Investigation

Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran

The U.S. knew Hussein was launching some of the worst chemical attacks in history -- and still gave him a hand.

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.

U.S. officials have long denied acquiescing to Iraqi chemical attacks, insisting that Hussein's government never announced he was going to use the weapons. But retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes, paints a different picture.

"The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn't have to. We already knew," he told Foreign Policy.

According to recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officials like Francona, the U.S. had firm evidence of Iraqi chemical attacks beginning in 1983. At the time, Iran was publicly alleging that illegal chemical attacks were carried out on its forces, and was building a case to present to the United Nations. But it lacked the evidence implicating Iraq, much of which was contained in top secret reports and memoranda sent to the most senior intelligence officials in the U.S. government. The CIA declined to comment for this story.

In contrast to today's wrenching debate over whether the United States should intervene to stop alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, the United States applied a cold calculus three decades ago to Hussein's widespread use of chemical weapons against his enemies and his own people. The Reagan administration decided that it was better to let the attacks continue if they might turn the tide of the war. And even if they were discovered, the CIA wagered that international outrage and condemnation would be muted.

In the documents, the CIA said that Iran might not discover persuasive evidence of the weapons' use -- even though the agency possessed it. Also, the agency noted that the Soviet Union had previously used chemical agents in Afghanistan and suffered few repercussions.

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.

Top CIA officials, including the Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey, a close friend of President Ronald Reagan, were told about the location of Iraqi chemical weapons assembly plants; that Iraq was desperately trying to make enough mustard agent to keep up with frontline demand from its forces; that Iraq was about to buy equipment from Italy to help speed up production of chemical-packed artillery rounds and bombs; and that Iraq could also use nerve agents on Iranian troops and possibly civilians.

Officials were also warned that Iran might launch retaliatory attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East, including terrorist strikes, if it believed the United States was complicit in Iraq's chemical warfare campaign.

"As Iraqi attacks continue and intensify the chances increase that Iranian forces will acquire a shell containing mustard agent with Iraqi markings," the CIA reported in a top secret document in November 1983. "Tehran would take such evidence to the U.N. and charge U.S. complicity in violating international law."

At the time, the military attaché's office was following Iraqi preparations for the offensive using satellite reconnaissance imagery, Francona told Foreign Policy. According to a former CIA official, the images showed Iraqi movements of chemical materials to artillery batteries opposite Iranian positions prior to each offensive.

Francona, an experienced Middle East hand and Arabic linguist who served in the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, said he first became aware of Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Iran in 1984, while serving as air attaché in Amman, Jordan. The information he saw clearly showed that the Iraqis had used Tabun nerve agent (also known as "GA") against Iranian forces in southern Iraq.

The declassified CIA documents show that Casey and other top officials were repeatedly informed about Iraq's chemical attacks and its plans for launching more. "If the Iraqis produce or acquire large new supplies of mustard agent, they almost certainly would use it against Iranian troops and towns near the border," the CIA said in a top secret document.

But it was the express policy of Reagan to ensure an Iraqi victory in the war, whatever the cost.

The CIA noted in one document that the use of nerve agent "could have a significant impact on Iran's human wave tactics, forcing Iran to give up that strategy." Those tactics, which involved Iranian forces swarming against conventionally armed Iraqi positions, had proved decisive in some battles. In March 1984, the CIA reported that Iraq had "begun using nerve agents on the Al Basrah front and likely will be able to employ it in militarily significant quantities by late this fall."

The use of chemical weapons in war is banned under the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which states that parties "will exert every effort to induce other States to accede to the" agreement. Iraq never ratified the protocol; the United States did in 1975. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production and use of such arms, wasn't passed until 1997, years after the incidents in question.

The initial wave of Iraqi attacks, in 1983, used mustard agent. While generally not fatal, mustard causes severe blistering of the skin and mucus membranes, which can lead to potentially fatal infections, and can cause blindness and upper respiratory disease, while increasing the risk of cancer. The United States wasn't yet providing battlefield intelligence to Iraq when mustard was used. But it also did nothing to assist Iran in its attempts to bring proof of illegal Iraqi chemical attacks to light. Nor did the administration inform the United Nations. The CIA determined that Iran had the capability to bomb the weapons assembly facilities, if only it could find them. The CIA believed it knew the locations.

