The Nose Knows

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

Immediately after the bombing, the U.S. propagated the notion that Al Shifa had vats of lethal brew ready for action. Indeed, unnamed government sources told U.S. News & World Report that this was old news: that Al Shifa "had been in the Pentagon's inventory of targets for several years," and that "one final step" before loosing the Tomahawks was running "computer models of the risk that explosions at the chemical factory would unleash a plume of poison gas across Sudan." However, when it quickly became evident that the plant was not the "clear and immediate danger" that Clinton had declared it to be, backpedaling commenced: the scientific basis for the attack was a soil sample containing EMPTA, a non-lethal VX precursor.

No more details than that, sayeth the White House, in the name of protecting intelligence "sources and methods." However, everyone from an EMPTA authority at Oxford's chemistry department to the American Chemical Society has pointed out that the presence of commercially used EMPTA proves nothing. According to a recent issue of ACS's Chemical & Engineering News, the administration's refusal to examine the results of Professor Tullius's investigation, and its contention that intelligence activities would be "jeopardized by disclosing the amount found, the analytical techniques used, or the other chemicals detected . . . [serve] only to exacerbate people's disbelief of the U.S. government's claims."

No matter. On January 22, as demonstrated in The Washington Post, the government's story underwent yet another permutation. Currently, according to White House terrorism czar Richard Clarke, the U.S. is "sure" that the Iraqis were the sinister force behind Al Shifa, producing what the Post characterized as "powdered VX-like substance at the plant that, when mixed with bleach and water, would have become fully active nerve gas." This, says Professor Tullius, strains credulity: "Bleach is often used to detoxify nerve agents," he says. "Using bleach to activate an agent makes no sense." While the Iraqi and Sudanese militaries are known to have collaborated on limited munitions projects, says investigative reporter Frank Smyth, there is nothing linking these endeavors to Al Shifa or Bin Laden. "It looks like the administration acted based on inferences drawn from pieces of intelligence they presumed were connected," he says.

Patrick Arrasmith

That seems to be about par for the Clinton foreign policy course. According to the intelligence agent who once hung his cloak and dagger in Khartoum, behind every intelligence failure is a policy failure, and, he says, one has to question the U.S. approach to Sudan. Currently controlled by a government with a horrible human rights record— which is at war with Christian and animist rebels with somewhat less horrible human rights records— the Khartoum government has been the focus of a hard-line approach by a clique of U.S. foreign policy officials: Berger, Clarke, Madeline Albright, and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice. This has been the case despite Khartoum's attempts at international outreach, through acts such as delivering Carlos the Jackal to the French and expelling Osama bin Laden for the U.S. ("The Sudanese aren't sweethearts, but even the Taliban in Afghanistan get more respect than Khartoum does," a rueful mid-level State Department official says.) If the U.S. government is serious about neutralizing threats of Islamist terrorism from Sudan, says former Sudanese foreign minister Francis Deng, it should try to understand this famine-plagued country and work to change it from the inside rather than bombing it.

At this stage, the truth about Al Shifa remains elusive. It used to be that embarrassing front-page disclosures in The New York Times, lengthy investigative articles by Sy Hersh, and aggressive congressional probes by the likes of Senator Frank Church and New York's late, lamented Representative Otis Pike were enough to instill fear— and even inspire change— in the establishment gray zone where spooks, soldiers, and diplomats converge. The presence of two of these factors seems to have made little difference in this instance; as for Congress, shortly after the bombing, CIA Director George Tenet and Defense Secretary William Cohen convened an ad hoc closed briefing for curious senators. Almost all emerged satisfied— and bound to secrecy.

Not long after that briefing, this reporter had occasion to interview Senator John McCain, who was asked his opinion on the matter of the bombings. "It's entirely appropriate for us to examine whether they were well-motivated and whether the national interest was clearly served," McCain said. "I still have some major questions. One, the factory: Why did it have to be struck exactly then? The factory was not going to go away. It was not going to launch a missile. What was the rationale for saying this has to be done now?"

Nice sentiment. It seems, though, that the senator has decided that trips to Las Vegas to rattle the tin cup for presidential campaign donations, and pushing an aviation bill that would add more flights to Washington's already overburdened National Airport, take priority over agitating for a congressional probe into the bombing of the Al Shifa plant. No driving interest in the House either. So where are the Churches and the Pikes of 1999? Somewhere, perhaps, out on the horizon.

Research: Ginger Otis

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