Posted by The Progressive on July 16, 2007

April 1998 Issue

U.S. companies sold Iraq the ingredients for a witch's brew

by William Blum

The United States almost went to war against Iraq in February because of Saddam Hussein's weapons program. In his State of the Union address, President Clinton castigated Hussein for "developing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them."

"You cannot defy the will of the world," the President proclaimed. "You have used weapons of mass destruction before. We are determined to deny you the capacity to use them again."

Most Americans listening to the President did not know that the United States supplied Iraq with much of the raw material for creating a chemical and biological warfare program. Nor did the media report that U.S. companies sold Iraq more than $1 billion worth of the components needed to build nuclear weapons and diverse types of missiles, including the infamous Scud.

When Iraq engaged in chemical and biological warfare in the 1980s, barely a peep of moral outrage could be heard from Washington, as it kept supplying Saddam with the materials he needed to build weapons.

From 1980 to 1988, Iraq and Iran waged a terrible war against each other, a war that might not have begun if President Jimmy Carter had not given the Iraqis a green light to attack Iran, in response to repeated provocations. Throughout much of the war, the United States provided military aid and intelligence information to both sides, hoping that each would inflict severe damage on the other.

Noam Chomsky suggests that this strategy is a way for America to keep control of its oil supply:

"It's been a leading, driving doctrine of U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s that the vast and unparalleled energy resources of the Gulf region will be effectively dominated by the United States and its clients, and, crucially, that no independent indigenous force will be permitted to have a substantial influence on the administration of oil production and price."

During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq received the lion's share of American support because at the time Iran was regarded as the greater threat to U.S. interests. According to a 1994 Senate report, private American suppliers, licensed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, exported a witch's brew of biological and chemical materials to Iraq from 1985 through 1989. Among the biological materials, which often produce slow, agonizing death, were:

* Bacillus Anthracis, cause of anthrax.

* Clostridium Botulinum, a source of botulinum toxin.

* Histoplasma Capsulatam, cause of a disease attacking lungs, brain, spinal cord, and heart.

* Brucella Melitensis, a bacteria that can damage major organs.

* Clostridium Perfringens, a highly toxic bacteria causing systemic illness.

* Clostridium tetani, a highly toxigenic substance.

Also on the list: Escherichia coli (E. coli), genetic materials, human and bacterial DNA, and dozens of other pathogenic biological agents. "These biological materials were not attenuated or weakened and were capable of reproduction," the Senate report stated. "It was later learned that these microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the United Nations inspectors found and removed from the Iraqi biological warfare program."

The report noted further that U.S. exports to Iraq included the precursors to chemical-warfare agents, plans for chemical and biological warfare production facilities, and chemical-warhead filling equipment.

The exports continued to at least November 28, 1989, despite evidence that Iraq was engaging in chemical and biological warfare against Iranians and Kurds since as early as 1984.

The American company that provided the most biological materials to Iraq in the 1980s was American Type Culture Collection of Maryland and Virginia, which made seventy shipments of the anthrax-causing germ and other pathogenic agents, according to a 1996 Newsday story.

Other American companies also provided Iraq with the chemical or biological compounds, or the facilities and equipment used to create the compounds for chemical and biological warfare. Among these suppliers were the following:

* Alcolac International, a Baltimore chemical manufacturer already linked to the illegal shipment of chemicals to Iran, shipped large quantities of thiodiglycol (used to make mustard gas) as well as other chemical and biological ingredients, according to a 1989 story in The New York Times.

* Nu Kraft Mercantile Corp. of Brooklyn (affiliated with the United Steel and Strip Corporation) also supplied Iraq with huge amounts of thiodiglycol, the Times reported.

* Celery Corp., Charlotte, NC

* Matrix-Churchill Corp., Cleveland, OH (regarded as a front for the Iraqi government, according to Representative Henry Gonzalez, Democrat of Texas, who quoted U.S. intelligence documents to this effect in a 1992 speech on the House floor).

The following companies were also named as chemical and biological materials suppliers in the 1992 Senate hearings on "United States export policy toward Iraq prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait":

* Mouse Master, Lilburn, GA

* Sullaire Corp., Charlotte, NC

* Pure Aire, Charlotte, NC

* Posi Seal, Inc., N. Stonington, CT

* Union Carbide, Danbury, CT

* Evapco, Taneytown, MD

* Gorman-Rupp, Mansfield, OH

Additionally, several other companies were sued in connection with their activities providing Iraq with chemical or biological supplies: subsidiaries or branches of Fisher Controls International, Inc., St. Louis; Rhone-Poulenc, Inc., Princeton, NJ; Bechtel Group, Inc., San Francisco; and Lummus Crest, Inc., Bloomfield, NJ, which built one chemical plant in Iraq and, before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, was building an ethylene facility. Ethylene is a necessary ingredient for thiodiglycol.

In 1994, a group of twenty-six veterans, suffering from what has come to be known as Gulf War Syndrome, filed a billion-dollar lawsuit in Houston against Fisher, Rhone-Poulenc, Bechtel Group, and Lummus Crest, as well as American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) and six other firms, for helping Iraq to obtain or produce the compounds which the veterans blamed for their illnesses. By 1998, the number of plaintiffs has risen to more than 4,000 and the suit is still pending in Texas.

A Pentagon study in 1994 dismissed links between chemical and biological weapons and Gulf War Syndrome. Newsday later disclosed, however, that the man who headed the study, Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, was a director of ATCC. Moreover, at the time of ATCC's shipments to Iraq, which the Commerce Department approved, the firm's CEO was a member of the Commerce Department's Technical Advisory Committee, the paper found.

