WASHINGTON — The CIA warned Secretary of State James A. Baker III in a September, 1989, top-secret assessment that Iraq was developing a "nuclear weapons capability," and the agency identified the specific technology being sought by Baghdad, according to classified documents.
Nevertheless, a month later, Baker assured Iraq's foreign minister that the Bush Administration had no plans to tighten controls on technology exports to Iraq.
That November, Baker played a decisive role in approving an additional $1 billion in U.S. food aid for Baghdad--despite another warning that federal prosecutors were investigating allegations that Iraq may have used earlier aid to acquire nuclear-weapons technology.
The CIA analysis was one of numerous intelligence reports to Baker and other senior Bush Administration officials detailing the activities of Iraq's clandestine worldwide arms-procurement network, according to records obtained by The Times.
The newly disclosed documents demonstrate that the intelligence reports were transmitted to the highest levels of the Administration. Yet officials declined to impose restrictions or take other measures that might have slowed Iraq's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.
The new documents also provide additional evidence of the extent of the Administration's knowledge of Iraq's arms procurement efforts in the years before the invasion of Kuwait.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, traveling with Baker in the Middle East, declined to respond to questions about the CIA analysis.
"We are going to follow the same policy on this story as we have on the past ones, which is not to get into all the specifics or try to interpret documents that were made available," Tutwiler said. "Secretary Baker and others have talked about prewar policy. We've testified on it; we've released documents publicly, and we've released them (documents) to the Congress."
Classified documents previously disclosed by The Times already have shown that the Administration was warned repeatedly, starting as early as 1985, by its own intelligence agencies that Iraq was developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, possibly with diverted U.S. technology.
Post-Persian Gulf War inspections by the United Nations have demonstrated that U.S. technology was used in Iraq's weapons programs. Allegations that U.S. food aid was diverted to buy weapons are still under federal investigation.
Paradoxically, at the start of the Gulf War, President Bush invoked Iraq's potential to develop and deploy nuclear weapons as one reason for launching the air war instead of continuing economic sanctions.
"We are determined to knock out Saddam Hussein's nuclear bomb potential," Bush told the nation in a televised address on Jan. 16, 1991.
Confronted with questions about prewar assistance to Iraq in recent weeks, the President has denied repeatedly and categorically that his Administration provided any help in Baghdad's drive to develop nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Classified records have shown that the Administration resisted efforts to curtail sales of sensitive technology to Iraq as late as May, 1990, two months before the invasion.
In the CIA assessment dated Sept. 3, 1989, Baker and other officials were informed that Iraq was developing a nuclear weapon to "counter perceived military threats from Israel and Iran." Iraq's front companies had "made extensive use of covert techniques in Western Europe" to obtain high-tech goods vital to its nuclear weapons program, the report said.
Technology identified by the CIA included high-speed cameras, oscilloscopes and sophisticated computers. Records show that the Administration allowed such technology to go to Iraq even after the warnings, continuing a policy begun as part of the Ronald Reagan Administration's attempt to influence Iraqi President Hussein.
On Oct. 6, 1989, Baker met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz in Washington. Minutes of the meeting show that Baker stressed the Administration's desire for strong ties to Baghdad and said it opposed attempts by Congress to impose sanctions on Iraq.
"Regarding technology, the secretary admitted that the U.S. does have concerns about proliferation but they are worldwide concerns," the minutes said. "He suggested that we work together on specific requests so the U.S. can understand Iraqi needs and objectives and Iraq can hear what concerns us."
At the meeting, Aziz raised concerns about alleged efforts by the United States to destabilize the Iraqi government. On Oct. 21, 1989, Baker sent a classified cable to Aziz in which he said that he has discussed the matter with Bush and that there was no such U.S. effort.
"Such an action would be completely contrary to the President's policy, which is to work to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Iraq whenever possible," according to a copy of the cable.