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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Releas August 20, 1998
                            PRESS BRIEFING BY 

The Briefing Room

5:55 P.M. EDT

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We're delighted to have the Secretary of State and the President's National Security here. Secretary Albright will begin with a short statement; then Mr. Berger; then they'll take your questions.

Madam Secretary.


You've heard the President's announcement and other remarks, and I want to speak briefly about the human and foreign policy aspects of today's events and what led to them.

For the past two weeks we have been living with the results of horrendous bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam: 12 Americans dead, hundreds of Kenyans and Tanzanians dead, and thousands injured. I've just returned from both sites, and they are chilling -- the tragic human face of indiscriminate terrorist murder. We cannot allow such cowardly and destructive acts to go unpunished.

Thanks to some excellent intelligence work, we were able quickly to determine the identity of those responsible for these latest attacks. We have also received solid information of new threats against U.S. citizens and embassies and installations. Yesterday, in a brazen public statement, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network informed the world that more Americans would be targeted for murder.

At the time of the latest tragedies, we said that our memory is long and our reach is far. Today, we reached into two locations on the far side of the world; today we acted to preempt future terrorist acts and disrupt the activities of those planning for them. While our actions are not perfect insurance, inaction would be an invitation to further horror. While we did not seek this confrontation, we must meet our responsibilities. Bin Laden and his network were repeatedly warned to cease their terrorist activities. In response, they declared war on the United States and struck first, and we have suffered deeply. But we will not be intimidated. We will work hard to identify future threats and thwart them. As today's strikes illustrate, there will be no sanctuary or safe haven for terrorists.

Today, the United States is asking every nation to stand publicly against those who perpetrate, finance or otherwise support terrorism. We're asking governments to join us in taking the actions necessary to deter and defeat terrorist acts. And we recognize that this is a long-term struggle, as the President said, but we recognize as well that it is a struggle we must win.

Together, decent people everywhere must send the message to terrorists everywhere that they can hide, but they cannot escape the long arm of justice. We owe this to ourselves and to our own future security and safety. And we owe it to the memory of the innocent victims of terror from our own country and from countries around the world.

MR. BERGER: Let me take a few minutes to open my notebook, and then a few more minutes to describe to you the chronology of events that have taken place over the past few years and more particularly, over the past few weeks.

We have been concerned about the threat that Osama bin Laden and his network posed to U.S. interests for quite some time. In 1996, we pressured the Sudanese government to disassociate themselves from bin Laden, and for some time we have sought to have him expelled from Afghanistan. Ambassador Richardson's mission to Afghanistan, in part, was directed to that purpose. These efforts were unsuccessful.

In May, as you know, the bin Laden group issued a so-called fatwah against the United States, indicating that they had targeted the United States for a systematic campaign of terror. That obviously increased or sense of attention and focus on this group.

On August 7, as you know, two massive bombs detonated at our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing 12 Americans and hundreds of Kenyans and Tanzanians. The President's foreign policy team met on the 7th and began to direct a multipronged operation to respond to the devastation, both in terms of humanitarian assistance, in terms of relief, in terms of what needed to do to get medical supplies there, and also in terms of the investigation itself and potential actions that we might take. Over the course of that weekend, I spoke to the President quite a number of times, updating him on the progress of these efforts.

From quite early on in the investigation, the intelligence community began to receive substantial amounts of credible information from many sources and many methods indicating that the Osama bin Laden group of terrorist organizations was responsible for the bombing. And that information culminated in the last few days in the conclusion reached by the intelligence community that we have high confidence that these bombings were planned, financed and carried out by the organization bin Laden leads. We have not ruled out that others share responsibility, however, and we are looking into every possibility.

Soon, as this information began to gather, with consultation with the Secretary of State, I asked the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director of Central Intelligence to form a small group to begin planning the various options that might exist in terms of dealing with the bin Laden network, which planning began soon after the incident on the 7th.

As these preparations began, further intelligence strengthened the case that bin Laden's network was responsible and, in addition, we began to receive quite a substantial volume of credible and reliable information that there were other attacks planned against U.S. targets around the world. We also had received at that point some information indicating that there may be a gathering of bin Laden's terrorists network at the Khost camp today on August 20th. That became a date that influenced our planning.

