Diaz Escalates Allegations by Sean Oberle
Claims to Have Information That Shows 1980s Transfer of .50s Was Outside
Government-Sponsored Legal Channels, But Balks When Challenged to Produce It
LINKS TO SUBSECTIONS
Tom Diaz, senior policy
director of Violence Policy Center (VPC), January 9
claimed to me to have information that might begin to lend some credence to his October 7
innuendo that there was
something nefarious about the late 1980s transfer of 25 Barrett .50 caliber
rifles to Afghans fighting to eject Soviets invaders.
In an unsolicited e-mail to
me, Diaz alleged to have what he termed “specific information” that the sale
and shipment of the rifles to the Afghan rebels occurred outside the
then-existing and common U.S. government practice of facilitating arms shipments
to Afghanistan. If Diaz does have this alleged information, it would run counter
to both Barrett Firearms’ public statements and press reports, including by
the Associated Press.
Tom Diaz, in a January 9
e-mail to me:
“I have specific information, in
addition to the sworn trial testimony, that the U.S. government was not
involved in the sales or shipment of these rifles.”
However, January 10, Diaz
declined to show me this alleged information when I offered to accept delivery
of it to consider his demand that I retract or correct a statement about
government involvement in my January 9 column, An
Open Memorandum to Law and History Students.
U.S. gun industry sold at least twenty-five 50 caliber sniper rifles to Al Qaeda,
Osama bin Laden's terror network, a study released by the Violence Policy Center
(VPC) today reports …|
‘We can be shocked, but not surprised that the gun industry would sell these
dangerous military weapons to Al Qaeda,’ said the study's author, Tom Diaz,
VPC's senior policy analyst.” —VPC
October 7 press release.
By claiming to have this
information while seeking to have something printed by a person who writes about
gun issues, Diaz has entered a new portion of this debate. Before now, as far as
I know, he has remained silent on the question of whether the sale occurred
outside the then-existing government sponsorship. He has remained silent despite
public statements by Barrett and subsequent press reports that the transfer was actually
part of late 1980s U.S. foreign policy.
Absent releasing this alleged
information, there is no substance to Diaz’s public innuendo about a nefarious
act on the part of the nebulous “gun industry.”
Diaz’s e-mail claim, the “sworn trial testimony” does not help in
establishing that the U.S. government “was not involved in the sales or
shipment of these rifles.” The testimony Diaz refers to — United
States of America v. Usama bin Ladin, day five, testimony of Essam al Ridi —
does not touch on that question. It neither confirms nor rules out
Why I Stand By My
my January 9 column, I stated that counter to VPC’s innuendo on the matter,
the transfer of Barrett rifles to Afghan rebels was “with
the approval and assistance of the United States government.” I stand by my
At the time of the sale — the late 1980s — U.S. government assistance in the
transfer of arms to Afghanistan was common practice as part of U.S. anti-Soviet
foreign policy. Transfers outside this method would have been the exception, not
how did the Mujahedeen buy this equipment from U.S. companies? … Officials of
the US government either sent them missiles from their own stock or arranged the
sale through the current manufacturer. The latter was the case for the
Barrett rifles …
Mr. Diaz ignores the fact that many laws are in place to govern every one of
these sales, and they are strictly enforced. For the export of munitions, the
U.S. State Department conducts a lengthy and thorough review of every case,
studying the need for the materiel, verifying the credentials of those signing
the import documents, and even examining the human rights record of the
receiving country.” —Barrett
Firearms undated statement, “A Message from Barrett Firearms Manufacturing Inc. in
Response to Recent News Articles Accusing Barrett of Selling Guns to bin
Laden,” emphasis added.
2) Rather than denying
knowledge of the transfer, Barrett Firearms has stated publicly that the
transfer was within this then-common practice of U.S. government assisted arms
transfer to Afghan fighters. Its statement on this matter, contrary to Diaz’s
claim in his subsequent January 10 e-mail to me, is not “vague and
ambiguous.” Rather, it is explicit and clear that the government assisted in
the transfer of rifles (see sidebar).
3) No one — including VPC —
has provided any information that the sale of these rifles was outside the
then-existing and common practice of government assistance.
Bottom line: the company — reputable and law-abiding
— says the transfer was just like other transfers
to Afghanistan at that time: with government aid. Unless Diaz or someone else
proves otherwise, that is good enough. On the other hand, absent the type of
information that Diaz claims to have, any allegations of nefarious activity — even via innuendo
— remain unsubstantiated.
