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Was Sudan raid on target?

Did FBI botch chance to grab embassy bombing suspects?

NBC NEWS Dec. 29 - At the time, President Clinton was certain: U.S. war planes had attacked a Sudanese plant making chemical weapons in retaliation for bombing attacks on American embassies. But critics insist that the evidence linking the plant to the bombings is weak. And now there are indications the FBI missed a chance to grab two suspects in the bombings. Stone Phillips reports.

Robert DeNiro
(in the movie "Wag the Dog"): "What do you think would hold it off, Mr. Moss?"

Dustin Hoffman: "Nothing, nothing, nothing, I mean, you'd have to have a war."

Hoffman: "You're kidding?"

It seemed like a story right out of Hollywood's active imagination - distract public attention from a presidential sex scandal by ordering up a make-believe war.

Robert DeNiro (from "Wag the Dog"): "We want you to produce..."

Dustin Hoffman: "You want me to produce your war?"

But in August 1998, eight months after "Wag the Dog" hit the screen, some people were wondering if life wasn't imitating art.

Right in the middle of his own sex scandal - on the very day Monica Lewinsky went back before a grand jury - President Clinton went on national television.

Bill Clinton: "Today I ordered our armed forces to strike at terrorist-related facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan."

Administration officials said the cruise missile attack on a factory in Sudan had nothing to do with the sex scandal and everything to do with the bombings two weeks earlier of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. More than 250 people were killed. The president said he was trying to punish the alleged architect of the bombings, Osama bin Laden, and prevent another terrorist attack, which U.S. officials believed was imminent. They also believed that at Al Shifa Pharmaceuticals in Sudan, bin Laden's network was acquiring ingredients for a deadly new weapon.

President Clinton: "The factory was involved in the production of materials for chemical weapons."

Though the Sudanese insisted this was a civilian pharmaceutical factory, senior U.S. intelligence officials said satellite photographs and other sources disputed that, that no medicine was made there, that the factory was "patrolled by the Sudanese military" and owned by Sudan's "military industrial complex," which they believed had links to bin Laden.

But how definitive and how up-to-date was that information? A "Dateline" investigation - including more than a hundred interviews on four continents - raises some disturbing questions. How much did administration officials really know about the pharmaceutical plant? Did they ignore the warnings of their own intelligence analysts? And as a result of the missile strike, did two terrorism suspects slip away before the FBI could question them?

If the factory did not make medicine, as U.S. officials suggested, why did "Dateline" correspondent Dr. Bob Arnot find all kinds of medicine, packing materials and order forms when he reached the factory just three days after the bombing?

And if the plant was such a secretive facility patrolled by the Sudanese military, why had the Sudanese allowed an American who knew Bill Clinton personally to tour the plant earlier that year?

Stone Phillips: "and had you seen guards, this fortification talked about?"

Bobby May: "Oh, no. The plant had one security guard and he was a civilian hired by the plant."

Arkansas businessman Bobby May is a Bill Clinton supporter who hopes to someday do business in Sudan.

Stone Phillips: "No guard dogs, no - no military present?"

Bobby May: "No... just people running around in white lab coats working in the plant, bottling, manufacturing, medicine... medication."

And if the plant belonged to Sudan's "military-industrial complex," as the White House charged, it was news to Salah Idris. Idris was born in Sudan but is a Saudi citizen. He bought the plant five months before it was destroyed.

Idris says he doesn't know what suspicious activity the U.S. may have observed before he bought the factory. But he insists he's a legitimate businessman who was running a legitimate business, with nothing to hide.

In fact, he kept his personal and corporate funds - $24 million - not in Sudan or a secret Swiss account, but in the Bank of America, where it was easily frozen by U.S. officials after they discovered he was the plant's owner.

"It started with a mistake," Idris said, "and it ended with a cover-up."

But the key to the government's case wasn't who owned the plant, it was the physical evidence gathered there.

U.S. officials said a soil sample taken by a CIA operative contained empta, a substance used to make deadly VX nerve gas. But it turns out, the sample wasn't taken inside the factory. It was taken across the street. Empta doesn't usually travel through the air, so how did it get there? And the soil sample wasn't collected days before the bombing, or even weeks. Two government officials told "Dateline" it was gathered in december 1997.

