3 December 2014

A message from Tripoli, Part 2: 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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Part 2: Qaddafi agrees "so that the color green will be all over the world”

Editor's note: This is the second 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 first, third, fourth, and fifth parts of the series can be found here, here, here, and here, respectively.

The Libyans allowed another visit by an Anglo-American technical team, this one on December 1 to December 12, 2003, and by mid-December, the dam had broken. The secrets of how and from whom Libya had imported banned nuclear equipment and expertise flooded out, astonishing intelligence officers and senior officials in London and Washington. During the December visit, Tripoli showed the experts equipment for a prefabricated uranium conversion facility to turn uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride gas for use in centrifuges, uranium hexafluoride feedstock, and gas centrifuges to enrich that feedstock to weapons grade material, all of which Libya held in violation of its Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Libyans also admitted to having produced about 25 tons of mustard gas and a small amount of nerve agent for chemical weapons. Finally, they agreed to join the Missile Technology Control Regime, although Libyan officials misunderstood the purpose of that agreement, which pledges potential missile suppliers not to proliferate ballistic missile technology. By the end of the visit, Libya had revealed more than enough about its WMD programs to enable verification and dismantlement work to begin in earnest. Indeed, it had disclosed the existence of some facilities unknown to the American team.

American and British officials expected still more. If the world were to believe that Libya would not re-establish its illicit WMD programs, Qaddafi himself would have to acknowledge them publicly and renounce them. But the Libyans remained disconcertingly silent. 

On December 16, 2003, four days after the technical experts had returned from their second visit to Libya and three days after Saddam Hussein was pulled from his hiding place near Tikrit, White House adviser Bob Joseph, Sir William Ehrman of Britain’s Foreign Office, US intelligence officer Stephen Kappes, and his British counterpart met with Libyan representatives in London, this time to persuade them—so they could help persuade Qaddafi—that a strategic decision to give up WMD was the only way for Libya to end its pariah status. Officially, the six-man Libyan delegation was led by Abdul al-Obeidi, Libya’s ambassador in Rome. Nonetheless, Musa Kusa, the intelligence official to whom Obeidi and Libya’s ambassador to Britain routinely referred as “brother Musa,” was obviously still in charge, Joseph said in a May 2009 interview.

Given the diplomatic stakes, the White House had insisted on extraordinary secrecy for Joseph’s trip. Normally, travel abroad by American officials, especially senior officials like Joseph, was arranged through State Department country clearance cables that allowed local American embassies to facilitate arrangements. Standard operating procedure, however, would have meant that dozens of officials in both London and Washington would have learned about the visit. Questions would inevitably have been raised within the gossipy diplomatic corps: What was the President’s most senior non-proliferation adviser doing in London? So Joseph and Kappes circumvented routine procedure. In fact, the trip was so closely held that no officials outside the White House and the CIA—not even Secretary of State Colin Powell and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld—knew of it in advance, Joseph said.

In London, Joseph stayed not at the hotel near the US embassy in Grosvenor Square favored by official visitors, but at the Stafford in St. James’s Place, a secluded area between Pall Mall and Green Park. To maintain secrecy and prevent leaks, the talks moved, after a brief pro forma meeting in the warren of offices that surround Whitehall, to the Travellers Club, at 106 Pall Mall. 

Founded in 1819 as a place “where gentlemen who traveled abroad might meet and offer hospitality to distinguished foreign visitors,”and in particular, as a sometime meeting spot between adversaries, the club was known for its discretion. Lord Castelreagh had entertained erstwhile nemesis Prince Talleyrand there. Castelreagh had even installed a special railing for the elderly French diplomat, with whom he had sparred during the Congress of Vienna, to help him navigate the stairs to second floor for their meetings. The railing remains today. The club, however, required its members and guests to wear a coat and tie, which the Libyans, whose quasi-revolutionary political culture prized informality, had neglected to do. Eager to avoid a diplomatic incident, Foreign Office officials quickly hustled their inappropriately clad guests past the club’s staff to their meeting room on the second floor, the Times of London reported.

