October 27, 1999
To Bomb Sudan Plant, or Not: A Year Later, Debates Rankle
Decision to Strike Factory in Sudan Based Partly on Surmise (sept. 21, 1998)
Flaws in U.S. Account Raise Questions on Strike in Sudan (Aug. 29, 1998)
Possible Benign Use Is Seen for Chemical at Factory in Sudan (Aug. 27, 1998)
U.S. Cruise Missiles Strike Sudan and Afghan Targets Tied to Terrorist Network (Aug. 21, 1998)
By JAMES RISEN
ASHINGTON -- In
the 14 months since President
Clinton ordered a cruise missile
attack on a pharmaceutical plant
in Sudan, his aides have steadfastly defended the decision.
Clinton, they say, acted on evidence that left no doubt that the
factory was involved with chemical weapons and linked to Osama
bin Laden, the Saudi exile they
blame for blowing up two American embassies in East Africa.
QUESTION OF EVIDENCE
A special report.
But an examination of the decision, based on interviews by The
New York Times with key participants, shows that it was far more
difficult than the Administration
has acknowledged and that the
voices of dissent were numerous.
Officials throughout the Government raised doubts up to the
eve of the attack about whether
the United States had sufficient
information linking the factory to
either chemical weapons or to
bin Laden, according to participants in the discussions. They
said senior diplomatic and intelligence officials argued strenuously over whether any target in
Sudan should be attacked.
Aides passed on their doubts to
the Secretary of State, officials
said. But the national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, who
played a pivotal role in approving
the strike, said in an interview
that he was not aware of any
questions about the strength of
the evidence before the attack.
In the aftermath, some senior
officials moved to suppress internal dissent, officials said. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and a senior deputy, they
said, encouraged State Department intelligence analysts to kill
a report being drafted that said
the bombing was not justified.
The new accounts provide the
clearest explanation to date of the
reasoning behind one of the most
debated military actions undertaken by the Administration.
Some officials said they were
told that the President and his
aides approved the operation --
code-named Infinite Reach -- to
show that the United States could
hit back against an adversary
who had bombed American embassies simultaneously in two
And, some officials said, the
President's chief advisers concluded that the risks of hitting the
wrong target were far outweighed by the possibility that the
plant was making chemical weapons for a terrorist eager to use
Like many decisions of this
kind, the decision to bomb the
plant was made under intense
pressure and a sense of urgency
created by intelligence showing
that bin Laden was contemplating another lethal attack
against the United States. "We
would have been derelict in our
duty not to have proceeded,"
Current and former American
officials agreed to discuss the operation because, more than a
year later, they continue to be
plagued by doubts about whether
it was justified.
They said they are still troubled
by the lack of a full airing of what
they view as gaps in the evidence
linking the plant, called Al Shifa,
to bin Laden. And they complain that the decision-making
process was so secretive that Al
Shifa was not vetted by many
Government experts on chemical
weapons sites or terrorism.
The officials brought to light
several previously unknown aspects of the strike.
For example, at the pivotal
meeting reviewing the targets, the Director
of Central Intelligence, George J. Tenet, was
said to have cautioned Clinton's top
advisers that while he believed that the
evidence connecting bin Laden to the
factory was strong, it was less than iron
He warned that the link between bin
Laden and the factory could be "drawn only
indirectly and by inference," according to
notes taken by a participant. The plant's
involvement with chemical weapons,
Tenet told his colleagues, was more certain,
confirmed by a soil sample from near the
site that contained an ingredient of nerve
Berger said he does not recall that
Tenet raised any such doubts at the
meeting. "I would say the director was very
clear in his judgment that the plant was
associated with chemical weapons,"
Berger said. "No one in the discussion questioned whether Al Shifa was an appropriate
Just a few hours before the attack, officials said, President Clinton called off a planned attack on a second target in Sudan,
a tannery, after senior military officers
raised questions about the risks of civilian
casualties and the evidence connecting it to
bin Laden. The last-minute campaign
was led by Gen. Harry H. Shelton, Chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who enlisted
other senior officers in an effort to reverse
the recommendation of Clinton's civilian advisers.
On Aug. 20, 1998, American missiles hit
two countries, demolishing Al Shifa and
several of bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. Within days, Western engineers who
had worked at the Sudan factory were asserting that it was, as Sudan claimed, a
working pharmaceutical plant. Reporters
visiting the ruined building saw bottles of
medicine but no signs of security precautions and no obvious signs of a chemical
weapons manufacturing operation.
