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The El Shifa Tragedy

On August 20, 1998 Bill Clinton launched 79 cruise missiles at seven defenseless targets in the Middle East. One was a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan called El Shifa. A pair of outstanding articles in Covert Action Quarterly (CAQ, Winter, 99) illustrates what a colossal crime was committed by this act of terrorism from our now-unimpeachable president.

According to a well-researched article written by Richard Becker, Sara Flounders and John Parker in CAQ, the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant was responsible for over 50% of Sudan’s medicine. This included 90% of the most critically needed drugs. In their words:

“...the bombing will inexorably cause the suffering and death of tens of thousands of innocent people all over Africa, many of them children, by depriving them of basic medicines against malaria, tuberculosis, and other easily curable diseases.”

Has anyone seen commentary like this in the Washington Post or Baltimore Sun recently? Although the New York Times and Washington Post have each quietly admitted that the El Shifa plant was not what Clinton said it was, their silence regarding the potential civilian casualties from Clinton’s deed has been deafening.

(Clinton said it was a chemical weapons-making facility owned by Osama bin Laden. He also claimed that the plant was an “imminent threat...to our national security.” Recall that bin Laden is widely suspected of having instigated the bombings of U.S. embassies in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. However likely that is true, no connection between bin Laden and the African bombings has been proven.)

A recent Post article (2/16/99) is a good example. The Post writer discussed the lawsuit filed in U.S. District court against the Clinton administration by the owner of El Shifa, Saleh Idris. The writer did not devote a single word to the potential casualties from the missile attack. In fact, this daily reader cannot recall a single mention so far in the Post of the potential casualties from the El Shifa bombing. Now, if one considers that the Sudanese are black, and that Clinton’s support in the black community since the Monica thing blew by is a shade less than A. Lincoln knew in his heyday, one could argue the media’s silence regarding Clinton’s victims has racial overtones. If 10,000 Swedes were due to die or suffer from a presidential bombing, would the media be as quiet about it?

Becker, Flounders and Parker also say that U.S. officials were admitting a month after the attack that there was no evidence the plant produced anything but pharmaceuticals. A delegation of six, led by former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, thoroughly investigated the bomb site and concluded the plant was solely a medicine factory. They labeled the missile attack a “war crime” and offered their opinion that the bombing was done to destabilize the region. The authors of the CAQ article offer plenty of support that the U.S. has been trying to destabilize the Sudan, since it would not go along with the U.S. when it wanted to start the Persian Gulf War.

The authors also point out that there are intelligence officials who still say that Idris is a front man for Osama bin Laden. Their response is to repeat that Idris’ lawyer says his client has never met bin Laden. However, if Idris eventually proves to have been connected to bin Laden in some way, is bombing the plant before it could be proven to be a chemical weapons facility an example of our democratic beliefs?

The El-Shifa plant was never clandestine. It was opened in June 1997 with much fanfare. Over the years it was visited by heads of state, foreign ministers, ambassadors, by international guests including the president of the Republic of Niger, the World Health Organization's director for the Mediterranean Region, the British and German ambassadors to Khartoum, students of pharmacology, including Sudanese school children, and pharmacists from Switzerland, Britain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Would all these people have visited a chemical weapons facility?

The authors also comment upon the soil sample that the CIA claims they found in the vicinity of the plant (although no one is allowed to see it) that allegedly contains Empta, which is usually seen wherever nerve gas is being made. However, Empta is also found when pesticides decompose. Further, the authors cite investigative reporter Seymour Hersh as saying that Empta is highly reactive. If it were in the ground it would immediately begin to react with other chemicals before breaking down.

Hersh also is cited as saying that several chemical weapons experts agreed that the CIA’s soil sample, if not carefully preserved and quickly tested, could easily result in misidentification of the key ingredient. The experts say that Empta is chemically similar to several commercially available pesticides and herbicides, including the commercially available weed-killer called Round-Up. Weeds could certainly have been growing around this facility in the Sudan.

In the same issue of CAQ (Winter, ‘99), Lee Siu Hin finds a troubling connection between the multitudinous airstrikes launched on 8/20/98 and the Raytheon Company. He says the number of missiles launched at the Middle East targets that night astounded some former Persian Gulf war commanders. A former Operation Desert Storm planner added “during Desert Storm, they would never have dreamed of putting more than 8 or 12 Tomahawks on one target.” This is because, at about $750,000 each, Tomahawks are very expensive.

Incredibly, Clinton has increased the level of permissible force against defenseless targets. In addition, Clinton spent about a $100 million of money out of our Treasury to bomb Sudan and Afghanistan that evening. He also did so before raising the matter with the U.N. Security Council, a frequent occurrence these days.

Hin points out that that both the Tomahawk and Patriot missiles used are manufactured by the Massachusetts-based Raytheon Company, one of our nation’s biggest weapons manufacturers, with billions of dollars in annual sales. Raytheon is also a heavy contributor to both the Democratic and Republican parties. Hin’s controversial analysis, hardly expressible in the mainstream media, is that the more friendly the relationship between Raytheon and our Commander in Chief, the more likely that our military will continue to launch Raytheon’s missiles without restraint against weak and defenseless countries. This is an old game. As the media overlooks the obvious problem of the President using terrorism to seemingly combat it, Congressional hawks at the same time can justify spending far more on the missiles produced by their benefactor, Raytheon, than is realistically necessary to defend our country.

The destruction of the El Shifa plant in Sudan will someday be studied by U.S. students, but it is certainly not a topic that can be explored with much depth in the mainstream media as the twenty-first century arrives.

Scott Loughrey

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