U.S. strikes at terrorism Cruise missiles hit targets in Sudan and Afghanistan

Bipartisan support on Hill

Strikes were intended to punish for bombings of embassies in Africa

August 21, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the most forceful response against terrorism of the Clinton presidency, the United States launched a surprise missile attack yesterday against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan that U.S. officials linked to suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

President Clinton said the strike was designed to punish those responsible for the recent embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and head off "an imminent threat" to America's security by terrorist groups connected to bin Laden.

"The risks from inaction to America and the world would be far greater than action," said Clinton, who interrupted his vacation in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., to address the nation from the Oval Office. "We knew before our attack that these groups already had planned further actions against us and others."

He did not elaborate. U.S. officials said only that they had information that terrorist threats were being aimed at American embassies or citizens in Albania, Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia and Yemen.

It was not immediately clear whether the attacks achieved their military objective or whether there would be further strikes. There were no reports of casualties in the strikes, which apparently were carried out solely by Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from Navy ships in the Red Sea and Arabian Sea.

Unconfirmed reports stated that bin Laden, who had been suspected of being behind the embassy bombings from the outset, escaped injury. Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, acknowledged that the United States had "no idea" of the wealthy Saudi's whereabouts.

The attack, carried out with little warning, came at a time of political duress for Clinton, who is struggling to put the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal behind him.

With that political overlay in mind, U.S. officials went out of their way to emphasize that the attack had been in the works for nearly a week. Clinton gave initial approval last Friday, as he prepared to testify Monday before independent counsel Kenneth Starr's grand jury, they said.

At 6 a.m. yesterday, from his vacation house on Martha's Vineyard, Clinton ordered the strike to proceed. Hours later, he announced the strike in a brief statement to reporters at a school in Edgartown, Mass., then flew to Washington to address the nation.

The image of a grim-faced Clinton alighting from his helicopter at the White House was in stark contrast to the scene just two days earlier, when the embattled president and his family had walked hand in hand across the South Lawn to begin their vacation.

Congressional leaders of both parties strongly supported Clinton's action. But senators and representatives indicated that few, if any, of them had been consulted in advance.

Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the United States "did exactly the right thing." Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said the U.S. response "appears to be appropriate and just."

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who had been scathing in his denunciation of Clinton's speech this week on the Lewinsky matter, was also supportive. "When it comes to foreign policy, partisanship ends at the water's edge," he said. "We should all back the president."

But several Republicans questioned the timing of Clinton's decision and suggested that he might have acted to divert attention from his political problems.

Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican who called this week for Clinton's resignation, said it was "uncharacteristic" of Clinton to move so quickly "on something which probably has not been fully clarified." Because Clinton is "consumed" with personal problems, "it raises questions about whether or not he had the time to devote to this issue," added Coats, a member of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees.

Critics noted that the United States has not retaliated for the bombing that killed 19 Americans in an apartment complex housing U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia two years ago. The only previous military strike against terrorism during Clinton's 5 1/2 years in office came in 1993, when the United States fired cruise missiles into Baghdad, Iraq, in retaliation for an alleged terrorist plot to assassinate President Bush.

In public statements yesterday, Clinton said his administration had tried "where possible" to fight terrorism with law enforcement and diplomacy.

But "when our very national security is challenged," he said, "we must take extraordinary steps to protect the safety of our citizens."

Clinton gave no details of the "compelling evidence" that he said had convinced him and other U.S. officials that further terrorist attacks were planned.

On Wednesday, a group of militant Islamic organizations connected to bin Laden issued a statement in Cairo, Egypt, threatening new attacks against Americans. The same day, the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan warned non-Muslim foreigners to leave neighboring Afghanistan, one of the few public indications -- in hindsight -- that an airstrike was imminent.

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