First of three parts
Top Pentagon officials and a senior Democrat in Congress so distrusted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2011 march to war in Libya that they opened their own diplomatic channels with the Gadhafi regime in an effort to halt the escalating crisis, according to secret audio recordings recovered from Tripoli.
The tapes, reviewed by The Washington Times and authenticated by the participants, chronicle U.S. officials’ unfiltered conversations with Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s son and a top Libyan leader, including criticisms that Mrs. Clinton had developed tunnel vision and led the U.S. into an unnecessary war without adequately weighing the intelligence community’s concerns.
“You should see these internal State Department reports that are produced in the State Department that go out to the Congress. They’re just full of stupid, stupid facts,” an American intermediary specifically dispatched by the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Gadhafi regime in July 2011, saying the State Department was controlling what intelligence would be reported to U.S. officials.
At the time, the Gadhafi regime was fighting a civil war that grew out of the Arab Spring, battling Islamist-backed rebels who wanted to dethrone the longtime dictator. Mrs. Clinton argued that Gadhafi might engage in genocide and create a humanitarian crisis and ultimately persuaded President Obama, NATO allies and the United Nations to authorize military intervention.
Gadhafi’s son and heir apparent, Seif Gadhafi, told American officials in the secret conversations that he was worried Mrs. Clinton was using false pretenses to justify unseating his father and insisted that the regime had no intention of harming a mass of civilians. He compared Mrs. Clinton’s campaign for war to that of the George W. Bush administration’s now debunked weapons of mass destruction accusations, which were used to lobby Congress to invade Iraq, the tapes show.
“It was like the WMDs in Iraq. It was based on a false report,” Gadhafi said in a May 2011 phone call to Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat serving at the time. “Libyan airplanes bombing demonstrators, Libyan airplanes bombing districts in Tripoli, Libyan army killed thousands, etc., etc., and now the whole world found there is no single evidence that such things happened in Libya.”
Seif Gadhafi also warned that many of the U.S.-supported armed rebels were “not freedom fighters” but rather jihadists whom he described as “gangsters and terrorists.”
“And now you have NATO supporting them with ships, with airplanes, helicopters, arms, training, communication,” he said in one recorded conversation with U.S. officials. “We ask the American government send a fact-finding mission to Libya. I want you to see everything with your own eyes.”
The surreptitiously taped conversations reveal an extraordinary departure from traditional policy, in which the U.S. government speaks to foreign governments with one voice coordinated by the State Department.
Instead, the tapes show that the Pentagon’s senior uniformed leadership and a congressman from Mrs. Clinton’s own party conveyed sentiments to the Libyan regime that undercut or conflicted with the secretary of state’s own message at the time.
“If this story is true, it would be highly unusual for the Pentagon to conduct a separate set of diplomatic negotiations, given the way we operated when I was secretary of state,” James A. Baker III, who served under President George H.W. Bush, told The Times. “In our administration, the president made sure that we all sang from the same hymnal.”
Mr. Kucinich, who challenged Mrs. Clinton and Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, acknowledged that he undertook his own conversations with the Gadhafi regime. He said he feared Mrs. Clinton was using emotion to sell a war against Libya that wasn’t warranted, and he wanted to get all the information he could to share with his congressional colleagues.
“I had facts that indicated America was headed once again into an intervention that was going to be disastrous,” Mr. Kucinich told The Times. “What was being said at the State Department — if you look at the charge at the time — it wasn’t so much about what happened as it was about what would happen. So there was a distortion of events that were occurring in Libya to justify an intervention which was essentially wrong and illegal.”
Mr. Kucinich wrote a letter to Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton in August explaining his communications in a last-ditch effort to stop the war.
“I have been contacted by an intermediary in Libya who has indicated that President Muammar Gadhafi is willing to negotiate an end to the conflict under conditions which would seem to favor Administration policy,” Mr. Kucinich wrote on Aug. 24.
