War Crimes, US Planners and Iraq’s Water Vulnerability: A Conversation with

Professor Thomas Nagy

by Abu Spinoza

Dissident Voice

June 12, 2003





At the time of the first Persian Gulf War (1991), the United States’ military planners knew that Iraq’s water supply facilities were vulnerable to sanctions. They were also aware that Iraq’s vulnerability, owing to the lack of crucial imports of chemicals and equipment required for the purification of water, could cause deaths, diseases and epidemics. Yet planners went ahead with the imposition of sanctions that directly contributed to degrading Iraq’s water treatment facilities. The sanctions caused public health catastrophes, exactly as the planners had reasonably conjectured and anticipated in the planning documents dating from 1991. Declassified US government documents disclose planners’ complicity, foreknowledge and malfeasance in exploiting Iraq’s vulnerability in supplying clean water to its population.


Professor Thomas Nagy, who teaches at George Washington University’s Business School, uncovered several declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) documents outlining the US planners’ analysis of Iraq’s water treatment vulnerabilities and possible consequences of imposing sanctions. He published his findings in the September 2001 issue of the Progressive, a small but respected independent and alternative magazine.


Nagy’s Key Findings


Nagy found these declassified documents at the website of the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses. These documents show that the US authorities had used sanctions to degrade Iraq’s water treatment facilities. The main document is titled, “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerability.” He also uncovered several other related documents, such as “Disease Information,” “Disease Outbreaks in Iraq,” “Medical Problems in Iraq,” “Status of Disease at Refugee Camps,” “Health Conditions in Iraq,” and “Iraq: Assessment of Current Health Threats and Capabilities.” Other Iraq-related US government declassified documents are also available in the same website.


The document “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerability,” noted that “failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could result in increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease and to certain pure water dependent becoming incapacitated.” It also observed that “Iraq’s overall water treatment capability will suffer a slow decline, rather than a precipitous halt as dwindling supplies and cannibalized parts are concentrated at higher priority locations.” The planners knew that “no adequate solution exists for Iraq’s water purification dilemma” as long as sanctions remained in effect. The planners’ own assessment was that the “full degradation of the water treatment system probably will take least another six months.” That is what exactly happened. Under the UN sanctions regime, the US continued to withhold approval for Iraq to import critical chemicals and equipment and spare parts to purify water. The degradation of the Iraq’s water system was one of the leading factors contributing to the rise of death rates and the widespread occurrence of disease among Iraqis, including women and children, as have been documented extensively by various UN studies and NGOs. Iraq’s incapacity to obtain to import essential chemicals and equipment, proved to be fatal for its population.


Nagy’s article provides an analysis of the contents of these documents. The Geneva Convention relating to “the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts,” known as Protocol I, clearly states and definitively forbids attempts to destroy public infrastructure, including water installation facilities and supplies. Article 54 explicitly and unequivocally states: “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.” Despite this grave stipulation that forbids any attempt to destroy or render useless water installation and supply facilities, it is precisely what the US authorities did do by imposing sanctions and withholding permissions for Iraq to import required chemicals and equipment for water purifications.


Corporate Press and the US Biochemical Warfare against Iraq


The implications of Nagy’s findings are quite serious and worthy of a thorough investigation because they suggest that the US authorities committed war crimes. However, his analysis of government documents went unreported in the trend-setting national US media, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Time, and Newsweek. It did receive some mention in the foreign press, state-level press, non-corporate independent press, and specialized publications. It is to the credit of the Progressive that they published Nagy’s revealing article, accompanied by an op-ed by its editor Matthew Rothschild. The conservative columnist Charley Reese of Orlando Sentinel did a follow-up on a story published on Nagy’s findings by Felicity Arbuthnot in the Sunday Herald (Scotland). Project Censored listed Nagy’s article as one of the top 10 “censored” stories of 2001 and 2002. The US authorities do not generally bar publications of critical articles. Censorship in the United States does not work through direct restrictions on any publication. Nominal freedom of speech is a fairly well entrenched institutional norm. But the corporate-controlled media’s collective failure to follow up on news and information contrary to the dominant ideology is sufficient to create a de facto censorship of critical writings.


