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US Navy photo
3 December 2014

A message from Tripoli: How Libya gave up its WMD

William Tobey

William Tobey

Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International...

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Editor's note: This is the first installment of a five-part series exploring the painstaking diplomacy and intelligence efforts that led Libya and its quixotic leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, to relinquish that country's weapons of mass destruction. The second, third, fourth, and fifth installments can be found here, here, here, and here, respectively.

Part 1: The path to interdiction

The West’s relations with Libya had been tense since September 1969, when junior military officers headed by Capt. Muammar al-Qaddafi seized control of the government; he promptly promoted himself to colonel. Under Qaddafi’s rule, Libya closed US and British military bases, among them Wheelus Air Base, located on the Libyan coast east of Tripoli, which the United States Strategic Air Command had used since the 1950’s to support nuclear-capable aircraft. He antagonized the United States and Europe by nationalizing foreign-owned assets, including oil fields, and in the early 1970s, by urging the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to use oil embargoes as a political weapon against Western interests. Relations deteriorated further as Qaddafi increased financial support and training for terrorist groups and insurgents throughout the world. Libya was one of four nations on the original list of state sponsors of terror that President Jimmy Carter issued in 1979. 

Qaddafi reveled in revolutionary pretense, his unorthodox interpretations of the Koran, the publication of his Green Book, which laid out his crudely crafted “alternative” to both Soviet-style communism and Western capitalism, and above all, the provocation of military confrontation by, among other things, declaring the international waters of the Gulf of Sidra closed to foreign ships. By the end of 1981, the United States had closed Libya’s embassy in Washington and expelled its diplomats. In April 1986, relations hit their nadir after Libyan agents helped blow up a German discotheque in which two American servicemen were killed and 230 others injured.

Scoffing at America’s warnings, “brother-leader” Qaddafi, a consummate political showman, sailed into the choppy waters of the Gulf of Sidra and dared the Sixth Fleet to cross his so-called “line of death.” Exasperated by Qaddafi’s rabid threats, particularly against Israel, and terrorist ways, President Ronald Reagan ordered airstrikes against military targets and Qaddafi’s compound, killing at least 15 people and injuring scores more. Two years later, in December 1988, Libya struck again, bombing Pan Am flight 103 in mid-air over Scotland, and then, nine months after that, bringing down a French UTA (Union des Transports Aeriens) airliner over Niger—attacks that killed more than 400 people. Meanwhile, embassies and foreign ministries buzzed with talk of Qaddafi’s rambling pronouncements, his increasingly eccentric personal habits and mood swings, his deadly if quixotic international meddling and internal repression. Perhaps of more concern to the United States and its allies, over the course of his decades of rule Qaddafi had developed or tried to develop an unsettling array of weapons of mass destruction.

Late on the night of December 19, 2003, however, Qaddafi treated the world to a rare reversal of form, confirming that Libya had decided to abandon its illicit effort to acquire a nuclear bomb, its chemical weapons stocks, and all of its longer-range missiles.  Among diplomats and officials in Foggy Bottom and Whitehall, the statement elicited applause, curiosity, and—above all—relief.  Until they heard the words from Tripoli, the handful of senior American and British officials who had secretly worked so hard for so long to persuade Qaddafi to abandon his WMD programs were uncertain about whether he would fulfill his pledge to do so.

Libya’s decision stunned even the most seasoned arms control experts. Carefully calibrated statements, first by the Libya’s foreign minister, then by Qaddafi, then by Prime Minister Tony Blair in London, and finally by President George W. Bush in Washington, were the result of months of painstaking diplomacy, skillful intelligence collection and analysis, an audacious counter-proliferation operation, decades of economic sanctions, and ultimately, as described well by former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert G. Joseph in his book, Countering WMD: The Libyan Experience, a strategic determination by Qaddafi himself: He had more to lose than to gain by retaining his banned weapons programs.

How he was persuaded to come to that determination—the importance of which is underscored by the strife convulsing Libya today—is a remarkable tale of sustained policy effort and cloak-and-dagger maneuver.

