The CIA Reports on Saddam's Gassings
Jude Wanniski
October 8, 2002


Memo To: Jeffrey Goldberg. The New Yorker
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: You Were Snookered

In case you did not see the latest report of the Central Intelligence Agency, Jeffrey, you will be surprised to see it does not give much support to the 18,000-word story you wrote last March about Iraq’s gassing of the Kurds at Halabja in 1988, “The Great Terror.” Remember I had warned David Remnick, your editor at the New Yorker, that you were snookered. Well, I’m afraid that the CIA’s report published last Friday,, pulls the props from under not only your story, but much of the conventional wisdom about Saddam Hussein’s use of poison gas. Here is what you wrote after visiting northern Iraq in January:

The chemical attacks on Halabja and Goktapa and perhaps two hundred other villages and towns were only a small part of the cataclysm that Saddam's cousin, the man known as Ali Chemical, arranged for the Kurds. The Kurds say that about two hundred thousand were killed. (Human Rights Watch, which in the early nineties published "Iraq's Crime of Genocide," a definitive study of the attacks, gives a figure of between fifty thousand and a hundred thousand.)

The campaign against the Kurds was dubbed al-Anfal by Saddam, after a chapter in the Koran that allows conquering Muslim armies to seize the spoils of their foes. It reads, in part, "Against them"--your enemies--"make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the cause of Allah, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly."

The Anfal campaign was not an end in itself, like the Holocaust, but a means to an end--an instance of a policy that Samantha Power, who runs the Carr Center for Human Rights, at Harvard, calls "instrumental genocide." Power has just published " 'A Problem from Hell,' " a study of American responses to genocide. "There are regimes that set out to murder every citizen of a race," she said. "Saddam achieved what he had to do without exterminating every last Kurd." What he had to do, Power and others say, was to break the Kurds' morale and convince them that a desire for independence was foolish.

Most of the Kurds who were murdered in the Anfal were not killed by poison gas; rather, the genocide was carried out, in large part, in the traditional manner, with roundups at night, mass executions, and anonymous burials. The bodies of most of the victims of the Anfal--mainly men and boys--have never been found.

("The Great Terror")

If you check the CIA report, you will find they say there is only evidence that “hundreds” were killed at Halabja in March 1988, and that only mustard gas and a nerve agent was used by Iraq. Just a few days earlier the NYTimes casually noted that Iraq had killed 5,000 of its citizens by dropping poison gas on them. The CIA now seems to be fully supporting the U.S. Army War College report of April 1990, as the Kurds who died at Halabja were killed by a cyanide-based blood agent, not mustard gas or a nerve agent. Dr. Stephen Pelletiere, who co-authored the 1990 report, also notes the CIA does not mention any Iraqi use of chemical weapons (CW) after March 1988. It has been conventional wisdom that it won the war with Iran with extensive use of CW. As you well know, Jeffrey, Pelletiere has never believed those stories. You simply chose to believe the people you talked to at Human Rights Watch, who now have egg all over their faces.

The one reporter who took Pelletiere seriously was Roger Trilling of The Village Voice, who wrote “Fighting Words,” in the May 1-7 Voice. The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but in these closing graphs he does quote you after discussing the War College report:

Most of the report's chapter on chemical weapons is devoted to Iraqi military tactics, but one sentence stands out: "Blood agents [i.e., cyanogen chloride] were allegedly responsible for the most infamous use of chemicals in the war--the killing of Kurds at Halabjah. Since the Iraqis have no history of using these two agents--and the Iranians do--we conclude that the Iranians perpetrated this attack." (The report is available at

All of this was reported at the time. On May 3, 1990, referring to yet another study, The Washington Post stated: "A Defense Department reconstruction of the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war has assembled what analysts say is conclusive intelligence that one of the worst civilian massacres of the war, in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Halabja, was caused by repeated chemical bombardments from both belligerent armies."

In response to the orthodoxy already established around the event, the Post's Patrick Tyler went on to note that the reconstruction "calls into question the widely reported assertion of human rights organizations and Kurdish groups that Iraq bore the greatest responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi Kurds--women, infants and elderly--who died at Halabja."

Articles asserting Iranian complicity also ran in The New York Times ("Years Later, No Clear Culprit in Gassing of Kurds"), Newsday, The New York Review of Books, and elsewhere.

But that's all forgotten now. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the demonization of Saddam has become a linchpin of U.S. foreign policy, and his solo turn as Killer of Kurds has passed beyond question. Likewise, Halabja has become an Alamo for human rights and Kurdish rights groups, who have used it ever since for their own often admirable purposes.

In a telephone interview with the Voice, Goldberg explained why he had chosen to elide the position of the military and intelligence communities from his piece. "I didn't give it much thought, because it was dismissed by so many people I consider to be experts," he told me. "Very quickly into this story, I decided that I support the mainstream view--of Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, the State Department, the UN, and various Kurdish groups--that the Iraqis were responsible for Halabja. In the same way, I didn't give any merit to the Iraqi denials."

Implying that the Pentagon, the DIA, and the CIA are no more reliable than the Iraqis seems a bit extreme, but Goldberg's point is essentially correct. Never more than since September 11, Saddam's sole responsibility for the massacre at Halabja has become conventional wisdom.

To Stephen Pelletiere, who was the CIA's senior political analyst on Iraq throughout the Iran-Iraq War, this is highly alarming. "There is to this day the belief--and I'm not the only one who holds it--that things didn't happen in Halabja the way Goldberg wrote it," he told the Voice. "And it's an especially crucial issue right now. We say Saddam is a monster, a maniac who gassed his own people, and the world shouldn't tolerate him. But why? Because that's the last argument the U.S. has for going to war with Iraq."

("Fighting Words")

I'm afraid the damage you did by your careless reporting, Jeffrey, is incalculable. It is clear you were steered in the wrong direction by Jim Woolsey, Richard Perle's sidekick on the Defense Policy Board, who you quote in the piece as favoring the "regime change" in Baghdad. Woolsey not only began promoting your article a week before it appeared, but also quickly got it into the hands of President Bush. Indeed, Mr. Bush held the magazine up at a press briefing, citing its grisly details as evidence that Saddam is a monster, a maniac who gassed his own people. In his speech last night to the nation, making the case for war, the President again asserted that Saddam "ordered chemical attacks on Iran and on more than 40 villages in his own country." It looks like he got that from your article, as there is nothing in the CIA report about CW attacks on 40 Iraqi villages. I do think you believe what you wrote, Jeffrey, but I think it is pretty clear you did not do enough reporting. So you got snookered.