Attacks' timing was driven by threats to U.S. 'Specific information' indicated more violence at facilities abroad

August 21, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton chose yesterday to strike against Osama bin Laden's terror network because the United States faced new threats of violence against embassies or other U.S. facilities in Albania, Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia and Yemen, officials said yesterday.

"We had very specific information about very specific threats at very specific targets," said Samuel R. Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser.

"These were very serious threats, all Osama-related," another administration official added.

The timing of yesterday's missile attacks against a terrorist camp in Afghanistan and suspected chemical-weapons factory in Sudan raised immediate questions about whether President Clinton was trying to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Less than an hour after Clinton's announcement, two Republicans, Sens. Dan Coats of Indiana and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, voiced skepticism about Clinton's motivations. Specter, however, said later that his own doubts had been eased.

But if Clinton had ignored the threats of new attacks, and terrorists hit new American targets, he could have been criticized for passivity and inaction, said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The consequences of not acting could have been much, much more severe," said Cordesman. "In the past, there was always a feeling that we tended to threaten and not act."

In addition to the threats against American embassies, the United States had information that a meeting of bin Laden's associates was scheduled for today at the Afghanistan camp that was one of the military targets, Berger said. The national security adviser noted, however, that bin Laden himself was not a specific target.

Within hours of the bombings Aug. 7 outside U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, U.S. officials pointed to bin Laden as one of the most likely suspects.

By last Friday, the information had solidified to a firm conclusion.

"We have convincing information from a variety of reliable intelligence sources and methods that Osama bin Laden, with the help of his terrorist allies, is responsible," a senior intelligence official said at the Pentagon yesterday.

"Rarely do numerous sources converge so uniformly and persuasively as they have in this instance," the official added.

Bin Laden, a Saudi multimillionaire and Islamic militant who was active in the Afghan war, has posed a threat to U.S. interests for years. Now, officials fear, he has sharply raised the stakes, hoping to build weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. intelligence agencies don't know when this could happen, but one official said yesterday, "We know that he has had an interest in acquiring chemical weapons. We know that he, himself, has talked about thousands of deaths," the U.S. intelligence official said at the Pentagon.

Pentagon officials cited 57 threats recently against U.S. military facilities and embassies overseas from a variety of sources.

One of the clearest threats that bin Laden's network posed was to the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania. The Central Intelligence Agency recently helped Albanian authorities locate a cell of terrorists, who were extradited to Egypt.

Two days ago, the State Department warned Americans not to travel to Albania, "because of recent declarations by Islamic extremists against the United States and its citizens."

On Aug. 11, the State Department reported learning of threats to U.S. interests in Egypt, Malaysia and Yemen that included threats against buildings. Five days later, the State Department sharply reduced staff and withdrew families of American officials in Pakistan, and warned Americans against traveling there.

From accounts by Berger and others yesterday, planning for a possible military attack began shortly after the bombings Aug. 7. Last Wednesday, tentative plans were laid out for Clinton at the White House.

Last Friday, Clinton approved a more complete plan "in principle" with the understanding that he could halt it as late as 6 a.m. yesterday.

The planning proceeded during the most troubling period of Clinton's presidency, when he was preparing to admit to a grand jury that he had had a sexual relationship with a White House intern.

Clinton's meetings with his military advisers in preparation for the missile strike were sandwiched between sessions with his lawyers that intensified over the weekend, in advance of his grand jury appearance Monday.

Before yesterday's announcements of the military strike, the president's last address to the American people came late Monday, when he admitted to a relationship with Lewinsky that was "not appropriate" but lashed out at Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr for intruding into his private life.

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