Government lies about
Nearly five years ago in May 1999, long before the invasion of Iraq, Libya offered to abandon its “weapons of mass destruction” programmes, at the start of secret negotiations with the US. It also agreed to actively co-operate with the US in combating al-Qaeda.
That was revealed in an article entitled The Iraq War did not Force Gadaffi's Hand published in the Financial Times on 9 March. Its author was Martin Indyk, who was in the US State Department from 1997 to 2000 as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, and was US ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997 and again from 2000 to 2001. He is now the Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington.
The trigger for these negotiations was that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhima, the two Libyans indicted for the Lockerbie bombing by the Scottish prosecuting authorities, surrendered themselves for trial in a Scottish court in the Netherlands. That occurred on 5 April 1999.
At the first meeting between Libyan and American representatives in Geneva in May 1999, Libya also agreed to pay compensation to the families of Lockerbie victims and to support the Oslo process in Palestine and end all support for Palestinian "rejectionist" groups.
Strange as it may seem, the US didn’t take up the Libyan offer about “weapons of mass destruction” in May 1999, and it was almost five years before the weapons programmes were dismantled, programmes which Blair described as “significant and substantial” when he was in Tripoli on 25 March 2004.
Why did the US not take up the offer? According to Indyk, because resolving the Lockerbie issue was the number one US priority. The Libyans were told that once that was done UN sanctions would be lifted, but US sanctions would remain until “weapons of mass destruction” issues were resolved.
But wasn’t it grossly irresponsible for the US to allow Libya to hang on to these “significant and substantial” weapons programmes for, as it turned out, nearly five years? Well no. According to Indyk, “Libya's chemical weapons programme was not considered an imminent threat and its nuclear programme barely existed”, and it had no biological weapons programme. In short, Libya’s weapons programmes were insignificant and insubstantial, so there was no harm in letting Libya hang on to them indefinitely.
Blair announced in Tripoli that BAe Systems would shortly sign a major arms deal with the Libya. Ironically, once the BAe salesmen have done their work, Libya will be much stronger militarily than before it abandoned its “weapons of mass destruction” programmes.
That is the actual story of how Libya came to abandon its nuclear and chemical weapons programmes, such as they were. It bears little similarity to the Government’s story, which began with the Prime Minister’s dramatic announcement on 19 December last year:
“This evening Colonel Gadaffi has confirmed that Libya has in the past sought to develop WMD capabilities, as well as longer range missiles. Libya came to us in March following successful negotiations on Lockerbie to see if it could resolve its WMD issue in a similarly co-operative manner. Nine months of work followed with experts from the US and UK, during which the Libyans discussed their programmes with us.”
The Prime Minister took the unprecedented step of making this announcement from his own constituency late on a Friday evening, so red hot was the news, we were meant to believe. We know now that the news was actually four and a half years old: Colonel Gadaffi confirmed in May 1999 that Libya had “weapons of mass destruction” programmes of sorts – by offering to give them up.
The Prime Minister went on to applaud Colonel Gadaffi for his courageous decision “to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction completely” – which was an impossible task since Libya didn’t have any weapons to dismantle.
Jack Straw was more circumspect when he made a statement to the House of Commons after the Christmas recess on 5 January 2004; he talked about weapons “programmes”, not weapons.
Of Libya’s nuclear programme, he said:
“Libya acknowledged to us that it was developing a nuclear fuel cycle intended to support nuclear weapons development. … Those projects included uranium enrichment. Libya had not yet developed a nuclear weapon, but it was on the way to doing so.”
He didn’t say that Libya never managed to produce any enriched uranium, and that, in the words of Martin Indyk, Libya’s nuclear programme “barely existed”.
Of Libya’s chemical weapons programmes, Straw told the Commons:
“Libya provided to us evidence of activity in the chemical weapons field, including significant quantities of chemical agent and bombs designed to be filled with chemical agent.”
That carefully avoids saying that Libya had usable bombs filled with chemical warfare agent – which could reasonably be described as chemical weapons. It must be assumed that if Libya possessed actual chemical weapons, Straw would have said so. In the press, it was suggested that the agent in question was World War I mustard gas. Small wonder, then, that the US didn’t consider Libya’s chemical weapons programmes an imminent threat.
