Arms Dealer Cummings in Public Spotlight
By Michael Isikoff
While the Reagan administration was secretly selling arms to Iran, arms trader Samuel Cummings was quietly building his own bridges to the government of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
As president of Interarms, which has headquarters in the heart of Alexandria's Old Town, Cummings says he has maintained regular contacts with Iranian military officials, who have frequently visited him seeking weapons for their war with Iraq. The Iranians' "buy orders," submitted to Interarms' offices in Manchester, England, have included TOW antitank missiles, the same weapon they were purchasing from the U.S. government through the assistance of former National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.
"The Iranians contact us on an average of once a month and visit us once every 60 days," said Cummings in an interview last week. "I meet with them because I never know what might happen. . . . One day the Ayatollah Khomeini might even be a guest in the White House."
U.S. and British laws forbid arms exports to Iran, and Cummings (a Philadelphia native, a British subject, and a resident of Monte Carlo) said he has never consummated any sales. But his eagerness to keep in touch with the Iranians illustrates the business savvy and long-range outlook that have helped make Cummings the world's largest and best-known private arms merchant.
For more than 30 years, Interarms has dominated the shadowy world of global arms trading, selling an estimated $80 million worth of pistols, submachine guns, rifles, hand grenades and other weapons each year. The company offers sporting rifles and handguns to enthusiasts in the United States, stocking tens of thousands of them in a row of inauspicious, converted tobacco warehouses along the Alexandria waterfront. Its larger inventory of military items (about 250,000, which is enough to equip more than a half-dozen infantry divisions) are stockpiled in Manchester, England, and, marketed through a network of commissioned agents, are sold to armies around the world without regard to color, creed or political affiliation.
Over the years, Cummings, a former Central Intelligence Agency arms specialist who is the brother-in-law of former Texas senator John Tower, has supplied arms to some of the era's most notorious right-wing dictators: Somoza in Nicaragua, Batista in Cuba and Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. But these days, he says he is excited about his latest business partner, the People's Republic of China, from which he is buying 35,000 22-ATD semiautomatic sporting rifles, which are worth about $2.5 million. The Chinese guns are being offered to the American public in Interarms' 1987 catalogue: "Brand new to the U.S. market| . . . as elegant as any little .22-caliber semiautomatic you've ever seen," it reads.
"He's a very shrewd businessman," said Patrick Brogan, a British journalist who coauthored the 1983 book "Deadly Business: Sam Cummings, Interarms & the Arms Trade." "He always takes the long view. . . . In his view, he doesn't sell death, he sells small pieces of machinery, sort of like sewing machines."
The Iranian arms scandal recently thrust Cummings into the public spotlight, mainly because, unlike almost everybody else in his line of work, Cummings likes to talk about his business. Journalists have flocked to his Alexandria headquarters, on the corner of Prince and Union streets, seeking guidance into the byzantine and often mysterious ways of the gun trade.
"We've been absolutely inundated with the media," chuckled Cummings as he relaxed in a second-floor, walk-up office stocked with an imposing 19th-century French cannon, a Revolutionary War sword and racks of guns (Kalashnikov, Uzis and a Thompson "piano special" submachine gun used by the Chicago mob in the 1920s). "We don't hold ourselves out to be all-knowing, but I guess in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."
Cummings' standard line on Iran is not unlike ones from other commentators: The arms-for-hostages deal was a botched operation run by amateurs who didn't know what they were doing. And, he says, Interarms could have handled the whole thing a lot more efficiently for a lot less money.
"It's almost a classic lesson in how not to do something," he said. "Who needs Adnan Khashoggi? Who needs the Israelis? . . . If the U.S. government wanted TOW missiles moved to Iran, I would have said, move the TOWs to Interarms' warehouse in England. I will notify the correct Iranian people -- and these are people I know a lot better than Khashoggi does -- and I would have invited them to take a look at them and inspect them.
"At that point, I would have said, 'send me the hostages, and once the plane lands, you can load it up with the TOWS and off you go' . . . And I wouldn't have charged any multimillion-dollar commissions because that would have been a service."
