Libya's foreign minister and one of Col. Moammar Gadhafi's closest henchmen, Musa Kusa, defected to Britain on Wednesday, according to the British Foreign Office and U.S. officials.
Mr. Kusa arrived by aircraft from Tunisia at Farnborough Airport, about 35 miles from London, the Foreign Office said in a statement. "He has told us that he is resigning his post," the statement said. "We are discussing this with him and we will release further details in due course."
In Tripoli, a Libyan government spokesman denied the defection and said the foreign minister was on a diplomatic mission, the Associated Press reported.
The defection marks a major setback for Col. Gadhafi and his regime that has battled to survive a rebellion and U.S. and allied airstrikes now entering a second week under NATO command.
Disclosure of the key Libyan government defection comes as a press report said President Obama this month approved a covert action intelligence "finding" that would authorize the U.S. arming of Libya's rebel fighters. A U.S. intelligence official confirmed the report by Reuters news agency to The Washington Times.
The White House issued a statement late Wednesday saying Mr. Obama has not yet decided whether to begin arming the rebel forces in Libya that many coalition officials fear may include some jihadists in their ranks.
The statement, however, declined to comment on intelligence matters.
Intelligence findings are required by Congress since the 1970s to launch covert action programs that can include arms shipments or political activities. They are signed by the president, who must report that he "finds" the operation in the U.S. national interest before the operations can take place.
Robert Joseph, a former State Department and White House national security policymaker in the George W. Bush administration who dealt with Mr. Kusa in the operation to dismantle Libya's nuclear program, said the Libyan foreign minister's arrival in London is significant.
"In terms of his role, my sense is that next to Gadhafi's sons, he is one of the principle advisers and most influential men in the regime," Mr. Joseph said in an interview.
"If it is a defection, that it is an indication that Gadhafi is in a desperate situation because Musa Kusa has been a stalwart of the regime for decades."
In the 1980s, Mr. Kusa was identified by Western intelligence agencies as being the mastermind behind the terrorist plot to bomb Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 that killed 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland.
In 2003, however, Mr. Kusa emerged as a key interlocutor between Libya, British intelligence and the CIA in the secret deal that led Col. Gadhafi to give up his nuclear program and most of his chemical and biological weapons. In the current crisis, one U.S. intelligence official said he has not played a major role.
A senior administration official said Wednesday, "This is a very significant defection and an indication that people around Gadhafi think the writing is on the wall."
Alternatively, Mr. Kusa's arrival in London also could signal that he is negotiating a safe landing for Col. Gadhafi some place outside of Libya, although most analysts doubt the Libyan leader will flee the country.
A second former national security official familiar with Mr. Kusa said the former Libyan intelligence chief could provide a windfall of information.
Mr. Kusa had intimate knowledge of the covert nuclear supplier network headed by Pakistan's A.Q. Khan and also knows other covert supplier networks being used by Syria, Iran and North Korea, this former official said.
"It would be a huge intelligence coup, not only for what's going on now, but in looking at international WMD trafficking," the former official said. "Kusa has access to data on chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, biological weapons and the clandestine networks that supply them. That's powerful information."
Mr. Kusa, if he cooperates fully in exchange for asylum and immunity from prosecution, will boost intelligence on Col. Gadhafi's state of mind, his plans to try to hold on to power and other strategic intelligence for the military operations now under way.
The defection "would represent the first real crack in the Gadhafi inner circle," said this former official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The intelligence he would bring with him, if he is willing to share it to save the Libyan people, would be of massive help to the coalition."
Mr. Kusa's defection also would likely cause other close civilian and military aides to question their loyalty to Col. Gadhafi, the former official said.
The British would face a daunting task of negotiating Col. Gadhafi's flight from Libya because of the history of the Lockerbie bombing and the release of one of the Libyans convicted in the bombing, the former official said.
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