The guidance that Joseph received for the mission was as unusual as his travel arrangements. Instead of the three-ringed folder containing summaries of earlier discussions, biographies of participants, and elaborate talking points that were usually given to participants in advance of such meetings, Joseph had been dispatched with a simple instruction: In essence, “don’t screw it up.”  Joseph knew this was a sign of confidence in him. As the head of counter-proliferation on the National Security Council staff since the start of the administration, he had spent countless hours with President Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. He knew precisely how they thought and what they valued. Joseph’s role was to add a political and policy perspective to talks that had heretofore been conducted mainly through intelligence channels. His presence was also intended to signal to the Libyans that President Bush himself endorsed the effort.

Joseph knew what was riding on the meeting. If the talks with the Libyans succeeded, President Bush would be able to show the world that preventive wars like the one in Iraq were not the only way to counter efforts by rogue states to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, Bob Joseph thought, as he took a lined memo pad out of his brief case and placed it on the antique conference table, if Qaddafi were truly willing to disarm, Libya might become a model for progress with other WMD proliferators. 

The session was being hosted by Joseph’s British counterpart, Sir William Ehrman, then the director general of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for Defense and Intelligence. A career diplomat with broad experience, Ehrman had worked closely with Joseph on several other delicate efforts to stop the spread of dangerous weapons, including the formation of the Proliferation Security Initiative.

The initial morning session at the Foreign Office went badly. Obeidi opened with a lengthy recitation of Libyan grievances and ended with a demand that sanctions against Libya be lifted immediately. Joseph replied firmly that sanctions were not on the agenda and would not be discussed. 

In the more informal setting of the Travellers Club, the Libyan set piece speech gave way to a discussion of what Libya must declare publicly. Joseph and Ehrman sought to steer the conversation back to a public acknowledgement of, and commitment by Libya to abandon, its nuclear and chemical weapons programs. If Tripoli took such action, said Joseph, a significant obstacle to better relations with the West would be eliminated. Ehrman confirmed the assessment.

At first, the Libyans still insisted that in exchange for their renouncing weapons of mass destruction, the United States should immediately lift sanctions, restore diplomatic relations, and most important of all, abandon efforts to promote regime change in Tripoli.  Joseph knew that this was unacceptable. If the United States and Britain accepted such conditions, they would be forced to ignore other stumbling blocks to improved ties—for instance, Libya’s deplorable human rights record and its persistent support of terrorism.

The terrorism issue was particularly salient for Joseph. Unbeknownst to the Libyan delegation, he and a colleague had been scheduled to take Pan Am flight 103 the day it had exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, shortly before Christmas, 1988. At the last minute, they had changed their plans and flew directly to Washington. Sitting opposite Musa Kusa, Joseph could not help thinking of the Americans he had seen waiting to board the doomed flight, including a lively group of students returning home for the holidays. Though Joseph never mentioned his narrow escape to his Libyan interlocutors, he had no illusions about those with whom he was negotiating, according to a Wall Street Journal account. 

The silence was typical of Joseph—careful, cerebral, and thorough. Rice had told colleagues that she admired his willingness to answer a question by saying, “I don’t know; I’ll have to think about it,” and then returning several days later with a considered, useful response. Such restraint was unusual in Washington, where so many officials were perpetually eager to demonstrate how smart they were or how much they knew. 

Tall and trim, despite an aversion to exercise, and intellectually voracious, Joseph was confident. He was also intense. When revising speeches and memos in his office next to the White House, he would often press his ballpoint pen so hard into his papers that his thoughts were permanently inscribed into his oak conference table. Joseph never attended a negotiation without having thought through an adversary’s strategy and tactics. As a result, he almost always knew his interlocutors better than they knew him. Before Obeidi had delivered his opening statement that morning, for instance, British officials had assumed they might be able to wrap up a draft Libyan announcement that morning and repair to a celebratory lunch at the Travellers’ Club, the Times reported. Joseph predicted, however, that the talks would not be so easy. 

He knew that the Libyans would be honor bound to drive a hard bargain. It was a matter of face. Although few of even his closest colleagues knew of his background, Joseph was a second-generation American of Christian Lebanese descent. He had grown up in an Arab family, albeit one that had been transplanted improbably to North Dakota. At Columbia University in the 1970s, he had also studied Arabic for his PhD. While he was no longer fluent in the language, he knew its culture. Whether this gave him an advantage in the talks even he would never know for sure. Yet it gave him the confidence to hold fast to his principles during the long, tough discussions on that crucial day, he told me in a May 2009 interview. A diplomatic and national security coup might be lost or squandered, he knew, if the Americans and British appeared too eager to make a deal.

