The assassination plot that probably wasn't

Please read Part I, first

(background summary)
Near the end of April 1993, the Kuwaiti government announced that there had been a plot to assassinate former president George Bush while he was there for a triumphant ceremonial visit to the country from which he drove the invading Iraqi army. The Kuwaitis arrested a number of suspects who were said to be working for Iraqi intelligence and revealed a 200 pound car bomb that was to be used to carry out the action. The United States claimed there was proof linking the bomb and the would be assassins to Iraq. This subsequently led to a missile attack (decision by then president Bill Clinton) on the Iraqi intelligence building in Baghdad.

While the alleged facts of the case are held to be true by most of the main players involved—as well as by the current president George Bush (II), son of the "target"—there are numerous questions that suggest that the plot may not have been what it was thought, if there was a plot at all.

Part II

  • The bomb: an examination of the bomb evidence presented by the Clinton administration
  • The "plot": a look at the events of April 1993
  • Summing up: final bits of information and conclusion

The bomb
The second two parts of the "compelling evidence" related to the bomb and its "signature." The crux of the "smoking gun" evidence was the remote control device intended to explode the bomb. The Clinton administration released color photographs in order to show the public that it was indeed the same sort of device used in other Iraqi bombs. Ambassador Madeleine Albright went public with the comparison photos, demonstrating that the two devices were the same except for the serial numbers, further claiming that inner components were also the same, including "soldering, the use of connectors, and the wiring techniques, et cetera."

Expectedly, Iraq strongly denied the "proof." On the other hand, the US public, led by the media, led by the administration, almost across the board accepted the claim as fact. Only a single editorial in the NYT showed a hint of skepticism, calling it "not conclusive enough" and asking to "hear the evidence, rather than the assertions of officials who say they have it." In fact, the claim was essentially assimilated whole cloth without comment.

Investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh, writing for The New Yorker, did spend time looking into the allegations and found many questions. He asked a number of the sort of experts on electrical engineering and bomb forensics that could evaluate the evidence. He was told the parts were mass-produced items (used in model cars and walkie-talkies) and bore no particular modifications to suggest a "signature." Based on the smoking gun photos, there was no way there could be proof for the claims.

It was also explained to him the devices being similar proved nothing because they were so common and easily available to anyone. Donald L. Hansen (qualifications: 28 years on the San Francisco Police Department bomb squad, former director of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators, and instructor at the State Department school for foreign police) pointed out that they were "generic devices" and that a signature requires "unique characteristics." Since it is relatively easy to find the instructions on building a bomb, simply noting a similarity in construction cannot prove anything.

An electrical engineer from the University of Miami judged that the parts used were likely not made any later than 1983, mass-produced, and available all over the world—"nothing that would make them any different from anything bought off the shelf from any electronics store." The engineer also refuted the contention that the bomb was "sophisticated": "Anybody with half an ounce of electronics training could have done what they did and make something go boom."

Another expert, who had spent time working as a "computer engineer and systems analyst" for the "'classified' community in Washington" said the attempt to claim a signature was a mistake because there was nothing but "a close coincidence that worked real bad for Saddam. You couldn't make a case." He added that it would be thrown out of the World Court as insufficient evidence.

Those who helped put together the case for the administration said their expert had a "hands-on examination" and was held to the same standards required by court. That the FBI "presented its case to Justice as if it were in front of a very skeptical [Assistant US Attorney]." Hersh correctly points out that presenting these findings "as if" to administration officials is hardly analogous to a court room situation which would include cross examination and possible refutation by the defense experts. It simply was not exposed to the sort of scrutiny required to make a case in any criminal court.

And there is precedent for cases where a signature was claimed then deemed as insufficient. One particular case involved a similar claim—that the bomb's components were the same as anthers. In that case, Hansen, testifying for the defense, had to explain that the State's witnesses (ATF forensic experts) had only emphasized the similarities and ignored the differences. He stated that he found "no particular method of twisting wires or no real distinct technique involved"—such unique qualities that would suggest a signature. The judge agreed with the Hansen.

