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VPC and Ex-Spies Unknown
Does Government Policy Matter in the VPC-Barrett Brouhaha?

by Sean Oberle

February 15, 2002

(Distribution is permitted and encouraged; just say you saw it first on

Last month, I made a public challenge to Tom Diaz, senior policy analyst for Violence Policy Center (VPC) to substantiate his claim to me concerning the late 1980s shipment of 25 Barrett .50 caliber rifles to Afghanistan for use against the Soviets. Diaz said he had “specific information ... that the U.S. government was not involved in the sales or shipment of these rifles” (1).

This question stems from VPC’s insufficiently substantiated allegation on a second, but related, matter: who the shipment went to. VPC alleges that the shipment went to “al Qaeda, Osamma bin Laden’s terror network” (2).

I do not know whether my January 18 challenge played a role, but about two weeks afterwards, Diaz (or an assistant) interviewed people on January 28, 29 and 30 on the matter of government involvement. And thus we get Diaz’s newest work, The U.S. Gun Industry and Others Unknown, in which he claims to debunk the idea of government involvement (3). The only specific commentary directly relevant to the transfer that he cites comes from the late January interviews. In his endnotes, however, Diaz does say he had information on January 7, though what exactly he does not say.

In any event, Diaz quotes three unnamed, former U.S. intelligence officials (credible only because they are easily identifiable) who say that the gun transfer in question does not match the profile of the official U.S. weapons program. I’ll give him credit. Diaz does raise a somewhat believable attack on one element of the “but it was part of U.S. policy” reaction to his original propaganda. Did the U.S. government directly handle the shipment as part of its official aid program? Probably not.

So, unless other evidence comes to light, we should not say or imply the government directly handled these rifles (maybe they did; maybe they didn’t).

Nonetheless, we should continue to point out that the shipment must be seen in the context of then-existing U.S. foreign policy (see below) even if the government may not have a direct hands-on role.

In this same vein of staying honest, Diaz and his cohorts should stop repeating their poorly substantiated allegation of al Qaeda connection. (Indeed, Tom, that is another challenge.) VPC bases the allegation solely on the testimony of Essam al Ridi in United States of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al. (4), and Diaz repeats it liberally throughout is latest piece. That testimony, however, shows that the allegation actually is poorly substantiated:

Fact: Al Ridi testified that his shipping of equipment for the Afghan freedom movement had begun by 1983 (5) – nearly half a decade prior to al Qaeda’s formation – meaning that not all shipments he referred to in his testimony necessarily went to al Qaeda.

Fact: Al Ridi testified that the rifle transfer was not to his al Qaeda contact, Wadih al Hage (6), drawing the alleged al Qaeda connection into question.

Fact: There is uncertainty of the timing of both the rifle transfer and of al Qaeda’s founding. Both probably occurred sometime between 1988 and 1989, but which occurred first is unknown. It is possible that the rifle transfer occurred prior to the formation of al Qaeda (7).

Why the Government’s Role Still Matters

In any event, what emerges upon further scrutiny of the relationship between the U.S. and the “Afghan Arabs” (8) – of which al Ridi was a part – is a sort of passive mutual benefit. Neither absolutely needed the other, but each benefited from the other’s military and economic aid to their common ally, the Mujahideen. The U.S. government allowed these “Afghan Arabs” to operate (and vice versa), and it is questionable whether the physically huge package of 25 large weapons could have shipped without this passive cooperation.

Indeed, one of Diaz’s own interviewees has described this idea of passive mutual benefit. Diaz identifies him only as “the man who ran the [CIA] program on the ground – the former CIA station chief in Pakistan”(9).

The CIA station chief in Pakistan at the time of the rifle transfer was Milton Bearden. Bearden, in an unrelated interview with PBS, explained that the role of the “Afghan Arabs” in aiding the Mujahideen was fundamental “within the context of the program that CIA was managing” (10). In an earlier interview in the New Yorker, Bearden described that large and vital role thus:

…they unburdened us a lot. These guys were bringing in up to twenty to twenty-five million dollars a month from other Saudis and Gulf Arabs to underwrite the war. And that is a lot of money. It's an extra two hundred to three hundred million dollars a year (11).

This passive allowance of each other’s actions because of the mutual benefit is vital to putting VPC’s propaganda into context. While VPC claims that the transfer demonstrates the need to further regulate the guns, what we are left wondering is how the export of guns 13 or 14 years ago – by people whom the government saw as beneficial to U.S. goals and allowed to operate – has anything to do with security needs in 2002.

Diaz claims that the question of government involvement is a red herring (12), even as he devotes 10 pages to the question. The real red herring is any claim that his poorly substantiated allegations about events a decade-and-a-half ago have anything to do with anything.

* * * * *

VPC Fact Check

VPC Claim: “Since al Ridi made his trip to Pakistan [to sight the already shipped rifles] in 1989, it is likely that the rifles arrived that year too. They therefore were probably bought in 1989 or 1988 at the earliest. But official U.S. aid was already drying up by then. On April 14, 1989, the Soviets signed Geneva accords committing them to withdraw. In conformance with those accords, the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, and U.S. aid terminated.” (13)

Fact: In the al Ridi testimony that Diaz relies on elsewhere, two of the stipulations that the U.S. government prosecutors agreed to were that Soviet economic and military aid to the Afghan government and U.S. economic and military aid to the rebels both continued for two additional years, until 1991 (14).

Sean Oberle is a Featured Writer and gun control analyst for He can be reached at View other articles from him at


(1) Diaz Escalates Allegations, VPC Exec Claims to Have Information That Shows 1980s Transfer of .50s Was Outside Government-Sponsored Legal Channels; But Balks When Challenged to Produce It; January 18

(2) VPC October 7, 2001 press release

(3) The U.S. Gun Industry and Others Unknown: Evidence Debunking the Gun Industry’s Claim the Osama bin Laden Got His 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles from the U.S. Afghan-Aid Program, Violence Policy Center, February 13, 2002.

(4) United States of America v. Usama bin Laden, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, February 15, 2001 (day five), testimony of Essam al Ridi.

(5) Al Ridi testimony, pages 548-549.

(6) Al Ridi testimony, page 557.

(7) Al Ridi testimony, page 557 and the U.S. State Department, Background Information on Terrorist Groups, April 30, 2001.

(8) “Afghan Arabs” is a term refers to the non-Afghan Muslims who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Many came from Saudi Arabia, but other came from elsewhere, such as Egypt.

(9) The U.S. Gun Industry and Others Unknown, page 3.

(10) PBS Frontline interview with Milton Bearden, dated 2001.

(11) The Real Bin Laden, The New Yorker, January 24, 2000; re-run in “From the Archives” feature, September 12, 2001.

(12) The U.S. Gun Industry and Others Unknown, page 1.

(13) The U.S. Gun Industry and Others Unknown, page 6.

(14) Al Ridi testimony, pages 540-541.

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