After the Attack: Albright and Top Aide Killed Critical Report
n the days after the strike, as criticism
mounted, the Administration closed ranks,
publicly asserting that the intelligence was
persuasive. But the doubts persisted, particularly at the State Department Bureau of
Intelligence and Research.
The bureau had written a report for Secretary Albright before the attack questioning
the evidence linking Al Shifa to bin
Laden. Now, the analysts renewed their
doubts and told Assistant Secretary of State
Phyllis Oakley that the C.I.A.'s evidence on
which the attack was based was inadequate.
Ms. Oakley asked them to double-check;
perhaps there was some intelligence they
had not yet seen. The answer came back
quickly: There was no additional evidence.
Ms. Oakley called a meeting of key aides
and a consensus emerged: Contrary to what
the Administration was saying, the case tying Al Shifa to bin Laden or to chemical
weapons was weak. Ms. Oakley told her
aides to draft a report reflecting their skepticism, a significant step because there was a
chance its findings might leak out.
Ms. Oakley told Under Secretary of State
Thomas R. Pickering that her aides were
preparing a report that would sharply question the bombing.
Officials said Pickering asked whether
the report contained any information omitted from the State Department's previous
study. Ms. Oakley said no. In that case,
Pickering said, there was no reason to raise
the issue again.
"After the Al Shifa strike," Pickering
said in an interview, Ms. Oakley told him her
staff "was working on a draft, and we both
agreed that there was nothing new in what it
had to say."
"She and I discussed the idea of pursuing it
further," he added, "and I said I didn't see
the value in pursuing it further, and she
But other officials say that while she accepted the order to kill the report, Ms. Oakley, who retired from the State Department
last month after 42 years, privately expressed frustration and concern. Other officials in the intelligence bureau have also
expressed concern. Ms. Oakley declined to be
quoted in this article.
"It was after the strike and I didn't see the
point," Pickering said. "There was not
an effort to shut off a new inquiry."
Ms. Oakley passed on Pickering's order to her analysts.
A couple of days later, Secretary Albright
asked Ms. Oakley about the report and Ms.
Oakley replied that there was not going to be
any report, according to people familiar with
Dr. Albright does not recall the details of
her conversation with Ms. Oakley, but does
remember that she was "not interested in
having that debate rehashed," said James P.
Rubin, the State Department spokesman.
Pickering said the report was being
drafted solely for the use of himself and the
Secretary, both of whom were already aware
of the intelligence bureau's qualms.
A reconstruction of events shows that Ms.
Oakley was hardly the only senior official to
question the intelligence tying together Sudan, bin Laden and chemical weapons.
Before the Attack: Suspicions Dating to the Gulf War
ashington's suspicions about Sudan's
links to chemical weapons date back to the
aftermath of the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
The C.I.A. received reports that Iraqi chemical weapons experts had visited Khartoum,
prompting suspicions that Iraq was shifting
some of its production of chemical weapons
At about the same time, bin Laden
moved to Sudan after his exile from Saudi
Arabia and began to invest heavily in commercial enterprises, often through joint ventures with the Government, while using Sudan as a base for his loosely knit international terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, American intelligence officials said.
The C.I.A. received intelligence reports
indicating that in 1995, bin Laden won
tentative approval from Sudanese leaders to
begin developing chemical weapons for use
against American troops in Saudi Arabia.
But in 1996 the Sudanese, responding to
pressure from the United States and Saudi
Arabia, forced bin Laden to leave,
prompting him and many of his supporters
to retreat to Afghanistan.
By then the United States had pulled its
embassy staff out of Sudan and had closed
down the C.I.A.'s Khartoum station, citing
terrorist threats. The pull-out left the United
States with only a limited capacity to understand events in Sudan.
American suspicions about the Al Shifa
plant arose in the summer of 1997 when,
intelligence officials said, an informant reported that two sites in Khartoum might be
involved in chemical weapons production.
The informant also mentioned a third site --
Al Shifa -- on which he had less information,
but which was suspicious because it had high
fences and stringent security.
In December 1997 an agent working for the
C.I.A. collected a soil sample about 60 feet
from Al Shifa, directly across an access road
from the main entrance, according to American officials. The sample was taken from
land that does not appear to have been owned
by Al Shifa.
The soil was found to contain about 2.5
times the normal trace amounts of Empta, a
chemical used in the production of VX nerve
gas, a senior American official said.
