WASHINGTON — Dozens of confidential and secret cables sent in recent years by the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli to the State Department describe a softer and gentler Libya that Americans following the bloody crisis there now would have a hard time recognizing.
Moammar Gadhafi's son Saif al Islam, who's become the most vehement defender of his father's vicious onslaughts against protesters that triggered the civil war, is portrayed as a human rights advocate and reformer on the losing end of a battle with his harder line brother, Muatassim, Moammar Gadhafi's national security adviser.
Musa Kusa, the former foreign minister who recently defected to Britain, is called a "useful" and "powerful interlocutor" who seeks closer ties with the U.S. But there is no mention of his suspected roles in patronizing international terrorist groups, the 1988 midair bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 190 Americans or the 1989 downing of a plane in Africa that killed the wife of a U.S. ambassador.
The cables, part of a cache of 251,287 sensitive U.S. diplomatic communications that the WikiLeaks website first began publishing in November and that it recently passed to McClatchy, also describe the problems encountered by U.S. officials charged with trying to foster military, trade and counterterrorism cooperation with Libya.
Mike Hammer, the acting State Department spokesman, declined to comment specifically on the cables' contents.
"The United States strongly condemns any illegal disclosure of classified information," he said in an email. "In addition to damaging our diplomatic efforts, it puts individuals' security at risk, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with countries to solve shared problems. We do not comment on the authenticity of the documents released by WikiLeaks."
Taken as a whole, the cables lift the veil on quiet but persistent efforts by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama to end Gadhafi's decades of isolation and enlist his cooperation in fighting terrorism and resolving regional conflicts. But in light of current events, they also raise questions about whether U.S. officials were so focused on that mission that they were blind to the ruthlessness with which the regime would crush any challenge to its power.
The views reflected in the cables sent during the Bush and Obama administrations contrast sharply with the views expressed during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
A 12-page November 1991 "white paper" that U.S. embassies were instructed to share with their host governments during the George H.W. Bush presidency recited a litany of terrorist acts blamed on Libya, including the Lockerbie bombing and the September 1989 midair bombing that killed 171 people, including Bonnie Pugh, the wife of the then U.S. ambassador to Chad, Robert Pugh.
The cable identified Kusa by name as a Gadhafi "confidant" who headed the Anti-Imperialism Center, which, the paper said, "is used by the Libyan government to support terrorist networks."
The goal of that cable was to gain support for international sanctions to isolate Gadhafi's regime. But that goal had changed substantially 18 years later.
A cable quotes Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman as having told Kusa at a July 27, 2009, meeting in Tripoli that the U.S. seeks "to press the relationship forward by establishing a series of dialogues on human rights, political-military relations, trade and investment, and civil-nuclear engagement."
Feltman even held out the possibility that Obama would meet with Moammar Gadhafi during the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York that September.
But prospects of progress were repeatedly dashed by a regime that reflected the mercurial and unpredictable nature of its leader, the cables show.
For instance, the regime reneged on assurances to U.S. officials that the intelligence agent convicted of the Lockerbie bombing would receive a low-key reception after his Aug. 20, 2009, release from a Scottish prison on health grounds. Instead, Abdel Bassett al Megrahi received a hero's welcome, triggering angry condemnation from Obama.
In November 2009, the Gadhafi regime resorted to what amounted to nuclear blackmail in an unsuccessful bid to strong-arm the Obama administration into selling Libya U.S. weapons and funding the construction of a nuclear medicine center.
At the last moment, the regime refused on Nov. 25 to allow the last 12 pounds of highly enriched uranium from its abandoned nuclear arms program to be flown to Russia for disposal, prompting U.S. experts to warn that the overheating material would rupture the shipment casks and leak in an "environmental disaster."
Two days later, Saif Gadhafi told U.S. Ambassador Gene A. Cretz that the shipment, which was protected by a single armed guard, had been stopped because Libya was "fed up" with the slow pace of bilateral normalization and a U.S. failure to reward the regime for giving up its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
Saif Gadhafi also relayed a litany of other perceived U.S. slights, including a U.S. refusal to allow his father to stay in a tent while he attended the U.N. General Assembly session two months earlier, Cretz wrote in a Nov. 30, 2009, cable.
