This month marks the fifth anniversary of the Clinton administration’s Operation Infinite Reach. There are many parallels between Operation Infinite Reach and the Bush administration’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. Unfortunately, it appears that no one in the government learned anything from the failure and follies of Operation Infinite Reach.
On Aug. 7, 1998 two trucks loaded with explosives detonated nearly simultaneously, wrecking U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Killed were 224 persons, including 12 Americans, and more than 4,000 were wounded.
The U.S. government quickly concluded that the embassy attacks were an al Qaeda operation. Thirteen days later, the Clinton administration launched Operation Infinite Reach. In a failed attempted to kill Osama bin Laden, scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles struck al Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Thirteen U.S. cruise missiles destroyed the El Shifa factory in Khartoum, Sudan.
President Clinton announced on Aug. 20, 1998, that the attack on the Sudanese “chemical weapons-related facility” was an “exercise of our inherent right of self-defense… to prevent and deter additional attacks by a clearly identified terrorist threat” and that the “terrorist-related facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan” were hit “because of the imminent threat they presented to our national security.”
In press conferences on the day of the attack, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger continually referred to the “so-called pharmaceutical plant.” But the plant was actually wide open to visitors and had been visited by U.S. government officials, World Health Organization officials and foreign diplomats in the months before the U.S. attack. There was no Sudanese military presence near the plant.
Earlier in 1998, El Shifa had been awarded (with U.S. government approval) a U.N. contract to ship a 100,000 cartons of a veterinary antibiotic medicine to Iraq. In the days after the attack, journalists reported that the factory grounds were littered with “melted packets of pain relievers and bottles of antibiotics.”
The factory was destroyed in part because when CIA whiz kids searched the Internet for information on it, the El Shifa Web site did not contain a list of drugs the factory manufactured. This supposedly proved the factory was a chemical weapons site that must be destroyed.
Defense Secretary William Cohen announced: “We do know that [bin Laden] has had some financial interests in contributing to the — this particular facility.” Salah Idris, a Saudi Arabian banker and industrialist, bought the plant five months before the United States destroyed it, but the U.S. government was unaware that the factory had changed hands and that the new owner had no ties with bin Laden.
The Clinton administration’s smoking gun was little more than a cupful of dirt that a “CIA operative” had scooped up in December 1997 across the street from the factory — 60 feet from the factory entrance and on someone else’s property. The CIA did not bother to test the soil sample until July 1998. The key ingredient — which the Clinton administration insisted was used only for nerve gas — was actually also used in pesticides.
Former CIA official Milt Bearden later observed: “Never before has a single soil sample prompted an act of war against a sovereign state.”
On the day of the bombing, White House press spokesman Michael McCurry declared that “the president acted on a unanimous recommendation from his entire national security team.” However, an analysis by the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research before the bombing concluded that there was no evidence linking the factory to chemical weapons production. A CIA analysis warned that the existing evidence on the factory was insufficient and called for further investigation.
The Sudanese, like many others in the Third World, cannot afford the more expensive drugs produced in Western countries. El Shifa was the largest producer of malaria tablets in Africa. Sudanese government officials blamed the U.S. attack for a subsequent severe malaria epidemic.
After the operation turned out to be a fiasco, Bill Clinton portrayed the destruction of the factory as a triumph of American idealism:
“Terrorists must have no doubt that in the face of their threats, America will protect its citizens and will continue to lead the world’s fight for peace, freedom and security…. America is and will remain a target of terrorists precisely because… we act to advance peace, democracy and basic human values; because we’re the most open society on Earth.”
Despite the lofty rhetoric, Mr. Clinton’s action, at best, did nothing more than protect Americans from Sudanese horse pills.
That Mr. Clinton shot at and missed bin Laden in the wake of the 1998 embassy bombings may have been the best thing that ever happened to bin Laden. At the time of the embassy bombings, the Taliban were on the verge of expelling bin Laden from Afghanistan; they considered him to be a rude, trouble-making, publicity-hungry guest. But, as a Wall Street Journal analysis concluded, the U.S. retaliation “turned Mr. bin Laden into a cult figure among Islamic radicals, made Afghanistan a rallying point for defiance of America and shut off Taliban discussion of expelling the militants. It also helped convince Mr. bin Laden that goading America to anger could help his cause, not hurt it.”
Because the U.S. attack on Sudan did not involve prolonged military action or American casualties, the action largely vanished from the American political memory. The intelligence debacles that preceded the attack were treated like harmless errors and brushed aside. The only thing that mattered was that Mr. Clinton had shown toughness in dealing with a foreign threat — regardless that his action, by ennobling bin Laden, helped pave the way to far worse terrorist attacks in the future.
James Bovard is the author of “Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil” (Palgrave MacMillan, September 2003).