WASHINGTON -- Congressional investigators charged yesterday that the Commerce Department whitewashed a probe into how arms merchant Gerald Bull and his Baltimore-based firm received approvals to ship sensitive computer technology to Iraq less than a year before the Persian Gulf war.
At the same time, government officials disclosed that the department also withheld key information from the Pentagon that clearly spelled out Mr. Bull's ties to the firm, Space Research Corp., which was seeking U.S. approval for exports to Iraq.
By law, the Pentagon must advise Commerce officials of any security risks posed by the sales of sensitive technology that could have military applications. Mr. Bull was widely known to have close ties to Iraq and other Third World weapons buyers.
At a Senate Banking Committee hearing Tuesday, House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez released pages of material detailing how computers and software sold by the company helped Iraq in designing the infamous "supergun," a mammoth artillery system designed to lob projectiles within range of Israel and other countries in the Middle East.
In the summer of 1991, United Nations inspectors discovered a prototype of the gun about 125 miles north of Baghdad. They reported it had been tested and was able to launch nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Space Research Corp. was incorporated in Maryland, although Mr. Bull operated his arms business out of Belgium after serving a 1980 jail sentence in the United States for illegally shipping munitions to South Africa. Mr. Bull's son has said the Baltimore office was used only to file incorporation papers and because his father, who was shot by unknown assailants in early 1990, had long worked with D. Christopher Ohly, a Baltimore lawyer with the firm of Hazel, Thomas, Fiske, Beckhorn & Hanes.
A congressional staff member familiar with the Bull case said yesterday that the Commerce Department undertook an internal review shortly after the gulf war to discover how and why Mr. Bull and Space Research Corp. received export licenses, but that it found "no evidence of wrongdoing."
"This investigation is typical of every investigation by the administration into links with Iraq," the aide said. "They didn't want to get to the bottom of it because it shows they were complicit in it."
The department would neither confirm nor deny that the investigation took place.
Mr. Gonzalez charged at Tuesday's hearing that the aspect of the Bull case that best illustrates the U.S. role in enhancing Iraq's military capacity is the export licenses approved for the Space Research Corp.
"The export licenses were approved despite State Department knowledge that the Space Research Corp. was engaged in numerous military projects in Iraq and that Space Research and one of its affiliates had been identified in 1989 as important players in Iraq's military technology procurement apparatus," Mr. Gonzalez said.
He added that the final destination of the computer was known to be a weapons manufacturing complex when Commerce Department officials approved the license. Also, the manufacturer of computer software sold by Space Research told the department it could be used for missile and satellite design, he said.
"They didn't share all their information about Mr. Bull," a knowledgeable government official said.
The Defense Department concluded this week that its own officials did nothing illegal in recommending that the Commerce Department approve the export licenses. The government official maintained that the Defense Department's hands were tied during the late 1980s as the White House pursued a friendly policy toward Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The official would speak only on condition of anonymity.
The official and others said that during those years it was far easier to stop sensitive technology that might have been passed on to the Soviet Union than technology simply for use in Iraq.
Inspector generals in four Cabinet departments -- Defense, State, Commerce and Energy -- are in the early stages of a joint review of the export control process for material and technology that could be used for civilian or military purposes, a senior Pentagon official said yesterday.