This report prompted a heated debate
among American analysts about the plant's
possible links to weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.
On July 24, 1998, the C.I.A. issued its first
intelligence report on Al Shifa, based on the
soil sample, spy satellite photographs and
other intelligence. The report highlighted apparent links between Al Shifa and bin
Laden, including indirect financial connections through the Military Industrial Corporation, a Government-controlled company.
But the C.I.A. analysts also suggested that
additional information would be needed. One
key paragraph, titled "Next Steps," called
for more soil samples and additional satellite
photographs. The report also raised a new
question by noting that there were no longer
signs of heavy security around Al Shifa.
On Aug. 4, 1998, the C.I.A. weighed in with a
more ominous report that assessed the possible connection between Sudan, Osama bin
Laden and his efforts to obtain chemical
weapons. It mentioned Al Shifa, but the report's highlight was new intelligence indicating that bin Laden, who had announced a
renewed "holy war" against the United
States, had acquired chemical or nuclear
materials and "might be ready" to conduct a
At the State Department, intelligence analysts responded with skepticism. In an Aug. 6
memorandum for senior State policy makers, Ms. Oakley's analysts argued that even
with the new intelligence, the evidence linking Al Shifa to bin Laden and chemical
weapons was weak.
The next day, the United States embassies
in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, killing
more than 200 people, and the United States
soon concluded that bin Laden was behind both attacks.
President Clinton and a small group of his
most senior advisors -- including
Berger, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen,
Dr. Albright, Pickering and General
Shelton -- quickly decided to retaliate.
On Aug. 8, the President's advisers ordered the Pentagon Joint Staff and the C.I.A.
to draw up a list of sites connected to bin
Laden and his organization that could be
Planning the Attack: Urgency Propelled Military Analysis
group of officials, including the Counterterrorism Center at the C.I.A., prepared a list
of about 20 possible targets in three countries
-- Afghanistan, Sudan and another nation
that officials declined to identify. It spelled
out the evidence linking each target to
bin Laden's organization and weighed the
risks, including "collateral damage," the
military term for accidentally hitting civilians. The plant at Al Shifa was on the list.
On Aug. 11, senior American intelligence
officials met to discuss Al Shifa and debate
whether additional soil samples were needed
from the plant. On Aug. 12, after the list was
winnowed down, President Clinton and key
national security officials were briefed for
the first time on the possible targets by
The next day, the C.I.A. received a report
that changed the nature of the debate and the
pace of planning for retaliation: New intelligence showed that bin Laden and his key
lieutenants would be meeting on Aug. 20 at
Khost, Afghanistan. Reports also indicated
that bin Laden might be planning further
attacks, possibly with chemical weapons.
The Afghan camps were already among the
top priority targets proposed.
Some officials said the White House
seemed determined to hit bin Laden in
more than one place. Richard A. Clarke, a
senior National Security Council official who
played a pivotal role in planning the operation on behalf of the President, later explained to a colleague that bin Laden had
shown "global reach" by attacking American embassies simultaneously in two countries. The United States, he said, had to
respond by attacking his network beyond its
haven in Afghanistan.
In an interview, Clarke said it was the
President and his principal foreign policy
advisers who "obviously decided to attack in
more than one place."
In the White House meeting Aug. 19 where
the final recommendations were to be made
for the President, officials chose to attack the
Afghan camps and two sites in Sudan: Al
Shifa and a tannery in Khartoum that intelligence indicated was linked to bin Laden.
Berger denies that there was a significant debate about the evidence concerning
Al Shifa during the meeting. Rather, he said,
there were "geopolitical" questions raised
about whether it was appropriate to attack
Sudan when bin Laden no longer lived
there. "There were a few people who felt we
shouldn't go to a second country, but those
questions were not based on any doubts
about Al Shifa," he said.
Notes taken at the meeting, however, say
Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence, alluded to "gaps" in the case linking
bin Laden to the factory. His agency, he
said, was working to "close the intelligence
gaps on this target."
Tenet said he had been careful to
delineate "what we knew and didn't know,
what the risks were, and what the downsides
were" about Al Shifa.
Officials said General Shelton objected to
attacking the tannery, both because of the
potential that missiles might hit civilians and
because it was not suspected of being involved in chemical weapons.
Officials recall that the debate was
brought to a halt by Berger. The Administration, he said, would rightly be pilloried if
the United States did not destroy Al Shifa and
bin Laden initiated a chemical attack
that could have been pre-empted.
