Clinton aide’s idea: Let Iraq shoot down U.S. plane

A new book says a cabinet member proposed letting Saddam kill an American airman as a pretext for war

Topics: Iraq, War Room,

Clinton aide's idea: Let Iraq shoot down U.S. planeSaddam Hussein

General Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during parts of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, has a new memoir out that contains this significant-seeming story: Back in the late 1990s, Shelton says a member of Clinton’s cabinet asked him to allow Saddam Hussein to shoot down an American plane over Iraq as a pretext for starting a war. The way Shelton tells the story, this was a serious request.

Remember, the context here is the Clinton Administration’s years of trying to overthrow Saddam — including in a little-remembered 1996 CIA coup attempt. In December 1998 (most likely after the request was made to Shelton), Clinton bombed Iraq for four days in Operation Desert Fox, which Clinton said was a response to Saddam’s lack of cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors.

Here’s what happened shortly after Shelton became Joint Chiefs chair in October 1997, according to his book:



Early on in my days as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we had small, weekly White House breakfasts in National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s office that included me, Sandy, Bill Cohen (Secretary of Defense), Madeleine Albright (Secretary of State), George Tenet (head of the CIA), Leon Firth (VP chief of staff for security), Bill Richardson (ambassador to the U.N.), and a few other senior administration officials. These were informal sessions where we would gather around Berger’s table and talk about concerns over coffee and breakfast served by the White House dining facility. It was a comfortable setting that encouraged brainstorming of potential options on a variety of issues of the day.

During that time we had U-2 aircraft on reconnaissance sorties over Iraq. These planes were designed to fly at extremely high speeds and altitudes (over seventy thousand feet) both for pilot safety and to avoid detection.

At one of my very first breakfasts, while Berger and Cohen were engaged in a sidebar discussion down at one end of the table and Tenet and Richardson were preoccupied in another, one of the Cabinet members present leaned over to me and said, “Hugh, I know I shouldn’t even be asking you this, but what we really need in order to go in and take out Saddam is a precipitous event — something that would make us look good in the eyes of the world. Could you have one of our U-2s fly low enough — and slow enough — so as to guarantee that Saddam could shoot it down?”

The hair on the back of my neck bristled, my teeth clenched, and my fists tightened. I was so mad I was about to explode. I looked across the table, thinking about the pilot in the U-2 and responded, “Of course we can …” which prompted a big smile on the official’s face.

“You can?” was the excited reply.

“Why, of course we can,” I countered. “Just as soon as we get your ass qualified to fly it, I will have it flown just as low and slow as you want to go.”

The official reeled back and immediately the smile disappeared. “I knew I should not have asked that….”

“No, you should not have,” I strongly agreed, still shocked at the disrespect and sheer audacity of the question. “Remember, there is one of our great Americans flying that U-2, and you are asking me to intentionally send him or her to their death for an opportunity to kick Saddam. The last time I checked, we don’t operate like that here in America.”

The way Shelton writes the story, the unnamed cabinet official could not have been Berger or Cohen. That leaves Albright and the other cabinet members as possible candidates.

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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