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 Voice said 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.
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.
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
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 9, 1999