A larger number of American firms supplied Iraq with the specialized computers, lasers, testing and analyzing equipment, and other instruments and hardware vital to the manufacture of nuclear weapons, missiles, and delivery systems. Computers, in particular, play a key role in nuclear weapons development. Advanced computers make it feasible to avoid carrying out nuclear test explosions, thus preserving the program's secrecy. The 1992 Senate hearings implicated the following firms:

* Kennametal, Latrobe, PA

* Hewlett Packard, Palo Alto, CA

* International Computer Systems, CA, SC, and TX

* Perkins-Elmer, Norwalk, CT

* BDM Corp., McLean, VA

* Leybold Vacuum Systems, Export, PA

* Spectra Physics, Mountain View, CA

* Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, PA

* Finnigan MAT, San Jose, CA

* Scientific Atlanta, Atlanta, GA

* Spectral Data Corp., Champaign, IL

* Tektronix, Wilsonville, OR

* Veeco Instruments, Inc., Plainview, NY

* Wiltron Company, Morgan Hill, CA

The House report also singled out: TI Coating, Inc., Axel Electronics, Data General Corp., Gerber Systems, Honeywell, Inc., Digital Equipment Corp., Sackman Associates, Rockwell Collins International, Wild Magnavox Satellite Survey, Zeta Laboratories, Carl Schenck, EZ Logic Data, International Imaging Systems, Semetex Corp., and Thermo Jarrell Ash Corporation.

Some of the companies said later that they had no idea Iraq might ever put their products to military use. A spokesperson for Hewlett Packard said the company believed that the Iraqi recipient of its shipments, Saad 16, was an institution of higher learning. In fact, in 1990 The Wall Street Journal described Saad 16 as "a heavily fortified, state-of-the-art complex for aircraft construction, missile design, and, almost certainly, nuclear-weapons research."

Other corporations recognized the military potential of their goods but considered it the government's job to worry about it. "Every once in a while you kind of wonder when you sell something to a certain country," said Robert Finney, president of Electronic Associates, Inc., which supplied Saad 16 with a powerful computer that could be used for missile testing and development. "But it's not up to us to make foreign policy," Finney told The Wall Street Journal.

In 1982, the Reagan Administration took Iraq off its list of countries alleged to sponsor terrorism, making it eligible to receive high-tech items generally denied to those on the list. Conventional military sales began in December of that year. Representative Samuel Gejdenson, Democrat of Connecticut, chairman of a House subcommittee investigating "United States Exports of Sensitive Technology to Iraq," stated in 1991:

"From 1985 to 1990, the United States Government approved 771 licenses for the export to Iraq of $1.5 billion worth of biological agents and high-tech equipment with military application. [Only thirty-nine applications were rejected.] The United States spent virtually an entire decade making sure that Saddam Hussein had almost whatever he wanted. . . . The Administration has never acknowledged that it took this course of action, nor has it explained why it did so. In reviewing documents and press accounts, and interviewing knowledgeable sources, it becomes clear that United States export-control policy was directed by U.S. foreign policy as formulated by the State Department, and it was U.S. foreign policy to assist the regime of Saddam Hussein."

Subsequently, Representative John Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, investigated the Department of Energy concerning an unheeded 1989 warning about Iraq's nuclear weapons program. In 1992, he accused the DOE of punishing employees who raised the alarm and rewarding those who didn't take it seriously. One DOE scientist, interviewed by Dingell's Energy and Commerce Committee, was especially conscientious about the mission of the nuclear non-proliferation program. For his efforts, he received very little cooperation, inadequate staff, and was finally forced to quit in frustration. "It was impossible to do a good job," said William Emel. His immediate manager, who tried to get the proliferation program fully staffed, was chastened by management and removed from his position. Emel was hounded by the DOE at his new job as well.

Another Senate committee, investigating "United States export policy toward Iraq prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait," heard testimony in 1992 that Commerce Department personnel "changed information on sixty-eight licenses; that references to military end uses were deleted and the designation 'military truck' was changed. This was done on licenses having a total value of over $1 billion." Testimony made clear that the White House was "involved" in "a deliberate effort . . . to alter these documents and mislead the Congress."

American foreign-policy makers maintained a cooperative relationship with U.S. corporate interests in the region. In 1985, Marshall Wiley, former U.S. ambassador to Oman, set up the Washington-based U.S.-Iraq Business Forum, which lobbied in Washington on behalf of Iraq to promote U.S. trade with that country. Speaking of the Forum's creation, Wiley later explained, "I went to the State Department and told them what I was planning to do, and they said, 'Fine. It sounds like a good idea.' It was our policy to increase exports to Iraq."

Though the government readily approved most sales to Iraq, officials at Defense and Commerce clashed over some of them (with the State Department and the White House backing Commerce).

"If an item was in dispute, my attitude was if they were readily available from other markets, I didn't see why we should deprive American markets," explained Richard Murphy in 1990. Murphy was Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1983 to 1989.

As it turned out, Iraq did not use any chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces in the Gulf War. But American planes bombed chemical and biological weapons storage facilities with abandon, potentially dooming tens of thousands of American soldiers to lives of prolonged and permanent agony, and an unknown number of Iraqis to a similar fate. Among the symptoms reported by the affected soldiers are memory loss, scarred lungs, chronic fatigue, severe headache, raspy voice, and passing out. The Pentagon estimates that nearly 100,000 American soldiers were exposed to sarin gas alone.

After the war, White House and Defense Department officials tried their best to deny that Gulf War Syndrome had anything to do with the bombings. The suffering of soldiers was not their overriding concern. The top concerns of the Bush and Clinton Administrations were to protect perceived U.S. interests in the Middle East, and to ensure that American corporations still had healthy balance sheets.

William Blum is the author of "Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II" (Common Courage Press, 1995).