In the middle of October 2001, Ben Bonk, a CIA lifer, quietly entered a baronial home on Regents Park in London for a meeting he hoped would be the start of something. The house belonged to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a nephew of Saudi Arabias de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, and, for 18 years, the kingdoms ambassador to the United States. At 52, Bandar, a close confidant of both Bushes, is a person of profound complexities, a cheery, educated man of enormous appetites. An omniscient observer could have spotted him recently walking the sidelines of an NFL game or dining and smoking cigars in the West Wing. (A sharp eye might spot a driver stopping by Riggs Bank in Washington on a certain day each month to pick up a suitcase with $50,000 in cash that Bandar doles out to friends, relatives, and Saudi operatives in the United States.)
Bandar is also a man who gets things done, and he builds relationships that rest on his consistent effectiveness. This day, he was brokering an important sit-down at his house. He welcomed Bonk and ushered him into a stately parlor. Waiting there was an elegant, hand-tailored, smiling embodiment of the dark side.
Exciting, about those Spartans, said Musa Kousa.
Bonk laughed. Yeah, we waited a long time. Since Magic.
Both men had been at Michigan State. Bonk had graduated in 1976, the year before Magic Johnson arrived. Kousa, a rabid basketball fan, had worked toward a masters degree in sociology until 1973. Kousas thesis, handed in a few years later, was a keeper, the kind that professors make a copy of and store in a drawer. It wasnt so much the trenchant analysis, though there was some of that in 209 pages with footnotes. It was the research. Kousa, born in Tripoli, Libya, to a prominent family, had been able to interview his subject: Moammar Gadhafi.
Bonk had spent nearly two decades traveling the world for the CIA, especially the Arab world. He had married briefly, divorcedlike so many agentsand moved up quickly through the agencys ranks. By 2000, he was deputy director of the CIAs Counter-Terrorist Centera soft-spoken, steady counterpoint to the flamboyant director of the center, Cofer Black. Ever reliable and precise, it was Bonk who, along with Deputy Director John McLaughlin, camped at Bushs ranch in September 2000two months before the electionto carefully tell the Republican nominee state secrets. (It is standard for presidential nominees to be briefed prior to the election.) Bonk grimly informed Bush that during the coming four years, Americans would certainly die in terrorist acts planned or simply inspired by Osama bin Laden.
Kousa had gone from Lansing to Libya to work for Gadhafi. By 1980, he was head of the Libyan Mission in Englandessentially Libyas ambassador to the United Kingdom. In an extraordinary interview with The Times of London, Kousa had told a reporter that Libya supported the IRA and that two Libyan opponents of Gadhafi living in London would be killed. He was summarily expelled from the country. Soon thereafter, the two Libyans were found dead in London. Other Libyan dissidents were killed across Europe in the coming year.
In the 1980s, Gadhafi was looking to be a player on the world stage, and terror was his means. By the mid-80s, Ronald Reagan was calling Gadhafi the most dangerous man in the world. The United States bombed Libya in 1986an attack that killed Gadhafis daughter and injured two of his sonsin retaliation for his having bombed a nightclub in Germany. Onerous unilateral sanctions were placed on the country.
Then, in December 1988, the United States suffered one of the worst acts of terrorism it would experience prior to 9/11: the explosion of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland. The attack killed 270 people, mostly Americansincluding 35 students from Syracuse University. Among the planners of the attack had been one of Bonks fellow Spartans: Musa Kousa.
That, at least, was the consensus of every significant intelligence agency in the West. The Lockerbie flight had taken place in an era when Kousa was deputy head of Libyan intelligence. And Kousa was soon implicated by the French and British intelligence in yet another disaster: the blowing up of a French airliner, UTA 772, over Niger in 1989. The death toll was 170.
By the end of the 1980s, Gadhafi had destroyed Libyas relations with much of the world, and the isolation had seemed to be irreversible. But things changed by the end of the following decade. In 1998, George Tenet, just a year into his directorship of the CIA, and John McLaughlin, his deputy director for intelligence, had flown to Jiddah to meet with Bandar. In the ambassadors sprawling home, which McLaughlin compares to Disney World, with flying monkeys and giant TV screens, Bandar mentioned hed chatted recently with Gadhafi. I think he might want to talk, Bandar said. Hes tired of being alone.
Bandar was right. The following year, Musa Kousa had slipped into Geneva, where hed met with Bonk. What became clear to Bonk was that the Libyans had grown tired of being excluded from the world community. They were unable to send their privileged sons abroad to U.S. colleges, and they were suffocating under sanctions that limited everything from dry goods to key parts for oil refineries, many of which had slipped into disrepair. Bruce Riedel, a director on Clintons National Security Council, soon became engaged on the policy side, beginning discussions about settling Lockerbie. All of it had to be handled in utmost secrecy: Families of the Lockerbie victims had long since organized into a fierce, somewhat unruly advocacy group, lobbying for arrests, sanctions, and anything that would amount to a facsimile of justice. Notice of a dialogue with the monsters from Tripoli would have summoned a righteous explosion from families whose loved ones looked on from pictures on night tables, from home movies and fading memories.
