Bombs Away

Troubling questions about the U.S. attack on Sudan


Perhaps the most widely voiced criticism of the ongoing presidential peep show–now playing as a nonstop congressional impeachment inquiry–is that, by focusing all of America's political and media interest on Bill Clinton's arguably private matters, we are failing to pay attention to "more important" issues of the day. Because it is Clinton supporters who typically voice this argument, there is little appreciation for just how much the president may be benefiting from the fact that the public's gaze is firmly fixed on all the curves and contours of l'affaire Lewinsky.

Consider, for instance, the relative lack of scrutiny accorded the August 20 cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan that President Clinton ordered in retaliation for earlier bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. The specific locations–a "terrorist university" in Afghanistan and Al Shifa Pharmaceuticals Industries plant in Sudan–were chosen because of links to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian terrorist widely believed to have masterminded the embassy bombings. However, despite the president's assurances that the two sites were attacked "because of the imminent threat they presented to our national security," subsequent reports suggest a pattern of official obfuscation that calls to mind Clinton's cagey grand jury testimony.

While there is broad agreement that the Afghan camp was a training facility for terrorists and had direct ties to bin Laden, there is very little consensus regarding what the Shifa plant did or did not produce. (Whether either posed an "imminent threat to our national security," necessitating immediate action, is another question.)

"Our forces…attacked a factory in Sudan associated with the bin Laden network. The factory was involved in the production of materials for chemical weapons," explained the president matter-of-factly after the bombing, which injured at least 10 people. Administration officials claimed that a soil sample taken by the Central Intelligence Agency from outside the plant revealed traces of EMPTA, a chemical they said could be used only in the production of VX nerve gas.

But reports from other sources–including some in the American intelligence community–quickly undercut such seeming certitude. A number of publications reported that the German ambassador to Sudan, who had a working knowledge of the plant, challenged the Clinton administration's assertions. Similarly, administration depictions of the factory as secretive and highly guarded turned out to be inaccurate. The Los Angeles Times cited experts who said not only that EMPTA has multiple uses but that apparent traces could have come from a number of other sources. British newspapers such as the London Observer reported that the factory lacked airlocks and other chambers necessary for producing chemical weapons.

The administration's own actions and admissions raise even more disturbing questions. Despite the Sudanese government's call for an international inquiry–and its insistence that the factory produced about 50 percent of the country's legitimate drugs–the Clinton administration has refused to allow an independent test of the CIA soil sample. U.S. officials have conceded that despite claims to good intelligence on the factory, they did not even know who owned it until after the bombing. (They now claim that the owner, Salih Idris, a Sudanese expatriate living in Saudi Arabia, has links to bin Laden; Idris denies any connection.)

In fact, CIA information on Sudan has been suspect since at least 1996, when the United States closed its embassy there (the CIA had shut down its own station there a year earlier). In January 1996, the CIA withdrew 100 intelligence reports on the country after determining that they contained largely fabricated information. The Pentagon is reportedly beginning an inquiry into how the factory came to be a target for U.S. military action.

Additionally, The New York Times has quoted unnamed Clinton administration officials who seriously question the operation. "As an American citizen, I am not convinced of the evidence," said one. "The decision to target Al Shifa continues a tradition of operating on inadequate intelligence about Sudan," said another. In a recent New Yorker article on the matter, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh writes that Attorney General Janet Reno pushed to delay the bombings until the FBI, the agency responsible for investigating the African embassy bombings, could vet the administration's evidence.

None of this, of course, catches the Clinton administration in a blatant lie, even if it does feed a Wag the Dog-inspired skepticism toward official pronouncements on the matter (immediately after the bombing, polls showed that close to half of all Americans thought the missile strikes were meant to divert attention from the president's sex life). But all this information does raise troubling questions–questions that are going largely unasked and unanswered, both in the corridors of power and in the court of public opinion.

The disturbing lack of clarity surrounding the Sudanese bombing suggests something else as well: If and when the public's and the media's attention shifts from the president's sex life to wider-ranging inquiries about how he makes deadly serious policy decisions, his problems may be far from over.