Archive (NSA)

Middle East: US Ambassador (London) telegram to Secretary of State Baker (Iraqi supergun affair) [declassified 1993]

Document type: Declassified documents
Venue: US Embassy, London
Source: National Security Archive, George Washington University, Washington D.C.
Editorial comments: Declassified 7 Dec 1993.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 960 words
Themes: Executive, Parliament, Defence (general), Foreign policy (Middle East), Law & order, Security services

SUBJECT: UK-Iraq: ex-SRC employee is charged in connection with the Iraqi "Supergun" affair

1. C – entire text.

2. Summary. Amid a great deal of finger-pointing and growing embarrassment within HMG about what the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) did or did not know (and when) about the sale of "supergun" components to Iraq, two "inquiries" have been launched, one by the Cabinet Office and another by the House of Commons Select Committee on Trade and Industry. Meanwhile, Customs & Excise charged Christopher Cowley, a former employee of SRC, with involvement in the exportation of the piping "with intent to evade the prohibitions in force". The FCO told us that Prime Minister Thatcher will ask the Turks to return the pipes recently seized [end p1] in Turkey. The FCO also told us (please protect) that the Saudis had advised HMG not to send back British Ambassador Walker to Baghdad unless Iraq "gives" the British something. End summary.

3. Conservative MP Sir Hal Miller's assertions that he had repeatedly contacted DTI, the MOD, and the Intelligence Services (REFTEL) about concerns by British companies that Iraq's specifications for piping did not match its purported use has resulted in a flurry of finger-pointing and calls for investigations. Sir Hal has written to the Prime Minister detailing when and with whom he spoke about suspicions that the Iraqi contacts were not what they seemed. He also told the press he was prepared to give evidence in court on behalf of Walter Somers, one of the British companies being investigated in connection with the sales.

4. There appear to be at least three factors fanning the calls for investigations into the extent of government complicity and/or knowledge about the true nature of the sales. The Opposition is seizing the opportunity to embarrass the Government by charging that the Iraqi gun affair is the result of irresponsible action by a Government department. Sir Hal wants to protect Walter Somers – which is located in his constituency and which provides jobs to his constituents – from prosecution. His word and integrity are also wrapped up in the matter. And finally, there are those who are genuinely concerned about the controls and procedures currently in place to monitor such sales.

Investigations abound - for different reasons

5. The Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Secretary to coordinate an inquiry into all the contacts between Sir Hal and government departments. The FCO told us the objective of this inquiry is to establish the sequence of events and establish the facts about what was known, and when. The information is for internal purposes and intended to be used to defend government action with [end p2] regard to the pipe sales.

6. On April 25, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Trade and Industry announced it would launch its own investigation into the sale of "supergun" components to Iraq. The Committee will have powers "to send for persons and papers" and has made clear it will call Trade Secretary Nicholas Ridley as well as representatives from the two companies. The press is alleging that HMG is anxious that no prosecutions be brought against the companies out of concern over what they might reveal about the Government's role. Mrs. Thatcher told the Commons that it was up to Customs & Excise to determine whether it had sufficient evidence to prosecute.

Ex-SRC employee is charged

7. Meanwhile, Customs & Excise on April 25 charged Christopher Cowley, 51, of Hotwells, Bristol, with violating the Export of Goods Control Orders of 1987 and 1989 and the Customs & Excise Management Act. Cowley [end p3] is a metallurgist, formerly employed by Dr. Bull's Space Research Corporation and believed to be involved in the design of the "supergun". If convicted, he faces up to two years' imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both. The move will likely compromise the Commons investigation in that ministers will probably argue that they cannot answer any questions because the entire matter is sub judice.

Turkey and Greece

8. The FCO told us that Prime Minister Thatcher would ask Turkish President Ozal to return the pipes impounded in Turkey to Britain. HMG would also like to get the pipes impounded in Greece returned but doubted the Greek authorities would comply. The FCO said the Government was coming under increasing pressure and criticism about the continued detention of Paul Ashwell, the driver of [end p4] the truck which was detained in Patras. Ashwell has been charged with importing a gun. FCO Minister of State Waldegrave told the Commons that HMG did not believe Ashwell had knowingly committed any offence but that Greek law on the matter had to be respected. Opposition MPs charged that the Government was permitting Ashwell to become a scapegoat for its own "lies and evasions". The FCO told us it had asked the Greek MFA to expedite the case.

British Ambassador's likely return

9. The FCO is concerned that Walker's return to Baghdad has been caught up with factors extraneous to his recall. Originally scheduled to return on April 16, his departure was delayed first by news of the interception of nuclear triggers and now by the supergun controversy. The FCO told us (please protect) that Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Bandar had convinced "the highest levels of the Government," i.e., Mrs. Thatcher, that British Ambassador Walker should not return unless the Iraqis cede something on British detainees. Otherwise the British move would be perceived as caving in to Iraq. Bandar reportedly pledged to seek to convince Saddam Hussein to make some gesture on one of the two long-term British detainees – Daphne Parish (who was sentenced to fifteen years for spying in connection with the Bazoft affair) or Ian Richter (who is serving a life sentence). The FCO believes the possibility of such a gesture is close to nil.