How Gadhafi Lost His Groove
As the Bush administration struggles to stop Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, it might recall how Libya was persuaded to renounce terrorism and its own weapons of mass destruction programs, including a sophisticated nuclear program purchased almost entirely from the supplier network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's bomb.
When Libya dramatically declared on Dec. 19, 2003, that it was abandoning its rogue ways, President Bush and other senior officials praised Libya and Moammar al-Gadhafi, the surviving dean of Arab revolutionary leaders, as a model that other rogue states might follow. In fact, the still largely secret talks that helped prompt Libya's decision, and the joint American-British dismantlement of its weapons programs in the first four months of 2004, remain the administration's sole undeniable--if largely unheralded--intelligence and nonproliferation success. And a key figure in that effort, Stephen Kappes, is now slated to be the next deputy director of the demoralized Central Intelligence Agency.
The post-renunciation diplomacy, however, has not been all smooth. Libyan officials expected that after such a radical change, Washington would generously reward Libya--despite Col. Gadhafi's past terrorist sins and his continuing repression at home. But although the sanctions that helped cripple its WMD programs and oil-dependent economy were lifted, and a small U.S. liaison office was established in Tripoli, Libya remained on Washington's list of states that sponsor terrorism, and full diplomatic relations were not restored, until this week. While Libya has clearly dawdled, some critics of the Bush administration now argue that Washington's temporizing toward Libya has undermined its nonproliferation victory and has reinforced rogue-state conviction that disarmament will not get one far with Washington. Moreover, the administration quietly continues to attribute Col. Gadhafi's WMD decision to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a claim that has embarrassed Col. Gadhafi among Libyans and his Arab neighbors. Today, the strongman, or Brother Leader as he prefers to be called, is frustrated, and the leadership coterie is restive.
"Giving up WMD alone should have been enough to warrant normalization of relations with the U.S.," Abdellahi El Obeidi, one of Col. Gadhafi's inner circle who now heads the Foreign Ministry's European division, told me during a three-week visit to Libya in March. "We are not where we should be--not at all."How and why did Col. Gadhafi, the despotic, still dangerously capricious leader, decide to abandon a lifetime of revolution and terrorism and abandon the WMD programs he had pursued since seizing power in a coup in 1969? What role did American intelligence play in that decision? And how much change can Col. Gadhafi tolerate and still retain power?
Col. Gadhafi's hip, 34-year-old son, Saif-al-Islam, told me in Vienna--where he earned an M.B.A. and lives when he's not carrying out tasks for his father, or studying for a doctorate in political philosophy at the London School of Economics--that his father changed course because he had to. "Overnight we found ourselves in a different world," said Saif, referring to the Sept. 11 attacks. "So Libya had to redesign its policies to cope with these new realities."
But a review of confidential government records and interviews with current and former officials in London, Tripoli, Vienna and Washington suggest that other factors were involved. Prominent among them is a heretofore undisclosed intelligence coup--the administration's decision in late 2003 to give Libyan officials a compact disc containing intercepts of a conversation about Libya's nuclear weapons program between Libya's nuclear chief and A.Q. Khan--that reinforced Col. Gadhafi's decision to reverse course on WMD.
While analysts continue to debate his motivation, evidence suggests that a mix of intelligence, diplomacy and the use of force in Iraq helped persuade him that the weapons he had pursued since he came to power, and on which he had secretly spent $300 million ($100 million on nuclear equipment and material alone), made him more, not less, vulnerable. "The administration overstates Iraq, but its critics go too far in saying that force played no role," says Bruce W. Jentleson, a foreign-policy adviser to Al Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign and professor at Duke University, who has written the most detailed study of why Col. Gadhafi abandoned WMD: "It was force and diplomacy, not force or diplomacy that turned Gadhafi around . . . a combination of steel and a willingness to deal."
Clearly, Col. Gadhafi's decision, which Libyans say predated the Iraqi invasion, was part of a broader shift prompted by the miserable failure of his socialist experiment at home, the collapse of the Soviet Union abroad, and his growing conviction that the sanctions which prevented him from expanding oil production--and which isolated him--were jeopardizing his rule.
A canny survivor, Col. Gadhafi first signaled a willingness to negotiate in the early 1990s, soon after the Soviet collapse, officials say. But Washington had little interest in dealing with him then, given his monstrous record on terrorism. Subsequent feelers to the Clinton administration went nowhere because they preceded a financial settlement with the families of victims of the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, in which 259 passengers and crew, most of them Americans, had died. Ultimately, Col. Gadhafi agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the Lockerbie families--$10 million per victim--and millions more to compensate families of earlier victims of terrorist attacks. He also accepted Libyan responsibility for terrorist acts committed by two of his intelligence officers while continuing to deny his own obvious complicity in the crime. By then, the Clinton administration was out of office.
Even before 9/11, the Bush administration was focused on unconventional "new threats" to the U.S., particularly WMD in the hands of rogue states and terrorist groups. In his first speech on national security policy, in May 2001, Mr. Bush said he might use force to limit the spread of WMD to those who "seek to destroy us." Deterrence, he said, "is no longer enough."