"The information that they had - one, it was dated. Two, it was scanty," said Richard Shelby, chairman of the U.S. Senate intelligence committee. Shelby said what the CIA told committee members in private wasn't particularly convincing.

Stone Phillips: "Aside from this one soil sample, is there anything else, any other evidence that ties this facility specifically to chemical weapons?"

Shelby: "I am not privy to it."

Phillips: "So what we're talking about is one soil sample collected outside of the plant, eight months prior to the missile attack, and before Mr.Idris even owned the plant."

Shelby: "That's basically right."

Senator Shelby is a Republican, and a staunch critic of the Clinton administration. But he isn't the only person who feels more evidence was needed before the missile strike was ordered. Analysts in the U.S. State Department, and others in the CIA, were also concerned. And the CIA analysts specifically asked for more soil samples.

"I've never seen a single soil sample lead to an act of war against a sovereign nation with whom we have diplomatic relations," said Milt Bearden, former CIA station chief in Sudan and Afghanistan.

Stone Phillips: "Repeat it and confirm it?"

Milt Bearden: "Go back. Do it again, thank you very much."

Bearden has been involved in soil sampling like the one taken in Sudan. And he has serious concerns about how the sample was taken and handled as it made its way to the lab.

"You don't have to be Barry Scheck to say, `Well, wait a minute, we've got problems here,'" Bearden said.

The only administration official who agreed to talk to us on camera was Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, a respected, longtime diplomat. Pickering told us that after the embassy bombings in Africa, the U.S. could not afford to take the chance that Osama bin Laden would strike American targets with chemical weapons. Pickering considers the evidence against the factory compelling..

Thomas Pickering: "We believe the evidence we had was solid and clear."

Stone Phillips: "And timely?"

Pickering: "And timely."

But Pickering does not deny that intelligence analysts expressed concerns about the target - before - the missiles were launched.

Stone Phillips: "How serious were their concerns?"

Thomas Pickering: "They were serious enough to send a memorandum and that was the reason we looked very carefully at the evidence."

Phillips: "Chairman Shelby says, and he's been briefed on all the evidence, that it came down basically to relying on one soil sample, is that how you see it?"

Pickering: "It came down basically to relying on the soil sample that had a chemical. The only association of that chemical known, was with the production of a very serious, very lethal chemical agent."

While U.S. officials continue to stand by their single soil sample, they finally backed off their attempt to link the plant's owner, Salah Idris, to terrorists. After Idris retained some high-powered lawyers from the Washington firm of Akin-Gump to represent him, the U.S. government decided last May to release his money, all $24 million.

Pickering: "After careful examination, it was concluded there was not sufficient evidence to maintain the freezing of those assets."

Phillips: "But there was sufficient evidence to bomb his plant?"

Pickering: "There was evidence to bomb the plant, but it had nothing to do with Salah Idris and his associations pro or con."

Phillips: "Well, the fact that the plant had changed hands since the soil sample had been taken, doesn't it become relevant, if not important - who owned the plant?"

Pickering: "That was not known to us."

Phillips: "Shouldn't it have been?"

Pickering: "Perhaps, but we are not all-knowing and omniscient."

But Salah Idris says they should have known more about his plant before they destroyed it. And he hired more than lawyers to hammer that point home. Idris brought in respected environmental engineers and chemists who took soil samples at each of these spots and tested them for empta. Though it was the rainy season and evidence could have been washed away, the scientists say they didn't find empta in the soil, or in the plants' septic pit where they believed empta could have been preserved for many months.

Idris also agreed to allow United Nations investigators free access to his plant. The U.S. opposed any such investigation, claiming the rain would have washed all traces of empta away. But it wasn't just the U.N. investigation that was blocked.

As we found out during our interview, Under-Secretary Pickering - personally - ordered analysts in the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research to stop working on a report said to be critical of the bombing. It was the same bureau that had questioned the evidence before the U.S. attack.

Pickering: "I said `Are there any new items that I or the Secretary [of State] have to consider, anything that we should've considered before the bombing that wasn't brought to our attention?' And the answer was no."

Stone Phillips: "It sounds like they were saying this was a mistake and you didn't want to hear it."

Pickering: "It sounds like perhaps that's the case, on the other hand we had heard it from them before."

Phillips: "There wasn't an effort to squelch dissent here?"

Pickering: "I don't believe so."

