Could the United States have apprehended Osama bin Laden and thus prevented the September 11 terrorist attacks?
That was a distinct possibility, according to a former U.S. ambassador who claims Islamist Sudan was ready to give up the terrorist and other vital information but was rebuffed by the Clinton administration, which wanted nothing to do with Sudan. Clinton policy makers say this is a myth, and that nothing substantial was offered by the terrorist regime.
Once Islamic radicals seized control of Khartoum in 1989, they started hosting annual conferences of extremists, including Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization.
By 1995, they had second thoughts about these guests, who might indeed threaten their own regime. So among other things, they helped France capture the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal.
Then, according to former U.S. Ambassador Timothy Carney, they offered to cooperate with the United States. Perhaps no other government on earth had such voluminous files on terrorists. After all, so many had passed through Khartoum.
Writing in The Washington Post, Ambassador Carney said he tried to interest Washington, but to no avail. "On the one hand, there was great suspicion of the Sudanese government, and on the other hand, there were considerable secret, hidden private agendas on the part of mid-level people at the policy level," he said. "These turned out to be in synergy, and greatly undermined realizing the interests of the United States."
Ambassador Carney says he is still trying to understand these agendas. Both black American groups and Christian evangelicals opposed Khartoum because of its long brutal war with Christian rebels in the South, some of whom were enslaved.
Beyond that, Mr. Carney thinks the Clinton State Department had some idea of overthrowing the Khartoum regime. So why bother talking to it? On the basis of faulty intelligence, adds Mr. Carney, the American embassy was withdrawn from Khartoum, making contact between the two countries all that much harder.
Aiding the ambassador was Mansoor Ijaz, a Muslim-American financier with close ties to the Clinton White House. He is convinced cooperation with Sudanese intelligence could have prevented the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Afterwards, Mr. Ijaz says, the Sudanese intelligence chief informed the FBI and the CIA that two participants in the embassy attacks were under surveillance. Did the Americans want to pick them up? There was no reply. Mr. Ijaz says FBI agents told him their hands were tied by their superiors. "They had such blinders that they could not find even the remotest way to try and engage when that country was making unconditional offers of terrorism cooperation, which were verified by our own ambassador on the ground there and verified by a very close friend of the administration in the form of myself who had the ear of the president of the United States and his national security adviser," said Mr. Ijaz. "They just could not get the blinders off."
Susan Rice, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, says these accusations are untrue. There was no chance of capturing bin Laden while he was in Sudan. Other kinds of intelligence remained elusive in a regime that hardly inspired trust. "In fact, senior U.S. government officials from the State Department, from the CIA, from the FBI and various other parts of the U.S. government met repeatedly with Sudanese officials between 1994 and 2001 on terrorism issues in Khartoum itself, in Washington, in Virginia, in Addis Ababa," she said. "In none of those instances did the Sudanese hand over or offer to hand over critical intelligence documents as alleged by those two gentlemen."
Susan Rice says Mr. Ijaz served as a self-appointed mediator who had contributed to the Democratic Party and thus had some access to the White House. Both he and Ambassador Carney opposed the Clinton policy of severing relations with Sudan. Their frustration, she believes, led them to exaggerate the possibilities of cooperation.
Ted Dagne, an African specialist at the Congressional Research Service, agrees Sudan provided little in the way of useful intelligence. "There were a number of venues where they could have made this offer, including their embassy here in Washington," he said. "But to my knowledge, this offer was never made. And if one is serious about getting out of this [terrorist] business, why remain in that business after you have made the offer? Even if we take what Mr. Ijaz is telling us at face value, I do not consider that to be an offer. This is typical of the government of Sudan, saying one thing and doing something else."
Each side of this debate has its partisans. A former member of the Clinton National Security Council says Susan Rice has her facts right. A veteran CIA analyst with long experience in the region backs Ambassador Carney's version of events.
An issue of critical importance in the war on terrorism remains unresolved: can bad guys furnish good intelligence?