According to accounts from several participants in the decision making that led to Wednesday's strike (as published in the New York Times, December 17), Butler had briefed American officials as early as last Friday on his most recent conclusions, which were consistent with weekly reports he had been filing to the U.N. for the past month. Butler's report was in many ways a simple formality in the game.
Clinton made the final decision to undertake military action on Iraq after he had held a discussion aboard Air Force One with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a half-dozen members of Congress who traveled with them to the Middle East.
Butler's report was delivered formally to the U.N. Security Council and American officials as Clinton was flying home from the Middle East on Tuesday. About two hours into the 10-hour flight from Jerusalem to Washington, Clinton gave the order to U.S. forces to be prepared to strike within 24 hours.
Albright informed the members of Congress of Butler's latest findings,
saying the U.N. inspection group had presented a clear- cut case of Iraqi
defiance. Clinton asked the lawmakers for their reactions. Although the
question was not explicitly put to them, Clinton was clearly seeking to
gauge the political impact of ordering American forces into action on the
very eve of the scheduled impeachment vote in the House, one of the lawmakers
Scott Ritter, a former U.N. inspector who resigned this summer, said Thursday the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) team led by Richard Butler deliberately chose sites it knew would provoke Iraqi defiance at the White House's urging, according to Rowan Scarborough writing in the WASHINGTON TIMES Dec 19. Ritter also said Mr. Butler, executive chairman of the Unscom, conferred with the Clinton administration's national security staff on how to write his report of noncompliance before submitting it to the U.N. Security Council Tuesday night.
Ritter cited two inspections as proof that Butler wanted to provoke Saddam. Ritter said Unscom demanded access to Ba'ath Party headquarters, even though an intelligence report that ballistic missile parts were inside was three months old and, as sources told him, no longer accurate.
Ritter also said inspectors chose to inspect the building of the Iraqi commission overseeing weapons development even though intelligence reports said it was empty. Indeed, he said, nothing was found. The White House knew by Dec. 9, when U.N. inspectors were in Baghdad, that the House had planned to debate impeachment as early as Wednesday, Dec 16.
The Washington Post first reported Wednesday that administration officials "played a direct role in shaping Butler's text during multiple conversations." But "the decision to attack was driven on Sunday," Ritter said. "Ask Richard Butler why he stopped inspections on Sunday. The answer is, `We have enough. We have enough points here. Get your team out.'"
But a full two days earlier, Butler had informed Clinton what he intended to say in his report, and when he would say it. And the president issued a highly classified order to the Pentagon on Sunday morning that began a 72-hour countdown to the air assault. Clinton was in Jerusalem on the first day of a whirlwind trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"With Clinton in Israel through the weekend and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan beginning on Saturday, the window for American and British military action was very narrow, officials said. The administration did not want to offend Arab allies, or put the president's safety in jeopardy, by ordering an attack on Iraq while Clinton was in Israel, a senior American official said Thursday.
Clinton Set Strikes in Motion on Sunday
President Clinton set in motion Wednesday's military strikes a full two days before Richard Butler delivered his controversial report to the Security Council.
Military sources say the White House notified the Pentagon on Sunday the same day that Mr. Butler ordered an end to inspections,that air strikes would begin this week. The warning came two days before Mr. Butler submitted his report, the catalyst the administration cites for Mr. Clinton ordering Wednesday's start of a four-day bombing campaign.
The president and senior administration officials said that Clinton had not made the final decision to unleash a barrage of missiles and bombs on targets across Iraq until Tuesday, hours after receiving the report by Richard Butler, the weapons inspector.
The timing of the strikes, coming on the eve of the impeachment vote, set off protests from Republicans, who charged on Wednesday that Clinton had orchestrated a crisis to slow the seemingly inexorable momentum toward impeachment.
"I said there could be no considerations other than the national security of the United States and the safety of our service personnel," said Rep. Sam Gejdensen, D-Conn., the ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee.
Gejdensen said that one of the lawmakers told the president that there was a danger that Congress and the public would "misinterpret" a decision to take military action against Iraq as a means of diverting attention from Clinton's political peril.
But the group concluded, and Clinton agreed, that that was a risk that had to be borne.
Final military "no-go" call
Secretary of Defense William Cohen said the administration was prepared to act any time during the month of December, but chose to await Butler's most recent report before making the final decision to strike
"We have always been prepared to go during the month of December, to take action," Cohen said. "We were not going to take any action until such time as a report was filed, we knew what was said, and the president actually called for a strike."
Cohen and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been looking for another opportunity to strike since mid November, when Mr. Clinton called off a planned attack. Military aides told the president that he had to make a firm no-go call no later than 8 a.m.
Clinton began working on the address to the nation that he delivered Wednesday evening. Conscious of the likely political fallout -- but unprepared for the harsh condemnation from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and other Republicans who questioned the president's motives. Clinton reconfirmed his decision to act at a meeting at the White House early Wednesday morning.
Gen. Henry H. Shelton, Joint Chiefs chairman, said planners had been eyeing Wednesday for a possible attack for weeks because they had the right mix of forces in the region and it also would commence before Ramadan. If Iraq had not defied inspectors, the military would have lost its "window" of opportunity.
"We were looking at the calendar seeing Ramadan that we've got to be sensitive to," Gen. Shelton said. "And so we had to prepare for a window during which time, if there were a failure to comply, we could take action. And so, it was not until Mr. Butler filed his report that this became a reality as far as we were to go and then the decision had to be made."
South News Special Dec 22