Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials
The Briefing Room
8:33 P.M. EDT
MS. MYERS: This is a BACKGROUND BRIEFING. Your briefers will be [names deleted].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, Dee Dee. Let me begin with a chronology of the information and events that led to the President's decision to take action against Iraq this evening. Immediately after the Kuwaitis reported to us in April about the suspected assassination plot they had uncovered, the President ordered that a thorough investigation be conducted. During the course of that investigation, he received continuing reports about its progress from the CIA and the Justice Department in their respective capacities.
The President received a briefing on the final reports on Wednesday of this week and copies of the final reports on Thursday. Wednesday evening and Thursday evening he met with his senior advisers to consider the reports and the options for an American response.
Following those discussions, the President decided it was necessary to respond quickly and firmly. He concluded that there was a real and present danger; that if we failed to act and to act now, the Iraqis might continue attempting such acts of statesponsored terrorism. He believed quick and firm action not only would help deter future acts of terrorism by the Iraqi regime that would imperil Americans in Iraq or elsewhere, but also would have the effect of discouraging state-sponsored terrorism by others.
Therefore, the President ordered a response that would target an Iraqi facility for carrying out terrorism while minimizing loss of innocent life. The President ordered that we should act as directly and as immediately as possible, consistent with thorough and careful preparation. All of his national security advisers supported this decision.
This American action was taken based on the self-defense provisions of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which states that nations have the right to respond in self-defense to armed attacks. Our response was proportionate, intended to disrupt Iraq's terrorist capabilities, and to deter future attacks.
The President ordered this action without intending to pass individual judgment on the subjects arrested in Kuwait. This about the guilt of a government, not the guilt or innocence of 16 individuals.
Finally, I should inform you that the President today spoke with President Bush, a number of world leaders, and the bipartisan leadership of Congress about this action. Secretary Christopher has flown to Maine to present to the former President the evidence of the plot and to discuss our response.
Let me now ask my colleague to discuss with you the information and evidence that led to our conclusion and this response.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, and good evening. On 14 April 1993, while former President George Bush was beginning a three-day visit to Kuwait City, Kuwaiti authorities thwarted a terrorist plot, seizing a powerful car bomb and other explosives and arresting 16 suspects, led by two Iraqi nationals.
In the succeeding two months, U.S. investigative teams from the FBI and the intelligence community have conducted a thorough investigation of this operation. Based on that review, the Justice Department and the Central Intelligence Agency have concluded that Iraq planned, equipped and ran the terrorist operation that threatened the life of President Bush in Kuwait City in April.
Further, it is the firm judgment of our intelligence community from all sources of evidence available to it that this assassination plot was directed and pursued by the Iraqi Intelligence Service, or IIS.
Let me now talk about the evidence that forms the basis for these conclusions. First, the forensics. A car bomb hidden in a Toyota Land Cruiser was smuggled across the Iraq-Kuwaiti border by the suspects during the night of 12 April 1993. This bomb and the other explosives that were seized have been directly examined by FBI forensic experts. In the judgment of these experts, key components, including the remote control firing device, the plastic explosives, the blasting cap, the integrated circuitry and the wiring were built or modified by the same person or persons who built bombs previously recovered from the Iraqis. Certain aspects of these devices have been found only in devices linked to Iraq and not in devices used by any other terrorist group. According to the forensic experts, other explosives seized in this plot, including cube bombs, contain components built by the same person or persons who built similar devices recovered in the past from the Iraqis.
The car bomb itself possessed devastating power. It was a sophisticated device involving a complicated manufacturing process and was well hidden in the vehicle. It contained approximately 80 kilograms of explosives. It was constructed to allow detonation by manual remote control or by timer. The forensic experts have concluded that this bomb had the power to kill people within a radius of 400 yards.
Now, to the suspects. The FBI conducted extensive interviews of the 16 suspects now on trial in Kuwait. The two main suspects, Ra'ad al-Asadi and Wali al-Ghazali, are Iraqi nationals. They told the FBI that they had been recruited and received orders in Basra, Iraq, from individuals they believed to be associated with the Iraqi Intelligence Service.
