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January 21, 2004

Indeed, This Was Overlooked

My Secret Talks With Libya, And Why They Went Nowhere

By Gary Hart | Sunday, January 18, 2004; Page B05

In February 1992, five years after I retired from the Senate and entered the world of international law, I was approached at my hotel while on a business trip to Athens by a man identifying himself as a "naval attaché{grv}" from the Libyan Embassy, who was almost certainly with the Libyan intelligence service. This was by no means the first time such a thing had happened to me since leaving the Senate. Nevertheless, there was an air of intrigue about the meeting, and it led to intensive contacts with the Libyan government over the next several weeks.

Although I have never felt the need to discuss these events before, I do so now because they relate to the argument being made by supporters of the current Bush administration that Libya has abandoned weapons of mass destruction as a direct result of the United States's preemptive invasion of Iraq. My experience of 12 years ago suggests a missed opportunity to curb Libya well before Iraq.

In response to that first approach by the Libyan official on Feb. 24, 1992, I discouraged the idea that I was an appropriate contact person for the first Bush administration; I also immediately notified senior State Department officials of the encounter. In a meeting in Washington on March 6, 1992, State discounted the approach on the grounds that it was one of several such approaches and none was being taken seriously. "We will have no discussions with the Libyans," was the answer, "until they turn over the Pan Am bombers." Intensive investigation of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, in which 270 people died, had eventually focused on two Libyans.

I transmitted the State Department's answer through Greek intermediaries back to the Libyan Embassy in Athens and thought no further about it. After several days during which I had further indirect contacts from the same Libyan official, I was invited to meet with senior Libyan officials in Geneva -- a traditional meeting place for such contacts -- and was told that the Libyans were prepared to consider the U.S. demand on the Pan Am bombers. Once again I notified State Department officials and indicated that, if I went to Geneva, I would keep them immediately informed of developments.

Between March 18 and March 21, I met with Yussuf Dibri, who was then the head of the Libyan intelligence service, and two other senior Libyan officials in Geneva. The Libyans stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel, but our meetings were held at the Hotel Beau Rivage, where I was staying. Almost immediately, the Libyans said that they would turn over the two Pam Am bombing suspects, later named as Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, in exchange for a commitment from the first Bush administration that preliminary discussions would begin within a reasonable period of time regarding the lifting of sanctions and eventual normalization of relations between our two nations. I tested the bona fides of this proposal in every way I could think of, then relayed it to Thomas Miller, who was deputy to then-Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian, and who now, coincidentally, is U.S. ambassador to Greece. Miller had been my point of contact at State from the outset.

Within a few hours, Miller called back to say that State Department officials did not take this offer seriously. He discouraged further contacts. I relayed this response to the Libyans, who in turn relayed it to Tripoli. Yet they insisted on further discussions, which would confirm their seriousness. The next series of discussions, all relayed to Washington, concerned specific legal and logistical matters: Because the Libyan government was required to submit the Lockerbie bombing suspects to criminal prosecution either in the United States or in Scotland, we had lengthy discussions concerning the criminal justice systems in both countries (though I claimed no expertise in Scottish law), and I confirmed that under either system the suspects would have highly capable defense counsel and the full protection of traditional due process standards. The Libyans displayed a great deal of skepticism on this score, but I explained that political necessity (apart from the integrity of our justice system) would require that the trial process be open and fair, and that conviction could occur only after the presentation of persuasive evidence. In short, the trials would not be show trials, with foreordained results.

Finally, we got to logistics. I proposed that the suspects be flown to Geneva and then transferred to a U.S. or U.N. aircraft for travel either to New York or London. After consulting with Tripoli, the Libyans agreed. Late on the second day of the discussions I conveyed this fact to Miller. Though still skeptical, he said higher administration officials would have to decide. Hours went by. Then the response came back: The Bush administration (Miller suggested that a National Security Council meeting had been convened) had rejected the offer. The explanation was lame (and I suspected Miller thought it lame): If the bomber suspects stepped onto Swiss soil in transferring planes they would be subject to Swiss jurisdiction and would be apprehended and confined in Switzerland and perhaps never extradited to the United States or Scotland.

Several possibilities exist for the first Bush administration's lack of interest. Perhaps the Americans did not believe the Libyans were serious. Or they did believe, inexplicably, the legalistic argument about Swiss jurisdiction (though this still seems implausible). Or they did not find me an acceptable intermediary. Or, perhaps most likely, they simply were not prepared to discuss normalization of relations -- even in exchange for the terrorist bombers. In any case, any potential deal was off.

But the Libyans did not take no for an answer. Several more days went by, and the original contact in Greece invited me to Tripoli for one more try. Using private (non-Libyan) aircraft, and avoiding Libyan immigration, I spent March 30 and March 31 in Tripoli. Because this trip occurred during Ramadan, discussions took place after sunset and, because Col. Moammar Gaddafi was observing the holy month in the desert, my principal discussions were with Abdul Salaam Jalloud, the prime minister (and vice chairman of the Revolutionary Council). These elaborate dinner meetings started late and lasted well into the early morning. The issues discussed were essentially a repeat of Geneva. The Libyan offer was confirmed: In exchange for releasing the Pan Am bombing suspects, the Libyans said, we ask for the opening of negotiations to suspend sanctions and normalize relations. I insisted that such discussion would have to include verifiable cessation of any support for terrorism and confirmed abandonment of weapons of mass destruction programs, to which Jalloud responded that "everything will be on the table."

I then flew, once again by private aircraft, to Venice to attend an election event for an old friend, Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis. I related these events to him at dinner on March 31, and he confirmed, based on his own contacts, that the Libyans were serious. I particularly asked about a tall, Westernized Libyan who then had the title of deputy foreign minister and who had been my constant escort in Tripoli. Gianni said: "This is Mussa Kusa. He is the most dangerous man in the world." Mussa Kusa is now head of Libyan intelligence and the principal contact between his government and the second Bush administration.

I immediately relayed the terms of these discussions to the State Department and was firmly told, once again, that there would be no discussions, even in exchange for the Pan Am bombers, with the government of Libya. Case closed.

I anticipate obvious questions in response to these facts. Why me? The only plausible explanation is that I had publicly condemned (based largely on my experience on the Church committee, which revealed previous assassination plots) President Reagan's attempt to assassinate Gaddafi by long-range bomber in 1986. Was I singled out? Not really; others had been approached. Do I believe the offer was rejected because the Swiss would demand jurisdiction over the bombers in the 40 feet between airplanes? Not in the least. Was the offer rejected because the intermediary was a Democrat? The first Bush administration will have to respond to that question.

In 2001, Megrahi was convicted of carrying out the bombing and sentenced to life in prison. Fhimah was acquitted.

This account suggests, and strongly so, only one thing: We might have brought the Pan Am bombers to justice, and quite possibly have moved Libya out of its renegade status, much sooner than we have. At the very least it calls into serious question the assertion that Libya changed direction as a result of our preemptive invasion of Iraq.

Author's e-mail: samekg@coudert.com . Gary Hart, a former Democratic senator from Colorado, is senior counsel to Coudert Brothers, an international law firm.