Gadhafi's Leap of Faith
by Judith Miller
On Dec. 16, 2003, three days after Saddam Hussein was pulled from his hole near Tikrit, Robert G. Joseph, who headed counterproliferation on the White House National Security Council, flew to London for a secret meeting with his British and Libyan counterparts to discuss how and when Libya would announce the abandonment of its weapons of mass destruction. "The trip was so close-hold that it was cleared neither with the British Embassy in Washington nor the American Embassy in London," a senior U.S. official recalled. Neither Donald Rumsfeld nor Colin Powell knew of it in advance.
Seated around an antique wooden table with senior British and Libyan officials at the Traveler's Club in London -- chosen by the British for being a discreet place to meet -- Mr. Joseph was stunned by the evasiveness of the draft announcement initially presented by Musa Kusa, Libya's U.S.-educated foreign intelligence chief and de facto head of its six-man delegation. The statement failed to mention even the existence of banned weapons or programs in Libya, nor did it say that Moammar al-Gadhafi, Libya's strongman, was prepared to abandon them. Instead, the draft spoke of the "spirit of Christmas," of all things, and Libya's desire to establish a "WMD-free zone" in the Middle East, according to an official who saw several early drafts. "It was a mushy mess," he recalled.
The Libyans also wanted an explicit quid pro quo: In exchange for Libya's renunciation of WMD, the U.S. would abandon any effort to foment "regime change" in Libya, ensure that sanctions were lifted, and restore diplomatic relations. Mr. Joseph balked. There would be no such deal, or even negotiations about it, he insisted. Libya and the West still had differences to resolve on terrorism and other fronts.
Pan Am 103
Of all the U.S. officials involved in the secret talks, Mr. Joseph was the most skeptical of Col. Gadhafi's intentions, colleagues recalled. He had reason to be. "Bob and I were supposed to be on Pam Am 103 the day it crashed," said Ron Lehman, who heads the Center for Global Security Research at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Messrs. Lehman and Joseph had arrived at Heathrow Airport early enough that morning to get seats on Pan Am 107, direct to Washington, without stopping in New York, 103's destination. So they switched flights. Mr. Joseph later told friends he had seen the long lines of Americans assembling at the gate for the flight that exploded over Lockerbie soon after takeoff. He recalled a lively group of students and thought of his own son and daughter. Mr. Joseph never said a word about his narrow escape to his Libyan interlocutors. But he had no illusions about those with whom he negotiated.
Did Libya not want the world to believe that it had made a voluntary, strategic decision to renounce its weapons and programs? Mr. Joseph asked Musa Kusa, rumored to have been a coordinator of the Pan Am attack, and Abdullahi Obeidi, Col. Gadhafi's close aide who was then Libya's ambassador in Rome. It was not in Libya's or the West's interests for critics to think that Col. Gadhafi had been forced, or bribed, into doing so, Mr. Joseph argued. Libya, moreover, had to be specific about what "eliminating" its programs meant. Would it commit to destroying and removing all dangerous equipment and material? Would it destroy empty chemical munitions and lethal agents, as well as sign the treaty banning such weapons? Would Libya destroy its imported centrifuges? Would it eliminate conventional missiles that violated a treaty banning weapons capable of carrying a 500-kilo payload with a range of more than 300 kilometers?
Because nothing is ever easy with Col. Gadhafi, Tony Blair had to phone the Libyan leader the next day -- their first conversation ever -- to encourage him to be bold in announcing his decision. Col. Gadhafi was still hesitant, a diplomat recalled, concerned about appearances that he was caving in to pressure. Mr. Blair assured him that both he and George W. Bush would be supportive if Col. Gadhafi's renunciation were explicit. "But until the last minute," said an official who watched amended drafts of Libya's statement as they were faxed back and forth between Tripoli, London and Washington less than four hours before the announcement was scheduled, "we really weren't sure we would have an agreement."
As it happened, the announcement of the renunciation of Libya's WMD programs was delayed by an official reluctance to interrupt the broadcast of a major soccer game that Col. Gadhafi was watching. The statement he was supposed to deliver was read, instead, by Libya's foreign minister. The Brother Leader, as Col. Gadhafi styles himself, had suddenly gotten a cold -- in his feet, a diplomat suggested. He had a sore throat and couldn't talk, the Libyans said. The date: Dec. 19, 2003.
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Afraid that Col. Gadhafi might change his mind even after having publicly renounced his WMD, U.S. officials rushed to move sensitive nuclear equipment and material out of Libya. The mission fell to the State Department, and specifically to John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for verification and arms control, and Assistant Secretary Paula DeSutter. Donald Mahley, a veteran Foreign Service officer and former Army colonel who was deputy assistant secretary for arms control implementation, was chosen as "on the ground" coordinator.