The violation of Geneva Convention is a serious charge. The deliberate destruction of a country’s capability of purifying and supplying clean water to its population by denying the importation of key chemical ingredients and water purification equipment from abroad can be regarded as a form of biochemical warfare on the population of a country. This form of implicit warfare is no less pernicious in the magnitude of people killed and diseases caused than any possible destruction caused by a weapon of mass destruction. The increase in Iraq’s water treatment vulnerability did not have the media visibility of the effects of aerial bombing. But its effects were far more lethal and no less horrific. Yet few have described the Anglo-American sanctions on Iraq as a form of implicit biochemical warfare. The sanctions themselves were a stranglehold on the people of Iraq. One of the effects of the sanctions was to strengthen Saddam Hussein’s regime and its grip on political power and Iraqi society.


Nagy’s documented findings are important today when the US has entered into a phase of direct imperial conquest and military occupation. These documents unveil not only the thinking of the US planners and their military and political strategy but also show that they had definitive and clear foreknowledge of the likely consequences of steps taken and yet they were not reluctant to exploit Iraq’s water treatment vulnerability in complete and gross violation of basic international law. It shows that in order to advance the objectives of war and imperial domination US planners do not hesitate to plan actions that amount to war crimes, knowing full well in advance what are likely consequences of their actions. The delay and the obstacles to Iraq’s attempt to import chemicals and equipment for water treatment under the Anglo-American sanctions regime by putting Iraq’s requests to import such materials on unnecessary and lengthy "holds" at the United Nations certainly were responsible for an increasing death rate and deteriorating public health in Iraq. Those Anglo-American planners directly responsible for planning to effectively "degrade" Iraq's water treatment facilities and willfully putting impediments to Iraqi authorities’ attempt to supply clean water to the population of the country can be treated as nefarious war criminals. When suitable conditions arise they should be charged with such crimes and brought to trial before an international or national court.


Professor Nagy’s Background


Thomas Nagy is Associate Professor of Expert Systems in the Management Science Department of the School of Business & Public Management at George Washington University (GWU). He obtained his doctoral degree on research methodology and computer technology from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Science degree from Trinity University, Texas. He is co-author of two books and co-editor of a third. He has presented papers on genocide and war crimes at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint Services Committee on Professional Ethics (JSCOPE). He serves as the faculty sponsor for George Washington University’s chapter of the School of the Americas Watch. He was the key organizer of a protest against former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s commencement address at George Washington University in 2000. He distributed a pamphlet on that occasion.


Professor Thomas Nagy kindly agreed to share his thoughts on activism, his research on Iraq’s water treatment vulnerability and the US war on Iraq and the occupation with Abu Spinoza.




Spinoza: I understand that you were a refugee in your childhood. Would you tell us a little bit about yourself and in particular how you became interested in Iraq?


Nagy: I was born during an air raid. I have automatic sympathy for refugees. I don’t care who they are --especially refugee children. No children under five can be guilty. I was furious to learn that the US criminal justice system is totally corrupt. Its main job is to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. Any other effect is a side effect. So I decided to try public health. I took a huge pay cut and studied public health as a post-doctoral fellow. I did not fit in at John Hopkins University. There is a rigid class system that may not be as bad as untouchables in India but I find it intellectually dishonest. In general the medical doctor was always right and the Ph.D. students had to blindly follow the nonsense. That got me into trouble. After that I decided not to have anything to do with a university again. Then I become a "beltway bandit." After four years it turned out to be even worse than the universities. I found out that the School of Business curiously is one of the few places in the USA that you can tell the ‘truth’ as you see it. Because all they -- the University administration -- are interested in is in filling seats. One boss reportedly asked another boss about me, ‘Is he a communist?’ The other replied that it does not matter -- he makes money for the university.


