When the threat of Hussein hit home for Bush
Plot: Ten years ago, the world was told Iraqi agents tried to kill the president's father. But did it actually happen?
By Scott Shane - Baltimore Sun Staff
February 23, 2003
As president, George W. Bush speaks daily of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Rarely does he mention the episode 10 years ago that made the threat very personal for him as a son, a husband and a brother.
In April 1993, Iraqi intelligence agents allegedly tried to assassinate Bush's father during a triumphal post-presidency visit to Kuwait, where he was lionized as the man who liberated the oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdom from Iraqi invaders.
As President Bush readies the country for war to remove the Iraqi regime that may have plotted to murder his father, the story of what happened a decade ago in Kuwait takes on fresh relevance.
Though significant questions remain today about the evidence uncovered by Kuwaiti and U.S. investigators, the CIA and FBI officially concluded that Iraqi intelligence agents had launched a serious attempt to kill the former president.
If the huge car bomb recovered by Kuwaiti security services had detonated, it might have killed not only its ostensible targets -- the president's father and the emir of Kuwait -- but the rest of the entourage, too, including the current president's mother, Barbara Bush, and his wife, first lady Laura Bush.
Laura Bush, whose presence in Kuwait has never before been reported in the context of the assassination plot, went on the trip while her husband stayed home in Texas, overseeing his Texas Rangers baseball team and launching a run for governor. The president's brother, Neil Bush, and Neil's wife, Sharon, were also on the three-day trip. Some accounts place another brother, Marvin, in Kuwait, too.
President Bush has made only a few public references to the plot, listing it along with other Iraqi crimes. Wary of having his single-minded focus on Iraq taken as the latest chapter in a family feud, he has played down the personal connection, usually referring to the assassins' target as "a former U.S. president."
Only once, at a Republican fund-raiser in Houston in September, did Bush slip into more colloquial and emotional wording, calling Hussein "a guy that tried to kill my dad."
Those references reflect the findings of the CIA and FBI, which prompted former President Bill Clinton to order a retaliatory missile strike against Iraqi intelligence headquarters in Baghdad on June 26, 1993. It destroyed the building and killed eight people, including a well-known Iraqi artist who lived nearby.
"This attempt at revenge by a tyrant against the world coalition that defeated him in war is particularly loathsome," Clinton told the nation. "We could not and cannot let such action go unanswered."
Though the government has long treated the plot as fact, some former intelligence officers and experts on Iraq believe the Kuwaitis may have exaggerated or even concocted the assassination case against the 17 people they arrested to inflame American anger against Iraq.
"It's very possible that the Iraqis tried to get Bush," says Sami G. Hajjar, a former Army War College expert on the Middle East, who says he leans toward that view. "But it wouldn't be at all a surprise if evidence emerged one day that it was staged by the Kuwaits to pump up the Iraqi threat and to ingratiate themselves with the U.S."
Others have even stronger doubts.
"I tend to be extremely skeptical about this," says a former CIA officer who worked in the region for years. "The Kuwaitis would not be reliable sources."
Most strikingly, the former FBI chemist who tested the explosive recovered in Kuwait says he told superiors it did not match known Iraqi explosives. He was astonished to hear Clinton and other officials tell the world exactly the opposite.
The chemist, Frederic Whitehurst, whose whistle-blowing in the mid-1990s led to sweeping reforms at the FBI laboratory, says he protested in letters to the Department of Justice inspector general and other top officials.
"I told the IG, there may be good reasons to send Tomahawk missiles to Baghdad. But my report did not support it," Whitehurst says.
President Bush has never expressed doubts that the plot was real. Nonetheless, most political analysts believe Bush's quest to remove the Iraqi dictator is driven mainly by other factors: a determination to avoid a repetition of the carnage of Sept. 11, 2001, and the influence of aides who have long wanted to oust Hussein.
But, political observers say, the president is influenced by his family's potentially deadly 1993 encounter.
"I think maybe it gave him a leg up in understanding the threat posed by Saddam right from the start," says James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "He wouldn't see Saddam as history. He'd understand that revenge is very important to this guy."
Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas scholar who has followed both Bush presidencies, says the Bush family is probably keeping private their strong feelings.
"The Bushes are people for whom the personal matters a great deal. And as the president's comment in Houston reveals, it's on his mind," Buchanan says. "But they'd never admit it's driving policy in any way."
If the elder Bush counseled his son, "I think the father would emphasize the professional. He'd try to depersonalize it. He'd say, 'It doesn't matter that it was me. It matters that it was a former president.'"
Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council, says he's sure the president has not forgotten the 1993 incident.
"As with any president, he's a son, he's a husband, he's a father. But he's president of the United States and his first and foremost duty is to keep his oath to protect the United States," McCormack says. "He's going to consider the best interests of the United States and of the American people in deciding what to do about Iraq."
For the elder Bush, who had lost a re-election bid to Clinton six months earlier, the trip to Kuwait was an opportunity to revel in a major foreign policy success.
