The controversy over Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, the prime justification for the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, has apparently been laid to rest. A succession of US-commissioned reports have failed to confirm the Bush administration’s claims. According to an editorial in the January 13 New York Times, however, “die-hard supporters of the invasion” cotinue to believe that “something would turn up,” even as it claimed that that the futile search for such weapons “may have been one of the greatest non-events of the early twenty-first century.” As though to soften its conclusion, the editorial indicated that the fact that “nothing was found does not absolutely, positively prove that there wasn’t something there once, something that was disassembled and trucked over the border to Syria or buried in yet another Iraqi rose garden.”

Leaving aside rose gardens, the editor’s suspicions were on target. There was, of course, something there in the years before the 1991 Gulf war. As the record shows, industrialized countries, among them the United States, sold Iraq weapons prohibited by international conventions. This part of the record, however, has also become a “non-event,” one victim of a rampant political amnesia.

The record — which is unclassified — is found in hearings held by the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 1990s. What it reveals is the value of informed dissent among Congressional activists committed to the public’s right to know. The record uncovers the consequences of the Reagan-era decision to “tilt” toward Baghdad during — and after — the bloody Iran-Iraq war of 1980–1988, a policy designed to contain Iran after its 1979 Islamic revolution while opening Iraq to US interests. The record reveals widespread deception concerning illicit practices and the violation of international conventions to which the US is a signatory. It confirms evidence of the determined pursuit of corporate gain allied to the objective of US control over Iraqi and Gulf oil that was and remains at the core of US policy in Iraq and the Middle East.

The implications of the Congressional revelations of the 1990s for current US policy in Iraq can hardly be overlooked. The threatened use by Iraq of biological weapons was considered a reason for war by the Bush administration. Yet the same hearings reveal that the US had earlier exported such weapons to Iraq, in violation of the international convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, that the US signed and ratified, along with Great Britain and many other states, in, respectively, 1972 and 1975. Further, as the same hearings reveal, the US sale of weapons to Iraq continued until shortly before the 1991 Gulf war. Reconsidering this past is not an academic exercise. It is essential to confronting the phony war launched by the US against Iraq in 2003.

The Iraqi Market and the US

In December 2002, Iraq issued an 11,000-page report to UN weapons inspectors in response to a Security Council resolution mandating that Iraq destroy its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The report, which confirmed the brisk international arms trade with Iraq in which US firms were involved before the 1991 war, was “edited” by the US before its dissemination. Subsequent leaks revealed a part of what had been purged.

Far more accessible, insofar as evidence concerning US complicity in weapons sales to Iraq, were the Congressional hearings that had taken place a decade earlier. Two were especially important: the inquiry of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee under Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D-TX) and the investigation of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee under Sen. Donald W. Riegle, Jr. (D-MI). Though hardly lone voices, Gonzalez and Riegle were singular in their courage and commitment to uncovering deception and laying bare the nature of US policies in Iraq. The limited mandates of the Gonzalez and Riegle hearings led to investigations of the proliferation of weapons, the administration’s thwarting of Congressional inquiry, the scandals associated with various agencies involved in US trade with Iraq, the Commerce Department’s export licensing policies and Iraq’s procurement of weapons.

On October 27, 1992, the Senate committee heard expert testimony that revealed that “dozens of United States firms, many holding United States export licenses, contributed directly to Iraq�s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program, let alone its chemical weapons.” The same hearings revealed that the Commerce Department “approved at least 220 export licenses for the Iraqi armed forces, major weapons complexes and enterprises identified by the Central Intelligence Agency as diverting technology to weapons programs.” [1] US officials could have no doubt as to the end users of such exports, since they knew their destination.

Assumed and often articulated in these hearings were the interests at stake in US policy — the role of oil and the value of the Iraqi market for US agribusiness and high-tech defense industries. The pursuit of such interests was at the root of US courting of the regime of Saddam Hussein, irrespective of its record of aggression and domestic repression.

