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."
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).
Other questions persisted as well. Clinton administration officials initially scoffed at the notion that al Shifa produced any pharmaceutical products. But reporters searching through the rubble found empty aspirin bottles, as well as other indications that the plant was not used exclusively to produce chemical weapons. The strikes came in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, leaving some analysts to wonder whether President Clinton was following the conspiratorial news-management scenario laid out in "Wag the Dog," then a hit movie.
But the media failed to understand the case, according to Daniel Benjamin, who was a reporter himself before joining the Clinton National Security Council. "Intelligence is always incomplete, typically composed of pieces that refuse to fit neatly together and are subject to competing interpretations," writes Benjamin with coauthor Steven Simon in the 2002 book "The Age of Sacred Terror." "By disclosing the intelligence, the administration was asking journalists to connect the dots--assemble bits of evidence and construct a picture that would account for all the disparate information. In response, reporters cast doubt on the validity of each piece of the information provided and thus on the case for attacking al Shifa."
Now, however, there's a new wrinkle. Bush administration officials largely agree with their predecessors. "There's pretty good intelligence linking al Shifa to Iraq and also good information linking al Shifa to al Qaeda," says one administration official familiar with the intelligence. "I don't think there's much dispute that [Sudan's Military Industrial Corporation] was al Qaeda supported. The link from al Shifa to Iraq is what there is more dispute about."
According to this official, U.S. intelligence has obtained Iraqi documents showing that the head of al Shifa had been granted permission by the Iraqi government to travel to Baghdad to meet with Emad al-Ani, often described as "the father of Iraq's chemical weapons program." Said the official: "The reports can confirm that the trip was authorized, but the travel part hasn't been confirmed yet."
So why hasn't the Bush administration mentioned the al Shifa connection in its public case for war in Iraq? Even if one accepts Benjamin's proposition that Iraq may not have known that it was arming al Qaeda and that al Qaeda may not have known its chemicals came from Iraq, doesn't al Shifa demonstrate convincingly the dangers of attempting to "contain" a maniacal leader with WMD?
According to Bush officials, two factors contributed to their reluctance to discuss the Iraq-al Qaeda connection suggested by al Shifa. First, the level of proof never rose above the threshold of "highly suggestive circumstantial evidence"--indicating that on this question, Bush administration policymakers were somewhat more cautious about the public use of intelligence on the Iraq-al Qaeda connection than were their counterparts in the Clinton administration. Second, according to one Bush administration source, "there is a massive sensitivity at the Agency to bringing up this issue again because of the controversy in 1998."
But there is bound to be more discussion of al Shifa and Iraq-al Qaeda connections in the coming weeks. The Senate Intelligence Committee is nearing completion of its review of prewar intelligence. And although there is still no CIA team assigned to look at the links between Iraq and al Qaeda, investigators looking at documents from the fallen regime continue to uncover new information about those connections on a regular basis.
Democrats who before the war discounted the possibility of any connection between Iraq and al Qaeda have largely fallen silent. And in recent days, two prowar Democrats have spoken openly about the relationship. Evan Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana who sits on the Intelligence Committee, told THE WEEKLY STANDARD, "the relationship seemed to have its roots in mutual exploitation. Saddam Hussein used terrorism for his own ends, and Osama bin Laden used a nation-state for the things that only a nation-state can provide."
And Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat and presidential candidate, discussed the connections in an appearance last week on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews." Said Lieberman: "I want to be real clear about the connection with terrorists. I've seen a lot of evidence on this. There are extensive contacts between Saddam Hussein's government and al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. I never could reach the conclusion that [Saddam] was part of September 11. Don't get me wrong about that. But there was so much smoke there that it made me worry. And you know, some people say with a great facility, al Qaeda and Saddam could never get together. He is secular and they're theological. But there's something that tied them together. It's their hatred of us."
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.