How US, British intelligence worked to bring Qaddafi's Libya in from the cold

Documents uncovered by Human Rights Watch in Tripoli detail how the CIA and Britain’s MI6 worked to develop warm ties with Libya's Muammar Qaddafi after he vowed to give up weapons of mass destruction.

By , Staff writer

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    The abandoned offices of the Libyan intelligence service, where activists say they have found evidence of CIA involvement with the fallen Libyan regime.
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The toppling of Col. Muammar Qaddafi is yielding a trove of Libyan intelligence documents that provide rare insight into American and British spy agencies – and the rendition of terror suspects to a regime known for human rights abuses.

Nearly 300 pages of documents, copied by Human Rights Watch (HRW) from the offices of Libya’s external security service, provide unprecedented detail about how the CIA and Britain’s MI6 worked closely to bring Libya "on side" and turn a brutal regime from foe into friend after Mr. Qaddafi in 2003 vowed to give up weapons of mass destruction, end support of militant groups, and take on Al Qaeda.

Part of that effort was forcibly returning to Libya key opponents of the regime – including the Libyan who today commands anti-Qaddafi forces in Tripoli – despite knowing the conditions those suspects would face.

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“MI6 and the CIA knew absolutely how much torture was taking place. They knew that these people would be abused in custody when they were sent back to Libya,” says Peter Bouckaert, the HRW emergencies director who copied the documents in Tripoli and shared them with the Monitor and other media.

“Why else would you hand them over to the Libyans? You captured him, you have all of your black sites anyway, but you offered him to the Libyans,” says Mr. Bouckaert, whose organization aims to ensure that all Libya’s intelligence and government archives are secured as rebel forces extend control across the country. “Of course the [CIA] letters say, ‘Please commit to us that you will respect their human rights.’ But that’s just talk.”

Neither American nor British officials deny the authenticity of the fax exchanges between them and the office of Libya’s then-intelligence chief Moussa Koussa. Some begin informally: “Dear Musa,” or “Greetings from the British Security Service.”

A CIA statement this weekend said: “It can’t come as a surprise that the Central Intelligence Agency works with foreign governments to help protect our country from terrorism and other deadly threats.”

Details of the exchanges

Often couched in friendly language, the US and UK intelligence correspondence with the Qaddafi regime describe:

  • How CIA and MI6 agents “rendered” to Tripoli for interrogation several top members of the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Among them was its leader, Abdulhakim Belhadj, who today is the commander of anti-regime forces in the capital.

Mr. Belhadj accuses those agents of abuse and torture, and then details further suffering during seven years in prison. He has said repeatedly that history will not tarnish US and UK relations with the post-Qaddafi Libya, though one document is a letter of congratulations about Belhadj’s rendition, sent to Tripoli by British MI6 counterterrorism chief Mark Allen, who said it was “the least we could do for you” in light of increasing Libyan intelligence cooperation.

As well as asking for direct access to detainees after their handover, the CIA provided lists of dozens of questions to be asked during interrogations by Libyan agents. Many CIA documents were signed “Steve,” the first name of Steve Kappes, the CIA’s top operative at the time who helped supervise the controversial US rendition program, and whose home phone number was shared with the Libyans.

  • The mechanics of rendition, and how meticulous planning was required to overcome legal and logistical obstacles from as far afield as Malaysia and Hong Kong to secretly detain suspects and deliver them to Libya.

Libyan agents accompanying an American team for the March 8, 2004, rendition of Mr. Belhadj and his pregnant wife from Bangkok, for example, were “respectfully” requested to “closely follow the instructions of the US personnel to avoid any potential problems on board the aircraft.”

The faxed letter from the CIA – labeled “Secret Release Libya Only” – asked the Libyan agents to “refrain” from bringing weapons, cameras, or recording devices of any kind, and made clear that US officers were in charge until arrival in Tripoli.

  • How the US and Britain in 2003 and 2004 used a growing series of intelligence exchanges with Libya to convince Qaddafi that his decision to work with the West was worthwhile. A fax from the CIA dated March 25, 2004, requested setting up a permanent presence in Tripoli, and noted that “we talked about it quite some time.” It added that the CIA was also “eager to work with you in the questioning of the terrorist [Belhadj] we recently rendered to your country.”

Less than two weeks later, on April 6, 2004, another faxed request from the CIA asked for swift access to Iraqi scientists believed to have information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs. It stated that Libya’s cooperation would be “yet another opportunity to move forward to a new level in our relationship.” Already, the CIA said, “our security dialogue remains particularly robust.”

  • How US and British intelligence teams analyzed equipment from Libya’s nascent nuclear weapons program, and in late 2003 and early 2004 found traces of highly enriched uranium (HEU) purified to 92 percent – levels high enough for use in an atomic bomb, though far greater quantities would have been needed. CIA analysts determined that the HEU was “not the result of Libyan research and development,” but from contaminated units purchased abroad. The agency warned, however, that the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, “may look skeptically on claims of foreign contamination” because Iran made similar claims about similar traces of HEU.

The CIA advised, in its Feb. 5, 2004, missive: “Our recommendation is that, unlike Iran, you should be completely open with us and with the IAEA [about] how those contaminated components were acquired.”

  • How how the CIA, MI6 and the Qaddafi regime shared intelligence about Al Qaeda plots. The Americans informed the Libyans in April 2004 about a “possible Al Qaeda cell in Iraq” that had been “in contact with an operational cell within Libya,” which the CIA wrote was preparing for attacks against US interests in Libya as US-Libya relations improved. It gave the names and a phone number used by the cell, adding that they might be “at an unknown location somewhere in the Libyan desert.”