Neither the White House nor the State Department responded to his letter, he said.
A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton declined to provide any comment about the recordings.
The State Department also declined to answer questions about separate contacts from the Pentagon and Mr. Kucinich with the Gadhafi regime, but said the goal of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama was regime change in Libya.
“U.S. policy during the revolution supported regime change through peaceful means, in line with UNSCR 1973 policy and NATO mission goals,” the State Department said. “We consistently emphasized at the time that Moammar Gadhafi had to step down and leave Libya as an essential component of the transition.”
‘President is not getting accurate information’
Both inside and outside the Obama administration, Mrs. Clinton was among the most vocal early proponents of using U.S. military force to unseat Gadhafi. Joining her in making the case were French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and her successor as secretary of state, John F. Kerry.
Mrs. Clinton’s main argument was that Gadhafi was about to engage in a genocide against civilians in Benghazi, where the rebels held their center of power. But defense intelligence officials could not corroborate those concerns and in fact assessed that Gadhafi was unlikely to risk world outrage by inflicting mass casualties, officials told The Times. As a result, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strongly opposed Mrs. Clinton’s recommendation to use force.
If Mrs. Clinton runs for president next year, her style of leadership as it relates to foreign policy will be viewed through the one war that she personally championed as secretary of state. Among the key questions every candidate faces is how they will assess U.S. intelligence and solicit the advice of the military leadership.
Numerous U.S. officials interviewed by The Times confirmed that Mrs. Clinton, and not Mr. Obama, led the charge to use NATO military force to unseat Gadhafi as Libya’s leader and that she repeatedly dismissed the warnings offered by career military and intelligence officials.
In the recovered recordings, a U.S. intelligence liaison working for the Pentagon told a Gadhafi aide that Mr. Obama privately informed members of Congress that Libya “is all Secretary Clinton’s matter” and that the nation’s highest-ranking generals were concerned that the president was being misinformed.
The Pentagon liaison indicated on the tapes that Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., a top aide to Adm. Mullen, “does not trust the reports that are coming out of the State Department and CIA, but there’s nothing he can do about it.”
In one conversation to the Libyans, the American intelligence asset said, “I can tell you that the president is not getting accurate information, so at some point someone has to get accurate information to him. I think about a way through former Secretary Gates or maybe to Adm. Mullen to get him information”
The recordings are consistent with what many high-ranking intelligence, military and academic sources told The Times:
Mrs. Clinton was headstrong to enter the Libyan crisis, ignoring the Pentagon’s warnings that no U.S. interests were at stake and regional stability could be threatened. Instead, she relied heavily on the assurances of the Libyan rebels and her own memory of Rwanda, where U.S. inaction may have led to the genocide of at least 500,000 people.
“Neither the intervention decision nor the regime change decision was an intelligence-heavy decision,” said one senior intelligence official directly involved with the administration’s decision-making, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “People weren’t on the edge of their seats, intelligence wasn’t driving the decision one way or another.”
Instead of relying on the Defense Department or the intelligence community for analysis, officials told The Times, the White House trusted Mrs. Clinton’s charge, which was then supported by Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice and National Security Council member Samantha Power, as reason enough for war.
“Susan Rice was involved in the Rwanda crisis in 1994, Samantha Power wrote very moving books about what happened in Rwanda, and Hillary Clinton was also in the background of that crisis as well,” said Allen Lynch, a professor of international relations at the University of Virginia. “I think they have all carried this with them as a kind of guilt complex.”
Humanitarian crisis was not imminent
In 2003, Gadhafi agreed to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction and denounce terrorism to re-establish relations with the West. He later made reparations to the families of those who died in the bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
News media frequently described the apparent transformation as Libya “coming in from the cold.”
Still, he ruled Libya with an iron grip, and by February 2011 civil war raged throughout the country. Loyalist forces mobilized tanks and troops toward Benghazi, creating a panicked mass exodus of civilians toward Egypt.