Hard evidence of the Iraqi chemical attacks came to light in 1984. But that did little to deter Hussein from using the lethal agents, including in strikes against his own people. For as much as the CIA knew about Hussein's use of chemical weapons, officials resisted providing Iraq with intelligence throughout much of the war. The Defense Department had proposed an intelligence-sharing program with the Iraqis in 1986. But according to Francona, it was nixed because the CIA and the State Department viewed Saddam Hussein as "anathema" and his officials as "thugs."

The situation changed in 1987. CIA reconnaissance satellites picked up clear indications that the Iranians were concentrating large numbers of troops and equipment east of the city of Basrah, according to Francona, who was then serving with the Defense Intelligence Agency. What concerned DIA analysts the most was that the satellite imagery showed that the Iranians had discovered a gaping hole in the Iraqi lines southeast of Basrah. The seam had opened up at the junction between the Iraqi III Corps, deployed east of the city, and the Iraqi VII Corps, which was deployed to the southeast of the city in and around the hotly contested Fao Peninsula.

The satellites detected Iranian engineering and bridging units being secretly moved to deployment areas opposite the gap in the Iraqi lines, indicating that this was going to be where the main force of the annual Iranian spring offensive was going to fall, Francona said.

In late 1987, the DIA analysts in Francona's shop in Washington wrote a Top Secret Codeword report partially entitled "At The Gates of Basrah," warning that the Iranian 1988 spring offensive was going to be bigger than all previous spring offensives, and this offensive stood a very good chance of breaking through the Iraqi lines and capturing Basrah. The report warned that if Basrah fell, the Iraqi military would collapse and Iran would win the war.

President Reagan read the report and, according to Francona, wrote a note in the margin addressed to Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci: "An Iranian victory is unacceptable."

Subsequently, a decision was made at the top level of the U.S. government (almost certainly requiring the approval of the National Security Council and the CIA). The DIA was authorized to give the Iraqi intelligence services as much detailed information as was available about the deployments and movements of all Iranian combat units. That included satellite imagery and perhaps some sanitized electronic intelligence. There was a particular focus on the area east of the city of Basrah where the DIA was convinced the next big Iranian offensive would come. The agency also provided data on the locations of key Iranian logistics facilities, and the strength and capabilities of the Iranian air force and air defense system. Francona described much of the information as "targeting packages" suitable for use by the Iraqi air force to destroy these targets.

The sarin attacks then followed.

The nerve agent causes dizziness, respiratory distress, and muscle convulsions, and can lead to death. CIA analysts could not precisely determine the Iranian casualty figures because they lacked access to Iranian officials and documents. But the agency gauged the number of dead as somewhere between "hundreds" and "thousands" in each of the four cases where chemical weapons were used prior to a military offensive. According to the CIA, two-thirds of all chemical weapons ever used by Iraq during its war with Iran were fired or dropped in the last 18 months of the war.

By 1988, U.S. intelligence was flowing freely to Hussein's military. That March, Iraq launched a nerve gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in northern Iraq.

A month later, the Iraqis used aerial bombs and artillery shells filled with sarin against Iranian troop concentrations on the Fao Peninsula southeast of Basrah, helping the Iraqi forces win a major victory and recapture the entire peninsula. The success of the Fao Peninsula offensive also prevented the Iranians from launching their much-anticipated offensive to capture Basrah. According to Francona, Washington was very pleased with the result because the Iranians never got a chance to launch their offensive.

The level of insight into Iraq's chemical weapons program stands in marked contrast to the flawed assessments, provided by the CIA and other intelligence agencies about Iraq's program prior to the United States' invasion in 2003. Back then, American intelligence had better access to the region and could send officials out to assess the damage.

Francona visited the Fao Peninsula shortly after it had been captured by the Iraqis. He found the battlefield littered with hundreds of used injectors once filled with atropine, the drug commonly used to treat sarin's lethal effects. Francona scooped up a few of the injectors and brought them back to Baghdad -- proof that the Iraqis had used sarin on the Fao Peninsula.