As Alan Platt, a former official in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, reported on behalf of bipartisan leaders in the House and Senate in late 1992, there was a clear understanding that US policy in the Gulf operated within certain guidelines. Thus, “Iraq, Iran and Syria should not be allowed to obtain sufficient military power to establish hegemony over the Persian Gulf.” [2] Platt added, “Iraq, Iran and Syria should not be allowed to gain military power such that any one or combination of the three can threaten to destabilize Turkey to the north, or any of the sub-regions of the Middle East as a whole.” Also, “no combination of Middle East nations hostile to Israel should be allowed to gain military power such that they pose a direct threat to Israel’s survival.”

Insofar as Iraq policy was concerned, as Lawrence Eagleburger, deputy secretary of state under the first President George Bush, explained to the House Banking Committee in the spring of 1992, the administration was fully aware of the Iraqi regime’s defects, its “human rights abuses, its chemical weapons program, our suspicion that Iraq might be developing biological and nuclear weapons, Iraq’s efforts to build long-range missiles,” among other considerations. [3] On the other hand, as Eagleburger pointed out on the same occasion, “Iraq possessed significant oil reserves, was a major oil producer and was increasing its supply of oil to this country.” Added to this was Iraq’s apparent interest in “expanding commercial ties with the West.”

Eagleburger was not the only official to defend trade with Iraq and the support it lent to the Iraqi regime in such terms. At an earlier Senate hearing in 1990, John Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, maintained that Iraq represented a major market for US agribusiness, one that reached an estimated $1 billion in 1989. At the time, Iraq was “our largest export market for rice, which comprises 23 percent of total US exports, for cattle, eggs, chickens, lumber, tobacco and a variety of other agricultural products.” [4] The undersecretary of international affairs and commodity programs of the Department of Agriculture, Richard Crowder, underlined this point in his 1992 testimony before the House Banking Committee. He claimed that US farmers and their supporters in Congress backed the administration’s policy in Iraq in recognition of Iraq’s importance to the US agricultural economy. Iraq was the “twelfth largest market for United States agricultural exports and the single largest market for United States rice.” [5]

The same principle held in arguments concerning the sale of arms. According to William Rope of the State Department, “with a shrinking defense base, our arms exports become more important to American arms suppliers.” Rope continued: “We are trying to support defense exporters the way we would support other American exporters.” [6]

Denial and Deception

In spite of such arguments, dealing with Saddam Hussein’s regime required the management of public opinion — particularly as evidence of its atrocities in Halabja in 1988 became public. The stigma of dealing with Iraq explains the reluctance of the elder Bush’s administration to cooperate with Congressional committees investigating US policy. See, for example, the title of the House Banking Committee hearings of May 29, 1992, “White House Efforts to Thwart Congressional Investigations of Pre-War Iraq Policy: The Case of the Rostow Gang.” Reluctance to assist Congress in its investigatory capacity was also reflected in disinformation campaignsabout Iraqi chemical weapons use undertaken by the Reagan administration and continued through the first Bush administration. The objective of these campaigns was to deflect attention from Iraqi actions and mask the US “tilt” toward Iraq. [7]

When the Reagan administration took Iraq off its list of “terrorist nations” after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, doing business with Iraq was no longer officially taboo. The Gonzalez hearings revealed that Eagleburger, as undersecretary of state under Reagan, had written a secret letter urging the Export-Import Bank to open a line of credit for Iraq as early as 1983 — before Donald Rumsfeld’s now infamous handshake with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. But it was National Security Directive 26, issued by the elder Bush in 1989, that really promoted the US rapprochement with Iraq, sanctioning the business that was, in reality, already underway. Congressional hearings in the early 1990s recognized but did not investigate the lobbyists and associated consultants specialized in trade with Iraq, who included many former officials with inside knowledge of US policies. They focused instead on government programs, on loan programs from the Agriculture Department, notably those of the Commodity Credit Corporation, the role of foreign banks, such as the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL), and the export policies of the Commerce Department, that together facilitated Iraq’s ability to obtain arms.

