq….At least 17 licenses were issued for the export of bacteria or fungus cultures to either the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission or the University of Baghdad. Licenses to export computers to a missile activity, and computers and electronic instruments to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, were issued to a known procurement agent for Iraqi missile programs. A license was issued to export equipment for ‘general military applications such as jet engine repair, rocket cases, et cetera.’


“The records also indicate that the U.S. Government understood exports that it was licensing could enhance Iraq’s conventional military capability.”


Among those who testified before Riegle’s Committee was David Kay, then Secretary General of the Uranium Institute (London, England), and former head of the UN Weapons Inspection Program in Iraq. “The simple answer to the question of whether U.S produced equipment and technology has been found to be part of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program is, yes,” Kay declared.{5} “It was there. It was an essential part.” To this he added that “the volume of U.S. produced equipment is not great when measured against the multi-billion dollar scale of the nuclear weapon program. On the other hand it was modern and it was essential to the Iraqi effort.” Kay did not then observe that Iraq’s nuclear weapons program followed on the much publicized Israeli bombing of the Osirak reactor in 1981. What administration officials in December 2001 described as “a spectacular display of precision bombing,”{6} was discovered to be something less than spectacular by the Chair of the Harvard Physics department, who reported in the journal Nature (Mar. 31, 1983) that the reactor in question was not capable of producing nuclear weapons.


Ted Jacobs, chief counsel of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Consumer and Monetary Affairs of the House Committee on Government Operations, testified prior to Kay. He addressed the question of export licenses for Iraqi destined products, the evidence of the administration’s tampering with the evidence relevance to loan guarantees to Iraq, and the matter of nuclear materials. Jacobs confirmed that the Commerce Department “did indeed license materials which were later utilized by the Iraq regime for nuclear missile and chemical purposes.”{7}


Gary Milhollin, Director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, also testified, confirming that “American equipment contributed vitally to the Iraq nuclear program, the missile program and the chemical program and I’m afraid I also believe that we knew that the risk was very high, if not certain that it would contribute when it was licensed.”{8} Further, Milhollin recalled that he had published “a list in April 1992 of over 40 American companies that got more than 100 licenses to supply sensitive dual-use equipment to Iraqi nuclear and ballistic missile sites.” He reminded the Committee that he had previously published another article — in The New York Times Magazine in March 1992 — in which “I included a design of Saddam’s first nuclear weapon, based on documents found in Iraq. And I also listed the companies that had been identified at that time that were contributing to the various components of the bomb.”


Milhollin introduced other evidence, mass spectrometers, which, as he explained, were “used to measure the quality of nuclear weapon fuel as it’s being produced. There were two U.S. mass spectrometers in the Iraqi nuclear weapon program.” After referring to the training of Iraqi scientists in the U.S. in 1989, Milhollin indicated that in his estimate, Saddam Hussein would have been “close to making a bomb today with American machine tools,” had he not made the move to invade Kuwait.


After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War, the Chair of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs commented on the U.S. Executive’s report to Congress following the 1990 Iraq Sanctions Act. As Representative Henry Gonzalez pointed out, the Bush administration used the Act to blame the European Community for arming Iraq, while avoiding the U.S. role. The Sanctions Act, as Riegle reminded his colleagues, “required the President to prepare a report on the transfer or sale to Iraq of nuclear, biological, chemical, or ballistic missile technology.”{9} That report was conveyed. It included the following statement, judged to be false by those testifying before the Committee, including David Kay and Gary Milhollin, among others. “Reflecting both U.S. Government policy and responsible sales practices of American firms, United States suppliers did not contribute directly to Iraq’s convention or non-conventional weapons capability.”


As Milhollin pointed out, by September 1991, “the Government knew about which Iraqi end users were making nuclear and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles, and knew that there had been many exports to those entities.” Denials from the highest levels nonetheless continued through 1992. Riegle concluded: “It is obvious from the record that our own Government fostered the development of the military strength of Saddam Hussein, which we then had to turn around and go and confront directly with American military forces. And lives were lost in the process. And an enormous amount of money was spent as well.”{10}


In June 1990, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Senator Claiborne Pell, had been convened to discuss U.S.-Iraqi relations.{11} Witnesses who came before that Senate Committee included U.S. Senators who charged the Administration with violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol. They demanded to know why the U.S. conducted business with the Iraqi despot with an abysmal human rights record, a point readily conceded by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, at the time, John Kelly. The members of the Committee wanted to know why the Administration was importing Iraqi oil and offering Saddam Hussein credits to promote his purchases of U.S. products. The answer was that offering commercial credits, in operation since 1983, promoted business. And that Iraq was the “largest (U.S.) export market for rice, which comprises 23 percent of total U.S. exports, [and] for cattle, eggs, chickens, lumber, tobacco, and a variety of other agricultural products.” The U.S. had given Iraq “some $500 million in credit guarantees,” in addition to that offered by the Ex-Im Bank, according to Kelly.