There was something wrong about the Iraq war and the sanctions that it did not seem right. I am a timid person. But I was shamed into taking action. It caught my attention that there is a contradiction here. Some of the best people on Earth, like Bishop Gumbleton, Kathy Kelly (nominated for the Nobel Prize by the Quakers, AFSC), former UN Assistant Secretary General Dennis Halliday and his successor Hans von Sponeck, got into trouble for actions that could not possibly endanger the "free world" but could the save the lives of innocent Iraqis. The reason they got into trouble with the US authorities was that they brought into Iraq toys and medicine in violation of US Department of Treasury’s rules. Kathy Kelly and others took the position that it is immoral to interfere with such elementary acts of charity to ease the pain and save the lives of the innocent. When I saw this sort of thing happening, I knew I had to look further.


Spinoza: How did you discover DIA’s documents? What were your feelings when first read these documents? And what did you decide to do?


Nagy: I discovered these largely by accident. Well, discovery favors the prepared mind is an ‘axiom’ in the sciences! I learned in the media that to contain a public relations nightmare that then President Clinton had ordered the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency to declassify as many documents as possible related to the Gulf War Syndrome. And I began looking for materials on depleted uranium weapons (which have a half-life of 4.5 billion years) and had been used massively against Iraq in the 1991 slaughter. I could not find anything useful. But I knew, as anybody who studies public health, that the single biggest determinant of life and death is safe water. The defining moment in public health was Dr. John Snow who ripped the handle of the Broad Street pump in London. He discovered that those dying from cholera epidemic drew their water from Broad Street pump. I decided to look for "water" in declassified DIA documents. What I found was so horrifying and sickening that I remember what Lieutenant General William Peers reported feeling. [General Peers was appointed to conduct a thorough investigation into the My Lai massacre and its subsequent cover up.] He got sick. That’s what happened to me too. It occurred to me that this alleged Department of Defense documents could be a hoax. So I posted these to the Department of Defense ethics list serve. I also called the US Department of Defense to validate these documents. What this document suggested to me was a plan for the deliberate massacre of the Iraqi population by judicious use of economic sanctions. So then as a scientist I wanted to make sure that I was right in that the US was committing a genocide by sanctions over a period of time [nearly 13 years] and continuing to the present. So I took my arguments to the most critical scholarly groups that I could find and these included two papers delivered at the Department of Defense, a paper at the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and a paper at Karolinska Institutet at Stockholm, Sweden. Only after asking for refutation, I decided to go public. I said that I would rather be humiliated and be shown to be wrong than to believe that my country committed such crimes and is continuing to do so. I decided to publish my findings in the Progressive after disclosing my results to a remarkable journalist, Felicity Arbuthnot, who was the first person to listen to me.


Spinoza: What were the mainstream media’s reaction to your findings and your article in the Progressive (September 2001)?


Nagy: It was the normal reaction. They did not find it fit to print. I found that nobody felt this was important. They just ignored it with the exception of Charley Resse then at the Orlando Sentinel. Later Greg Barrett, a mainstream journalist with Gannett New Service, did a number of articles. He was the first in the mainstream media to break the taboo on writing about Iraq’s water treatment vulnerability.


Spinoza: You organized a protest against Mrs. Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, when she was the commencement speaker at George Washington University during the graduation ceremony in 2000. Why? And how was this call for protest received by the students and your faculty colleagues?


Nagy: Simple -- I am the most cowardly professor and my worst fear is to die from shame. That’s the reason that I organized the protest. I was told that I would be fired. I got some very positive feedback from some students. They protested by standing up. They were dragged out by the over vigilant security. Some of the people handing out the pamphlet were threatened with arrest. In general, the faculty was studiously silent. I believe that democracy cannot work unless people are willing to do things, take a public stand and speak out.


Spinoza: Have you uncovered or discovered any new documents?


