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Questions on clinton sudan strike 1998
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More Questions Than Answers
White House Has Trouble Explaining Attack on Sudan
By Barbara Starr
W A S H I N G T O N, Aug. 26 — Six days after U.S. warships rained cruise missiles on a factory in Sudan, the Clinton administration finds itself under fire to explain the attack.
When the United States struck the Shifa Pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum with 17 Tomahawk cruise missiles on Aug. 20, Defense Secretary William Cohen claimed the raid was part of the broader U.S. action to “reduce” the ability of terrorist organizations to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States had “convincing information” that Osama bin Laden’s network was trying to acquire chemical weapons and that “Bin Laden has extensive ties to the Sudanese government which controls this chemical facility.”
But within days, questions about the attack on the plant—and the U.S. reasoning behind the strike—began to swirl throughout Washington and Khartoum.
These questions forced U.S. intelligence officials to make a highly unusual admission: namely, that they covertly collected a soil sample from outside the plant several months ago, confirming the presence of a VX chemical weapons precursor known as EMPTA.
That precursor was used by Iraq in its VX program, and Iraqis were seen at the plant.
But it’s not clear to what extent the Iraqi effort in Sudan be directly linked to Osama bin Laden.
Officials will only say one reason behind the bombing of the plant was monitored conversations between plant workers and senior officials in Iraq’s chemical weapons program.
But that explanation only raised additional questions for the Clinton White House.
Embarrassing Questions Abound
It’s now widely understood that the Shifa plant was added to the target list literally hours before the attack.
And U.S. officials can offer precious little evidence of a direct link between Bin Laden and the plant other than assertions of his ties to the Sudanese military industrial complex, that the plant was part of that complex and that the precursor was found there.
When asked about the bin Laden connection on the day of the attack, Cohen offered this explanation:
“We do know that he’s had an association in the past with the Sudanese government. We do know that he has had some financial interests in contributing to this particular facility; whether or not it’s with the full knowledge of the Sudanese government remains to be seen.”
Now, U.S. officials say they do not know with certainty whether the VX precursor was manufactured at the plant, was stored there, or may have represented a small quantity of research and development material.
Shifting Official Explanations
Moreover, senior U.S. intelligence officials have since changed their views on another critical point.
They now acknowledge the plant was dual-use—that is, that it was capable of making drugs as well as nerve agent. But on the day of the attack they said there was no evidence that commercial products were ever sold out of the facility.
Another murky point is to what extent the U.S. was concerned about unleashing a potentially toxic cloud of nerve agent when it bombed the plant. Officials say that they used a computer model to predict what would happen. But there are two difficulties with that argument.
Precursors aren’t toxic, so any worry about toxic fatalities would be minimal. And if the U.S. did suspect the presence of highly toxic VX at the plant, they certainly had no idea how much might be there—again making it impossible to predict impact of the explosion on the surrounding neighborhood.
Barbara Starr reports from the Pentagon for ABCNEWS.
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