Mark Phythian, in his study, Arming Iraq, reported that according to the CIA, the Commodity Credit Corporation extended $4.7 billion in credit guarantees to Iraq between 1983 and 1990, of which $2.6 billion was approved by the Bush I administration within its first 2 years in office. As a result, Iraq became “the largest Middle Eastern market for U.S. agricultural produce (which represented a massive 85 percent of all U.S. sales to Iraq), enabling Iraq to divert funds needed for its military industrialization drive.”{12}


Playing a crucial role in the extension of credit to Iraq was the Atlanta, Georgia, branch of the Italian BNL (Banca Nazionale del Lavoro). While Iraq’s agriculture production declined drastically as a result of the regime’s gassing of the Kurdish regions, the prime objective of agricultural loans to Iraq was to facilitate the purchase of arms. As the Chair of the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Research and Foreign Agriculture, Committee on Agriculture, the Hon. Rep. Charlie Rose of North Carolina, put it: “we have cables from Iraq back to United States agricultural suppliers in which the buying company, the central buyer for Iraq says we want machine tool parts, we want trucks, we want military equipment to be sent to us or we are not going to continue to buy agricultural products from you.”{13}


In public testimony before Senator Claiborne Pell’s Committee in 1990, U.S. Ambassador Kelly resisted the claim that the U.S. had provided Iraq with military equipment. He maintained that


“we do not sell items on the munitions list to Iraq. We do not cooperate with Iraq’s nuclear program. An interagency committee reviews licensing requests on the Department of Commerce’s nuclear referral list and rejects all of those which it determines would contribute to Iraqi capabilities to develop nuclear weapons. All items on the missile technology control regime annexes are reviewed for possible use in Iraq’s missile program. Fifty chemicals are now on the list of CW precursors who (sic) export to Iraq and certain other countries is controlled.”


Senator Jesse Helms challenged Kelly’s account, pointing to the evidence provided by former Defense Department official, Stephen Bryen, who maintained that the U.S. and its allies had “been accomplices in the development and stockpiling of the Middle East major chemical warfare capability.” In addition to other evidence, Helms claimed that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta sent “some of the world’s deadliest viruses to Iraq.” As he noted, the U.S. was not alone in this traffic.


Chairman Donald W. Riegle’s Committee took up the question “U.S. Chemical and Biological Exports to Iraq and Their Possible Impact on the Health Consequences of the Persian Gulf War.”


James J. Tuite III, Principal Investigator of the Riegle Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, disclosed in Staff Report No. 3, on “Chemical Warfare Agent identification, Chemical Injuries, and Other Findings,” that the U.S. “had exported chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile-system equipment to Iraq that was converted to military use in Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons program. Many of these weapons — weapons that the U.S. and other countries provided critical materials for — were used against us during the war.”{14}


On Feb. 9, 1994, Senator Riegle reported to the Senate that his Committee’s hearings demonstrated that “the U.S. government actually licensed the export of deadly microorganisms to Iraq. It was later learned that these microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the United Nations inspectors found and recovered from the Iraqi biological warfare program.”{15}


In his statement before the Senate, Riegle further added that the biological materials sent to Iraq were “full pathogens capable of being reproduced by Iraq once they got there. Between the years of 1985 and 1989, the United States Government approved the sales of quantities of potentially lethal biological agents that could have been cultured and grown in very large quantities in an Iraqi biological warfare program.”{16} The list of materials sent was included in Riegle’s Senate statement. As he reported on the same occasion, he had been distressed to learn that the materials in question had been requested by and “sent to Iraqi Government agencies, including the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education, the State Company for Drug Industries, and the Ministry of Trade.” This and related information was presented in letters addressed to the Secretaries of the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense and Health and Human Services. The full report to the Senate was presented on May 25, 1994.


In late August, The New York Times published an article on U.S. support for Iraq in the face of the latter’s use of “mustard gas, sarin, VX and other poisonous agents.”{17} As one of the Pentagon sources quoted maintained, this was “just another way of killing people — whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn’t make any difference.”


