It was Rumsfeld, now defense secretary and then a special presidential envoy, whose December 1983 meeting with Saddam Hussein led to the normalization of ties between Washington and Baghdad, according to the Washington Post.
The cozy relationship was an effort to build a regional bulwark against America's enemies in Iran.
The newspaper says a review of a large tranche of government documents reveals that the administrations of President Reagan and the first President Bush both authorized providing Iraq with intelligence and logistical support, and okayed the sale of dual use items — those with military and civilian applications — that included chemicals and germs, even anthrax and bubonic plague.
Foreign affairs experts are split on whether the policy made sense given the different dynamics of an earlier era when the Soviet Union was still a player in the Middle East, when Iranian fundamentalism was unchecked by the current efforts toward reform, and when Saddam was already a valued friend of European U.S. allies like the French.
Vital American interests were also at stake. The U.S. assistance to Iraq came only after Iran gained the upper hand in their eight-year war, and looked poised to threaten the Persian Gulf states, Kuwait and even Saudi Arabia — key suppliers of oil to the United States.
Kenneth Pollack, a one-time CIA analyst and author of a current book advocating war with Iraq, told the Post, "It was a horrible mistake then, but we have got it right now. My fellow [CIA] analysts and I were warning at the time that Hussein was a very nasty character. We were constantly fighting the State Department."
But former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad David Newton contended in a Post interview, "Fundamentally, the policy was justified. We were concerned that Iraq should not lose the war with Iran, because that would have threatened Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Our long-term hope was that Hussein's government would become less repressive and more responsible."
The U.S. removed Iraq from its list of states that sponsor terrorism in 1982, and as Iran made gains on the battlefield, the Reagan administration decided to pass intelligence to Iraq.
The policy to do this was captured in a November 1983 National Security Directive that is still classified, but apparently stated that U.S. policy was to do "whatever was necessary and legal" to stop Iran from winning.
At the same time, there were multiple reports Iraq was using chemical weapons to repulse the Iranian advance; one State Department official told Secretary of State George Shultz that Iraq was engaging in "almost daily use of (chemical weapons)" against Iranian troops.
This policy led to several Rumsfeld visits to Baghdad, as a private citizen working as a presidential envoy.
According to State Department report, at his first meeting with Saddam, Rumsfeld told Hussein the U.S. wanted a full resumption of relations. While the defense secretary has since said he warned Iraq about the use of chemical weapons, notes of the meeting do not show this. Rumseld apparently did mention the chemical weapons concern in a meeting with an aide to Saddam.
A 1995 affidavit by former National Security Agency official Howard Teicher, obtained by the Post, claimed that the U.S. "actively supported the Iraqi war effort by supplying the Iraqis with billions of dollars of credits, by providing military intelligence and advice to the Iraqis, and by closely monitoring third country arms sales to Iraq to make sure Iraq had the military weaponry required."
Teicher claimed that the CIA supplied Iraq with cluster bombs through a Chilean company. However, German and UK firms sold more weapons to Iraq than U.S. arms companies, the Post reports.
Congressional investigations after the Gulf War revealed that the Commerce Department had licensed sales of biological agents, including anthrax, and insecticides, which could be used in chemical weapons, to Iraq.
When Iraq used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1987, there was anger in Congress and the White House. But a memo in 1988 from Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy stated that "The U.S.-Iraqi relationship is … important to our long-term political and economic objectives."
"We believe that economic sanctions will be useless or counterproductive to influence the Iraqis," the Post quoted the memo as saying.