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The Clinton View of Iraq-al Qaeda Ties

From the December 29, 2003 / January 5, 2004 issue: Connecting the dots in 1998, but not in 2003.

Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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ARE AL QAEDA'S links to Saddam Hussein's Iraq just a fantasy of the Bush administration? Hardly. The Clinton administration also warned the American public about those ties and defended its response to al Qaeda terror by citing an Iraqi connection.

For nearly two years, starting in 1996, the CIA monitored the al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan. The plant was known to have deep connections to Sudan's Military Industrial Corporation, and the CIA had gathered intelligence on the budding relationship between Iraqi chemical weapons experts and the plant's top officials. The intelligence included information that several top chemical weapons specialists from Iraq had attended ceremonies to celebrate the plant's opening in 1996. And, more compelling, the National Security Agency had intercepted telephone calls between Iraqi scientists and the plant's general manager.

Iraq also admitted to having a $199,000 contract with al Shifa for goods under the oil-for-food program. Those goods were never delivered. While it's hard to know what significance, if any, to ascribe to this information, it fits a pattern described in recent CIA reporting on the overlap in the mid-1990s between al Qaeda-financed groups and firms that violated U.N. sanctions on behalf of Iraq.

The clincher, however, came later in the spring of 1998, when the CIA secretly gathered a soil sample from 60 feet outside of the plant's main gate. The sample showed high levels of O-ethylmethylphosphonothioic acid, known as EMPTA, which is a key ingredient for the deadly nerve agent VX. A senior intelligence official who briefed reporters at the time was asked which countries make VX using EMPTA. "Iraq is the only country we're aware of," the official said. "There are a variety of ways of making VX, a variety of recipes, and EMPTA is fairly unique."

That briefing came on August 24, 1998, four days after the Clinton administration launched cruise-missile strikes against al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Sudan (Osama bin Laden's headquarters from 1992-96), including the al Shifa plant. The missile strikes came 13 days after bombings at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 257 people--including 12 Americans--and injured nearly 5,000. Clinton administration officials said that the attacks were in part retaliatory and in part preemptive. U.S. intelligence agencies had picked up "chatter" among bin Laden's deputies indicating that more attacks against American interests were imminent.

The al Shifa plant in Sudan was largely destroyed after being hit by six Tomahawk missiles. John McWethy, national security correspondent for ABC News, reported the story on August 25, 1998:

Before the pharmaceutical plant was reduced to rubble by American cruise missiles, the CIA was secretly gathering evidence that ended up putting the facility on America's target list. Intelligence sources say their agents clandestinely gathered soil samples outside the plant and found, quote, "strong evidence" of a chemical compound called EMPTA, a compound that has only one known purpose, to make VX nerve gas.

Then, the connection:

The U.S. had been suspicious for months, partly because of Osama bin Laden's financial ties, but also because of strong connections to Iraq. Sources say the U.S. had intercepted phone calls from the plant to a man in Iraq who runs that country's chemical weapons program.

The senior intelligence officials who briefed reporters laid out the collaboration. "We knew there were fuzzy ties between [bin Laden] and the plant but strong ties between him and Sudan and strong ties between the plant and Sudan and strong ties between the plant and Iraq." Although this official was careful not to oversell bin Laden's ties to the plant, other Clinton officials told reporters that the plant's general manager lived in a villa owned by bin Laden.

Several Clinton administration national security officials told THE WEEKLY STANDARD last week that they stand by the intelligence. "The bottom line for me is that the targeting was justified and appropriate," said Daniel Benjamin, director of counterterrorism on Clinton's National Security Council, in an emailed response to questions. "I would be surprised if any president--with the evidence of al Qaeda's intentions evident in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the intelligence on [chemical weapons] that was at hand from Sudan--would have made a different decision about bombing the plant."

The current president certainly agrees. "I think you give the commander in chief the benefit of the doubt," said George W. Bush, governor of Texas, on August 20, 1998, the same day as the U.S. counterstrikes. "This is a foreign policy matter. I'm confident he's working on the best intelligence available, and I hope it's successful."