War on Iraq

The Saudis and the Iraqi Bomb

Intelligence documents suggest that the Saudi government may have been financing Saddam's early attempts to develop a nuclear bomb – while Dick Cheney looked the other way.
On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait, and Saddam Hussein’s soldiers threatened the vast oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Four days after the invasion, then- Defense Secretary Dick Cheney arrived in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. As he later told me in an interview for “The Arming of Saudi Arabia,” a film I was directing for the PBS documentary series Frontline, “The main purpose for my trip was to try to persuade the King to agree to receive U.S. troops in the Kingdom. We simply had to have access to Saudi Arabia. Unless we could get access for our forces to Saudi Arabia, there was very little we could do about Saddam Hussein in Kuwait.”

Cheney met King Fahd to argue that the time had come to activate a plan long in the making. The King agreed to receive hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers on Saudi soil, and the largest and fastest mobilization of military equipment and troops in history began.

America’s ability to respond so quickly and massively to Saddam Hussein’s threat impressed the world. But as Secretary Cheney and the King were well aware, the operation didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of a special military and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia that is far deeper and more extensive than most Americans still know – Fahrenheit 911 notwithstanding. Not only did that relationship make Saudi Arabia became one the of the most heavily armed countries in the world in the years before the first Gulf War, it also involved efforts by both countries to aid their eventual enemy, Iraq, in a massive arms buildup. And, as my film revealed, the Saudis also contributed to Saddam’s early attempts to develop a nuclear bomb –something that Cheney and other high United States officials were aware of as early as 1989.

The story of the Saudi military buildup began during the last days of the Shah of Iran.

The Shah’s overthrow took American policymakers by surprise, and when his enormous arsenal of U.S.-made weapons fell into the hands of Iran’s Islamic fundamentalists, Washington was shaken. There was great anxiety that this was the beginning of a wave that would sweep across the Gulf – and that Saudi Arabia might be next…

At the time, Zbigniew Brzezinsk, National Security Adviser to President Carter, called for a massive military buildup in the Gulf region, centered inside Saudi Arabia – the logical choice to replace Iran. Located just across the Persian Gulf, its small ruling elite wanted weapons to protect its oil resources. The oil-dependent United States was eager to help.

As Brzezinski explained, “We need their oil, and therefore we have to make sure that they are friendly, and therefore we are engaged in protecting their security. They at the same time are almost completely dependent on us for their security, in a region where they’re very vulnerable and very rich. So there is a kind of a curious though asymmetrical interdependence here.”

The decision to sell expensive weaponry to Saudi Arabia coincided with an explosion in Saudi oil income following dramatic price hikes in the 1970’s. By 1981, Saudi annual oil revenues reached 116 billion dollars–part of history’s largest transfer of wealth. The Saudis became so rich they had to invest sixteen million dollars in oil revenue every hour–nearly 400 million dollars a day. Many of the petrodollars flowed to American construction and engineering firms such as Bechtel, which cashed in on Saudi Arabia’s rapid modernization. But the most important purchases for the Saudis were military.

Saudi Arabia ultimately became the largest purchaser of U.S. weapons in the entire world.

The key request came in 1979, when the Saudis asked for AWACS, the advanced airborne radar system. AWACS would be the linchpin to an enormous Saudi defense buildup.

The Pentagon’s point man for the AWACS sale was Air Force General Richard Secord of later Iran-Contra infamy. As Secord put it, “The supporters of Israel literally were up in arms over this, and they were fighting us every step of the way. And so it became a classical political wrangle.”

The AWACS wrangle caught the notice of Washington Post reporter Scott Armstrong, who soon realized that the story was much bigger than the sale of a few planes.

Armstrong prepared an article stating that the proposed AWACS sale was just the beginning of a secret 50 billion dollar plan to build surrogate military bases in Saudi Arabia.

Richard Secord pressured Armstrong’s editors to delay publication of his story. He explained how in our interview: ” Our public affairs people in the Pentagon, as I recall, called the editorial management of the Washington Post and said, you know, this guy’s preparing this cockamamie story, you know, you’ve got to give us a break on this. This is crazy, you know.”

Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee told me he “could not recall” any Pentagon pressure to delay Armstrong’s article. But it didn’t run until after a crucial Senate AWACS vote. As Secord recalled, “On the preceding Friday we showed, at best, a tie. And so the Vice President then, George Bush, was prepared to break the tie if it came out that way. We lucked out and in the last minute a few of the senators switched their votes over, and so we won it by four votes – which really, if you think about it, is only a two-man swing, 52 to 48.”