When the President returned from a trip to, I believe, the West Coast, he met with his foreign policy team in the Situation Room. And then later that day we had a small meeting in his office, at which the plans for this operation were laid out to the President by both the intelligence community and by Chairman Shelton and by the Secretary of Defense. This was, I believe, Wednesday.

Last Friday, exactly a week after the bombings, Director Tenet, I think, had reached a judgment about responsibility, as I read, and we met again with the President. The President -- at that point, Chairman Shelton and Secretary Cohen had a military plan to present in more detail. The President approved it in principle, essentially; told the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman to go ahead with the operational steps. This was last Friday. And this was subject to -- there has been a little confusion about this -- this was subject to the President's ability essentially to turn the switch off as late as 6:00 a.m. this morning.

During the week these plans have proceeded. Over the course of the last day the Secretary and I and the President, the Vice President have had a number of conversations, and early this morning the President essentially said that we should proceed with the mission, which was launched at about 11:00 a.m., and which culminated in the strikes at about 1:30 p.m.

We'll, obviously, take your questions.

Q Is it confirmed that the mission was exclusively a cruise missile strike or aircraft --

MR. BERGER: Oh, I don't think either the Secretary or I want to go beyond the statements on operational aspects of this that were made by the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman. I would direct those questions to the Pentagon.

Q Sandy, what was the imminent threat? What imminent threat did the President and, Madam Secretary, you described a moment ago -- imminent threat to Americans?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, as we have both said and President Clinton said, there were additional evidence that there was going to be embassy bombings or targeting of Americans. We have been very concerned about that. The statements made by the Osama bin Laden organization has basically declared war on Americans and has made very clear that these are all Americans, anywhere. And we decided that it was very important to try to do everything we could to forestall any further threat.

MR. BERGER: Let me add one thing. We had very specific information about very specific threats with respect to very specific targets. You will note that over the past week that we have closed certain embassies, we have drawn other embassies down, we have taken other measures to protect American citizens abroad, so that, in addition to the general expressed intention of this organization to perpetrate terrorist incidents against the United States, there was very specific information and very reliable information.

Q What do you mean by "imminent," Sandy? What do you mean by "imminent"? Were we days away from a terrorist strike on American interests?

MR. BERGER: I think that it was certainly prudent for us to make that judgment.

Q What were the casualties?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Today? We don't yet have all the results. I think that the issue here is a very simple one. We targeted these camps, which is part of Osama bin Laden's infrastructure and the way that their terrorist organization trains; and in Sudan, a pharmaceutical company that produces precursors for chemical -- the possibilities of chemical weapons.

And given the very specific threats that were addressed at us and the fact that there had been two bombings that were so deadly and devastating, we believed that the best course of action here was to take this opportunity when we heard about the gathering at this place, to take this action at this time.

Q When do you think you'll know how many casualties it caused, and what was the --

MR. BERGER: Well, let me say two things. First of all, with respect to the so-called pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, which we know with great certainty produces essentially the penultimate chemical to manufacture VX nerve gas -- you may have seen already on television photographs which indicate that that plant has been severely damaged. We will not know, obviously, with respect to the terrorist training camps in Khost for some time.

But this is an extensive network of training camps. This is perhaps the largest terrorist training camp in the world. And the extent to which we can disrupt it, destroy it and send a very important message at the same time, obviously we think that's advantageous.

Q Sandy, is bin Laden dead, do you know?

MR. BERGER: We have no idea where -- of bin Laden's whereabouts or whether he was in a camp at this time. Our intent was to target an infrastructure related to bin Laden and his groups, an infrastructure of equipment, of people, of munitions, of training facilities. And we believe -- and that was our target and we will know after some period of time.

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I also think it is very important to repeat a point that the President made -- is that this is a long-term battle, that we are engaged with -- fighting against a group of people who are determined to disrupt the way of life that our society and others want to follow, and that we believe that this has been a very successful operation, but it is a part of a long-term battle against terrorism -- the terrorists who have, in fact, declared war on us.

Q Did you do any warning on these governments?

