Annals of Government - [How the US Armed Iraq]
In the Loop: Bush's Secret Mission
Murray Waas and Craig Unger
The New Yorker Magazine - Originally published November 2, 1992
Posted to the web November 14, 2002
This article, originally published in New Yorker Magazine, provides a clear picture of the direct involvement of the United States in arming Iraq, providing Saddam Hussein with technology, weapons, intelligence and funding - even in contravention of American law - enabling Iraq to amass the nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that threaten the world. While the US does not openly acknowledge its role in arming Iraq, it now prepares to go to war against a monster of its own creation...
Since this article provides an excellent in-depth analysis of the US's dysfunctional Middle East policy dating back to the administrations of Presidents Reagan and Bush, it also provides the best perspective from which to view the Pollard case. As long as the US acknowledges no responsibility for its role in arming Iraq, Jonathan Pollard will continue to be buried alive in prison by successive American administrations fearing exposure and embarrassment.
In late July, 1986, William J. Casey, then the Director of Central Intelligence, sat down with George Bush, then the Vice-President of the United States, in an out-of-the-way study that Casey maintained on the third floor of the old Executive Office Building, the rococo structure adjoining the White House. Casey had something he wanted Bush to do.
For many years, both Bush and Casey had moved easily in the worlds of foreign policy and Republican politics, and Bush had once held Casey's job. But their relationship was never entirely comfortable. Casey, gruff and perpetually disheveled, was the product of public and parochial schools in Queens and on Long Island - his father was a Tammany Hall pension bureaucrat - and of Fordham. Bush, elaborately friendly in manner, was the offspring of Connecticut gentry. Like his father, an investment banker who served in the Senate, Bush attended Yale and was tapped for Skull and Bones. Casey made millions on his own as a stock speculator; Bush, with family help, grew moderately prosperous in the oil business before his political rise in Houston. Both men held high posts under Richard Nixon, but Nixon himself treated Casey as an equal and Bush condescendingly. It was under Gerald Ford that Bush was appointed to the job Casey now held.
The two men were different in more than background. Casey was part of the rising conservative movement, the historic antagonist of Bush and his ancestors within the Republican Party. In the Cold War, Casey believed not in containment but in what in the late forties and early fifties had been called rollback. He saw every stirring in every corner of the world through an unchanging ideological prism. Bush, by contrast, was a consummate pragmatist. As Casey knew, Bush was capable of rapidly adopting new positions if expediency or advancement seemed to demand it. He had done so on the issue of recognizing China under Nixon, and he had done so on abortion and on economic policy when he became Ronald Reagan's running mate.
According to someone who knew both men, Casey had originally distrusted Bush's lack of conviction. Lately, however, he had begun to see Bush's pragmatism in a new light. Whatever vision the Vice-President might lack, he was a man of immense personal discipline, and he understood accommodation as a way to achieve goals. Moreover, during his service as permanent representative to the United Nations, as chief of the United States liaison office in China, and as director of the C.I.A., he had mastered the arts of compartmentalization and secrecy. "Casey knew there was nobody in government who could keep a secret better," a former high-level C.I.A. official who worked with Casey has told us. "He knew that Bush was someone who could keep his confidence and be trusted. Bush had the same capacity as Casey to receive a briefing and give no hint that he was in the know."
Now, in 1986, Casey, seventy-three years old and suffering from prostate cancer, said he needed Bush to run a covert errand. Iran was proving recalcitrant in secret negotiations to exchange arms for hostages who were being held in Beirut by terrorists with links to Iran, so Casey had dreamed up a scheme for forcing Iran's hand. It requires someone of authority to convey a message to Iran's enemy Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq, indirectly and without leaving fingerprints. Vice-President Bush was the ideal courier. He was about to visit the capitals of countries in the Middle East in order to "advance the peace process" between Israelis and Arabs, as he told the New York Times. But if he accepted Casey's assignment he would also be there to advance the war process; that is, to heat up the war between Iran and Iraq, with an incendiary message from Washington to Baghdad - escalate the air war and escalate the bombing deep inside Iranian territory.
Casey's reasoning was that if Saddam Hussein could be induced to order his fastidiously cautious Air Force to attack Iran in strength, Iran would be forced to turn anew to the United States for missiles and other weapons of air defense. The United States would then use its enhanced leverage to get better terms from the Iranians for the release of the hostages. (Casey may have been particularly concerned about the plight of one of the hostages, the Lebanon C.I.A. station chief William A. Buckley.) And for Casey there was another enticement as well, according to two Reagan Administration officials whom he frequently confided in; by bringing off this scheme, he would be manipulating two rival policy factions in the Administration.
These officials say that Bush carried out the mission Casey had assigned him. It put Bush directly in the center of action - in a role at the very point where a series of covert initiatives with Iraq and Iran converged. Three months later, on November 3, 1986, the Beirut news magazine Al Shiraa reported that the Reagan Administration was shipping arms to Iran, and soon the term "Iran-Contra" entered the lexicon of American political scandal.
In the six years since Al Shiraa's scoop, a great deal of information has come to light about the activities of the Reagan Administration - and, later, the Bush Administration - in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. The original Iran-Contra revelations - that the United States secretly traded arms for hostages with Iran, and that some of the resulting profits were diverted to aid the Nicaraguan Contras - have been amplified by the reports of the Tower Commission, the congressional Iran-Contra committees, and the criminal prosecutions of Reagan Administration officials by Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel charged with inquiring into the Iran-Contra scandal. As a result, it is widely known that from the early days of the first Reagan Administration the United States allowed sizable numbers of United States weapons to flow (via Israel) to Iran. More recently, investigations by the Los Angeles Times, by ABC's Nightline, and by Representative Henry B. Gonzalez, Chairman of the House Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee, have begun to uncover the events known as Iraqgate, in which the United States played an active role in arming Iraq. The ample public record provides the framework of much of the narrative in this account. In addition, a number of classified government documents have been leaked to us by present and former officials who have served in sensitive positions in the Reagan and Bush Administrations. The documents include cables between the State Department and embassies in the field, "talking points" to guide high officials in meetings or in important telephone calls, internal national Security Council working papers, and intelligence reports by the C.I.A. Some of these documents have been the basis of a series of articles by Murray Waas and Douglas Frantz in the Los Angeles Times. Finally, we have interviewed dozens of participants in these events. Some of them - Howard, a former member of the national Security Council staff; Caspar Weinberger, the former Secretary of Defense; and Richard W. Murphy, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1983 to 1989 - were willing to speak on the record.
Although the revelations that have come to be known as Iran-Contra and Iraqgate have generally been seen as separate sets of events, this is largely a consequence of the choppy way in which they came to light. Thanks to the recently obtained documents and interviews, it is now possible to see the events as a single continuum of covert foreign-policy initiatives. The initiatives often became intertwined. Sometimes they were complementary, as when profits from arms sales to Iran were diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras. But more often the secret parties carrying them out were at odds with each other - particularly over the issue of which side to support in the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 until 1988. The Administration was sharply divided as it "tilted" back and forth between support for Iran and support for Iraq, sometimes helping both countries simultaneously, sometimes covertly arming one side as a corrective to unanticipated consequences of having helped the other. Kept secret from the American people, and frequently conducted without the knowledge or oversight of Congress, these inconsistent and contradictory policies continued right up to the eve of the Gulf War.
The new disclosures also make it possible to assess the role of George Bush as Vice-President and President during these events. President Bush has consistently denied playing any substantial role in the Iran-Contra scandal. In his campaign biography, "Looking Forward," he says he didn't really "see the picture as a whole" until after he was briefed, in December, 1986, by Senator David Durenberger, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He left the briefing, he writes, feeling that he'd "been deliberately excluded from key meetings involving details of the Iran operation." He has said that he was "not in the loop."
Bush did not comment on his "tilt" toward Iraq until February of this year, when the Los Angeles Times reported the role he had played in building up Saddam's military machine. "As you may remember in history, there was a lot of support at the time for Iraq as a balance to a much more aggressive Iran under Khomeini," the President told a reporter. "So that was part of the policy of the Reagan Administration. I was very proud to support that."
The evidence suggests, however, that he played an important role both in the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran and in Iraqgate, and that he actively participated in policies supplying military aid to both Iran and Iraq in their eight-year war.
