The Consortium

Britain's Iraq Accounting & the U.S. Dodge

In London, the Conservative government barely survived a challenge to its secret policy of arming Iraq in the 1980s and the lies told about it. By a single-vote, 320-319, John Major's government held the majority in a heated debate over the critical findings of an investigation into the scandal by Sir Richard Scott. A loss in the Feb. 26 vote could have toppled the Conservatives from power.

The emotional touchstone of the debate was the decision by senior Conservatives to permit the criminal prosecution of three businessmen for selling machine tools to Iraq. At the time, the government was withholding evidence that the sales were in line with a secret policy. When a judge refused to go along, the men were acquitted amid a flurry of press criticism directed against the British secret services.

This so-called Matrix-Churchill case has a current parallel in the United States, with the 1995 prosecution of Teledyne Industries Inc. and one of its salesmen, Edward A. Johnson. Teledyne stood accused of shipping explosive zirconium pellets to Chilean manufacturer Carlos Cardoen, who then fashioned them into cluster bombs for Iraq, which in the 1980s was fighting a bloody war with Iran.

Teledyne lawyers argued that the sales were part of a covert U.S. policy to arm both sides of the Iran-Iraq war. In 1986, the disclosure of secret arms sales to Iran touched off the Iran-contra scandal. In 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, evidence of similar U.S. military assistance to Iraq pulled President Bush into a controversy called Iraqgate.

But unlike the British case, the Bush administration successfully stonewalled the Iraqgate allegations. CIA Director Robert Gates and other senior officials issued flat denials as whistle-blowers, such as former Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe, came under fierce attack. High-level solidarity on the touchy topic continued into the Clinton administration which apparently wanted to avoid the distraction of re-fighting these "old" battles.

On Jan. 15, 1995, Clinton's Justice Department issued a report stating that it found no "evidence that U.S. agencies or officials illegally armed Iraq" in the 1980s. The report, however, contained a curious admission that the CIA had withheld relevant data from the investigators.

"In the course of our work, we learned of 'sensitive compartments' of information not normally retrievable and of specialized offices that previously were unknown to the CIA personnel who were assisting us," wrote John M. Hogan, counselor to Attorney General Janet Reno. Then, without further skepticism, Hogan added, "I do not believe this uncertainty severely undermined our investigation."

But two weeks after Hogan's odd findings, Howard Teicher, a former national security official under Ronald Reagan, came forward with a startling affidavit in the Teledyne case. Teicher asserted that the secret arming of Iraq had been ordered by President Reagan in June 1982 as part of a National Security Decision Directive. Under it, CIA Director William Casey and his then-deputy, Robert Gates, "authorized, approved and assisted" delivery of cluster bombs to Iraq through Cardoen.

The Clinton administration's response was telling. Instead of welcoming the new evidence, the administration attacked the credibility of Teicher's affidavit and ordered it sealed as a national security secret. Federal prosecutors then convinced the Teledyne case judge to block Teicher's testimony on the grounds that it was irrelevant.

Never hearing about Teicher or his affidavit, the jury found Teledyne salesman Johnson guilty of violating the Arms Export Control Act. Johnson, who had supported his family with modest earnings of about $30,000 a year, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. He began his sentence on Jan. 4, 1996. His lawyer and others who assisted in his defense are now themselves facing the possibility of court sanctions.

But perhaps the sharpest contrast with the British parallel was that the national U.S. news media gave the Teledyne case almost no attention. From The Washington Post to the major networks, the historical reality of what happened behind the public facade of the Reagan-Bush presidencies was deemed not news. Neither was it news how the Clinton administration ran its high-handed prosecution of the low men on the Iraqgate totem pole.

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