Exclusive: John McCain cheered the brutal slaying of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but the Arizona senator was singing a different tune last decade when Gaddafi was an ally in the “war on terror.” Then, McCain was eager to help Gaddafi strengthen his security apparatus, reports Morgan Strong.
By Morgan Strong
A delegation of U.S. senators, led by John McCain, visited Libya in early October to pledge American support for the new government, to praise the revolution, and perhaps most importantly to extract promises of favorable treatment for U.S. business interests.
The McCain gang – including Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Marco Rubio of Florida – told the Libyan interim government, the Transitional National Council, that American investors were watching Libya with keen interest and wanted to do business as soon as the last remnants of Muammar Gaddafi’s resistance were routed.
American firms are indeed watching Libya and have been for some time, but not simply in the context of promoting a new democratic society. Some large U.S. companies had been eager to profit as well from sales to Gaddafi’s dictatorship – with McCain helping to clear away political obstacles.
In August 2009, McCain visited Libya as part of another congressional delegation and, according to a confidential U.S. Embassy cable published by Wikileaks, regarded Gaddafi quite differently. Then, McCain viewed the dictator as an important collaborator in what President George W. Bush had dubbed the “war on terror.”
McCain – along with three other senators, Graham, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Susan Collins of Maine – held meetings with Gaddafi and one of his sons, Muatassim, to discuss the dismantling of Libya’s WMD programs and expanding Libya’s cooperation on counterterrorism. According to the cable, McCain expressed a willingness to give Libya equipment to help with its security challenges.
“Senator McCain assured Muatassim that the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its security,” the cable read. “He stated that he understood Libya’s requests regarding the rehabilitation of its eight C130s and pledged to see what he could do to move things forward in Congress. …
“He described the bilateral military relationship as strong and pointed to Libyan officer training at U.S. Command, Staff, and War colleges as some of the best programs for Libyan military participation.”
Lieberman, a leading neoconservative, also praised the new era of cooperation with Gaddafi’s regime and marveled at the meeting.
“We never would have guessed ten years ago that we would be sitting in Tripoli, being welcomed by a son of Muammar al-Qadhafi,” Lieberman said, according to the cable, which added that Lieberman also called “Libya an important ally in the war on terrorism, noting that common enemies sometimes make better friends.”
Indeed, McCain’s entire delegation was effusive about the prospects for future ties between the U.S. government and Gaddafi. “The Senators recognized Libya’s cooperation on counterterrorism and conveyed that it was in the interest of both countries to make the relationship stronger,” the cable said.
“Senators McCain and Graham conveyed the U.S. interest in continuing the progress of the bilateral relationship and pledged to try to resolve the C130 issue with Congress and Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates. The Senators expressed appreciation for Libya’s counterterrorism cooperation in the region.”
Muatassim Gaddafi did mildly complain to the senators that “Libya has not been adequately rewarded for its decision to give up WMD and needed some sort of security assurance from the United States,” stressing “the need for Libya to purchase U.S. non-lethal equipment in order to enhance its defense posture,” the cable said.
During the conversations with the senators, the elder Gaddafi mostly listened quietly, though he “commented that friendship was better for the people of both countries and expressed his desire to see the relationship flourish,” according to the cable.
After the meetings, McCain gushed via Twitter about his impression of Gaddafi, “Late evening with Col. Qadhafi at his ‘ranch’ in Libya – interesting meeting with an interesting man.”
As that congressional visit began, a “scene-setter” cable by the U.S. Embassy had reminded McCain and the other senators that “Libya’s decision to give up its WMD programs and to renounce its support for terrorism [during the Bush administration] opened the door for a wide range of cooperation in areas of mutual concern. Libya has acted as a critical ally in U.S. counterterrorism efforts, and Libya is considered one of our primary partners in combating the flow of foreign fighters. …
“We have begun some successful training programs to assist Libya in improving its security capabilities, under the rubrics of anti-terrorism assistance and border security.”
That strong cooperation dated back to late 2003 when Gaddafi agreed to dismantle his nuclear and chemical weapons programs, a move that was hailed by the Bush administration as a key foreign policy success and a step that brought Libya in as a partner in the “war on terror.” Libya soon was jailing and torturing suspected “terrorists,” including some turned over by the CIA’s rendition program.