The roots of the covert policies go back to November 4, 1979, after the fall of the Shah, when the seizure of hostages at the United States Embassy in Teheran destroyed America's relations with Iran, formerly its surrogate in the region. When Iraq invaded Iran, on September 22, 1980, the United States and Israel found themselves in a bizarre and perplexing three-dimensional chess game. Iran was even more important to Israel than it was to the United States: the Israelis bought oil from and sold arms to Iran. More significant, Iran had provided a counterweight to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which had long been fiercely anti-Israel, and which if it won, could confront the Israelis with a potentially lethal threat. Officially the United States was neutral in the Iran-Iraq War. But from the onset two factions within the Reagan Administration struggled over which country posed the greater threat to United States interest. That struggle became the most acrimonious intra-Administration foreign conflict of the entire Reagan-Bush era, with each faction funneling substantial amounts of arms to one side or the other. One bloc, which included the national-security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, and two members of his national Security Council staff, Howard Teicher and Oliver North, argued in favor of arming Iran, for two reasons: to enhance Israel's security and to facilitate better relations with an ascendant military, economic, and strategic power in the looming post-Khomeini era. Indeed, as early as 1979 Teicher had written a highly classified study endorsing Israel's view that Saddam's Iraq, not Khomeini's Iran, would ultimately pose the greater threat to the security of the Gulf region.
The pro-Iraq faction, led by Secretary of Defense Weinberger, of State George Shultz, and Assistant Secretary Richard Murphy, raised the specter of Iran's Islamic fundamentalism spreading throughout the Persian Gulf and endangering the moderate governments of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and thus the West's oil supplies. "Many of us thought it would be better if Iraq won," Weinberger has told the Los Angeles Times in an interview.
Amid this internal turmoil, one major figure quietly straddled both sides. "Bush was very much the diplomat," Teicher explained to us. Teicher, an intense, bearded thirty-eight-year-old, left the government in 1987 to start a computer-software company in Washington. He has been the most candid of the former officials who worked closely with Bush on the covert initiatives. "He knew the style, the diction. He was good at having a diplomatic dialogue," Teicher said. " But he could be swayed by personal relationships with foreign leaders. Regarding Iraq, he and Casey both had great naiveté, thinking you could be friends with Saddam Hussein, which was not unlike a lot of government officials at that time. And he saw the geostrategic logic in a new relationship with Iran. Bush's goals were contradictory because our policy was full of contradictions. He thought rapprochement with Iran was good. He thought talking to both sides was good."
In fact, Bush's vagueness concerning his views served a long-standing ambition to play a prominent role in foreign policy. As Ambassador to the United Nations, Bush had been manipulated by Henry Kissinger, who as the national-security adviser kept him in the dark about his secret diplomacy. Now, in the morass of American policy in the Middle East, Bush may have seen his chance to be a player.
From the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis, the United States officially took a hard line against Teheran. Israel followed suit. But in late 1980, before President Carter left office and the fifty-two American hostages were released, Israel initiated a secret policy of rapprochement with Iran. When, in early 1980, the Israeli Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, had proposed that Israel covertly sell United States arms to Iran, Carter angrily said no. But Israeli intelligence continued to cultivate contacts with Iran. Classified State Department and C.I.A. reports support newspaper accounts earlier this year that in late 1980, without authorization from the Carter Administration, Israel began covert sales to Iran of American arms from its own stockpiles.
After January 20, 1981, when President Reagan was inaugurated and the hostages were released, the United States government continued to articulate a tough, uncompromising policy against the Islamic fundamentalists. Eight days after the inauguration, Reagan's first Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, spelled out the policy: "Let me state categorically today there will be no military equipment provided to the government of Iran." The American people, George Bush would say in a speech years later, regarded the Ayatollah's Iran with "an understandable animosity, a hatred, really," and he added, "I feel that way myself." Yet early in the first Reagan Administration a chasm had developed between this position and a covert strategy to arm Iran.
In 1981, the Israelis approached the new Administration for authorization to transfer arms of United States origin to Iran. The evidence is in classified notes paraphrasing an interview, in 1987, of David Satterfield, then an officer at the Israel desk of the State Department, by the congressional Iran-Contra committees. Satterfield informed the committees that Haig had told Israel that "in principle" it was O.K. to pass weapons on, but only for limited F-4 fighter-plane spare parts, and that the United States had to approve specific arms-sales lists in advance.
Between December, 1981, and March, 1982, Satterfield said, it became apparent that Israel was not submitting lists for approval and was providing United States arms that went beyond F-4 spare parts. He said he had firsthand knowledge of at least fifty-three million dollars' worth of United States supplies sent to Iran by Israel. In an article in the New York Times last December, Seymour Hersh reported that "Israeli and American intelligence officials acknowledged that weapons, ammunition and spare parts worth several billion dollars flowed to Iran each year during the early 1980's."
Some officials simply say that the question of how much weaponry was funneled to Iran will never be fully resolved. A former ambassador in the region during the Reagan Administration says, "The problem with this type of covert operation is that for officials to maintain their deniability they can do little to oversee the operation. In this case, it is probable that those who were to serve as their proxies - Israel and private international arms dealers - had agendas of their own, and the end result was that more arms were shipped than anyone in the Administration wanted."
The arms transfers appear to violate the Arms Export Control Act, a federal law that prohibits a recipient country from transferring "United States-origin" munitions to a third country without written permission from the United States. When such transfers are made, the same law requires that the President immediately notify Congress.
In 1981, with the help of United States-origin weapons supplied by Israel, Iran began to turn the war in its favor. In June, Israeli warplanes, in a strike on a secret facility at Osirak, near Baghdad, temporarily wiped out Iraq's nuclear development programs. Then Iran mounted a series of small offensives, retaking the city of Abadan, on the Iraq-Iran border near the Persian Gulf. By the spring of 1982, Saddam Hussein held only a few pockets of Iranian territory.
Reports that Iran might win revived fears that the Islamic revolution would threaten America's oil interests in the region. As a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee later put it, the choice was "between permitting Iran to dominate the West's oil supply in the Persian Gulf and direct U.S. military intervention." Congress, of course, was unaware of the irony behind the new dilemma: Iran's chances of victory were high partly because the Administration had allowed it to buy United States arms.
The flowing tides of real war in the Gulf unleashed bureaucratic war on the Potomac. Weinberger, Shultz, and Murphy increasingly believed that the United States had to launch a new secret initiative, to undo the damage wrought by the earlier one. President Reagan had set in motion a policy of contradictions. On the one hand, his Administration had allowed the clandestine sale of United States-origin arms to Iran so that they could be used against Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, in December, 1983, Reagan sent a special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, to give Saddam a letter declaring that an Iraqi defeat would be "contrary to United States interests."
Last February, Caspar Weinbgerger relaxed in an easy chair in his office at the law firm of Rogers & Wells, two blocks from the White House. Weinberger was one of the most vehement opponents of covert arms sales to Iran. "It was insanity," he told us. "How could you send arms to the Ayatollah when he was sworn to destroy us?" He expressed pride in the role he had played as a bureaucratic in-fighter opposed to the arms sales. "We fought the good battle," he said, "and we lost."
Iraqgate, however, discomforts Weinberger. When he was asked about Defense Department proposals to send arms to Iraq, he said, "The little that I know was that it was all handled by the C.I.A." On being pressed, he admitted, "There might have been a role by some people in the Pentagon. But I didn't keep a hand in that." Finally, he was shown two highly classified memos sent directly to him in 1982 and 1983 outlining Defense Department proposals to arm Saddam Hussein. He then refused to discuss the matter any further on the record, citing national-security concerns. *(
J4JP Note: see also How U.S. Arms and Technology Were Transferred to Iraq - ABC Nightline Special Investigation. Interviewed by Ted Koppel, Weinberger is caught lying without compunction about this same issue. Whenever his credibility is questioned, Weinberger routinely invokes concerns for national security and hides behind a veil of secrecy.)
By early 1982, Weinberger had concluded that Iraq would need United States military aid if an Iranian victory was to be avoided. When a covert Pentagon intelligence unit whose purpose was to obtain Soviet arms and technology learned of an opportunity to gain a coveted prize - a Soviet T-72 tank, which the Soviets had sent to Baghdad as part of their aid program - Weinberger apparently saw an opening. According to classified documents disclosed earlier this year in the Los Angeles Times, after some negotiations Iraq agreed to give the United States the tank in exchange for four United States-origin 155-mm. self-propelled Howitzers. While the covert Pentagon operators envisioned a major espionage coup against the Soviet Union, Weinberger, according to two highly placed Reagan Administration officials who knew of the operation, viewed it as an opportunity to begin direct United States arms shipments to Iraq. "Cap's view was that once the first arms shipments to Iraq were authorized by the President, the first bite of the forbidden apple had been taken, and other direct covert arms sales to Iraq would follow," a former Pentagon official explained to us.
