U.S. Owes an Apology for Attack on Al-Shifa

A couple of days ago I was reviewing different news reports dealing with the U.S. bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum one year ago today. I was shocked with the quality of intelligence information used to justify the attack. As I discussed with my wife, my seven-year-old brother-in-law, who was watching TV all along, turned to me and asked "should they [the United States] not be fair and make sure before they say someone is bad?"

According to statements from officials, it seems that the attack came after years of tug-of-war between those within the administration who wish to isolate Sudan and those calling for dialogue. Those favoring isolation have dismissed every initiative by Sudan to reach out and have relied on questionable evidence and unreliable and biased sources to paint Sudan as the greatest threat to everything the West stands for.

The lack of U.S. personnel in the country has made it almost impossible to gather intelligence. How much credibility can be given to intelligence gathered from exiles, opposition groups and neighboring governments? Do these sources not have their own hidden agendas? In fact, the CIA has had experience with bad intelligence from Sudan for a number of years and even had to destroy over 100 intelligence reports in 1996 after discovering they were fabrications. Was there not an obligation on the intelligence community to be more careful in analyzing intelligence from this country given this history?

The administration has had to come up with lie after lie to provide justification for the Shifa bombing. There were numerous flaws, inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the U.S. position and they are only getting more ridiculous by the day.

It was at first claimed that there was direct evidence linking the plant to alleged terrorist Osama Bin Laden. The plant's owner, Salah Idris, was accused of being a front man for Bin Laden. Later this changed to simply an indirect connection between the plant's owner and Bin Laden. Idris is alleged to own 40 percent of a company that is partly owned by the Sudanese Military Industrial Corp. which the United States claims has received funding from Bin Laden.

Who knows who's connected to whom? One thing is however, for sure: the United States has a very creative mind when it comes to guilt by association.

Officials have claimed that the bombing was a necessity because Sudan was harboring terrorists. This is hogwash. Since being added to the American list of countries sponsoring terrorists in 1993, Sudan has gone above and beyond what most other countries have done in tackling terrorism. It has risked it's own security by attracting the potential wrath of terrorists by turning over the elusive international terrorist Carlos the Jackal in 1994. It expelled a number of men allegedly associated with Bin Laden for tailing U.S. Embassy personnel. In 1995, it re-imposed the requirements for a visa for Arab visitors after the administration charged that the country had become "a viper's nest of terrorists." In 1996, at the request of the United States, the government expelled Bin Laden and about 100 of his men and their dependents. What does it take for the United States to begin to reciprocate beyond the imposition of sanctions and isolation? And if Sudan's actions were insufficient then why was there no dialogue to clarify what was expected?

Interestingly, according to the New York Times, in an effort to show the country's willingness to fight terrorism, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir wrote a letter to President Clinton in 1997 offering to allow US intelligence, law-enforcement and counter-terrorism experts to enter the country. A similar letter was reportedly written to the FBI in 1998. The FBI rejected the offer in June 1998, about two months before the attack on Khartoum.

And what happened to the claim that the plant was a highly secretive and tightly secured military complex. This charge was blown out of the water and retracted by officials as quickly as it was made. U.S. government officials briefing reporters after the attack said: "We have no evidence -- or have seen no products, commercial products that are sold out of this facility." In fact, the plant had a contract with the United Nations to ship medicine to Iraq under the food-for-oil program and produced almost half of Sudan's medicines. This blows a hole in U.S. justification for the attack. Either there was blatant lying taking place or U.S. intelligence is not very intelligent.

The most compelling reason for the attack, the alleged discovery of the nerve gas precursor chemical, EMPTA, in soil taken from the plant, also appears to be flimsy. Why was there only one sample taken? Why was there only one analysis done? Why were experts not consulted?

The United States claimed that the chemical substance found on the site could not be used for anything other than production of chemical weapons. Chemical experts, including those from the international treaty group, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, challenged this saying that EMPTA has legitimate commercial uses and can also be confused and misinterpreted under less than ideal conditions for collection and analysis. In fact, EMPTA is chemically similar to several popular pesticides and herbicides. These findings were more recently confirmed by experts led by the chairman of Boston University's chemistry department hired by Idris to gather evidence for his lawsuit to unfreeze his assets.

The initial mistakes based on poor intelligence could have been corrected by apologizing and setting the record straight or merely even examining the situation objectively. There was a great opportunity to have U.N. Security Council inspectors evaluate the situation as suggested by Sudan and others, but the United States blocked this calling it inappropriate.

There is still time to remedy the situation. The plant's owner, who was successful in having his assets released earlier this year, is planning to file another lawsuit to obtain compensation for the destruction of his plant and the attack on his reputation. An investigation report prepared by the world's leading investigation firm, Kroll Associates, made up of former Western intelligence agents, did not find any links between the Bin Laden and the plant or Salah Idris. Despite being represented by top Democrat leaning Washington-D.C. law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, the same firm where Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan is a partner, Idris has been unsuccessful even in having government officials look at the evidence by the chemical experts and the report by Kroll Associates.

I would think that it was only good public relations to admit to a few mistakes, at least to look good in the international arena. Apologizing for or even simply acknowledging one's mistakes is not always easy to do, but it is crucial in maintaining respect. Might does not always make right. This simple fact appears to be eluding American government officials as they try to deal with the fallout from the bombing. As we mark the first anniversary of this unjustified aggression, rather than putting government spin doctors to work justifying an unjustifiable position at all cost, the administration would earn much respect by admitting that everyone makes mistakes -- yes, even Washington policy makers. It's time to admit it, apologize, compensate and move toward better relations.

Faisal Kutty is Toronto lawyer and writer and is also a columnist for the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs

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