In the ensuing months, Francona reported, the Iraqis used sarin in massive quantities three more times in conjunction with massed artillery fire and smoke to disguise the use of nerve agents. Each offensive was hugely successful, in large part because of the increasingly sophisticated use of mass quantities of nerve agents. The last of these attacks, called the Blessed Ramadan Offensive, was launched by the Iraqis in April 1988 and involved the largest use of sarin nerve agent employed by the Iraqis to date. For a quarter-century, no chemical attack came close to the scale of Saddam's unconventional assaults. Until, perhaps, the strikes last week outside of Damascus.

Click to the next page to read the secret CIA files.

Situation report on the Iran-Iraq war, noting that each side is preparing for chemical weapons attacks (July 29, 1982) 

Iran-Iraq Situation Report by Foreign Policy

 

Top secret memo documenting chemical weapons use by Iraq, and discussing Iran's likely reactions (Nov. 4, 1983) 

Iran's Likely Reaction to Iraqi Use of Chemical Weapons by Foreign Policy

 

Memo to the director of Central Intelligence predicting that Iraq will use nerve agents against Iran (Feb. 24, 1984) 

Memo Predicts Use of Nerve Agents by Foreign Policy

 

CIA predicts "widespread use of mustard agents" and use of nerve agents by late summer (March 13, 1984) 

CIA Predicts Widespread Use of Mustard Agents and Use of Nerve Agent by Late Summer by Foreign Policy

 

CIA confirms Iraq used nerve agent (March 23, 1984) 

CIA Confirms Iraq Used Nerve Agent by Foreign Policy

 

CIA considers the consequences for chemical weapons proliferation now that Iraq has used mustard and nerve agent (Sept. 6, 1984) 

Note on Chemical Weapons Proliferation and Posisble Consequences by Foreign Policy

 

Intelligence assessment of Iraq's chemical weapons program (January 1985) 

Intelligence Assessment of Iraqi Chemical Weapons Program by Foreign Policy

 

 

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Inside Yemen's Shadow War Arsenal

The U.S. has spent hundreds of millions fighting Yemen's terrorists. What did it buy, really?

Since November of 2011, the United States has pledged nearly $600 million to Yemen for everything from spy drones to opinion polls to pickup trucks as part of a shadow war to fight terrorism there. But how much Washington is getting for its money is an open question, even within U.S. government circles.

Reports that the Yemenis may have helped to foil a major terrorist plot against Western interests in the region point up the need for an effective security assistance program in a country now re-emerging as a frontline in what used to be called the war on terror. (Even if the Yemeni government itself finds the plot a bit hard to believe.) It's also become equally clear that instability and a lack of oversight has posed real challenges to tracking U.S. counterterrorism aid there. The security threat that forced the State Department to shutter more than 20 embassies and diplomatic posts this week reflects the increasingly "diffuse" threat from al Qaeda. But the plot that Yemeni officials claim they thwarted Wednesday now raises questions about how effective American counterterrorism assistance is and whether more, or less aid, is needed in the future.

Only a portion of the $600 million committed since late 2011 goes directly to fight terrorism -- about $250 million, according to State Department officials. The rest goes towards "helping to strengthen governance and institutions on which Yemen's long-term progress depends," as then-White House counterterrorism czar (and unofficial envoy to Yemen) John Brennan explained last year. That includes cash to "empower women," "combat corruption," and provide "food vouchers, safe drinking water, and basic health services," Brennan added.

But even that non-military aid can sometimes come with a hard edge. Last year, the State Department paid out $2.2 million to Griffin Security, a Yemeni contractor specializing in "close protection," "surveillance systems," and "maritime security services," according to the company's website. On June 26, Foggy Bottom sent another $3.1 million to Advanced C4 Solutions, a Tampa-based business with strong military and intelligence community ties, for an unspecified "administrative management" contract. Six days later, the State Department executed a second, $1.3 million deal with the same firm -- which publicly declares itself a specialist in computer network attacks -- for "translation and interpretation services."

Overt security assistance was put on hold for about a year when former President Ali Abdullah Saleh brutally cracked down on his people. But that ban has been lifted, and the spigot is once again open. The Pentagon is outfitting the Yemenis with weapons, short takeoff and landing spy planes, night vision goggles, and even Raven drones to help Yemeni security forces to strengthen their effectiveness against internal threats and extremist activity, according to defense officials.