However, the exchange fell through at the last minute, when the Iraqis, fearful that the Soviets would terminate their aid if they found out about the tank, got cold feet. Subsequently, an Iraqi offer to exchange a Soviet HIND helicopter to United States-origin weapons also fell through, because of Pentagon concerns about the criminal record of the middleman, a Lebanese-born international arms trafficker.
But there were other ways of arming Iraq. One such way - transferring arms through third countries - was outlined in a classified memo written by William L. Eagleton, the chief of the United States-interests section in Baghdad, in October, 1983. "We can selectively lift restrictions on third party transfers of U.S.- licensed military equipment to Iraq," he wrote. Even though the stated United States policy toward the Iran-Iraq War remained one of neutrality, and Congress would never have approved such arms transfers, that year the Reagan Administration began secretly allowing Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt to transfer United States weapons, including Howitzers, Huey helicopters, and bombs, to Iraq. These shipments may very well have violated the Arms Export Control Act.
Throughout 1983, Iran had made limited gains against Iraqi troops, but the real damage was being done to Iraq's infrastructure. On December 22, 1983, in a memo to Under-Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, Assistant Secretary Murphy warned that the Iraqi regime's very survival was threatened. He wrote:
"There is the possibility, on the political side, that internal frustrations resulting from economic deprivation and a seemingly endless war may produce problems for the [Iraqi] government.... It is uncertain how long the status quo can be maintained by Iraq in its confrontation with a much more populous Iran as long as Iran exports three times as much oil as Iraq."
Murphy later advocated an increase in the tilt to Iraq, The most sensitive aspects of the resulting policy shift were laid out in a memo he wrote on January 14, 1984. The memo was classified "Secret," and recipients were ordered both to destroy it and to keep records of its destruction. In addition to suggesting tightening controls on the world arms flow to Iran, the memo recommended a number of military and economic measures that the United States could take to aid the Iraqi war effort. Murphy suggested allowing the export to Iraq of so-called "dual use" items - nominally civilian items that also had potential military use, such as heavy trucks, armored ambulances, and communications gear. He suggested helping Iraq build a new oil pipeline to the Jordanian port of Aqaba, on the Israeli border, which would enable Iraq to circumvent the Iranian blockade of its Persian Gulf ports. He also mentioned that the State Department wanted to provide Iraq with funds for various projects through the Export bank, whose chairman was a Reagan appointee named William Draper. The memo read, in part:
Liberalizing export controls on Iraq: We are considering revising present policy to permit virtually all sales of non-munitions list dual use equipment to Iraq... Egyptian tank sales: In the context of recommending ways to improve our relations with Iraq, Egypt has suggested that we provide it additional M-60 tanks beyond those we are now providing under FMS [Foreign Military Sales]. Egypt would use the additional M-60s to replace used Soviet T-63s, which it would sell to Iraq.... EXIM financing: U/S [Under-Secretary of State] Eagleburger has written EXIM director Draper to urge EXIM financing of US exports to and projects in Iraq... Such major EXIM financing could boost Iraq's credit rating, leading to increased commercial financing for Iraq. However, EXIM does not favor involvement in Iraq.
The memo ended with a warning that Congress would be interested in the State Department's secret policy of aiding Iraq. As a result, background briefings for Congress would emphasize "our efforts to deter escalation and bring about a cessation of hostilities."
There is no evidence to suggest that Vice-President Bush had knowledge of the Pentagon's attempts to arm Iraq via third countries. But other aspects of the new covert policy toward Iraq were put on the agenda of the National Security Planning group, of which the Vice-President was a member. According to participants in the planning group's meetings, by early 1984 Bush was participating in them as an advocate not only of the Aqaba pipeline project but of other aspects of the covert tilt toward Iraq. In this way, his involvement in the affair now known as Iraqgate began.
Iraq's point man for the new policy was Tariq Aziz, the Foreign Minister. Two weeks after Murphy wrote the secret memo, he met Aziz in the offices of the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, a modern concrete-and-glass building in the center of Baghdad. According to Murphy, Aziz wore crisp olive-green fatigues, with a pearl-handled revolver in a holster on his belt, and he had a Cuban cigar between his teeth. Because the memory of Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear-development facility at Osirak two and a half years earlier was still fresh in Iraqi minds, and because the Aqaba pipeline would run along the Israeli border, Aziz demanded that the United States government provide financing for the pipeline and that American corporations have some financial stake in it. A United States stake would deter Israel from bombing the pipeline:
Aziz stressed that because of its complex nature and the security considerations, Iraq was not interested in the project unless there is direct U.S. involvement.... President Hussein said that Iraq will withdraw from the Aqaba project unless there is direct U.S. involvement in the project. Aziz agreed with this formulation and repeated that if USG [the United States government] "finds difficulties" then we should "just forget it." Murphy affirmed that we agreed that the geopolitical and economic value of the project was beyond question. And that he would refer the Iraqi position to Washington for expert consideration and that he would get as precise an answer as he could as promptly as he could.
Murphy also raised the "very sensitive issue" of Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iran:
Aziz repeated the denials, Murphy noted the Iraqi disclaimer [and] enjoined Aziz to ensure that Iraq eliminate doubts in the international community by making their positions and explanations as clear and understandable to the international public as the allegations have been.
Seven months earlier, Iraq had begun the widespread use of lethal chemical weapons against Iranian troops. Evidence later gathered by the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that Iranian soldiers had been exposed to "substances prohibited by international law," including mustard gas and fungal poisons. A United States official told the New York Times that the Reagan Administration had had evidence that Iraq was considering the use of chemical weapons for over a year, and had privately warned Iraq about their use. Although the United States protested Iraq's use of chemical weapons, the Administration proceeded with its policy of increased economic cooperation. In November of 1984, it restored diplomatic relations with Iraq, which had broken off in 1967.
Once back in Washington, Murphy went to work to make the Aqaba pipeline a reality. One of the thorniest problems was credit. The Export-Import Bank had concluded that war-ravaged Iraq could not meet the bank's statutory requirement that it provide a "reasonable assurance of repayment." The Administration began an intense lobbying effort to get the bank to overlook its own guidelines.
On June 12th, Charles Hill, executive secretary to Secretary of State Shultz, sent a confidential memo to George Bush's office in the West Wing of the White House, suggesting that the Vice-President call Draper, the bank's chairman, and press him to provide financing for the Aqaba pipeline. Bush was a logical person for this chore, not only because of his high office but because Draper had been a classmate of his at Yale. The "talking point" prepared for Bush suggested he tell Draper that the loan affected America's vital interest and that America's goal in the Iran-Iraq War was "to bring the war to a negotiated end in which neither belligerent is dominant." Bush was to argue that the rapid completion of oil pipelines in Iraq would help accomplish these ends:
"At present time, Iran is the intransigent party, unwilling to negotiate in part because it believes it can win in a war of attrition. We must therefore seek a means to bolster Iraq's ability and resolve to withstand Iranian attacks as well as to convince Iran that continuing hostilities are useless."
Almost immediately after receiving the call from Bush, Draper reversed the previous position of the Export-Import Bank, and it now agreed to provide the financing. Because of problems obtaining insurance, the Aqaba pipeline was never built. But the attempt marked the point at which George Bush had begun to take an active role in the covert policy to tilt toward Iraq.
In second term, the internal struggle over covert strategies exploded. The fuse was lit by Graham Fuller, the C.I.A.'s national intelligence officer for the Middle East, in two memos he wrote in May, 1985. They created a momentum that would draw Bush deeper into the melee.
For the previous two years, the Reagan Administration had conducted a program known as Operation Staunch, to stem the flow of weapons to Iran, while it continued to supply Iraq with covert aid, including top-secret satellite photographs. Fuller, with the encouragement of McFarlane, Reagan's national-security adviser, and C.I.A. director Casey, argued that it was now time to change course. "Our tilt to Iraq was timely when Iraq was against the ropes and the Islamic revolution was on a roll," Fuller wrote in a draft memo to Casey on May 17th. "The time may now have to come to tilt back." Fuller contended that the United States should once again authorize Israel to ship United States arms to Iran.