MR. BERGER: Can I go back to one part of your last question, which is casualties. With respect to the targets in Sudan -- which was a factory, an industrial area -- the President was very insistent upon trying to do that in a way that minimized the chance of innocent civilian casualties. We have some reason to believe that that is not a plant that is in production in the evening hours, and as I say, it is an industrial area. One can never know for sure in a situation like this, but we took every precaution that we could.

The other target I think we considered -- a military target -- that is the terrorist training facility in Khost. We don't know how many people were there. We have some prior reason to believe that there may have been a gathering there today of some of bin Laden's organizations, but we can't determine for sure what that is.

Q Madam Secretary, in Afghanistan, -- has said that we will not hand over bin Laden to the United States because it is against Islamic rule and against the Talaban's own party.

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I believe that it is international policy, and should be, that no country should harbor terrorists. Those are the international rules. And any country of whatever religion that harbors terrorists opens itself up to the problems that have now been faced by Afghanistan and Sudan.

And I think that it is essential that it is understood that this is a worldwide effort. I have been on the telephone a great part of afternoon talking to other world leaders about what we have done. They are very supportive of our efforts; they have also made quite clear that they generally are supportive of a worldwide effort against terrorism and making it clear that countries, whatever religion they are -- this is not a religious issue; this is not some form of political expression; this is harboring terrorists who have killed and maimed thousands of people at this point.

Q If you are also going against nations who are harboring terrorism, also giving haven to the terrorists, and once they give haven to the terrorists and also if they try to cut a deal with the U.S. --

MR. BERGER: Well, I would say that no country should consider itself a safe haven for terrorists.

Q Sandy, you said that the President could turn the key off, essentially, on the military strike up until 6:00 a.m. this morning.

MR. BERGER: That's correct.

Q Can you describe what -- did you have a conversation with him, or did the Pentagon?

MR. BERGER: There were conversations through the night on a number of pieces of this. I know the President talked to the Vice President last night. And I think there was never a question after the initial approval a week ago of -- not never a question, but I think the President was convinced this was the right thing to do.

Obviously, intelligence kept coming in day by day, and were we to receive something that would have suggested an adjustment we were in a position to do that.

Q -- you were just waiting for today, laying in wait because you knew that this meeting was going to happen at the camp?

MR. BERGER: Well, I think the fact that this meeting was taking place today was a factor.

Q A very quick one. Why did the President feel it was important to come back to Washington? He's obviously got the command facilities up there to deal with it if you had to.

MR. BERGER: One of the things that was indispensable to this operation was secrecy. And I have to say I have some degree of collective pride on the part of my colleagues that we actually were able to, once, do that. (Laughter.)

Q What does that have to do with him coming back?

MR. BERGER: Well, because it would be a little difficult -- if General Shelton had showed up at Martha's Vineyard this morning, I suspect some of you might have been wondering what he was doing there -- or Secretary Albright, or myself. So the way -- we felt, on the other hand, that the President had to say something before he left, make a brief statement to explain why he was coming back. He wanted to come back, talk to -- he spent about an hour talking to his advisors. He wanted to speak to the American people in a slightly more formal setting than the school in Edgartown, or wherever you were this morning. And so, the primary motivator here has been maintaining operational secrecy, and I must say this is the first operation that not only held until the fact, but actually it held 20 minutes after the fact.

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Can I just make one more point on that. I do believe that you all need to go back and look very carefully at what the President said and the seriousness of his speech, which is why it was very appropriate that it be done here in Washington in the Oval Office. Because I think that we are embarked on a venture in which we have to deal over the long run with what is the very serious threat to our way of life at the end of this century and the next one. And by taking -- we are not going to take just an ad hoc approach to this; this is a very serious battle. And we are taking it in that regard.

And what I think is very important for the American people to understand is that there may, in fact, be retaliatory actions. We are very concerned about that; we have issued high-threat warnings at our embassies. We are very concerned about what is going on internationally, which is why we are gathering international support and why the President believed the seriousness of the moment was one that required him to come back to Washington.