By the spring of 2003, Qaddafi was apparently having doubts about his nuclear and chemical weapons programs, probably for reasons related to fears for his own safety. Though Libya publicly denied having a nuclear weapons program—in January Libya’s foreign minister had dismissed such concerns as CIA propaganda—Qaddafi began seeking a dialogue on weapons of mass destruction with the West. Only days before the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam (Sword of Islam), and Musa Kusa, then the head of Libya’s external intelligence and now its foreign minister, approached British officials, saying they realized that Libya’s unconventional weapons programs were of concern to both the United States and Britain. Without admitting that Libya had such programs, they expressed interest in “clearing the air” on WMD. They asked the British to convey the message from Tripoli to Washington.

Prime Minister Blair did so at Camp David in late March 2003. Though the agenda was crowded with the just-begun war in Iraq and planning for humanitarian relief, reconstruction, and restoration of civil institutions there, Blair and his foreign policy advisor, Sir David Manning, pulled President Bush and his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, aside for a more private conversation. They raised Qaddafi’s surprising overture. The Americans were skeptical, but for several minutes, Bush and Blair huddled over whether the offer might be serious, and if it were, what it implied. 

Given the September 11 attacks, both leaders were acutely concerned about states, like Libya, in which terrorism and nuclear weapons might converge. Having struggled with the frustrating series of UN Security Council Resolutions on Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s defiant responses, they were eager to find new ways to persuade states to abandon prohibited weapons programs. However, because of its notorious terrorist actions and in particular, the 1988 downing of Pan Am 103 over Scotland, Libya was anathema. At the first hint of a rapprochement, officials opposed to closer ties with Libya would leak the negotiations to the news media. To ensure secrecy, Bush asked George Tenet, his director of central intelligence, to follow up with the British. As Tenet's 2007 book, At the Center of the Storm, recounts, Tenet in turn assigned Stephen Kappes, one of the top two officers in the agency’s clandestine service, to pursue the matter.

Kappes, a gruff, enormously discreet former Marine, later rose to second-in-command at the CIA. Although he spoke Farsi, not Arabic, his vast experience in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe made him perfect for the job. According to Tenet, between 2002 and 2004, he had served in two of the most senior posts in the agency’s clandestine work. While he loved the agency and knew it well, he was willing to challenge his superiors, unlike some career officials. In 2004, he had quit rather than reassign a deputy whom he thought was being unfairly accused of insubordination. He returned to the agency in a more senior role a little over a year later, Tenet wrote.

In April, less than a month after Libya’s WMD overture, representatives of the three governments agreed to hold their first meeting over breakfast at an elegant hotel in Geneva. According to Tenet, as Kappes and his British counterpart waited at a corner table for Musa Kusa and his colleague to arrive, they spotted what seemed to be two Middle Eastern security men. Moments later, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barack entered the room. As Tenet recounts, while Kappes watched the Israelis apprehensively, his British colleague raced to head off the Libyans and direct them to another room on the hotel’s top floor.

Having avoided a potential international incident, or at least an operational security nightmare, even before their first encounter, Kappes and his British colleague found themselves face-to-face with Musa Kusa, the head of Libya’s external intelligence apparatus. Kusa knew the United States well. In 1978 he had earned a master’s degree from Michigan State University. Having remained a Spartans fan despite Libya’s strained relations with Washington, Kusa seemed nostalgic about his old college days and life in America, according to Tenet's book. But Kappes and his British counterpart also knew that as an official reported to have been directly involved in the bombings of Pan Am flight 103 and French UTA jet airliner, Kusa had American and English blood on his hands.  

The decision to meet in Geneva was no accident. Kusa was still unwelcome in England. In 1980, as head of Libya’s London “People’s Bureau”—Tripoli’s term for its embassy—Kusa had declared his support for the assassination of Qaddafi’s opponents within Britain. “The revolutionary committees decided last night to kill two more people in the United Kingdom; I approve of this,” he had boasted. The statement had prompted the British Foreign Office to declare him persona non grata. Nor was his outburst an idle threat. Libyan dissidents and others critical of Qaddafi, including a BBC World Service journalist, were already being murdered in London and elsewhere in Europe. 

Although Washington and Tripoli had no diplomatic ties, and relations between Britain and Libya were also badly strained, their intelligence agencies had been talking for years. British officers met regularly with Libyans to try to resolve issues associated with the Pan Am 103 bombing. Moreover, as Tenet recalled, the CIA had been meeting clandestinely with senior Libyan officials since 1999 to “learn what we could from the Libyans about various Islamic terrorist groups.” Such sessions intensified after September 11, as Qaddafi made no secret of his belief that al Qaeda threatened him and his regime and that the campaign against Osama bin Laden would be strengthened through joint action. While it would be too strong to say that the sides trusted each other, Libyan and American officials had engaged in what diplomats term “constructive dialogue.”