Scott Armstrong’s article finally appeared on the front page of the Washington Post four days after the vote. In it, he detailed a hidden plan the congressional debate had never confronted, “a grand defense strategy for the Middle East oil fields…an ambitious plan to build surrogate bases in Saudi Arabia, equipped and waiting for American forces to use.”

An unwritten secret understanding lay behind what had been framed as the mere sale of a few planes. “The heart of the understanding is this,” Armstrong wrote. “If America will sell the Saudis an integrated package of top-of-the-line military technology, Saudi Arabia will build and pay for a massive network of command, naval and air defense facilities large enough to sustain U.S. forces in intensive regional combat…”

Armstrong’s conclusion that the AWACS sale was the cornerstone of a multi-billion dollar secret defense buildup inside Saudi Arabia was flatly denied by then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. In the face of Saudi secrecy and Defense Department denials, his article was soon forgotten. But many senior officials of the United States government, including Lawrence Korb, who was assistant defense secretary under Weinberger, later confirmed much of his story.

As Korb told me, “What the Saudis allowed the United States to do over in that part of the world was to set up a de facto infrastructure by purchasing airfields, by purchasing very modern ports, by purchasing a lot of American equipment–theoretically to support their forces, by buying a lot of American equipment that would use the same type of facilities that our forces needed. So, in effect, we had a replica of US airfields and ports over in that part of the world paid for by the Saudis, to be used by the United States when and if we had to go over there. In many cases it was almost better than NATO…With the Saudis, they basically were buying off-the-shelf from us and replicating an American military facility. So, when we showed up, it was just like being at home. Everything fit. Everything worked.”

Dick Cheney – Caspar Weinberger’s successor as defense secretary – later openly acknowledged the Saudi buildup. As Cheney told me in a 1992 interview, “During the '80s there was an increased level of cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The provision of additional equipment, the AWACS, early warning airborne system, F-15 fighters… Plus there was a great deal of work done in terms of building facilities – the port facilities and the air fields that were so crucial to our ability to be able to deploy the force rapidly and then to conduct combat operations from Saudi Arabia, were developed in the 1980’s with a major investment on the part of the Saudis, but major involvement by the United States.”

A decade after his Washington Post investigation, Scott Armstrong wrote another article about the Saudi arms buildup, this time for the magazine Mother Jones. By 1992, he concluded, the cost of the military buildup had risen to 156 billion dollars. As Armstrong put it, “The Saudis have been the principal backers and financers of the largest armament system that the world has ever seen in any region of the world. It includes over 95 billion dollars worth of weapons that they bought themselves. Includes another 65 billion dollars worth of military infrastructure and ports that they’ve put in. It is the ultimate government off-the-books.”

Government off-the-books is characteristic of the Saudi-U.S. relationship. When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, for example, the Saudis spent billions to help the U.S. finance its covert support of Afghanistan’s mujaheddin rebels. The Saudis later helped finance the U.S. covert war in the Central America, as Secord related, “In the '80s, when the Congress was cutting off funds for the contras, I did talk to the Saudis about them possibly anteing up some millions to support the contras during this period, because they are tremendously anti-Communist in their own philosophies. It turned out that was unnecessary, since that was being done at a higher level–and as we all now know, the Saudis did contribute 20-30 million dollars at the request of the President of the United States.”

But the most expensive covert joint venture for Saudi and U. S. officials was their attempt to contain the revolution in Iran. And Iraq’s Saddam Hussein would become their willing instrument –attacking Iran in 1980 and starting a brutal eight-year war.

The Saudis were concerned that Iran would win the war, assume control in Baghdad and establish an Islamic republic, and then threaten the Kingdom.

Howard Teicher, who served on the National Security Council from 1982 to 1987, explained the situation. “This was the most important subject on the Saudi agenda in the 1980’s: how to, at a minimum, prevent the war from expanding beyond the Iran/Iraq border area and engaging the Saudis.”

Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, the Saudis – with the knowledge and approval of United States government officials–backed Iraq with money, weapons, and intelligence. AsTeicher put it, “They were providing financial assistance; they provided logistics support; they were providing intelligence information…. They took the information that we provided them about our assessments of the Iranian military and provided it to Iraq. I believe that some of that information contributed to Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran in the first place.”

In 1983, U.S.-manned AWACS flying out of Saudi Arabia began direct intelligence sharing with Iraq. But the Saudis also provided tens of billions of dollars to Iraq in cash.