Then came 9/11, and the dialogue was dramatically transformed. The United States and its Western allies were suddenly in serious need of one thing Libya could provide: intelligence.
And so it was that Kousa, 21 years after his expulsion from England and a month after 9/11, wound up stepping off the plane at Heathrow to be greeted by a delegation of top officials from the diplomatic and intelligence arms of both Britain and America. In his arms were dossiers with the names and locations of Islamic terrorists in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
Getting past Lockerbie
Back theyd gonenow a sizable crowdto Bandars place, a neutral ground, courtesy of the Saudis. It was three days after the United States had begun bombing the Afghanistan refuge of al Qaeda. The morning meetings between Kousa and William Burns, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, dealt with payments to the Lockerbie families, whether the Libyans would admit culpability for the attack, and a quid pro quo of disarmament. Libya was widely known to have chemical weapons of mass destruction, and maybe biological agents. Kousa, told that all of it would have to be given up, was noncommittal but attentive. His country was run by one manand that man needed to agree to all of this.
It wasnt until the late afternoon that Musa Kousa and Ben Bonk had gotten to sit down and chat about Mateen Cleaves, point guard on Michigan States 2000 team, how he dominated Florida in the NCAA Championship gamegiving the school its first national title since Magic led them over Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979.
This wasnt just throat-clearing. To understand the war on terror and the ethical dilemmas of dealing on the dark side, you need to be at this table, inside the mansion of an ambassador from the home country of 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers, talking to a smiling, stylish gentleman who allegedly killed a planeful of passengers before they had a chance to put down their tray tables. There are families of those kids on the Lockerbie flight whoif they happen to read this short passagemay curse. Or vomit. Musa Kousa and his boss inhabit their nightmares. Can such behaviorthe slaughter of innocentsever be forgiven? Does being able to sit and talk basketball with a representative of the U.S. government represent a kind of absolution?
But America was in need. A second wave of attacks was anticipated, and U.S. intelligence assets in the Arab world were thin. They needed expert eyesand expertise comes in many guises.
Look, Musa, you can put Lockerbie past you, Ben said. We want it settled. You want it settled. We need to move past that now.
Kousa seemed relievedhed waited years to hear what Bonk had just said. The Libyans were ready to payand pay handsomelyto make reparations to the families of those who died. We want to get past it, too, Benny.
Then Bonk got deadly serious. Everything has changed after 9/11, he said. Two things. Were going to need you to give up your destructive weapons. And, most importantly, well need assistance to fight the terrorists. Kousa said he understood, and, that evening, he gave Bonk key names, including that of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a Libyan operative who would soon be the first major U.S. capture in the so-called war on terror, and several others that would help the U.S. government unwind a Pakistani group involved in the spreading of nuclear-weapons technology to other Muslim countries.
Overtures from Gadhafi
Libyan cooperation on these intelligence finds marked the most significant gesture of reconciliation between Gadhafi and the United States to date. Nevertheless, while it suggested an imminent breakthrough in relations, with the possibility of a comprehensive agreement, progress wound up being slow. The first issueto quietly settle the financial settlement for the Lockerbee families and decide what Libya would or would not admit tostretched through the coming year.
Also, Bonk left CTC in January 2002 to head up the CIAs Mideast division for the Directorate of Intelligence. With a key connector to the Libyans and Musa Kousa having been repurposedas they say in bureaucratesecontact between the CIA and Libyans dwindled throughout 2002. No one, it seemed, was on hand to fill the breach.
Not until March of 2003 did things get moving again. That month, Tony Blair contacted George Bush with news that the Libyans had given the British government a message: Gadhafi now wanted to get personally involved in the negotiations. Gadhafi himself? That was a surprise.
With talks having been jumpstarted, Tenet needed someone to go to Tripoli and pursue a deal with the Libyans. The person he found was Steve Kappes, a respected operator with 22 years of experience in the CIAs clandestine service, a college football lineman and former Marine with a ramrod-straight carriage, soft voice, and gift for terse, verbal precision. He was, at that point, associate deputy director for operationsnumber two in the Directorate of Operations (DO)and being groomed to take over the top DO job. When Tenet brought Kappes to the Oval office in late March, Bush took an immediate liking to the former Marine, who seemed like a man who was not easily impressed or easily swayed.
