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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > April

Merchants of death, activists for peace

Back in the period of the build-up to the U.S. attack on Iraq, Oregon’s Tektronix almost made the news. Iraq, as part of its 12,000 page response to UN inspectors, listed Tektronix as one of the dozens of U.S. companies which supplied equipment, chemicals and expertise for that country’s weapons program.

Activists for peace

Michael Connor, reporter for The Portland Alliance, recently spoke with Dan Handelman, a Portland peace activist who was fined $10,000 by the U.S. State Department after he travelled to Iraq for humanitarian reasons in violation of UN sanctions.

MC: Is there a specific vivid memory you have of an Iraqi citizen or place, which you now worry about due to the impending war?

DH: I worry about all the people of Iraq. there are 23 million people in the country. Despite being full of barren desert, it is also a beautiful country and one rich in history which has already been devastated. Thinking about how long it has taken to rebuild the infrastructure just to the point it is at now (still far below the 1990 level) is overwhelming.

MC: Could you explain your work in Iraq?

DH: I went with Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end the sanctions on Iraq, in 1997 and in 2002. We delivered medicine and toys to families and to hospitals. This delivery of goods was done without permission from the US or the UN in violation of the sanctions, in full recognition that the items were just a drop in the bucket of what is needed for humantarian aid. We did this to shine a light on the illegal nature of the sanctions policy and how it does enormous damage to the civilian population with little effect on the regime.

MC: Do you have any reaction to American firms arming Iraq, especially in relation to your actions which got you in trouble?

DH: Obviously, it is ironic that I have been fined $10,000 for my 1997 trip (along with 2 fellow delegates, and Voices in the Wilderness which was fined $20,000) while companies which sold Iraq the seeds of its alleged WMD program are not even being mentioned. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that the 12,000 page document presented by Iraq in November outlining its WMD program was seized by the US for photocopying and they blacked out the names of many of these firms.
It seems that those in power are more worried about international solidarity actions than careless sales of deadly weapons for profit.

Uncle Sam, which scooped up almost all copies of Iraq’s report, released a sanitized version, with the names of firms removed. A small German newspaper got hold of one original copy however, and published the list of corporations, and there was Tektronix: Tektronix (R, A) R stands for Rocket Program. A stands for Nuclear Program.

While its website offers the slogan, “Enabling Innovation,” Tektronix and dozens of U.S. corporations enabled Iraq to acquire chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons capabilities. With U.S. government blessing, Hewlett-Packard and other firms with Oregon ties provided the gizmos behind some of Iraq’s worst atrocities.

On the other hand, the activist group Voices in the Wilderness helped a few Iraqi children get the medicine they need, medicine denied them because of the

decades-long U.S.-led sanctions on Iraq. Portland’s Dan Handelman brought necessary drugs and children’s toys to Iraq, and the U.S. government fined him $10,000. Welcome to Wonderland.

Military-Industrial complexities

The dirty open secret of American “free trade” involves the ongoing arming of the world. Small arms dominate, with the U.S. providing something like half of all human-carried weapons, responsible for four million deaths annually worldwide. These are “weapons of mass destruction” not subject to international review or censure.

Technology for more sophisticated weaponry follows channels carved out by U.S. military interests, economic ties, and political alliances, which means clients of empire, and lots of them.

In the late 1980s U.S. elites looked at the mess that was the Iran-Iraq war and saw the possibilities for money and influence by supporting Iraq. Donald Rumsfield tip-toed over to Iraq, shook Saddam’s hand, and the race to arm was on. The U.S. Commerce department approved over $1.5 billion in U.S. sales to Iraq from 1986-1990.

Research conducted by the San Francisco Bay Guardian turned up a variety of west coast solutions to Iraqi weapons problems. Need computers for missile research and development? California‚s Hewlett-Packard (with several thousand Oregon workers) provided them to Iraq. Need a plant to make mustard gas? San Francisco’s Bechtel built it. And when Iraq needed oscilloscopes to help process data from weapons testing, Tektronix obliged.

None of the companies admit to any wrong-doing. They insist that all sales were legal, and complain that Iraq didn’t say it needed equipment for weapons.
Tektronix, for example, “obtained 16 licenses for exports to Iraq” for a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment, according to a company press release. “Export licenses were granted by the Commerce Department after a review process which included the National Security Council.” Subsequent Senate investigations found that Commerce officials “changed information on sixty-eight licenses; that references to military end uses were deleted...”

Portland itself has a small role in the Iraq fiasco, as scientists from around the world attended a conference right here in Stumptown: The Ninth Symposium (International) on Detonation. West coast arms merchants (including Hewlett-Packard) flocked to meet the customers (Israel, Syria, Iraq...). The Department of Energy opined that Portland was the place to be ``if you were a potential nuclear weapons proliferant.’’

In Portland, “[We] got anything that was current in the field about how to make top-notch [high- explosive] lenses.” This from Dr. Khidhir Hamza, a senior Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected in the early 1990s, in interviews with the Institute for Science and International Security’s Kevin O’Neill. According to O’Neill, Iraqi operatives “were able to obtain documents and reports, learn new techniques, and make contacts with suppliers for fast electronics.” Or as Hamza puts it, “Many papers were delivered there that gave us many indications on which direction to go.”

Business as usual

The current round of agression against Iraq has shown a small light into the usually murky world of U.S. arms and trade policy. As the largest arms dealer in the world, the U.S. routinely provides weapons to many thuggish regimes. As the largest pusher of unrestricted trade, the U.S. normally approves sales of all sorts of equipment destined for governments on the fast track to mass destruction.

By violating the sanctions against Iraq, activists demononstrated the hypocrisy of U.S. policy. If Iraqi weapons justify invasion, why did the U.S. sponsor the weapons programs in the first place? If sanctions were supposed to check Iraqi agression, why were toys and medicine forbidden? And if sanctions and invasion aren’t about weapons or agresssion, what are they good for?

The authors help edit LeftField, the baseball and politics ‘zine, and contribute to the Alliance’s regular sports column, Southpaw Report.




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Last Updated: January 29, 2003