Those assistance programs come with criticisms, however, even from within the U.S. government. The primary concern: that the U.S. lacks the capacity to oversee objectives in Yemen. The Government Accountability Office recently faulted American assistance to Yemen, saying that "Yemen's unstable security situation constrains U.S. training of Yemeni security forces, restricts oversight of civilian assistance projects, and endangers Yemeni nationals who work for the United States."  

GAO investigators cited the threats to Yemenis working for the Americans, including a Yemeni employee of the American embassy in Sanaa who was murdered in 2012. "Because of leadership and coordination challenges within the Yemeni government, key recipients of U.S. security assistance made limited use of this assistance until recently to combat [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] in support of the U.S. strategic goal of improving Yemen's security," the March 2013 report found.

In that way, Yemen isn't unlike other countries -- Iraq and Afghanistan to name but two -- in which the United States has struggled to keep pace with the influx of billions of dollars of assistance over the years only to come up short in terms of accounting for it all. And in both cases, the United States had thousands of military and civilian personnel working in the country. Not so in Yemen.

"We need to remember that we have done at least as badly in planning and managing aid as the worst recipient country has done in using it," said Tony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Nonetheless, a variety of programs aim to directly achieve American security objectives in Yemen. During 2012, for instance, the Pentagon spent about $14 million on a single U.S. Special Operations Forces counterterrorism enhancement program in which a limited number of American military personnel provided training and equipment -- from small arms and ammo to radios to rigid hull inflatable boats to night vision goggles to navigational systems -- to Yemen's counterterrorists.  Another program, referred to in Pentagon briefing papers as the "Fixed-Wing Capability Program," spends about $23 million "by providing equipment and training to improve the operational reach and reaction time of Yemen's CT forces," including two short take-off and landing aircraft. The United States spends another $75 million on building the counterterrorism unit of Yemen's Central Security Forces.

During 2013, the Pentagon spent nearly $50 million on what's called an "integrated border and maritime security" program to help the Yemenis be more effective with aerial surveillance and ground mobility, according to a defense official. That helped the Yemenis build up the capacity to monitor threats along the country's nearly 1,200 mile coastline. The program includes 12 short take-off and landing aircraft, each with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, as well as flight and maintenance crews.

The United States has spent other money on Yemen, including $24 million the Coast Guard spent to build two 87-foot coastal patrol boats, and another $11 million for about 340 F-350 Ford pickup trucks, according to publicly-available contracting data. Another $27 million was spent for a contract with Bell Helicopter for four Huey II helicopters within the last three years.

Two years ago, the polling firm Gallup, Inc. was paid more than $280,000 for a "Yemen Assessment Survey." Around the same time, Yemen was part of a major contract to provide crew-served weapons, gun mounts, and stands for .50 caliber weapons. Last year, the Army paid $3 million to Harris Corporation for radios for the Yemenis, and the Navy paid $5.4 million for aircraft engines and spare parts for CASA 235 transport planes. Also last year, the Army paid $1.9 million for tactical UAVs in both Kenya and in Yemen.

Meanwhile, there are few American boots on the ground -- few that the U.S. publicly acknowledges, at least. America admits to placing about three dozen or so U.S. Special Forces trainers in Yemen. And there is currently a Marine security force detachment at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, as well as the Marine embassy security guard contingent typically assigned to U.S. embassies around the world. (Additional forces, from America's elite Joint Special Operations Command, are scattered in small units throughout the country.)

But the troops and gear inside Yemen are, in some ways, the least significant component of the campaign against al Qaeda there. From the north, American drones take off from a secret airfield deep in the Saudi desert -- and strike at targets inside Yemen. From the south, eight more Predators and eight F-15E fighters fly missions from a rapidly-expanding base in Djibouti; more than 3,200 U.S. troops and civilians are stationed there, along with the warplanes. A $1.4 billion construction project could add space for hundreds more. Additional bases have been spotted in Ethiopia and the Seychelles.

Last week, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon, where Hagel praised Hadi for being one of America's  "key partners" and thanked him for "the continued cooperation on mutual security assistance issues," according to a Pentagon readout of the meeting.

Also this week, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf characterized the U.S.-Yemeni relationship, particularly with regard to counterterrorism efforts, as "very close."

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images