The Libyans were thanked by the British in June 2003 for the “detailed and very useful information” provided in previous meetings, and then answered questions raised by Tripoli about a Libyan militant based in Italy and arrested in the UK. That man traveled to the UK “to collect a number of forged passports,” likely meant to go to Iran, the British assessed, to facilitate the travel of Al Qaeda operatives there.

On Jan. 17, 2003, the British provided an “intelligence resume” of a UK-based senior member of the LIFG, Ismail Kamoka. He, too, was described as providing support for militants across the Middle East, and in Iran “is reported to have delivered false documentation and correspondence to individuals believed to be associated with Al Qaeda.”

Some 40 or so ranking Al Qaeda leaders were known to have escaped to Iran during the US offensive in Afghanistan in 2001 that ended Taliban rule and largely dismantled Al Qaeda. Shiite Iran claimed to have kept the Sunni militants of Al Qaeda under house arrest, but the documents in Tripoli, apparently based on British wiretaps of operatives in the UK, appear to undermine Iran’s claims that it gave no help to Al Qaeda.

Considering the six-month NATO-led military effort to end 42 years of brutal Qaddafi rule, the most important and potentially embarrassing revelations from the Libyan intelligence archive are how closely the US and British intelligence agencies cultivated their Libyan counterparts.

In the years following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the Bush administration authorized renditions for suspects to many countries where severe interrogation methods and torture were commonplace.

The documents found in Tripoli show that whenever Libyan cooperation with rendition is discussed with the CIA, there is a caveat inserted into the text.

One fax discussing the rendition of a deputy leader of the LIFG and his family from Hong Kong on April 9, 2004, for example, noted that the CIA was “willing to assist financially” to pay for the flight, but in exchange needed assurance that the detainee “will be treated humanely and that his human rights will be respected.”

The planning letter for the capture of Belhadj said the CIA would “appreciate direct access” to him after he was handed over to the Libyans. The letter continued that US officers “cannot condone any significant physical or psychological aspects, such as direct physical contacts, unusual mental duress, unusual physical restraints, or deliberate environmental deprivations beyond those reasonably required.…”

Shedding light on unanswered questions

The documents shed unaccustomed light on one of the darkest chapters of the post-9/11 decade, but were found almost by chance.

“I did not go there to find these documents. We went there to make sure this archive was being preserved,” says Bouckaert of HRW, who describes the intelligence files as a “candy shop” that included wiretaps of every foreign embassy in Tripoli. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about what has happened in Libya the past 42 years: the massacre at Abu Salim [prison, where some 1,200 were killed in 1996], where are the bodies? The Lockerbie bombing. The disappearance of [Shiite cleric] Musa Sadr.

“People go into these offices. It’s the breakdown of a police state and they want to see for themselves what’s inside,” adds Bouckaert. “But they also walk away with souvenirs. One person could walk away with the file that lets us know what happened to the bodies at Abu Salim; we don’t want that tragedy to happen.”

HRW first proved that point in 1991, when it scoured close to 5 million pages of captured Iraqi secret police and intelligence files spirited intact from northern Iraq during the Kurdish uprising. Those files yielded clear evidence that the Iraqi regime engaged in genocide against ethnic Kurds.

While it may be months or years before Libya’s archives yield the many secrets of Qaddafi’s four decades in power, the details of rendition are already having an impact. Most sensitive in Libya will be the case of Belhadj, upon whose shoulders largely rests hopes of a peaceful transition of power in the capital.

On March 4, 2004, the CIA wrote to their Libyan counterparts that they were “working energetically” with the Malaysian government to arrange his extradition. Within hours, the plan was put together to snatch Belhadj and his wife during a flight stopover in Bangkok, after which, the CIA said, it would “be very happy to service your debriefing requirements.”

The “schedule for the rendition” of March 6, 2004, included a plane departing Dulles Airport in Washington, then flying to Tripoli, then onwards to Seychelles for an overnight stay, Bangkok, Diego Garcia, and then Tripoli again. Libyan agents were requested to be English speakers, and told that proper documents were “imperative” for the Seychelles portion.

Mr. Allen, the MI6 counterterrorism chief, wrote on March 18, 2004, to the head of Libyan intelligence, saying it was British intelligence that had ensnared Belhadj.

“I congratulate you on the safe arrival of [Belhadj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years. I am so glad.”

Allegations of torture

Belhadj alleges that he was tortured during his rendition and during seven years in prison. He told the Guardian newspaper on Sunday that British agents were among the first to interrogate him in Tripoli.

“I wasn’t allowed a bath for three years and I didn’t see the sun for one year,” Belhadj told the Guardian. “They hung me from the wall and kept me in an isolation cell. I was regularly tortured.” That torture, Belhadj alleged, included being “put in a container surrounded by ice,” sleep deprivation, and constant noise.

“This will not stop the new Libya having orderly relations with the United States and Britain,” he said. “But it did not need to happen.”

But will cooperation be as close with Libya’s transitional authority – which has relied on US, British, French, Qatari, and other outside intelligence, weapons, and aircraft to overthrow Qaddafi – as it was with the former regime?

One British document dated April 24, 2003, described preparations for a joint CIA-MI6 visit to Tripoli. It pointed out how agents were going out of their way for the visit: “We are chartering a private plane for the journey in order to make our arrival as discreet as possible.”

The Libyans were told that the US-UK team of 10 had not fixed a return date because “the key is to ensure that we have made enough joint progress on this important project … and can assure our respective political masters that this is the case.”

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