These suspects told the FBI that their Iraqi recruiters provided them with the car bomb and other explosives in Basra on 12 April 1993. One of the suspects, al-Ghazali, told the FBI that the he was recruited for the specific purpose of assassinating President Bush in Kuwait City. The other main suspect, al-Asadi, told the FBI that his task was to guide al-Ghazali and the car bomb to Kuwait University, where President Bush and the Amir of Kuwait were scheduled to appear and to plant smaller explosives elsewhere in Kuwait.
Now, let me conclude by providing the overall intelligence assessment. During and immediately after the Persian Gulf war, Saddam, through his controlled media, indicated that President Bush would be held personally responsible for the war and would be hunted down and punished even after he left office. Various classified intelligence sources support the conclusion that the Iraqi government ordered this attack against President Bush.
From all the evidence available to it, the CIA is highly confident that the Iraq government at the highest levels directed its intelligence service to assassinate former President Bush during his visit to Kuwait on 14-16 April 1993.
And now I'd like to turn the podium back to my colleague, who will lead the question and answer period.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Stick around.
Q: [name deleted], these photographs that you have over here. Can we use those on camera? Is this part of the --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, and we have photographs that we will, I believe, be handing out that you could use also.
Q: Could I ask you, the conclusions of the FBI and the CIA were made apparently about a month ago, and when we've been talking with White House officials before on this, they said that they were waiting for the trial to end before any decision would be made on any type of retaliation. What has hurried up the decision now? Why are you making it at this time? What has changed over the last couple weeks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No official who was a part of the decision-making process specifically in this case could make an informed statement that we were waiting for the end of the trial. That was not our intent. It was always the President's intent to insist that there be a thorough and comprehensive investigation; and that when that investigation was completed, then he would decide when and how to act. There was never a judgment throughout this process to wait to the end of the trial.
There have been various stages of the investigation. And perhaps I should ask my colleague to comment on this. But there have been a number of trips back and forth between Kuwait and the United States by FBI agents who were carrying out this investigation. They would go out; they would carry out their questioning; and then they would come back; we would review where we were; and then they would continue the investigation.
The facts are that the investigation was concluded and the reports delivered to the President on -- the final reports delivered on Thursday. As I said, the President had met Wednesday night after being briefed on those reports for a few hours with his advisers here at the Residence; and then met again with his advisers Thursday evening for a few hours; and after some very exhaustive, and I might add exhausting, meetings, he reached his conclusions and issued the order Friday.
Q: Has the President spoken with President Bush since this attack was initiated? And can you give us a little bit more in way of details on his communications with Bush during the deliberations on this -- who your liaison was and how all that worked?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: During the course of the investigation, I met twice with -- I spoke once on the telephone, and then [name deleted] and I met with General Scowcroft to keep him informed of the course of the investigation so that he could keep President Bush informed. And then this afternoon around 4:00 p.m. -- 5:00 p.m. -- between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. -- 4:37 p.m. -- (laughter) -- anyway, yes, let's stipulate 4:37 p.m. -- just one more bit of misinformation from this podium. (Laughter.) No, no, no -- (laughter) -- anyway, sorry, I've been wanting to say that -- no. (Laughter.) No, between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. today the President called President Bush and they had a good conversation. The President described the both -- or reviewed, anyway, the information that we had and the decision that he had made. And President Bush supported, my understanding is, that decision. And then as I said, Secretary Christopher did fly up to Maine to go through this with him.
Q: Brent Scowcroft is in Maine this weekend. Was his trip connected with this operation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q: What makes you think that this action would be sufficient to deter Saddam to resort to similar action in the future? I mean -- hasn't really received this kind of message. What makes you think this action would be sufficient?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we have no way, of course, of guaranteeing that this message will be sufficient. But we believe that this is a very strong message. It is directed at the heart of his capabilities for carrying out terrorist actions abroad. To try to figure out what Saddam -- what is in Saddam Hussein's mind is the path to madness. But nonetheless, what we can do is to try to do everything we can to deter future terrorist actions by Saddam Hussein.
I might add, if I may, that we are, as I said, doing this under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which says that nations have a right to self-defense. And we are acting unilaterally. We are not acting pursuant to the U.N. resolutions. Nonetheless, we hope that there will be a kind of a spinoff effect here in which this action will demonstrate how very serious we are in our determination that Saddam Hussein abide by all relevant U.N. resolutions.
