By Robert Novak
Sen. Robert Byrd, a master at hectoring executive branch witnesses, asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a provocative question last week: Did the United States help Saddam Hussein produce weapons of biological warfare? Rumsfeld brushed off the Senate's 84-year-old president pro tem like a Pentagon reporter. But a paper trail indicates Rumsfeld should have answered yes.
An eight-year-old Senate report confirms that disease- producing and poisonous materials were exported, under U.S. government license, to Iraq from 1985 to 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war. Furthermore, the report adds, the American- exported materials were identical to microorganisms destroyed by United Nations inspectors after the Gulf War. The shipments were approved despite allegations that Saddam used biological weapons against Kurdish rebels and (according to the current official U.S. position) initiated war with Iran.
This record is no argument for or against waging war against the Iraqi regime, but current U.S. officials are not eager to reconstruct the mostly secret relationship between the two countries. While biological warfare exports were approved by the U.S. government, the first President George Bush signed a policy directive proposing ''normal'' relations with Saddam in the interest of Middle East stability. Looking at a little U.S.-Iraqi history might be useful on the eve of a fateful military undertaking.
At a Senate Armed Services hearing last Thursday, Byrd tried to disinter that history. ''Did the United States help Iraq to acquire the building blocks of biological weapons during the Iran-Iraq war?'' he asked Rumsfeld. ''Certainly not to my knowledge,'' Rumsfeld replied. When Byrd persisted by reading a current Newsweek article reporting these exports, Rumsfeld said, ''I have never heard anything like what you've read, I have no knowledge of it whatsoever, and I doubt it.''
That suggests Rumsfeld also has not read the sole surviving copy of a May 25, 1994, Senate Banking Committee report. In 1985 (five years after the Iraq-Iran war started) and succeeding years, said the report, ''pathogenic (meaning ''disease producing''), toxigenic (meaning ''poisonous'') and other biological research materials were exported to Iraq, pursuant to application and licensing by the U.S. Department of Commerce.'' It added: ''These exported biological materials were not attenuated or weakened and were capable of reproduction.''
The report then details 70 shipments (including anthrax bacillus) from the United States to Iraqi government agencies over three years, concluding, ''It was later learned that these microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the United Nations inspectors found and recovered from the Iraqi biological warfare program.''
With Baghdad having survived combat against Iran's revolutionary regime with U.S. help, President George H.W. Bush signed National Security Directive 26 on Oct. 2, 1989. Classified ''secret'' but recently declassified, it said: ''Normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests and promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East. The United States government should propose economic and political incentives for Iraq to moderate its behavior and to increase our influence with Iraq.''
Bush the elder, who said recently that he ''hates'' Saddam, saw no reason then to oust the Iraqi dictator. On the contrary, the government's approval of exporting microorganisms to Iraq coincided with the Bush administration's decision to save Saddam from defeat by the Iranian mullahs.
The Newsweek article (by Christopher Dickey and Evan Thomas) that so interested Byrd reported on Rumsfeld's visit to Baghdad on Dec. 20, 1983, that launched U.S. support for Saddam against Iran. Answering Byrd's questions, Rumsfeld said he did meet with Saddam and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, but was dismissive about assisting ''as a private citizen . . . only for a period of months.'' Rumsfeld contended he was then interested in curbing terrorism in Lebanon.
Quite a different account was given in a sworn court statement by Howard Teicher on Jan. 31, 1995. Teicher, a National Security Council aide who accompanied Rumsfeld to Baghdad, said Rumsfeld relayed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's offer to help Iraq in its war. ''Aziz refused even to accept the Israeli's letter to [Saddam] Hussein offering assistance,'' said Teicher, ''because Aziz told us that he would be executed on the spot.''
Following Iraq's bioweapons trail