Mrs. Clinton met with Libyan rebel spokesman Mahmoud Jibril in the Paris Westin hotel in mid-March so she could vet the rebel cause to unseat Gadhafi. Forty-five minutes after speaking with Mr. Jibril, Mrs. Clinton was convinced that a military intervention was needed.
“I talked extensively about the dreams of a democratic civil state where all Libyans are equal a political participatory system with no exclusions of any Libyans, even the followers of Gadhafi who did not commit crimes against the Libyan people, and how the international community should protect civilians from a possible genocide like the one [that] took place in Rwanda,” Mr. Jibril told The Times. “I felt by the end of the meeting, I passed the test. Benghazi was saved.”
So on March 17, 2011, the U.S. supported U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 for military intervention in Libya to help protect its people from Gadhafi’s forthcoming march on Benghazi, where he threatened he would “show no mercy” to resisters.
“In this particular country — Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale,” Mr. Obama declared in an address to the nation on March 28. “We had a unique ability to stop that violence: An international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves.”
Yet Human Rights Watch did not see the humanitarian crisis as imminent.
“At that point, we did not see the imminence of massacres that would rise to genocidelike levels,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division for Human Rights Watch. “Gadhafi’s forces killed hundreds of overwhelmingly unarmed protesters. There were threats of Libyan forces approaching Benghazi, but we didn’t feel that rose to the level of imminent genocidelike atrocities.”
Instead, she said, the U.S. government was trying to be at the forefront of the Arab Spring, when many dictator-led countries were turning to democracy.
“I think the dynamic for the U.S. government was: Things are changing fast, Tunisia has fallen, Egypt has fallen, and we’d better be on the front of this, supporting a new government and not being seen as supporting the old government,” Ms. Whitson said.
Clinton blocks Gadhafi outreach
On the day the U.N. resolution was passed, Mrs. Clinton ordered a general within the Pentagon to refuse to take a call with Gadhafi’s son Seif and other high-level members within the regime, to help negotiate a resolution, the secret recordings reveal.
A day later, on March 18, Gadhafi called for a cease-fire, another action the administration dismissed.
Soon, a call was set up between the former U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, and Gadhafi confidant Mohammed Ismael during which Mr. Ismael confirmed that the regime’s highest-ranking generals were under orders not to fire upon protesters.
“I told him we were not targeting civilians and Seif told him that,” Mr. Ismael told The Times in an telephone interview this month, recounting the fateful conversation.
While Mrs. Clinton urged the Pentagon to cease its communications with the Gadhafi regime, the intelligence asset working with the Joint Chiefs remained in contact for months afterward.
“Everything I am getting from the State Department is that they do not care about being part of this. Secretary Clinton does not want to negotiate at all,” the Pentagon intelligence asset told Seif Gadhafi and his adviser on the recordings.
Communication was so torn between the Libyan regime and the State Department that they had no point of contact within the department to even communicate whether they were willing to accept the U.N.’s mandates, former Libyan officials said.
Mrs. Clinton eventually named Mr. Cretz as the official U.S. point of contact for the Gadhafi regime. Mr. Cretz, the former ambassador to Libya, was removed from the country in 2010 amid Libyan anger over derogatory comments he made regarding Gadhafi released by Wikileaks. As a result, Mr. Cretz was not trusted or liked by the family.
Shutting the Gadhafis out of the conversation allowed Mrs. Clinton to pursue a solitary point of view, said a senior Pentagon official directly involved with the intervention.
“The decision to invade [Libya] had already been made, so everything coming out of the State Department at that time was to reinforce that decision,” the official explained, speaking only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
As a result, the Pentagon went its own way and established communications with Seif Gadhafi through one of his friends, a U.S. businessman, who acted as an intermediary. The goal was to identify a clear path and strategy forward in Libya — something that wasn’t articulated by the White House or State Department at the time, officials said.