At his press conference in Tripoli on 25 March 2004, the Prime Minister repeated the lie that Libya had made the decision “to abandon voluntarily programmes to develop nuclear and chemical weapons” three months ago. And he said that on inspection Libya’s programmes had been found to be “significant and substantial, both in the nuclear and chemical field” – without providing any details to enable others to judge their significance.
(Time and time again, most recently in his Sedgefield speech on 5 March, the Prime Minister has told us that the greatest danger in the world today is the coming together of rogue states with “weapons of mass destruction” and international terrorists. A major part of the Prime Minister’s case for taking military action against Iraq was that there was a “real and present danger” of that happening. Yet all the time that Blair was conspiring with the US to allow Libya to keep these “significant and substantial” programmes, Libya was on the US State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism. It’s a funny old world.)
The Government’s Libyan story is a load of self-serving bollocks. The truth is that the US/UK allowed Libya to hold on to its programmes for nearly five years, because they knew the programmes were insignificant and insubstantial, and no danger to anybody.
It was always planned to deal with them once the Lockerbie issue was settled. But, it was very convenient for Bush and Blair that the issue be resolved in the autumn of 2003. With no “weapons of mass destruction” found in Iraq and unforeseen problems on the ground there, they were desperate for a foreign policy success. Even better, one that could be presented as a beneficial side effect of the invasion of Iraq: we were meant to believe that, although Saddam had no “weapons of mass destruction”, the decisive action taken by the US/UK to force Saddam to cough them up, had forced Gadaffi to cough up his.
The Government didn’t openly make that connection, though Blair went close in his Sedgefield speech on 5 March, when he poured scorn on those who believe in mere diplomacy:
“When they talk, as they do now, of diplomacy coming back into fashion in respect of Iran or North Korea or Libya, do they seriously think that diplomacy alone has brought about this change? Since the war in Iraq, Libya has taken the courageous step of owning up not just to a nuclear weapons programme but to having chemical weapons, which are now being destroyed. Iran is back in the reach of the IAEA. North Korea in talks with China over its WMD.”
The Government success story is credible only if Libya did not volunteer to give up its weapons programmes until after the invasion of Iraq and only if those programmes were “significant and substantial”. But the truth is that Libya first volunteered to give up its weapons programmes in May 1999, long before the invasion of Iraq, and the programmes were so insignificant and insubstantial that the US/UK allowed it to hang on to them for nearly another five years. Then, for the purposes of claiming a great success, their importance was exaggerated and they were dismantled with a great fanfare.
New ally against al-Qaeda
As an additional bonus, we are meant to believe that we now have in Libya a new ally in the war against al-Qaeda. But that’s not true either – Libya has been an ally in practice for years.
The press have been telling us, no doubt prompted by Downing Street, that Gadaffi has come over to our side, because he fears that his regime is under threat from al-Qaeda and like groups. What the press don’t tell us is that Britain supported an assassination attempt on Gadaffi in February 1996 by an Islamic group, which promised to hand over the Lockerbie suspects if they took power. Britain, not Gadaffi, has changed sides.
As this magazine has said before, the Government has also continuously lied and dissembled about the Libyan connection to Lockerbie. While Blair was en route to Libya on 25 March, Jack Straw told a barefaced lie on the Today programme: he said that Libya has accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing.
For Libya to accept responsibility, it would have to say clearly that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the bombing of PanAm 103, is guilty, and that he was acting on behalf of the Libyan state when he carried it out. Libya has said neither.
When the compensation arrangements were agreed between Libya and the US/UK last autumn, Libya made a formal statement about Lockerbie in a letter to the President of the Security Council on 15 August 2003. (The text of the letter is appended to a press statement issued by Foreign Office Minister, Denis MacShane, on the same date). The letter said that Libya “has facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103 and accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials”.
No doubt, those words were agreed in advance with the US/UK. They do not say that al-Megrahi is guilty, nor that he was a Libyan “official”. But they are the sole basis for the Government’s claim that Libya has accepted responsibility for the bombing. It has not.
