The Independent, 5-6-99

Spies, damned lies and information
Bill was angry. His advisers were mad.
They wanted to hit back at terrorists
who'd bombed two US embassies. So they
launched missiles against a factory in
Khartoum that supplied chemical weapons
to prime suspect Osama bin Laden.
Whoops! What a cock up! The factory
made nothing remotely harmful. And so
began an extraordinary tale of spies,
damned lies and information. Andrew
Marshall reports
On a gorgeous hot summer's afternoon
last August, the journalists who had
been ordered by their newspapers and
networks to accompany the President of
the United States to Martha's Vineyard
were hanging around listlessly, feeling
out of it. The story that day was not
in Massachusetts: it was in Washington
DC, where Monica Lewinsky was to give
testimony about her relationship with
the President. A grand jury was
investigating whether the President had
abused his powers and lied to conceal
the truth.
Three days earlier, Mr Clinton had
given the first public acknowledgement
that yes, he had had an affair with the
young intern. The hacks idly watched
the film Wag the Dog, a tale of
presidential advisers seeking to
deflect attention from White House
indiscretions with a small war.
Suddenly, everything shifted gears. A
briefing was rapidly assembled. The
President told the nation that he had
just activated a massive missile strike
at a "chemical weapons" plant in Sudan
and a "terrorist training camp" in
Afghanistan, in retaliation for the
bombing of US embassies in Africa. This
was Operation Infinite Reach, a
staggering demonstration of the power
of the United States of America to
deliver several dozen high-precision
weapons to their targets across the
globe in a matter of hours. The strikes
were intended to hit at Osama bin
Laden, the former Saudi financier who
was the Global Threat before last,
overtaken by Saddam Hussein and then
Slobodan Milosevic.
A dozen cruise missiles struck the
Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in
Khartoum, killing one man and leaving
all but three sections totally
demolished. Dozens were killed, many of
them Pakistanis, at six facilities in
Afghanistan, though Mr bin Laden -
apparently the target - was not there.
Salah Idris went to bed on 20 August a
Saudi banker and owner of the Al-Shifa
pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum.
Courtesy of Mr Clinton, he woke up on
21 August labelled a terrorist, and his
factory a chemical weapons plant. Mr
Idris did not take kindly to this, and
he decided to fight back, publicly and
actively, to defend his reputation. The
US used its network of spies to
prosecute him; he hired his own to
defend himself. What has emerged from
his struggle is a bizarre picture of
the United States struggling to explain
its actions, of Strangelovian
characters with their fingers itching
to pull the trigger, internecine feuds,
background briefings, of lies, damned
lies and classified information.
The US claimed within hours of the
attack that it had cast-iron proof that
it had hit the right target. It had a
sample of something nasty scooped up
outside the Al-Shifa plant, something
which the US said was the key precursor
to VX nerve gas. A CIA agent had been
infiltrated into the plant, bagged the
dirt and brought it back to the US.
There was no other reason for it to be
there other than chemical weapons
And this was not a usual pharmaceutical
plant, the Americans said in a welter
of background briefings that alluded to
its massive intelligence apparatus. It
had massive security around it,
including military guards and strong
fences. It had never produced any
medicines. It was part of the
Military-Industrial Complex, a shady
arm of the Sudanese government devoted
to producing the worst kinds of
weapons, and linked to the man himself,
Osama bin Laden. Case closed.
Except, of course, that nearly all of
this was wrong. The factory did indeed
produce pharmaceuticals, large amounts
of them, for sale at home and abroad.
It did not have massive fences, and
there were no military guards. Plenty
of people, including engineers,
visitors and European ambassadors in
Sudan, emerged to say rapidly that this
was just an aspirin factory: not even
that, but a place where pills got put
in bottles, no more able to make
chemical weapons than your local branch
of Boots.
