A SIMMERING question in the presidential campaign -- whether the Reagan and Bush administrations knew about Iraq's nuclear bomb program but failed to block it -- has heated up with the declassification this summer of Pentagon papers describing America's tacit support of the Iraqi program as early as 1985.
Within days of the papers' release on Capitol Hill, world attention focused on the standoff between Iraqi authorities and United Nations inspectors still hunting for Saddam Hussein's secret atomic factories.
By coincidence, Sen.Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and his colleagues in Congress have a chance before they recess this month to prevent such fumbles in the future by keeping sensitive U.S. technology out of the hands of would-be Saddams.
Mr. Sarbanes especially is in a position to make a great difference, for better or worse, as the key player on a committee that will strike the final compromise on a new national export law that could curb nuclear-related shipments. Under pressure to knuckle under to the president, Mr. Sarbanes could find some pTC good advice among the newly declassified Pentagon papers.
One telling memo that Richard N. Perle, assistant defense secretary, wrote in May 1985 to his boss, Caspar W. Weinberger, warns that "to protect our national security interests," the administration must tighten controls on high-end U.S. technology going to a "less than honest" Iraq.
Yet for the following five years, it is now clear, the U.S. continued to sell Iraq the building blocks of death: components and technology essential for building weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. Commerce Department cleared numerous licenses for exporting advanced electronic and photographic equipment, as well as computers -- key ingredients of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs -- to the Iraqis, with no safeguards on their eventual use.
President Bush and his lieutenants heatedly deny that he helped create a Frankenstein monster that forced the nation into war. They claim sales and economic aid to Iraq were meant to preserve U.S. influence in the region. However, two years ago this week, just two days after the Commerce Department approved millions of dollars of commercial credits to Iraq, Saddam Hussein exposed the depth of our mistake by invading Kuwait.
Now administration officials are stonewalling Congress on requests for more information about the billions of dollars in aid that their trade policies funneled to Saddam right up to the gulf war. Meanwhile, they oppose any new rules to require sanctions when another country asks for U.S. technology, then abuses the privilege by using it to make weapons.
The House of Representatives has not gone along. Already the )) House has voted to close the loophole in U.S. law that lets through nuclear components, technology and "dual-use" items -- those with both civilian and military applications -- while blocking export of nuclear reactors and fuel.
But know Senator Sarbanes is asking colleagues whether they should avoid Mr. Bush's threatened veto by leaving the House remedy on the cutting room floor, as they strike the final deal on the rules of the game for future U.S. exporters. Mr. Bush's reasoning: It "would place stringent requirements on peaceful U.S. nuclear activities that have no impact on nuclear weapons proliferation."
Too much is at stake for Maryland's senior senator to bargain away this protection.
The proposed law would restrict exports of all goods or technologies with nuclear explosive applications. If it had been in effect in 1985, for example, Iraq could never have developed its nuclear capability through U.S. exports.
A country could still qualify for U.S. nuclear exports if it promised to open its nuclear plants to inspections by the United Nations-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency. The president would enter talks to strengthen worldwide controls over nuclear trade. He would have more power to sanction individuals, companies and countries that violate these agreements and trade in the ingredients of the bomb.
Senator Sarbanes is well-positioned to influence the outcome in Congress. He sits on the Foreign Relations Committee (and is chairman of its international economic policy subcommittee). He has traditionally been a leader on arms control and disarmament issues.
He could help give the pending Export Administration Act some teeth and bar the door against nuclear exports. The United States would set a good example for other nations by practicing self-restraint in its nuclear exports and contribute to the peace by cracking down on anyone who violates international agreements on nuclear goods and services.
Or, Mr. Sarbanes and his conferees can leave important decisions about nuclear exports and weapons proliferation to an unaccountable executive branch, inviting another debacle like Iraq.
% The choice is theirs.
Bruce Peabody represents the Council for a Livable World, an arms control group. Peter L. Kelley is print director of the National Security News Service and a graduate student at the University of Maryland College Park.