A recommendation was sent to Clinton
to attack the Afghan camps, Al Shifa and the
Later that day General Shelton told his
colleagues among the Joint Chiefs about the
planned operation, in part to gain their help
in convincing the White House to drop the
tannery as a target. It was the first time the
officers had been told about the pending
After their meeting, General Shelton
called the White House to say that the officers shared his opposition to bombing the
tannery. Other senior officials began to object, and Berger relayed those concerns
to President Clinton on Martha's Vinyard.
At about midnight, Clinton consulted
some of his other advisors, and finally ordered that the tannery be removed from the
target list at about 2 A.M.
n Washington, late in the day on Aug. 19,
several officials, including members of the
Administration's committee of top counterterrorism experts, were summoned to
Clarke's office at the National Security Council and told to remain there for the evening.
The group's members had met previously to
discuss the idea of a retaliatory strike but
had not been involved in selecting targets.
The officials were told of the decision to
strike for the first time by Clarke that
night, according to an official at the meeting.
But as Clarke gave them reports to read
about Al Shifa, he was met with skepticism.
Some in the group told Clarke that the
intelligence was too thin. "People said, 'Dick,
what is this?' " according to the participant,
but Clarke brushed aside those concerns
and said the decision to strike had already
The officials had been summoned that
night not to pass judgment on the target,
Clarke told them, but to help prepare paperwork related to the operation, including talking points for American ambassadors
around the world and briefings for Congress
and the press after the bombing.
In an interview, Clarke denied that
anyone raised doubts during that meeting or
at any other time before or after the attack
on Al Shifa. The "people brought in the night
before were brought in to do paperwork," not
to review the targets, he said.
Across the Potomac River at the C.I.A.'s
headquarters in Langley, Va., similar worries were being expressed. Senior agency
officials gathered in Tenet's conference
room to discuss the targets and, one participant said, there was strong disagreement
about the plans.
Questions about Al Shifa also surfaced at
the State Department just before the attack.
Pickering was shown the intelligence
analysts' memo expressing skepticism about
the intelligence, he said, and he mentioned
the findings to Secretary Albright.
Pickering and Dr. Albright both decided to support the decision, however. They
were convinced that the evidence, primarily
the soil sample, was persuasive, he said.
Telling the Public: A Straight Face Belied Criticism
n the days after the attack, an international debate erupted, with Sudan demanding
damages and an independent review of case.
In Washington, senior officials insisted that
the links between bin Laden, the factory
and chemical weapons were strong and compelling.
There was much less certainty behind the
Soon after the strike, word began to filter
out of the Government that senior intelligence officials, including Jack Downing, the
head of the C.I.A. Directorate of Operations,
its clandestine espionage arm, believed that
the attack was not justified.
Others raising similar questions included
the head of the Africa division at the directorate and the chief of the C.I.A. Counterterrorism Center, whose office had collected the
intelligence on the site.
While these officials did not question that
the intelligence raised strong suspicions,
they found the connections between Al Shifa
and bin Laden too indirect to support the
public statements justifying the attack.
Downing and the other two officials, whose
names have been withheld at the request of
the agency, would not comment.
At the intelligence branch of the State
Department, officials began drafting a report renewing doubts about the evidence.
Soon after the strike, the C.I.A. conducted a
study of its own and gathered intelligence
about the plant's owner, a Sudanese businessman named Salah Idris, saying it had
found new evidence about his possible financial connections to the terrorist group Islamic Jihad, which in turn has strong connections to bin Laden.
But agency officials acknowledged that
they did not know that he owned the plant at
the time of the strike. Officials also acknowledge that the soil sample from Al Shifa was
obtained about four months before Idris
bought the plant in March 1998.
Officials also say now that Idris was
never put on the Government's terrorist
watch list, either before or after the attack.
But after the attack, the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control froze
Idris' accounts at Bank of America
branches in London and Guernsey, in the
Channel Islands, prompting Idris to file
suit against the Government seeking the
release of his funds. In May the Treasury
Department agreed to free his assets, which
totaled more than $24 million, just before the
Government's response to his lawsuit was
due in court. Idris has reportedly considered filing suit against the United States
seeking damages for the loss of his plant, but
has not yet done so.
Bin Laden, meanwhile, reportedly remains in Afghanistan, and the United States
has warned repeatedly during the last year
that he has been attempting to attack American targets. Senior Administration officials
now say they believe that bin Laden is
trying to develop chemical weapons in Afghanistan, and may have obtained them.