A Vile Business

The Wall Street Journal
March 24, 2003, p. A16

As our soldiers fight their way across Iraq, the world is wondering what sort of weaponry they will uncover. Outside Saddam’s inner circle, no one knows for sure how many germs and poisons, how many nuclear and missile parts, may be hidden away. What we do know is the lion’s share of it came from our European allies – and some even from the U.S. It is a sad if not outrageous fact that we must wage war once again to counter an arsenal that Western companies helped create.

Will our troops find caches of poison gas, or even be hit by it on the battlefield? If so, German and French companies will be mainly to blame. In the 1980’s, the German firm Karl Kolb and the French firm Protec combined to furnish millions of dollars’ worth of sensitive equipment to six separate plants for making mustard gas and nerve agents, with a capacity of hundreds of tons of nerve agent per year. These companies had to know what the specialized glass-lined vessels they peddled were to be used for. It is insufferable that, like Pontius Pilate, Germany and France now wash their hands of the whole affair, and even chastise others for cleaning up the mess their companies helped create.

And how would the poison gas be carried? A gas doesn’t stream through the ether by itself to reach a target. A specially prepared munition has to deliver it. Iraq admits that in the 1980’s it bought more than 3,000 chemical-ready aerial bombs from Spain, more than 8,000 chemical-ready artillery shells from Italy and Spain, and more than 12,000 chemical-ready rocket warheads from Italy and Egypt. Most of these munitions remain unaccounted for. If our troops take casualties from a gas attack, they will have been inflicted by an international consortium of reckless suppliers.

There are also some Scud-type missiles to worry about that were left over from the first Gulf War. Saddam may fire some at Tel Aviv (as in 1991) to goad Israel into the fighting. Our friends the Russians sold Iraq 819 of these missiles, but the Iraqis soon discovered they didn’t fly far enough. Their range had to be increased to reach Tel Aviv, where they flattened buildings in the first Gulf War, and to bombard Saudi Arabia, where they killed 28 American soldiers sleeping in their barracks. The Germans were only too happy to provide what was needed to make the missiles more lethal. From the German firm Thyssen came 35 turbopumps to enhance their rocket engines; from the firms BP, Carl Zeiss, Degussa and Tesa came training in wind tunnels and missile electronics; and from the electronic giant Siemens came switching devices and electrical systems to control missile fuel production. Not to be left out, Britain’s Matrix Churchill Ltd. (in which the Iraqis had a controlling interest) supplied sensitive machine tools, Britain’s TMG Engineering served as a front company for missile procurement, and U.S. defense contractor Litton Industries bankrolled the German firm that built Iraq’s main missile production complex.

And anthrax? Botulinum? Most of the strains to make these deadly agents came from an outfit in Maryland – the American Type Culture Collection. France’s Pasteur Institute also sold some. The Iraqis admitted producing 8,445 liters of anthrax (inspectors think three times as much was made) and almost 20,000 liters of botulinum. Both of these germs were loaded into missile warheads and aerial bombs. The Iraqis were also working on airborne spray devices. These weapons too remain mostly unaccounted for. If our troops or cities are attacked with this material, our own bugs will be coming back to bite us.

In all, the rush to outfit Saddam with mass destruction weapons reveals a lot about national morals. Our organization did a study of Saddam’s pre-Gulf War suppliers a few year back. We discovered that Germany garnered fully half the total sales. In fact, just before the Gulf War, Germany was selling complete, ready-to-operate poison gas plants to Iraq and Libya at the same time. The rest of the world divided the remaining half of Iraq’s purchases. The Swiss, who have an unreasonably good reputation in the world, placed second in the sweepstakes with about 8% of sales (specialized presses, milling machines, grinding machines and electrical discharge machines found at nuclear weapon sites; procurement of missile parts and supervision of missile plant construction; equipment for processing uranium to nuclear weapon grade). In third place, with 4% each, Italy and France scored a tie.

The U.S. was far from innocent. In 1988, the Unisys Corporation sold Saddam a giant, $8.7 million dollar computer system configured as a “personnel database” – in other words, set up to track Iraqi citizens. Unisys sold it directly to Saddam’s Ministry of the Interior, home to his secret police. Unisys also sold high-speed computers to the Ministry of Defense and to the Saddam State Establishment, that cranked out components for missiles and nuclear weapons. Our electronics went to every known nuclear and missile site in Iraq. These included the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, Iraqi sites that made A-bomb fuel and nuclear weapon detonators, as well as Iraq’s main missile research complex. Companies like Tektronix (high-speed diagnostic equipment), Perkin-Elmer (computers and instruments for quality control), Finnigan MAT (computers useful for monitoring uranium enrichment), and the U.S. subsidiary of Siemens (instruments for analyzing powders useful for A-bomb and missile manufacture) had sales recorded in government export logs.

If some of this stuff turns up in Iraq after the war, a lot of faces will have egg on them. Some will probably be at the U.S. Commerce Department. It approved virtually all the American exports. The policy at Commerce then, as now, is to put trade interests above everything else, including national security. Another could be Mohamed El Baradei’s. In an interview on March 8, the chief U.N. nuclear inspector for Iraq all but said that Iraq’s nuclear weapons potential was nonexistent. If Iraq is found to still be making nuclear progress, Mr. El Baradei’s credibility will plummet, and so will that of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which he heads. That will be too bad, because the IAEA needs all the strength it can muster to confront Iran and North Korea.

What we need to draw from Iraq is a lesson. If Western powers sell the means to make horrific weapons, war is going to be the price we pay. Without a change in our export behavior, we will have to send our soldiers somewhere else to disarm another tyrant. Wouldn’t it be cheaper – and more humane – not to create the problem in the first place?

Gary Milhollin is the Director of the Wisconsin Project in Washington, D.C., and Kelly Motz is the Associate Director. They edit the Project’s IraqWatch.org web site.