Q: What leaders did he speak with? Did he speak, for instance, with the Saudis or any of the other leaders in the region?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think I'd rather not run through the complete list. Let me say that he did --
Q: Can you characterize the kind of --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. That he called our major allies and he called our friends in the region, probably -- he either called or sent messages to. And I would guess there were probably about a dozen of them over the course of the day. And a number of them he spoke -- yes, during the course --
Q: It as all done today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A couple yesterday and the rest today.
Q: And can you say what kind of reaction he had during this conversations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Generally, very supportive.
Q: Has this section of the U.N. Charter ever been invoked before by the U.S.? And if it's not is this a signal as well to Muammar Qadhafi?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, in fact, President Reagan invoked Article 51 in his response to Libyan terrorism in 1986. And I'm sure it's been invoked other times as well.
Let me add one point about Article 51, which is that the purpose of the authority given to nations to act in self-defense is to deter further aggression. And that is why we are emphasizing here the importance of the message we are trying to send to Saddam Hussein that we will not tolerate state-sponsored terrorism by him. And again we hope that that message will also go to others in the world who would contemplate state-sponsored terrorism.
Q: If I could ask two things. One, you mentioned that the action was designed to avoid loss of innocent life. But it would also seem that since it was done on a Saturday in the evening, it was designed to avoid the loss of potentially guilty life as well -- that you were trying very hard to avoid killing people by doing it. What was the thinking that went into the decision to do it at a time when the building would be largely -- presumably largely empty?
And the second question, perhaps if your colleague could run through for us when the FBI agents went and how the -- what the stages of the investigation were that led up to the conclusion?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President's order yesterday afternoon was that we send a powerful message. Those were not exactly the same words. And we believe that this attack on the IIS does that; but because we are interested in a proportionate response that we seek to avoid the taking of life.
I might add one point on the timing and why it was on a Saturday night. It might have been possible to carry out the attack last night, but Friday is the Muslim Sabbath and we preferred not to take action last night out of respect for that fact.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I may ask my colleague to correct me freely if I get it wrong. The FBI moved in immediately, as it has in the past when there's been a terrorist attack on Americans under the Extraterritorial Statute forbidding -- making it a crime to commit terrorist attacks on Americans, passed in 1986.
Then the FBI went over and interviewed the 13 to 16 people who had been arrested. They had already been interviewed by the Kuwaitis. We separately interviewed them. Then there was a stage in which the FBI did extensive forensic work -- very, very extensive and detailed forensic work. And then finally, there was a stage in which we returned to Kuwait, the FBI did, in order to check on some remaining problems that we were worried about, that we wanted to know what the answers were to -- check on things that seemed confusing and that we were able to straighten out.
Q: Can you give us any sense of what types of things you're talking about that were confusing? Was is forensic questions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There were forensic questions; there were interview questions; a variety of things. We just wanted to make sure that every i was dotted and every t crossed.
Q: There have been reports that the prisoners in the hands of the Kuwaitis were tortured in the process of getting confessions from them. Is the FBI satisfied that it has them speaking freely?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The FBI made efforts to make sure that the people they talking to were not tortured. They, of course, can't tell for sure, but the FBI interviewers were satisfied that they were not tortured. You have to worry about that so we put very great emphasis on forensics. You have to worry in general about whether people who confess anywhere and are reliable in their confessions. So we put very great emphasis on the forensics as well.
Q: If I could just ask one other question. Is there any reason to thing there might be some connection between the terrorist activity that was uncovered in New York this past week and the Iraqi conduct?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don't think there's any basis for saying there's a connection at this time.
Q: Any question about the actual -- deciding that Bush was the target? It's been fairly clear throughout this whole thing that obviously there's a lot of evidence linking the bomb to Baghdad than ascertaining, as we understood it in the final days, that Bush was the target was trickier. The document and your colleague's comment is that you had one source and then some intelligence sources which led you to believe that you were -- quote -- "highly confident." Does that mean certain?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think as far as we're concerned from an assessment point of view, we're certain. The facts bearing on the matter are that, again, the suspect, al-Ghazali, who we generally refer to as the bomber or the shooter, was tasked specifically to kill President Bush. He was to be guided across the Iraqi border into Kuwait by another suspect, al-Asadi. The other suspect also was to guide the -- al-Ghazali to the environs of Kuwait University. And, clearly, Kuwait University was a place where President Bush was to appear.