In many ways, Fuller's rationale was a mirror image of the argument that Weinberger had made three years earlier: to counter the effects of one covert policy, another was needed. This time, however, a second element had to be taken into consideration. In the preceding year and a half, seven Americans had been taken hostage in Beirut by the Hezbollah, a fundamentalist Shiite terrorist group with links to Khomeini's regime. Even so, the Iran-tilters were again on the rise in Washington. On May 20th, Fuller wrote a Special National Intelligence Estimate (S.N.I.E.), a closely held memo that was circulated to the President and may of his top advisers. (Bush was not among them.) The significance of the memo is that it became the basis for renewed arms sales to Iran, and thus for the ensuing Iran-Contra scandal.
Although the memo was similar in its objectives to the one Fuller had written three days earlier, this time he was writing for a different audience - President Reagan. And Fuller's S.N.I.E. seemed perfectly designed for Reagan. "We know that the U.S.S.R. views Iran as 'the prize' in the Gulf ," he wrote. "Moscow will improve relations when and where it can ...until it gains major influence in that state. The disturbing possibility is that the U.S.S.R. is far more likely than the U.S. to be first in finding opportunities to improve its ties to Iran."
"What was resonant with Ronald Reagan was an East-West argument - the Soviet threat - not an Iraq argument," Howard Teicher told us recently. "The President would not have been so interested in the idea that our tilt toward Iraq was dangerous because Iraqi victory might cause Saddam to become the predominant military power in the region and a danger to our Gulf allies."
At the 1991 confirmation hearings on Robert Gates' appointment as the director of Central Intelligence, it was learned that Fuller's memo, which was forwarded to President Reagan, contradicted the views of career Soviet analysts at the C.I.A., who argued that the Soviets actually had no hope of making inroads into the Ayatollah's regime. The Soviets were Iraq's largest arms suppliers, and Iran was arming the Afghan Mujahedin. At the hearings, several C.I.A. analysts testified that Fuller had skewed his appraisal for political reasons. In an interview with us, Fuller readily acknowledged that his evaluation had been wrong but denied that the analysis had been politicized.
In any event, Fuller's memo became a seminal document in the initiative to arm Iran. If there is no evidence that Bush ever saw the memo, there is evidence that by midsummer of 1985 he had attended White House meetings at which arms sales to Iran were discussed, and apparently did nothing to dissuade Ronald Reagan from pursuing a policy based on politicized intelligence reports.
In the spring of 1985, the Iran-Iraq War reached a new level of destructiveness. A wave of Iranian assaults, against which the Iraqis used chemical weapons, left twenty thousand Iranians and fourteen thousand Iraqis dead. Meanwhile, the Iranian-supported Hezbollah was continuing to take American hostages. On May 28th, David P. Jacobsen, the director of the American University Hospital in Beirut, was kidnapped, and on June 9th, another American, Thomas Sutherland, the dean of agriculture at the American University, was seized. In a speech on July 8th, President Reagan angrily charged that Iran was a member of a "confederation of terrorist states... a new, international version of Murder Incorporated," and he made a pledge: "America will never make concessions to terrorists."
But in the White House the secret initiative to arm the Iranians was taking shape. On June 11th, two days after Sutherland's kidnapping, McFarlane's National Security Council staff drafted a Presidential directive advocating that the United States help Iran obtain selected weapons. The opposing faction was irate. Shultz protested vociferously. Weinberger wrote a memo on his relations to the draft directive: "This is almost too absurd to comment on... It's like asking Qadaffi to Washington for a cozy chat."
On July 3rd, David Kimche, the director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, met secretly with McFarlane in the White House and informed him that Israel had succeeded in establishing a dialogue with Iran and that the Iranians might be able to use their influence with the Hezbollah to free the American hostages. All the elements were present for what would become an arms-for-hostage deal.
Throughout late July and early August, President Reagan consulted his top advisers about such a deal. Vice-President Bush was part of this group, attending a meeting on August 6th, with the President, Shultz, Weinberger, Chief of Staff Donald Reagan, and McFarlane. Reagan, wearing pajamas and a robe in his private quarters in the White House - he was recovering from intestinal surgery - listened as McFarlane reported, based on information he had got from the Israelis, that the Iranians wanted arms from the United States and a hundred TOW anti-tank missiles from Israel. They would release four more hostages in return. The response was mixed. McFarlane was the most willing to go ahead with the deal, but Weinberger and Shultz were dead set against it. Records give no indication how Bush responded to the proposal at this meeting, if he did. Recollections about this meeting are contradictory. But one thing is clear: the arms-for-hostages deal was still moving ahead; it had not been rejected.
On August 30th, Israel sold more than five hundred United States-origin TOW missiles to Iran. On September 15th, the Reverend Benjamin Weir who had been kidnapped in Beirut more than a year earlier, was released. For practical purposes, the first arms-for-hostages transaction had taken place. The Administration hoped other hostages would be released, too, but none were.
Meanwhile, negotiations to trade arms for the remaining hostages continued to have bureaucratic life. On December 6th*, in the White house, President Reagan discussed the initiative with Weinberger, Shultz, McFarlane, and other advisers. Weinberger has said that he bluntly warned the President that the arms transfers were illegal under the Arms Export Control Act. "There was no way in which this kind of transfer could be made if that particular act governed," Weinberger later recalled.
J4JP Note: Jonathan was arrested on November 21, 1985. This fact was apparently not overlooked by Weinberger, who later indicated that Pollard's arrest provided him with a perfect means of retaliating against Israel for her backing of the Iranian arms initiative. Of course, the fact that Weinberger also knew about Jonathan's main role in facilitating the first transfer of Israeli HAWK surface to air missiles to Iran didn't help either.)
According to Shultz, the President had answered, "Well, the American people would never forgive me if I failed to get these hostages out over this legal question." The President also made a joke: "Visiting hours are on Thursday."
Bush was not present at the December 6th, meeting - he was attending the Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia - but on January 7, 1986, he joined President Reagan, Shultz, Weinberger, Casey, Reagan, and John Poindexter, the new national-security adviser, at a special meeting of the national Security Council. The question was whether to permit the sale of four thousand Israeli TOW missiles in exchange for all the American hostages in Beirut. As before, Shultz and Weinberger vigorously opposed the plan. There is no record that Bush expressed any views, according to the congressional Iran-Contra committees. Bush later said he was unaware that there had been a battle between Shultz, Weinberger, and other top Administration officials over the arms sales. "I never really heard them that clearly, " Bush told Ted Koppel on "Nightline" in 1988. "And the reason is that the machinery broke down - it never worked as it should. The key players with the experience weren't ever called together... to review the decisions that were made at a lower level."
When Bush appeared before the Tower Commission review board, in 1987, he was asked how the President could have gone ahead with the arms-for-hostage deal, contrary to the advice of Weinberger and Shultz. According to the board's notes, Bush suggested he was not sufficiently knowledgeable about the deal. "The Vice-President allowed that he found it difficult to imagine that the President should go forward in the circumstances," the notes read. "Nevertheless, he noted that the President often 'holds things pretty tight.'"
Bush did not mention the January 7th meeting. However, his chief of staff, Craig L. Fuller, told the Washington Post that Bush might have left that meeting early: "If he [Bush] was there for all of it, he doesn't recall it as a showdown session, and it's possible he wasn't there for all of it."
But the testimony of Weinberger and Shultz indicates that is was a "showdown session." In his congressional testimony, Weinberger recalled, "I made the same points" as at the December 6th meeting. "George Shultz made the same points." Shultz testified, "Secretary Weinberger and I were the only ones who were against it. And so that included everybody who was there on the other side of the issue... I couldn't believe that people would want to do this." Shultz specifically included Bush among those who wanted to go ahead with the deal.
On January 17th, Bush was present during a 9:30 A.M. intelligence briefing in which President Reagan signed an authorization for the sale of the TOW missiles to Iran. After the meeting, Poindexter noted in a memo that the "President was briefed verbally from this paper," adding that Bush, among others, was present. Part of the memo read, "The secretaries [Shultz and Weinberger] do not recommend you proceed with this plan." But the memo did not register any opposition by Bush. Indeed, in a February, 1986, electronic-mail note, Poindexter wrote that the "President and VP are solid in taking the position that we have to try."