Following this formal statement by Libya, the Security Council passed resolution 1506, which lifted UN sanctions permanently. That resolution does not say that as a pre-condition Libya had accepted responsibility for Lockerbie (as it was supposed to do). It merely welcomes Libya’s “acceptance of responsibility for the actions of Libyan officials”. Speaking after the vote on resolution 1506, the US representative said that Libya “has formally stated that it accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials”; again, he didn’t say that Libya had accepted responsibility for the bombing – he just repeated the agreed formula.
In the House of Commons, Jack Straw has always been more circumspect than on Today. For example, when he made a statement to the House on 5 January on Libya’s abandonment of “weapons of mass destruction”, he did not say that Libya had accepted responsibility for Lockerbie. He used the agreed formula several times, saying, for example, that discussions over several years had led “to Libya agreeing to pay compensation to the families of those killed at Lockerbie, and to the Libyans accepting full responsibility for the actions of their officials”. Lying to the House of Commons may have serious consequences, which is presumably the reason for his circumspection.
At his press conference in Tripoli on 25 March, Tony Blair also stuck to the agreed formula. He said:
“In respect of Lockerbie, Libya has accepted UN resolutions on this, accepted responsibility for the actions of its agents and has agreed compensation in respect of the victims”.
Had he claimed that Libya accepted responsibility for Lockerbie, as his Foreign Secretary did earlier in the day, his hosts might have ruined the carefully choreographed occasion by blurting out the truth, as the Libyan Prime Minister did on Today on 24 February (transcript here), when he said that Libya had never accepted responsibility for Lockerbie but had paid compensation to the families of Lockerbie victims merely in order to buy peace.
There was a general welcome from the relatives of the British Lockerbie victims for Blair’s visit to Libya (and Michael Howard got egg all over his face by suggesting that it would be otherwise). On the face of it, this seems strange since Blair was going to be shaking the hand of the man who ordered the murder of their relatives.
Ministers have been pointing to this general welcome from relatives to bolster the case for the visit. But, what Ministers don’t say is that many of these relatives are sceptical about al-Megrahi’s guilt and doubt that Libya was responsible for the bombing.
For example, one relatives’ spokesman, Jim Swire, stated categorically on Sky News on 24 March that the bomb was put on PanAm 103 at Heathrow – whereas the case against al-Megrahi was that he had put the bomb on a plane in Malta (by means unknown) and after transfers at Frankfurt and Heathrow the bomb got on to PanAm 103.
On the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, Blair announced in Tripoli that Libya had “agreed to a further visit on 3 April of the Metropolitan Police Service in respect of the murder”, and this has duly taken place. But what’s the point? If, as the British government maintains, WPC Fletcher was killed by a shot fired from the Libyan People’s Bureau in April 1984, then the Libyan state must know who did it and, in principle, legal proceedings can be taken against them. Sending policemen to Libyan is just for show.
It is noticeable that, whereas the British Government keeps on lying that the Libyan Government has accepted responsibility for Lockerbie, it doesn’t say that Libya has accepted responsibility for the killing of WPC Fletcher.
The Bush administration is on a crusade to bring democracy and freedom to the world in general and to the Middle East in particular. Or so it tells us. Listen to this from the president himself when he was in London last November:
“We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold.
“As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found. (Applause.)
“Now we're pursuing a different course, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. We will consistently challenge the enemies of reform and confront the allies of terror. We will expect a higher standard from our friends in the region, and we will meet our responsibilities in Afghanistan and in Iraq by finishing the work of democracy we have begun. “ (see here)
How does Libya fit in with this “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East”?
Every year, the US State Department publishes detailed reports on human rights violations around the world. They are readily available on the State Department website. The report for 2003, published on 25 February 2004, says of Libya:
“The Government's human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit numerous, serious abuses. Citizens did not have the right to change their government. Gadaffi used summary judicial proceedings to suppress domestic opposition.
“Security forces tortured prisoners during interrogations and as punishment. Prison conditions were poor. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained persons, and many prisoners were held incommunicado. Many political detainees were held for years without charge or trial. The Government controlled the judiciary, and citizens did not have the right to a fair public trial or to be represented by legal counsel.
“The Government infringed on citizens' privacy rights, and citizens did not have the right to be secure in their homes or to own private property. The Government restricted freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion. The Government imposed some limits on freedom of movement. The Government prohibited the establishment of independent human rights organizations and of free trade unions.”
Labour & Trade Union Review