WASHINGTON -- The Bush and Reagan administrations secretly allowed Saudi Arabia to provide U.S.-made weapons to Iraq and other nations over a period of almost 10 years in covert operations designed to sidestep legal restrictions imposed by Congress, according to classified documents.
The Saudis transferred an undisclosed number of 2,000-pound, U.S.-made bombs to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein in 1986 and, after the end of the Persian Gulf war last year, allowed Syria and Bangladesh to take U.S.-made weapons, according to classified documents and interviews.
The transfers were made with wink-and-nod approval from the White House beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing until last year, documents and sources close to the affair make clear, but Congress was not notified.
Under the federal Arms Export Control Act, the president is required to notify Congress when a foreign nation transfers U.S.-supplied arms to a third country without formal U.S. authorization. Congress can retaliate by canceling future arms sales to the country or by taking other punitive steps. Congress was not told about a number of the transfers by Saudi Arabia, sources say.
But classified government documents show that this notification was not provided because Reagan and Bush administration officials feared that it would lead to congressional opposition and upset other pending proposals for arms transfers to Saudi Arabia.
Two administration officials acknowledged that the transfer of U.S. arms and spare parts to Iraq by Saudi Arabia in the 1980s was part of a covert policy by the Reagan and Bush administrations to arm Iraq by sending U.S. arms to Arab allies who transferred them to Iraq.
The officials, who spoke on the condition that their names be withheld, said that notification of the transfers to Iraq might have led to disclosure of the covert authorization by the two administrations.
In Kennebunkport, Maine, where President Bush was spending the Easter weekend, a White House official yesterday said, "We have always complied with the Arms Export Control Act."
But the official also said, "The State Department is looking into all allegations regarding this."
Authorizing Saudi Arabia to provide bombs to Iraq would have violated the Reagan administration's public policy of not sending weapons to Baghdad. It also would contradict numerous statements by officials of the Reagan and Bush administrations to Congress that such U.S. munitions were not supplied to Iraq.
The new disclosures come in the midst of a high-level debate within the Bush administration over whether to propose to Congress the sale of 72 F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month, 236 members of Congress wrote Mr. Bush opposing the proposed F-15 sale, saying that it would fuel a new arms race in the Persian Gulf.
Since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the Bush administration has sold $14.8 billion in sophisticated arms to Saudi Arabia, ranging from Patriot missile batteries to fighter planes and tanks.
The transfer of bombs to Iraq was disclosed in a secret State Department cable in August 1986. The cable said that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had explained to U.S. officials that the Saudis had provided Iraq with the 1-ton Mk-84 bombs.
In addition, classified U.S. intelligence reports show that Saudi Arabia transferred U.S.-made armored vehicles to Syria without formal U.S. approval after the end of the gulf war, according to two sources familiar with the reports.
In January, U.S. officials learned that Saudi Arabia also had provided U.S.-made armored personnel carriers to Bangladesh after the war ended, according to classified documents and interviews. The disclosure came after the Bangladesh government asked U.S. authorities to provide spare parts for the carriers, according to documents.
A senior diplomatic official said that the bombs were provided to Iraq with informal approval of U.S. authorities as part of the joint U.S.-Saudi effort to keep Iraq armed and fighting during the Iran-Iraq War.