U.S. Secretly Aided Iraq Against Iran Early In War

The New York Times - January 26, 1992

Secret Is Kept At Gates Hearings

During Senate Intelligence Committee hearings last October on Mr. Gates's nomination as C.I.A. chief, neither Mr., Gates nor any of the other C.I.A. witnesses let on that the U.S.-Iraq intelligence-sharing thought to have begun in December 1984 had actually begun more than two years earlier. Nor did any witness reveal that the Reagan Administration had permitted Iraq's allies in the Middle East to ship American-made arms to Baghdad.

At one point during Mr., Gates's testimony, Senator Bill Bradley, the New Jersey Democrat, asked whether the intelligence-sharing with Iraq, had amounted to a "covert action" that under Law should have been made known to the intelligence committees.

"I believed at the time," Mr. Gates responded, "that the activities were fully consistent with the understanding" of the law then in effect, "as it related to liaison relationships."

The 1975 law, an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, forbids the use of C.I.A money for covert activities "unless and until the President finds that each such operation ...is important to the national security of the U.S. and reports in a timely fashion" to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.

One Reagan Administration official who spent dozens of hours testifying before the intelligence committees said he believed that the Iraqi program should have been presented to the committees, but was not because of a concern that the members of the committees who supported Israel would object.*(See J4JP comment below)

The decision to help Iraq was "not a C.I.A. rogue initiative," a former senior State Department official explained. The policy was researched at the State Department and "approved at the highest levels," he said. The idea, he added, was not to "hitch our wagon to Hussein."

"We wanted to avoid victory by both sides," he said.

The officials say that satellite imagery, communications intercepts and Central Intelligence Agency assessments were forwarded to Iraqi commanders to show them "where the Iranian weaknesses were," in the words of one American official. The United States continued to supply top-secret intelligence until the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988.

Washington also "looked the other way." As a former American Ambassador in the region put it, as American-made arms began to flow into Baghdad from Iraq's allies in the Middle East, starting in 1982.

Jordan and Saudi Arabia sent Iraq small arms and mortars, among other weapons, and Kuwait sold the Iraqis thousands of TOW anti-tank missiles. A former C.I.A .official who worked closely with Mr. Casey recalled that "the Kuwaitis sent lots of money and lots of arms to Iraq, and it was all done with our knowledge." He also acknowledged that by 1982 the Jordanian military was routinely diverting American-made Huey helicopters to Iraq.

American officials made no effort to stop these sales, known to many in the Administration, even though American export law forbids the third-party transfer of American-made arms without Washington's permission.

The Reagan Administration had secretly changed policy toward Iran shortly after taking office in 1981, allowing the Israelis, bitter foes of Mr. Hussein, to ship American arms worth several billion dollars to Teheran. Those arms, former Administration officials now acknowledge, helped Iran defy initial predictions of a quick Iraqi victory and achieve important successes early in the war, which began with an Iraqi attack in September 1980.

Iraq's standing became precarious largely because the Soviet Union, Baghdad's longtime ally, had refused in the first two years of the war to provide it with military goods in the vain hope of gaining influence with Iran.

By late March 1982, American intelligence was reporting that Iraq was on the verge of collapse, creating fears in Washington and the region that Iran's Islamic fundamentalist Government would dominate the Persian Gulf and its huge oil reserves.

A new policy was quickly agreed upon, one senior Administration official recalled: "We don't want Iraq to lose the war." Iraq had to be aided, as Iran had been.

Nicholas A. Veliotes, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, headed the working group that was in charge of the policy. Another key player was Morris Draper, a ranking State Department expert who was President Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East then.

In interviews, some members of this group said they had authorized only the provision of intelligence to Baghdad; they insisted that they had not known that Iraq's allies would sell Baghdad American-made arms. But these officials acknowledged that even the act of supplying intelligence to Saddam Hussein was a major change in foreign policy, one that had to remain secret.

"It was agreed that the public policy of the Administration, to remain evenhanded, was not in the national interest," said one official. Still, he added, "we decided that it was not in the national interest to publicly announce a change in the policy."

A Plea For Action From Jordan's King

One former senior American policy-maker said King Hussein of Jordan had persuaded the Reagan Administration to help Iraq. During the same period when the King was urging his own subjects to volunteer for service with the Iraqi Army, Thomas A. Twetten, who was the C.I.A. station chief in Amman, brought the King's entreaty to Washington.

"The king's view," recalled one American official, "was: "Look here's Iraq. It's got the second-largest oil deposits in the world, a highly educated population and it's the most industrialized nation in the Middle East, with a huge army. And here's this exceptional figure, Saddam Hussein, running it. And you're not giving him the time of day. Hussein can be a disaster or he can be co-opted. I believe he can be co-opted, and I'll help."

With President Reagan's explicit approval, the official added, high-level intelligence began flowing to Mr. Twetten for relay to Iraq through the Jordanians. Within a few months, the official added, the C.I.A. stationed its own man in Baghdad "whose sole reason for being was to handle the intelligence."

Since last spring, at least two Congressional subcommittees have been investigating American policy toward the arming of Iraq. They are asking why both the Reagan and Bush Administrations continued military support for Iraq even after the war with Iran. One of them, a House Agriculture subcommittee, is investigating the use of Agriculture Department commodity credits to underwrite the sale of American high-tech goods to Iraq. In a hearing last August, the panel's chairman, Representative Charles Rose, Democrat of North Carolina, asked whether Mr. Hussein "may have misjudged how far he could go with George Bush because of this country's arms sales to Iraq."

Sam Gejdenson, a Connecticut Democrat whose house Foreign Affairs subcommittee is investigating the export of sensitive United States technology to Iraq, has argued that the Commerce Department's export control system "did not break down."

"Saddam Hussein got the equipment that the State Department wanted him to have," he said.

It was "U.S. foreign policy to assist the regime of Saddam Hussein," he added.

*J4JP Comment:

The "members of the committees who supported Israel" would surely would have objected since a portion of the transferred intelligence pertained to Israel. Now, how exactly would that have been explained?

Granted, the decision to help Iraq was not a CIA "rogue initiative." But there were certain unofficial aspects of this policy - e.g. the undeclared intelligence embargo against Israel, and the inclusion of extremely sensitive IDF-related material in the covert intelligence pipeline to Baghdad, which called into question the credibility of the US commitment to ensuring Israel's qualitative military superiority in the region.

Clearly, this particular article only scratches the surface of what was actually taking place at the time.

  • See Also: The U.S.-Iraq Complicity Page