The motives of the key players were complex and varied. President Reagan was said to be so moved by the plight of the hostages that his staff kept him from meeting with any of the hostages' families. But there were political concerns as well. Of a release could be arranged in time for the 1986 congressional elections, the Republicans would gain a political windfall. "We had to meet a deadline in releasing hostages, because the elections were coming up," Albert Hakim, an Iranian-born arms merchant who participated in the arms deal, told the congressional Iran-Contra committees. Oliver North, in his congressional testimony, at first denied any political motive. On being pressed, he conceded, "There are political concerns."
Before the deal could be consummated, however one major detail had to be ironed out. The United States insisted that Iran release all the hostages before the arms were delivered. The Iranians refused. A deadlock ensued. By may, there had been no concrete progress. The White house grew desperate enough to send its own delegation to Iran. The delegation consisted of McFarlane, who had resigned as national-security adviser; North; George Cave, a C.I.A. expert on Iran; and Howard Teicher. To accompany them, Israel sent Amiram Nir, a special adviser on counter-terrorism to Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The mission, which later became famous, came to naught when the Iranians insisted upon "sequencing" - releasing the hostages two at a time as arms shipments were delivered. The Iranians were angry at being charged what they believed were exorbitant prices for the weapons. (Profits from the arms sales were by now being diverted to aid the Contras.)
On May 29th, after the delegation returned to Washington, McFarlane briefed the President and the Vice-President on the trip. Teicher, who was present at the briefing, recalled to us in an interview that McFarlane "explicitly described the differences they had with the Iranian officials, explaining that it was an arms-for-hostages deal. He said that the Iranians were jerking us around and would continue to. Bush didn't say anything, but, after McFarlane said the initiative should temporarily be shut down, Reagan agreed not to proceed any longer."
The deal was stalled. It would remain so until the entry into the drama of a player who was aware of the Administration's clandestine policies toward both Iran and Iraq, and could finesse both factions within the Administration. That player was William Casey.
"Casey cared little about the Middle East," a former C.I.A. official who had worked closely with him told us. "But you can't forget his love of the cloak and dagger, of covert operations. He had a passion for them." That passion dated back to the Second World War, when Casey ran covert operations behind the lines in Nazi-occupied Europe for the Office of Strategic Services, the C.I.A.'s precursor. On the particulars of the Middle East, Casey was guided by a Cold War perspective. "Everything was viewed through the prism of combating the Soviets," Teicher told us. "The Iraqis were seen as a bastion of Soviet influence and as a window to peer in on Soviet defense technology. Better relations with Iran through arms sales was also seen as a way of countering the Soviets."
As Ronald Reagan's campaign manager in 1980, Casey, who thought Bush too liberal and too soft, had reluctantly gone along with his selection as Vice-President. Immediately after Reagan's inauguration, however, the new C.I.A. chief decreed that Vice-President Bush would play no role in intelligence. "He was adamant," Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, the agency's deputy director under Casey, recalled. "Once, I met with Bush anyway. When Casey found out about it, he exploded: 'Why he hell are you seeing Bush?'" But within a few years whatever reservations Casey had had about Bush had dissipated. "George is with us more often than you think." Casey confided to William Safire in 1983. "He plays his cards close to his vest, but he's not the wimp we thought he was."
All through Bush's political life, journalists and colleagues have spoken of Bush as if he were two people. One was the accommodating and acquiescent attendant upon those who had higher rank and greater power. The other was the ruthless politician who would go into "campaign mode" to do whatever it might take to win. Casey confided to his colleagues that he felt that the two sides of Bush were really one and the same. The Vice-President had the capacity to act on the judgment of others, to live within the constraints of their agendas. This philosophy had served him well in the long line of appointive offices he had won. Casey, according to his colleagues, understood that Bush's compliant nature, like his merciless side, served a higher ambition. In any case, it was Bush he chose to carry out his secret mission to break the impasse that had stalled the release of the hostages. As we have noted, Casey, according to two aides who worked with him at the C.I.A., reasoned that if Iraq escalated the air war Iran would have a renewed need for United States weapons, and that would force it to conclude the stalled arms-for-hostages deal on acceptable terms. Casey, these aides say, was keeping some Administration officials in the dark about the double nature of his plan, and was trying to enlist the support of the officials at the State Department and in the Pentagon who feared an imminent Iranian victory.
Personally, he was convinced that although Iran had made recent gains in the war there would be a stalemate for several years. Rather than share that conviction, however, he slanted intelligence assessments to paint a graver picture of Saddam Hussein's future, even though the situation was grim enough for Iraq that such exaggerations were unnecessary.
On July 23, 1986, the C.I.A. director's scheme to break the logjam in the negotiations surfaced in the agenda of a meeting of the Contingency Pre-Planning Group (C.P.P.G.), an inter-agency committee consisting of mid-level representatives of the National Security Council, the Departments of State and Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the C.I.A. The meeting focused on Iraq's misfortunes in the war, and formed the basis of a secret State Department memorandum that was cabled to diplomats in Middle East capitals and elsewhere. Near the top of the version that was sent to Baghdad, which was later made available to us, are the words "For Ambassador from NEA Murphy" - Richard Murphy, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. In an interview last month, Murphy, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he did not recall the memo.
The first of five numbered paragraphs in the memo stated "Secret - Entire Text." Next, the memo noted that the C.P.P.G. had been "tasked with preparing an action agenda" aimed at "bolstering our commercial/financial relationship with Iraq." The group, having reviewed Iraq's dire financial situation, had been unable to come up with an immediate, short-term solution. The group had discussed the "possibility of Iraq's 'borrowing' U.S.-supplied Jordanian equipment," but that alternative had been dismissed, because "any such transfer has to be notified to the Congress and thus made public."
The memo's final paragraph, which coincided with Casey's plan, had its roots in the frustration felt by some at Iraq's failure to take full advantage of its powerful Air Force. "Iraq didn't understand modern warfare," Richard Murphy told us. "The Iraqis were fighting the way Germans might have in the First World War. They were good at holding a defense line, which is useful in holding back the human waves of Iranians. But when it came to their Air Force they were inept. On bombing missions, in particular, the Iraqis were so afraid to lose planes that they often didn't undertake missions, and when they did they did only things that were safe." In the view of the State Department, the Iraqi Air Force not only had failed to take advantage of its technical air superiority but did not even seem to know where to strike.
In February, to induce Iraq to carry out more bombing operations, the Reagan Administration had secretly authorized Saudi Arabia to transfer United States-origin bombs to Iraq and encouraged the Saudis to provide Saddam with British fighter planes as well. Later that month, according to classified reports, Saudi Arabia transferred fifteen hundred MK-84 bombs to Iraq. But, to the dismay of United States officials, Saddam had failed to make full use of the bombs.
On Friday, July 25th, Vice-President Bush was leaving for Israel and the Middle East. On his visit, he would meet with the heads of state of Jordan and Egypt. The final paragraph of the C.P.P.G. memo said, "We have encouraged the Vice-President to suggest to both King Hussein and President Mubarak that they sustain their efforts to convey our shared views to Saddam regarding Iraq's use of its air resources," and then it immediately expressed uncertainty about whether Bush would succeed. "The very recent report... from Amman on the subject leads us to conclude that Saddam may not be open to suggestion. "Saddam, Administration officials say, had been distrustful of the United States even though he needed U.S. resources for his deteriorating position in the war. The memo also alluded to the ongoing bureaucratic debate over the question of whether the strategic military advice Bush was passing on through intermediaries should be reinforced by "a senior U.S. emissary," who would be sent to meet with Saddam, to pass on the same message directly. The memo said, "We in NEA are in essential agreement with your reaction to the proposal to send a senior U.S. emissary to talk with Saddam Hussein. The idea still has an active bureaucratic life, however." We have not been able to determine whether the Reagan Administration ever did in fact send an emissary to talk directly with Saddam.
Howard Teicher and Oliver North briefed the Vice-President before he left for the Middle East. They met him in Bush's offices in the old Executive Office Building. The date of the meeting is uncertain. "We told him what the status was, that arms had gone to Iran,", Teicher recalled in an interview. "We were preparing him for a possible briefing by either the Prime Minister or Nir," - Shimon Peres and his counter-terrorism adviser. "We didn't want him to discuss it with anyone else, for security reasons. He asked us some questions, but he didn't express any opinions."
