WASHINGTON -- Newly declassified documents describe fears within the U.S. government that Iraq was diverting technology to its nuclear-weapons program as early as 1985 -- much earlier than previously known.
The documents contradict angry assertions yesterday by President Bush that the United States was unaware of any such diversion in the years before the Persian Gulf war while Washington was providing billions of dollars in aid and technology to Baghdad.
The warnings about Iraq's nuclear strategy are contained in Department of Defense documents that sought restrictions on exports of U.S. technology with possible nuclear uses to Iraq.
One memo referred to a Central Intelligence Agency report on Iraq's strategy to develop nuclear weapons and the potential for diversion of technology from commercial programs to its arms effort.
Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-Conn., made the documents available after the president's televised remarks.
The material had been declassified by the Department of Defense at the request of Mr. Gejdenson, chairman of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee investigating exports to Iraq.
"The administration's own documents tell us the president's denials are not true," Mr. Gejdenson said in an interview. "As early as 1985, the Defense Department said we cannot trust the Iraqis with nuclear technology because they are diverting it from other programs to their nuclear effort."
Mr. Gejdenson said an analysis of U.S. exports approved for Iraq between 1985 and 1990 found 162 instances in which technology with potential nuclear applications was licensed for sale. United Nations inspectors in Iraq have reported finding U.S. technology used in Iraq's nuclear-weapons facilities.
But in an interview at the White House, Mr. Bush said emphatically that the United States was unaware of any diversion of U.S. technology to Iraq's nuclear program.
"We didn't know that," Mr. Bush said. "The State Department didn't know that."
And Mr. Bush said U.S. assistance did not help Iraq develop weapons of mass destruction.
"We did not . . . enhance his nuclear, biological or chemical capability," Mr. Bush said in response to a question on the CBS "This Morning" program. "I have an executive order out on specifically that. And you have repeated something that isn't true."
Mr. Bush was referring to National Security Directive 26, his Oct. 2, 1989, order mandating closer ties with Iraq in an attempt to influence the behavior of its president, Saddam Hussein. The order warned that broad sanctions would be sought if Iraq tried to develop nuclear weapons.
It had been reported Sunday that U.S. intelligence agencies issued numerous warnings about Iraq's nuclear-arms effort before and after NSD 26 but that the administration took no steps to impose sanctions.