Khartoum Revisited, Part 2
The only new evidence on Clinton's Sudan bombing weakens the case for it.
Benjamin and Simon call this "partial, but striking, corroboration of the Clinton administration's 1998 claim that al-Qaida was involved in producing chemical weapons in Khartoum." Quite true. But what they neglect to state in the text—it's buried in a footnote—is that Al-Shifa is not located in Khartoum's Hilat Koko neighborhood. It is, Benjamin and Simon explained in a March 2002 New York Review of Books essay, "a few miles away." The footnote further states that the defector, al-Fadl, "never mentioned al Shifa" at all.
Benjamin and Simon go on to argue (again, in the footnote) that
EMPTA could have been produced at one of the two sites and then transferred to the other for storage, the completion of the chemical process that would turn the EMPTA into VX, and perhaps the loading of the agent into weapons. In view of al-Fadl's testimony and the chemical analysis of the soil sample, the most plausible explanation is that both plants were involved. Both therefore would have been appropriate targets for attack.
This is desperate conjecture. A much simpler explanation would be that Clinton bombed the wrong building. The al-Fadl testimony about chemical weapons (which Benjamin and Simon excoriate the media for ignoring at the time) does absolutely nothing to establish that Al-Shifa manufactured or stored or had anything to do with chemical weapons. To the extent it establishes anything, it establishes the opposite: It suggests that the chemical weapons were being manufactured in another place entirely.
Why did the CIA end up being fixated on Al-Shifa? The best guess Chatterbox has seen is set forth in an October 1998 piece by the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl suggested that a man named Mubarak Fadl Al Mahdi put the word out that Al-Shifa was mixed up with chemical weapons in order to hurt the plant's owner, Salah Idris, who was a political enemy of Mahdi's. Mahdi admitted to Pearl that he'd made it his business to collect information about the plant after Idris bought it. Pearl further reported that after the bombing, Mahdi issued a communiqué that said Al-Shifa had harbored "Iraqi scientists and technicians" and that most pharmaceutical plants in Sudan weren't "manned by foreign experts." (Mahdi denied having said anything about this before the bombing, and U.S. intelligence officials denied that they'd relied on anyone with a motive to hurt Idris.)
It is possible that we'll one day learn Al-Shifa was a legitimate bombing target. Most of the information about this incident is still classified. Benjamin, Simon, Clarke, and the rest of the Clinton national security team had access to a lot more intelligence than the rest of us do. But based on the evidence available now, Al-Shifa looks very much like the fiasco we thought it was then. The Sudan bombing is a blot on the Clinton presidency, and a blot it ought to remain.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.