(This is in five 10 minute segments. They are all on YouTube and I might even manage to upload them here later.)
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Pipeline News ^ | 10 July 2004 | Janet McElligott
Washington, DC – PipeLineNews – Bill Clinton’s My Life memoir is being hawked as part confessional and part policy tome. I had hoped that, at least as far as the historical reflections on terrorism and his eight-year presidency was concerned, it would at least be partly factual.
Instead, “My Life,” which The New York Times described as, “sloppy, self- indulgent and eye-crossingly dull” is at odds with the record as it is developing. The book contradicts the findings of the Sept. 11 commission, Clinton’s own prior admissions on a myriad of issues and, using my own knowledge of his administration’s dealings – or lack thereof – with the Sudanese regarding Osama bin-Laden case.
I know the last point to be true because I witnessed it firsthand.
In 1996, I became what Vanity Fair magazine called in January 2002, the bin-Laden case’s “accidental emissary,” because I ended up in the position of shuttling between the FBI and representatives of the Sudanese intelligence service.
This was not a role I sought; rather, it all came about because I was in Sudan trying to arrange to bring its ancient treasures from the Meroe pyramids – known as the Gold of Queen Amanishakhete – to the United States for a public tour.
Queen Amanishakhete lived during Sudan’s Kush period, in 4th century B.C. At the end of the 19th century, European explorers uncovered artifacts to what may be the world’s most powerful matriarchal dynasties, which is what drew me to Sudan initially.
What kept me coming back was trying to stop Osama bin-Laden.
Gutbi el Mahdi, the chief of Sudanese intelligence, had placed bin-Laden and all his guests under close surveillance when they began developing close ties with known Egyptian terrorist groups.
Gutbi personally read every fax, phone transcript and daily report on activities where bin-Laden was concerned.
When the Clinton administration demanded that Sudan expel bin-Laden – which took place on May 18, 1996 – the Sudanese knew that a refusal to cooperate could have dire consequences. The demand for expulsion had first been raised in early 1996 by U.S. Ambassador Tim Carney, a respected career diplomat.
On Carney’s last night in Sudan – Feb. 6, 1996 – he was invited to the home of Foreign Minister Ali Osman M. Taha, who asked Carney what could be done to dissuade the United States from its hard-line view on Sudan.
It was at this dinner that a substantive discussion between the two countries on terrorism occurred. This resulted in the Sudanese government beginning, for the first time, to consider handing Osama bin-Laden over to the U.S. authorities.
Seeking to pursue this option, the Sudanese sent their State Minister of Defense, Maj. Gen. Elfatih Erwa, to Washington in March 1996.
Erwa believed he could reason with the administration. At a hotel in Rosslyn, Va., just across the river from Georgetown, he participated in a meeting with David Shinn, chief of the State Department’s Africa Desk, Carney and other U.S. government officials.
Unfortunately, they were not – as Erwa hoped – willing to listen. Instead, they handed him a memorandum dated March 8, 1996, that outlined a list of U.S. demands of the Sudanese.
Item No. 2 on the list was a demand for information about bin-Laden.
Intead, Erwa offered to hand bin-Laden to the United States on a silver platter – just as the Sudanese had done when the gave Carlos the Jackal to the French – but the representatives of the United States told Erwa the United States only wanted bin-Laden out of Sudan.
Clinton himself confirmed this on Feb. 15, 2002, while speaking in Woodbury, N.Y. Asked about terrorism, Clinton said: “We tried to be quite aggressive with (terrorists). We got — uh — well, Mr. bin-Laden used to live in Sudan. He was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991, and then he went to Sudan. And we’d been hearing that the Sudanese wanted America to start dealing with them again.
“They released him. At the time, 1996, he had committed no crime against America so I did not bring him here because we had no basis on which to hold him, though we knew he wanted to commit crimes against America. So I pleaded with the Saudis to take him, ’cause they could have. But they thought it was a hot potato and they didn’t and that’s how he wound up in Afghanistan.”
After the United States bombed Sudan’s only pharmaceutical plant, El Shifa, in August of 1998 in response to the leveling of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by al-Qaida, I flew to Khartoum with Dr. Bob Arnott, then the chief medical correspondent for NBC.
We landed in Khartoum with a German cameraman, an Egyptian soundman and plenty of questions for the Sudanese about Clinton’s accusations that El Shifa was a chemical weapons facility with connections to bin-Laden.
We found that the United States had fired six cruise missiles at the El Shifra facility. One hit the administration building, one the loading dock, one the bottling plant, one the storeroom, one the hallway and one was a dud.
The plant was still burning when we arrived. Surveying the damage, Sudanese Interior Minister Abdul Rahim M. Hussein said to us: “It is amazing what America can do. I wish we could do this, we might be able to end our civil war, but we can’t fight this. Mr. Clinton could kill every Sudanese and we could do nothing to stop him.”
Days before the two U.S. embassies in Africa were destroyed, two men deplaned from Kenya Air Flight 322, traveling between Nairobi and Cairo, when it landed in Khartoum. Gutbi had the two men watched because they used the name of bin-Laden’s former tannery manager as the reference on their visa applications.
Gutbi had them followed and, when they attempted to rent an apartment overlooking the empty U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, had them arrested.
During their interrogations, the Sudanese learned the men were Afghan Arabs traveling on illegal Pakistani passports who had just come from the Hilltop Hotel in Kenya, where the operatives who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi had stayed. The men were carrying lots of cash and their passports were full of stamps indicating they had been in and out of the world’s major banking centers.
All the pieces fell into place, Gutbi told me later, after the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were demolished. He called me and said, “Tell your people we have something for them but they have to go to Khartoum to get it.”