Col. Gadhafi was alarmed by the new U.S. agenda, and Libyans say that the 9/11 attacks were a turning point for the Brother Leader, who was among the first to condemn them. Through intelligence channels, he sent the administration a list of suspects. He also called Hosni Mubarak in a panic, convinced that Mr. Bush would attack Libya once the Taliban had been crushed in Afghanistan, according to a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo reported last month by Time. Meanwhile, Washington increased its rhetorical pressure. Though Libya was not included in Mr. Bush's "axis of evil," then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton called Libya a "rogue state" determined to acquire WMD.
In August and the fall of 2002, the British sent emissaries to discuss Libya's unconventional weapons with Col. Gadhafi. At the same time, Saif-al-Islam was trying to develop an intelligence backchannel to convince the U.S. and Britain that his father wanted a WMD deal. Officials said that Saif initially relied heavily on emissaries, including Mohammed Rashid, a Palestinian who had managed much of Yasser Arafat's money. Though officials recalled that the CIA seemed strangely uninterested in what the Libyan leader's son had to say, MI5, Britain's spy agency, reportedly assured Mr. Rashid that Tony Blair would raise Libya with Mr. Bush when the two men met at Camp David in September 2002.
Although the Camp David talks focused mainly on the impending Iraq war, Mr. Bush reportedly accepted Mr. Blair's proposal that they explore Col. Gadhafi's avowed interest in discussing WMD in exchange for lifting sanctions. In October 2002, Mr. Blair wrote a letter to Col. Gadhafi proposing such a dialogue; a few weeks later, Col. Gadhafi replied affirmatively: "I will instruct my people to be in touch with your people," a diplomat quoted his letter as saying. Col. Gadhafi, who Saif says avidly surfs the Net for news, had by now become even more anxious about press reports of Iraqi-Libyan nuclear cooperation. Stories sourced to senior Israeli officials accused Iraq of having sent nuclear physicists to Libya to work on a joint weapons program.
As U.S. and British troops began flooding into Kuwait, Col. Gadhafi grew agitated, diplomats said. Italian press accounts quote then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as saying that Col. Gadhafi had called him to say he feared he would be America's next target. "Tell them I will do whatever they want," said one diplomat, recounting the call. In early March 2003 just days before the start of the Iraq war, Saif and Musa Kusa, a top Libyan intelligence official, contacted the British to say that Col. Gadhafi wanted to "clear the air" about WMD programs in exchange for assurances that the U.S. would not try to topple his regime, according to several accounts.
In Vienna, Saif told me that the decision to abandon WMD "was my own initiative," an astonishing assertion that no diplomat believes. "The purpose of WMD is to enhance a nation's security. But our programs did not do that," he said. Saif said he had sensed early on that even settling the lingering Lockerbie dispute would not be enough to enable Libya to win Western acceptance. "We needed something bold, something big enough to have impact," he said. "Shock therapy! We knew the Americans would not find yellowcake in Iraq--as we warned them--but that there was yellowcake in Libya, and that this card was worth something." While he rejected the administration's argument that his father had been frightened into abandoning WMD by the invasion of Iraq, the timing of Libya's overture to the British and Americans was affected by the invasion. "I saw WMD as a card in our hands," he said. The invasion of Iraq was "the best time to play that card."
Washington was skeptical. To prevent leaks and sabotage by neoconservatives and other officials opposed to normalizing relations with Tripoli, details of the Libyan overtures and some half-dozen secret meetings that followed the March overture over the next seven months in London, Geneva and even Tripoli were known to only a handful of senior U.S. officials. Yet as American forces became bogged down in Iraq, Col. Gadhafi's enthusiasm for giving up his WMD programs seemed to wane. Libya had yet to acknowledge even that it possessed banned weapons and programs, a senior official told me. And while the Libyans had agreed in principle to let a team of U.S.-U.K. weapons experts visit sites in Libya, no date had been set. "No agreement on a date meant there was essentially no agreement on a visit," the official said. The talks stalled.
The diplomatic lull soon ended, however. Libyans close to the Gadhafi family told me that after Saddam Hussein's sons were killed in a shootout with U.S. soldiers in Mosul in July 2003, Safiya, Col. Gadhafi's wife, angrily demanded that he do more to ensure that Saif and her other sons would not share a similar fate. Then, in early October 2003, the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Italy interdicted the "BBC China," a German ship destined for Libya that the Americans had been tracking for nearly a year. A U.S. intelligence official informed the Libyans that the five 40-foot containers marked "used machine parts" that were offloaded from the ship contained thousands of centrifuge parts to enrich uranium, manufactured in Malaysia by the A.Q. Khan network. Stunned by the discovery, Libya fast-tracked its long-promised invitation to the British and U.S. experts to tour suspect sites. A 15-person team, headed by Mr. Kappes, then the CIA deputy director of operations, (who declined to be interviewed for this piece) entered Libya on Oct. 19 on a 10-day mission.