For his part, Diaz at least
acknowledged — albeit deep within the body of his 101-page propaganda piece, Voting from the
Rooftops — that
he does not know whether Barrett Firearms or a downstream dealer or dealers were
involved in the actual transfer. (That acknowledgement, incidentally, undermines
his claim to have specific information of a lack of government involvement, as I
It is unfortunate, however,
that VPC omits this pertinent acknowledgement in the more-widely read press
release and executive
summary. Those documents also lack the late 1980s timing of the transfer,
leaving the appearance of more recent activity. As well, the release and summary
similarly lack the reason for the transfer — to aid in fighting the Soviet
invaders. But they do repeat the linkage to “al Qaeda, Osama bin Ladin’s
terror network” (a link, which I show below, is not sufficiently
Diaz Tries To Flip the
Burden of Proof to Guilty-Until-Proven-Innocent
Humorously, Diaz, in his
January 9 e-mail, attempted to switch the burden of proof in this matter to me.
He demanded that I provide him with evidence, “including any documents,”
which demonstrates that the sale followed the then-existing and common
government involvement in arms-transfer to Afghanistan.
This demand is akin to
someone insisting that I provide evidence, “including any documents,” that
demonstrates my neighbor pays his taxes. Such evidence — even documentation —
very well may exist, but I am under no obligation to provide it before insisting
that my neighbor is a good tax-paying citizen. Indeed, I must accept as fact —
absent of any proof otherwise — my neighbor’s assertion that he pays his
Similarly, we must accept as
fact Barrett’s assertion that the sale of the guns was within the
government-sponsored program that was common at the time.
Tom Diaz said, in a January 10
e-mail to me:
no obligation to release our additional information until we see written
evidence documenting the alleged government involvement … I will be quite
happy to report that the U.S. government did in fact send these rifles if and
when I see convincing proof that is the case.”
backwards. In the very least, Diaz should add a statement to his written
material that the company maintains that all sales were with the then-common
government assistance and that VPC has no information to show otherwise (or
release the information he claims to have).
Does Diaz Actually Have
the Information He Claims To Have?
than a decade ago, the U.S. government sent 25 high-powered sniper rifles to a
group of Muslim fighters in Afghanistan …
‘Barrett rifles were picked up by U.S. government trucks, shipped to U.S.
government bases and shipped to those Afghan freedom fighters,’ [Barrett
Firearms President Ronnie] Barrett said.” —Associated
Press October 16 story, “U.S.
Gave Sniper Rifles to Afghanistan,” as it appeared on the MSNBC website.
smear is astonishingly mean-spirited. Imagine if, in 1951, at the height of the
Korean War, a pressure group claimed that "The Jones Corporation sold
rifles to the Soviet Communists!" while omitting the fact that the sale was
actually to the United States government, which then shipped the guns to the
Soviet army — in 1943, when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were allies against
tactics are reprehensible anytime, but in wartime, false accusations of
near-treason are as unacceptable as anthrax hoaxes.” —Dave
Kopel and Timothy Wheeler, December 21 National
Review Online article, “Guns and (Character) Assassination”
I have doubts as to whether
Diaz even has the information he claims to have; I believe he may be bluffing.
Perhaps he does have it, but its alleged existence just does not jibe with
something else he acknowledged in his October Voting from the
Rooftops propaganda and reiterated to me just the other day in his e-mail.
As I stated above, Diaz
acknowledges that he does not know whether Barrett knew about or was involved in
the sale or whether the transfer involved a downstream dealer or dealers.
Think about it: If he does
not know enough about the sale to be certain whether Barrett or a downstream
dealer or dealers were involved, how on Earth can he have “specific
information” that demonstrates the government was not involved?
Indeed, as he puts it, he is
not even sure if it were downstream “dealer or dealers.” In other words, he
has not even pinned down whether the transfer involved one sale of 25 rifles, 25
sales of one rifle each, or some other combination. How can he have specific
information that the government was not involved, but lack this other
If he does have information
about government involvement, why doesn’t he reveal it? After all, I am not
the first — nor by any stretch the most widely read and influential — writer
to point out and criticize that Diaz and VPC are omitting the role of the
government in such arms transfers to Afghanistan. If our criticism is without
merit, it would benefit Diaz’s cause to release the information to correct the
Indeed, one of VPC’s
political allies on the .50 caliber rifle issue, Illinois State Representative
Karen May (D-Highland Park), is getting pilloried
right now on her repetition of VPC’s innuendos while similarly leaving
out mention of the government’s involvement, among other omitted information.
