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
Wouldn't the bombing of a plant with well-documented connections to Iraq's chemical weapons program, undertaken in an effort to strike back at Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, seem to suggest the Clinton administration national security officials believed Iraq was working with al Qaeda? Benjamin, who has been one of the leading skeptics of claims that Iraq was working with al Qaeda, doesn't want to connect those dots.
Instead, he describes al Qaeda and Iraq as unwitting collaborators. "The Iraqi connection with al Shifa, given what we know about it, does not yet meet the test as proof of a substantive relationship because it isn't clear that one side knew the other side's involvement. That is, it is not clear that the Iraqis knew about bin Laden's well-concealed investment in the Sudanese Military Industrial Corporation. The Sudanese very likely had their own interest in VX development, and they would also have had good reasons to keep al Qaeda's involvement from the Iraqis. After all, Saddam was exactly the kind of secularist autocrat that al Qaeda despised. In the most extreme case, if the Iraqis suspected al Qaeda involvement, they might have had assurances from the Sudanese that bin Laden's people would never get the weapons. That may sound less than satisfying, but the Sudanese did show a talent for fleecing bin Laden. It is all somewhat speculative, and it would be helpful to know more."
It does sound less than satisfying to one Bush administration official. "So, when the Clinton administration wants to justify its strike on al Shifa," this official tells me, "it's okay to use an Iraq-al Qaeda connection. But now that the Bush administration and George Tenet talk about links, it's suddenly not believable?"
The Clinton administration heavily emphasized the Iraq link to justify its 1998 strikes against al Qaeda. Just four days before the embassy bombings, Saddam Hussein had once again stepped up his defiance of U.N. weapons inspectors, causing what Senator Richard Lugar called another Iraqi "crisis." Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, one of those in the small circle of Clinton advisers involved in planning the strikes, briefed foreign reporters on August 25, 1998. He was asked about the connection directly and answered carefully.
Q: Ambassador Pickering, do you know of any connection between the so-called pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum and the Iraqi government in regard to production of precursors of VX?
PICKERING: Yeah, I would like to consult my notes just to be sure that what I have to say is stated clearly and correctly. We see evidence that we think is quite clear on contacts between Sudan and Iraq. In fact, al Shifa officials, early in the company's history, we believe were in touch with Iraqi individuals associated with Iraq's VX program.
Ambassador Bill Richardson, at the time U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, echoed those sentiments in an appearance on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," on August 30, 1998. He called the targeting "one of the finest hours of our intelligence people."
"We know for a fact, physical evidence, soil samples of VX precursor--chemical precursor at the site," said Richardson. "Secondly, Wolf, direct evidence of ties between Osama bin Laden and the Military Industrial Corporation--the al Shifa factory was part of that. This is an operation--a collection of buildings that does a lot of this dirty munitions stuff. And, thirdly, there is no evidence that this precursor has a commercial application. So, you combine that with Sudan support for terrorism, their connections with Iraq on VX, and you combine that, also, with the chemical precursor issue, and Sudan's leadership support for Osama bin Laden, and you've got a pretty clear cut case."
If the case appeared "clear cut" to top Clinton administration officials, it was not as open-and-shut to the news media. Press reports brimmed with speculation about bad intelligence or even the misuse of intelligence. In an October 27, 1999, article, New York Times reporter James Risen went back and reexamined the intelligence. He wrote: "At the pivotal meeting reviewing the targets, the Director of Central Intelligence, George J. Tenet, was said to have cautioned Mr. Clinton's top advisers that while he believed that the evidence connecting Mr. Bin Laden to the factory was strong, it was less than ironclad." Risen also reported that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had shut down an investigation into the targeting after questions were raised by the department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (the same intelligence team that raised questions about prewar intelligence relating to the war in Iraq).