With a little help from its friends.
By TOM DRURY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2003
Say you run a filling station, says Nancy Wysocki, and one of your customers buys some gasoline and commits arson. "Does the person at the gas station feel bad about it?"
Wysocki is a vice president at American Type Culture Collection, a nonprofit bioresource center in Virginia that exported anthrax bacteria and other pathogens to Saddam Hussein's Iraq from 1985 to 1989.
"You have no crystal ball," Wysocki says, "and you never know what's going to happen 10, 20, 30 years from now about anything."
Yet here we are, on the eve of what could turn into a $100-billion war to disarm and dismantle the Iraqi dictatorship. U.N. inspectors are working against the clock to figure out if Iraq retains chemical and biological weapons, the systems to deliver them, and the capacity to manufacture them.
And here's the strange part, easily forgotten in the barrage of recent rhetoric: It was Western governments and businesses that helped build that capacity in the first place. From anthrax to high-speed computers to artillery ammunition cases, the militarily useful products of a long list of Western democracies flowed into Iraq in the decade before its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Said former Sen. Donald Riegle, the Michigan Democrat who once conducted hearings on Iraq's weapons programs and Gulf War Syndrome, in an interview last week, "What is absolutely crystal clear is this: That if Saddam Hussein today has a large arsenal of biological weapons, partly it was the United States that provided the very live viruses that he needed to create those weapons."
The if is critical. Whether the Iraqis still have significant chemical and biological weaponry remains an open question, although even French President Jacques Chirac says they probably do.
"It's very clear that they did have," and declared as much to the United Nations in 1995, said Jacqueline Cattani, director of the Center for Biological Defense at the University of South Florida. "It's not very clear that they have destroyed it. And so no one knows, basically."
Inspecting teams have reported finding little so far beyond 50 liters of the chemical weapon mustard gas. But the country is large and germs are small. Hans Blix in his recent dossier said Iraq may still have around 10,000 liters of anthrax, whether from American sources or elsewhere.
American Type Culture Collection was not the only supplier to send biological materials to Iraq in the decade before the Gulf War, when the Reagan and first Bush administrations tilted toward Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran. Also between 1985 and 1989, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control sent Iraq 14 agents "with biological warfare significance," including West Nile virus, according to Riegle's investigators.
"We did work with Iraq's scientists along with other scientists on microbiological agents and reagents," said CDC spokesman LLelwyn Grant last week. "That did occur in the mid-80s but . . . there were no other shipments that were sent after the incident involving Iraq's invasion of Kuwait."
Grant and Wysocki both said that Iraqi clients could not have acquired biological materials without setting forth a legitimate research purpose. In a 1995 letter to Sen. Riegle, then-CDC director David Satcher disclosed a shipment that had been hand-carried to Iraq by Dr. Mahammad Mahmud after three months of training in a CDC laboratory. Most of those materials, Satcher said, were "non-infectious diagnostic reagents for detecting evidence of infections to mosquito-borne viruses."
And Cattani of USF cautioned against being too quick to judge past decisions.
"It's common knowledge that, prior to the events of September and October of 2001, the policy or the ability for anyone to purchase some of these agents for research and testing was unrestricted commercially, and that's changed," she said. "There were uses for these things, especially for testing animals against anthrax. A lot of these are nonhuman pathogens naturally. Anthrax is a disease of cattle, basically. Because they were used in the context of veterinary screening and treatment, no one really thought of their potential at that time as biological weapons."
Also before the Gulf War, Iraq took delivery on billions of dollars of equipment "useful for making mass destruction weapons" from companies operating in more than a dozen Western nations: Germany mostly, but also the United States, Britain, France, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and more, according to Iraq Watch, a research group affiliated with the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
This wasn't, of course, charity. There was money to be made. The group's analysis of U.S. exports that ended up in Iraq's nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs between 1985 and 1990 found that Unisys made $2.6-million, Semetex $5.1-million, Hewlett Packard $1.6-million and International Computer Systems $7.4-million.
"Much of what came from America went with the blessing of the U.S. Commerce Department, which approved the sale of more than $1.5-billion worth of dual-use goods," wrote Iraq Watch's Kelly Motz. "An honest assessment of the problem we face in Iraq is that we are still trying to rectify our past indiscretions. The fact that U.S. troops may one day lay down their lives to destroy these exports is the price we may have to pay."
Of course, as Dr. Cattani suggested, much has changed in the last 15 years. These transactions happened before Iraq invaded Kuwait; before Iraq in defeat agreed to disclose and destroy its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs; and long before anthrax became a household word as still-unsolved mailings killed six people and emptied congressional offices in the fall of 2001.
"All I can say to you is that Iraq was an ally of the United States in the 1980s," said Wysocki of American Type Culture Collection. "The Department of Commerce approved all requests for shipments of biological samples requested by Iraq, made from ATCC, and that is the law."
But even then the United States, if not its scientific supply houses, had strong and growing reason to know that Hussein was dangerous.
According to Germs, the authoritative bioweapons book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad, a classified study produced by the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center in June 1988 found Iraq "well on its way to building 'a bacteriological arsenal' under the cover of legitimate scientific research."
The report even noted that the Iraqis were at the time buying bacterial strains from American Type Culture Collection.
Sales of dual-use technology sanctioned by the Commerce Department should have raised red flags as well, said Motz of Iraq Watch.
"A number of those sales were going to known entities in Iraq. They sent them to places in Iraq where we knew exactly what they were working on. They were sending to known nuclear entities or known missile entities."
And harsher evidence of Hussein's intentions was not hard to find. Iraq had killed thousands of residents of the northern Iraqi town of Halabja with chemical weapons in March 1988, when the town was held by Iranian forces and Kurdish guerrillas. After initial denials, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz admitted in July 1988 that Iraq had in fact used chemical weapons.
None of this was enough to stop the transactions with Iraq. The report of Sen. Riegle's committee says that on Sept. 29, 1988, American Type Culture Collection shipped 11 items to Iraq's Ministry of Trade, including four strains of anthrax bacteria.
"At the time, as nearly as one could construct the thinking," said Riegle, "the United States was principally focused on Iran as the main problem in that area. And because Iraq and Saddam Hussein were a direct rival and opponent of Iran, the thinking appears to have been in the Reagan-Bush period that they were prepared to help Saddam Hussein because he was in a sense with us against Iran."
As with many "devil's bargains," he said, "it's come back to haunt us."
The immediate problem, Riegle said, is that if Iraq does retain biological and chemical weapons, and they're either used on purpose or kicked up by U.S. bombing, "Are we in a position to fully protect our own troops, let alone civilian populations?"
He said that more than 100,000 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War came home with serious medical problems as the result of chemical and biological agents stirred up by that bombing campaign.
"My concern now is we may now be on the verge of repeating that very same thing."
-- Tom Drury is Perspective editor of the Times.