At the first meeting, which by Tenet's account lasted over two hours, the US and British officials tried to evaluate Libya’s motivations and intentions. Having launched a lengthy description of Libya’s grievances, Kusa listened skeptically as Kappes relayed President Bush’s hope that Libya would take the steps needed to rejoin the international community, including ridding itself of proscribed weapons. US and British spirits lifted as Kusa admitted that Libya had violated its international obligations, which left an opening for Kappes to insist on the importance of verification and to press Kusa to accept a visit to Libya by technical experts. Kappes even cited President Reagan’s favorite Russian aphorism, “doveryai, no proveryai”—“trust but verify.” But the Libyans, Tenet wrote, made no commitments. Allergic to the idea of allowing CIA officers to examine their most sensitive national security programs, Musa Kusa most likely feared how Qaddafi might react to the proposals.

In May, Kappes and his British colleague invited the Libyans to meet again. This time, Kusa brought Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, the ruling family’s suave and influential proponent of change. Although it is hard for anyone outside of Qaddafi’s circle to know for sure, Saif seems to have played a significant role in Libya’s decision to give up its proscribed weapons programs. He later claimed, in fact, to have launched the initiative entirely on his own, an improbably reckless venture, even for a dictator’s son. 

Then in his early 30’s, Saif clearly had influence, but how much, no American knew for sure. He had lived in the West, attending graduate schools in Vienna and London. He knew first hand the prosperity gap between Libya and Europe and the terrible economic and social costs of Libya’s isolation as a rogue state. Despite his weak hand, Saif opened with demands. Kappes and his British colleague replied that no progress would be made until American and British officials could verify that Libya had dismantled its weapons of mass destruction and closed associated programs, Tenet wrote.

In August, Kappes and his British colleague met Kusa again. This time he invited them to Libya to meet with Qaddafi himself. In September 2003, Kappes and his British colleague secretly flew to Tripoli. Meeting late at night, several hours after the designated hour—a Qaddafi trademark—Kusa noted that the meeting at Qaddafi’s office was on a site that the US Air Force had bombed with British-based planes in 1986. He also warned his guests that the start of the session might be difficult. After a 17-minute diatribe against America and the West, Qaddafi became serious, stating repeatedly that he wanted to “clean the file.” Yet whenever Kappes mentioned Libya’s WMD programs, Qaddafi angrily denied having such weapons. Kappes quickly sensed the game: Qaddafi wanted to claim credit for giving up illicit programs he would not admit to having. The brother-leader also claimed offense at the Anglo-American team’s demand for “inspections”—a perceived slight to Libyan sovereignty and his control. But according to Tenet, Qaddafi relented on the notion of “technical visits,” instructing his aides to arrange the details.

Kappes was disappointed, but not truly surprised when follow-on discussions with Kusa failed to produce a date or ground rules for the promised visits to Libyan nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile facilities, Tenet wrote. Did Qaddafi view the secret talks as merely a ruse to forestall an American military attack on his weapons facilities, or as a genuine effort to disarm and improve relations?  Even much later in the process, Libyan officials and scientists seemed wary of divulging too much about their plans and assumptions, lest they had misjudged their leader’s intent, or if Qaddafi suddenly changed his mind as he had done so often before. Second-guessing dictators is risky, as most of Qaddafi’s senior aides well knew. Many of them, including Musa Kusa, had spent time in jail or in political exile for having dared to do so.

The impasse ended on October 3, 2003, when years of persistent intelligence focused on another nuclear proliferation threat, the A.Q. Khan network, and a new counterproliferation framework that President Bush had created—the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)—finally paid off.

Under the Proliferation Security Initiative, dozens of nations worked together to prevent the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, using tightened export control laws and tougher enforcement to interdict ships at sea. Four months after the PSI was launched in 2003, American and allied forces intercepted the BBC China, a German-owned, Libya-bound ship they had been monitoring, and diverted it in the Mediterranean to the Italian port of Taranto. Officials in Washington had called upon Germany and Italy, core members of the new initiative, to help divert the ship.