Hersh also spoke to an intelligence analyst with the government who was aware of most of the classified material in the case. He noted some of the differences. The appearance of the bomb was significantly different. Also, previous Iraqi bombs used primitive detonators and dynamite (as opposed to radio controlled one and the plastic explosive in the Kuwait bomb). A believer that the government's case was solid, he said that you can't determine a signature from a photo and added that certain aspects of the device were kept from the public. While the former may be true, it along with the latter (the typical claim that it was for security reasons) shows how poorly the government made its case (if there was one). It also shows how it would never stand up in a court of law, unless jurisprudence would allow asserted, unsupported "just trust me" claims as solid evidence.

An FBI agent also admitted to Hersh that what the American public was told was not "the best case," claiming there were other photographs and data that no "outsider" could view. Again the secrecy and "just trust me" of those who determined for the administration and the American public the nature of the alleged connection leave more questions than answers in their wake.

It was later found that many of the bomb/detonators used in the comparison analysis were not even recovered in Iraq but elsewhere around the world (Philippines, Indonesia). (Though some had been "clandestinely" attained from an Iraqi embassy during Gulf War I.) They were "suspected" Iraqi bombs and were also "similar." Hersh points out that the bomb components may be similar for the reasons above: easy to obtain, mass-produced electronics. Also that things like detonators could have been found in the wake of the Iraqi expulsion from Kuwait—as were numerous parts, arms, and materiel.

Further, it seems that the supposed signature may not have played that large a role in the determination, but rather it was a "political judgment" (according to an American diplomat who had been a part of the discussion of the case). It was partly based on the pattern of how the suspects behaved when captured. The diplomat did feel that Iraqi intelligence was involved, though "I don't think Saddam ordered it." A Justice Department official who had "ninety-nine percent of the facts" confided in Hersh that it was the result of a "process" and "analysis of possible scenarios." Not, however, "any specific information."

More damning to the case (though dismissed by others usually along the lines of the individual not having the full information) was an FBI chemist who had worked on the bomb evidence. Frederic Whitehurst blew the whistle on numerous problems within the FBI labs in reference to various cases including the assassination plot. Whitehurst tested the explosive and found that it did not match previous Iraqi explosives, as was asserted by others. He complained about his findings being distorted.

Upon hearing of ambassador Albright's testimony before the UN that the explosives matched, he "thought, 'The news has got this wrong.' I said specifically it wasn't a match." Later he saw an official FBI report misrepresenting his findings. Whitehurst issued a formal complaint and sent letters to the Department of Justice Inspector General and other officials. He said he wrote the Inspector General stating that "there may be good reasons to send Tomahawk missiles to Baghdad. But my report did not support it" (The Baltimore Sun).

After he left the FBI in 1998, a 500 page Inspector General's report found many of his charges relating to bureau's labs were valid. He was also given a $1.16 million settlement. The one specific case seems to have been swept under the rug.

The "plot"
So what happened in the days leading up to the arrest? Hersh was able to come up with the best narrative possible given the facts/testimony as they are known.

First, there is Wali al-Ghazali, who testified that he had been approached by Iraqi intelligence concerning the assassination about a week prior to Bush's visit. al-Ghazali, a male nurse, said he was taken the following day to a garage where he was briefed on the bomb, given a "suicide belt" (meant to be used if the bomb failed; he was supposed to strap it on and get as close to Bush as possible before detonating it), and a picture of the building at Kuwait University where Bush was supposed to appear (Bush never went to the university).

Ra'ad al-Assadi was the only other man who plead guilty in connection to the plot (interestingly, both men were possibly beaten as noted above) and was al-Ghazali's main co-conspirator (according to al-Ghazali). al-Assadi was the owner of a coffee shop in Basra and a long time and well known smuggler of alcohol, weapons, and other goods from Iraq into Kuwait City—despite the early claims that they could only have crossed the border with the approval of Iraq, there seems to have been a flourishing black market trade going on, particularly where the borders of Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia meet.

al-Assadi also "smuggled" people over the border, running, what Hersh describes as "an informal bus service across the surprisingly open border between Iraq and Kuwait," profiting US$300 per person for a weekend trip. He claimed that people he knew in Iraqi intelligence and among the police (not implausible for a smuggler to know) gave him US$420, five cases of whiskey, and six kilos of hashish (later found to be rather poor quality and nearly worthless) in order to take part in the "mission."

