To the Editors:
Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon [“A Failure of Intelligence?” NYR, December 20, 2001] offer a troubling mix of insight and obfuscation in their analysis of the US cruise-missile attack on Sudan’s al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the immediate wake of the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. Importantly, these two members of the Clinton administration National Security Council highlight the disturbing and ongoing complicity of Khartoum’s National Islamic Front regime in the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda—in particular, the efforts to acquire chemical weapons. They rightly suggest this complicity is both underreported and deeply ominous.
Still, their attempt to redeem the Clinton administration decision to bomb al-Shifa is seriously deficient. In an extraordinary omission, Benjamin and Simon make no mention of the widely reported findings of Professor Thomas Tullius (chair of the chemistry department at Boston University), who examined—with full access—the bombed-out remains of al-Shifa. His meticulous investigation found no trace whatsoever of EMPTA, the chemical whose supposed presence at al-Shifa served as the only publicly proffered forensic evidence that the pharmaceutical facility was manufacturing deadly VX nerve gas.*
More consequentially, Benjamin and Simon give no sign of having considered the real issue in the al-Shifa episode; they never seriously ask what evidentiary standards should have obtained to justify an attack on Khartoum. Instead, they vaguely declare that “the perception of imminent danger was sufficient to overcome these concerns” (i.e., concerns about attacking a country on the basis of clandestine information in pursuit of “a strategy of preempting threats”).
They make no mention, for example, of the immense and tenuous humanitarian relief operation in southern Sudan that was imperiled by the attack. Khartoum, long at war with the people of the south, has shown itself capable of harassing, interdicting, and halting altogether such international relief aid—before and after the al-Shifa attack. US support for the people of the south is one of the most salient features in the hostile relationship between Khartoum and Washington. It was the height of irresponsibility to give no consideration to the possibility that Khartoum would retaliate by interdicting humanitarian aid. A US attack on a pharmaceutical factory in the capital city of a regime fully capable of such action should have been undertaken only with compelling evidence that could be shared in the court of world opinion.
More damaging yet was the effect on European perceptions of US policy toward Khartoum. Instead of serving the nominal Clinton policy of isolating the National Islamic Front and pressuring it to end the most destructive civil conflict in the world, then and now, the al-Shifa bombing and the ineptitude of the justification that followed made it easier for Europeans to continue with their economically self-interested policy of “constructive engagement,” dismissing US policy as the product of a “cowboy mentality.”
Benjamin and Simon, by omitting any discussion of the most damaging criticism of the forensic evidence, and by ignoring the issue of an appropriate evidentiary threshold, perversely continue the Clinton administration debacle of August 1998.
Daniel Benjamin replies:
If Eric Reeves believes that we “never seriously ask what evidentiary standards should have obtained to justify an attack on Khartoum,” then it is difficult to believe that he read our article. We wrote at length about how the US gathered and interpreted “intelligence” concerning how the al-Shifa plant was assembled and how, in the context of the East Africa embassy bombings, the decision was made to destroy al-Shifa. The peril that was perceived to American lives—accurately, if we believe the testimony of Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl in the embassy bombings trial—was decisive. Under these circumstances, President Clinton and his advisers could not wait for courtroom evidence that might not ever be obtainable while chemical weapons were produced or deployed for use against Americans.
Professor Reeves complains that we omitted the findings of Professor Thomas Tullius. We were of aware of Professor Tullius’s work, and, as Professor Reeves seems not to have been, that Professor Tullius’s report was commissioned by Salah Idris, the owner of record of al-Shifa, who is suing the United States. The investigative work was done months after the attack—after the site was washed repeatedly by water used by firefighters and seasonal rains. Professor Tullius, moreover, was never on site in Sudan and his findings have never been published; nothing more than the professor’s remarks to reporters have been available for review. That hardly seemed to require any comment on our part.
We agree that the government of Sudan’s campaign against the people of southern Sudan is a continuing atrocity. But Professor Reeves adduces no proof for his claim that the potential effect on the humanitarian effort in the region was not considered by the US before the strike against al-Shifa. On the contrary, it seems probable that the issue was evaluated by the State Department or Principals Committee and that the determination was that Sudan was unlikely to interrupt the humanitarian mission. That judgment was correct. Professor Reeve’s insinuation that the Sudanese used the attack on al-Shifa to stop humanitarian aid delivery is simply false: no such interdiction of assistance occurred.
Finally, Professor Reeves argues implicitly that the US should have cared more about how Europeans would react than about preempting a possible attack against Americans involving a weapon of mass destruction. Who is being perverse?
On Professor Tullius’s findings and procedures, see James Risen and David Johnston, “Experts Find No Arms Chemicals at Bombed Sudan Plant,” The New York Times, February 9, 1999. ↩