The information that Diaz claims to have would aid this VPC ally in a political
fight over the very issue that VPC is targeting — .50 caliber rifles … but
it remains unreleased.
See? It doesn’t add up. If
Diaz had it, why wouldn’t he release it? If not to me, then to someone else
for some other purpose. It would only help his cause.
Diaz’s Allegation of Al
Qaeda Connection Is Insufficiently Established
Whatever the nature of
government involvement, one of Diaz’s allegations definitely is not by
innuendo — that “the gun industry” sold the guns to Osama bin Ladin’s al
Qaeda terror network.
Linking people — even the
nebulous “gun industry” — to al Qaeda is very serious business in the
United States after September 11. It can ruin businesses and careers. It even
risks bringing down violence on the target of the allegation. You had damned
well better have 100% clear, concrete evidence before publicly linking someone
to bin Laden and al Qaeda. Diaz does not.
Diaz bases the al Qaeda link
on the February 14, 2001 testimony of Essam al Ridi in United
States of America v. Usama bin Ladin. Now, I acknowledge that something
mentioned in a court case involving bin Ladin — on first glance — would
appear to establish an al Qaeda connection.
problems arise when we take care to determine whether the apparent link in the
testimony is a real link — a care that is ethically essential before linking
“the gun industry” to al Qaeda as VPC does.
First, we must
approach the al Qaeda link with skepticism simply due to the timing of the
transfer. It was in or prior to 1989. From the testimony, the only fact we can
know about the timing is that by sometime in 1989, it already had occurred — al Ridi was summoned to Afghanistan that year to help with sighting-in the
However, al Qaeda was not
established until “the late 1980s”, according to the
U.S. State Department. Others place the founding anywhere between 1988
and 1991, most commonly 1988 or 1989 (no wonder that it might be hard to pin
down the exact founding date of an organization that bases much of its activity
There is enough uncertainty
as to the dates of both the rifle transfer and the al Qaeda founding to wonder
whether al Qaeda even existed at the time of the transfer.
Indeed, from the testimony,
we learn that al Ridi was active in shipping equipment to Afghanistan for years
before al Qaeda existed, beginning in 1983. That fact alone means that we must
establish the timing before assuming that al Ridi’s shipment was necessarily
to al Qaeda. Diaz provides nothing that establishes the timing.
Second, and more
importantly, even assuming that al Qaeda existed at the time of the transfer, an
analysis of the testimony actually raises questions about whether al Ridi
transferred the guns to some different group fighting the Russians.
From the testimony, we learn
that al Ridi’s contact with al Qaeda connections seems to have been a man
named Wadih el Hage, a defendant in the trial. In 1987 or 1988 (prior or near to
the founding of al Qaeda), el Hage was al Ridi’s contact for the transfer of
night-vision goggles. Five or six years later, in 1993, el Hage clearly had
become involved with al Qaeda and was al Ridi’s contact in a plan to supply
bin Laden with an airplane for use in Sudan. There is no question that al Ridi
had interaction with al Qaeda and bin Ladin.
However, as to the Barrett
rifles, al Ridi’s testimony was in response to a question of transferring any
other equipment to Afghanistan or Pakistan — “in any capacity” — between
1985 and 1990. During that testimony, the following exchange took place,
establishing that al Ridi did not make this transfer to his apparent al
A. I shipped Barrett rifles, 50 calibers.
Q. B-A-R-R-E-T-T. How many of those did you ship?
Q. And so we're clear, did Wadih El Hage have anything to do with that transaction?
Now, perhaps al Ridi had another
al Qaeda contact, and he made the transfer to that person. Perhaps that evidence
exists. On the other hand, perhaps al Ridi made the transfer to another
Afghan-based group fighting the Soviets and not to al Qaeda at all. We don’t
know from the evidence VPC provides. All we know is that al Ridi helped in
getting the guns to some unnamed “them” fighting the Russians. For all we
know, those “them” were the people who later became our recent Northern
Third, in the same
instance where al Ridi testifies about getting an airplane for bin Laden, he
also mentions his discussion about also possibly transferring weapons (Stingers)
across national borders (from Pakistan to Sudan). He testified about discussing
how to do it through the proper legal channels of the both country of origin and
the receiving nation. He did not help in the Stinger transfer, if it occurred at
Thus we have a man — remember, he was a witness, not a defendant
— who testifies about a concern in
following the law in international weapons transfers. Did he throw out that
concern in the late 1980s transfer of the .50s? Perhaps. Perhaps not. VPC
provides nothing that shows his willingness to throw out this concern. Nor is
his concern about ethical behavior limited to this one instance. For example, he
also showed concern that getting a commission in the sale of the airplane might
violate Muslim law.