"Libya sought a high-level reaffirmation of the United States' commitment to the bilateral relationship, in the form of a message to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in order to move forward on the HEU shipment," Cretz wrote.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed U.S. intentions to expand relations in a Dec. 3, 2009, telephone call to Kusa, and the HEU shipment was flown to Russia, according to a Dec. 7, 2009, cable signed by the embassy's No. 2 official, Joan A. Polaschik. The cable said that Saif Gadhafi's chief of staff, Mohamed Ismail Ahmed, had told another embassy official that "the secretary's Dec. 3 call to Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa had expressed the statement of commitment requested by Saif during his recent meeting with the ambassador."
There is no indication in the cables that Kusa's suspected role in terrorist incidents ever came up in his frequent meetings with U.S. officials after the George W. Bush administration reestablished diplomatic relations with Libya in May 2005.
According to the 1991 White Paper, Kusa, who became foreign minister in March 2009, had, as head of the Anti-Imperialism Center, overseen the provision of training, arms and other support to the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal and other Middle Eastern and Latin American terrorist groups.
By 2005, however, U.S. officials were much more concerned about Gadhafi's agreement to give up secret chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. Gadhafi also was quietly helping the U.S.-led fight against al Qaida, which counted numerous Libyans in its ranks.
A June 25, 2008, cable authored by the U.S. charge in Tripoli, Chris Stevens, said that Libya's foreign intelligence service, which Kusa then oversaw, was working closely with Syria to stop Libyans from crossing into Iraq to fight U.S. troops.
Information provided by Kusa's agency "suggests that over 100 Libyan foreign fighters have been transferred from Syria to the custody of the GOL (government of Libya) in the past two years," Stevens wrote. Stevens is now the special U.S. envoy to the Libyan rebel leadership.
The embassy's "assessment is that the GOL has calculated that returning extremists pose a potentially serious threat to the regime's stability, and that efforts to stem the flow of Libyan foreign fighters to Iraq are in its strategic interest," Stevens wrote.
It wasn't just the administration that was pushing to improve ties with Tripoli.
An Aug. 31, 2006, cable summarizes the second visit to Libya in as many years by the late Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., then the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee.
Lantos is quoted as telling Libyan officials that having seen Libya removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and full diplomatic relations re-established, "his next goal is to increase the number of Libyan students studying in America from 150 . . . to 6,000 over the next three years."
Meeting with Saif Gadhafi, Lantos was quoted as saying he was "very proud" of a speech that Gadhafi's son had made earlier that week calling for major political and economic reforms.
Numerous cables discuss Saif Gadhafi's advocacy of a freer news media, the adoption of a revised constitution and his support for closer ties with the U.S., and the opposition he encountered from his father's more conservative lieutenants.
Once seen as Moammar Gadhafi's hand-picked heir, Saif Gadhafi is described as losing a succession struggle to his younger, less sophisticated brother, Muatassim, who apparently gained the support of his father and the conservatives.
In a June 18, 2009, cable, Cretz, the U.S. ambassador, says that a regime takeover of Saif Gadhafi's media company, the al Ghad Group, represented the "end of nominally independent media in Libya" and a "serious blow" to Saif Gadhafi. The takeover, the cable said of Saif Gadhafi, shows "the limits of the 'soft power' approach he has taken in his effort to effect political-economic reform."
The loss of the company, Cretz said, followed a Cabinet reshuffle that preserved a conservative as prime minister and the rejection by the Libyan parliament of a new constitution that Saif Gadhafi had drafted.
"The seizure of the al Ghad Group is a significant development in the context of the ongoing struggle for primacy between Saif al Islam and Muatassim," Cretz wrote. "It is of a piece of the view that while Muatassim's star is waxing, Saif al Islam's is waning."
The cables describe the frictions between the conservatives and more moderate officials as extending to ties with the U.S. The former are resistant and the later want better relations, albeit in exchange for sales of U.S. military hardware and U.S. funds for civilian nuclear technology that they believe Libya deserves as rewards for giving up its weapons of mass destruction programs.
In a Jan. 15. 2009, cable, Cretz relates a conversation in which a senior Libyan official expresses his "private view" that "Libya would miss its window of opportunity for expanded cooperation and engagement with the U.S. because of disorganization within the regime and lingering ambivalence about the nature of the relationship Libya wants."
The official, whose name McClatchy is withholding for safety reasons, told Cretz there was a "pro-U.S. camp and a group that remained suspicious of U.S. motives and steadfastly opposed to a broader suite of engagement."
The pro-U.S. group included Gadhafi, Saif al Islam and Muatassim, the cable said.