WASHINGTON — EVEN as the Clinton administration nudges Jordan toward a peace pact with Israel, it is looking the other way as Jordan permits exports to Iraq that could help retool the warmaking capability of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
According to United States court documents and interviews with US law-enforcement and government officials, United Nations diplomats, and businessmen from Mideast and Western countries, the White House has purposely remained idle as Jordan has allowed the re-export to Iraq of so-called dual-use equipment that can be used for both military and civilian purposes.
This conciliatory approach, which has become more fixed as the Arab-Israeli peace talks have gained momentum during the past year, sources say, is in direct contrast to the administration's tough public stand on UN sanctions invoked at the end of the Gulf war to strangle Iraq's military might.
President Clinton hopes to sponsor a historic hand-shaking agreement between Israel and Jordan at the White House on July 25. The two Mideast nations begin open talks on final details of an agreement today.
A State Department official denies that the US is lenient on Jordan's violations of the sanctions. ``That is nonsense, absolute nonsense. Any agreement we reach with the Jordanians [to promote new ties with Israel] will maintain and strengthen sanctions against the [Iraqi] regime and will not weaken them.'' But, he adds, ``we think it is well-understood that the peace process and the sanctions are not related and we certainly do not relate them.''
But other sources in the State and Treasury Departments, all of whom request anonymity, describe how Washington is increasingly tolerant of embargo violations that provide Iraq access not only to defense materials but also to international financing needed to rebuild its war machine. Jordan, a pivotal player in the US-sponsored Mideast peace process, is at the center of the Iraqi procurement network.
Question of worth
``The question the administration has to answer is: Is it worth it?'' asserts a senior US official who has been monitoring Iraq's compliance with the embargo. He asks whether it is worth jeopardizing the US policy toward Iraq for the sake of cementing Jordanian ties with Israel. ``It's putting Iraq back on the fast track, and all of this peace stuff will be moot if Saddam is able to build his arsenal and mobilize his military again,'' the official says.
Robert Gates, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Bush administration, says, ``Part of the problem is that the Clinton administration has tactical instead of strategic plans. By tactical I mean a short-term perspective, such as responding to Jordan's pleas for help without a full consideration of the long-term implications of Iraq's possible reemergence as a destabilizing force in the Middle East.''
In the past month, the Clinton administration has withheld support for US Customs officials who have sought help from the CIA and the National Security Council (NSC) in investigating US-based Jordanian nationals engaged in the export of dual-use equipment to Iraq through holding companies in Jordan. Several indictments have been issued in recent months by grand juries and at least a dozen other investigations are under way.
A host of products - from the most basic, such as tires for military trucks, to the technical, such as agricultural and veterinarian equipment that can be used for biological-weapons programs or devices used for testing nuclear military equipment - are transported into Iraq through Jordan, US court documents show.
In order for the Customs Service or the Justice Department to proceed with Jordanian-related matters, they have had to go through the State Department's Jordan desk routinely since early this year, says a senior US official monitoring Iraq's sanctions compliance. ``Often the desk will [terminate] investigations in favor of diplomatic considerations,'' the official says. ``While the State Department maintains major leverage over timing and what will be allowed to be presented, the NSC itself is handling all matters dealing with Jordan,'' given the White House drive for a Jordanian-Israeli peace pact, he adds.
Another senior State Department official concedes that the administration is giving Jordan some slack and will do all it can to avoid exposing major sanctions violations and forced US action against the kingdom. ``We're trying to get goodies for Jordan right now [including Clinton's recent pledge to forgive Jordan's $900 million debt and plans to help it beef up Jordan's military]. The last thing we want to do is embarrass the Jordanians and push them away from the peace process,'' this official says.
Despite its demands for steadfast support for the sanctions, the US has failed in its obligation to apprise Capitol Hill lawmakers and specially designated UN international monitors of the Jordanian infractions.
The White House sends Congress a bimonthly update on international compliance with the sanctions. The last three public 60-day reviews delivered by the White House, covering December 1993 through May of this year, make no mention of Jordanian violations of the embargo. That includes the latest report Clinton signed on June 6, which he sent to US lawmakers just two weeks before King Hussein made his first official visit to Washington. Ironically, Clinton did stress that ``continued vigilance is necessary because we believe that Saddam Hussein is committed to rebuilding his WMD [weapons of mass destruction] capability.''
At the United Nations Iraqi Sanctions Committee ``there have been no official complaints over the last few months,'' says Jinghang Wan, special aide to the committee. The last action investigated by the committee was in December 1993, he says.
Law-enforcement officials are slugging through a backlog of old cases, and continue to uncover new illegal export schemes involving Amman. Still working their way through US courts are transgressions uncovered in the late-1980s and early-1990s that implicate Jordan. Last Wednesday, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia charged four US-based firms and two individuals with conspiracy to skirt US export-licensing procedures to send components for cluster bombs and warheads to Iraq through Jordan's port of Aqaba.
Just last March, US customs officials charged a Jordanian national who set up an illegal export operation from Richmond, Va. According to court records, Al M. Harb (who uses a number of other aliases) procured for shipment via Jordan, globe valves, motor brushes, and other technical goods bound for Iraq's nuclear program.
Detailing such schemes as the Al Harb case, Thomas Madigan, a senior special agent of the US Customs Service who worked on the Harb case as well as three other illegal Iraqi procurement cases, swore in a February affadavit: ``I am aware that the Iraqi government has developed an intricate network of transshipment routes designed to circumvent international scrutiny of the procurement of restricted commodities. It has been my investigative experience that neighboring Jordan has served as the primary point of diversion for illegal smuggling into Iraq since implementation of the embargo.''
Currently, law-enforcement officials say there are at least a dozen sitting grand juries probing US-based individuals and companies who are now sending contraband to Iraq.
Customs officials at headquarters here, however, claim that these investigations are not centrally coordinated either by their agency or by the US Justice Department; rather they are spearheaded by the individual agents in the field. Furthermore, even when these field investigators manage to uncover a network, they receive little of the support from the intelligence community that is needed to successfully bring cases to trial.
Low morale at Customs
``Morale is low because we feel we are going to be undercut by those with `higher purposes,' '' says one investigator. Sources familiar with the Al Harb case, for example, claim that the NSC and CIA are failing to provide valuable information about front companies and individuals in Amman that is essential to prosecutors.
Mr. Gates, who says that during his tenure as CIA director, the agency worked very closely with US customs investigators, says Jordan has been the biggest enabler to Iraq's effort to rebuild its defensive and offensive capacity. He adds that according to US intelligence reports, some members of ``the [Jordanian] royal family and the Cabinet'' have been involved in the ``smuggling and busting'' of the embargo against Iraq.
US knowledge of their culpability ``was so detailed'' during the Bush administration, Gates recalls, that ``on a couple of occasions I was sent to Jordan to take it up with the king. He was very unhappy to learn [that] there were efforts to evade the sanctions. I had the impression that the specifics I conveyed to him were shocking to him.'' Gates is uncertain whether the king was shocked because he had been unaware of this information or because US intelligence knew of it.
A Mideast businessman with close ties to Amman says that during US meetings with Jordanian officials, the administration thanks Jordan for its past help in adhering to the embargo. White House reports on just how well that has been achieved ``really don't matter'' he adds cynically, ``they're going to put the best gloss on this.''
* Tomorrow: Details on how Jordan helps Iraq with money and goods.