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The assassination plot that probably wasn't

Part I:

  • Intro
  • The "official" story: the story of the plot as it was received from the Clinton administration and disseminated through the media
  • Collateral damage and self-defense: the result of the airstrike launched in retaliation for the plot and the justification used
  • Kuwait: Gulf War hoaxes and self-interest
  • Clinton: the possible role of pressure from the media and elsewhere in the decision to strike
  • Torture: the assertion that no one was beaten, coerced, or tortured into confessing

There's no doubt his hatred is mainly directed at us. There's no doubt he can't stand us. After all, this is the guy that tried to kill my dad.

Spoken by George W. Bush at a GOP fundraising dinner in Houston, Texas on 26 September 2002. Words that according to one guest made it possible to "almost hear the hush over the ballroom." His words, perhaps because they were said among party supporters were less guarded than his reference to the alleged Iraqi plot to kill his father in 1993 during the 12 September 2002 United Nations speech where he said, "In 1993, Iraq attempted to assassinate the emir of Kuwait and a former American president." That president, of course, was "my dad," and Bush was speaking about Saddam Hussein, a man his "dad" has said he has "nothing but hatred for," that "I hate Saddam Hussein, and I don't hate a lot of people." That "There's nothing redeeming about this man" (New York Daily News 28 September 2002).

Some things not usually mentioned as part of the story, are that included in the former president's entourage were his wife, his daughter-in-law Laura Bush—wife of current president George W. Bush (he was not there, spending the time overseeing the Texas Rangers baseball team and preparing to run for governor), and son Neil Bush and his wife.

While it is hardly controversial that Hussein is a tyrant and directly or indirectly responsible for a great number of atrocities and misery, that he attempted to have the former president assassinated during a visit to Kuwait in 1993 is not quite the incontrovertible fact that his son and others (including most of the US news media) hold it to be. It has been accepted unquestionably and because of that, has had effects far outside of the scope of political rhetoric. This is not just a story of whether or not there was a plot and an evaluation of that evidence, but a story that touches on political and geopolitical motivation and personal feelings about Iraq and its leader. There are also casualties.

The "official" story
In April of 1993, former president George Bush was making a ceremonial visit to Kuwait. Near the end of the month, the Kuwaiti government announced that it had arrested a number of Iraqi and Kuwaiti men (the charge was "'destabilizing' Kuwait"). During interrogation, one confessed that they had been sent by Iraqi intelligence to assassinate Bush during his visit. The means was a 200 pound car bomb that had been driven across the border into Kuwait. It was designed to kill anyone within 400 yards of the explosion.

Soon leaks from prominent newspapers, among them the Washington Post, began revealing that the Clinton administration had "credible" evidence to support the claims of the Kuwaiti government. Martin Indyk, senior director of the National Security Council Division of Near East and South Asian Affairs, was telling journalists that there was very reliable intelligence supporting Iraqi ties to the plot to kill the president.

In May, the Post was giving the three main planks of support for the link:

  • Members of the assassination team had an easy time crossing the border, something that "would have been difficult without official sanctions."
  • The bomb and detonation device were "way too sophisticated, involving things too sophisticated, to be just some crazies with a complaint against the president."
  • The administration was tracing the explosives used "to the source."
Additionally, the recently appointed Kuwaiti ambassador claimed that one of the men had confessed to being a "colonel in the secret intelligence service."

As the month went on, voices began to build, supporting a retaliation for the attempt on Bush's life. On the television program "Meet the Press," chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Lee H. Hamilton (D-IN) stated that "we can't tolerate this kind of action against a former President of the United States," that it was "just outrageous." By 11 May, despite administration claims that things were still being investigated, another leak in the papers (this time the New York Times) asserted that "American officials" said that there was "powerful evidence" of an Iraqi intelligence link and that investigators had traveled to Kuwait and examined the bomb mechanisms, finding that they were "almost exactly the same" as those used in other Iraqi car bombs. Within a month, the Post was reporting that the administration "has found evidence implicating the Iraqi government in a plot to assassinate former President George Bush." It also noted that a final assessment would be reserved until after the Kuwaiti trial of the men (which started on 5 June).

