Clouds of Doubt:

We took President Clinton’s word that bombing Sudan and Afghanistan was necessary and that our forces punished the right people. We should have known better. His original story, as usual, isn’t holding up to scrutiny.

On Aug. 20, three days after half-confessing to lying about Monica Lewinsky, Clinton ordered our military to pump as many as 20 Tomahawk missiles into a plant in Sudan, a Muslim nation with which we have heretofore had no major quarrel. Clinton ordered another 60 or so Tomahawks launched against six camps near Khost, Afghanistan. To justify its attacks, the White House invoked the specters of nerve gas and a gathering of international terrorists. Yet over the past 11 days, press reports have put the lie to several statements made by Clinton and his officers to justify the two attacks. As these statements have become inoperative, officials have spun new justifications – further raising suspicions the attacks were ordered to shift attention from Clinton’s personal woes.

That’s how the administration described the so-called ”chemical weapons-related” plant hours after U.S. missiles destroyed it. But British engineer Tom Carnaffin, who worked at the plant from ’92 to ’96, told The New York Times: ”It was never a plant of high security. You could walk around anywhere you liked, and no one tried to stop you.”

The day after the attack, Clinton officials said the plant was owned by Sudan as part of its so-called Military Industrial Complex. But the press found the outright owner to be a Saudi Arabian banker with offices in London.

Early on, the administration also claimed the plant wasn’t making medicine.

”We have no evidence or have seen no products, commercial products that are sold out of this facility” a senior official told reporters. Not so. It was clear the plant supplied malaria tablets for kids and drugs for livestock. In fact, it produced as much as half of Sudan’s drugs and even had a contract with the United Nations. Reporters who toured the area afterward spotted drug-related products in the debris. TV footage showed piles of pill bottles. Administration officials now concede the plant had commercial uses. But the new spin is that it was a ”dual use facility,” making both medicine and ingredients for chemical weapons.

For several days after the strike, the administration refused to talk about its evidence in detail. It just said it was ”compelling,” ”irrefutable” and ”convincing.”

But the press demanded details. So three days after the strike, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger went on CNN to insist the plant was making a ”precursor” to the deadly VX nerve gas.

”We have physical evidence,” he added. Will you release it to the public? asked CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer. No, Berger replied. It’s ”confidential” information. The next day ”two administration officials” told The New York Times that the U.S. had secretly obtained a soil sample from the site before the attack. It contained a chemical used in VX, the anonymous sources said. But they would not name the agent. Under more pressure to reveal details, officials the next day said the agent was an acid called EMPTA. They claimed it had no use
except to make chemical weapons. But the claim has two major problems. For one, EMPTA doesn’t show up on the list of chemicals covered under the international treaty barring chemical weapons. And the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says EMPTA can be used ”for legitimate commercial purposes,” such as making fungicides. Also, The New York Times reported that EMPTA’s chemical structure is ”very similar” to insecticides and herbicides sold commercially, like the weed killer Round Up. Because the government took just one soil sample, it might have misidentified what it found. (Even if the sample was EMPTA that doesn’t prove the plant was making it. The acid could have been stored there or spilled in transit.) A plant making chemical weapons needs special glass-lined reactors and tubes that can withstand corrosion by highly toxic chemicals. It would also need lots of space for such equipment, as well as for stockpiling chemicals. The plant had neither, according to former workers and reporters who have seen the wreckage. To limit casualties among workers, the White House says it took pains to bomb the plant after it was closed. Local reports said 10 people were hurt, four of them critically. And one person was killed. But the Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries Co. plant was in the midst of the city of Khartoum. If the administration was so sure the plant made deadly chemicals, why would it risk sending vapors into the air and killing hundreds or thousands of Sudanese? Another curious note: TV footage after the blast showed Sudanese firefighters dousing flames inside the plant with no protective gear. If deadly chemicals were present, surely they would have been overcome by the vapors. Just a drop of VX, if inhaled, can kill an adult in minutes.


Most critical to Clinton’s case for knocking out the plant was the Osama bin Laden tie-in. It doesn’t exist. On the day of the attack, Defense Secretary William Cohen said that bin Laden, a millionaire, ”had some financial interest in this facility.”

Berger echoed him: ”We know that bin Laden has been a substantial contributor.”

The press found no such funding link. The plant owner never did business with bin Laden. What’s more, bin Laden hasn’t lived in Sudan since ’95. Administration officials, speaking anonymously, now admit the link is not so clear after all. One called it ”fuzzy.”

As doubts grew last week about the bin Laden links, a new story emerged to justify the strike: Iraq had a role in the plant. Once again, officials leaking that new line would not go on record. Even if it’s true, it doesn’t make the case. Clinton said the strike was in response to the embassy bombings in Africa. Bin Laden was behind the bombings and was funding the chemical- weapons plant in Sudan. The idea was to punish bin Laden, not Iraq.

