Does the United States bomb first and ask questions later? U.S. foreign policy critics maintain that President Clinton bombed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998 without sufficient evidence that it produced chemical weapons. What is the evidence for and against the allegation that Sudan’s al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Factory produced the deadly nerve agent known as VX?
The evidence for: The “smoking gun” that prompted the United States to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles was a soil sample taken from outside the factory by a covert operative. Lab tests revealed that the soil sample contained EMPTA, one of four precursor chemicals needed to make VX. Also, CIA Director George Tenet told U.S. senators during a classified briefing that the United States had intercepted telephone conversations from within the plant that showed evidence of a chemical weapons program. Senior intelligence officials later told the Washington Post that the factory’s chairman had visited Iraq to meet with “the father of Iraq’s VX program.”
The evidenceagainst: The Clinton administration’s rationale for the attack shifted after the strike. In September 1998, National Security Adviser Samuel Berger said that “we know with great certainty” that the plant “produces essentially the penultimate chemical to manufacture VX nerve gas.” But in 1999, Berger told PBS for a Frontline documentary only that “we had solid knowledge that this facility was associated with chemical weapons” (emphasis Explainer’s). Berger’s backtracking doesn’t inspire confidence in the original U.S. assertions.
A Clinton administration official told the New York Times in September 1998 that “the decision to target Al Shifa continues a tradition of operating on inadequate intelligence about Sudan.” A month after the attack, U.S. officials admitted they were uncertain whether their evidence indicated that EMPTA was produced at the plant, or whether EMPTA was stored and shipped through the plant.
Michael Barletta, who conducted a detailed examination of the available evidence in the Fall 1998 Nonproliferation Review, notes that the alleged Iraq connection (which wasn’t raised initially) contradicts a Feb. 16, 1998, White House statement that the U.S. possessed “no credible evidence that Iraq has exported weapons of mass destruction technology to other countries since the Gulf War.” (Click here to read Barletta’s article. You’ll need Adobe Acrobat.)
In addition, several of the Clinton administration’s assertions about the plant turned out to be flat wrong. Officials didn’t know that the plant actually produced pharmaceuticals (Berger called it a “so-called pharmaceutical plant”) or that U.S. officials at the United Nations had approved shipments of veterinary medicines from the plant to Iraq as part of the U.N.’s oil-for-food program. At a defense briefing, a senior intelligence official said the plant had a secured perimeter and was patrolled by the Sudanese military, but numerous eyewitnesses say the plant was unsecured and open to visitors and foreigners.
Former U.S. ambassador to Sudan Donald Petterson told the Guardian earlier this month, “The evidence was not conclusive and was not enough to justify an act of war.”
The verdict: If the lab results showing EMPTA in the soil are legitimate, there’s very little doubt that the Sudanese factory was somehow involved with the production or the shipment of VX.
The lab results weren’t obtained using a reliable sampling and analysis protocol, Barletta notes, and he speculates that the results could be a false positive. But it’s unclear how the United States could be expected to follow a reliable sampling and analysis protocol using covert operatives in Sudan.
Still, at the very least, U.S. intelligence was shaky, and the Clinton administration may have let the desire for a quick strike supersede the need to finish its homework before taking action.
A U.S. court of law might end up deciding the issue. Salah Idris, the owner of the factory, filed a lawsuit in July 2000 seeking $50 million in compensation for the strike.
For more information on nerve agents, click here.