By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
- Behind Colin Powell's Legend: Arms to Iraq?
For the past five years, Gen. Colin Powell has basked in the glory of the Persian Gulf War victory. That fame elevated Powell to Washington super-star status, as his best-selling memoirs wowed the news media and his celebrity left many Republicans pining for his entry into the 1996 presidential race.
But newly declassified documents suggest that in 1986, Powell was a player in the secret -- and possibly illegal -- policy to supply Saddam Hussein's military with American-designed equipment that boosted Iraq's air mobility, a capability that helped Iraq conquer Kuwait in 1990 and touch off the Persian Gulf crisis in the first place.
Two notations written by then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on Jan. 6, 1986, describe discussions between Weinberger and his chief military assistant, Powell, about shipments of Italian Agusta-Bell helicopters to Iraq, while Saddam's forces were fighting the Iran-Iraq war.
"Saw Colin Powell - re Italian Agosta [sic] helicopters," Weinberger scrawled, "try to let them sell to Iraq." According to the notes Powell returned later that day with a response. "Colin Powell," Weinberger wrote cryptically in a barely legible hand, "all to add [unreadable] 110 million to get Italian helicopters."
Though the precise context of the Weinberger-Powell discussion was unclear -- and neither man would agree to clarify the meaning -- the notes fit with other evidence showing that Weinberger and other top Reagan-Bush officials were working to ship military equipment secretly through third countries to Iraq.
Reagan-Bush administration officials have admitted sharing military intelligence with the Iraqis during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, but have denied arranging weapons shipments, which would have required notification of Congress. Without that notification, any significant military shipment of U.S-designed equipment would have been illegal, even if arranged through a third country.
Agusta, a helicopter manufacturer partly owned by the Italian government, built aircraft from the designs of the U.S. company, Bell-Textron, a major Pentagon contractor, so American approval would have been required for any military transfer. Agusta did sign a $164 million contract with Iraq in 1984 for military helicopters specially outfitted for antisubmarine warfare. A year later, the Iraqis also bought 45 helicopters directly from Bell for "civilian use," a transfer that was permitted by the U.S. government.
But Agusta's Iraqi dealings have never been fully explored in either Italy or the United States. In Spider's Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq, author Alan Friedman reported that President Reagan secretly approved the $164 million Agusta sale to Iraq "as part of a top-level understanding [with Italian] Prime Minister [Bettino] Craxi."
Friedman wrote that former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti directly confirmed the U.S. approval of that Agusta helicopter deal during an interview with Friedman in Rome in 1993. "Certainly the policy we were all following at the time was a policy of great support for Iraq," Andreotti added.
The Italian connection to Iraq became a centerpiece in the so-called Iraqgate scandal that rocked the final year of George Bush's presidency. Amid disclosures of the Iraq "tilt" and forfeitures of U.S.-guaranteed loans to Saddam's regime, Bush saw his high wartime approval ratings plummet. In 1992, the Clinton campaign seized on the Iraqgate disclosures to puncture Bush's reputation as an adept foreign-policy president.
After taking office, however, the Clinton administration showed little interest in getting to the bottom of the Iraqgate story. The Justice Department conducted a half-hearted investigation and released a report in mid-January 1995 which found no evidence of a secret arms pipeline to Iraq. However, the report noted that the CIA had withheld specially compartmented information on the topic.
Then, two week after the Justice report, former Reagan national security aide Howard Teicher submitted an affidavit in a Miami arms trafficking case. Teicher disclosed that Reagan had approved a covert policy to avert an Iraqi defeat against Iran. Teicher said CIA director William J. Casey and his deputy Robert Gates then oversaw the secret program for shipping arms to Iraq through third countries.
One Middle Eastern source who worked inside the Iraqi arms supply network told The Consortium recently that "the [U.S.] green light [for the Agusta helicopter sales] was given in the '84 time frame." Then, over the next three years, Agusta supplied about 50 helicopters and a large supply of spare parts to Iraq, said the source who insisted on anonymity.
"Agusta would sell where the U.S. couldn't," the source said. "When Iraqis couldn't come to the U.S. [for training], they went to Agusta's facilities."
The source added that some Bell-model helicopters were delivered as "civilian" equipment but were then retrofitted by Carlos Cardoen, a Chilean arms manufacturer who supplied munitions to Iraq. A congressional investigator confirmed that at the time, Cardoen did boast of his capability to transform civilian helicopters for military uses.
However obtained, helicopters did help the Iraqi military cause. In defending against Iran's human-wave attacks, the Iraqis deployed anti-personnel mines by dropping them from helicopters. In 1991, thousands of Iraqi mines also posed one of the most severe threats to the 500,000 U.S. troops dispatched to the Persian Gulf.
In 1986, Weinberger might have wanted, too, to arrange more assistance to Iraq because Reagan had decided to start direct U.S. military shipments to Iran as part of a scheme to ransom American hostages held by pro-Iranian militants in Lebanon. The Jan. 6, 1986, discussion, outlined in Weinberger's notes, would have coincided with Reagan's decision, which Weinberger adamantly opposed.
Weinberger strongly favored the Iraq "tilt." By January 1987, after the Iran sales had led to the Iran-contra scandal, Weinberger urged the White House to "drop any pretense of even-handedness," said one internal memo which had been previously declassified. "Iran is the aggressor in this case," Weinberger was quoted as saying. "We should not only be supportive of Iraq, but should be seen to be supportive. ...Even if they don't need [U.S.] arms, we should make the offer."
While Weinberger's sympathy for the Iraqi cause was known, his full participation in the Iran-contra affair and in the Iraqgate controversy wasn't. From 1987-1991, Weinberger hid his diaries from investigators. Only near the end of the Iran-contra investigation did special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh discover Weinberger's notes.
That discovery prompted Walsh to indict Weinberger for obstruction and perjury, a case that would have compelled Powell's testimony in early 1993. However, on Christmas Eve 1992, President Bush pardoned Weinberger and five other Iran-contra defendants. Except for a few pages released in connection with the indictment, Weinberger's notes stayed secret for several more years, until declassified by the National Archives at The Consortium's request.
When asked recently about the Agusta references in Weinberger's notes, Powell's spokesman Bill Smullen responded that Powell had no recollection of any details from that conversation. A Weinberger assistant said the former defense secretary was surprised that so many of his notes had been released, but he would not comment further.
Still, any Powell connection to the arming of Iraq could be a dent in Powell's legend and an embarrassment to the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of the heroes of the Persian Gulf War.
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