Stephen Kappes, the second-in-command of CIA’s clandestine service, became chummy with his Libyan counterpart Moussa Koussa. A Kappes memo, discovered in the ruins of the Libyan intelligence bureau headquarters after Tripoli fell, begins, “Dear Moussa” and is hand-signed “Steve.”
Among the suspected terrorists handed over to Libya was Hakim Belhaj, who had been the commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was associated with al-Qaeda in the past, maintained training bases in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks, and was listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
This year, Belhaj told the New York Times that he was captured by the U.S. government in 2004 and was harshly interrogated by the CIA at a “black site” prison in Thailand before being handed over to Gaddafi’s government which imprisoned and – Belhaj claims – tortured him.
After his release from prison, Belhaj emerged as a military leader in the anti-Gaddafi rebellion, eventually commanding the forces that drove the Gaddafi regime from Tripoli. Belhaj and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group now deny any allegiance to al-Qaeda.
However, over the last decade, the Bush administration believed that the hotbed of anti-Gaddafi sentiment near Benghazi in eastern Libya was supplying many of the foreign fighters flocking to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight U.S. troops. So Gaddafi, who considered Belhaj and other Islamic militants not just “terrorists” but internal enemies, became one of Washington’s allies of convenience in the “war on terror.”
That cooperation with the United States made it possible for Gaddafi to have the Bush administration help him neutralize Islamic militants like Belhaj. Gaddafi also obtained a variety of surveillance equipment from international suppliers, strengthening his ability to crack down on internal dissent and surely costing the lives of many Libyans once the uprising against Gaddafi began earlier this year.
The cozy “counterterrorism” relationship between Gaddafi and the U.S. government also helps explain the dictator’s miscalculation in believing he could wipe out his opponents by force, simply by linking them to al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups.
In March, after President Barack Obama supported a United Nations-backed military intervention in Libya to “protect civilians,” Gaddafi sent the President a personal letter expressing confusion over why things had changed.
“We are confronting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, nothing more,” Gaddafi wrote. “What would you do if you found them controlling American cities with the power of weapons? Tell me how would you behave so that I could follow your example?”
But Gaddafi had slipped from the ranks of America’s new “better friends” whom Sen. Lieberman had hailed two years earlier. Gaddafi was again demonized in the Western press and targeted for extinction.
The UN-approved operation to “protect civilians” soon evolved into a NATO air war to achieve “regime change” with European war planes and American drones enabling the Libyan rebels to eventually overthrow Gaddafi’s government. NATO air power also blocked Gaddafi’s escape from Surt on Oct. 20, allowing rebels to kill him and his son Muatassim.
Why Gaddafi was so surprised by the U.S. about-face in its security alliance with Libya was partly explained by the leaked U.S. Embassy cables and by secret Libyan files that reporters from Western publications obtained after Gaddafi lost control of the capital of Tripoli.
On Aug. 30, the Wall Street Journal reported that Gaddafi’s security officials, alarmed by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt early this year, held talks with the American firm, Narus, a division of Boeing Corporation, along with French, South African and Chinese technology firms.
Gaddafi’s regime sought to add more sophisticated Internet-filtering capabilities to existing monitoring operation of Libyan citizens phone and Internet use, though Libya’s capability to identify and spy on dissidents was already the most sophisticated in the Arab world.
However, the February uprising in Benghazi heightened the Gaddafi’s regime’s desire to acquire more intrusive technology. So, Libyan Telecom official Bashir Ejlabu held an urgent meeting with Boeing’s Narus division in Barcelona, Spain, in March in an attempt to have a comprehensive monitoring system put in place quickly.
The Narus officials were told that they were expected to fly to Libya immediately to begin installation. They declined to go to Libya fearful of damaging Boeing’s reputation if discovered.
However, tech firms in the U.S., Canada, Europe, China and elsewhere had already, for great profit, helped Gaddafi’s regime block Web sites, intercept e-mail and eavesdrop on telephone conversations.
Although Gaddafi justified this repression as necessary to identify suspected “terrorists” while he served as one of America’s “primary partners in combating the flow of foreign fighters” – as the U.S. Embassy cable put it in 2009 – the firms providing this technology also bolstered Gaddafi’s ability to engage in internal repression, which included the torture and killing of Libyan dissidents.