By the end of the month, the papers were exerting pressure for the administration to act on the case. President Clinton, basing the decision largely on the strength of the FBI report (approved by Attorney General Janet Reno) turned over to him on 24 June, decided the next day to use force in retaliation for the plot. On 26 June, 23 Tomahawk guided missiles were fired from ships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea aimed at the Iraqi intelligence center in downtown Baghdad. that night, at a White House briefing the National Security Adviser, W. Anthony Lake, said the plot and its implications demonstrated a "real and present danger" and that "if we failed to act and act now, the Iraqis might continue attempting such acts of state-sponsored terrorism." For justification in the use of force, he invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter, allowing countries to act in self-defense.

They then gave what they called "compelling evidence" for the link, evidence that would be given the following day by at the UN by ambassador Madeleine Albright. They said examination showed that the bomb components were similar to ones found in other Iraqi bombs made by the intelligence service—in fact, there was forensic evidence that there was a "signature" that showed the bomb was made by the same person as previous ones. They added that the suspects (who were visited by agents on two separate occasions) showed no evidence of having been beaten or coerced to get their statements.

The next day, on the way to church, Clinton stated that "I feel quite good about what transpired. I think the American people should feel good."

Unfortunately for the "official story," and those who accept it, there are many problems, discrepancies, and outright incorrect assertions.

Collateral damage and self-defense
When those 23 missiles slammed into the center of Baghdad, most hit the target. Interestingly, the most "important" target—Hussein—would not even be there. And they knew it but, as Secretary of Defense Les Aspin put it at the Pentagon briefing following the bombing: "it's like any intelligence building. You've got people who are there twenty-four hours watching communications. You presumably might have some people in there who are involved in maintenance, and cleanup crews of one kind or another. I wouldn't want to guess a number." These janitors and maintenance people would be glad to know this is how the US is "trying to go after the people responsible" (Aspin, again).

"Most" of the missiles were guided to the correct destination—three, however, were not. They hit nearby residences (the attack was aimed at the middle of a city). Eight civilians were also killed as part of the attempt to get those "responsible." One of those killed was world renown artist Layla al-Attar (probably the premiere woman artist of the Arab world). She was preparing for an exhibition at the time. Her husband was also killed and her daughter was blinded (one of twelve wounded in the attack). In the words of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, the action was "appropriate, proportional, and consistent with Article 51 of the Charter" (www.ejil.org).

Pertaining to the claim that the attack was backed by the UN Charter, Article 51 reads as follows:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

At face value, nothing in the article comes close to supporting the claims made by the Clinton administration. No armed attack occurred (even forgetting that whether there was even an attempt is debatable). And though the article is generally accepted to cover "defense" in the case of an imminent attack, there was no evidence of that either. If there was a genuine plot to kill Bush, it was a single incident and in no way evidence that there will be another or other similar (or worse) attacks directed toward the US. In fact, it was a punitive air strike that operated outside the scope of the UN Charter and international law—and very arguably, an act of war (interestingly, under the charter, Iraq would have every right to respond in actual self-defense).

That said, the international reaction was supportive or quiet, with a few exceptions. Of the 15 Security Council members, only China questioned the legality under international law. Russia supported it. The three main Islamic countries (Djibouti, Morocco, and Pakistan) remained silent on the matter. The other nonaligned countries (Brazil, Cape Verde, Hungary, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, and Venezuela) said that the evidence offered had been "taken note of" and that the matter was of "utmost concern" (www.ejil.org).

Outside the Security Council, most western nations, particularly in Europe, were supportive, the British Foreign Secretary stating that "This operation was a justified and proportionate exercise of the right of self-defence and a necessary warning to Iraq that state terrorism cannot and will not be tolerated" (www.ejil.org). In short, as with the US media and American people, the evidence was accepted as was the justification for the attack.

Kuwait
As Kuwait was both the country where the attempt was allegedly to have taken place and the one which captured the suspects, it is instructive to take a look at it. Initially, Kuwait's revelation did not cause a stir. Because Kuwait not only had a vested interest in keeping an Iraqi "threat" on Washington's mind, but the Kuwaiti government had lied before.

When Kuwait was invaded by Iraq (partly because of disputed border issues and the Kuwaitis stealing Iraqi oil by slant drilling), it was occupied. During the occupation, the world was shocked by testimony before Congress of a young girl who described Iraqi soldiers pulling infants out of incubators. In the words of the teen (whose last name was supposedly being kept secret to protect her) "They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die." The testimony was instrumental in creating an outcry for armed intervention against Iraq.