Bush, Dick Cheney, Tenet, and Kappes talked over the coming days about some of the complexities of a disarmament negotiation with the Libyan leader. Everyone saw opportunities, but also perils. Dealing with Gadhafi would be challenging. He had absolute power in Libya and could shape a situation, and the people under him, in any way he liked. His assurances, if he made any, might be difficult to collect on. Cheney, in particular, voiced skepticism. He was thinking of the broad, unspoken U.S. strategy of altering the behavior of sovereign states through the use of U.S. force. Gadhafi had behaved badly for a long time, Cheney said, and you dont want to reward bad behavior with an agreement or a suggestion of absolution.
All of these discussions were also taking place at a time when U.S. troops were massing in the Persian Gulf to invade a rogue state. What did it mean, then, that Moammar Gadhafis men were making overtures to accelerate the negotiations about disarmament? Was it a vindication of the coming war? Did it show that an outlaw state was ready to bend to Americas new rules and new order? Or was it a matter of coincidence?
Bush, for his part, said he saw Gadhafis offer to engage in the talks as proof that Iraq was a game changer. But several foreign policy and intelligence advisers told Bush they viewed it in a different light. Iraq may have been a modest contributing factor, they said, but if the United States hadnt long insisted that the financial settlement be completed before getting to disarmament, Gadhafi might have made this move years ago. Bush nodded along. All that would be immaterial. The timing of Gadhafis overture would speak volumes, whatever the underlying reality. The key, he said, was to make sure we get some deliverable from this process. Then, an announcement could be made that the new Pax Americana was working, with Libya as proof. That, alone, would shape behavior. It wasnt just a matter of presentation. Perception managementthe sending of a signal to the worldwas the goal.
Perceptions aside, disarmament had been the goal of a long, patient conversation, dating back to secret negotiations between the United States and Libya in 1992 over the Lockerbie crash, to Bandars meeting with Tenet and McLaughlin in 1998 in Jiddah, to Ben Bonks liaison with Musa Kousa on intelligence issues in the months after 9/11. Bonk and Kousas conversations, productive though they were, had been running on a separate track from another crucial dialogue: a final settlement with the Lockerbie families. That had to be completed first, U.S. and British diplomats agreed, and taken off the table before negotiations about Libyas disarmament could commence in earnest. It needed to be one step completed, before the next could begin, said a senior State Department official involved in the talks. You didnt want these families and their compensation to be mixed with the dismantling of chemical weapons facilities. That hurdle had finally been overcome, quietly, in May 2002. The agreement that was reached wouldnt appease the families or lessen the anger and grief that had driven the sanctions against Libya for nearly 15 years, but it was money. Each family of a Lockerbie victim would receive $10 million, for a total Libyan payout of $2.7 billion. Now, finally, Libya and the United States could talk about disarmament in earnest.
For the job of pursuing the deal, Bush agreed with Tenet that Kappes would be a good choice to negotiate with the megalomanical Gadhafi. Clearly, Kappes was a man who could keep a secret, and Bush gave him one: No one at State or Defense, not even Rumsfeld or Powell, should know about this major initiative. No one.
Watching the neighbors get rich
For the man with whom Kappes would be dealing, the choice was not about whether to disarm. Gadhafi knew hed have to in order to win the sanction-free international acceptance he craved. It was how to do it in a way that wouldnt make him seem diminished among the Libyan people, as well as other Arab nations, and wouldnt make his previous decisionswhich had created more than a decade of sanctions and isolation for his countryseem misguided.
Gadhafi came to power in a bloodless military coup in 1969 and has always seen himself as a visionary leader, espousing his own political system, the Third Universal Theory, which combined socialism and a brand of Islam drawn from the countrys tribal practices that he expected to be implemented by Libyan people in a form of direct democracy. He used oil money in the 70s and 80s to promote this vision abroad, funding terrorism that he felt, with messianic grandeur, would bring the end to capitalism and communism.
What occurred, instead, was international censure and sanctions. In 1986, even before Lockerbie, the United States imposed bans on business transactions with Libya and travel to the country. Starting in 1992, the United Nations imposed an arms and air embargo and banned the export of equipment for oil refining to the country. This seemed to trap Libya in a sandy box while its neighbors grew fast on 90s oil money. The countrys per capita GDP in 2003 of around $6,400 was lower than many of the regions OPEC nations and unevenly distributed in a poorly diversified economy. The countryslightly larger than Alaska, with a population of six million, 97 percent of them Sunni, and with 54 percent of its gross domestic product coming from oil exportsis more a Bedouin desert kingdom than some of its Arab brethren. Under the sanctions, the oil business was flagging, as Libya was having trouble getting engineers and spare parts to keep the wells flowing at top capacity. That was causing economic hardship and leading to the growth of clandestine opposition groups.