Over Christmas, a team of experts assembled by Ms. DeSutter pieced together an emergency plan. Because the Libyans insisted on a "small footprint" in Libya, the size of a joint U.S.-U.K. team was limited to 15 experts (10 Americans and five Brits). They had to rotate in and out of Libya to stay under the limit. Even getting to Libya was challenging. "Americans were not allowed to travel there," Ms. De Sutter said. "So when our first team secretly flew in, the airline's computer kicked their reservations and tickets out of the system." The teams also needed licenses for everything, given the sanctions -- even to buy Libyan officials a cup of coffee.
And there was the map problem. "I wanted a detailed, but nonclassified, map of the country," said Mr. Mahley. "But there was none in the entire U.S. government." Mr. Mahley said that nothing he had done before, including commanding two companies in Vietnam, facing down the Russians over arms-control disputes, or negotiating the germ and chemical weapons treaties in Geneva, was as complicated as dismantling Libya's WMD infrastructure in less than four months between January and April 2004.
Several things surprised him: first, the relatively small number of Libyans involved in the WMD programs. "Though the Libyans I dealt with were knowledgeable, dedicated and innovative," he said, "there was almost no bench." "The same six people -- most of them American-educated -- did almost everything," said Harry L. Heintzelman IV, senior adviser on noncompliance. A second lesson was how relatively easy it was to hide elements of a WMD program, even in an open desert, "if there is a national dedication to do so," Mr. Mahley wrote in a "Lessons Learned" paper for an arms-control newsletter.
"Tony" Sylvester Ryan, known as "Chemical Tony" to distinguish him from the team's other Tony who helped dismantle banned missiles, recalled being taken to a place they wound up calling the "turkey farm." Other officials said that the site, previously unknown to U.S. intelligence, was where Libyans had hidden unfilled chemical bombs and where they were going to set up centrifuges to enrich uranium. Libya, Mr. Ryan said, came clean in stages: "They'd start by saying 'I think we have only 1,500 unfilled bombs,' and by the end of the visit, they'd acknowledge having stored about 3,000. But we never would have found the place at all if the Libyans hadn't shown it to us."
Team members were also struck by the extent to which sanctions had complicated Libya's hunt for unconventional weapons, especially biological. Though U.S. intelligence officials still debate whether Libya has disclosed all aspects of its early effort to make or acquire germ weapons -- in particular, how much help, if any, was provided by Wouter Basson, head of South Africa's illicit germ-warfare program under apartheid -- sanctions apparently helped dissuade Col. Gadhafi from building an indigenous program. "The program, if you can call it that, just kind of fizzled out," said a member of the British-led biological team that first toured suspect Libyan sites and interviewed some 25 scientists during a two-week trip in the late spring of 2004.
In 1985, for example, the three Libyans who headed the germ-weapons program, known as the Scientific Medical Research Establishment, got $55 million to build a medical lab with Bio-safety Level Three and Four capacity to handle the most dangerous germs. Though the Libyans said the facility was for peaceful medical purposes, two companies they approached -- from Finland and South Korea -- both declined, citing the sanctions ban on selling Libya dual-use facilities, officials disclosed. Sanctions also meant that Libya often imported shoddy merchandise at exorbitant prices: for instance, four different systems to fill white plastic bottles with mustard agent, none of which worked. One German system "leaked all over the place," Mr. Mahley recalled. "Seeing the liquid on the warehouse floor, we were hesitant even to look inside without protective gear." The Italians had sold Libya a system that involved filling containers atop trucks. That, too, was a disaster. "In the end," said Mr. Ryan, "they manufactured small tanks themselves, set them on metal legs, put a petcock on the tanks, put on their protective gear, and filled the plastic containers by hand. Not exactly high-tech, but it worked."
Then the Libyans seemingly forgot about the chemical weapons they had stored away. Libyan officials insisted that, contrary to Western intelligence reports, they had never used the weapons in their war with Chad, or anywhere else; and while they had tested agents for potency and filled shells with nonlethal material, they had never field-tested shells filled with chemical agents. The Libyans also shrugged when team members asked about some of the more antiquated spare parts Libya had bought on the black market for its chemical weapons program. "They told us, 'Yeah, we know we've been had. But what were we going to do? Take them to small claims court for selling us junk?'" Mr. Ryan recalled. "They knew they had no recourse if they were sold a pig in a poke."
