the Disillusioned kid: Stains on a dress and the "quality of intelligence"
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Saturday, July 03, 2004

Stains on a dress and the "quality of intelligence"

The The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States is a congressional body in the US set up to investigate the events surrounding the September 11th attacks, more generally known as the 9/11 Commission. It reported a few weeks back. Various Staff Statements are available on the site setting out the information collected on various aspects of the attacks, the preparations for them, Al-Qaeda's structure, military preparedness etc. I wrote a while ago about Staff Statement No. 15 which looked at the emergence, development and structure of Al-Qaeda. I've just looked at No. 6 which examines the response of the military to the emergence of Al-Qaeda as a threat to the US during the mid to late-90s.

There is little of any great interest, partly because I don't know enough about the events described to make much comment or ascertain anything about the document's accuracy. One thing, however, which stuck out was the analysis of the attacks which followed the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salam on August 7, 1998. These retaliatory strikes, known as "Operation Infinite Reach", consisted of attacks against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.

The targets chosen in Afghanistan are not entirely clear from the report, although it appears that "terrorist camps" (whatever the term actually means) were at least among them. Once the selection of targets were agreed on by Clinton and his advisers, those same advisers
recommended that the government should strike whether or not there was firm evidence that the terrorist commanders were at these facilities [as they suspected]. Secretary Cohen told us it was also important to send a signal that the United States was coming and was not going to tolerate terrorist activity against America. (p. 2)
This suggests that there was far greater concern about symbolism and an exciting pyrotechnics display than a serious response to the terrorist threat. In my opinion this remains the case today.

The attacks on Sudan, receive far greater attention, but nonetheless much is omitted which might seem important. The report notes that two targets in the country were considered, although only one was ultimately attacked: the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant which they suspected was manufacturing the nerve gas VX. There has apparently been warnings about the plant even before the embassy bombings, but on August 11 National Security Adviser Berger was advised by the NSC staff's senior intelligence director that "we will need much better intelligence on this facility before we seriously consider any options" (pp. 2-3). Nonetheless on August 20 policy advisers concluded that there was enough evidence to justify the attack and Clinton authorised it.

The report notes, "The decision to destroy the plant in Sudan became controversial" although it suggests that this was primarily because of accusations "that the decisions were influenced by domestic political considerations, given the controversies raging at the time", referring of course to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, although the report notes that the commission found no evidence of such concerns influencing the decision making process (p. 3). The civilian death toll resulting from the attack we must conclude then, was inconsequential. The truth is somewhat more serious.

Noam Chomsky has talked of "the destruction of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, one little footnote in the record of state terror, quickly forgotten" (Noam Chomsky, 9-11, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2001, p. 45). He notes that a UN enquiry into the bombing sought by Sudan was blocked by the US and that
few seem to have tried to investigate beyond. But we surely should. Perhaps we should begin by recalling some virtual truisms, at least among those with a minimal concern for human rights. When we evaluate the human toll of a crime, we count not only those who were literally murdered on the spot but those who died as a result. (Chomsky 2001, p. 47).
With this in mind it quickly becomes clear that death toll resulting from the attack is extensive.

Johnathan Belke writing a year after the attack noted that "without the lifesaving medicine [the pharmaceutical plant formerly] produced, Sudan's death toll from the bombing has continued, quietly, to rise... Thus, tens of thousands of people - many of them children - have suffered and died from malaria, tuberculosis, and other treatable diseases" (Boston Globe, 22/8/99). Germany's ambassador to Sudan wrote, "It is difficult to assess how many people in this poor African country died as a result of the destruction of the Al-Shifa factory, by tens of thousands seems a reasonable guess" (Quoted in Chomsky 2001, p. 48). The facility had produced cheaper versions of drugs than those available from abroad, which would be beyond the means of most Sudanese. It was also the only factory in the country producing veterinary medicines, crucial for preventing the spread of parasites from herd to herders on of the leading causes of infant mortality.

The attacks also led to the evacuation of American staff by the UN and many other humanitarian agencies leading to the suspension of many vitally important relief efforts. In addition Mark Hubband suggested that the destruction of the plant "appears to have shattered the slowly evolving move towards compromise between" the sides of Sudan's long-running civil war which had claimed the lives of 1.5 million people since 1981. He notes that the attack apparently "shattered... the expected benefits of a shift at the heart of Sudan's Islamist government" towards "pragmatic engagement with the outside world" which might have seen moves away from support for terrorist organisations and attempts to reduce the influence of radical Islam (Financial Times, 8/9/99).

The report mentions none of this. Concerns about a stain on a dress influencing Clinton's decisions and about "the quality of intelligence" (p. 3) are apparently more important than the lives of thousands of Sudanese civilians. This tells us much about the ideology underpinning the use of US power both then and now.

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