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The Deal to Disarm Kadafi
Libya's decision to hand over its banned weapons followed lengthy talks and an equipment seizure. Some see ideas for dealing with Iran.
By Douglas Frantz and Josh Meyer
Times Staff Writers
March 13, 2005
LONDON — The senior British official paced his office as evening turned to night, every few minutes grabbing the telephone to dial Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
"Have they broadcast it yet?" he asked Anthony Layden, the British ambassador.
"There's a football match on television," Layden replied.
Three days earlier, Libya had agreed to give up its nuclear and chemical weapons programs in return for an end to economic sanctions, concluding months of secret negotiations with the British and Americans.
A script had been hammered out word by word in a marathon meeting. The Libyan foreign minister would announce the decision on national television and the country's leader, Moammar Kadafi, would follow with a brief, but mandatory, public endorsement.
The hours ticked by as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush waited for the announcement. It was late 2003 and both needed this victory to stem increasing criticism over intelligence failures before the Iraq war.
"We were worrying that it was all going to get called off," said the British official, who recounted the episode on condition his name not be used. "It got later and later."
In recent interviews, participants in the three-way talks have provided the most detailed description yet of the events leading up to Libya's announcement, which marked a historic shift for what was considered an outlaw regime as it tried to win back its place within the world community.
Officials still disagree about exactly why Kadafi gave up the programs. Some information supports President Bush's contention that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the broader U.S. doctrine of pre-emptive strikes forced the Libyan leader to act.
But several British and U.S. officials said Kadafi had been trying for years to surrender the weapons to end the international sanctions crippling the Libyan economy and smooth the way for his eldest son's eventual assumption of power.
At a time when the Bush administration is talking tough about Iran's nuclear program, some diplomats say the mix of negotiations, good intelligence work and pressure brought to bear on Libya offers a game plan for dealing with Tehran.
When the soccer match finally ended on the night of Dec. 19, 2003, Libya's foreign minister, Mohammed Abderrahmane Chalgam, went on national television to announce that the country would disclose and dismantle its unconventional weapons programs.
Kadafi then appeared briefly to deliver his public blessing, calling it a "wise decision and a courageous step."
Shortly after 10 p.m. in London, Blair and Bush made separate public appearances to praise Kadafi's decision and promise to help Libya back into the community of nations.
In his office, the senior British official breathed a sigh of relief.
"It was a big prize," he said later. "We weren't sure until the end that it would actually work."
Within a month of the announcement, U.S. and British experts were swarming over the secret installations where Libya manufactured chemical weapons and had started work on a nuclear bomb. What they found would surprise and alarm them, and underscore just how big a prize they'd won.
The groundwork for Kadafi's decision was laid not only by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but by overtures from Libya to the U.S. and Britain that began in the late 1990s, according to officials from the three countries.
Libya approached the Clinton administration in 1999 with an offer to give up its chemical weapons program in exchange for an easing of the sanctions imposed because of its alleged support for terrorism, a former administration official said.
The U.S. refused, telling the Libyans that taking responsibility for the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 was a much higher priority, the former official said.
The British were more receptive. They reestablished diplomatic relations with Tripoli in July 1999. Libya turned over two intelligence officers implicated in the Lockerbie attack for trial by a Scottish court, and the U.S. and Britain agreed to push for a temporary lifting of U.N. sanctions.
One of the Libyan agents was convicted in January 2001, and momentum toward a final resolution of Lockerbie picked up in October 2001 when a delegation from Libya slipped into London to meet with British and U.S. officials, according to a participant in those talks.
The Libyan delegation was headed by Mousa Kusa, the head of external intelligence, who had been expelled from Britain nearly two decades earlier on suspicion of coordinating terrorist attacks.
The negotiations eventually led to Libya taking responsibility for the deaths of 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground and agreeing to pay $2.7 billion to the relatives.
But U.S. and British participants said they had made it clear to the Libyans that resolving Lockerbie was not enough.