The Journal reported that the Chinese telecom company ZTE corp. provided new technology for Libya’s improved monitoring operation. Amesys, a French firm, equipped the regime’s monitoring center with “deep packet inspection” technology, the most intrusive technique available for monitoring Libyans’ online activities.
Libya also wanted to acquire the capability to control the encrypted online-phone service Skype, censor YouTube videos, and block Libyans from disguising their online activities by using proxy servers, according to documents the Journal said it reviewed. The Libyan dissidents relied on Skype extensively in coordinating demonstrations and for planning attacks on Gaddafi’s security forces.
The Journal’s reporters discovered dossiers of Libyans’ online activities in a basement storage room of Gaddafi’s former headquarters in Tripoli. The storage room was adjacent to detention cells where it is claimed those unlucky revolutionaries whose conversations or e-mails were intercepted – and were subsequently arrested by Gaddafi’s security forces – spent their last hours.
The discovery of a mass grave, containing about 900 bodies, after the rebels captured Tripoli, and numerous other sites scattered around the capital including one within Gaddafi’s sprawling headquarters, may have been the final resting place for dissidents whose messages were intercepted by the technology provided by these foreign firms.
As the uprising grew, Gaddafi shut down Libya’s Internet system in early March, but his move came too late. Qatar had given the revolutionaries access to its satellites. The uprising’s Western-trained Libyan engineers, with the apparent help of Western intelligence agencies, maintained effective communications between the rebel forces and their headquarters.
Although Gaddafi ultimately couldn’t defeat the rebellion, his infrastructure of repression surely had benefited from his counterterrorism alliance with the Bush administration. Bush lifted economic sanctions on Libya in 2004 and removed the country from the “state sponsor of terrorism” list in 2006, allowing Gaddafi to acquire communication monitoring equipment commercially from U.S. and other international firms.
In September 2008, a high-profile visit from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heightened Gaddafi’s international legitimacy, which was raised further by visits such as the one led by McCain in 2009. Last decade, in pursuit of the “war on terror,” the U.S. government essentially turned its back on Libyan dissidents and collaborated with Gaddafi.
After the Libyan uprising showed promise, however, McCain, the fabled straight-shooter, rushed to embrace the rebels and urged President Obama to commit more U.S. military assets to the battle. McCain also insisted that he hadn’t actually cleared the way for the release of Libya’s C-130s, despite his earlier promise to the Gaddafis that he would.
During his most recent visit to Libya – after the fall of Tripoli – McCain told a news conference that the Libyan people deserved all the credit for the success of the revolution. McCain also appeared to be assigning himself the role of U.S. point man on behalf of Libyan interests.
He spoke with vigor about the U.S. responsibility to care for wounded Libyan revolutionaries, as many as 30,000, by sending them to American military hospitals and utilizing Navy hospital ships, although the U.S. military health care system is already overburdened with casualties from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
(As a sometime patient within this system, I have witnessed first-hand the terrible struggle the military health care system must undertake to care for America’s wounded.)
Yet, McCain’s two-step dance regarding Libya – from finding common cause with the “interesting” Gaddafi to embracing the forces that killed him — can perhaps best be understood by considering Libya’s billions of dollars in oil reserves and other commercial opportunities.
American oil companies and a variety of other business interests are now frantically attempting to secure contracts with Libya. McCain by positioning himself at the intersection of foreign affairs and international commerce could have a critical hand in those endeavors.
Shortly after McCain left Libya, the Transitional National Council reversed itself regarding a commitment to honor all existing contracts. Instead, the interim government announced that all contracts to foreign firms signed under Gaddafi’s rule would be reviewed for evidence of corruption – and since corruption was widespread, that could be an out on nearly every contract.
Voiding contracts – and then renegotiating them – also would mean hefty profits for Libya’s new ruling elite and their foreign friends. In particular, U.S. firms now stand a much better chance to get lucrative oil deals than they did when Gaddafi was in power and set the rules on Libya’s oil production.
While McCain and his congressional colleagues may be even more sanguine about securing business with Libya now than they were in 2009, their orations about the Libya’s liberation do sound hypocritical when contrasted with their earlier praise for the odious Gaddafi family.
Morgan Strong is a former professor of Middle Eastern history, and was an adviser to CBS News “60 Minutes” on the Middle East.