It later turned out that the whole thing was a hoax (Kuwaiti doctors were as surprised as anyone) dreamed up by Kuwaitis in the US with the help of the US public relations firm Hill and Knowlton (which was extensively used to drum up domestic support for the first Gulf War). The girl had not even been in Kuwait and turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador (suggesting at least tacit support on some level in the government). Even more interesting is that the same ambassador later became the Kuwaiti Minister of Information—the very one in charge of briefing the press about the assassination plot. In addition, doctors also testified (lied) about burying the nonexistent infant corpses.

In August 1991, Kuwait claimed Iraqi vessels were attempting to attack Bubiyan Island (disputed territory, then under Kuwaiti control). They went so far as to bring the UN Security Council into it. The finding of the council was that it was untrue and that Kuwait was aware of the falsehood. It was determined that the case was a matter of a "smuggler-versus-smuggler dispute over war booty in a nearby demilitarized zone that had emerged, after the Gulf War, as an illegal marketplace for alcohol, ammunition, and livestock." Smuggling will play a role in the story behind the plot allegations.

Further, it was already known that Kuwait was concerned about the US backing off Hussein. In a report put together by the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center (leaked to the Boston Globe) it was stated that Kuwait may have "cooked the books" to make sure Hussein was viewed as an ongoing threat and that it was believed Kuwait was worried that it would be abandoned in order to strengthen US-Iraqi relations—that Kuwait "has a clear incentive to play up the continuing Iraqi threat." Their concerns were exacerbated by Clinton's apparent pose (prior to taking office) of doing just that, saying he was not obsessed with Hussein like Bush was and that he could see a normalization of relations between the two countries: "All he has to do is change his behavior." The report noted that the Kuwaitis had voiced "frustration" because Clinton (who later distanced himself from the remarks) and other European leaders had not taken a hard line with Iraq. The report was issued in May.

The more experts spoken to, the more skepticism leveled at Kuwait arises. In an article for The Baltimore Sun Scott Shane spoke to a former Army War College expert on the Middle East who said, "It's very possible that the Iraqis tried to get Bush. But it wouldn't be at all a surprise if evidence emerged one day that it was staged by the Kuwaitis to pump up the Iraqi threat and ingratiate themselves with the US." A former CIA officer who had spent years working in the Middle East was more succinct: "I tend to be extremely skeptical about this. The Kuwaitis would not be reliable sources."

Clinton
Clinton had reason to go ahead beside the ones stated (not to say that he may not have actually believed those reasons). Going in, he was viewed as weak on matters of foreign policy and was more concerned with domestic issues. Numerous leaks to newspapers (in particular Clinton critic William Safire) helped pressure the president toward action. As the time got closer to when the attack was finally decided and put into action, pressure from the media and other politicians for a finding and/or action on the matter increased. By June (despite the FBI report having not been released), papers such as the Washington Post and the NYT were printing articles stating that Washington had all the evidence needed to prove an Iraq link.

The day before the report was to be presented to the president, the Wall Street Journal bore the headline" FOR THE PRESIDENT, IT'S DECISION TIME ON ATTACKING IRAQ." Encouraging action, it noted that "There are few actions against Iraq that would arouse strong domestic opposition, and little reason to think Iraqi air defenses yet pose much of a deterrent." In the NYT, Thomas Friedman called these issues (also in reference to the first World Trade Center bombing) were "beginning to pose a serious foreign policy question for President Clinton: How long can his Administration get by with responding to these incidents by saying, 'We're looking into it.'"

While pressure of this nature was only indirectly responsible for his final decision to attack (more likely it shortened the timeline), it played a part and helped his foreign policy image. The man who assured the American people that "the Iraqi attack against President Bush was an attack against our country and against all Americans" (ignoring the fact that an "attack" had not taken place) was praised by the media and his approval rating rose eleven percentage points. Based on the information they had been given, about two-thirds of the American population approved of the bombing.

Torture
According to the FBI during its investigation, the men showed no signs of being beaten, coerced, or tortured into confessing. It may be true that agents saw no obvious physical signs, without a medical examination (and probably a psychological evaluation) it becomes a "trust me" issue again. The suspects told a different story at trial.