Nevertheless, even Joseph was stunned by the evasiveness of the draft announcement that Musa Kusa initially proposed. The three-paragraph-long draft failed even to mention the existence of banned weapons or programs in Libya, nor did it say that Qaddafi was prepared to abandon them. Instead, it rambled on about the "spirit of Christmas," of all things, and Libya's desire to establish a "WMD-free zone" in the Middle East. "It was a mushy mess," Joseph recalled.

Working patiently, sentence by sentence through the Libyan draft, Joseph and Ehrman continued to press for a full, public acknowledgement of Libya’s WMD programs and an explicit commitment to dismantle them. The Libyans hesitated, fearing a trick. Once the Americans had in hand an admission by Tripoli, would they use it to justify a military attack? Joseph repeatedly and firmly delivered the same message: For progress to be made, Libya had to declare explicitly that it was abandoning all WMD-related programs.

Kusa tried once more to persuade the team to agree to an immediate lifting of sanctions and the restoration of diplomatic ties just after the Libyan announcement was made. Joseph’s sensed that this was his make-or-break moment. 

“Did Libya not want the world to believe that it had made a voluntary, strategic decision to renounce its weapons and programs?” Joseph asked him. Was it in Libya's or the West's best interests for critics to think that Col. Qaddafi had been forced or bribed into doing so? Libya, Joseph continued, had to be specific about what "eliminating" its programs meant. Would it not commit to destroying and removing all dangerous equipment and material, as well as actual weapons? Would it not destroy empty chemical munitions and lethal agents, and sign all treaties banning such weapons? If Libya were sincere, why would it not agree to destroy its imported centrifuges? Was it willing to eliminate conventional missiles that could launch a 500-kilogram payload to a range of more than 300 kilometers?

At some point in the six-hour talks, Joseph glanced up to see all six members of the Libyan delegation with their heads buried in their hands. He could only imagine what they were thinking. If they gave too little away, there would be no deal, and they would return to Tripoli without an agreement. If they, however, gave too much away, Qaddafi might disavow them and the deal and fire them, or worse. 

Joseph sensed that the capture of Saddam Hussein three days earlier was also weighing heavily on them. Photos of the disheveled, disoriented dictator after he was pulled from his hiding hole on a farm near Tikrit were plastered across London’s tabloids and television screens—a stark reminder of the potential consequences for those who failed to understand that the September 11 attacks had changed the world.

Joseph had the upper hand in other respects. The US-led technical team’s visit to Libya in early December had revealed much about Tripoli’s programs—too much to deny later. The team had been taken to sites that US intelligence had not previously identified—a “turkey farm,” for instance, which was actually a cover for a chemical weapons facility. Moreover, America’s intelligence agencies had already demonstrated their ability to unearth some of Libya’s greatest secrets, such as its business dealings with the secretive A.Q. Khan network.

Joseph kept returning to Libya’s denials. While the Libyans admitted they had nuclear, chemical, and longer-range missile weapons programs, they claimed not to have biological weapons or even a serious research program. The Americans and British hammered away at the need to prove to the world that this was so. Again and again, Obeidi tried to avoid an explicit renunciation of all categories of WMD. “The position of the Libyan government is well known,” he said. Joseph and Ehrman, however, held firm, insisting on, and eventually securing specific statements for each weapons category, Joseph told me.

The delegation also agreed that Libya would remove all WMD-related material and equipment, including, for example, its centrifuges and all associated equipment and parts, uranium hexafluoride feedstock, uranium conversion equipment, and any related documentation. Libya would also pledge not to use the remnants of a covert uranium enrichment program in a civilian nuclear energy project. (In contrast, after Iran’s 17-year covert uranium enrichment effort was disclosed in 2002, Teheran belatedly notified the International Atomic Energy Agency and continues enriching uranium.)

By early evening, Joseph, Ehrman, and their colleagues were satisfied, if exhausted. They went to Downing Street to brief Rice and her counterpart, Sir Nigel Scheinwald, who was in Washington at the time, via a secure videoconference link with the White House Situation Room. While Rice and Scheinwald congratulated them, Joseph and Ehrman knew that success was still not assured until Qaddafi delivered the statement they had negotiated. They were right.

