Jun 1 1999

Sudan Bombing ‘Mistake’ Inspires Media Indifference

In May, there was a huge break in the story of the recent U.S. missile attack on Sudan. But you’d hardly know it from reading the U.S. press.

In a tremendous reversal on the part of the U.S. government, the Treasury Department decided to unfreeze the assets of Saleh Idris, the owner of the El Shifa factory that was destroyed in last August’s attack. Idris’ assets had been frozen while the U.S. government tried to prove charges that he was linked to alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Idris has maintained all along that the plant produced pharmaceuticals, not the nerve gas components that the U.S. government had claimed–and media had uncritically repeated–as the justification for the bombing.

The Treasury Department’s decision to unfreeze Idris’ assets will probably end legal action around the case. In other words, it represents–at least to some observers–an implicit admission from the U.S. government that it had no justification for bombing Idris’ factory.

Overseas news outlets seemed to find this an exciting and compelling story, as indicated by this selection of headlines compiled by Yahoo! (5/4/99):

BBC : “Washington Didn’t Have the Evidence” (05/04/99)

London Independent : U.S. Admits Sudan Bombing Mistake (05/04/99)

BBC : U.S. Backs Down on Sudan Factory (05/04/99)

In U.S. outlets, by contrast, the headlines seemed to obscure the main point of the story:

Associated Press : Factory Owner’s Assets Unfrozen (05/04/99)

New York Times : U.S. Frees Assets of Suspect in Embassy Terror Bombings (05/04/99)

Washington Post : U.S. Unfreezes Assets of Saudi Who Owned Plant Bombed in Sudan (05/04/99)

The effect of such coverage is obvious: Who would connect a headline like the AP‘s innocuous “Factory Owner’s Assets Unfrozen” to the U.S. attack on the Sudan? Who would suspect the story contained details of a major international embarrassment?

Much of the overseas media was quite direct in its assessment of the significance of the story. The London Independent (5/4/99), for example, flatly stated: “The embarrassing reversal means that the U.S. has virtually no evidence to support its claim that the missile attack was a strike against terrorism.”

But that conclusion, that the U.S. may have attacked another country without cause, was pretty much off limits in U.S. accounts.

In fact, the scant attention the U.S. press devoted to the issue was often limited to citing unnamed sources to buttress the government’s position, at the expense of other evidence. The Associated Press, for example, cited the following anonymous source:

“We made a judgment that we had concerns regarding Mr. Idris based on sensitive information, but we’re not prepared to compromise those sources for the sake of this case,” said an administration official who spoke on condition of not being identified by name.

The New York Times took a similar line, closing its May 4 story with following: “The Government’s justification for attacking the Sudanese plant remains a matter of dispute.” The story continues: “American officials have acknowledged that they did not know that Mr. Idris owned the plant at the time, but other American officials said that afterward they collected strong evidence linking him to Mr. bin Laden.”

What conclusions are we to draw? That though the U.S. government had no evidence against Idris at the time of the attack, it found some later, which it cannot now release? To allow unnamed officials to issue such a preposterous smear against a private individual is the use of anonymous sourcing at its worst.

Of course, international law requires more than a connection between a factory-owner and a disreputable individual in order to justify a cruise missile attack. A “self-defense” intervention against another country is legal only to prevent an attack that is “imminent and overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, no moment of deliberation.” In the unlikely event that the U.S. has evidence of such a planned assault from Sudan, it should be produced for the record; in the meantime, the media would do well to stop propagating the government’s anonymous innuendo.