He further testified that a named Iraqi intelligence officer met with him and provided ten stick of explosives, along with detonators and other arms, to be used on "targets of opportunity" around the city. This was to include automobile showrooms and marketplaces. He was offered a vehicle but opted to use his own, an eight passenger van (which was later found to have been stolen from Kuwait during the occupation by Iraq).

This is what was "admitted" by the two men and part of the 600 page indictment against them and twelve others who were involved. Besides the stolen vehicle and the assassination plot, there were charges for transporting weapons and alcohol. Despite a possibly questionable discrepancy already (Bush versus targets of opportunity—neither of which there is evidence of actual attempts to deploy the explosives; more below), they appeared to be outlining a possible—maybe even probable—plot. But the testimony doesn't exactly match up. According to al-Ghazali, al-Assadi was aware of the plot from the beginning, claiming the two had met in a parking lot to discuss the assassination. al-Assadi claimed that he was never aware of the plot to kill the former president and had never heard anything about it. As the story progresses, more questions arise.

On 13 April, before sunrise, the two men loaded up the van and al-Ghazali's Toyota Land Cruiser (which allegedly held the bomb) with six paying travelers and two other men who were claimed to be accomplices (not one of whom was "a colonel in the Iraqi secret intelligence service" as asserted by the Kuwaiti ambassador). They headed toward the border. Once across, al-Assadi testified that he buried some of the bombs and tossed out the detonators and other weapons. Sometime later, they left the paying passengers and went on alone in the Land Cruiser with the accomplices and al-Assadi's uncle.

They met up with another known smuggler (with a police record), Bader al-Shimmari, at his sheep farm and hid the whiskey, weapons, and vehicle there. Later, the smuggler's family and the other passengers arrived and they all spent two nights of drinking, smoking, and other debauchery. al-Ghazali claimed that he spent one night at a friend's apartment in Kuwait City. He testified that he saw a report about Bush's visit to the University on television and asked to be taken there. As Hersh notes, this query is the closest thing to any "overt act aimed at assassinating Bush." Apparently Iraqi intelligence never bothered to inform its operative where he had to go and al-Assadi didn't know either—he testified that al-Ghazali was to supposed to tell him.

While in the desert, according to al-Ghazali, he got rid of the "suicide belt." It has never been found, nor have the bombs, detonators, and other arms that al-Assadi threw out earlier. Because the smuggler was well known to the police, the farm was under surveillance. The police moved in and seized the vehicles. Since they could not get to their cars (or other smuggled goods), the two and possibly the other two Iraqis, stole a car, probably planning to return to Basra. Unfortunately for them, they filled the gas tank with the wrong fuel and the car broke down. So they began to walk toward the border.

The men were seen by Kuwaiti citizens, who—obviously questioning these strangers wandering through the desert toward the Iraqi border—informed the police who apparently thought little of it (this will become more significant below). Numerous phone calls later, the police finally acted and picked up the supposed assassins (who put up no resistance). This was 15 April. They had rounded up the smuggler, his family, and the other passengers the day before.

In what may have been a simple matter of a Kuwaiti version of "Crime Stoppers," the government later gave out cash rewards to the citizens who had informed them of the men. Of course, it could also be a reward for talking part in a different sort of plot. Perhaps nothing, but not without the taint of impropriety.

During the trial, Police colonel Abdul Samad al-Shatti announced that police had been aware of the plot since mid-March from a "secret source inside Iraq." That they knew "terrorists" were planning to enter Kuwait and plant bombs. As yet, zero evidence to support this claim had been offered. Also, inextricably, armed with this important information, no one within the Clinton administration nor part of Bush's entourage or security was informed of the danger.

More damning to al-Shatti's claim was a statement made to Hersh by former high-ranking Kuwaiti officer that Kuwaiti intelligence had not been able to penetrate Iraqi intelligence in any significant way prior to the visit and that he thought the statement was made in order to save face after the poor way the arrest of the plotters had been handled (though the arrest seems even more inept given the claim that they already knew about it and had the sheep farm under surveillance).

