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A Times Editorial

The chemical plant that wasn't?

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 1999


A group of chemists has examined the waste, soil and debris from the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant bombed by the United States in August. Their findings suggest that no chemical weapons were being produced there. If this is true, this country has an obligation to own up to its mistake and make reparations.

The findings came as a result of an investigation conducted on behalf of the drug firm's owner. The research team was led by professor Thomas Tullius, chairman of the chemistry department at Boston University. Tullius was looking for any trace of materials that go into the development of chemical weapons. None were found.

In particular, the team tested the samples for traces of Empta, a precursor used in the production of VX nerve gas. That's the substance the Central Intelligence Agency said it had discovered in secret soil tests at the plant. The Clinton administration used the CIA's claimed discovery and information linking the plant owner with international terrorist Osama bin Laden to justify the factory's destruction. Bin Laden is accused of masterminding the deadly bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Not surprisingly, the Clinton administration has not reacted well to these new findings. According to the New York Times, no one in the administration will even meet with the plant owner's legal representatives to review the conclusions. Instead, P.J. Crowley, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, reiterated the administration's belief that the bombing was justified.

Crowley attacked the methodology of Tullius' study, saying his samples were obtained long after the samples collected by the CIA, and after rain and the bombs could have destroyed the evidence. But Tullius took samples from several places, including spots that had been protected from rain and the plant's septic tank, which would have provided a historical picture of any chemicals disposed of.

From the moment we bombed the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, legitimate questions of whether it had actually been a front for a chemical weapons factory have been raised. Tullius' findings are not the final word, but they add bulk to those questions.

There's nothing new about our leaders exaggerating the true danger of an enemy in order to rally public support behind military action. Unless the administration is more forthcoming with its proof on the plant, we may have reason to believe it has happened again.

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