Those Who Agree With VPC Will Be Disturbed By Its Behavior
Even if you agree 100% with
VPC’s desire to further regulate .50 caliber rifles, you still can be deeply
disturbed at its disregard for establishing the truth before making extremely
negative allegations and innuendos.
This disregard might not be a
case, as Diaz puts it in his e-mail, of VPC “deliberately
and continually publishing something that we know not to be true.” Rather, it
is a case of VPC making extremely negative statements without sufficiently
demonstrating that they are true. VPC very well may believe them to be true — that doesn’t change the fact that it failed to demonstrate that they are true.
That is just as much a disregard for the truth as publishing something known to
this case, my criticism is more than mere pickiness. As I stated above, linking
someone to al Qaeda — even the nebulous “gun industry” — is very serious
business in post September 11 America. I can think of few allegations more
extremely negative — in early
October 2001 — than linking people to al Qaeda. It is no less extreme and
serious than linking someone to the Japanese navy would have been at Christmas
Until and unless Diaz can
provide some indisputable evidence that the transfer was to al Qaeda, he has an
obligation — especially given the current hatred of that organization — to
issue a correction both to the press and to Congress (where VPC allies
circulated his propaganda). He should remove all references to the alleged al
Qaeda connections from all VPC material, both paper and electronic. Oh, and an
apology is in order too — whether to the nebulous “gun industry” or to
Barrett itself, which claims harm to its reputation due to his raising the
specter of al Qaeda in connection to its product.
I won’t hold my breath.
Sean Oberle is a Featured
Writer and gun control analyst for KeepAndBearArms.com. Reach him at Analysis@KeepAndBearArms.com.
View other articles from him at http://www.KeepAndBearArms.com/Oberle.
He has never fired a .50 caliber weapon, much less owned one. He is a former
non-gun owner and supporter of gun controls, including handgun bans. He owns a
few guns now, and obviously opposes gun controls. He is not a member of
“the gun industry.”
Exchanges Between Sean Oberle & Tom Diaz
Following are the e-mails
exchanged between Sean Oberle and Tom Diaz on January 9 and 10. Omitted are a
couple of e-mails involving Oberle’s confirmation of Diaz’s identity
because Diaz sent his initial e-mail from an @hotmail.com address. In Oberle’s
e-mail, one word — “and” — is added. It was not in the original due to
his typographical error. Diaz’s e-mail addresses are stripped out because of
his worry about them becoming public. The same with one sentence in Oberle’s
response which might allow someone to guess Diaz’s e-mail.
"Tom Diaz" To:
Subject: bin Laden Acquisition of Barrett rifles
Date: Wed, 09 Jan 2002 16:11:45 –0500
Dear Mr. Oberle:
You are certainly entitled to disagree with the analysis and policy
recommendations in the Violence Policy Center report, Voting from the Rooftops:
How the Gun Industry Armed Osama bin Laden, other Foreign and Domestic
Terrorists, and Common Criminals with 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles (October 2001),
which I researched and wrote. You are not, however, entitled to
invent "facts." Nor are you entitled to use those
"facts" to libel me or the Violence Policy Center by claiming in a
published report (whose further dissemination you encourage) that we are
deliberately and continually publishing something that we know not to be true.
For example, you published the following on your web site today:
VPC, in pursuit of its agenda, has shown notorious disregard for the truth. For
example, it recently issued a ""report"" (Voting from the
Rooftops) that claimed gun makers provided .50 caliber weapons to Osama Bin
Laden's terror network. The truth is that Barrett provided the weapons to Afghan
rebels in the late 1980s with the approval and assistance of the United States
I do not know that assertion to be true. There is no dispute that bin
Laden's organization obtained 25 Barrett rifles in the late 1980s. However, I am
aware of no credible, independent evidence that the U.S. government was involved
in—much less gave its "approval and assistance" to—the transfer of
the Barrett rifles to Osama bin Laden's group. The sworn
testimony to the contrary—that an individual acting on behalf of bin Laden's
organization obtained and shipped the rifles—is carefully documented in Voting
from the Rooftops.
