'Frontline' special provides background on Iraq crisis

September 11, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Let's hope the news executives at our broadcast networks watch "The Arming of Iraq," the "Frontline" special at 8 tonight on PBS (Channels 22 and 67 locally).

Maybe they will start to understand what has been so wrong with their let's-go-to-war coverage of the Persian Gulf crisis and emphasis on anchormen chasing "scoop" interviews in the region. They will see one of the major background stories they failed to report in their preoccupation with the rhetoric about "madmen"and posturings of patriotism.

"Frontline" quietly, methodically and convincingly goes about the business tonight of explaining how Saddam Hussein got all those weapons he's brandishing. And the news is that some of the most horrible ones came from some of the same folks who are now calling Hussein Hitler.

France, Germany and the United States were among the biggest suppliers. And such familiar names as Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, JohnMitchell and Ronald Reagan pop up in the most interesting places -- like the letter Nixon wrote to the late Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, as part of $181 million deal to get military uniforms made for the Iraqi army. (By making them in Romania, the Americans reaped larger profits.)

"Frontline" also explains how a Baltimore company, Alcolac Inc., was at the center of an Iraqi buying network, which provided a chemical used to make mustard gas. The company was nailed in a 1988 U.S. Customs sting. While officers of the firm said they were unaware of what the Iraqis were using the chemical for, they pleaded guilty to violating export laws, according to the report. There are interviews with the assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore who prosecuted the case and the Customs officer who went undercover to make the case.

"Frontline" shows a pattern through the 1980s of the State

Department blessing arms sales to Iraq because Hussein was fighting our then arch-enemy Iran. To its credit, tonight's report also shows videotape of its correspondent, Hodding Carter III, serving as spokesman for the State Department during that time. To its discredit, "Frontline" fails to make clear how much misinformation Carter might have been responsible for while working for State.

This is not flashy television. But it is must-see television for anyone who wants to understand the complexities that have been obscured by all the "line-drawn-in-the-sand" talk at the White House and gung-ho journalism of the bush-jacket broadcast gang.

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