The government went to great lengths to ensure that loans were granted, commodities exported, Iraqi interests recognized — and the American public deceived. The US penchant for secrecy and deception about its Iraq policy became readily apparent in the days before and after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Consider the effort of the Bush administration to signal its opposition to weapons exports to Iraq, which led the secretary of state to recommend to the commerce secretary that “additional controls be placed on items that could contribute to Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and missile programs.” [8] This recommendation was issued eight days before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Six days after that event, the president granted a “conflict-of-interest waiver” to 11 key figures in his administration. They included National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and his deputy Robert Gates, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, CIA director William Webster, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Secretary of Energy James Watkins, Secretary of State James Baker, Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, as well as C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel.

The waiver — which was not made public at the time — was granted “in connection with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.” Only the Congressional investigations of 1992 forced disclosure of the document. As the associate counsel to the president, Gregory Walden, explained under questioning by Gonzalez, “the types of financial interests for which a waiver under Section 208b 91 was considered desirable included interests in oil- and gas-producing properties and oil and gas companies, foreign and domestic, and interests in other companies with plants or employees located in the Middle East arena of conflict.” [9] Walden added that “the president believed that ‘Cabinet members and other key foreign policy advisors should not be needlessly restricted in assisting me in shaping the United States response to the Iraqi offensive or be left in doubt about when they can and cannot assist me.'” [10] The associate counsel insisted that the waiver “was intended as a precaution and not as a response to one or more identified conflicts of interest.” He went on to argue that the president had granted the waiver upon the conviction that the financial interests of those identified “are not so substantial as to be deemed likely to affect the integrity of the services that the government may expect from them in the course of current United States policymaking, discussion, decisions and actions, in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.” Most likely, the waiver was kept secret (until the Gonzalez hearings aired it) to avoid the additional questions about US-Iraqi business ties that it would have elicited.

The president�s efforts did not, however, protect his policies from public scrutiny. The practices in question were not exactly covert, nor were the intentions of the agents of the Iraq trade in the US. Moreover, on the US side, those involved were not a hidden minority. As Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-CT), a member of the Banking Committee, informed his colleagues, “virtually every arm of a modern government, not just the intelligence agencies, not just the State and Commerce Departments, but the Agriculture Department, and the Justice Department [collaborated] to facilitate a program of aiding and abetting Saddam Hussein.” [11]

Letters of Discredit

How did this program work? Rep. Charlie Rose (D-NC) gave some clues at a joint session held in August 1, 1991 under the title, “Examine the Link Between an Illegal Military Procurement Network that Fueled the Iraqi War Machine and the US Department of Agriculture’s Export Credit Guarantee Program.” Some years earlier, said Rose, US tobacco dealers used the BNL to provide credit guarantees that allowed them to ship their products to Iraq, secure in the knowledge that they would be paid. The process was not entirely straightforward. As Rose explained, “commodities were sold to Iraq under the export guarantee program at markups of over 100 percent. The profits associated with these transactions in some cases wound up in the Cayman Islands.” [12]

When he testified again before the House Banking Committee in the spring of 1992, Rose explained that tobacco dealers sold a bastardized blend of their product to the Iraqis and then proceeded to add “extra sales service,” that provided surplus cash that the Iraqis used for other purposes. Cables from Iraq disclosed that “the central buyer for Iraq says we want machine tool parts, we want trucks, we want military equipment to be sent to us or we are not going to continue to buy agricultural products from you.” [13] The committee learned that the North Carolina tobacco companies doing business with Iraq were reported to carry on their letterheads “lists of mortar shells, ammunition of all descriptions they had made available to Iraq.” [14] They also learned of “some frightening examples of intimidation by large corporations of major network news organizations, threatening them with billion-dollar lawsuits if they even mention that they were involved in selling equipment to Iraq.”

Another case involved Kennametal, a major US corporation with an international distribution network that, along with other American companies, was reported to have been a source for equipment for the “tungsten-carbide manufacturing plant that was part of the [Iraqi] al-Atheer complex.” [15] Marianne Gasior, the former attorney for Kennametal, testified on the link between “agricultural programs, American exporters and the Iraqi procurement network before a joint hearing of the House in August 1991.” [16] Gasior said that the BNL applied for loans from the Department of Agriculture under false claims. The loans were then distributed to Iraqi agents through letters of credit, which in turn were used to finance the Iraqi military.

