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Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said limited contacts between former senior U.S. officials and members of Col. Gadhafi’s regime are not inappropriate.

“I have absolutely no problem with a former American official advising Gadhafi, so long as he was advising him to not massacre prisoners as he did shortly after this purported meeting took place,” Mr. Malinowski said.

“For all I know, that was 90 percent of what they talked about. Anything beyond that sort of thing, though, I don’t think would be appropriate.”

David Mack, a former senior U.S. diplomat who specialized in the Arab world, said: “It’s very normal for Libyans who knew David Welch when he was assistant secretary, and that includes Libyans with the National Transitional Council, to have reached out to Welch and for him to say he has received the message.”

Mr. Mack said having a meeting does not mean Mr. Welch would have said everything he is purported to have said according to the notes disclosed by Al-Jazeera.

Mr. Malinowski said he was hopeful about one element of the Al-Jazeera story. “The one good thing about this story is that the reporter said a guard tried to stop him when he was trying to leave the building with these documents,” he said. “The documents in that ministry are important historical records of the Gadhafi regime that will be needed for any future truth telling and justice process.”

The United States began normalizing ties with Libya in 2004 when President Bush lifted many U.S. sanctions against Libya by executive order. However, the first U.S. ambassador to Tripoli since 1972 was not sent until the end of 2008 after Col. Gadhafi paid $1.5 billion to the victims of terrorism his regime had once sponsored.