Q Can I ask you a question? Why is it that two years after the -- more than two years after the Khobar bombing the issue is still not resolved? What's different this time, where in the matter of a week you had the intelligence -- definitive intelligence -- and able to move ahead? Does this say something about our ally, Saudi Arabia, for example? What's the difference between the resolution of this and the resolution --

MR. BERGER: Without getting into too much detail, I think in the case of -- as I think various law enforcement and intelligence officials have said, in the case of Khobar, the trail goes down more than one path -- I think that probably is an oxymoron -- but, in any case, we have a number of different theories and a number of -- information that leads in a number of different directions. And neither the intelligence community, nor the law enforcement community has drawn a conclusion.

In this case, I think most of the intelligence people I have talked to in the last week have indicated that they have never seen anything quite like this, in the sense of the amount of information that mutually corroborated itself and pointed in this direction.

Q Can you go into a little more detail on exactly what the convincing evidence or intelligence was here that pointed to Osama bin Laden, beyond the statements he's made against the U.S.?

MR. BERGER: No. Let me rely upon -- if I can find it -- the statement that the agency has essentially pronounced. We have convincing information from a variety of reliable intelligence sources and methods that Osama bin Laden, with the help of his terrorist allies, is responsible for the devastating bombings on August 7 of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Rarely do numerous sources converge so uniformly and persuasively as they did in the course of our investigation into the responsibility for these terrorist acts. Based on this information, we have high confidence that these bombings were planned, financed and carried out by the organization bin Laden leads. We have not ruled out that others share responsibility, however, and we are looking into every possibility.

Now, in view of that conclusion and the evidence of potential perspective threats on the United States, I think it was incumbent upon the President to act.

Q If I can follow up, is most of the evidence here then based on what the CIA has collected, versus what the FBI has collected on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania?

MR. BERGER: Again, I'm not going to get too deeply into this. Obviously, the construction of a law enforcement case has different requirements than the constructions of an intelligence picture. But I think that the evidence here that was presented to the President was convincing that they are responsible. The President relies on these judgments, upon his intelligence community and others, and this is the judgment that they made.

Q Secretary Albright, the comment you made about possible retaliation -- obviously, you're doing things to protect government installations here and abroad. But what about possible civilian targets? Is anything being done to protect things like, say, the New York City subway system or other places that might also be obvious?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, I am not going to go into details of this, but I can assure you that we are all very much aware of various dangers involved. And I think that there are lot of agencies working together on this. But I think that the point here is that the American people have seen the devastation of Kenya and Tanzania on television. I can tell you, from having seen it in person, it is a lot worse. It is like being in a war zone. And we are concerned about making sure that we interrupt the possibilities of these kinds of things happening further.

Q Can you say whether there are any steps being taken to protect civilian targets, as well as government installations?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: There are, yes. I'm not going to go into the details of it. But, obviously, we are doing everything we can to protect Americans everywhere.

Q When were our allies told of the bombing, before or after it took place?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: They were told after. Let me make very clear here -- this was a threat to U.S. national interests. The United States will act unilaterally when we are doing something in the defense of our national interests. And this was done in self-defense.

MR. BERGER: Let me clarify -- let me add one thing, though. There was prior consultation with the four congressional leaders.

Q Could you explain a little more fully the connection between that chemical plant and the bin Laden network? Were they already supplying them with chemical agents or was it just a preemptory --

MR. BERGER: The so-called pharmaceutical plant is part of something in Sudan called the Military Industrial Complex -- Dwight Eisenhower must be rolling in his grave. That is not a generic term, it is an enterprise. We know that bin Laden has been a substantial contributor to that enterprise. We know that bin Laden and his people have sought to obtain chemical weapons. We know that he has had a particularly close relationship with the government of Sudan. And, therefore, when you put those things together, there clearly is a source that we were aware of, no question about what was -- they had been making other things, but no question that it was making this chemical that has a name too long for me to pronounce.

Q Did he finance, in other words, the construction of it?

MR. BERGER: He was a financial -- early financial contributor to the Sudanese overall military enterprise, of which this is a part.

Q When he talked about a change in tactics, and then you also talked about the fact that the terrorist meeting, this leadership meeting was a target, does this represent a change in policy, in U.S. policy, in targeting terrorist leaders? Would you actually go out in terms of assassination? Is that a possibility in the future?