It is unclear how much Casey had told Reagan about Bush's mission, but he apparently was forthcoming with the Vice-President. Before Bush left for the Middle East, two of Casey's aides say he went to Casey's third-floor corner office, overlooking Seventeenth and F Streets. (The meeting probably took place on July 23rd.) Both men knew that Reagan wanted the hostages released, and before the congressional election. Bush has denied that he ever discussed the arms sales to Iran with Casey. "Casey didn't talk to me about anything," he told the Washington Post. "The C.I.A. Director doesn't report to the Vice-President." But a former C.I.A. aide who says that Casey confided in him about the meeting told us, "Casey felt Bush had a methodical, orderly manner for the task. He had great confidence in him to carry it out. He said he briefed Bush in great detail about the initiative to bomb Iran." According to the former aide, Casey explained that the renewed bombing would create a new demand by Iran for weaponry.
When Vice-President Bush boarded Air Force Two for Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, he was accompanied by his wife, several aides, more than a dozen reporters, and a television crew hired, by his political-action committee, to shoot footage of his prowess as a world leader. During his visit to Israel, Bush said the purpose of the trip was to "advance the peace process," and the day before the trip started one Bush aide had told a reporter for the Times, "I don't think it's sensible to talk in terms of dramatic initiatives. In fact, I would play that down."
"This is not a trip designed to establish new breakthroughs," another adviser to the Vice-President said. "It's like tending a garden. If you don't tend the garden, the weeds grow up. And I think there are a lot of weeds in that garden."
While Bush was in flight, there was a break in the hostage crisis: The Reverend Lawrence Jenco was released and flown to Germany. By coincidence, the Vice-President's first stop was in Germany, and on his arrival he spoke with Jenco by phone. Jenco's release was a measure of Iran's deep ambivalence about the negotiations. Iran needed weapons and did not want the deal to die. At the same time, the Iranians were apoplectic because, according to their estimates, they were being overcharged by six hundred per cent, and they had not yet received parts for two hundred and forty Hawk missiles. On July 29th, Oliver North warned his superior, John Poindexter, that if the parts were not delivered soon "one American hostage will probably be killed in order to demonstrate displeasure." (Iran did receive the parts, in return for Jenco's release.)
In a schedule dominated by photo opportunities - thirty-five of them in Israel alone - the Vice President found time on the morning of July 29th for a half-hour meeting with Amiram Nir at the King David hotel, in Jerusalem. Nir, then thirty-seven, was a war hero who had been a corespondent for Israeli television before rising to become one of Peres's top advisers. With a patch over one eye that was evocative of Moshe Dayan and other Israeli war heroes, Nir was a charismatic figure. He had known Oliver North since October, 1985, when the two men worked closely together on operations to intercept an Egyptian plane carrying four terrorists who had hijacked the Achille Lauro. He and North had so many similarities that in Tel Aviv, after the Iran-Contra revelations, Israeli journalists referred to the two men as "the Siamese twins." Nir worked closely on the hostage question with North, who referred to him affectionately as "Ami." At crucial points in the negotiations, Nir sometimes drove his tank to the nearest telephone pole, tapped into a line, and called North, without regard for the time difference between Israel and Virginia.
It was North who had arranged for Nir to brief Bush. The only other person present at the meeting was Bush's chief of staff, Craig Fuller. Of the three, only Bush did not write a contemporaneous account of it. But the Vice-President did give his version in a conversation with investigators for the Tower Commission. "Vice-President Bush related that his discussion with Mr. Nir was generally about counter-terrorism." The commission report noted. "There was no discussion of specifics relating to arms going to the Iranians."
In the 1988 interview with Ted Koppel on "Nightline," Bush slightly amended his account of the briefing. He now admitted that there was some discussion of arms sales as a means to "reach out to moderate elements" in the Iranian government. Arms sales would "establish bona fides" with the moderate element, who "might use their influence with the people who were holding the hostages."
However, other accounts contradict Bush. His own chief of staff described the meeting in detail in a memorandum for the record. In the first paragraph of his memo, which was obtained and published by the Tower Commission, Fuller summarized what Nir had told Bush:
Mr. Nir... reviewed what had been learned which was essentially that the radical group was the group that could deliver. He reviewed the issues to be considered -namely that there needed to be a decision as to whether the items requested would be delivered in separate shipments or whether we would continue to press for the release of the hostages prior to delivering the items in an amount agreed to previously.
Elsewhere in the memo Fuller quoted Nir as telling Bush that at a meeting between Israelis and Iran's Prime Minister Hussein Moussavi "an agreement was made on 4,000 units," meaning missiles, "1000 first and then 3,000. The agreement was made on the basis that we would get the group," meaning hostages, "for a fixed price."
Nir himself described the meeting in a confidential memo to Prime Minister Peres. Nir's memo, which was disclosed on "Nightline" three weeks ago, confirmed Fuller's written account, and contradicted Bush's claims about reaching out to "moderate elements." Nir's memo pointed out that "the elements in Iran with whom we talk most of the time, Prime Minister Moussavi and his deputy or assistant Mohsen Kangerlou, are clearly the most extreme."
Yet no one had resolved the most difficult question of all. Jenco's release showed not only that the radicals could deliver but that they were serious about sequencing the release of the hostages in exchange for arms. "What are the alternatives to sequencing?" Nir asked Bush. "The fear is they gave up all the hostages they won't get anything from us."
"The VP made no commitments nor did he give any direction to Nir," Bush's chief of staff noted in his memo.
The next day, Bush was off to Jordan for a three-day visit, during which he met twice with King Hussein. In Amman, the Jordanians provided lavish spreads of caviar and smoked salmon for the traveling press. Bush's aides began referring to the trip as a tourist event. The Los Angeles Times quoted "knowledgeable U.S. officials" as saying that the Arab portion of the trip was planned primarily to offer the "best camera angles and interesting backdrops" for photographing Bush. Even a senior aide conceded that the trip accomplished little of substance. "Join the Bush campaign and see the world," the aide cracked to a reporter.
The trip did generate a certain comic relief. Once the Bush party arrived in Amman, it demanded that camels be present at every stop -even though camels are a rarity in Jordan, where cars and buses are the customary means of transportation. The Bush team suggested that Jordan stage military maneuvers to provide dramatic footage, not realizing that Syria or Israel might mistake them for real hostilities. Aides then tried to arrange for Bush to be photographed peering through binoculars at "enemy territory," until it was pointed out that the territory in question was Israel's. After a briefing on the military situation, Bush turned to the Jordanian Commander-in-Chief, Lieutenant General Zeid Bin Shaker. "Tell me, General, how dead is the Dead Sea?" the Vice-President asked. "Very dead, sir," the General gravely replied.
On a serious note, the New York Times reported that Bush had suggested a face-to-face meeting between Peres and King Hussein, and that the proposal had fallen flat. A more important reason for Bush's meeting with King Hussein was not included in briefings for the press. The King had often been an intermediary between the Reagan Administration and Iraq. As early as 1982, when the C.I.A. had begun to pass military intelligence to Iraq, it had used the Jordanians as intermediaries, to provide both the United States and Iraq with "deniability." Lately, Jordan had been transferring American arms to Iraq, as part of the clandestine arrangements. According to two Administration officials, Bush now told the King that Iraq needed to be more aggressive in the war with Iran and asked that Saddam Hussein be urged to use his Air Force against targets inside Iran, because United States intelligence had concluded that if Saddam Hussein did not act more vigorously Iran might win. "The Vice-President forcefully and clearly expressed his view to the King," one of the officials, who was familiar with the Amman meeting, told us. "The King pledged that he would pass along the message."
On August 4th, Bush had a meeting in Cairo with President Hosni Mubarak, during which he told the Egyptian leader, according to news reports, that the Reagan Administration could not increase aid to Egypt. In fact, according to the two Administration officials, Bush asked Mubarak to pass on to Saddam Hussein the same military advice he had given the King: that Iraq use its Air Force more aggressively. By this time, the National Security Agency, which was monitoring Jordanian-Iraqi diplomatic communications, had found that the Jordanians had already passed along the military advice "at the highest authority," according to an Administration official familiar with the covert initiative.