“Our big thing was: ‘What’s a good way out of this, what’s a bridge to post-Gadhafi conflict once the military stops and the civilians take over, what’s it going to look like?’” said a senior military official involved in the planning, who requested anonymity. “We had a hard time coming up with that because once again nobody knew what the lay of the clans and stuff was going to be.
“The impression we got from both the businessman and from Seif was that the situation is bad, but this [NATO intervention] is even worse,” the official said, confirming the sentiments expressed on the audio recordings. “All of these things don’t have to happen this way, and it will be better for Libya in the long run both economically and politically if they didn’t.”
Pentagon looks for a way out
The Pentagon wasn’t alone in questioning the intervention.
The week the U.N. resolution authorizing military force was passed, Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, expressed his own concerns.
“We have a military operation that’s been put to play, but we do not have a clear diplomatic policy or clear statement of foreign policy. We know we don’t like the Gadhafi regime, but we do not have a picture of who the opposition movement really is. We got a vote from the Security Council but we had five key abstentions in that vote.”
Five of the 15 countries on the U.N. Security Council abstained from voting on the decision in Libya because they had concerns that the NATO intervention would make things worse. Mrs. Clinton worked to avoid having them exercise their veto by personally calling representatives from Security Council member states.
Germany and Brazil published statements on March 18, 2011, explaining their reasons for abstention.
“We weighed the risks of a military operation as a whole, not just for Libya but, of course, also with respect to the consequences for the entire region and that is why we abstained,” Germany said.
Brazil wrote, “We are not convinced that the use of force as contemplated in the present resolution will lead to the realization of our most important objective — the immediate end of violence and the protection of civilians.
We are also concerned that such measures may have the unintended effect of exacerbating tensions on the ground and causing more harm than good to the very same civilians we are committed to protecting.”
Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., told The Times that history has proved those concerns correct.
“The U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya was meant to create a no-fly zone to prevent bombing of civilians,” said Mr. Kislyak. “NATO countries that participated in this intervention were supposed to patrol the area. However, in a short amount of time the NATO flights — initially meant to stop violence on the ground — went far beyond the scope of the Security Council-mandated task and created even more violence in Libya.”
On March 19, the U.S. military, supported by France and Britain, fired off more than 110 Tomahawk missiles, hitting about 20 Libyan air and missile defense targets. Within weeks, a NATO airstrike killed one of Gaddafi’s sons and three grandsons at their the family’s Tripoli compound, sparking debate about whether the colonel and his family were legitimate targets under the U.N. resolution.
Mr. Gates, the defense secretary, said the compound was targeted because it included command-and-control facilities.
Even after the conflict began, U.S. military leaders kept looking for a way out and a way to avoid the power vacuum that would be left in the region if Gadhafi fell.
As the intelligence asset working with the Joint Chiefs kept his contacts going, one U.S. general made an attempt to negotiate directly with his Libyan military counterparts, according to interviews conducted by The Times with officials directly familiar with the overture.
Army Gen. Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. African Command, sought to set up a 72-hour truce with the regime, according to an intermediary called in to help.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Charles Kubic, who was acting as a business consultant in Libya at the time, said he was approached by senior Libyan military leaders to propose the truce. He took the plan to Lt. Col. Brian Linvill, the U.S. AFRICOM point of contact for Libya. Col. Linvill passed the proposal to Gen. Ham, who agreed to participate.
“The Libyans would stop all combat operations and withdraw all military forces to the outskirts of the cities and assume a defensive posture. Then to insure the credibility with the international community, the Libyans would accept recipients from the African Union to make sure the truce was honored,” Mr. Kubic said, describing the offers.
“[Gadhafi] came back and said he was willing to step down and permit a transition government, but he had two conditions,” Mr. Kubic said. “First was to insure there was a military force left over after he left Libya capable to go after al Qaeda. Secondly, he wanted to have the sanctions against him and his family and those loyal to him lifted and free passage. At that point in time, everybody thought that was reasonable.”