By the end of the year the Iraqi regime had shipped its report on weapons to the UN Security Council. While UN officials agreed not to disclose names of foreign companies that had supplied Iraq with weapons, Washington attempted to further sanitize the document. Information was nonetheless leaked to a German paper that identified 150 U.S., British, German and French companies that had done business in conventional and unconventional weapons with Iraq. The information, appearing in Die Tageszeitung in Berlin, was immediately reported in The Independent, (“Leaked Report Says German and U.S. Firms Supplied Arms to Saddam,” Dec. 18, 2002, London), which disclosed that “eighty German firms and 24 U.S. companies are reported to have supplied Iraq with equipment and know-how for its weapons programmes from 1975 onwards and in some cases support for Baghdad’s conventional programme had continued until last year.” The list included corporations involved in the production of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, as well as rockets and missiles, such as: Honeywell, Spektra Physics, Semetex, TI Coating, UNISYS, Sperry Corp., Tektronix, Rockwell, Leybold Vacuum Systems, Finnifan-MAT-US, Hewlett Packard, Dupont, Eastman Kodak, Bechtel, International Computer Systems, American Type Culture Collection, Consarc, and others. Die Tageszeitung disclosed that “these companies are shown to have supplied entire complexes, building elements, basic materials and technical know-how for Saddam Hussein’s programme to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction,” and with these, “rockets and complete conventional weapons systems.”


The publicity attending such disclosures led to a spurt of reports on the subject. In late December 2002, The Washington Post published a wide ranging review of U.S. policy in support of Saddam Hussein under the Reagan and Bush administrations, while citing evidence of U.S. complicity in directly and indirectly furbishing Iraq’s armament program. The news reiterated the position, confirmed by former officials in military intelligence and the National Security Council, that the knowledge of Iraq‘s use of chemical weapons did not deter the Reagan or Bush administrations from pursuing relations with Iraq‘s regime.


But the policy of flagrant omissions and denials persisted by members of the second Bush administration, who reiterated the very claims exposed as false in earlier Congressional hearings. This time, they were used to press support for a U.S. “Strike at Saddam Hussein.”


Sounding a different note, the American Gulf War Veterans Association (AGWVA) issued a statement calling for the resignation of the U.S. Secretary of Defense in October of 2002. Their reason was his denial of knowledge concerning past U.S. shipment of biological weapons to Iraq. “If our Secretary of Defense is unaware of the sales of biological materials to a country with which we are about to go to war, or if he is in denial over the fact that these sales occurred, the AGWVA believes that he represents a clear and present danger to the lives of our military, our country, and the American people, and should be considered a very serious threat to the national security. It is for this reason that the AGWVA calls for his resignation and removal from office.”{18}


Under the circumstances, the Veterans argued that denial of knowledge by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, constituted an unacceptable risk, “a clear and present danger” for the U.S. military and those it aimed to defend.


The circumstances may have changed, but the danger posed by denial and apologetic explanations for what we now know remains.





1. May 29, 1992, Hearing Before the Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, House of Representatives, 102nd Congress, 2nd session, “White House efforts to Thwart Congressional Investigations of Pre-War Iraq Policy: The Case of the Rostow Gang,” p.11.


2. Richard W Stevenson, “Head of Iraqi Arms Search May be Ready to Step Down,” The New York Times, Dec. 19, 2003, p. A12.


3. The President concluded the above statement with the following: “But the fact that he [Saddam Hussein] is not there is, means America’s a more secure country.” Cited in Richard W. Stevenson, “Remember ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction,’? They are a Nonissue,” The New York Times, Dec. 18, 2003, p. A14.


4. House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, May 29, 1992, , p.7.


5. Oct. 27, 1992, Hearings Before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, United States Senate, 102nd Congress, 2nd session on “Did U.S. Exports Aid Iraq’s Military Capabilities and Did the Administration Accurately Disclose its Licensing of Dual-use Exports to Iraq?” Donald W. Riegle, Jr. (D-MI) Chair, p.38.


6. Richard Perle, “The U.S. Must Strike at Saddam Hussein,” The New York Times, Dec. 28, 2001, p. A19.


7. Oct. 27, 1992 Hearings, op. cit., p. 29.


8. Ibid., p. 43.


9. Ibid., p. 52.


10. Ibid., p. 57.


11. Federal News Service, 15 June 1990. Hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the subject of U.S.-Iraq Relations.


12. Mark Phythian, Arming Iraq, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1997, p. 37.


13. House Hearings, May 29, 1992, op. cit., p. 19.


14. James J. Tuite III, Committee Staff Report No. 3: Chemical Warfare Agent Identification, Chemical Injuries, and Other Findings. http://www.chronicillnet.org/PGWS/tuite/chembio.htm.


15. Ibid., p. 2 of online text.


16. Congressional Record (Senate) February 9, 1994.


17. Patrick E. Tyler, “Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq Despite Use of Gas,” The New York Times, Aug. 18, 2002, p. 1.


18. The statement appears on the AGWVA website: http://www.gulfwarvets.com.



Irene Gendzier is Professor of Political Science at Boston University.

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