Cummings, an amiable, heavy-set man of 59, offered this advice in a good-humored voice that is vaguely reminiscent of the cartoon character Mr. McGoo. But it is a voice that turned more serious when he discussed what is for him a more pressing concern: a severe economic downturn in the arms market brought on by new international competition and a worldwide proliferation of surplus weaponry.
"The decade of the '80s has been the worst decade for the arms trade since World War II," he said. "The '50s and '60s were great. But in the '80s, the bottom has dropped out of the market. . . . The market has been saturated with overproduction and these arms don't become obsolescent overnight. . . . The pipleline has been filled. It's not like world peace has finally arrived."
Cummings' analysis is backed up by government figures showing that total U.S. arms exports alone have slipped from $23.7 billion four years ago to $15.6 billion last year. To be sure, most of this trade involves the sale of high-tech weaponry -- combat aircraft, missiles, radar equipment -- that is dominated by the U.S. government. (General Dynamics Corp., for example, exports its expensive F16 fighter jets through the Pentagon's Foreign Military Sales program, which is why these are known as "government-to-government" transactions.)
But Interarms, which dominates the private trade in "low-tech" weaponry, has felt the repercussions of the arms slump. Cummings estimates his business has declined 14 percent since the early 1980s. Last year, he was forced to shut down the company's Midland, Va., pistol factory, which cost 115 employes' jobs. (Another Interarms plant that makes German Walther pistols near Huntsville, Ala., is still operating.)
Another problem plaguing Interarms is the political roadblocks thrown in its way by the U.S. and other governments. Cummings has made no secret of his willingness to sell guns to just about anyone. (He has drawn the line, he says, at Libya's Gadhafi and a few other African dictators, such as Uganda's former ruler Idi Amin, whom he considers bloodthirsty.)
In recent years, Cummings has carved a growing niche in the Far East, selling arms to the Philippines (for its war against a communist-backed insurgency) as well as the armies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. But many others with whom Cummings would be happy to do business are off-limits. He can't sell to private guerrilla armies (ruling out the Nicaraguan "contras" to whom he says he would sell "in a minute.") He can't sell to Iran, the biggest buyer on the world market.
And, he says he regrets, he can no longer sell to South Africa, where more than 20 years ago he once maintained an Interarms office that the U.S. government forced him to shut down. "I would sell to South Africa if I could ever get approval," he volunteered. "I think the blacks are better off in South Africa in terms of rights as opposed to theoretical liberties . . . than they are elsewhere in Africa."
But for all Cummings' complaints about such impediments, others, such as biographer Brogan, have noted his historic ingenuity in circumventing government restrictions. The classic example is the passage of the 1968 Gun Control Act, which prohibited the importation of military weapons into the United States. Anticipating the ban before it went into effect, Cummings went on a worldwide buying spree that had his Alexandria warehouses bulging with military firearms and kept his U.S. operations thriving for years afterward.
"At one point, we had 700,000 rifles, machine guns, pistols and submachine guns stored in our warehouses in Alexandria," recalled Cummings. "That was in 1968 when the gates slammed shut. At that moment, we could have instantly overwhelmed the American armed forces. We could have armed 700,000 mercenaries that could have goose-stepped right over the Memorial Bridge and even taken over The Washington Post.
"We also had 150 pieces of artillery, ranging from 25 mm to 150 mm," he added. "So, if I didn't like a particular piece of legislation in the Congress, I could have phoned up the speaker and I could have said, 'My armies will be rolling over to the Capitol, if you don't do something about that.' "
Cummings burst out laughing and said, of course, the scenario is a "fantasy." But one thing, he noted, is no fantasy: No matter how bleak the market may look today, the demand for guns will not go away.
"The military market is based on human folly -- not normal market precepts," said Cummings. "Human folly goes up and down. But it always exists -- and its depths have never been plummetted."
© Copyright 1986 The Washington Post Company