But not the State Department.
Gen. Ham was ordered to stand down two days after the negotiation began, Mr. Kubic said. The orders were given at the behest of the State Department, according to those familiar with the plan in the Pentagon. Gen. Ham declined to comment when questioned by The Times.
“If their goal was to get Gadhafi out of power, then why not give a 72-hour truce a try?” Mr. Kubic asked. “It wasn’t enough to get him out of power; they wanted him dead.”
Libyan officials were willing to negotiate a departure from power but felt the continued NATO bombings were forcing the regime into combat to defend itself, the recordings indicated.
“If they put us in a corner, we have no choice but to fight until the end,” Mr. Ismael said on one of the recordings. “What more can they do? Bomb us with a nuclear bomb? They have done everything.”
Under immense foreign firepower, the Gadhafi regime’s grip on Libya began to slip in early April and the rebels’ resolve was strengthened. Gadhafi pleaded with the U.S. to stop the NATO airstrikes.
Regime change real agenda
Indeed, the U.S. position in Libya had changed. First, it was presented to the public as way to stop an impending humanitarian crisis but evolved into expelling the Gadhafis.
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta says in his book “Worthy Fights” that the goal of the Libyan conflict was for regime change. Mr. Panetta wrote that at the end of his first week as secretary of defense in July 2011, he visited Iraq and Afghanistan “for both substance and symbolism.”
“In Afghanistan I misstated our position on how fast we’d be bringing troops home, and I said what everyone in Washington knew, but we couldn’t officially acknowledge: That our goal in Libya was regime change.”
But that wasn’t the official war cry.
Instead: “It was ‘We’re worried a humanitarian crisis might occur,’” said a senior military official, reflecting on the conflict. “Once you’ve got everybody nodding up and down on that, watch out because you can justify almost anything under the auspices of working to prevent a humanitarian crisis. Gadhafi had enough craziness about him, the rest of the world nodded on.”
But they might not be so quick to approve again, officials say.
“It may be impossible to get the same kind of resolution in similar circumstances, and we already saw that in Syria where the Russians were very suspicious when Western powers went to the U.N.,” said Richard Northern, who served as the British ambassador to Libya during part of the conflict. “Anything the Western powers did in the Middle East is now viewed by the Russians with suspicion, and it will probably reduce the level of authority they’re willing to give in connection to humanitarian crises.”
Mr. Kucinich, who took several steps to end the war in Libya, said he is sickened about what transpired.
He sponsored a June 3 resolution in the House of Representatives to end the Libyan war, but Republican support for the bill was diluted after Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, proposed a softer alternative resolution demanding that the president justify his case for war within 14 days.
“There was a distortion of events that were occurring in Libya to justify an intervention which was essentially wrong and illegal because [the administration] gained the support of the U.N. Security Council through misrepresentation,” said Mr. Kucinich. “The die was cast there for the overthrow of the Gadhafi government. The die was cast. They weren’t looking for any information.
“What’s interesting about all this is, if you listen to Seif Gaddafi’s account, even as they were being bombed they still trusted America, which really says a lot,” said Mr. Kucinich. “It says a lot about how people who are being bombed through the covert involvement or backdoor involvement of the U.S. will still trust the U.S. It’s heart-breaking, really. It really breaks your heart when you see trust that is so cynically manipulated.”
In August, Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli was overrun, signaling the end of his 42-year reign and forcing him into hiding. Two months later, Gadhafi, 69, was killed in his hometown of Sirte. His son Seif was captured by the Zintan tribe and remains in solitary confinement in a Zintan prison cell.
Since Gadhafi was removed from power, Libya has been in a constant state of chaos, with factional infighting and no uniting leader. On Tuesday, an attack on a luxury hotel in Tripoli killed nine people, including one American. A group calling itself the Islamic State-Tripoli Province took responsibility for the attack, indicating a growing presence of anti-American terrorist groups within the country.