Charlie Rose’s response to the abuse of agricultural loans, as expressed at another hearing, was clear: “It is absolutely illegal to use agricultural loan guarantee funds for arms. That is not permitted in the law.” [17]

Down the Memory Hole

In October 1992, Senate hearings further exposed the thriving arms trade that, as various scientists and arms experts confirmed, was critical to Iraq’s military program. The Senate hearings provided the forum for testimony on “the broad range of United States built equipment in Iraqi weapons establishments engaged in nuclear weapons development,” as well as other evidence of US involvement in Iraq’s military programs. [18] David Kay, who would later head the UNSCOM team in Iraq and the Iraq Survey Group set up by the CIA after the US invasion, was secretary-general of the Uranium Institute at the time. He testified that “US-produced equipment and technology has been found to be part of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program… It was an essential part.” [19] Gary Milhollin, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin and director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, added that equipment from the US was essential “to the Iraqi nuclear program, the missile program and the chemical program, and I’m afraid I also believe that we knew that the risk was very high, if not certain, that it would contribute when it was licensed. ” [20]

Kay and Milhollin testified further on the nature and role of US exports, their place in Iraq’s military arsenal and the responsibility of the US administration in issuing so-called “dual-use” exports to Iraq. Their testimony was supplemented by Kenneth Timmerman, the Paris-based journalist considered an expert on the international arms trade, who reported that between January 1985 and August 1990 the Commerce Department had issued “770 license applications” that included conventional military weapons. Timmerman claimed that US sales of weapons had begun in 1982 under Reagan, who proceeded without Congressional approval. Milhollin, in his own testimony, indicated that the Commerce Department failed to inform the Defense and Energy Departments about their licensing practices. Timmerman also reported on US-approved exports for advanced computers and scientific equipment essential for Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.

David Kay’s testimony confirmed the export of US technology for Iraq’s uranium enrichment program. Milhollin underscored the US role in vitally contributing to Iraq’s nuclear program. Reviewing UN findings, he stated: “The UN found American equipment at chemical and ballistic missile sites. The UN early this year sent the US State Department a confidential list of American equipment that had turned up in chemical and ballistic missile programs.” [21] Milhollin’s testimony included a report entitled, “Licensing Mass Destruction: US Exports to Iraq, 1985–1990,” that indicated the scope of “sensitive” US exports to Iraq in this period. According to Milhollin, the Department of Commerce approved more than $1.5 billion worth of equipment that qualified as “dual-use” — items with both a civilian and a military application. But as Milhollin pointed out, there was no mystery about the destination of such items, and hence their use was not in question. Not only did Milhollin identify US exports that he considered to be in the “dangerous category,” he identified Iraqi end users that included Iraqi companies working on nuclear, chemical and missile sites. [22]

The initial incentive for the inquiries undertaken by Sen. Riegle was the connection between biological and chemical weapons and what became known as Gulf War Syndrome, the complex of illnesses affecting US and allied Gulf war veterans. In May 1994, Riegle, along with Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY), issued a report on “US Chemical and Biological Warfare-Related Dual Use Exports to Iraq and Their Possible Impact on the Health Consequences of the Gulf War.” [23] Until 2004, when the New York Times reported on the findings of a 2002 government-appointed panel that concluded that “Chemicals Sickened Gulf War Veterans,” US administrations had been unprepared to consider a possible link between Iraq’s use of chemical weapons and the illnesses of American Gulf war veterans, let alone the connection between US exports and Iraqi attacks. [24]

Research into that connection led Riegle to conclude that “the US government actually licensed the export of deadly micro-organisms to Iraq.” [25] Their existence and origin was later confirmed in the UN inspection of Iraq�s biological warfare program. Riegle stated in the Congressional Record: “We found that pathogenic, which means disease-producing, items and toxigenic, meaning poisonous, items, and other hazardous materials were exported from the United States to Iraq following a licensing and application procedure actually set forth by our own United States Department of Commerce.” [26] As Riegle indicated in the same source, the “exported biological materials were not weakened” before being shipped. As he concluded, this meant that “between 1985 and 1989, the US government approved the sales of quantities of potentially lethal biological agents that could have been cultured and grown in very large quantities in an Iraqi biological warfare program.”

