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Did the United States Supply Saddam with Biological Weapons in the 1980s?

Is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld an evildoer? If not, then what is he doing shaking hands with Saddam Hussein?

An innocent person might be forgiven for asking such questions upon seeing a striking photograph of Rumsfeld making nice with the Iraqi dictator in 1983.

In a "debate" over U.S. policy towards Iraq that depends largely on facile slogans and self-dramatization, the Rumsfeld photograph is a discordant reminder that the official version of events is a partial account at best.

The photo is among the neglected resources of the not too distant past that were unearthed and published by the National Security Archive.

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The new National Security Archive collection, helps fill in gaps in the record, documenting U.S. partnership with Iraq in its 1980-88 war against Iran and the acquiescence of U.S. officials, including some current Bush Administration figures, in Iraqi abuses.

The documents show that during this period of renewed U.S. support for Saddam, he had invaded his neighbor (Iran), had long-range nuclear aspirations that would "probably" include "an eventual nuclear weapon capability," harbored known terrorists in Baghdad, abused the human rights of his citizens, and possessed and used chemical weapons on Iranians and his own people. The U.S. response was to renew ties, to provide intelligence and aid to ensure Iraq would not be defeated by Iran, and to send a high-level presidential envoy named Donald Rumsfeld to shake hands with Saddam (20 December 1983).

The declassified documents posted last week include the briefing materials and diplomatic reporting on two Rumsfeld trips to Baghdad, reports on Iraqi chemical weapons use concurrent with the Reagan administration's decision to support Iraq, and decision directives signed by President Reagan that reveal the specific U.S. priorities for the region: preserving access to oil, expanding U.S. ability to project military power in the region, and protecting local allies from internal and external threats. The documents include:

A U.S. cable recording the December 20, 1983 conversation between Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein. Although Rumsfeld said during a September 21, 2002 CNN interview, "In that visit, I cautioned him about the use of chemical weapons, as a matter of fact, and discussed a host of other things," the document indicates there was no mention of chemical weapons. Rumsfeld did raise the issue in his subsequent meeting with Iraqi official Tariq Aziz.

National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 114 of November 26, 1983, "U.S. Policy toward the Iran-Iraq War," delineating U.S. priorities: the ability to project military force in the Persian Gulf and to protect oil supplies, without reference to chemical weapons or human rights concerns.

National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 139 of April 5, 1984, "Measures to Improve U.S. Posture and Readiness to Respond to Developments in the Iran-Iraq War," focusing again on increased access for U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf and enhanced intelligence-gathering capabilities. The directive calls for "unambiguous" condemnation of chemical weapons use, without naming Iraq, but places "equal stress" on protecting Iraq from Iran's "ruthless and inhumane tactics." The directive orders preparation of "a plan of action designed to avert an Iraqi collapse."

U.S. and Iraqi consultations about Iran's 1984 draft resolution seeking United Nations Security Council condemnation of Iraq's chemical weapons use. Iraq conveyed several requests to the U.S. about the resolution, including its preference for a lower-level response and one that did not name any country in connection with chemical warfare; the final result complied with Iraq's requests.

The 1984 public U.S. condemnation of chemical weapons use in the Iran-Iraq war, which said, referring to the Ayatollah Khomeini's refusal to agree to end hostilities until Saddam Hussein was ejected from power, "The United States finds the present Iranian regime's intransigent refusal to deviate from its avowed objective of eliminating the legitimate government of neighboring Iraq to be inconsistent with the accepted norms of behavior among nations and the moral and religious basis which it claims."

"It would be nice... if prominent Bush officials acknowledged their past moral culpability," wrote the New Republic's Peter Beinart, who favors military action against Iraq, in the February 24 issue of that magazine. "Rumsfeld should have trouble sleeping at night given his role in abetting Saddam's crimes."

Obviously it was never Rumsfeld's intent to abet Saddam's crimes. That, in a way, is the point. A fuller account of the record of U.S. policy toward Iraq provides grounds for healthy skepticism about political ends and means, including the ability of the United States to militarily compel Iraqi disarmament without incurring significant unintended consequences.

Last year, Senator Robert Byrd discussed the Reagan Administration's transfer to Iraq of biological agents including anthrax, bubonic plague and many others, and placed supporting documentation in the Congressional Record. He recalled an exchange he had at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 19, 2002:

I asked Secretary Rumsfeld:

Mr. Secretary, to your knowledge, did the United States help Iraq to acquire the building blocks of biological weapons during the Iran-Iraq war? Are we in fact now facing the possibility of reaping what we have sewn?

The Secretary quickly and flatly denied any knowledge but said he would review Pentagon records. I suggest that the administration speed up that review. My concerns and the concerns of others have grown. A letter from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, which I shall submit for the Record, shows very clearly that the United States is, in fact, preparing to reap what it has sewn. A letter written in 1995 by former CDC Director David Satcher to former Senator Donald W. Riegle, Jr., points out that the U.S. Government provided nearly two dozen viral and bacterial samples to Iraqi scientists in 1985--samples that included the plague, botulism, and anthrax, among other deadly diseases. According to the letter from Dr. Satcher to former Senator Donald Riegle, many of the materials were hand carried by an Iraqi scientist to Iraq after he had spent 3 months training in the CDC laboratory. The Armed Services Committee is requesting information from the Departments of Commerce, State, and Defense on the history of the United States, providing the building blocks for weapons of mass destruction to Iraq. I recommend that the Department of Health and Human Services also be included in that request. The American people do not need obfuscation and denial. The American people need the truth. The American people need to know whether the United States is in large part responsible for the very Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which the administration now seeks to destroy. We may very well have created the monster that we seek to eliminate. The Senate deserves to know the whole story. The American people deserve answers to the whole story.