What was not clear at the time the report was written—as we carefully and
specifically noted—was whether Barrett knew that the guns were sold to bin
Laden, and whether the guns were sold directly from the factory or through a
dealer or dealers. That is still not clear. However, I
have specific information, in addition to the sworn trial testimony, that the
U.S. government was not involved in the sales or shipment of these rifles.
If you have independent evidence to the contrary, please provide it, including
any documents proving your claim that "Barrett provided the weapons to
Afghan rebels in the late 1980s with the approval and assistance of the United
States government." If you cannot provide such credible
evidence, I will expect your immediate correction, the form of which I will be
happy to suggest to you.
Senior Policy Analyst
Violence Policy Center
confirming Diaz’s identity omitted]
Thu, 10 Jan 2002 00:39:46 -0800
To: "Tom Diaz"
Subject: Re: bin Laden Acquisition of Barrett rifles
Please note that I have cc’d this email to Angel Shamaya, director of
Thank you for confirming that the original hotmail email was from you. No, I
will not reveal your @vpc.org email address. [Sentence which could allow someone
to guess Diaz’s email deleted.]
I would be very interested in seeing the “specific information, in addition to
the sworn trial testimony, that the U.S. government was not involved in the
sales or shipment of these rifles” that you mention you have.
I would be willing to accept delivery of this information in any way that is
convenient to you — email, fax, “snail mail,” courier, face-to-face
exchange, or whatever other means would best facilitate my getting this
In the meantime, I stand by what I wrote — that the U.S. government
participated in the transfer of the Barrett guns to Afghan rebels.
Beside numerous press reports — including the Associated Press (1) [and] the
politically influential National Review (2) — that confirm the U.S.
government’s involvement, there is the public statement of Barrett itself (3)
to this end.
These press reports and public statement stand uncontested by your organization
or any other (even while your organization contested other statements by Barrett
on the same matter — for example, whether .50 caliber rifles had been used in
Incidentally, the al Ridi testimony (4), itself, is not useful to this question.
It neither confirms nor rules out the involvement of the U.S. government. I
certainly hope you are not suggesting to me that the al Ridi testimony is
evidence of the sans-government transfer of the rifles. I am unaware of any
other “sworn trial testimony” with bearing on the rifle transfer in
Gun Control Analyst
(1) October 16, 2001, Associated Press story, “U.S. Gave Sniper Rifles to
Afghanistan,” as published on the MSNBC website at: http://stacks.msnbc.com/news/643503.asp
(2) December 21, 2001, David Kopel and Timothy Wheeler, National Review Online,
“Guns and (Character) Assassination: Using Terror” on the Nationanl Review
Online website at: http://www.nationalreview.com/kopel/kopel.shtml
(3) Undated statement by Barrett Firearms, “A Message from Barrett Firearms
Manufacturing Inc. in Response to Recent News Articles Accusing Barrett of
Selling Guns to Bin Laden,” on its web site at: http://www.barrettrifles.com/news.html.
(4) United States of America v. Usama bin Ladin, day 5 testimony, published on
the web at: http://cryptome.hackerdojo.com/usa-v-ubl-05.htm
Tom Diaz email@example.com
Thu, 10 Jan 2002 17:50:34 -0500
Subject: bin Laden acquisition of Barrett rifles
Dear Mr Oberle,
Thank you for your response to my email. I am replying directly, relying
on your representation that you will not reveal this address.
We stand by the accuracy of our report and I stand by my statement that I do not
know the acquisition of the Barrett rifles to have been through the United
States government, or even involving it at all. None of the three
reputable media sources that first reported the al Qadea acquisition—and from
which I first learned of the transaction—described U.S. involvement.
We feel no obligation to release our additional information until we see written
evidence documenting the alleged government involvement.
Clearly, we disagree on the import of the al Ridi testimony, especially given
As to the sources you cite, I find them circular. With all due respect,
you quoting Dave Kopel quoting the Barrett web site is not persuasive. The
Barrett web site statement is vague and ambiguous, more illuminating about the
details of Stinger missile sales than Barrett rifle sales. In any case, if
Barrett has proof that this sale was made though the federal government, why has
it not sent it to us?
I will be quite happy to report that the U.S. government did in fact send these
rifles if and when I see convincing proof that is the case.
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