By “your people,” he meant only one thing, the FBI.
I contacted an agent who, coincidentally enough, had been selected for the team being sent to Nairobi to investigate the embassy bombings. He said he would “run it up the flagpole.” He wanted more details, specifically what I thought the message really meant. I could only tell him that the head of Sudanese intelligence didn’t call me everyday. It had to be something “big,” because Gutbi had risked a phone call.
In spite of the rather cryptic invitation, the FBI was eager to go to Khartoum, my agent contact said, because its objective was to follow every lead and bring the terrorists to justice.
The effort ground to a halt, however, when – unbelievably – the U.S. State Department refused to permit the FBI to travel to Khartoum.
It was not one of the United States’ brighter moments.
FBI Director Louis Freeh was on the outs with the Clinton White House because he had pushed ahead with an investigation of campaign fundraising. No one in the administration was going to go out on a limb for the FBI.
Shortly after the request was denied, Secretary of State Madeline Albright declared, “We do not deal with terrorists,” publicly referring the Sudanese who were, at that time, on the department’s list of state terror sponsors.
Gutbi held onto the two al-Qaida members in his custody while others in the government would not let him engage in an attempt to hand them over to the United States directly. They remained in Sudanese custody until Sept. 4, 1998, when they were handed over to the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, at the Karachi airport.
Gutbi later found them – this time well out of reach – in bin-Laden’s Afghan terrorist training camps.
The next time he and I met it was after I finished work in Kazakhstan. He told me about the embassy bombing suspects, showed me the files compiled during their interrogations, and let me examine a virtual treasure trove of other information in the hands of the Sudanese pertaining to al-Qaida.
“I can give these to the FBI,” Gutbi told me referring to the information spread out before me, “if only they will talk to me.”
“We don’t trust the CIA. They are listening to liars and fabricators, but the FBI is based on law. We can deal with them. Go back to Washington and help us. I will give you something to convince them,” he said.
As I left for the airport that night, an armed courier arrived at my hotel with an envelope. Inside was a six-page, handwritten note to FBI Director Louis Freeh detailing the movements of the two suspects they’d caught coming in from Nairobi. He told Freeh their names, movements, and much more — information that could possibly get me killed if anyone else knew I had it in my possession.
I met with my “people,” as the Sudanese continued to call them, at the FBI. They told me they again wanted to meet with the Sudanese. From January through May of 1999, I shuttled Washington, Khartoum and Cairo, trying to arrange the meeting.
In May – while in Khartoum putting the last pieces in place – I received word from the FBI that the State Department had stopped the meeting. What’s more, the U.S. Department of the Treasury had previously issued a “cease and desist” order with my name on it, commanding that I cease all contact with the Sudanese government.
Additionally, Steven Schwartz, of the State Department’s Sudan Desk, acting – I was told – on orders from above, threatened to have me arrested for “running around the world conducting personal diplomacy.”
That summer I gave up. I’d been run ragged but no one seemed to believe me. Soon afterward Gutbi moved on to a different, more senior position within the Sudanese government, putting an end to the urgency of the whole thing.
I was advised to forget the whole thing and, until Sept. 11, 2001, I tried.
After the planes hit the towers, it all came racing back in one phone call from a staff aide working for the Bush National Security Council. Diligently – in my view – they were digging under every rock they could find for information about al-Qaida. They had reached out to me because, I thought, they wanted help getting the bin-Laden files that had several times been offered to but not accepted by the previous administration.
The aide had no idea what I was talking about when I said, “Finally, someone cares. So, do you want the bin-Laden files?” My name had only surfaced because of the Treasury Department’s attempt to sanction me for dealing with the Sudanese government, not because of what those dealings had been about.
Incredibly, in my view, the information from the Clinton White House about the Sudanese offers of information about al-Qaida had not been passed along to the incoming Bush administration.
I told my story yet again to the Bush aide, who thanked me for my time and input. This time, however, the government acted – and swiftly.
Only minutes later, the phone rang again. This time it was Ambassador Robert Oakley, the head of the counter terrorism office inside the State Department. He introduced himself and said, “I understand you may be able to help us.”
I said I would call the new head of the Sudanese intelligence service, Yahia Hussein Babiker, and attempt to persuade him to call Oakley, since official U.S. protocol prohibited Oakley from reach out to the Sudanese government.
Less than an hour after I hung up with Yahia , my phone rang again. It was Oakley. “I called to thank you,” he told me. “I think we may be on the right track with this.” Almost before I could say anything, my cell phone rang. It was Yahia, calling to tell me that he had done as I had asked.
Oakley laughed and said, “In my 40 years in government I don’t think I’ve met anyone quite like you. I know I’ve never met anyone so efficient.”
If only that were true. It had taken five years for me to get someone, anyone at the higher levels of the U.S. government to take the Sudanese offer of assistance seriously. And I know because, as I said at the beginning, I was there throughout the process. Even today I can’t let go of the images of people trapped in the towers and wonder if I could have done more. Rightly or wrongly I carry with me the thought of “what if.”
Clinton’s book tells a different story, one that I do not recognize. And nowhere close to what I witnessed, firsthand, as a participant in the events as they occurred. I can only conclude that Clinton did not tell the American people the truth about what happened with the Sudanese — he probably didn’t tell the Bush administration the whole truth either. And I sincerely doubt he feels my pain.
(Janet McElligott is president of McElligott Associates, an international consulting company. She served on the staff of three members of the U.S. Senate and on the White House staff in the administration of George H.W. Bush. In 1997, she was a registered foreign agent for the Sudanese government and in 1998 for the government of Kazakhstan. She most recently served as spokeswoman for the Intergovernmental Governmental Agency for Development-sponsored Sudan Peace talks.)