During the forty-eight hours that followed George Bush's meeting with Mubarak, the Iraqi Air Force flew three hundred and fifty-nine missions. What is significant, though, is that the Iraqis changed the pattern of their strikes. According to United States intelligence officials, over the next few weeks Iraqi planes struck deep into Iran, and bombed oil refineries, including, for the first time, the Sirri Island facilities, four hundred miles from the border - a daring feat for the Mirage pilots, who risked running out of fuel.
In the past, Saddam had rejected similar United States advice to escalate the bombing. His generals had been unwilling to risk their pilots and planes, and Saddam was reluctant to press them. But by 1986 the war was going so badly for Iraq that Saddam desperately needed American money and weapons. Now, in early August of 1986, when Bush was in the Middle East, C.I.A. officials in Baghdad for the first time began directly providing the Iraqi military with highly classified tactical intelligence information. The C.I.A. also provided Saddam with equipment to receive intelligence information from satellites, which would help him assess he effects of his air strikes on Iran. According to one official, the intelligence provided to the Iraqis during and after the summer of 1986 "was specific to assisting them in their air war."* Saddam's suspicions of the United States may have been eased somewhat by the involvement of an emissary as highly placed as the American Vice-President. *(
Jonathan Pollard comments: This is only half the story. The amount and type of intelligence transferred to Iraq was far greater than what was reported here. The transfer also started a lot earlier than August 1986. In fact, I first saw this material headed for Baghdad back in the Spring of 1984. And it very definitely included information pertaining to the Israeli Defense Forces, not just Iran.)
On August 5th, Bush returned to Washington and was debriefed by Casey. "Casey kept the return briefing very close to his vest." One of his aides says. "But he said Bush was supportive of the initiative and had carried out his mission."
On the same day, however, the covert machinations almost came undone. Low-level American Embassy officials in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, had learned of the Saudi transfer of United States arms to Iraq earlier that year. Unaware that the Reagan Administration had secretly authorized the arms transfer, the officials went so far as to question Prince Bandar Ibn Sultan, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, who told them that the transfer had been accidental and the amount had been small. The day Bush returned to Washington, the State Department sent a secret cable seeking further information about the bomb sales to Saddam. The cable warned that the that the Arms Export Control Act required the State Department to report the arms transfer to Congress. It said, "We shall be forwarding such notification in the next few days in classified letters to the Speaker of the House and the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee." Exposure of the arms transfer could have had significant consequences for Saudi Arabia. President Reagan had recently notified Congress that he intended to transfer the first of five AWACS planes, worth $3.5 billion, to the Saudis. The State Department cable warned that the AWACS sales could be endangered by disclosure of the Saudi's arms transfer. It added:
We are concerned, naturally, about possible reactions to this unauthorized transfer. Section 3 provides for the possibility of a presidential determination of ineligibility of such a country for further FMS credits and guarantees, although Department has always taken the posture the President is not required to do so. The same section also gives the Congress the opportunity, by adoption of a Joint Resolution, to declare a country ineligible for FMS sales. This is a possibility we must treat seriously given the previous debate on arms sales.
In the end, the Reagan Administration had little to worry about. The White House sent a notification letter to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, claiming that the arms sales were "inadvertent," that only a "small quantity of unsophisticated weapons" had been transferred, and that the transfers were "unauthorized." In fact, the sales were done purposefully; the Administration knew that fifteen hundred bombs had been sold to Iraq; and most important, the sales had been covertly authorized by the Reagan Administration.
One senator said he approached Lugar about rumors that Saudi Arabia was sending United States arms to Iraq. "Dick Lugar told me there was nothing to it, and so I took his word," the senator told us. There the matter ended. The senator said that Lugar told him he was relying on the word of the White House.
On September 19, 1986, Ali Hashemi Bahramani, a high-ranking officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, came to Washington for secret negotiations with Oliver North, who hoped to open a "second channel' to Iran. Bahramani arrived with a shopping list, which seems to suggest that the Bush mission had had its intended effect. The bombing of the Iranian interior had created an urgent need for United States weapons to repel Iraqi attacks. Among the items Bahramani wanted were radar, Hawk missiles, and TOW missiles.
However, the fatal flaw in the reasoning behind the arms-for-hostages deal had already become apparent. As hostages were released, new ones were seized. On September 9th, Frank H. Reed, director of the Lebanese International School, was kidnapped by the Hezbollah. Three days later, Joseph Cicippio, the acting comptroller of the American University in Beirut, was kidnapped. Six weeks later, Edward Tracy, an American writer, was seized.
According to Richard Secord, who assisted Oliver North, intelligence reports indicated that the group of Iranians negotiating the release of the hostages was also responsible for taking the new hostages. But this didn't seem to deter North, Poindexter, and Casey from continuing the Iranian initiative. An incentive for them to continue was that by now at least $3.8 million of profits from the arms sales to Iran had been diverted to finance the covert Contra war.
In early October, though, the negotiations between North and Bahramani reached another impasse. The American side again needed leverage. Around this time, according to knowledgeable Reagan Administration officials, William Casey secretly met with both Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Nizaar Hamdoon, the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States, at the United Nations, and asked if Iraqi military officers had been satisfied with the intelligence that had been provided. He urged the Iraqis to intensify the bombing of economic targets deep inside Iranian territory.
The Iranians, faced with new Iraqi air strikes, now needed weapons more than ever and were soon back at the negotiating table. But, on October 5th, the web of covert operations began to unravel. A C-123 transport plane, part of the White House's covert arms-resupply operation for the Contras, was shot down over Nicaraguan territory. The lone survivor, a cargo hauler named Eugene Hasenfus, was captured by he Sandinistas, and began telling tales about the White House's involvement in assisting the Contras. On November 2nd, two days before the midterm congressional elections, a single hostage, David Jacobsen, was released from captivity.
The very next day, in Beirut, Al Shiraa broke the story of the Reagan Administration's arms shipments to Iran. On November 4th, the New York Times and the Washington Post reported the allegations about the arms sales. Three weeks later, on November 25th, Attorney General Edwin Meese held a press conference to inform the nation that profits from arms sales to Iran had been diverted to arm the Contras.
In the aftermath of the Iran-Contra revelations, McFarlane, North, Poindexter, and most of the other key officials who had favored tilting toward Iran left the White House, and their rivals had a clear field. The Reagan Administration, in its closing days, leaned strongly toward Iraq.
One of the unintended consequences of Bush's secret mission was that Iraq now needed more help than ever, in part because Iran was now being covertly provided with arms by intermediaries acting on behalf of the United States. On January 9, 1987, in response to the Iraqi bombing raids, Iran mounted one of its most sustained, and bloodiest, operations of the war. The greater part of the fighting took place outside Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. Between twenty-five and thirty-five thousand troops are estimated to have died, on both sides, and as many were wounded. Iraq responded to the Iranian ground offensive with an unprecedented bombing campaign, hitting ten Iranian cities, including Teheran and the holy city of Qum, and killing thousands. The Iranians retaliated by shelling Basra. Air strikes against civilian centers had now become routine.
Iraq desperately needed American aid. On February 26th, the State Department sent a memo, classified "Confidential," to Bush's national-security adviser, Donald P. Gregg, who is now Ambassador to South Korea. The memo was intended to prepare the Vice-President for a March 2nd meeting with Nizaar Hamdoon, the Iraqi Ambassador, and was accompanied by "talking points for Bush to use in conversations first with John Bohn, the new chairman of the Export-Import Bank, and then with Hamdoon. "Iraqi Ambassador Hamdoon is calling on me soon," Bush's first script read, "and I expect him to raise the issue of short-term Exim credit insurance for Iraq...I urge you and your colleagues on the Board to give that favorable consideration... Exim's support for continued trade with Iraq would be a powerful timely signal... of U.S. interest in stability in the Gulf."
The bank's economists had already concluded that Iraq had little chance of repaying the loan. Nevertheless, Bohn agreed to Bush's request, overriding the advice of the bank's professional staff, and when the Vice-president met with Hamdoon he was able to relay the good news. He was scripted to say, the memo notes, "I am pleased that Commerce has recently issued licenses for some long pending items" - high-technology exports -for Iraq. "You should take that as a sign of our seriousness in addressing the issue." Many of those items, it is now known, were examples of dual-use technology -helpful to Iraq's programs to develop ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, and nuclear weapons.
