WASHINGTON — For two years before the Persian Gulf War, U.S. intelligence agencies issued a series of warnings describing efforts by Iraq to develop nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and other sophisticated weapons, according to documents and interviews.
Despite the repeated warnings, however, the Bush Administration resisted efforts to stanch the flow of U.S. economic assistance and militarily useful technology to Iraq, believing Baghdad could be controlled better with the carrot than the stick.
Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, and in a post-invasion memo, an assistant secretary of state complained that "no one was paying attention" to Iraq's ominous arms acquisition program. But other documents and interviews with sources show that U.S. intelligence analysts were well aware of the strategy and the concerns were passed up the ladder.
"The intelligence guys reported what they saw," said a federal official familiar with the reports. "The policy decision was made to ignore it."
Previously undisclosed intelligence documents and recently declassified records provide the fullest account yet of the extent of the Administration's knowledge of the worldwide procurement network established by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to acquire technology for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The alarms go far beyond a disputed State Department memo highlighted at last week's hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on whether to seek an independent counsel. They raise new questions about whether the Administration should have modified or abandoned its policy of placating Iraq.
"The policy was wrong," Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), a fierce critic of the Administration's Iraq policy, said at a recent congressional hearing. "It was pursued despite warning signs and despite Hussein's well-known brutality, and it failed."
Among the new elements in the still-emerging picture:
* As early as January of 1989, congressional committees were briefed by intelligence officers about Iraq's attempts to acquire nuclear-weapons technology, according to one participant in the sessions.
* In the spring and summer of that year, intelligence reports raising alarms over the Iraqi arms procurement network were circulated within the Administration, according to knowledgeable sources and reviews of documents.
* In November, 1989, intelligence experts told Administration officials regulating nuclear exports that Iraq was using front companies to obtain nuclear technology and diverting technology from commercial purposes to military projects, according to a recently declassified State Department report.
Yet that same month, the State Department and National Security Council combined to push through $1 billion in loan guarantees for Baghdad. And three months later, an assistant secretary of state complained in a memo that restrictions on the sale of nuclear-related technology were "a drag on trade with Iraq."
* Although several U.S. law enforcement agencies have responsibilities for policing the export of militarily sensitive material to foreign countries, a top federal law enforcement official said CIA reports on the Iraqi arms network were not shared with the U.S. Customs Service until after the invasion of Kuwait.
President Bush and senior Administration officials now acknowledge that trying to influence Iraq with aid was a mistake, though Bush has strenuously denied that the United States did anything to enhance Iraq's nuclear or chemical warfare capabilities.
While Administration officials say they were concerned in 1989 and 1990 about Iraq's nuclear program, they say they continued to provide "prudent" assistance to Baghdad because doing so offered the best hope for moderating Hussein's behavior.
"It is easy to defend a policy that works. It's not so easy when a policy didn't work," Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger told a congressional hearing in May. "But the fact of the matter is, because we tried to work with Iraq and with Saddam Hussein does not mean we created a Frankenstein's monster. He was there. He was his own monster. We tried to contain him. We did not succeed."
Just how much of a "monster" Hussein had become emerged soon after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The State Department estimated that Baghdad had spent $10 billion to $20 billion on nuclear and chemical weapons in the 1980s.
Iraq had amassed such an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons--and was so close to a nuclear weapon--that one of the justifications provided by President Bush for the Gulf War was the destruction of those armaments.
After the Gulf War, United Nations investigators discovered the accuracy of the pre-invasion warnings. Sifting through Iraq's bombed weapons plants and examining its hidden facilities, the U.N. teams found that Western technology had played a vital role in Iraq's military buildup.