Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He
The U.S. knew Hussein was launching some of the worst
chemical attacks in history -- and still gave him a hand.
By Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid | August 26, 2013, 2:40
The U.S. government may be considering military action in
response to chemical strikes near Damascus. But a generation
ago, America's military and intelligence communities knew
about and did nothing to stop a series of nerve gas attacks
far more devastating than anything Syria has seen, Foreign
Policy has learned.
In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq's war with Iran, the
United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran
was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting
a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials
conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully
aware that Hussein's military would attack with chemical
weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.
The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian
troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian
logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses.
The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major
offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite
imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped
to tilt the war in Iraq's favor and bring Iran to the
negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan
administration's long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi
victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a
series of chemical strikes stretching back several years
that the Reagan administration knew about and didn't
U.S. officials have long denied acquiescing to Iraqi
chemical attacks, insisting that Hussein's government never
announced he was going to use the weapons. But retired Air
Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in
Baghdad during the 1988 strikes, paints a different
"The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve
gas. They didn't have to. We already knew," he told Foreign
According to recently declassified CIA documents and
interviews with former intelligence officials like Francona,
the U.S. had firm evidence of Iraqi chemical attacks
beginning in 1983. At the time, Iran was publicly alleging
that illegal chemical attacks were carried out on its
forces, and was building a case to present to the United
Nations. But it lacked the evidence implicating Iraq, much
of which was contained in top secret reports and memoranda
sent to the most senior intelligence officials in the U.S.
government. The CIA declined to comment for this story.
In contrast to today's wrenching debate over whether the
United States should intervene to stop alleged chemical
weapons attacks by the Syrian government, the United States
applied a cold calculus three decades ago to Hussein's
widespread use of chemical weapons against his enemies and
his own people. The Reagan administration decided that it
was better to let the attacks continue if they might turn
the tide of the war. And even if they were discovered, the
CIA wagered that international outrage and condemnation
would be muted.
In the documents, the CIA said that Iran might not discover
persuasive evidence of the weapons' use -- even though the
agency possessed it. Also, the agency noted that the Soviet
Union had previously used chemical agents in Afghanistan and
suffered few repercussions.
It has been previously reported that the United States
provided tactical intelligence to Iraq at the same time that
officials suspected Hussein would use chemical weapons. But
the CIA documents, which sat almost entirely unnoticed in a
trove of declassified material at the National Archives in
College Park, Md., combined with exclusive interviews with
former intelligence officials, reveal new details about the
depth of the United States' knowledge of how and when Iraq
employed the deadly agents. They show that senior U.S.
officials were being regularly informed about the scale of
the nerve gas attacks. They are tantamount to an official
American admission of complicity in some of the most
gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.
Top CIA officials, including the Director of Central
Intelligence William J. Casey, a close friend of President
Ronald Reagan, were told about the location of Iraqi
chemical weapons assembly plants; that Iraq was desperately
trying to make enough mustard agent to keep up with
frontline demand from its forces; that Iraq was about to buy
equipment from Italy to help speed up production of
chemical-packed artillery rounds and bombs; and that Iraq
could also use nerve agents on Iranian troops and possibly
Officials were also warned that Iran might launch
retaliatory attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle
East, including terrorist strikes, if it believed the United
States was complicit in Iraq's chemical warfare campaign.
"As Iraqi attacks continue and intensify the chances
increase that Iranian forces will acquire a shell containing
mustard agent with Iraqi markings," the CIA reported in a
top secret document in November 1983. "Tehran would take
such evidence to the U.N. and charge U.S. complicity in
violating international law."
At the time, the military attaché's office was following
Iraqi preparations for the offensive using satellite
reconnaissance imagery, Francona told Foreign Policy.
According to a former CIA official, the images showed Iraqi
movements of chemical materials to artillery batteries
opposite Iranian positions prior to each offensive.
Francona, an experienced Middle East hand and Arabic
linguist who served in the National Security Agency and the
Defense Intelligence Agency, said he first became aware of
Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Iran in 1984, while
serving as air attaché in Amman, Jordan. The information he
saw clearly showed that the Iraqis had used Tabun nerve
agent (also known as "GA") against Iranian forces in
The declassified CIA documents show that Casey and other top
officials were repeatedly informed about Iraq's chemical
attacks and its plans for launching more. "If the Iraqis
produce or acquire large new supplies of mustard agent, they
almost certainly would use it against Iranian troops and
towns near the border," the CIA said in a top secret
But it was the express policy of Reagan to ensure an Iraqi
victory in the war, whatever the cost.
The CIA noted in one document that the use of nerve agent
"could have a significant impact on Iran's human wave
tactics, forcing Iran to give up that strategy." Those
tactics, which involved Iranian forces swarming against
conventionally armed Iraqi positions, had proved decisive in
some battles. In March 1984, the CIA reported that Iraq had
"begun using nerve agents on the Al Basrah front and likely
will be able to employ it in militarily significant
quantities by late this fall."
The use of chemical weapons in war is banned under the
Geneva Protocol of 1925, which states that parties "will
exert every effort to induce other States to accede to the"
agreement. Iraq never ratified the protocol; the United
States did in 1975. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which
bans the production and use of such arms, wasn't passed
until 1997, years after the incidents in question.
The initial wave of Iraqi attacks, in 1983, used mustard
agent. While generally not fatal, mustard causes severe
blistering of the skin and mucus membranes, which can lead
to potentially fatal infections, and can cause blindness and
upper respiratory disease, while increasing the risk of
cancer. The United States wasn't yet providing battlefield
intelligence to Iraq when mustard was used. But it also did
nothing to assist Iran in its attempts to bring proof of
illegal Iraqi chemical attacks to light. Nor did the
administration inform the United Nations. The CIA determined
that Iran had the capability to bomb the weapons assembly
facilities, if only it could find them. The CIA believed it
knew the locations.
Hard evidence of the Iraqi chemical attacks came to light in
1984. But that did little to deter Hussein from using the
lethal agents, including in strikes against his own people.
For as much as the CIA knew about Hussein's use of chemical
weapons, officials resisted providing Iraq with intelligence
throughout much of the war. The Defense Department had
proposed an intelligence-sharing program with the Iraqis in
1986. But according to Francona, it was nixed because the
CIA and the State Department viewed Saddam Hussein as
"anathema" and his officials as "thugs."
The situation changed in 1987. CIA reconnaissance satellites
picked up clear indications that the Iranians were
concentrating large numbers of troops and equipment east of
the city of Basrah, according to Francona, who was then
serving with the Defense Intelligence Agency. What concerned
DIA analysts the most was that the satellite imagery showed
that the Iranians had discovered a gaping hole in the Iraqi
lines southeast of Basrah. The seam had opened up at the
junction between the Iraqi III Corps, deployed east of the
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