Now as we go on, there are actually some additional details. The bomb was to be placed essentially in the environs where -- yes, we also have some intelligence sources clearly that indicate this on a classified basis. The bomb was placed in an area -- or the bomb was to be placed in an area where it could be detonated as President Bush's motorcade was to go by. The bomb has, as you know, a fairly large lethal radius. al-Ghazali was to essentially move to a distance of between 300 and 500 meters away and to detonate the bomb manually using this radio control device.
The bomb had a secondary mode, which was essentially a timer in it. And the backup plan was, failing the ability of alGhazali to essentially detonate the bomb in the environs of Kuwait University where President Bush was, he was to move the bomb -- the car bomb to Bush Street in Kuwait City and to activate the manual timer which, when activated, then had a four and a half hour delay on it.
One of the things not mentioned in the statement also was that al-Ghazali was issued a bomb belt -- a belt -- an explosive belt; and he was instructed by his -- what we believe to be now his Iraqi Intelligence Service handler that if he was unable to get the car bomb into the vicinity of the target, he was to essentially put himself in close proximity to President Bush and to detonate this bomb belt. We have not -- as far as we know, the bomb belt has not been recovered.
Q: Knowing the threats against him before he went, was Bush warned not to go? And are there threats against U.S. officials all over the world? Are we going to bomb them?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I can't speak to what the specific Secret Service posture was with regard to protecting Bush -- and Bush was under Secret Service protection. But we clearly would -- the intelligence community, and I think the law enforcement community, would have thought that President Bush would have been under some kind of risk if he had gotten in that close proximity to Iraq.
MS. MYERS: This will be the last question.
Q: But did you tell him so?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have no information that he was told -- and I don't have any information that he was not.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We had no advance warning of the --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the answer to your question is that we did not have advance warning of this plot.
Q: But you knew that his life was threatened from time to time.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He was aware of that also.
Q: You spoke to a message sent to Saddam Hussein, but what kind of a message do you think you are sending to the Muslim world in general? I mean, this is an administration which has refused to use force in Bosnia where Muslims have been killed, and you have just used force against Saddam. So how do you think the Muslim world in general is going to interpret your action tonight?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The fact is that if this plot had succeeded in the way it was apparently intended, hundreds of Kuwaitis would have died. Those Kuwaitis were Muslims. Muslims are the victims of terrorism in the Middle East. And I believe that most of them will welcome any effort that tries to deter future terrorism in that area.
This is an action, I hope, that will potentially save many Muslim as well as non-Muslim lives, both in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Q: Could you just put it into political perspective -- the charm offensive. Why do you think Saddam Hussein ordered this operation in Basra when he did? Is it part of a continuing Iraqi test of President Clinton? And, as you know, there are continuing -- there is a continuing standoff in Baghdad right now with U.N. weapons inspectors. What's going on, in your assessment?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, I do not believe that this plot was part of an effort to test President Clinton. As my colleague -- excuse me, a senior intelligence official said, it was a long time ago that Saddam Hussein said that he wanted revenge for this. And it happened to be at that time that President Bush was going to Kuwait. So I don't think this was part of a charm campaign or not part of a charm campaign. I think it was specific to that event.
What is going on now -- again, let me emphasize that we are not taking this action under U.N. Security Council resolution authorities. This was an attack on an American President and on America, and America alone is responding. At the same time, as I said, I hope -- the President hopes -- that the -- one consequence of this action is that it will convince Saddam Hussein all the more of our seriousness in insisting, as we have been insisting for many months now, that he abide by the relevant U.N. resolutions.
Could I just add one other point before we go, which is that George informs me -- perhaps out of residual loyalty to the accuracy of this podium -- (laughter) -- that in fact -- that the President did call President Bush at 4:40 p.m. this afternoon, which is very close to 4:37 p.m., or at least good enough for government work.
END9:00 P.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/272277