Although sanctions had made acquisition more expensive and time-consuming, it had not stopped the programs. Instead, Libyans had turned to one-stop shops, like the network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, "father" of the Pakistani bomb, for their nuclear program; and for chemical weapons they improvised. "Libya still pursued WMD, but sanctions raised the cost sharply and impeded the programs" Ms. DeSutter said.
The dismantlement effort did not always go smoothly. A chartered 747 that was supposed to take team member Christopher T. Yeaw and the sensitive warhead design blueprints back to Washington, for instance, broke a wing flap while landing at Metiga Airport, the former Wheelus Air Force Base, which the U.S. vacated in 1970. Because Libya had no spare parts, his return was delayed until the part could be flown in and the wing repaired. In the meantime, Dr. Yeaw, one of the few team members whose "Q" security clearance authorized him to handle such sensitive drawings, could not find a safe enough place to store the blueprints. So for the next two days, "I took it to restaurants, to the restroom. I even slept alongside it in the double bed in our villa," he said. "It was closer to me than my wife -- like a baby, which is what the Libyans called it: Chris's 'baby.'"
Aides to Ma'atouq Mohammed Ma'atouq, head of Libya's nuclear program, recalled that the "baby" was the focus of tension between the Americans who came to his office to retrieve the documents and the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who arrived even earlier that same day at the Ministry of Scientific Research, well in advance of the Americans, to examine the two-inch thick sheaf of Xeroxed engineering blueprints. The IAEA thought it should keep the blueprints and asked the U.S. to turn them over, prompting a standoff before the bewildered Libyans. "My mandate was clear: Collect the documents and deliver them to Paula DeSutter in Washington," said Dr. Yeaw, a nuclear engineer who now teaches at the Naval War College in Rhode Island. "So unless they wanted to remove them from my hand, they were not going to get them." Ms. DeSutter, in fact, was waiting at the airport when the unmarked 747 finally taxied into Dulles on Jan. 22, 2004. Dr. Yeaw, fellow members of his team and his "baby" were the only cargo.
Tanks and Bulldozers
The dismantlement mission was completed in record time. In four months, the U.S.-U.K. team managed to airlift 55,000 pounds of the most sensitive documents and nuclear components, including several containers of uranium hexafluoride and two P-2 centrifuges, of some 10,000 that Libya had ordered from the Khan Research Laboratories in Pakistan. By mid-February, the inspection team and a representative from the Hague-based Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, which Libya had finally agreed to join, watched Libyans crush with tanks and bulldozers more than 3,200 unfilled chemical weapons shells they had laid out on the desert floor. By March, the team had sent out by chartered ship over 1,000 tons of additional centrifuge and missile parts, including the five SCUD-C missiles (minus warheads), launchers and related equipment. And Russia had removed 13 kilos of fresh, 80% highly enriched uranium from the Tajura reactor -- a uniquely successful joint venture in WMD disarmament.
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Libya's continuing political repression and human rights abuses have prompted officials to cite Reagan's motto for dealing with the Soviet Union during its own tumultuous transformation: Trust, but Verify. "And this is exactly how we approached the case of Libya," said Mr. Bolton, now U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in a July 2004 speech. But not even the very conservative Mr. Bolton defends the halfhearted effort to assure Col. Gadhafi that he was right to renounce WMD. Calling Libya's about-face "an important nonproliferation success" because it "proves that a country can renounce WMD and keep its regime in power," Mr. Bolton told me recently that preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons "requires long-term strategic thinking and concentration."
The preoccupation with the continuing insurgency in Iraq, the inability to stop Iran and North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons, and plunging domestic support at home for Mr. Bush may explain Washington's distraction. Libya's removal from the list of state sponsors of terror was also delayed by its alleged plot to assassinate King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, as late as 2003. A new factor that complicated the U.S.-Libyan rapprochement was Congress's refusal to permit a company based in Dubai, a key ally in the war on terror, to operate U.S. ports. Blindsided by the virulence of the opposition, the White House was even less inclined to inform Congress that it intended to remove Libya from the terrorism sponsor list. Moreover, apart from a few men -- notably Reps. Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), Curt Weldon (R., Pa.) and Peter Hoekstra, the Intelligence Committee chairman; and Sens. Richard Lugar, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, and Joe Biden -- few legislators have taken the time to monitor Libyan affairs closely.
Libyan exile groups expressed dismay yesterday over Libya's removal from the terrorist list. And there will undoubtedly be objections from Congress and elsewhere. But for all the possible questions, Libya stands as one of the few countries to have voluntarily abandoned its WMD programs, and out of options for countering Iran's stonewalling, the White House belatedly opted to do more to make Libya a true model for the region. Human rights abuses are more likely to be remedied in a full bilateral relationship.