The Americans were met by whirling sword dancers, girls bearing flowers and cheering crowds in what Kuwaiti officials called "Operation Love Storm," a play on Bush's Desert Storm. One Kuwaiti merchant donated 96 bottles of imported perfume to be sprayed along the route of Bush's motorcade.
"Literally everybody wanted to see the hero of Kuwait," says Taraq Al-Mezrem, media attache at the Kuwaiti Information Office in Washington, who handled press arrangements for the Bush trip. "We never had anything like it before."
In Kuwait, Bush toured damaged oil fields, visited Kuwaiti war veterans and addressed U.S. troops. He called the reception "terribly emotional and wonderfully fulfilling" and took a moment to introduce his daughter-in-law, saying "Laura Bush's husband is the owner of the Texas Rangers team. Now that I am just a citizen I can root for any team I want."
News of the alleged assassination plot broke only a week after the Bushes landed back in Texas with gold baubles and other valuable gifts, which were donated to the Bush presidential library. Some of the travelers brought back valuable contracts from the grateful Kuwaitis; former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, for example, sought work on behalf of Enron, the Texas-based energy company that would implode in 2001.
The plot, according to news reports and official accounts, involved about a dozen Iraqis, Kuwaitis and stateless Arabs, along with a handful of others accused of harboring or helping them.
They crossed from Iraq to Kuwait in two cars on the eve of the Bush visit, carrying dynamite and plastic explosives. Their orders from Iraqi intelligence, Kuwaiti officials said, were to detonate 175 pounds of plastic explosives hidden in a Toyota Land Cruiser, either when Bush arrived at the airport or as he spoke at Kuwait University.
Failing that, one of the plotters was given an explosive belt, with instructions to rush the former president and the Kuwaiti leader before detonating it.
But the plotters -- mostly whiskey smugglers who ran liquor from Iraq into dry Kuwait -- proved incompetent. The car bomb never got close to Bush, and the explosive belt was discarded in the desert, officials said. Tips from wary citizens who saw the plotters walking after one of their cars broke down led to the arrests.
Clinton ordered teams of CIA and FBI agents to Kuwait to investigate. They interviewed the plotters, at least one of whom had confessed to targeting Bush. They also concluded that the Kuwaitis had not tortured the prisoners, despite claims by some of those arrested and their lawyers.
FBI agents retrieved a sample of explosive from the car bomb, as well as the electronic circuit boards in the detonator. After analyzing the material and reviewing intelligence, both the CIA and FBI reported to Clinton that Iraqi intelligence had tried to kill his predecessor.
"The conclusions were clear and had a high degree of confidence," says a former high-level Clinton administration official familiar with the evidence. "The bomb was identical forensically to a car bomb taken from Iraq after the gulf war. The signature [of the bomb's construction] was distinct and unmistakably traceable to Iraqi intelligence."
The official says he does not believe there was proof that Saddam Hussein gave the order to kill Bush. "Inferentially, I think the view was [that] this was unlikely to have been carried out without Saddam Hussein's approval."
In November 1993, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh scrutinized the alleged plot in the New Yorker magazine and concluded that much of the evidence given by the FBI and CIA -- and presented to the United Nations after the missile attack -- was flawed or wrong. He suggested that the Kuwaitis might have invented the plot, its Iraqi connection or its focus on Bush, forcing one or more plotters to confess under torture.
Hersh quoted explosives experts as saying that far from reflecting a bomb maker's unique "signature," the electronic parts were mass-produced and indistinguishable from components in ordinary walkie-talkies and other devices.
Asked about Hersh's claims, the former Clinton official said that individual intelligence officers might be skeptical because they don't have the full picture.
"You have to rely on what the senior CIA and FBI people conclude," he said.
Hersh's account was written before Whitehurst, the FBI chemist, went public with criticisms of the FBI lab's work on many cases, including the Kuwaiti plot. Whitehurst received a $1.16 million settlement when he left the FBI in 1998, many of his charges having been vindicated in a scathing, 500-page inspector general's report.
Whitehurst, now practicing law in Bethel, N.C., says his analysis showed clearly that the material from the car bomb in Kuwait did not match other Iraqi explosive samples.
When he heard reports after the missile attack that Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright had said the explosives matched, "I thought, 'The news has got this wrong.' I said specifically it wasn't a match." When he later saw an official FBI document misstating his findings, he filed an official protest.
The inspector general's report eventually confirmed that Whitehurst's findings had been distorted, but said government officials assured investigators that they had other evidence linking the plot to Iraq.
If Hersh, Whitehurst and others say the link was never proved, some conservatives take the opposite view.
Laurie Mylroie, a Washington analyst who has argued that Hussein is behind both the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Sept. 11 attacks, says trying to kill Bush fits a pattern.
"Saddam burned with desire for revenge after the war," Mylroie says.
And Stanley Bedlington, an analyst in the CIA's Counterterrorist Center in 1993, said many colleagues were upset that Clinton limited his response to firing 23 missiles at the Iraqi intelligence complex in the middle of the night.
"This was an attempt to kill a [former] U.S. president," he says. "Why go after them with a feather duster?"
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