Mindful of the pressures Gadhafi faced domestically, Kappes and his associates proceeded delicately. Throughout the summer, Steve Kappes and his British counterpart, MI6 counterterrorism chief Mark Allen, whistle-stopped the globe, meeting with Kousa and other Libyan fixers in a dance of shared interests. Kousa, like Kappes, seemed to want to get the headstrong Libyan leader to the table to construct an agreement. The men talked about different proffers, different tactics, things that might sweeten the deal, and, most often, the mind of Gadhafi.
Later that summer, Kappes and Allen met in Tripoli with Gadhafi for the first time. During the meeting, they pressed him for specifics on Libyan weapons. That Gadhafi had chemical agents, especially mustard gas, was commonly known. Whether he had a delivery system that was effective, and in sound working order, was another matter. Through a key source inside Pakistani nuclear entrepreneur A.Q. Khans network, however, they knew that he had collected a warehouse or two of centrifuge parts. Yet the Libyan leader was coy about the full extent of his weaponry, both chemical and nuclear. The team asked the weapons question countless times. And Gadhafi answered in countless ways, while tapping his substantial charismahis legitimacy, as Kousa would say. There were not only the issues of what Libya might do, Gadhafi said at one point, but also issues of what it should do as a sovereign state. Who, also, would ensure the countrys security if neighbors did not subscribe to Gadhafis newly enlightened stance of disarmament? What is the nature of binding agreements between independent states, and what are the limits of such agreements? And around the talks went.
With any dictator or authoritarian, there is the primacy of personality, writ large by power. Whatever the material points of dispute, Gadhafi, in a way, seemed to relish the encounters, turning to Kappes and Allen as proxies for the type of high-level, first-world engagements he was starved for. It was that need, as much as any, that initially brought him to the table.
After one high-stress visit in the late summer, Kappes returned to Langley after an all-might flight, snappily attired and clear-eyed, and met John Moseman, Tenets chief of staff, in the hallway.
Youre looking amazingly fresh, Moseman said, after days of combat with Gadhafi.
Call me crazy, John, Kappes replied, but I think Im beginning to like this guy.
How both sides could save face
Friendly as the talks had been, however, tangible progress was slow in coming. By late September 2003, Libya had still not presented the deliverable Bush needed: a humbled, acquiescent Gadhafi succumbing to the new world order. Nor would Gadhafi admit to possessing the nuclear program that that United States knew he did. Even the Lockerbie settlement was turning out to be full of obstacles. Although the U.N. sanctions were due to be lifted that September, the United States wanted more concessions before lifting its own unilateral sanctions against the country. Libya had to give up its weapons, cut ties with terrorist groups, and make a forceful public statement of its changed intentions and character. As for Gadhafi, unless the United States joined the United Nations in lifting sanctions, he would not fully pay the Lockerbie settlement. And so it stood.
The breakthrough didnt happen until October 2003, when a U.S. warship intercepted a ship called the BBC China, which was headed from Dubai carrying centrifuge equipment earmarked for Libya. The takedown of the shipthe product of CIAs years-long infiltration of A. Q. Khans networkchanged the game. Now, Gadhafi had a reason to admit publicly to his clandestine program, and with less embarrassment. Getting found out sometimes happens, after all.
At the next session at the negotiating table in Tripoli, the Libyan leader offered Kappes and Allen a Cheshire cats smile, and progress picked up. Using the seizure as a starting point, as others were doing publicly, Gadhafi laid out what the United States and Britain secretly knew, for the most part, about his nuclear program. In November, some of the particulars of his disarmament protocol were decided. By December, the United States and Britain would be touring Libyan facilities, along with representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency. They looked at centrifuge parts and components, many of them still crated. In exchange, Gadhafi got what he wanted: The sanctions were lifted. Among the countrys ruling elite, the whole matter was viewed as being artfully handled, with no discernible loss of face by the leader of the revolution.
As for George W. Bush, he wound up getting to say, countless times, the thing he desperately wanted to say to help offset the crumbling Iraq experiment, a measurable face-saving aria: that Gadhafi had given up his weapons because of how the U.S. invasion of Iraq had changed the landscape.
Of course, neither Bush nor Gadhafi was really telling the truth. The key to the agreement between the two sidesall but written into the fine printwas that each would get to save face. Naturally, this is always a primary goal of nations and their leaders, whether they are democratic or authoritarian. And so the White House worked diligently to make the case that Libyas disarmament would not have happened without the show of force in Iraq. As the Bush administration well knew, however, the breakthrough had occurred mainly because a resistance to reward[ing] bad behavior had, for once, been overcome. In other words, much to the chagrin of White House hawks, the disarming of Gadhafi wasnt due to the Bush administration following its new rules for angrily confronting rogue states. It was due to the Bush administration setting them, for once, aside.