CLARIFICATION: The Back Channels column on Thursday's Federal Page ambiguously referred to who was seeking $30 million in compensation for the bombed El Shifa pharmaceutical plant. It was the plant's owner, Saudi businessman Salah Idris, not his lawyer, Laurence Tribe. (Published 10/23/1999)

CIA Director George J. Tenet strongly defended the August 1998 bombing of the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant in remarks this week at Georgetown University, saying a soil sample collected near the plant containing a VX nerve gas precursor and other evidence amounted to "a compelling case" in favor of the strike.

"We were not wrong," Tenet said Monday night, describing a circumstantial chain of evidence that linked terrorist Osama bin Laden to the Sudanese regime and the regime, in turn, to El Shifa. U.S. Navy ships fired cruise missiles at El Shifa and bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for the terrorist truck bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, allegedly ordered by bin Laden.

In targeting El Shifa, Tenet said, "we told our policymakers what we did and what we didn't know."

What Tenet didn't tell policymakers in a key briefing three days before the attack was that CIA analysts had concluded in a written analysis one month earlier that additional soil sampling would be necessary for them to determine conclusively whether the plant produced, stored or transshipped VX.

Tenet didn't mention the carefully caveated CIA analysis in the wake of the embassy bombings, senior intelligence officials subsequently explained, because he believed the CIA's chain of evidence was strong, and because administration officials feared that bin Laden might respond to a retaliatory missile strike with chemical weapons if El Shifa were left standing.

"At the end of the day," Tenet said at Georgetown, "they made that decision because they believed that given all those facts, they would have been derelict in their responsibility for ignoring that facility. . . . I think we did the right thing."

Still, questions persist about the attack.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said last week after a closed-door hearing on El Shifa that he was "concerned still about the standard of evidence used." He stopped short of calling the attack unjustified. Two other committee members, Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), both said that they believed the attack was justified.

Current and former administration foreign policy officials have identified Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council's counterterrorism coordinator, as the leading proponent for striking El Shifa.

But NSC spokesman David C. Leavy said yesterday that the decision was not made by Clarke. "The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA were responsible for selecting the target," Leavy said. "Based on that recommendation, the president and the foreign policy team made the decision to go forward. Mr. Clarke did not select a particular target. It was the unanimous recommendation of the foreign policy team to strike."

TRIBE'S TRIAL: The final judge of the El Shifa attack, in any event, may be, well, a judge. Laurence Tribe, Harvard law professor and constitutional scholar, confirms that he has agreed to represent the plant's owner, Saudi businessman Salah Idris, in a lawsuit against the U.S. government. He's seeking $30 million in compensation for the bombed plant.

So far, Idris is batting a thousand against Uncle Sam in court: The Treasury Department folded without a fight in May after lawyers at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld sued to force the government to release $24 million in Idris's assets frozen after the embassy bombings on grounds that he was linked to bin Laden.

SELLING INTELLIGENCE: While Tenet's remarks Monday night on El Shifa dominated news accounts, his address at Georgetown's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service showed why he has become the CIA's super salesman.

He talked about the CIA infiltrating terrorist groups, rescuing pilots and thwarting bombings. And he offered an ingenuous rationale for spending billions on spies: "In my view, the intelligence community's highest calling is to help policymakers identify opportunities to advance peace and democracy in the world."

Tenet walks a fine line whenever he goes public, given the predilection for secrecy within the Directorate of Operations and the tendency of many case officers to see anyone from the agency quoted in the press as suspect, or worse.

But Tenet buys himself protection by relentlessly talking up the troops--troops whose morale, especially in operations, had hit rock bottom by July 1997 when he took over. "At the end of the day," Tenet said at Georgetown, "the men and women of U.S. intelligence--not satellites or sensors or high-speed computers--are our most precious asset."

Vernon Loeb's e-mail address is loebv@washpost.com