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Jewish World Review August 30, 1999 /18 Elul, 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Loose ends --
IT HAS BEEN a year since 13 American cruise missiles slammed into the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan.

The timing, you may recall, was suspicious. President Clinton had just completed his testimony before the grand jury and delivered his mad-as-hell speech to the nation -- a speech that conveyed no hint of remorse for the seven months of lying that preceded it. It was the day Monica Lewinsky returned to the grand jury for her rebuttal testimony. The Clinton family, reportedly barely on speaking terms, had slinked off to Martha's Vineyard to do whatever they do in these recurring crises.

The president rushed back from that strained holiday to explain the military action (which also included missiles fired at Afghanistan). He justified the use of U.S forces by arguing that 1) the El Shifa plant was not making pharmaceuticals at all, but was instead manufacturing chemical weapons; 2) soil samples collected near the plant had revealed the presence of the chemical EMPTA, a building block in the manufacture of deadly VX nerve gas; and 3) the plant was owned by Osama bin Laden, the shadowy Saudi millionaire who directs a terrorist empire and whose base in Afghanistan was bombed the same night. Secretary of Defense William Cohen added later that El Shifa was guarded by the Sudanese military.

Within hours of the bombing, all of these justifications had been called into doubt, and now, one year later, the president's whole case is in tatters.

The plant was indeed manufacturing pharmaceuticals -- ibuprofen, among other things -- as became clear within hours of the bombing when officials and members of the press toured the bombed facility. The administration quickly conceded error on this score.

As for the soil sample containing EMPTA, it seems to have been collected by a "CIA operative" who was Egyptian. (Egypt, Sudan's northern neighbor, has its own reasons for wanting to weaken Sudan.) Meanwhile, in the months since the bombing, every inch of the plant has been tested for EMPTA, including, The Washington Post reports, laboratory areas and the drainage tank through which all discards from the plant flowed. The soil samples have all been clean.

Further, the CIA now reveals that it had expressed doubts about bombing Sudan on the strength of just one soil sample (which, for technical reasons, ought not to have shown up in nearby soil anyway). Those cautions were ignored.

There were no armed guards patrolling the plant, only unarmed men in overalls. And it was not owned by Osama bin Laden, but rather by Salah Idris, a reputable businessman who is suing the United States for $30 million, the value of the plant. (The U.S. quietly unfroze $24 million of Idris' assets when approached by his attorneys. They argued that such a confiscation was illegal in the absence of any finding that he was a terrorist.)

Now, Sudan is not the world's most lovable regime. In fact, it is quite the opposite. In recent years, it has committed atrocities against rebels and even interfered with humanitarian flights intended to relieve starvation among the regime's opponents.

But the fact remains that Bill Clinton seems to have launched an unprovoked attack against a country with which we are at peace merely to distract attention from his legal and political embarrassments at home. As Christopher Hitchens put it in "No One Left to Lie to," his acidic summation of the Clinton presidency: "Why not give (Sudan) a warning or notice of, say, one day to open the plant to inspection? A factory making deadly gas cannot be folded like a tent and stealthily moved away."

Hitchens also supplies this analysis from a retired CIA officer with broad knowledge of Sudan and Afghanistan: "Having spent 30 years in the CIA being familiar with soil and environmental sampling across a number of countries, I cannot imagine a single sample, collected by third-country nationals ... serving as a pretext for an act of war against a sovereign state with which we have both diplomatic relations and functioning back channels."

This president is a disgrace of monumental proportions. Who but he could get the United States into a posture of less probity than Sudan?

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate