ARE AL QAEDA'S links to Saddam Hussein's Iraq just a fantasy of
the Bush administration? Hardly. The Clinton administration also warned
the American public about those ties and defended its response to al
Qaeda terror by citing an Iraqi connection.
For nearly two years, starting in 1996, the CIA monitored the al
Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan. The plant was known to
have deep connections to Sudan's Military Industrial Corporation, and
the CIA had gathered intelligence on the budding relationship between
Iraqi chemical weapons experts and the plant's top officials. The
intelligence included information that several top chemical weapons
specialists from Iraq had attended ceremonies to celebrate the plant's
opening in 1996. And, more compelling, the National Security Agency had
intercepted telephone calls between Iraqi scientists and the plant's
Iraq also admitted to having a $199,000 contract with al Shifa for
goods under the oil-for-food program. Those goods were never delivered.
While it's hard to know what significance, if any, to ascribe to this
information, it fits a pattern described in recent CIA reporting on the
overlap in the mid-1990s between al Qaeda-financed groups and firms
that violated U.N. sanctions on behalf of Iraq.
The clincher, however, came later in the spring of 1998, when the
CIA secretly gathered a soil sample from 60 feet outside of the plant's
main gate. The sample showed high levels of
O-ethylmethylphosphonothioic acid, known as EMPTA, which is a key
ingredient for the deadly nerve agent VX. A senior intelligence
official who briefed
reporters at the time was asked which countries make VX using EMPTA.
"Iraq is the only country we're aware of," the official said. "There
are a variety of ways of making VX, a variety of recipes, and EMPTA is
That briefing came on August 24, 1998, four days after the Clinton
administration launched cruise-missile strikes against al Qaeda targets
in Afghanistan and Sudan (Osama bin Laden's headquarters from 1992-96),
including the al Shifa plant. The missile strikes came 13 days after
bombings at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 257
people--including 12 Americans--and injured nearly 5,000. Clinton
administration officials said that the attacks were in part retaliatory
and in part preemptive. U.S. intelligence agencies had picked up
"chatter" among bin Laden's deputies indicating that more attacks
against American interests were imminent.
The al Shifa plant in Sudan was largely destroyed after being hit by
six Tomahawk missiles. John McWethy, national security correspondent
for ABC News, reported the story on August 25, 1998:
Before the pharmaceutical plant was reduced to
rubble by American cruise missiles, the CIA was secretly gathering
evidence that ended up putting the facility on America's target list.
Intelligence sources say their agents clandestinely gathered soil
samples outside the plant and found, quote, "strong evidence" of a
chemical compound called EMPTA, a compound that has only one known
purpose, to make VX nerve gas.
Then, the connection:
The U.S. had been suspicious for months, partly
because of Osama bin Laden's financial ties, but also because of strong
connections to Iraq. Sources say the U.S. had intercepted phone calls
from the plant to a man in Iraq who runs that country's chemical