By this time, the Iran-Contra investigations were under way in Congress. But one of the key witnesses, William Casey, was unable to appear, he was in Georgetown hospital, being treated for a malignant brain tumor. He died on May 6th. Amiram Nir, who was also expected to be a witness in the Iran-Contra trials, died in the crash of a small plane in Mexico in 1988.
Meanwhile, Vice-President Bush was trying to escape the political fallout of the Iran-Contra disclosures. He told the Washington Post that he had not been aware that serious objections were raised by Shultz and Weinberger to selling weapons to Iran. "If I had sat there, and heard George Shultz and Cap express it strongly, maybe I would have had a stronger view. But when you don't know something it's hard to react... We were not in the loop."
On August 6, 1987, the day the Post article appeared, Weinberger telephoned Shultz, incredulous that Bush had denied knowledge. "He was on the other side," Weinberger said, according to notes taken by Shultz's executive secretary, Charles Hill. "It's on the record! Why did he say that?"
More recently, Howard Teicher, the former national Security Council adviser who worked closely with Casey and Bush on the covert arms sales, had come forward to dispute Bush's story. "Bush definitely knew almost everything about the Iranian arms-sales initiative," Teicher told us. "I personally briefed him in great detail many times. Like so many others, he got premature Alzheimer's after the arms sales became public."
As it happens, Weinberger, who argued so vociferously against the Iranian initiative, and warned of its illegality finds himself in the greatest legal jeopardy from the Iran-Contra scandal. He is accused by a federal grand jury of perjury and obstruction of justice relating to his withholding of notes of White house meetings from federal investigators.
On August 20, 1988, a cease-fire between Iran and Iraq went into effect. Five days later, Saddam Hussein began to stage poison-gas attacks on villages in Iraqi Kurdistan. A September, 1988, report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee states, "Those who were very close to the bombs died instantly. Those who did not die instantly found it difficult to breathe and began to vomit. The gas stung the eyes, skin, and lungs of the villagers exposed to it. Many suffered temporary blindness... Those who could not run from the growing smell, mostly the very old and the very young, died."
Around the same time, a highly classified memo was circulated to senior State Department officials by John Whitehead, then the Deputy Secretary of State, which recommended developing even closer ties to Iraq despite the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Whitehead offered a Cold War rationale: "[Soviet] clout and influence is on a steady rise as the Gulf Arabs gain self-confidence and Soviet diplomacy gains in sophistication. The Soviets have strong cards to play: their border with Iran and their arms supply relationship with Iraq. They will continue to be major players and we should engage them as fully as possible."
When Bush became President, in January ,1989, he increased aid to the regime of Saddam Hussein. Why, after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the Reagan and Bush Administrations accelerated their support for Saddam has never been fully explained. But classified documents and interviews with senior officials indicate that the relationship between the United States and Saddam Hussein became strained after the revelations that the Reagan Administration had also sent arms to Iran. "We had to work doubly hard to recoup the stature we lost with Saddam," one official told us in an interviews. As Whitehead had written in his memo, "It should be remembered...that we have weathered Irangate." More would need to be done to develop closer ties with "the ruthless but pragmatic Saddam Hussein."
Once again, a failed covert policy -in this case, to arm Iran- led to another: increased covert support for Iraq that would facilitate its crash program to develop ballistic, chemical, and even nuclear weapons. Bush implemented the new policy despite the fact that several government departments had repeatedly warned of Saddam's massive military buildup, human-rights violations, and continued support for terrorism. In March, 1989, State Department officials told the new Secretary of State, James Baker, that Iraq was working on chemical and biological weapons and that terrorists were still operating out of Iraq. In June, the Defense Intelligence Agency sent a top-secret report to thirty-eight high-level Bush Administration officials, warning that it had discovered a secret military-procurement network for Iraq operating in countries around the world, including the United States. In September, the Defense Department discovered that an Iraqi front company in Cleveland was funneling United States technology to Iraq's nuclear-weapons program, but the Bush Administration allowed the company to continue operations -even after the invasion of Kuwait. On September 3rd, a C.I.A. assessment, classified "Top Secret," informed Baker that Iraq had a program to develop nuclear weapons and had "made use of covert techniques" to obtain the high technology it needed to build a bomb. The report identified some of the specific dual-use technology that Baghdad's procurement network was trying to obtain around the world for its nuclear-weapons program, including oscilloscopes, high-speed cameras, and centrifuges.
In spite of these warnings, on October 2nd President Bush signed a top-secret National Security Directive that authorized closer diplomatic relations with Iraq and opened the way for additional aid. Four days later, Secretary Baker met with his Iraqi counterpart, Tariq Aziz, and promised him that the Bush Administration would not tighten restrictions on high-technology exports to Iraq. Baker gave his assurances despite the C.I.A. warning he had received the previous month alerting him that some of the dual-use technology could potentially be used in Iraq's nuclear-weapons development program. According to the State Department's minutes of the meeting, "the Secretary admitted that the U.S. does have concerns about proliferation, but they are worldwide concerns."
The Bush Administration repeatedly overrode internal objections to its efforts to funnel aid to Baghdad. By the fall of 1989, international bankers had cut off virtually all loans to Saddam. On October 31st, Baker called the Secretary of Agriculture, Clayton Yeutter, and pressed for a billion dollars in new agricultural-loan guarantees for Iraq despite the fact that the Agriculture Department and other agencies wanted to limit or eliminate additional funds. In November, the State Department, even though some of its officials knew that Iraq was diverting dual-use equipment to its nuclear-weapons program, declined to tighten export licenses. In January, 1990, President Bush waived congressional restrictions on Iraq's use of the Export-Import Bank, and in doing so overlooked new evidence that Iraq was testing ballistic missiles and stealing nuclear technology. In April, Saddam boasted that he had chemical weapons and would "burn half of Israel." Around that time, the Commerce Department tried to stop the flow of United States technology to Iraq, but its efforts were stymied by the White House. "The President does not want to single out Iraq," one senior White House official explained, according to classified minutes of an April 19th White House meeting. As late as May, 1990, just three months before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Bush Administration was still sharing intelligence information with Iraq. In July, Bush officials pushed for additional agricultural loans to Iraq, and rebuffed efforts by the Defense and Commerce Departments to restrict the export of some dual-use technology. At the end of July, Bush opposed congressional efforts to impose sanctions on Iraq. All told, the Reagan and Bush Administrations ended up providing Saddam Hussein with more than five billion dollars in loan guarantees, thereby enabling him to become a major military power in the Persian Gulf and, of course, to invade Kuwait.
On October 4th of this year, in an hour-long interview on CNN's "Larry King Live," Bush arguing that "we were trying to work with Saddam Hussein and try[ing] to bring him along into the family of nations," denied any scandal. He added that any suggestion that the United States was building up Saddam's nuclear capability was "fallacious."
Bush's former chief of staff, Craig Fuller, went on "Nightline" last month to defend the President against the new revelations by Howard Teicher. Fuller, who is now a vice-president of Philip Morris, downplayed the significance of Bush's briefing by Amiram Nir during the 1986 Middle East trip. "I actually think that meeting wasn't terribly significant," Fuller said. "It was an effort to demonstrate that -- we could -- they could get their intelligence officials to sit down and talk with us, and that report -- the minutes of that, as you know, go three or four pages -- was all over the board in terms of what the effort really involved."
As we have seen, secret government documents contradict President Bush's statements. (The White House did not respond to written questions we posed in the preparation of this account.) And the President has not addressed evidence that the United States continued to allow the export of high-technology items to Iraq even after the Administration knew that those items would help Iraq's nuclear weapons program, and even after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait; that the Administration tolerated Saddam's use of chemical weapons; and that on several occasions the Administration itself tried to circumvent United States arms-control laws in its efforts to aid Iraq.
And, of course, there is the evidence that Bush secretly played an important role in covert mission designed by William Casey to maximize Iraq's military power in the first place, and to escalate the Iran-Iraq War as part of an elaborate strategy to facilitate the arms-for-hostages deal. Coming, as it did, at a point at which the two clandestine initiatives to Iran and Iraq converged, the Casey-Bush mission embodied all that is most dangerous about secret foreign policy: hidden from the American people, and almost certainly in defiance of federal laws, the covert initiatives not only led to the taking of more American hostages and to the development by Iraq of weapons of mass destruction but contributed to an escalation of the Iran-Iraq War, which cost tens of thousands of lives. Ultimately, the policies propelled the United States itself into war.