Al Franken and Al-Shifa

In a well-publicized flap at the Los Angeles BookExpo last May, satirist Al Franken accused Bill O’Reilly of lying about, among other things, the tabloid show Inside Edition–which O’Reilly hosted before moving to Fox News–winning Peabody awards. O’Reilly claimed that he had merely “misspoke” when he said “Peabody” (the program had actually won a Polk Award, over a year after O’Reilly left the show). When Franken challenged O’Reilly that the Fox News host didn’t simply misspeak (O’Reilly had claimed that “we” won Peabodys, and then said there was “no transcript” where he had said that “he” won the award), O’Reilly shouted “Shut up!” (This was reminiscent of his February attack on Jeremy Glick, the son of a Port Authority worker killed on 9/11, whom O’Reilly specifically invited on his show and then berated for his opposition to the “war on terrorism.”)

This exchange, along with the lawsuit brought by Fox News claiming that Franken’s latest book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right,” was an infringement on the trademark “Fair and Balanced,” has propelled Franken to the forefront as a “liberal” defender of “the left” against the attack dogs of the right-wing media. (Fox News dropped the suit after a judge termed their case “wholly without merit.”) During the BookExpo, Franken proudly claimed the label of “liberal.” After fellow panelist Molly Ivins disabused O’Reilly’s claims that she was a “liberal,” Franken declared, “Unlike Molly, I am a liberal,” adding curiously “I’m a DLC Democrat.” Curious, because anyone who knows the centrist, pro-business Democratic Leadership Council knows that it has nothing to do with being “liberal” (in the generally accepted definition of that word; if Franken were to say he was a neoliberal, his identification with the DLC would make perfect sense).

Before I launch into a critique of Al Franken, I would like to point out that this is by no means a defense of Bill O’Reilly. I would refer any who doubt this to two articles I wrote for CounterPunch earlier this year, “‘s Bill O’ReillyFascism, Parts I and II .” Unfortunately, it has been my experience that people almost invariably look at the political world as a binary series of zeros and ones–it is assumed that if one criticizes an Al Franken or Bill Clinton, they must be a supporter of Bill O’Reilly or George W. Bush, and vice versa. Several times during the build up to the Iraq War, I would be criticized by people I’d never met as a hypocrite for decrying the proposed attack on Iraq while “not protesting the bombing of Kosovo” in 1999. (I’ve seen this charge leveled at many others who opposed the Iraq War). These opponents usually take on the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look when I tell them that not only did I strongly oppose the Kosovo War, I believe that Bill Clinton is a war criminal who deserves the same (if not more severe) punishment that is due former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein.

Another example of this narrow thinking is evident every time I write an article in any way critical of Zionism. I wrote an article last year decrying the hypocrisy of Trent Lott’s critics, pointing out that those who criticized the Senator’s praise of Strom Thurmond’s segregationist 1948 presidential campaign are often the same people who support the apartheid regime of Israel. Aside from the typical flood of emails from Zionists calling me an “anti-Semite,” a “Nazi,” and a “terrorist,” and the occasional death threat (“I only wish you and your whole family could have been in the World Trade Center on 9/11” was a particularly pleasant observation), I also received email from racist whites who believed that by criticizing his critics I was supporting Lott’s comments. It was simply inconceivable to them that I was opposed to ALL racism, whether it came from Trent Lott or AIPAC.

That said, I find myself, for the most part, enjoying Al Franken’s confrontations with the right. I keep in mind, however, Franken’s description, in his book “Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot,” of Bill Clinton as the greatest president of the 20th century. Franken’s knee-jerk defense of Clinton is evident in the transcript of his appearance on the September 10 edition of “The Flipside” on CNN Financial News. A caller to the program challenged Franken’s assertion that Bush lied to start a war, whereas Clinton lied about “small things,” supposedly a reference to the Lewinsky scandal. The caller pointed out that Clinton lied about the production of chemical weapons agents at a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory. The cruise-missile bombing of this factory in 1998 led to the deaths of untold thousands in that impoverished nation, as the sole source for the production of medicine was eliminated. “I think that’s a little bit more serious a lie than lying about his sex life,” argued the caller.