The senator identified some of the agents exported to Iraq in this report, including anthrax, “a major component in the Iraqi biological warfare program.” [27] Along with it were histoplasma capsulatum, brucella melitensis and clostridium perfringens. Additional agents were identified in the first chapter of the May 25, 1994 report that dealt with “Iraqi Chemical and Biological Warfare Capability.” That chapter found that “several shipments of E. coli and genetic materials, human and bacterial DNA, were shipped directly to the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission.” In this and the previous cases, Riegle provided the dates of export, as given to him by the Commerce Department. Further evidence indicated “that the US licensed the export of genetic materials capable of being used to create these types of genetically altered biological warfare-related research prior to the war.” [28]

Such disclosures were made in October 1992. Less than a month later, the judge advocate general of the Department of the Army received a request from government lawyer John McNeill. Dated November 19, 1992, McNeill’s memorandum asked for a “Report on Iraqi War Crimes (Desert Shield/Desert Storm)” that was to be submitted to the State Department.[29] What of those who sold weapons of death to the same regime?

In 2003, a campaign was launched in Great Britain that led to the publication of “Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and Iraq: A Report for Parliament on the British Government’s Response to the US Supply of Biological Materials to Iraq.” [30] We have yet to witness a comparable campaign in the US, although as the Congressional hearings of 1992 indicate, House and Senate leaders strongly objected to the sale of these and other weapons to Iraq more than a decade ago, as did many of those who testified before them. What has become of such evidence? How can we explain its deletion from public discussion of US policy in Iraq, when that deletion blunts our ability to confront the nature of US policy in Iraq and the Middle East? The question remains to be answered, including by defenders of US policy.



[1] Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, October 27, 1992 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1992), p. 15.

[2] Subcommittee on Arms Control, International Security and Science, and Europe and the Middle East of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, “Conventional Arms Transfer Policy and Markup of HR 232,” May 27, 1992 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1992), p. 15.

[3] House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, “Scandal and the Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corporation Program for Iraq,” May 21, 1992, part 1 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1992), p. 31.

[4] Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, June 15, 1990, reported by the Federal News Service.

[5] House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, “Scandal and the Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corporation Program for Iraq,” May 21, 1992, part 1, p. 43.

[6] House Banking Committee, May 8, 1992 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1992), p. 400.

[7] See Joost R. Hiltermann, “Iran’s Nuclear Posture and the Scars of War,” Middle East Report Online, January 18, 2005.

[8] Senate Banking Committee, October 27, 1992, p. 53.

[9] Ibid., p. 385.

[10] Ibid., p. 386.

[11] House Banking Committee, May 29, 1992, p. 7.

[12] Joint Session, Subcommittee on Department Operations, Research and Foreign Agriculture of the House Committee on Agriculture and the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, August 1, 1991 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1992), p. 40.

[13] House Banking Committee, May 29, 1992, p. 19.

[14] Ibid., p. 14.

[15] Testimony of Kenneth Timmerman before the Senate Banking Committee, October 27, 1992, p. 75.

[16] Joint Session, August 1, 1991, p. 20.

[17] House Banking Committee, May 29, 1992, p. 16.

[18] Senate Banking Committee Hearings, October 27, 1992, p. 33.

[19]Ibid., p. 38.

[20] Ibid., p. 43.

[21] Ibid., p. 46.

[22] Ibid., p. 103.

[23] The report is accessible online at

[24] New York Times, October 15, 2004.

[25] The Senate committee�s Staff Report 3 detailing these allegations is accessible online at

[26] Congressional Record (Senate), February 9, 1994, p. 3.

[27] Ibid., p. 4.

[28] Staff Report 3, p. 11.

[29] The memorandum is available through the National Security Archive.

[30] The report was published at the University of Sussex by Geoffrey Holland in October 2004, and is accessible online at

How to cite this article:

irene gendzier "Democracy, Deception and the Arms Trade," Middle East Report 234 (Spring 2005).

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