Posted on August 16, 1999 in Washington Watch

One year ago, the Clinton Administration appeared to be floundering. Monica Lewinsky had just given testimony in which she contradicted the President and criticized his behavior. This opened the floodgates for the prolonged crisis that almost ended Clinton’s presidency. At the same time, Washington was still reeling from the devastating terrorist bombings that had destroyed U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than 200 people and injuring over 5,000. There was intense pressure on the Administration to act in response to these attacks, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that the United States was not so paralyzed and weak that it could not find and retaliate against terrorists who threatened American lives.

On August 20, 1998, the Clinton Administration claimed to strike back, launching 79 Cruise missiles against what the President stated were terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.

Clinton was firm and resolute as he explained his justification of the targets chosen. He and his advisers, in the days that followed, left no doubt as to their absolute certainty that they had struck a blow against terrorists.

In the case of the Sudan attack, the President referred to the target as a factory “associated with the bin Ladin network…that was involved in the production of material for chemical weapons.”

In briefings that followed the President’s announcement, other top Administration officials were even more definitive. National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, for example, referred to the Sudan target as a “so called pharmaceutical plant…a part of Sudan’s military-industrial complex.”

Berger continued, “I have no question. The intelligence community has no question that the factory was used to manufacture a chemical used in making nerve gas.”

Other officials echoed this charge. Defense Secretary Cohen stated, “the facility that was targeted in Khartoum produced the precursor chemical that would allow the production of type of VX nerve gas.”

Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Shelton, emphatically noted that “the intelligence community is confident that this facility is involved in the production of chemical weapons.”

Despite all of these assurances, however, from the first day of the attack there were serious questions raised in the United States, principally about the timing and the motivation behind the bombings.

Newspaper headlines largely heralded the attacks as a “Blow against terror.” And congressional leaders from both parties gave the President their full support.

But editorials and news commentators were more divided in their reactions. Views ranged from the Providence Journal which editorialized “America should stand united against terrorism and support Mr. Clinton’s action” to the Peoria Journal that commented “the President’s recklessness and lies have made it hard to believe anything he says.”

In polls, two-thirds of the American people supported the President, one-third, however felt that the attack was an attempt by the White House to cover-up the Monica Lewinsky story. This matter of the timing and motive cannot be resolved with the available evidence and will, no doubt, continue to be debated by opponents and supporters of the Administration.

What however, has become clear, is that despite the Administration’s claims of “certainty,” serious doubts now exist regarding the targeting of the el Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan..

The first challenges to the Administration’s position came within days of the August 20. Experts came forward to claim that el Shifa was a medicine plant. Recent visitors to Sudan told how they had toured the facility unrestricted and had seen no evidence of any military connection.

Finally records were provided to show that the factory had no connection to Osama bin Laden.

New facts have continued to come to light during the past year as el Shifa’s ower, Saleh Idris, has challenged the United States not only for destroying his factory, but for freezing his U.S. assets ($24 million) and alleging that he is involved in terrorist support activity.

To win compensation for the damage of his business and to clear his good name, Idris assembled a top-level U.S. defense team–a leading member of which is a prominent Arab American attorney, George Salem.

Idris’ defense team commissioned studies of the plant and brought teams of experts to el Shifa to assess the U.S. claims. A flood of reports have been prepared by the researchers all of which have concluded that there is no evidence that substantiates the U.S. charges that the plant was engaged making precursors for chemical weapons.

During this time, the Administration has continued to insist that it has the evidence to prove its case against the el Shifa Facility, but that it cannot reveal its evidence without compromising confidential sources and intelligence procedures.

Because the United states would not rebut the findings of the Idris team in court, in May of this year, the Treasury Department was forced to unfreeze Idris’ $24 , million in assets.

Now Idris is pressing forward with a $30 million lawsuit seeking compensation for damages to his plant. If the United States still finds it unacceptable to divulge its secret evidence, or if the evidence is found to be inadequate, then Saleh Idris may win this court battle as well.

One year after the destruction of his plant, Mr. Idris is poised to win both exoneration and compensation. With time, the el Shifa plant may be rebuilt. But the collateral damage of the attack–the credibility of the United States as the defender of international law–may be more difficult to repair.

It was precisely out of concern for the law that caused some in the Administration to be less than supportive of the attacks. The Attorney General for example, who was not a party to the initial decision to launch the attacks, for example, apparently remains unconvinced as to the justification and merits of the bombings.

It should be remembered that when the attack first occurred, the head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and hundreds of his agents were in Kenya and Tanzania investigating the embassy bombings. They had hoped to build a case based on solid evidence that could be used to charge those who were involved in the terrorist attacks.

As law enforcement officials, they expressed their opposition to the strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan since they felt that the “available evidence was insufficient to meet the standards of international law” to justify an act of retaliation.

It has also been reported that the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which was also excluded from the initial deliberation that led up to the bombings, has now concluded its own investigation of the “evidence” that led to the decision to bomb al Shifa. Their conclusion was that the decision was based on “bad intelligence and bad science.”

Increasingly, other Administration officials, speaking anonymously to the press, are admitting that they also have serious reservations about the justification for the Sudan attack.

Shortly after the U.S. bombings, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, attempting to convey the seriousness and determination of the U.S. to combat terror, noted that these attacks marked the beginning of what she called the “the war of the future.”

If, however, there are any lessons to be learned from this entire situation, it is that the war against terror can best be waged by remaining respectful of international law and by building strong and effective coalitions that can politically isolate, capture and punish those who would resort to terrorist tactics.

By stepping outside of the law and acting precipitously, precious credibility was put at risk. One can only hope this will not be repeated in the future.

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