How the CIA helped Saddam Hussein use chemical weapons

As the Obama administration and congress and the media in the US get all sanctimonious about the allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria as a prelude to ramping up fervor for a bombing campaign (today’s rationale as the equivalent to Iraq’s WMD), Foreign Policy magazine comes out with an exclusive report on how it was the CIA that facilitated Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons back in the 1980s.

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 disclose.

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. [My italics-MS]

Of course Saddam Hussein was the US’s friend at that time so using chemical weapons was just fine. These high moral principles (John Kerry just said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a ‘moral obscenity’) are only invoked when they are used by our enemies.

Although Foreign Policy is an establishment publication, watch this report get hardly any play in the major media.


  1. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Of course Saddam Hussein was the US’s friend at that time

    It’s more likely the US followed a policy based on Kissingeresque principles [“It’s a pity they can’t both lose”] than that they regarded Hussein as a “friend”. They also supplied Iran earlier in the war when Iraq was winning in the Contra scandal, remember.

  2. says

    The US also used chemical weapons: agent orange, white phosphorus, and napalm, in area bombings of civilian targets during the Vietnam war. We’re the rogue state.

  3. says

    John Kerry’s a bit of a hypocrite, waggling his finger at the Syrians, after spending part of his youth on interdiction “search and destroy” missions.

  4. colnago80 says

    Of course, the brouhaha over chemical weapons is rather fine, considering that over 100,000 Syrians have been killed thus far from the use of “conventional” weapons, with another 2 million being turned into refugees in neighboring countries. I guess using bullets and shells is AOK.

    Obama has been reluctant to intervene thus far but the pressure from the interventionists is growing too strong to resist.

  5. says

    This isn’t exactly new or exclusive information: it was well known in the 80s, and was brought up — repeatedly — as the Bush II Administration rent it clothes about Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons.

  6. left0ver1under says

    Giving chemical and biological weapons to Saddam was war by proxy. It has been and remains a common act of US foreign policy.

    * The US gave Batista weapons and training to kill and imprison those in the pro-democracy movement in Cuba, circa 1960.

    * The US gave weapons and training to the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, to fight the Soviets.

    * The US supported and armed the South Korean fascist dictatorship which kept arresting and murdering pro-democracy activists until the protesters had enough popular support to win.

    * The US gave weapons to the communist Khmer Rouge to fight the Vietcong, even after the world knew about the Killing Fields and genocide of the Cambodian population. (Thankfully, the Vietcong won and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, freeing the country. Cambodia is now a democracy thanks to Vietnamese communists, but no thanks to the US.)

    Among many other examples. All such criminals were SOBs, but they were the US’s SOBs, so it was “jusitified” according to US foreign policy, the same foreign policy that exists today (re: doing deals with the Taliban in Afghanistan to clear a safe route for an oil pipeline).

  7. sailor1031 says

    What are the “proofs” the USA supposedly have that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons? Can we see them or is it another government “secret”?

    What essential national interest does the USA have in Syria that would justify an intervention and thereby becoming stuck on yet another tarbaby?

    Why would the USA intervene against Assad thereby helping al Qaeda and other jihadis in Syria?

    I don’t get it. This can’t all be just to mollify that hawkish idiot McCain and his ilk, who have been saying for so long that the USA needs to take military action against Assad, can it? Or is it somehow what the Israelis want? I can’t imagine further destabilization in Syria would be in their interests – unless they think that with Iran and Hizballah involved on the government side they would rather have a totally unstable neighbour at war with itself and abetted by the numerous foreign interventionists than a stable one influenced by Iran. Obviously if Assad falls from power this war will continue anyway.

    Intervention makes no sense for a nation such as the USA which has always claimed its interest is in a peaceful and stable middle east. Or have they been dissembling all this time? Say it isn’t so…

  8. Mano Singham says

    Again, even if ‘everyone’ knew this, the government could officially refuse to confirm or deny it. What is significant is that we now have undeniable documentary evidence.

  9. Guess Who? says

    Yes; in the 80s, I was a college student taking French, and one of the classroom assets was a French newsmagazine. We all read about the horror in Iraq, and saw with our own eyes the pictures of what Hussein did to the Kurds with chemical weapons and training given to him by the USA.

  10. lorn says

    At the time the US, under Reagan I believe, was deeply invested in not letting Iran win. The talk was of Iranian influence sweeping across the middle east and taking control. The US was not alone in this concern. Saudi Arabia and other major powers were deeply concerned with a Shia power plays. Having Iran, a Shia state, fighting Iraq, a Shia state with a Sunni leadership was seen as an ideal situation. It would be mostly Shia dying on both sides.

    The consensus of the moderate states in the middle east, primarily Egypt, Jordan and SA, and western powers was that Iran winning would be somewhere between a bad and catastrophically bad thing. Iraq was about to lose the war. The Iranian drive was expected to large enough to go all the way to Baghdad and Iraq was pretty much out of forces to fill any gap. It was seen as an existential threat to the state of Iraq.

    You are probably right in assuming that the US had some idea that chemical weapons would be used, Iraqis didn’t have much else to work with, but, the Reagan administration understood plausible deniability, was kept out of the loop on what weapons were to be used. We simply highlighted the existing military situation. It was up to the Iraqis to decide how to respond.

    Of course, the reason there was no great stink over Iraqi use of chemical weapons has to do with pretty much all the moderate Arab and western states feeling they had a vested interest in Iraq not losing. Their investment in Iraqi victory was much less firm. Echoes of this are heard in today’s situation where a lot of people and nations deplore war in Syria but few see any advantage in either side winning.

    The existential threat to the state was used as reason for all sorts of inhumanity. Iraq used chemical weapons. Iranians used waves of children to keep Iraqi troops busy as better troops went around them. Martyr tee-shirts and the cheap plastic “keys to heaven”, items given to the children before they were used as cannon fodder, are something of a collector’s item. No doubt they will end up in a museum documenting man’s inhumanity to man. Evidence of Iraqi use of chemical weapons will, no doubt, be prominently displayed beside them.

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