WASHINGTON — With some close allies voicing deepening doubts, U.S. officials acknowledged Monday that they erred in their original explanation of how they picked a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan to be destroyed by cruise missiles on Aug. 20.
Officials said they were unaware when Tomahawk missiles were fired at the Shifa Pharmaceutical plant in the Sudanese capital that the facility produced human and veterinary medicines for the impoverished nation. And they conceded that Clinton administration officials initially overstated evidence that suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden held a financial stake in the facility.
Even so, officials insisted that the complex in northern Khartoum was a legitimate target. And they stood behind their assertions that a single soil sample secretly collected from just outside the facility was sufficient proof that the factory was used to manufacture the deadly nerve gas VX.
"In retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight, it was the right target," said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Since the attack, critics both in the United States and abroad have challenged the administration's rationale and explanations for the strike, which was aimed at punishing Bin Laden for the Aug. 7 bombings outside the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania he allegedly coordinated--and at heading off expected further such assaults.
The skeptics have come to include some British and German officials, although those countries' governments officially support the U.S. strike. Even the Japanese have indicated that they would support a Sudanese proposal for an international investigation of whether the site did, in fact, produce the nerve agents.
Over the weekend, several German publications reported that the German ambassador to Sudan, Walter Daum, challenged U.S. assertions in a cable to his superiors reporting that the plant had produced antibiotics, antimalarial and antidiarrheal drugs, intravenous fluids and a few veterinary medicines.
Some chemists dispute that the single sample of a chemical called EMPTA, which is a precursor ingredient in making VX gas, could prove that the Shifa facility was used to manufacture poison gas. Some say that the EMPTA traces may signify only that VX was stored nearby; others assert that the traces could be the degraded product of another chemical.
Some experts contend too that the substance is used in everyday products.
"It's fairly commonly known that these [substances] are used in pesticides and herbicides," said Mike Hiskey, a chemist and explosives expert at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
U.S. officials said that at the time of the strike, they knew that the plant had had a "grand opening" celebration to publicize it as a major new source of medicines for Sudan, which has been rent by a lengthy civil war.
But the officials said they did not believe that the plant actually produced such medicines, because they saw no evidence of such an output when they accessed a Web site for it. Web sites for five other pharmaceutical plants in Sudan listed the medicines produced at those plants.
Officials also acknowledged that the administration may have initially overstated evidence of Bin Laden's ties to the factory after the attack. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said the plant was chosen because Bin Laden had a direct financial interest in it.
However, the officials asserted that there is strong indirect evidence that Bin Laden had close connections to the plant. He worked with the Sudanese in developing toxic substances, they said, and provided large sums to underwrite the Military Industrial Corp.--in effect, a large Sudanese defense contractor.
According to intelligence, the Shifa plant's owner, Saleh Idresse, is a front man or agent for Bin Laden, officials said.
An official acknowledged that "some of this is indirect, some of it is inferential. It's hard to hang your hat on any one nugget of it." Even so, officials emphasized their belief that "there's certainly a lot of information out there that points to the reason people should be concerned. And that's why we collected a soil sample."
Officials from several U.S. government agencies said it was unclear whether President Clinton knew about the plant's other products, or about the indirect nature of the evidence on Bin Laden, when he made the final decision to target the plant.
Clinton has said publicly that he agonized over the decision, staying up until 2:30 a.m. to hear intelligence reports that would indicate whether the plant had a night crew that might be killed in any attack.
Officials insisted that they retain high confidence in their chemical analysis of the soil sample, which was done in a commercial lab often used for such analyses. They said they undertook three separate tests of the soil, which turned up EMPTA in concentrations as high as 2.5 times the level needed to establish that the substance was in the earth.