Khartoum Revisited, Part 1

Clinton’s bombing of Sudan’s Al-Shifa plant doesn’t warrant revisionism.

Did Clinton respond to EMPTA threats?

Al-Shifa, the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant that President Clinton bombed in August 1998, is back in the news. A number of conservative commentators (along with Slate’s eclectic Christopher Hitchens) have seized on the incident to question the bona fides of Richard A. Clarke, whose new book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, decries the Bush administration’s lack of preparedness for 9/11. In the book, Clarke argues that the bombing of Al-Shifa was not the fiasco it was thought to be at the time, but rather, a strategic necessity. The controversy, you may recall, focused on whether the Al-Shifa factory, located in Khartoum, was engaged in the manufacture or storage * of the potent nerve agent VX for al-Qaida and Iraq. Clarke says there’s no question that it was. Aha! gloat many of Clarke’s critics in response. Clarke mocks the Bush White House for linking Iraq to 9/11, but Clarke himself recognizes that there was a link between al-Qaida and Iraq as early as 1998.

Chatterbox is not particularly interested in this irony. (For an early articulation of the Aha! argument, click here. For the counterargument, click here.) What interests Chatterbox is the growing belief that the Al-Shifa bombing was a useful blow against terrorism. This revisionism strikes Chatterbox as unjustified.

The McGuffin of the Al-Shifa story is EMPTA, a chemical found in a soil sample scooped outside the plant, obtained by the Central Intelligence Agency. (The chemical’s non-abbreviated name is O-ethylmethylphosphonothioic acid.) Clarke writes:

EMPTA is a compound that had been used as a prime ingredient in Iraqi nerve gas. It had no other known use, nor had any other nation employed EMPTA to our knowledge for any purpose.

Similarly, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, who have written what is perhaps the most extensive defense of the Al-Shifa bombing—they were terrorism experts on President Clinton’s National Security Council—have this to say:

Others contended that to have analyzed the soil sample at just one laboratory was shoddy science and that EMPTA, the chemical found in it, could hypothetically have been a derivative of pesticide production. But the CIA’s analysis, which reporters were given on August 24, showed that EMPTA had no commercial use anywhere else in the world. This conclusion was never refuted; it was also widely ignored.

Get the message? There is no possible alternative explanation for the presence of EMPTA in the soil sample. Ergo, the Al-Shifa plant had to be manufacturing or storing * VX.

But if the events of the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that categorical statements from, or alleged to be from, the CIA should be met with a dose of skepticism, even if passed along in good faith. (Take it from this reformed sinner.) And there’s some reason to doubt that the CIA was ever as categorical as Clarke, Benjamin, and Simon allege. Chatterbox is unfamiliar with the “CIA analysis” given reporters in August 1998. But if it were as sweeping as Benjamin and Simon claim, wouldn’t they quote it? Instead, they footnote the above passage (from their book, The Age of Sacred Terror) with a citation from Paul R. Pillar, former deputy chief of counterterrorism at the CIA under Clinton. And Pillar leaves himself a lot more wiggle room than Benjamin and Simon do: “[T]here are other conceivable reasons for the chemical to exist, but none that was a plausible explanation for it to be present at this location in Sudan.”

One weak link in the EMPTA argument is the question of who procured the sample. Citing a “veteran intelligence agent,” the journalist Jason Vest pointed out in March 1999 that since 1996 the CIA had

treated Sudan as a “denied area”— off-limits to actual CIA officers. This led the CIA to depend on either recruiting a foreign national or one on loan from a friendly neighboring intelligence service. Egypt has no love for Sudan, and Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda all receive “non-lethal” U.S. military aid used to help the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement fight the Islamist regime in Khartoum. While declining to confirm specifics about how the sample was collected, the agent stated that the choice of operative for the mission likely did not lend itself to ensuring entirely objective results.

Another potential problem for the EMPTA argument, widely noted at the time, is that pesticide traces in the soil are apparently easy to mistake for EMPTA. (This is quite different from, and less easy to dismiss than, the argument dismissed by Benjamin and Simon abovethat EMPTA “could hypothetically have been a derivative of pesticide production.”) A third difficulty, cited by the slain reporter Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal (who wrote several characteristically thorough investigations of the Al-Shifa bombing) was attributed to Dr. Jan Medema, a toxic-substances expert in Holland:

Dr. Medema says it is highly unlikely that a plant’s ventilation system or underground waste-disposal system would allow O-Empta to get into surface soil outside the plant. More likely, he said, is that the Sudanese wanted to get rid of some already made O-Empta and poured it directly into the soil, and “somebody saw that and took a sample.”

This latter scenario is hard to picture. If the plant managers worried that they’d be searched or bombed, wouldn’t it have been better simply to remove the EMPTA to a separate, more secure building? Why throw away a substance they would have gone through such difficulty to produce and stash* in the first place?

Benjamin and Simon (whose book is superb on all topics save this one) cite in their book what they present as new evidence justifying the bombing of Al-Shifa. But that evidence actually undermines their argument that the factory was making VX. Chatterbox will take up that topic tomorrow.

Correction, April 1, 2004: An earlier version of this piece suggested incorrectly that the only suspicion surrounding the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory was whether it had manufactured EMPTA. In fact, the Clinton administration also thought it possible that Al-Shifa had been used to store EMPTA.