And the shady Military-Industrial
Complex did not own the factory. That
privilege belonged to Mr Idris, a
wealthy banker born in Sudan who was a
Saudi citizen. Mr Idris was gobsmacked
to discover that his factory had been
destroyed by the US and identified as a
terrorist facility. But worse, far
worse, was to come. Once the US
discovered that it had made some
mistakes, it backtracked and created a
new version of events. In Congressional
briefings and unsourced comments to the
newspapers, officials started to
blacken Mr Idris's name. He was not
only an associate of Mr bin Laden, he
was close to other Middle Eastern
groups, they said. Once again, they
used the massive might of the United
States, but financial power instead of
military. Mr Idris's bank accounts were
in London but in an American bank. The
US Treasury ordered the Bank of America
to freeze those accounts, and it
Mr Idris, unlike most of the people
against whom the US launches salvos of
cruise missiles, decided to hit back.
He is a sophisticated and civilised
man, with friends in high places, and
they found for him the ideal lawyers in
Washington DC: Akin, Gump, Strauss,
Hauer & Feld, a most distinguished
group of ladies and gentlemen which
includes Vernon Jordan, the President's
friend and adviser. Akin Gump in turn
decided to pack some heat: and that
heat came courtesy of Kroll Associates.
Kroll, a New York-based firm of private
investigators, is very largely staffed
by people who have been in public
service. They are policemen, lawyers
and, in many cases, former spies. Many
are former station chiefs for the
Central Intelligence Agency and
Britain's Secret Intelligence Service,
MI6. Mr Idris and Akin Gump decided to
see if their spies were better than
those of the US government. They turned
to Kroll's London office, a bland and
innocuous suite of offices near Savile
Row with little to distinguish it from
the many chartered accountants and
consultancies in the same building.
Kroll dispatched a young former British
government official with years of
experience in the region to Sudan,
Egypt and Saudi Arabia to follow Mr
Idris's trail, and see what they could
dig up, literally and metaphorically. A
private firm of chemists scooped up its
own dirt from the plant, which it
tested in its own laboratories. Kroll's
man in the trenchcoat toured the Middle
East and investigated Mr Idris's
background. He scrutinised him and all
of his associates for links to Mr bin
Laden, using contacts in the Middle
East and in London and Washington. When
the spookery was over, the results on
Mr Idris and the Khartoum dirt were
clear: no deal. There was no evidence
of a precursor chemical in the soil.
There was no evidence of a link between
Mr Idris and Mr bin Laden, or anybody
else in the same line of work. Akin
Gump, after long efforts to get the US
government to discuss the problem,
In theory, they won. On the very day
when the US government was due to reply
to the legal case, it folded its hand.
The bank accounts were unfrozen, and Mr
Idris was given back his metaphorical
cashpoint card.
But this was not the end of the affair.
Amazingly, after it had failed to prove
a single one of its points, after it
had conceded that it could not make its
case stand up in court, the
Administration continued to attack Mr
"We made a judgement that we had
concerns regarding Mr Idris based on
sensitive information, but we're not
prepared to compromise those sources
for the sake of this case," the
Associated Press reported, quoting "an
Administration official who spoke on
condition of not being identified by
name". In other words: we do have
evidence, but it's so secret that we
aren't going to tell you about it.
Trust us. "We have concerns about Mr
Idris and his business dealings," the
senior official said. "There are things
that Mr Idris has associated himself
with that I think every American would
find reprehensible. And we will
continue to monitor his network for any
potential threat to US interests."
The same story, roughly speaking,
appeared in The Washington Post and The
New York Times. What, precisely, are
these concerns? The US government left
them undetailed. What had Mr Idris
associated himself with that Americans
might find "reprehensible"? Had he
failed to put the toilet seat down?
Smoked a cigarette indoors? Made
disparaging comments about Charlton
Heston? We were not to be told. Nor was
Mr Idris, because it was all "secret".
His next step will be to sue the US
government for compensation.
Perhaps the story of Mr Idris is the
story of Wag the Dog, of zealous
officials providing a distraction for a
President in trouble. Or perhaps, as
seems more likely, it is a much older
story: of power too concentrated, of
mistakes made at a very high level and
concealed, of justice denied to save
reputations, and the abuse of power.
That is a film which Washington has
seen many, many times before. Because
the real global power that Washington
possesses is power to define the truth
exactly as it wants, the ability to
create information and use it as a
weapon against others through
intelligence agencies, newspapers,
background briefings and unsourced
allegations. The only difference this
time is that someone had the money and
the will to fight back.

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