August 27, 2013

France24 Debate - A Panel on Potential U.S. Intervention in Syria

I participated in a panel discussion on potential U.S./NATO intervention in Syria for France-24 television. Click here to view the discussion.

Interview on NPR's The "Takeaway" with John Hockenberry

I was interviewed by John Hockenberry for his August 27 "The Takeaway" show on NPR.

August 26, 2013

Foreign Policy Article - Corrections and Clarifications

The recent article in the magazine Foreign Policy,Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran, both quotes me and attributes things to me that are inaccurate or taken out of context. While trying to correct already published articles in widely-read publications is akin to unringing a bell, I think it important to respond to correct and clarify words and actions attributed to me.

While the article is technically truthful, it is nuanced and written to portray a cavalier attitude among the participants in several foreign policy initiative and intelligence operations during the last full year of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, specifically from September 1987 to August 1988. Having been one of the participants in these events, I can assure that we were serious about our work, attempting to do the best we could in a very unpleasant set of circumstances.

Let's start with the line right under the title:

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

Technically, this is true - but out of context. U.S. assistance to Iraq continued after it became known that the Iraqi armed forces had used chemical weapons against Iranian troops during the April 1988 offensive that reclaimed Iraq's al-Faw peninsula. I was on the al-Faw battlefields a few weeks after the battle. It was obvious to the other Defense Intelligence Agency officer and me that the Iraqis had used chemical weapons during the fighting. Our first clue was the presence of used atropine injectors on the ground, and in captured Iranian military weapons and equipment.

Atropine injectors are the universal antidote for exposure to nerve agents. When I asked the Iraqi officers escorting us about the injectors, they explained that they used a lot of obscurant smoke rounds in the artillery fires prior to the attack and that the Iranians may have been confused and thought they were being attacked with chemical weapons. While you could be skeptical, it was an explanation. It was an explanation that soon evaporated as we found decontamination fluid on the captured Iranian equipment. If there was no chemical warfare exposure, there was no need to decontaminate the vehicles.

We reported our findings to the embassy in Baghdad as well as all of the offices in Washington - CIA, State Department and Defense Department. Our cooperation with the Iraqis stopped immediately. A series of meetings were held in Washington - at a level, as we say, "way above my pay grade." In the end, we reluctantly resumed our program with the Iraqis. It was the only slightly better of two bad choices: stop helping the Iraqis and the Iranians would likely win the war, or continue to work with a country now using nerve agents on the battlefield.

Although we did not know it at the time, Saddam Husayn had already ordered his forces to use nerve agents against his own people - Iraqi Kurds living in the northern city of Halabjah. Thousands died in March of 1988 in what many analysts later believed was a weapons test of the nerve agent Sarin (GB).

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.

I am not sure we were in a position to stop the Iraqis from using chemical weapons, a capability they denied until years later.

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.

This is not accurate. While we did provide order of battle data about Iranian forces to the Iraqis, no one was "fully aware" that the Iraqis were going to use nerve agents. The first evidence that the Iraqis had successfully developed and weaponized nerve agents was after the attack on the al-Faw peninsula, not before.

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."

First of all, governments who deny possessing chemicals weapons don't announce they are going to use them. Second, armed forces do not generally announce in advance what weapons they are going to use, let alone the fact that they are going to launch an attack. For the sake of accuracy, I was not a military attaché in Baghdad - I served as a liaison officer to the Iraqi forces. As for the quote attributed to me, it is true - the Iraqis never told us they intended to use chemical weapons; they denied having them. After al-Faw, they did not need to admit to it, we knew.

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.

There is a problem here with "what I knew and when did I know it." I did serve in Jordan in 1984, although as an advisor to the Jordanian armed forces, not as an attaché. I learned about Iraq's 1984 use of the nerve agent Tabun after I had begun working on the Iraqi issue in 1987 - I had read these same documents that have now been released.

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....

Just a minor correction here: That well-written report about the coming offensive was done by the analysts at the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center, not my office. I am not sure whether or not it warned of a larger offensive than normal, but it might have.

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.

Actually, the April 1988 offensive to re-take the al-Faw peninsula was the first of four offensives in 1988 that eventually brought the Iranians to the negotiating table. The use of chemicals in the later offensives was greater than the first.

There is an excellent New York Times article written by Patrick Tyler on these events (in which I am mentioned but for which I was not interviewed): OFFICERS SAY U.S. AIDED IRAQ IN WAR DESPITE USE OF GAS.