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Missed Opportunity in Sudan to Fight Terrorism?

Newspapers in the United States and Britain have been reporting that Sudan tried to give information about alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden and his operatives to the United States over the past few years, but was rebuffed because Sudan was still labeled a terrorist state and remained at war with southern rebels. There are further reports that Sudan was also ready to hand over Osama bin Laden, but this, too, was largely ignored. Some U.S. intelligence officials say the opportunity was missed to apprehend a major terrorist and perhaps prevent the recent attacks on the United States.

This is a textbook case of special interests overriding the national interest, says Graham Fuller, former vice chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council. He says that for years, the Sudanese government had been trying to talk to the United States, but was turned down largely because of the opposition by a wide range of human rights and religious groups.

They are well meaning, says Mr. Fuller, but they should not determine U.S. policy, considering that Sudan had vital information about Osama bin Laden it was trying to give the United States. Indeed it was trying to hand over the terrorist himself.

Yet almost up to the day of the terrorist attacks in the United States, the anti-Sudan coalition and members of the U.S. Congress were pushing legislation that would extend U.S. economic sanctions on Sudan because of its human rights violations and a long war that pits the Islamic north against the partially Christian south.

Mr. Fuller insists he is not defending the Sudan government, only its usefulness in the matter of terrorism. "Sudan is not a good regime, but it has been vilified incredibly by a cabal of all kinds of strange opposition people," he says. "Sudan has been trying for years to communicate with Washington, saying, 'What's the problem? Talk to us. What do we need to do?' And this is the first time that we have responded."

The talk was well worth hearing, a senior CIA official told the British weekly, The Observer. "This represents the worst single intelligence failure in this whole terrible business. It is reasonable to say that had we had this data, we may have had a better chance of preventing the attacks."

He and others blame the Clinton administration for ignoring Sudan because of domestic pressures and indeed mistakenly bombing a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum. The Clinton administration, in turn, said the Sudanese offer of help was somewhat ambiguous and the White House was divided over engaging Sudan or isolating it.

Elfatih Erwa, Sudanese ambassador to the United States, told The Washington Post that the United States could never decide whether to help or hit Khartoum. "I think they wanted to do both."

In the event, Sudan expelled Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan in 1996. That pleased Washington, but Sudanese intelligence believes it was a mistake. In Sudan, we could watch him, they say. In Afghanistan, he was lost.

Jemera Rone, Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch, says Khartoum is more forthcoming on terrorism than on human rights. She says it continues to oppress its own people. Even so, she thinks Americans should be in Sudan. "What I understand from some people in the intelligence community is that their ability to really know what is going on in the north of Sudan, in the extremist political circles in Sudan, has been greatly hampered by the absence of an embassy, fully staffed, in Khartoum," she says.

Jemera Rone adds that restoring a U.S. embassy is opposed by some members of Congress who want to continue to show their disapproval of Sudan. She thinks the revelations involving Osama bin Laden may change their minds.

But opposition to Sudan remains strong. Eric Reeves is an English professor at Smith College and a frequent writer on Sudan. He says Khartoum remains in the terrorist business and is as ruthless as ever, including enslaving southern prisoners. "Surely, in the campaign against world terrorism, we are going to have to make some ugly deals," he says. "But at a certain point, if we are too expedient, if we lose all principle in what we stand for and how we will conduct ourselves in the world, then we will bring ourselves down to the level of the terrorists."

The U.S. State Department says Sudan has cooperated in eliminating terrorist groups and rounding up extremists, although more must be done before U.S. sanctions can be lifted.