MR. BERGER: Well, I think that term doesn't pertain in this case. I think this was a military target. And I think -- in that situation I think it is appropriate, under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, for protecting the self-defense of the United States, under a 1996 statute in Congress, for us to try to disrupt and destroy those kinds of military terrorist targets.

Q Was there any discussion in your deliberations on that point, on whether it was appropriate to fix this specifically for a day when there would be a large number of personnel there? And was the date fixed in that meeting you described on Friday a week ago?

MR. BERGER: We had had information which suggested that this might be the case. And that was a factor in our judgment about timing.

Q A number of Republicans have spoken out in support of the President, but I heard two question motive. Is the President aware of this and what is his reaction?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think the President made very clear that the reason for taking this action was in our national interest, and we have explained at great length here why the action was taken at a particular time. The time was determined by what was going on on the ground in Afghanistan and by what had happened 10 days previously in Kenya and Tanzania. And I think that that is the -- it is a very clear reason why we took this action.

MR. BERGER: May I add one piece of information to this. The FBI has issued an alert to all local law enforcement officials about the heightened degree of concern that they ought to manifest in their work.

Q Is there any indication that this organization has some sort of network or whatever you want to call it set up within this country which could carry out retaliatory acts against the United States and against American citizens?

MR. BERGER: We will take every measure that we can to prevent that from taking place. I'm not going to discuss the nature of what we know about this operation because, as the Secretary has indicated, this is a long-term enterprise in which we are engaged.

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think we need to make one thing clear. It is very likely that something would have happened if we had not done this. This was -- it was clearly, we had a great deal of indications that there were going to be additional American targets either by citizens at our embassies, et cetera. So this is our way of making very clear that we will not be intimidated and that when our national interests are threatened, that we will respond unilaterally.

MR. BERGER: Obviously, if we had specific information about a threat in the United States we would share that with local communities. Your question went to capability, not to threat.

Q Sandy, you spoke of the congressional leaders -- when were they notified first?

MR. BERGER: I spoke to Senator Lott and Speaker Gingrich last evening. I was not able to reach Senator Daschle until today. And Congressman Gephardt is somewhere between Marseille and Paris and unavailable to talk on a secure phone. But I briefed his staff.

Q Taking into consideration this attack on --

MR. BERGER: Excuse me, I'm sorry. The President also spoke to three of the four leaders, not being able to reach Mr. Gephardt, on the plane down from Martha's Vineyard and will be calling -- the Secretary has been on the phone for hours talking to foreign leaders. The President is now on the phone talking to a number of foreign leaders.

Q -- was against a Muslim group and the Sudan facilities in Sudan and Pakistan. It would be significant if the U.S. shows -- countries. Were you allowed to fly from Arab territory or given permission to fly in their air space?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: We are not going to go into any details of the military operation. But let me just say that among the various leaders that I have been speaking with today, some of them are Muslims and I do not think that this should be seen as a religious issue. I have said previously that this is not any kind of political expression or religious choice -- this is murder -- and that United States was acting in self-defense. And we will continue to do so when we feel that our national interests and our citizens are threatened.

MR. BERGER: Let me add just one other thing. I think it's important to know what the President said in his speech. He addressed this very specifically, really on more than one occasion, expressed his deep respect and regard for the hundreds of millions of people who are of Islamic faith around the world and indicated that he did not believe that murder is an expression of the highest calling of Islam.

Q The meeting in Afghanistan today, was that to have been a planning session, or was it a planning session against those specific U.S. targets you're so concerned about?

MR. BERGER: Let me be clear what I said here, and that is that we had information that there would be a gathering today at this location of a number of groups associated with the bin Laden network. And that was a factor in our thinking, but so was perhaps in an even more compelling way the fact that we had this threat information that there would be further attacks on United States facilities in the near future.

Q Were they doing something today to put those plans into operation? Was that one of the reasons for the urgency?

MR. BERGER: This was to be a gathering of organizations and individuals associated with bin Laden's terrorist operation. Let me say nothing more than that.

Q -- today delay the military action at all?


Q Thank you very much.

END 6:30 P.M. EDT