Nagy: Yes. The most critical is “Strategic Attack Air Force Doctrine Document 2–1.2,” dated 20 May 1998. Evidently, this paper was never classified. One can get it from the Maxwell Air Force Base. On the Web the document has a dot “mil” address. That authenticates it because dot mil address is reserved for the US government. The way that I read it, the document says that bombing civilians infrastructure is the doctrine of the US Air Force and has been for decades. And it is signed off by Major General Ronald E. Keys (USAF Commander, Air Force Doctrine Center) for the Secretary of the Air Force. The Secretary of the Air Force is the highest ranking official of US Air Force. It is dated May 20, 1998. It horrifies me. It is prima facie admission that war crime is the policy of the United States. This is against Protocol Addition I Article 54 of Geneva Conventions. Under no circumstances is it permitted to destroy and render useless objects indispensable to civilians, including water treatment facilities. Another document that came to my attention is “Bombing Dual-Use Targets: Legal, Ethical, and Doctrinal Perspectives” written by Kenneth R. Rizer in Air & Space Power Chronicle, which is the leading journal of US Air Force. Note that this document has the standard disclaimer that the article expresses the author’s own view. Rizer observes that the Air Force by bombing electrical power facilities indirectly killed perhaps as many as 100,000 civilians and led to the doubling of the infant mortality rate. He says that this action is not only legal and ethical but also in conformity with the US Air Force doctrine. He goes on to cite the wrong sections of Geneva conventions to justify US actions!


Spinoza: What are your thoughts on the recent War on Iraq and the US occupation of Iraq?


Nagy: I am horrified and so shamed that my fondest wish was to wash the flag, not to burn it. If you are an Empire you lose “credibility” if you don’t commit regular acts of cruelty. It is commonplace among Empires: The British were not unusually cruel. The good news is that for Americans the USA can live without the Empire. All that they have to do is get out of the Empire game and bring their troops home. They can set out to be loved rather than be feared. That is easy. Stop exporting weapons, bring troops home, and cut the military budget to make the military a defensive force. The US could immediately spend $9 billion per year to provide to provide clean water for kids around the world, wherever they are. That would be the sign that you are really serious about being loved rather than being feared. I think we could even make the military happy.


In Lieu of a Conclusion: US Occupation of Iraq and The Current Water Situation in Iraq


Spinoza asked Nagy to comment whether the water situation in Iraq has improved. Nagy said, “No, it has not improved. The situation is a disaster. Indeed, it is getting worse as we speak.” In a recent press statement, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that it is “extremely concerned about the current high levels of diarrhoeal disease, which are being reported from across Iraq. We have detailed reports of sharp increases in diarrhoeal cases from Baghdad and Mosul, as well as anecdotal reports from elsewhere. WHO believes that the lack of access to clean, safe water and the problems with security combine to produce a particularly dangerous situation in which there could be a large number of cases of diarrhoeal disease -- including, but not limited to, cholera.”


WHO reported that the national public health laboratory in Kuwait has confirmed the presence of vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera, in four out of the 38 samples that a research team in Basra collected. WHO has already reported that another 18 cases have been clinically and laboratory confirmed from three hospitals in Basra. WHO warned the national and international health community as soon as cholera was first identified by hospital staff in Basra in early May in order to put in place immediate containment measures. The US authorities and international community is yet to respond effectively to this ensuring health crisis that may become an epidemic.


Nagy points out that Basra is running out of chlorine canisters required for purifying water. He said, “I talked to a pediatrician. Even under the best circumstances once there is an epidemic, it is hard to contain the epidemic.” In recent years, diarrhoeal diseases have been one of the three main killers of children in Iraq, thanks in part to the United States’ exploitation of Iraq’s water treatment vulnerability and the Anglo-American sanctions regime.


It is well known that prior to the Gulf War, health conditions in Iraq were comparable to those of other middle or high-middle income countries. The health system was considered one of the best in the Middle East and North Africa region. Malnutrition was not common. There was an extensive network of well-equipped and well-staffed health care facilities. These were linked by a good communications network, facilitating the referral of people needing extra care to specialist units. Pointing out such features of the pre-sanction Iraq is not apologetics for a dictatorship.


According to international law the occupying power, the United States, has a responsibility to ensure the public health and safety of the Iraqi people under its illegal occupation. It is up to the global antiwar and peace and justice movement that the Unites States of America fulfills its legal obligations to the Iraqi people. The antiwar activist must now assist the Iraqi people in their struggle to resist imperialism and achieve self-determination.


Abu Spinoza is a pseudonym for an economist. He is an occasional columnist for Pressaction.com (www.pressactio.com). His essays have appeared in Counterpunch.org and Zmag.org.



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