The day after the administration rained down missiles on Afghanistan, officials claimed they destroyed or damaged many buildings in what they described as bin Laden’s base. That’s a stretch. It turns out bin Laden’s headquarters was nothing more than mud huts and tents sprawled out in the mountains where mujahedeen once hid from Soviets. Officials said we knocked out bin Laden’s communications infrastructure. But press reports said bin Laden uses portable satellite telephones, not a centralized command-and-control system that can be hit with a missile. A full 48 hours after the strike, the White House said it still couldn’t provide satellite photos of the damage. Why? Clouds obscured the site from outer space. On the third day, spokesman Mike McCurry said photos showed the missiles hit their targets, but cloudy weather still prevented a full damage review. Unsatisfied by the sketchy details, Associated Press and Reuters reporters trekked to the site near Khost. They reported seeing a bunch of craters but not much wreckage from blown-up ”infrastructure.”

”A gathering of key terrorist leaders” at the camp ”underscored the urgency of our actions,” Clinton said, coming just 72 hours after his televised mea culpa. Some first reports put the number of terrorists as high as 600. Yet our missiles – which the administration said struck at night and hit ”barracks” – killed an estimated 21. Now Cohen says it’s not clear that the confab ever took place. In fact, some news accounts say most of the camps may have been

Berger said bin Laden’s training camps were ”rendered ineffective.” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said we had a ”significant impact” on his ”major terrorist camp.”

Aside from their hyperbole about damage, they ignored the fact that others used the camps besides bin Laden. Pakistani officials said they used two of the four camps hit by missiles to train Pakistanis and Kashmiris for the war against India in Kashmir. In fact, 15 Pakistanis
were among the reported dead. Another camp was used by Arabs from several countries. And only one was used by bin Laden. He is still at large.

Sudan and other countries, including U.S. ally Kuwait, have called for the U.S. to turn over its evidence to justify bombing the Sudanese plant. Yet the administration refuses. Nor will it let the UN conduct an inquiry. Why not?

The Clinton administration’s reluctance to make detailed intelligence information public in order to justify its military strikes contrasts starkly with previous administrations. The Reagan administration went so far as to make public the contents of decoded Libyan diplomatic cables in order to support bombing Tripoli. It showed so many photos to support
its invasion of Grenada that cartoonists poked fun. And the Bush administration made clear its case against Panama’s drug-running dictator. Why is this administration so secretive?

After the strike, Clinton signed an executive order placing bin Laden on the Treasury Department’s list of terrorists. Why only now, when he knew bin Laden announced a holy war against America months ago?

Well before the embassy bombings, the U.S. indicted bin Laden in New York on charges of soliciting murder. So why did Clinton wait until now to go after his training camps?

If soil samples turned up proof of a Sudanese chemical-weapons program months ago, why didn’t we bomb months ago? And why have U.N. inspectors been spending all their time trying to catch Iraq producing nerve gas when production was supposedly already under way across the Red Sea in Sudan?

Clinton said he was acting on ”convincing evidence” bin Laden was behind the embassy bombings. Yet bin Laden has not been charged. Why not? Two terrorists ”linked” to bin Laden have been charged. But the link is weak. One says he was trained in explosives at an Afghanistan camp ”affiliated” with bin Laden, court papers say. He says he ”attended” a news conference with bin Laden. That’s the administration’s convincing evidence?

Clinton said, ”We knew before our attack that these (bin Laden) groups already had planned further actions against us and others.”

He also said he knew they plotted to kill the president of Egypt, the pope and, as it turns out, himself. What’s more, they planned to bomb six U.S. 747s over the Pacific. Pretty specific intelligence. We knew all this, yet we knew absolutely nothing of plans to blow up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania? If this retaliatory action was unjustified, Clinton can’t blame it on his intelligence officers or the Pentagon.

”I decided America must act,” he boasted in his Aug. 20 Oval Office speech. ”I ordered our armed forces to take action.”

In fact, reports say Clinton personally chose the attack site in Sudan. And he kept the decision secret, letting only a few advisers in on it. No allies were consulted. Even people in Cohen’s office weren’t informed. This military call was all Clinton’s. In light of his personal problems, that’s a scary thought. The commander in chief has the power to unleash the deadliest army on the planet. Can we trust Clinton to handle that awesome responsibility? We fear we won’t get much chance to debate it. The administration is already preparing us for more strikes. The battle against terrorism won’t ”end with today’s strike,” Clinton warned. ”We must be prepared to do all that we can.”

”It’s very important for the American people to understand that we are involved here in a long-term struggle,” Albright said. Good, some say. Go after those terrorists. Who cares about Sudan, anyway? It harbors terrorists. It’s run by a military regime. It’s not a democracy. We had better care. If we blindly let stand what may have been an unjustified act of aggression ordered by a besieged president, we are no better than the terrorists we condemn.

Copyright (c) 1998 Investors Business Daily, All rights reserved.
Investor’s Business Daily – Editorial (09/01/98) Clouds of Doubt, 09/01/98 23:40