But there's something else about this story hardly anyone has heard, something "Dateline" spent four months investigating. Astonishing as it might sound, before the U.S. missiles were fired, the country we were targeting for helping terrorists says it was about to turn over to the FBI two possible suspects in the terrorist bombings of those U.S. embassies in Africa.

Gubti el Mahdi: "They are involved in something fishy; they don't want to talk about it."

Gutbi el Mahdi is head of Sudan's external security bureau, their version of the CIA. We should tell you that as reporters, we took everything el Madhi said with an extra measure of skepticism because the U.S. considers Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism and a pariah when it comes to human rights. And Sudan only stands to gain from the story you're about to hear. But much of what el Mahdi told us, as he opened his files, checked out.

He says the two men were arrested by Sudanese intelligence in early August 1998. They were observed casing the unstaffed U.S. embassy in Sudan's capitol, Khartoum and were picked up after they asked about renting an apartment across the street.

According to el Mahdi, the men had Pakistani passports, Afghani accents, and a list of known bin Laden contacts in Sudan.

Shortly before the factory was destroyed, el Mahdi says he notified the FBI and was making preparations to hand the two men over. But after the U.S. attack, he says his government changed its mind and he passed word to the FBI that the men were being deported to Pakistan instead.

Undersecretary Pickering confirmed that the U.S. knew Sudan was holding two suspects, and told us that after they were sent to Pakistan, the U.S. conducted a "full and independent investigation."

Thomas Pickering: "There was no basis to connect these gentlemen with, or indict them for the bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa."

Stone Phillips: "So you have talked to these two suspects?"

Thomas Pickering: "I can't tell you the exact investigative techniques used. I can tell you I know the end result of the investigation."

The U.S. government has already charged 17 people in the embassy bombings, but the FBI is still searching for more conspirators. And a former U.S. official told us that FBI agents he has spoken to wanted very much to question these two men, but never got the chance. The field agents were described as "frustrated." And based on documents el Mahdi showed us, and other reporting "Dateline" has done, you can understand why.

For example: the company the men listed as a reference on their visa applications to Sudan is the same company U.S. prosecutors have accused of helping bin Laden's men procure "explosives, weapons and chemicals."

According to the passport documents el Mahdi showed us, both men were in Kenya for about three weeks before the embassy bombing there.

And quoting from notes taken during interrogation, el Mahdi told us one of the men mentioned visiting a certain hotel in Nairobi:

El Mahdi: "He went to Tophill Hotel in Nairobi."

The "tophill" hotel, el Mahdi believes, is actually the "Hilltop" Hotel. And what's so interesting about that? Well, according to U.S. prosecutors, the Hilltop Hotel in Nairobi is where Osama bin Laden's men stayed while plotting their attack on the U.S. embassy.

Did two possible suspects slip away? Is el Mahdi telling the truth? We can't say for sure, but we did independently confirm that two men using those names and passports were in Nairobi before the embassy bombing. We also tried to track them down in northwest Pakistan. We didn't find them, but it's worth noting that our man says he was told to stop asking questions and get out of town if he valued his life.

Sixteen months after the attack, it's not just people in Sudan who still wonder whether U.S. missiles were hurried into the air, at least in part, to bump another story off the front page.

Shelby: "The timing is still disturbing to me. Troubling. Certainly, this attack helped change the media stories for the rest of the week or the next 10 days."

Pickering: "Senator Shelby was not in the position of the president of the United States."

Stone Phillips: "Unfair to raise those kinds of questions? Do you think?"

Pickering: "Perfectly fair to raise those questions, but I hope perfectly fair to hear not only the answers but the circumstances under which in fact that decision was made."

Stone Phillips: "What would it have cost to take another week, or two weeks, or three weeks to collect more soil samples, to take more satellite photographs?"

Pickering: "We had just been through the killing of 250 people, along with a number of our citizens, employees and friends. It was not, in my view, either responsible or reasonable, given the evidence we had, for us to take more time."

Today Salah Idris's factory serves as a propaganda shrine, marking what many there consider an act of American terrorism.

Idris says it bothers him that Sudanese leaders are exploiting this for political purposes. The real losers, he says, are the impoverished people of Sudan who need the medicine his factory produced. He believes the U.S. should pay to rebuild the plant... and be more careful where it fires its missiles.

Idris: "They have a legitimate right to go after terrorism and to fight terrorists. But they have to have the right targets. No mistakes."

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