WORLD

Threats taken in deadly earnest

Michael Posner December 21 1981
WORLD

Threats taken in deadly earnest

Michael Posner December 21 1981

Threats taken in deadly earnest

WORLD

Michael Posner

Whatever the rest of the world may think, President Ronald Reagan now seems convinced that Libya’s Moammar Khadafy is determined to murder him. And last week, there were indeed recurrent, detailed reports that Libyan assassination squads have been dispatched to kill the president, his close advisers and members of his cabinet. Then Khadafy himself appeared on U.S. television to brand Reagan as a fool, a liar and a coward. The reports of hit squads roaming the United States, said the Libyan, were simply a Washington fabrication. Stung by the bald slur on his good name, Reagan shot back: “I wouldn’t believe a word he says. We have the evidence and he knows it.”

But while the colonel and the president were exchanging threatening charges, a far more sober appraisal of U.S.-Libyan affairs was being conducted in Washington. The National Security Council met three times last week to discuss possible retaliation, including an embargo on oil imports from Libya. By week’s end, the administration asked 1,500 Americans now living in Libya to leave immediately and it barred U.S. citizens from travelling to the North African nation. However, a senior official told reporters that other options—political, economic and diplomatic—are still under review.

Reacting to the announcement, Claiborne Pell, ranking Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, seemed to express the prevailing analysis. “One shoe has been dropped,” Pell said, “and that was a pretty light shoe— a carpet slipper. We’re all waiting to see what the other shoe is. Will it be another carpet slipper, a regular shoe, or will it be a boot?” Boot or slipper, evacuation —by the Sixth Fleet if necessary—of Americans and their assets from Libya is seen as a necessary precursor to any further action.

Acting Secretary of State William Clark—Alexander Haig was attending

a NATO meeting in Brussels— justified the administration’s step by citing increasing hazards to which U.S. citizens in Libya are being exposed. “Under the circumstances,” Clark said, “there is an imminent danger to the physical safety of Americans travelling to or present in Libya.” Yet while American oil companies operating in Libya promptly began withdrawing staff and dependents, U.S. expatriates disputed White House claims about the risks they were facing. Khadafy himself dismissed them outright.

Indeed, problems of credibility run like a varicose vein ^through the body of this entire affair. Lacking hard evidence, a large bloc of domestic and foreign opinion is frankly skeptical of the assassination rumors. Unpredictable though he is, Khadafy is seen to have more to lose than to gain by staging an attack on the president or his men.

Little is publicly known about the origins of the hit team story. It is believed U.S. intelligence agents routinely intercept Khadafy’s telephone conversations and, some weeks ago, overheard discussions about assassinating American ambassadors abroad. Soon afterward, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Paris narrowly escaped an assassin’s bullets. And Maxwell Rabb, U.S. ambassador to Italy, was summoned home when a plot against his life was feared. More recently, rumors as

varied as the spelling of Khadafy’s name have been circulating. One see -nario had a five-man hit squad,trained by former CIA officers in Libya, arriving in Montreal on Dec. 1 from Western Europe, travelling to Toronto, meeting American Black Muslim leaders and entering the United States at Detroit. Another suggested that the world’s most reviled terrorist, Carlos the Jackal, was personally leading a Mexican-based assassination unit and had been offered a $5-million reward by Khadafy if he managed to kill Reagan. Notices to this effect were posted in U.S. border patrol stations. More implausibly, John Hinckley Jr., charged with shooting the president last March, was even alleged to have been a Libyan agent.

It is impossible at this point to determine whether all, some or none of the reports are valid. The information is only as sound as the original source. And, presumably, American intelligence experts are still weighing the bona fides of whoever provided the data.

In the meantime, no one in Washington doubts Khadafy’s ability to orchestrate an assassination. Libyan hit teams have been credited with killing more than a dozen exiled enemies of his regime in recent years, and Libya petro-dollars are believed to have financed terrorist movements from Northern Ireland to the Philippines. In pursuing an American target, Khadafy might see himself avenging the August incident in the Gulf of Sirte, in which two Libyan jets were shot down by U.S. fighter planes. He might also hope to advance his status in the Arab world, playing David to the American Goliath.

Conversely, any successful attempt to murder U.S. diplomats or politicians would surely bring swift reprisals— both economic and military. At a minimum, America’s European allies—now too dependent on Libyan crude oil to join a proposed boycott—would quickly fall into line. A Libyan-sponsored campaign of killings would also sour Khadafy’s relations with moderate, proWestern Arab states, and his pending leadership of the Organization of African Unity would likely be jeopardized. On paper, at least, the Libyan strongman has good reason to temper his harsh rhetoric with more cautious behavior.

For the Reagan administration, however, Khadafy is an unstable character who cannot be dissuaded from assassination simply for fear of the consequences. Real or imagined, the threat is

being taken seriously. Elaborate security precautions have been put into place, and extra Secret Service protection is now accorded to several key officials. The whole affair might be a psychological ploy by Khadafy, designed to harass the Reagan administration. Or it could be the product of another foreign intelligence apparatus, aimed at provoking an American response and driving a wedge into U.S.-Arab relations. Perhaps, too, as some cynics believe, it is all make-believe, fabricated to draw attention away from Richard Allen, David Stockman, mounting budget deficits and other nuisances nibbling destructively at the president’s popularity.

With so few facts known for certain, it is impossible to predict what might happen next. Libya’s oil industry is expected to suffer only short-term disruption from the loss of its American engineers and technicians. Without European compliance, a Western boycott of Libyan oil would have a negligible impact on Khadafy’s petroleum revenues, now estimated at about $12 billion annually.

Still, Washington might proceed unilaterally. “It is nothing short of intolerable,” says Colorado Senator Gary Hart, referring to the fact that the United States may have been paying $11 million a day to help finance assassination plots against its own president. Khadafy himself has warned of his duty to attack the American Sixth Fleet when it next stages manoeuvres off the Libyan coast. But he failed last week to persuade a meeting of OPEC ministers in Abu Dhabi to invoke export sanctions against the U.S. (The same meeting reversed a decade-old trend and lowered the price of oil by up to 70 cents per barrel.)

It is clear, nonetheless, that the Reagan administration would dearly love to engineer Khadafy’s demise. In the eyes of Washington, he is a geopolitical menace, destabilizing pro-Western regimes throughout northern Africa. Washington already nurtures Libyan opposition leaders in exile. But its longer-term strategies probably cannot succeed without undermining the Libyan oil industry, on which the nation’s thriving economy—and Khadafy’s domestic popularity—is based. And nothing could promote that objective as long as Americans remained potential petroleum hostages. The United States learned that lesson in Iran. In cutting its ties to Tripoli, Washington is clearly warning that more is yet to come. ^