Libya Vows to Dismantle WMD Program

Paul Kerr

Following months of secret meetings with U.S. and British officials, Libya’s Foreign Ministry announced Dec. 19 that it would dismantle its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, disclose all relevant information about those programs, and allow inspectors to verify its compliance. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair praised Tripoli’s decision, and Bush indicated it could pave the way for improved relations with Washington. Plans for conducting inspections are still being developed, Department of State spokesman Adam Ereli stated Dec. 30.

According to a White House fact sheet, Libya has agreed to “eliminate…its chemical and nuclear weapons programs,” as well as destroy ballistic missiles with ranges and payloads exceeding guidelines set by the Missile Technology Control Regime, an export control regime that aims to limit the spread of ballistic missiles. Tripoli has also agreed to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention and adhere to its commitments under the Biological Weapons Convention and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Furthermore, Libya agreed to conclude an additional protocol to its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement. Additional protocols grant the IAEA authority to conduct more rigorous, short-notice inspections at undeclared nuclear facilities to check on suspected clandestine nuclear activities.

Blair said Dec. 19 that Tripoli’s announcement was the result of discussions with U.S. and British officials that began after Libya approached the United Kingdom in March 2003 to resolve concerns it was pursuing WMD development.

On Dec. 19, Libya’s Foreign Ministry said it made the decision to come clean of “its own free will,” but the ministry’s statement failed to quash widespread speculation about the government’s motives. The White House has argued that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last spring was one factor in changing Libya’s behavior. Indeed, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton issued what may have been a veiled threat last April, saying that Iraq’s fate should signal that “the cost of [Libya’s] pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is potentially quite high.”

Additionally, a State Department spokesperson observed Dec. 31 that an October 2003 interdiction of components for gas centrifuges used in enriching uranium may have influenced Libya’s eventual decision to cooperate. However, a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters shortly after Libya’s announcement that the interdiction was not the precipitating event because the talks had been ongoing for some time (see page 37).

In a Dec. 20 BBC interview, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw stressed the role of diplomacy, stating that Libya has been trying to rejoin the international community after years of isolation and arguing that Libya’s announcement is “a result of painstaking diplomacy…going back for six or seven years where we sought to re-establish a diplomatic relationship.”

Libya’s relations with the international community have gradually improved during the past several years. Most recently, the UN Security Council decided in September formally to lift sanctions imposed in 1992 in response to Libyan involvement in the bombing of two planes in the 1980s. The sanctions were lifted after Libya agreed to take formal responsibility for the attacks and pay compensation. The United Nations had earlier suspended the sanctions following Libyan cooperation with investigations into the attacks. (See ACT, October 2003.)

The United States, however, abstained from the UN vote, declaring that it would maintain its series of bilateral sanctions on Tripoli, noting its WMD programs and “history of involvement in terrorism.” The Bush administration has long expressed concerns about Libya’s weapons program, and intelligence reports claimed that the sanctions suspension had improved Libya’s ability to acquire WMD-related technologies. (See ACT, March 2003.)

There are a number of U.S. sanctions against Libya—some imposed in response to Libya’s suspected support for terrorism—that prohibit a wide range of economic activities. In addition, the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act allows the United States to punish foreign companies for certain investments in Libya’s vital oil and gas industries as well as for providing goods or services that contribute to Libya’s ability to acquire chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

Bush implied that this policy could change, stating Dec. 19 that Libya’s “good faith will be returned” with the prospect of “far better” bilateral relations if it follows through on its commitments to forswear weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Bush did not elaborate, however, and a senior administration official said “there has been no specific discussion about lifting sanctions or any other specific benefits.”

Libya’s Weapons Programs

A senior Bush administration official told reporters Dec. 19 that Libya disclosed a great deal of information about its weapons programs and allowed teams of U.S. and British intelligence experts to visit in October and early December. The senior intelligence official told reporters that Libya gave the teams an extraordinary level of access to dozens of sites. Libya’s cooperation has enabled U.S. and British officials to obtain a clearer picture of Libya’s weapons activities, but the investigation continues.

Libya’s chemical weapons program is its most advanced WMD program. The administration official said Libya showed the teams a “significant quantity” of mustard agent produced “more than a decade ago,” as well as unfilled bombs, dual-use precursor chemicals, and stored chemical production equipment. CIA director George Tenet told Congress in February 2003 that “Libya clearly intends to re-establish its offensive chemical weapons capability.”

Libya also disclosed its efforts to develop Scud missiles of longer range with assistance from North Korea and provided access to relevant facilities. The senior intelligence official said the teams were shown a missile with an 800-kilometer range. A November 2003 CIA report stated that, “with continued foreign assistance, Libya will likely achieve a [Medium Range Ballistic Missile] capability.”

There is no public indication that Libya has an active biological weapons program. The administration official said Libya “admitted to past intentions to acquire equipment and develop capabilities related to biological weapons” and gave the teams access to dual-use facilities. According to the same 2003 CIA report, Tripoli was attempting to acquire “dual-use capabilities that could be used to develop and produce [biological weapons] agents.”

Perhaps the most important revelation is that Libya was developing a gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment facility. Such facilities can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. The senior administration official said Dec. 19 that Libya had complete centrifuges and “thousands” of centrifuge components but did not have an operating enrichment facility. The United States has not indicated that Libya actually enriched any uranium.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said the agency will work to verify Libya’s “past and present nuclear activities,” according to a Dec. 22 press release. The agency also acknowledged that the IAEA had not known about Libya’s enrichment program, which includes a “now dismantled” pilot facility. Although “a Libyan official” told the agency Dec. 20 that it imported both centrifuge components and natural uranium, Tripoli failed to report “some of these activities” to the IAEA as required under its safeguards agreement. The agency did not specify which activities fell into this category.

After visiting Libya a few days later, ElBaradei told CNN Dec. 29 that Libya’s nuclear program “is at a very early stage” and that Libya was several years from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Although the senior intelligence official said the United States had indications of an enrichment program since the late 1990s, previous public U.S. intelligence reports had not mentioned it. A CIA report covering the first half of 2003 expressed concern about Libya’s “continued interest in nuclear weapons and nuclear infrastructure upgrades” and pointed to Libya’s potential civil nuclear-cooperation deals with Russia as potential opportunities for Libya to obtain dual-use nuclear technologies. A 2001 Pentagon report assessed that “Libya... made little progress” on its nuclear program because the program “[lacked] well-developed plans, expertise, consistent financial support, and adequate foreign suppliers.”