"We had made a point that while Lockerbie was extremely important, a sine qua non for progress on full reintegration would depend on addressing the WMD programs," said one official who, like most people interviewed for this article, spoke on condition his name not be used.
Negotiations over Libya's weapons programs gained urgency in March 2003 after Seif Islam Kadafi, the leader's eldest son and likely successor, met with British intelligence agents at a London hotel.
"Let's clear the air about the rumor that there are weapons of mass destruction in Libya," the younger Kadafi said, according to a senior U.S. official briefed on the conversation. Because Kadafi was regarded as an emissary from his father, his message was seen as a signal that the Libyan leader was ready to make a deal.
By then, the U.S. and British knew that Libya, despite denials, had manufactured chemical weapons. They also knew that Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan's network was supplying equipment and know-how for Libya's nuclear weapons program.
In the weeks that followed, two officials from the CIA and two from its British counterpart, MI6, met sporadically with Kusa and other Libyans in London and several other European cities but made little progress.
"There were periodic contacts, but the Libyans were not admitting they had a nuclear program," said the senior U.S. official. "They were being coy."
Apart from Bush and Blair, only a handful of senior officials in Washington and London knew of the negotiations. They feared that a leak could mobilize opposition either inside Libya or in the larger Arab world, giving Kadafi a reason for second thoughts.
In late August 2003, U.S. and British intelligence received a tip that a Malaysian factory affiliated with Khan was sending a shipment of nuclear equipment to Tripoli. One former official said covert operatives watched as five containers were loaded onto a ship in Kuala Lumpur and a satellite tracked the vessel to the Persian Gulf port of Dubai.
Agents also watched as Khan's accomplices removed the crates in Dubai and, a few days later, loaded them onto a second vessel, the BBC China.
As the BBC China passed through the Suez Canal and entered the Mediterranean Sea on its way to Tripoli, agents on other ships monitored its progress. On Oct. 4, the ship's captain was sent a radio message ordering him to divert to the southern Italian port of Taranto, where U.S. and Italian authorities removed the crates.
A former CIA official declined to confirm any details, but said, "It was a great operation, a lot of derring-do."
Later, Bush and other U.S. officials praised the seizure as an intelligence triumph that, combined with the hard-line American approach on Iraq, forced Kadafi's hand.
"The capture of the BBC China helped make clear to Libya that we had a lot of information about what it was doing," said John S. Wolf, who was assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation at the time.
The senior British official, who was involved in the negotiations with Libya, acknowledged that confiscating the shipment was important, but said Libya had already strongly hinted at the existence of a nuclear weapons program and intended to give it up.
"The BBC China was another nail in the coffin," he said. "But one can overplay the significance of that event."
One sign of Kadafi's intentions had come in September 2003, when a small team of CIA and MI6 agents flew to Tripoli in an unmarked CIA jet for another round of talks, the first in Libya. They sought permission to bring in specialists to examine the weapons installations, according to two U.S. officials involved in the operation.
A European diplomat said Libyan officials told him later that the decision was driven by economics.
"From my conversations with the Libyans, it appeared that they had determined that it was too expensive to develop nuclear weapons, both in specific terms and in terms of sanctions," the diplomat said.
Seif Islam Kadafi told CBS News last year that U.S. pressure was not behind his father's decision.
"First of all, we started negotiating before the beginning of the war," he said. "And it's not because we are afraid or under American pressure or blackmail."
Still, the talks picked up speed after the cargo was seized. Within days, a larger contingent of CIA and MI6 experts arrived in Libya, said officials involved in the process. A far more exhaustive inventory of Libya's nuclear and chemical weapons programs was taken during a 12-day trip that started on Dec. 1, said one of the officials.
On Dec. 16, 2003, a Libyan delegation sat down to work out the final details of the deal over lunch with their U.S. and British counterparts at the private Travellers Club in the heart of London.
