The Nose Knows

The Bombing of the Al Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant in Sudan is one of Clinton's lamest lies— but who cares?

Despite all the bilge that's gushed through institutional Washington over the past year about the importance of "honesty" and "accountability" vis-à-vis the dishonorable, immoral Mr. Clinton— homilies to the importance of telling the truth, rebukes for lying under oath, anguished hand-wringing about how these tawdry lapses will warp a generation of children, etc.— one fundamental reality of Babel on the Potomac remains unacknowledged. Simply put: While the Domestic Lie will draw the wrath of Congress and the independent counsel and whip the Fourth Estate into a frenzy that flings all else aside, the National Security Lie— though more blatant and consequential— will be granted and allowed to fly off into the horizon of memory.

Case in point: Last August's obliteration of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan. Two Fridays ago, the Al Shifa's owner, Salah Idris, filed lawsuits against the U.S. government in Washington and San Francisco to release millions of dollars the Treasury Department ordered frozen last year, not long after the Defense Department— on instructions of the commander in chief— destroyed Idris's Khartoum plant with 13 cruise missiles on the heels of Clinton's grand jury testimony in the Lewinsky matter. The grounds for converting the Al Shifa to rubble, some may recall, were that the plant was supposedly the weapons-of-mass-destruction arm of new U.S. foreign policy bogeyman Osama bin Laden's international terror empire, churning out precursor chemicals to concoct VX nerve gas. At first, the U.S. government asserted that Al Shifa was financed by Bin Laden; upon finding out it wasn't, the government said that Idris was a front man, a Bin Laden confederate, and, despite not being on the State Department's list of "designated terrorists" (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing), the Sudanese-Saudi banking and investment magnate would have to deal with his U.S.-held millions being put into stasis.

Less than a month ago, the story's radar signature blipped briefly onto the front page of The New York Times, where it was reported that lawyers Idris had retained from Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, & Feld (how many international terrorists retain attorneys, much less from the law firm of Clinton crony Vernon Jordan?) were in receipt of two reports— one from Thomas D. Tullius, chair of Boston University's chemistry department, the other from ex-CIA agents now in the employ of Kroll O'Gara, the international investigative firm— that showed, respectively, no scientific evidence of chemical weapons production, and no financial, political, or terrorist ties between Idris and Bin Laden. Not that this should have been entirely unexpected. In September, another Times story had said that indicators were strongly pointing in a dubious direction. In October, The New Yorker published a penetrating piece by Seymour Hersh, whose demonstrations of national security ineptitude in regard to Al Shifa would have moved key officials to resign in most other countries.

One shouldn't forget the details, or think they've ceased to matter, according to a veteran intelligence agent who spoke with the Voice on condition of anonymity, and who has spent most of his career in the shadow of mosques— including those in Khartoum. "You once could have made the argument that the intelligence community was subverting the polity," he mused. "This is a case that shows a change— the polity subverting the intelligence community. And it underscores how oblivious Americans are to the rest of the world that they can be fed this shit. Al Shifa was bogus."

In the days immediately following the bombing, "senior U.S. officials" (including a few "names," like national security adviser Sandy Berger) repeatedly claimed that Al Shifa produced "no commercial products," had a "secured perimeter patrolled by the Sudanese military," "in fact makes the components for VX gas and other chemical weapons," and "had links to Osama bin Laden." No details were given about how any of this was known. Within days, though, it all began to break down: it turned out that the plant was not only commercial but had been approved by the UN Security Council to package veterinary medicines for relief shipments to Iraq. (Indeed, medical vials and pharmaceutical parcels were identifiable among the wreckage at the plant formerly known as Al Shifa.) Scores of foreigners who had toured the facility— including the German and Italian ambassadors to Sudan— couldn't recall any security. And the British designers of the plant testified that it hadn't been built for, and couldn't produce, chemical weapons.

Then the administration changed its tune: Al Shifa had, officials claimed, been under CIA investigation for 18 months, and the CIA had a soil sample to prove that it had been up to no good. However, the agent who spoke to the Voicesaid there were problems on both fronts. Since the U.S. pulled out of Khartoum in 1996 (a decision based largely on false intelligence reports by a CIA asset), the CIA has treated Sudan as a "denied area"— off-limits to actual CIA officers. This led the CIA to depend on either recruiting a foreign national or one on loan from a friendly neighboring intelligence service. Egypt has no love for Sudan, and Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda all receive "non-lethal" U.S. military aid used to help the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement fight the Islamist regime in Khartoum. While declining to confirm specifics about how the sample was collected, the agent stated that the choice of operative for the mission likely did not lend itself to ensuring entirely objective results.

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