While Col. Gadhafi could have claimed, as Iran now does, that the enrichment equipment was for a peaceful energy program, the pretense was shattered in November when U.S. intelligence gave the Libyans a copy of a compact disc that intelligence agencies had intercepted. According to Saif and Libyan officials in Tripoli, the CD contained a recording of a long discussion on Feb. 28, 2002, about Libya's nuclear weapons program, between Ma'atouq Mohamed Ma'atouq, the head of that clandestine effort, and A.Q. Khan. Denial of military intent was no longer an option.
The inspection team returned in December 2003, with even greater access. They were astonished by what they learned during their visits to weapons sites, labs and dual-use and military facilities. Although Libya claimed that it had no biological or germ-weapons-related facilities, and that its chemical capabilities were less than the CIA had feared, U.S. intelligence had underestimated Libya's nuclear progress.
Libyan scientists revealed that, between 1980 and 1990, they had made about 25 tons of sulfur mustard chemical-weapons agent at the Rabta facility (which the CIA had long ago identified), produced shells for more than 3,300 chemical bombs, and tried to make a small amount of nerve agent. But they had not mastered the art of binary chemical weapons, in which chemicals come together to form a lethal agent only when the bomb explodes. Thanks to sanctions, a U.S. official wrote recently, Libya was unable to acquire an essential precursor chemical.
The nuclear front was more troubling. Not only had Libya developed highly compartmentalized chemical and nuclear programs that were often unknown even to the Libyans who worked at the facilities, they had already imported two types of centrifuges from the Khan network--aluminum P-1s, (for Pakistan-1), and 4,000 of the more advanced P-2s. By 1997, Libya had already gotten 20 preassembled P-1s from Khan and components for another 200. In 2000, it got two P-2 model centrifuges, which used stronger steel, and had ordered 10,000 more. Libya had also imported two tons of uranium hexafluoride to be fed into the centrifuges and enriched as bomb fuel. In fact, it had managed to acquire from the Khan network what it needed to produce a 10-kiloton bomb, or to make the components for one, as well as dozens of blueprints for producing and miniaturizing a warhead, usually the toughest step in producing an atomic weapon.Many analysts no longer doubted that Libya could have made a bomb, eventually, if the program had not been stopped and it had found a way to supplement its limited technical expertise. Though most of the rotors for the centrifuges were initially missing (many turned up months later on a ship near South Africa) experts said that had the centrifuges been properly assembled in cascades--always dicey in a technologically challenged state--Libya could have produced enough fuel to make as many as 10 nuclear warheads a year. "We definitely would have done it," said Mr. Ma'atouq, head of the program, just before my tour of Tajura, site of Libya's research reactor and its "hot cells" where scientists could separate fuel for a bomb. "Our original goal was to do so between 2006 and 2008, and if the program was accelerated, by 2007, with a year to spare," he said.
Mr. Ma'atouq confirmed Saif's assertion that Libya had decided to renounce the nuclear and other WMD programs, after months of debate within Col. Gadhafi's inner circle. He said that Libyan experts had advised Col. Gadhafi that the programs no longer served Libyan national interests. "We had discussed many options for securing our state," Mr. Ma'atouq recounted. "I'm an engineer, a practical man. And I said: Let's assume we have these weapons. What would we do with them? Who is the target? Who would we use them against? The U.S.? We had no delivery system. Yes, nuclear weapons are a deterrent, but it's better to have nothing at all than a deterrent without a means of delivery."
Initially, Mr. Ma'atouq said, Libya had tried to seek Russian help in building a complete nuclear-fuel cycle. But although the Soviets in 1981 had sold Libya the reactor at Tajura, Mr. Ma'atouq complained that they kept raising the price of related material. No deal had been made by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, and by 1995, Libya was left with little choice but to try to develop the bomb indigenously. In 1998, he said, it turned to the Khan network to help "speed things up. We wanted to make the supplier a one-stop shop. We used no other suppliers."
Relying on the Khan network meant he no longer had to worry about the origin of the equipment and material, or haggle with individual suppliers over the price and (often shoddy) quality of goods on the nuclear black market. He said he never knew (nor wanted to know) where Khan was getting most of what he bought for Libya, though international inspectors say it came mainly from Pakistan, Germany and Malaysia. He claimed that he never knew whether the casks filled with uranium hexafluoride for Libya's gas-enrichment program had originated in North Korea, as U.S. intelligence analysts now believe (based on isotope fingerprints of traces found on the containers).
Col. Gadhafi's decision, though "wise," Mr. Ma'atouq said, had been particularly painful. "I had to prepare the scientists and the technical experts who had worked so hard on different aspects of the program" at Libya's seven separate sites. "It wasn't easy," he said. "This was my program. It was like killing my own baby."
During its second trip in December, the team was taken to sites that U.S. intelligence had not previously spotted and was permitted to photograph and take notes on the astonishing blueprints that few weapons designers had ever seen outside declared nuclear states. The drawings were of a relatively old, crude, but workable design that Pakistan got from China in the early 1960s. The blueprint copies that Khan had provided, as a "sweetener," no less, with their Chinese scribbling still in the margins, had been kept in their original wrappings--a plastic bag from a Pakistani tailor's shop--another bonanza for Western intelligence.
Ms. Miller, a former New York Times reporter, is a writer in Manhattan. This is the first of a two-part essay, concluding tomorrow, on Libyan WMD.