More on Clinton's Sudan bombing.

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March 31 2004 8:28 PM

Khartoum Revisited, Part 2

The only new evidence on Clinton's Sudan bombing weakens the case for it.

The New York Times' 9/11 book, Out of the Blue: A Narrative of September 11, 2001, includes a handy summary of what, until now, has been the common understanding about President Clinton's 1998 attack on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan:

The administration claimed the plant was actually a disguised chemical weapons factory. Administration officials said that soil samples taken outside the plant had shown the presence of a substance known as Empta, whose only function was to make the nerve gas VX. The plant, moreover, was heavily guarded, the administration said, and it showed a suspicious lack of ordinary commercial activities.


But a British engineer, Thomas Carnaffin, who worked as a technical manager during the plant's construction between 1992 and 1996, emerged to tell reporters there was nothing secret or heavily guarded about the plant at all, and that he never saw any evidence of the production of an ingredient needed for nerve gas. The group that monitors compliance with the treaty banning chemical weapons announced that Empta did have legitimate commercial purposes in the manufacture of fungicides and antibiotics. The owner of the Shifa factory gave interviews in which he emphatically denied that the plant was used for anything other than pharmaceuticals, and there was never persuasive evidence to contradict his assertion. At the same time, members of the administration retreated from claims they made earlier that Osama bin Laden had what [Defense Secretary William] Cohen called "a financial interest in contributing to this particular facility." It turned out that no direct financial relationship between bin Laden and the plant could be established.

In yesterday's column, Chatterbox cited a few additional arguments that undermine the Clinton administration's insistence that the presence of EMPTA, or what it thought to be EMPTA, proved that the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory had been making or storing the nerve agent VX. It's probably worth noting, too, that nobody who sifted through the rubble afterward found evidence that the plant had manufactured or contained anything other than pharmaceuticals.

But all this analysis is based on what could be learned in 1998. Has new information challenged this consensus?

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, authors of The Age of Sacred Terror, want you to think so. The book was published in 2002, but its arguments about Al-Shifa are acquiring greater currency with the publication of Richard A. Clarke's Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, which similarly states that Al-Shifa was the right target. (Benjamin and Simon's argument has also been promoted by Al Franken.) According to a March 23 staff report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Sandy Berger, who was national security adviser at the time, "still believe they made the right recommendation." Indeed, the authors of the report say they are not aware of any top Clinton advisers who will concede that the Al-Shifa bombing was a screw-up.

Al-Shifa revisionism falls on potentially fertile ground for at least four reasons:

1. After 9/11, no one can deny that al-Qaida posed a serious threat. That disinclines potential critics to bellyache about Clinton's attack on Osama Bin Laden's purported assets.

2. At the time, there was a lot of loose talk about the bombing being a "Wag the Dog" strategy to distract the American public from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Now that the scandal fever has passed, the absurdity of that theory is more apparent.

3. From the evidence, it seems likely that some sort of activity involving chemical weapons was happening in or around Khartoum during the 1990s. (More on this in a moment.)

4. After 9/11, Noam Chomsky equated the Al-Shifa bombing with the toppling of the World Trade Center towers. Most sensible people don't want to be associated with so rash an argument. (Click here for Christopher Hitchens' answer to Chomsky in The Nation.) That has tended to discourage critics from revisiting the Al-Shifa controversy at all.

But the bombing of Al-Shifa did kill a night watchman, and it probably also brought harm to those dependent on its pharmaceutical products. Moreover, Al-Shifa was privately owned—not, as best we can tell, by Bin Laden—so the bombing couldn't be justified as punishment visited on the government of Sudan for harboring terrorists, as we know it had done. Most obviously, you do the war on terrorism no good at all if you hit the wrong target. It's still worth knowing whether Al-Shifa was the wrong target. So let's take a look at Benjamin and Simon's new evidence.

In February 2001, Benjamin and Simon write in their book, an al-Qaida defector named Jamal Ahman al-Fadl was cross-examined in a criminal proceeding. Here's the relevant exchange:

Q: Did you ever travel to the section of Khartoum called Hilat Koko with any member of Al Qaida?

A: Yes, I did. ... I learn that in this building they try to make chemical weapons with regular weapons.

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.