On the third day of the trial, one of the defendants (a 73 year old man) testified that he had been beaten after his arrest, that police "hit me in the head and on my side" that he was "bleeding over my eyes" and was "kicked in the side." The judge asked why he had not spoken of the treatment earlier and defendant replied that, he had wanted to but did not and that he confessed (to smuggling) because "since the police beat me, I told them to write anything and I would sign it." Another defendant, Wali al-Ghazali (who initially confessed to being part of the plot) appeared on the first day of trial with "a fresh scar on his forehead and a blackened nail on his thumb" (Hersh, quoting the only US reporter to regularly attend the trial) No one was allowed to speak to him. Ra'ad al-Assadi, the other who initially confessed, stated that he was beaten.

One of the attroneys for two of the men reiterated the claims of them being beaten, saying "definitely" and that "This is the way of the Kuwaiti police." He had not been allowed to privately speak with his clients until the opening of the trial.

One might argue that the claims might be merely attempts to avoid prosecution and taint the case (including, presumably, by self-inflicting wounds), but the charges against the Kuwaiti police are not frivolous. Both human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are on the record with reports of abuse by the Kuwaiti police, including torture and use of duress (nonphysical torture methods)—AI members had medically examined prisoners.

To counter the possible claim that the groups might be self-serving in support of that conclusion, consider what US officials have said. Hersh reported several diplomats and intelligence officers "expressed amusement and amazement" at the contention that torture had definitely not taken place. More strongly, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia James E. Atkins told him that "Either the investigators were idiots or they were lying. It boggles the imagination. There's no way the Kuwaitis would not have tortured them. That's the way the Kuwaitis are, as anybody who knows the Kuwaitis or the Middle East can tell you."

Perhaps that doesn't convince one of the very strong probability that the men were forced to confess regardless of alleged guilt. Perhaps a look at the State Department's "Country Report on Human Rights" for Kuwait. In the 1993 report (released in January 1994), it notes that their "security forces continued to commit human rights abuses, particularly in their treatment of those peoples whose leaders were associated with support for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait." Farther down it mentions continued (though it showed "some progress") "serious human rights problems," the relevant part in this case being "continuing reports of torture and of arbitrary arrest."

There were fewer instances than in the previous two years but "cases of serious abuse or torture continued to be reported" (noting that the Kuwaiti constitution forbids the practice of torture). There were "credible" reports relating to detention centers where charges of "blindfolding detainees, verbal abuse, and some physical abuse, particularly beating detainees on the soles of their feet and burning detainees with cigarettes," as well as them being "slapped, kicked, or shoved against walls." There was one documented case of electrical torture.

More "credible reports" concerning Iraqi infiltrators being abused and tortured (again relevant to this case), specifically mentioning "beating infiltrators and suspending them from the ceiling for extended periods of time." The report also goes on to discuss "mistreatment during interrogation," noting that confessions attained from torture are inadmissible, though admitting they had been used in the past anyway. It did mention that the judge in the relevant case, after examining the men ruled not to exclude their testimony.

That may suggest the FBI was telling the truth, but this is a country that the US government states "has not conducted an effective investigation into these reports" concerning the beating of infiltrators and while the government claims to have investigated other allegations of abuse and punished the offenders, it refuses to divulge any details concerning the types of abuse or the punishments given out.

Are these charges isolated or temporary? Apparently not. "Credible reports" about abuse of suspects or detainees appear in 1996, 1998, and 2002 reports (chosen as a sample), each year almost verbatim from the other reports. Each time pointing out non-Kuwaitis are more likely to be abused. Each time also noting that while defendants can present evidence of abuse at trial, "the courts frequently dismiss abuse complaints because defendants are often unable to substantiate their complaints with physical evidence." This would be particularly difficult in cases where the abuse was nonphysical or healed. The point of this addition is to show an established pattern of behavior by the Kuwaiti police.

While there is no full confirmation of the torture claims, there is much to suggest that in all likelihood, some form took place, making the confessions subject to questions of accuracy and possibly fabrication.

Continue to Part II

Note:
Primarily based on 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). Uncited quotes are from there (except the "incubator" one which needs to be found again). Full citations appear at the end of part II.