On December 17, 2003 the American and Libyan officials returned to their respective countries. How would Qaddafi react to the draft statement? Would he accept the substance and language of the deal they had fought so long to strike? Neither Kusa nor Obeidi seemed confident. 

To improve their chances, Tony Blair called Qaddafi at midday, London time. Qaddafi expressed two concerns, perhaps inadvertently revealing his underlying motivation for abandoning his banned weapons programs. First, he said he did not wish to appear to have capitulated to Washington’s demands. In light of Saddam’s capture only days earlier, comparisons between Iraq and Libya would be inevitable, he complained.  Second, he feared that the United States would attack Libya if it acknowledged possessing proscribed weapons—paradoxically, the reverse of Washington’s view of the matter. Qaddafi added that because he disliked the wording of the draft statement, he wanted his foreign minister make the announcement. Blair replied that if Qaddafi was clear and explicit about Libya’s possession of the WMD programs and his determination to eliminate them, the United States and Britain would respond positively in return.

After speaking to Qaddafi, Blair called Bush. They agreed to insist that Libya clearly acknowledge, and commit to dismantle its nuclear and chemical weapons programs and that Qaddafi make a statement himself. They also agreed that if he did so, they would both welcome Libya’s decision publicly, reassuring Libya that such an unequivocal renunciation would lead to better relations with the West.

The next day, Libyan officials gave the British two alternative draft statements that were to be made by their foreign minister. If either draft was acceptable, they told London, it would be broadcast the following day, Friday, December 19. But neither version explicitly acknowledged that Libya had nuclear and chemical weapons programs, and neither contained a clear commitment to eliminate such programs. While the statements were better than the draft that Libya had initially presented in London two days earlier, both fell short of Washington’s expectations. By this time, however, it was too late to negotiate further. 

The following day was a Friday—Islam’s day of prayer and the day on which Washington usually chose to release risky or unpleasant news, in hopes that fewer people would notice, though the 24-7 news channels had reduced the effectiveness of this ploy.   

On Friday morning in Tripoli, the British gave Libya the joint Anglo-American response to its latest draft, again suggesting ways to ensure that the statement clearly acknowledged the existence of proscribed weapons programs and agreed to eliminate them. Hours later, in the middle of the afternoon Washington time and well into the evening in London and Tripoli, Libya responded with yet another draft. This one was close to acceptable. Racing against the clock and still debating a few proposed Libyan amendments, officials in the three capitals agreed on the final text.

Even then, however, an essential question remained: Would Qaddafi make the announcement? Officials in London and Washington had no idea.

Washington badly wanted a success in Libya. First, if diplomacy worked, Libya’s nuclear and chemical weapons programs would be dismantled before they could threaten other nations. Second, a new model for disarmament would be established, one that might be replicated with other nuclear aspirants. Third, access to Libyan documents, equipment, and WMD personnel might help further unravel A.Q. Khan’s illicit nuclear supply network. Fourth and finally, Washington and London had invested enormous diplomatic and intelligence resources in the Libya project, all of which would be wasted if Qaddafi balked.   

After an excruciating silence, the Libyans finally sent word that Qaddafi’s sore throat would prevent him from reading the statement aloud aloud, but Libya’s foreign minister would deliver it, and Qaddafi would issue a written statement endorsing the action. Even these announcements, however, would be delayed to avoid interrupting the broadcast of a popular soccer match.

Finally, late afternoon Washington time and well into the night in London and Tripoli, the White House Situation Room staff relayed the message from Libya to Bob Joseph and the other senior officials who had been anxiously monitoring the message traffic between Washington, London, and Tripoli throughout the day. Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalgham had acknowledged Libya’s possession of “materials, equipments and programs which led to the productions of internationally proscribed weapons,” including “centrifuge machines and chemical munitions.”  “Libya, of its own free will,” he said, had decided to abandon all of them. Qaddafi had endorsed the declaration moments later in a single, bizarre, 121-word sentence. He was taking this step, he concluded, “so that the color green”—(the color not only of Libya’s flag, but of Islam)—“will be all over the world.” Significantly, Qaddafi called his foreign minister’s statement “wise” and a “brave step that merits the support of the Libyan people.”