Along with Kusa, the Libyans were represented by their ambassador to Italy, Abdul-Ati Obeidi, and Mohammed Azwai, envoy to Britain. Across from them were William Ehrman and David Landsman, senior officials from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and two MI6 agents. The small U.S. team was headed by Robert Joseph, the National Security Council's counter-proliferation head, and Stephen Kappes, the CIA deputy director of operations. Kappes, a veteran case officer who had known Kusa for years, had supervised the intelligence operation and led the initial visits to Libya.
The wrangling lasted 10 hours. Two participants said the British and U.S. teams insisted that Libya clearly admit that it possessed chemical and nuclear weapons programs and promise to dismantle them.
"It was a tough meeting," one said. "They were giving up things that cost a lot of money, and a lot of people had their careers tied up in these programs. It was not an easy thing to shut them down and have them removed."
In the end, the Libyans agreed to relinquish everything connected with both programs but balked at the demand that Kadafi make the announcement. A compromise was reached allowing someone else to make the announcement. But the Libyan leader would bless the decision publicly.
British Airways Flight 898 arrived at Tripoli international airport Jan. 18, 2004. Aboard was a 14-member team of U.S. and British experts under the command of Donald Mahley, a deputy assistant secretary of State for arms control and retired Army nuclear weapons officer.
The Americans were the first U.S. diplomats to officially visit Libya since 1980. Their passports carried special stamps from the State Department permitting them to enter the country.
Fearing Kadafi might change his mind, the team worked day and night to inventory hundreds of tons of equipment sent by the Khan network.
Their top priority was to remove key components of the uranium enrichment plant being built to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
The Libyans had amassed much more equipment than the U.S. imagined, but experts found that a working enrichment plant was a distant dream.
Two days after the team arrived, the Libyans also turned over hundreds of pages of blueprints for manufacturing a nuclear warhead, which they had bought from the Khan ring. The plans were deemed so sensitive that they were put in a secure diplomatic pouch, and two Americans alternated sleeping with them under their pillow, one of the participants said.
While the U.S. and British team was eager to get the plans and other sensitive material on a plane as soon as possible, the Libyans were eager not to draw attention to the hand-over. Kusa insisted that a U.S. plane could only land at night at a little-used airport outside Tripoli and that it had to be gone before dawn.
At 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2004, a giant C-17 cargo plane from McCord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash., its U.S. Air Force markings painted over, landed at the airport.
Less than five hours later, at 2:17 a.m., the aircraft took off, carrying 55,000 pounds of nuclear equipment and the guidance systems for long-range missiles. It was bound for Tennessee, where the material would be transferred to the national weapons laboratory at Oak Ridge.
"We wanted to get the aircraft out of there as quickly as possible," said a U.S. official who was present at the time. "We lived with the possibility that Kadafi might change his mind."
Two months later, an American-flagged freighter sailed out of Tripoli carrying more than 1,000 tons of additional equipment from Libya's nuclear program as well as five long-range Scud missiles bought from North Korea.
The Bush administration lifted most restrictions on Libya and resumed diplomatic relations last summer.
Officials said they hoped Kadafi's decision would send a message to Iran, which the U.S. accuses of trying to develop nuclear weapons.
"We wanted to show other countries that there was a way out," said a U.S. diplomat based in Europe.
Iran concealed its nuclear program for nearly 20 years but insists that the purpose is to generate electricity. The regime has refused to back down in the face of U.S. threats to take the matter to the United Nations for sanctions.
Policymakers and experts point out that there are differences between Libya and Iran. Chief among them is Kadafi's iron grip on power, which meant that no one was likely to challenge his decision.
Still, some argue that the Bush administration's refusal to negotiate with Iran or participate in talks initiated by Britain, France and Germany ignores what happened in Libya.
The administration modified its position Friday, announcing that it would drop objections to Iran joining the World Trade Organization and allow it to buy spare parts for civilian aircraft to bolster the Europeans' negotiating stance.
"The most important lesson from the Libyan experience is that diplomacy goes hand in hand with the credible threat of military force to maximize influence on a nation pursuing weapons of mass destruction," said Richard L. Russell, a former U.S. intelligence officer who teaches at Georgetown University in Washington. "Neither is any good without the other."