April 23, 1990

Defense: A Chemical Reaction


An American failure to practice what it preaches:
Two U.S. producers tangle with the Pentagon

Read our lips: No more TC. That's the message the Bush administration has received from the two main American producers of thionyl chloride, a key ingredient in pesticides, plastics--and a deadly nerve gas called Sarin. Last January, the Pentagon exhausted its supply of TC, and production at its Pine Bluff, Ark., chemical-weapons facility ground to a halt. The Defense Department has until June 2 to come up with 160,000 pounds of TC or risk losing 547 million in funding for its chemical-weapons upgrade program. Both the Occidental Chemical Corp. of Dallas and the Pittsburgh-based Mobay Corp., the only American firms that produce thionyl chloride in such quantity, have refused to cut a deal. They cite company bans on sales that contribute to the production of chemical arms. Now the Pentagon is considering a weapon of its own: a 40-year-old law authorizing the government to compel companies to cooperate on the basis of national security.

The standoff over TC has made the Bush administration look confused--if not downright hypocritical. At the United Nations last fall, the president said the "world has lived too long in the shadow of chemical warfare" and called for worldwide chemical disarmament. Three months later, the Commerce Department prohibited American firms from selling precursor chemicals used in the production of weapons to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya, which have poison gas programs underway. Washington began pressuring other industrialized nations to adopt similar controls. But the government's threat to strong-arm the manufacturers of TC has jeopardized its credibility. "Here we are promoting non-production, nonproliferation and nonuse, and we are preparing to go ahead with production," says Democratic Rep. Dante Fascell, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It puts us in a tough position with other countries."

Especially Germany. The United States has often accused Bonn of letting chemicals fall into the hands of such hostile powers as Libya and Iran. In January 1989, administration sources leaked a story to The New York Times saying that Imhausen-Chemie, a German manufacturer, helped Libya build a poison-gas plant in Rabta. Later, Washington pressured a German and an Indian firm to pull out of a deal to sell 257 tons of TC to Iran. As a subsidiary of the German company Bayer A.G., now under investigation in Cologne for selling equipment to Iran that could be used in chemical-arms production, Mobay maybe particularly reluctant to sell TC for military purposes--and eager to make the United States practice what it preaches abroad.

Arms accord: Washington is determined to have it both ways. The administration--a participant in the worldwide disarmament talks now taking place in Geneva--is reserving the option to continue developing new chemical-arms technologies while seeking cuts in existing stockpiles. At the June summit, Washington and Moscow are expected to sign an accord reducing both countries' chemical arsenals to 20 percent of the current U.S. stockpile. Many arms specialists believe that with an agreement so close, Washington should consider dropping its production plans. Otherwise, says Frank E Vandiver, a defense expert at Texas A&M, it might look "like the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing."

and BILL TIURQUE in Washington