When the ship’s cargo and papers were inspected, officials found, as anticipated, five standard 40-foot shipping containers listed on the manifest as holding “used machine parts” when, in fact, they contained thousands of parts for Libya’s secret uranium enrichment program. The equipment had been manufactured in Malaysia by A.Q. Khan’s nuclear smugglers. The Italians released the ship after only a five hour-delay to avoid tipping off Libya or its illicit suppliers to its seizure, but not before the illicit cargo was quietly removed. The Libyans had finally been caught, red-handed, trying to import equipment that could be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Qaddafi’s alleged desire to “clean the file” would require some explanation. 

The interception of the BBC China presented Anglo-American policy-makers with a difficult choice: Should they announce what was obviously a huge counter-proliferation breakthrough immediately, but risk a defensive response from Libya that might torpedo the talks, or quietly use the confiscated cargo to increase their leverage in Tripoli?

The White House had been closely following developments in the Khan surveillance. President Bush himself had authorized the interdiction of the BBC China. Once the cargo had been off-loaded and its contents confirmed, a small group of senior officials headed by Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley met at the White House to consider how best to exploit the intelligence coup and take down the Khan network. Within three weeks Tenet would meet with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to present him with evidence of nuclear trafficking that they hoped would lead to A.Q. Khan’s arrest.

With respect to Libya, Robert Joseph, the senior director for counter-proliferation strategy on the National Security Council staff, framed the issues involved for the deputies group and urged that the seizures be kept secret to maximize American leverage on Qaddafi. Although it might be tempting to publicize the discovery, especially since the administration was already being criticized for the failure to find WMD in Iraq, Hadley agreed that the seizure could best be used to jolt the Libyans into more dramatic concessions, a decision that was promptly approved by President Bush and his Cabinet, Hadley told me in a June 2009 interview.

Days after the diversion, Joseph asked an aide to draft a statement for Qaddafi in which he would admit that Libya had developed proscribed weapons and programs that he was now willing to abandon. While Libya ultimately issued a different statement, the draft gave the team a useful checklist of what should be included in any final agreement.

To maximize the impact of the BBC China’s seizure, the British sent a senior intelligence officer to Tripoli four days after the discovery to inform Qaddafi personally what had been found on board the ship. To Joseph’s dismay, senior Libyan officials responded that the equipment had been ordered long before the talks had begun, and that in any event, the shipment of centrifuge parts was of no great consequence, according to Tenet's book. But avoiding a public confrontation with Qaddafi over the shipments turned out to be wise: Saif Qaddafi later told Time magazine that the firm, but discreet way in which the U.S. and Britain handled the incident had reassured his father that London and Washington were acting in good faith, rather than creating a pretext for military action. 

Clearly rattled nonetheless by the interception of their cargo, Qaddafi’s top aides finally designated dates for a “technical” visit.  From October 19 to October 29, 2003, a 15-person team of experts spent 10 days in Libya.

But while the Libyans provided additional information about their missile and chemical weapons programs, they continued to deny that they had a nuclear weapons program. Some even said they knew nothing about the centrifuge parts on the BBC China.  Apparently, the team members concluded, their Libyan counterparts had not yet been instructed to speak freely or “come clean.” 

Verifying the completeness of a declaration of weapons-related activities required painstaking, detailed work. Any potential inconsistency about the origin, deployment, or disposition of equipment had to be resolved. Inspectors rarely detected a lie. Rather, they more often detected inconsistencies among reports or with physical evidence, which, with enough work, could reveal a lie and perhaps, after further investigation, the truth. Invoices, shipping manifests, deployment and operating records had to form a complete, coherent, consistent picture of activities. Candor would help build credibility; but its absence sapped confidence. Aided by their intimate knowledge of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear smuggling network, the American-British team asked questions that their Libyan counterparts were either unable or unwilling to answer. Team members left Tripoli frustrated by Libya’s unwillingness to cooperate. Clearly, Qaddafi had not yet decided to make a clean break with his nuclear ambitions.

In November 2003, US, British, and Libyan representatives met again, this time in the United Kingdom. This meeting, too, was tense. Qaddafi was clearly still withholding information about his nuclear program. The American-Anglo team would need to do more to push him over the disarmament cliff. To shock Qaddafi into action, Kappes and his colleagues confronted the Libyans with further evidence of Tripoli’s nuclear ambitions. They said directly that they knew Libya had purchased a centrifuge facility. Denial was no longer an option.