Franken responded, “OK. Well, that wasn’t a lie. [Clinton] bombed a factory in Sudan. They had soil samples that had–that showed that this was a factory making a precursor to weapons of mass destruction. It was–al Qaeda was in the Sudan. This factory had been financed by al Qaeda. So you just got to get your facts straight. I mean this is–if you read ‘The Age of Sacred Terror’ by Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon this is covered, chapter and verse.”

Critical observers of the Clinton Administration’s war crimes know well the cruise-missile bombing of the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant in Sudan in 1998. Franken is correct; the apologetics for this crime can be found in Benjamin and Simon’s book. The Clinton Administration justified the attack because a soil sample supposedly taken from the plant had traces of O-ethyl methylphosphonothioic acid (EMPTA), a chemical precursor to the production of deadly VX nerve gas. “The Central Intelligence Agency concluded that there was no other reason, including accident, for this precursor to be present in the quantities demonstrated in the soil sample” except for the production of VX, write Benjamin and Simon (p. 259).

They argue that the Sudanese government unduly influenced the press. The media “heard charges that Clinton was a ‘war criminal’ leveled by Sudanese strongman Omar Bashir, who had presided over years of fighting in southern Sudan that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives” (p. 354). Benjamin and Simon do not mention that, according to a September 21, 1998 front-page New York Times article, “In February 1997, [Bashir] sent President Clinton a personal letter. It offered, among other things, to allow United States intelligence, law-enforcement and counterterrorism personnel to enter the Sudan, and to go anywhere and see anything, to help stamp out terrorism.” Even if we take Benjamin and Simon at their word that Bashir is a terrorist-sympathizing mass murderer, and that his accusation against Clinton is self-serving hypocrisy, that doesn’t mean that the Sudanese strongman is wrong. The authors conclude that these accusations from Bashir, along with other “contradictory descriptions of al-Shifa” supposedly caused journalists to relay “the account presented by [US] government officials as less than credible” (p. 354).

The implications of this supposedly hypercritical press were that the Clinton Administration “decided to reveal some of the supporting intelligence despite strong reservations about exposing the sources and methods involved” in establishing, among other things, the connection of Osama bin-Laden to the ownership of Al-Shifa (p. 354). Unfortunately, though, declare Benjamin and Simon, “Intelligence is always incomplete,” and the nebulous connections between bin-Laden and Al-Shifa could not be firmly established (at least to the satisfaction of the dogged press), and that the Administration “simply could not afford to reveal more.” (We have to put aside, of course, the fact that a connection between the pharmaceutical plant and bin-Laden is irrelevant if the plant were only producing medicine. Surely bin-Laden, born to a wealthy Saudi family, had connections to numerous factories and industries, including, most likely, many mainstream US companies; this does not mean that each of these enterprises is involved with terrorism.)

Then Benjamin and Simon turn to the “famous soil sample.” They concede that it is impossible to prove that the sample was not somehow doctored; indeed, “intelligence operations typically are not and cannot be conducted according to the standards of judicial proof.” But the authors persist: “[T]he CIA’s analysis . . . showed that EMPTA [the VX precursor alleged to have been found in the soil sample] had no commercial use anywhere in the world. This conclusion was never refuted; it was also widely ignored” (p. 355) Here Benjamin and Simon attempt to shift the burden of proof from those making the justification for an act of war (i.e., the CIA) to those challenging that justification (supposedly the press). The fact that a statement is not refuted does not establish its veracity; only supporting evidence does that. But since, as Benjamin and Simon concede, “Intelligence is always incomplete,” and “cannot be [gathered] according to the standards of judicial proof,” we must assume they had little choice but to try and shift responsibility.

An article in the Winter 1999 issue of Covert Action Quarterly, “Sudan: Diversionary Bombing,” claims that discovery of EMPTA in the soil sample is problematic on three counts. First, “the presence of EMPTA at a given location obviously does not necessarily imply its production at that location,” i.e., al-Shifa could merely have been one of many storage sites for the precursor. Second, EMPTA, while a by-product of VX production, is also a by-product of pesticide production. Third, and perhaps most telling as to the authenticity of the “soil sample,” the article quotes an international weapons inspector interviewed by the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh: “[T]he chemical was unlikely to have been found, unaltered, in the ground, as the CIA had told journalists, for the simple reason that it is highly reactive and, once in the earth, would react with other chemicals and begin to break down. . . . Given EMPTA’s reactive nature, . . . the possibility of isolating it from a sample taken from the soil outside [al] Shifa didn’t seem credible. . . . The only way this material could be in the ground is if somebody had emptied a flask . . . and then taken a sample. That’s credible.”

