U.S. never questioned sales to Iraq Son of gun 'genius' describes process

October 31, 1992|By Nelson Schwartz and Richard H. P. Sia | Nelson Schwartz and Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The son of renegade arms maker Gerald Bull says the Bush administration had little interest in investigating their Baltimore-based firm's links to Baghdad and never discouraged them from selling sensitive computer technology that helped design Iraq's "super gun" and ballistic missile program.

"The government now says they were raising red flags about this all along but they never picked up the phone," said Michel Bull, who served as managing director of Space Research Corp. of Maryland.

"If this was such a big deal, why didn't they contact us? The U.S. government knew where we were and could have called us," Mr. Bull told The Sun this week.

Mr. Bull and others said administration officials did not delve deeply into the company's export license applications or Gerald Bull's ties to the Iraqi government.

The elder Mr. Bull, described as a genius in artillery design, was jailed in 1980 for supplying munitions to South Africa and breaking U.S export laws. He was slain in Brussels by unknown assailants in early 1990.

An individual familiar with this case said, "There is no evidence that that the Commerce Department ever contacted Space Research Corp., other than in strictly routine, procedural matters."

"They didn't ask any substantive questions," the source said. "Iraq was considered the enemy of our enemy Iran and by some contorted notion our friend. I think they thought about it and just decided to let it go."

Earlier this week, Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, D-Texas, the House banking committee chairman, said that computers and missile design software sold by Space Research were used to develop the "super gun," a mammoth artillery system capable of firing nuclear-tipped shells hundreds of miles.

Michel Bull said in a telephone interview from Montreal that he arranged a meeting with the State Department's Office of Munitions Control in the spring of 1988 to sound them out about possible exports to Iraq.

He recalled being told that while it would be difficult to export material during the Iran-Iraq war, there would be no problem with shipments once the war ended.

Because of his father's criminal past, he said, the company wanted to be sure of U.S. policy. "We didn't want to incur the wrath of the U.S.," Mr. Bull said.

"They seemed generally friendly to the idea of working with Iraq," he added. "We wanted a general guidance from them. If they had viewed it as unpleasant, we would have dropped it. They said there was no hostility between the U.S. and Iraq at the time."

An administration official did not dispute Mr. Bull's account of the meeting. He said the State Department "did not attempt to discourage them. We wanted to make sure they were clean as far as U.S. [export] policy was concerned."

"We did not see it as newsworthy that Gerald Bull was doing business with Iraq," the official said. "We never heard anything that would raise a red flag, never heard anything about a super gun."

The Iran-Iraq war ended in August 1988, and in September 1989, the Commerce Department granted the company's request to ship computers with extensive military and civilian applications to Iraq.

Michel Bull professed ignorance that the computers and computer software the company sold to Iraq were used to design the super gun and ballistic missiles.

The Baltimore company went out of business in October, 1991 and forfeited its corporate charter for non-payment of taxes, Maryland records show.

After the gulf war, United Nations inspectors discovered a prototype of the super gun north of Baghdad.

Inspectors said the weapon had been test-fired and its 360-foot long barrel was capable of firing nuclear, chemical or biological shells.

The State Department has consistenty denied granting licenses to companies linked to Gerald Bull, saying it was the Commerce Department's decision. "I am Dr. Bull's son," Mr. Bull said. "How could they not have known?"

The Defense Department, which did not oppose Space Research's proposed exports, asserted this week that its officials were not aware of Gerald Bull's ties to the firm when they reviewed the license application.

But Pete Williams, the Pentagon spokesman, suggested that even if that information had been known, defense officials would not have been able to prevent the Commerce Department from issuing the export licenses.

When the application was sent to the Pentagon in June 1989, defense officials were only permitted by law and Bush administration policy to consider whether the computers might be resold by Iraq to Communist-bloc nations and whether the technology would be diverted to help devise a nuclear weapon, several officials recalled in interviews.

"It doesn't get into the question of how the Iraqis were going to use the computer," Mr. Williams said, conceding that the latitude given to defense officials was "too narrow."

A Pentagon official who insisted on anonymity maintained that it became more difficult to block sales to Iraq after the Bush Administration moved in and better relations with Iraq became a higher priority.

"It got worse between 1988 and 1990," he said.

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