James Akins, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1973 to 1975, later told me, “I think Kuwait and Saudi Arabia must have given something on the order of 60 billion dollars, in a ratio of two to one, 40 from Saudi Arabia and 20 from Kuwait.”

Saudi Arabia also provided American-made weapons to Iraq, despite Congressional restrictions on such transfers. In February 1986, hundreds of one-ton MK-84 bombs were sent to Iraq by Saudi Arabia. This illegal Saudi arms transfer was kept secret from the public until April 1992, when reporter Murray Waas broke the story in the Los Angeles Times. The story said the shipment was part of a 10-year covert policy by the Reagan and Bush administrations to arm Iraq.

Working with Waas and Frontline investigative reporter W. Scott Malone, I uncovered a much larger story: in 1990, the U.S. government received intelligence information that the Saudis had aided Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. The text of a classified CIA report dated June 1990 states that analysts had reliable information that Saudi Arabia had provided five billion dollars to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. According to the CIA report, beginning in 1985, some of the money flowed through the Gulf International Bank, which at the time was owned in part by the Saudi and Iraqi governments.

We also talked to sources in the CIA and at the Pentagon’s National Security Agency who first heard of a Saudi-Iraqi nuclear connection as early as 1986. In addition, I was shown a classified 1989 intelligence assessment prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which detailed money flowing from the Saudi Arabian military through an unnamed bank in Berne, Switzerland to Iraq’s secret military procurement network. Although the assessment does not specify how this Saudi money was used, it did note that the purpose of the procurement network was to develop ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Ambassador Akins believed that Saudi involvement in Iraq’s nuclear program began after Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981, and that the Gulf Arabs’ desire to assist Iraq’s nuclear program may be traced to fears about Israel’s nuclear arsenal. “After the Israeli attack on Baghdad– the Israelis, one must remember, flew across Saudi Arabia to get there, the Saudis were extremely upset about this –there was a decision taken to build a nuclear weapon,” Akins recalled. “The Arabs thought ‘The only way that we’re going to be able to stand up against Israel is to build a nuclear weapon. It will be built in Baghdad, and the countries of the peninsula will pay for it.’ There’s no doubt the Israelis have a nuclear weapon. They probably have well over two hundred nuclear bombs, and they have the means of delivering these bombs to every major Arab city. Certainly every Arab leader thinks that the only way of being able to ensure that Israel does not use this bomb against the Arabs, is to have a deterrent nuclear force of their own.”

Former Secretary of State James Baker and former CIA head Robert Gates declined comment. And when asked about the intelligence assessments we had reviewed, Cheney would neither confirm nor deny their existence. Instead he neatly skirted the issue, saying “If there were such intelligence reports, it’s not something I could talk about anyway. It’s all classified.”

Ironically (in light of subsequent events) Cheney added, “I never speculate one way or the other about what is or isn’t in the various and sundry intelligence reports.”

The Iran-Iraq war ended in a stalemate in 1988, leaving a million casualties. The off-the-books U.S.-Saudi policy toward Iran may have prevented that country from overrunning Baghdad, yet Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait two years later, threatening the oil fields of his one-time patron, the Saudis. The rest is history…but also current events.

Yesterday, for example, a report by Charles A. Duelfer, the top American inspector for Iraq, concluded that Iraq had destroyed its illicit WMD stockpiles within months after the Gulf War of 1991. The alleged presence of WMD, of course, was the stated reason for the second American invasion of Iraq in 2003. In addition, the report concluded that Saddam Hussein had deliberately maintained ambiguity about his illicit weapons programs – including his nuclear weapons program – as a way to deter its regional rival, Iran. Specifically, Duelfer’s report states that “Saddam Hussein ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the gulf war.”

If the Defense Intelligence Agency reported in 1989 that money was flowing from the Saudi Arabian military to Iraq’s secret military procurement network, and that the purpose of the procurement network was to develop ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, and the Central Intelligence Agency reported in 1990 that analysts had reliable information that Saudi Arabia had provided five billion dollars to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, one wonders why and how U.S. intelligence could have been so wrong about the state of Saddam’s WMD programs just a decade later. Perhaps they should have asked the Saudis?

Although “The Arming of Saudi Arabia” aired nationally on PBS, none of the other mainstream media in the United States reported on it, (although it made front-page news in Israel) and the story of Cheney, Saddam, the Saudis and the Bomb was soon forgotten – until now.
This and other articles by Rory O'Connor are available on his blog.
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