The authors then try to establish an Iraqi connection to al-Shifa. “Officials who spoke with reporters also noted that Iraqi weapons scientists had been linked to al-Shifa, and that this Iraqi connection was independently underscored by UN weapons inspectors” (p. 355). Note the passive voice in the first clause: “had been linked.” By whom, one might ask? Perhaps the “intelligence is always incomplete” folks at Langley? But as before, let’s accept at face value the conclusion that Iraq weapons scientists were involved with al-Shifa. Does a “weapons scientist” in Iraq work solely on weapons research? Given the nexus between chemical and biological weapons research, and agricultural and medical research, could they have been researching the production of medicines and pesticides for the people of Iraq who were victims of slow-motion genocide under the US/UK led UN sanctions during the 1990s? Again, though, let’s grant that the Iraqis were connected with al-Shifa for the purpose of developing chemical or biological weapons. What would this have to do with bin-Laden and al-Qaeda, fundamentalist Islamists who are the sworn enemy of the secular Ba’athist regime of Iraq? The reader is reminded here of the not-so-subtle implications made by Bush Administration officials attempting to link Iraq to al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks. (Though the Bush Administration has now publicly admitted that there is no proof of a link between Hussein and 9/11, a wide majority of Americans believes that there is.) Much like the Bush Administration’s claims in the build-up to the Iraq War, Benjamin and Simon ask that we simply trust government officials to possess knowledge that, were it disseminated, it would endanger us, and assume that the powers that be have our best interests at heart.

And let’s assume just that. Let’s say that Clinton had information that, were it revealed, would prove that chemical precursors were being produced at al-Shifa. Does this justify an attack on a factory that produced nearly all the medicine for the impoverished nation of Sudan (as well as for other nations in the Middle East, including Iraq)? Benjamin and Simon tell us that one of Clinton’s advisors had her doubts: ” Attorney General Janet Reno expressed concern about whether the strikes were proportional and met the requirements of self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter” (p. 260). Simply put, “proportionality” is the legal requirement that the “punishment fit the crime,” that the “cure” not be worse than the “disease.” Intrinsic to this notion is that civilian populations receive special protection during war. The Geneva Convention forbids attacks “which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”

One might argue that the al-Shifa attack would be justified because the tragedy of the few civilians who would be killed around the factory would be offset by the lives that could be saved by preventing the production of the VX gas precursor. However, the US would be legally obliged to consider not only the direct casualties of the bombing, but also the indirect casualties who would die from the lack of medicine, a number that is possibly in the tens of thousands, but remains unknown because no serious investigation has been attempted. Even if the apologists for the US strike concede that the loss of medicine most likely led to the deaths of thousands of Sudanese and others in the region, the attack would still be allowed because this loss of life would not be “excessive in relation to” the benefit of preventing a terrorist attack with chemical weapons, which could arguably kill thousands as well. This, however, will not satisfy the requirements of the Convention, for the benefit of an attack must have a “concrete and direct military advantage.” Not only could the presence of chemical weapons precursors not be established in the case of al-Shifa, but even if we assume that they were, the destruction of al-Shifa does not meet the emphatic descriptions of “concrete,” “direct” and “military.” The presence of the precursors was not “concrete”; if the precursors did exist, it seems reasonable that they could be produced someplace else, so the advantage of bombing the factory was not “direct”; and, since the precursor allegedly being produced was but one of several components of VX weapons–when we consider production, assembly, and delivery–the “military” advantage was severely limited.

When Al Franken positions himself as a lonely voice on the left exposing the lies of the right, we must be very wary of whom we are siding in such confrontations. I’m glad that Franken takes on the Bush Administration, its policies, and its lapdogs in the media. However, because I’m glad that he took on Hitler and won doesn’t mean I think Josef Stalin was a paragon of humanity.

Franken, as well as his fans, need to be extremely careful of falling into the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality that can ally good people with the lesser of two evils. Witness this Fox News-worthy Franken quote from the August 25 edition of CNN’s Crossfire: “I think the American armed services did a damned good job in Iraq and a damned good job in Afghanistan, frankly.”

Oh, if only it could have been Bill Clinton leading those immoral attacks.

TOM GORMAN is a writer and activist living in Glendale, California. He welcomes comments at

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