What information was shared with US intelligence? According to the leaked CIA report in the Boston Globe, they were informed about the smuggling operation linked to the al-Shimmari family. It seems that CIA analysts thought that the Kuwaiti government "may have then decided to claim this operation was directed against Bush."

Summing up
While there is ample information and evidence (and some striking lack thereof) to suggest that the plot may have been nonexistent, there are many who view it differently. It is clear that whatever acts the men were engaged in were not done with much forethought (or, arguably, intelligence). Some see this as not incompatible with a plot. It is felt that they were chosen for their dispensability and if they failed, they would be so incompetent as to not be linked to Iraqi intelligence.

As one counterintelligence official told Hersh, "I don't think their heart was in what they were doing. So it might not have been the crack front-line Republican Guard but their mission was to try to get a car bomb as close as possible to kill Bush." He concluded with "They weren't highly motivated, and they weren't real careful, and I think they performed their duty like the White House staff performs its." In other words, they were stooges and patsies, but nonetheless guilty.

Another interviewee admitted that "some elements are extremely amateurish," adding "but others were not." He thinks that Iraqi intelligence had "nothing to lose" and it would be a "win-win" situation because the plotters really didn't have any information to give up. He also noted that it seems that the plan included (whether they knew or not) the deaths of the assassins in the explosion (or explosions depending on which suspect one believes, if either).

al-Ghazali supposedly maintained (in private interviews with the FBI) that he met with Iraqi intelligence and the CIA says it was able to verify his descriptions of Iraqi intelligence buildings in Basra. At the same time, al-Ghazali (who may have been "persuaded" in his testimony) was also facing the death penalty and, as is well known about suspects facing such a fate (or those subjected to torture and beatings), he might have admitted to any number of things, including "to being pope," as one official conceded Hersh.

It was also a "win-win" situation for the Clinton administration. It made him look tough on Iraq, an active defender of America and its hallowed leaders, and having finally taken an active role in foreign policy. If he was right, then (according to the administration's reading of international law) the attack was justified. If not, there are enough questions that maybe something could have been planned and besides, who would argue that Iraq's intelligence service was not guilty of many things they hadn't been punished for? Consider it one of those preemptive strikes.

In fact, there were certain pockets within the administration and intelligence community that were disappointed in the lightness of the response; who felt it should have been stronger and more comprehensive.

As a result of the trial, 13 of the 14 defendants were convicted (one acquittal). Six were sentenced to death and the rest were given prison terms between six months and twelve years. Despite the FBI claim about the lack of evidence for torture and the court ruling that none had taken place (as well as other assurances that it was a fair trial), the 1994 Human Rights Report, states: "Like other trials, this one did not meet internationally accepted standards regarding an independent judiciary and the evidence required for proving abuse." Only that and nothing more. No other comment. A single sentence hidden away in a report that almost no US citizen will ever read.

Perhaps that is the point. The decision was made and the "official story" became the truth. Saddam (or at least his intelligence service) was the man "who tried to kill my dad." End of story. No loose ends, no questions. Article of faith.

So was there a plot? Maybe there was, maybe there wasn't. Despite assertions to the contrary, the evidence is inconclusive, at best. And the only ones who seem certain are those who had/have personal or political interests at stake.

Sources:
The primary (and invaluable) source was Seymour M. Hersh's "A Case Not Closed," originally printed in The New Yorker 1 November 1993 (available online at www.newyorker.com/printable/?archive/020930fr_archive02). Almost all the quotes are from there. With the exception of the State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, other quotes are cited within the text.

"Bush's war is personal" New York Daily News 28 September 2002 (www.nydailynews.com/news/story/22354p-21226c.html)

"The Raid on Baghdad: Some Reflections on its Lawfulness and Implications" European Journal of International Law (www.ejil.org/journal/Vol5/No1/art11.html)

"When the threat of Hussein hit home for Bush" The Baltimore Sun 23 February 2003 available through search at www.sunspot.net (requires a fee to be viewed—yes, I did pay for the article)

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices can be found at http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu/ERC/democracy.html

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.