The Terror Track of Negotiations

On October 31, 2008, the State Department announced that the Government of Libya had deposited $1.5 billion through a humanitarian fund into a US controlled account, which will go to compensate American claimants who have terrorism-related claims against Libya. A number of other steps were also taken to settle all terrorism claims against the Libyan government that were before our courts.  The principle claimants for these funds are the families of the victims of Pan Am 103 and the 1986 LaBelle Disco attack in Berlin.  At the same time, the Libyans are to receive $300 million for the victims of the US airstrikes on Libya after the LaBelle Disco attack. That money will come from donations and not from US government or taxpayer funds. Payment of the claims now opens the way for appointment of an Ambassador to our Embassy in Libya.

The resolution of the problem with Libya came about through secret negotiations with the Libyan authorities in 1999 and 2000, initiated by then Assistant Secretary Indyk and continued under my direction when I took over from Martin at State.  We began these negotiations when Libya was still designated as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” and, in fact, had been complicit in both the LaBelle operation and the Pan Am 103 act.  With the election of 2000, and subsequent change of administration, the portfolio was sidelined for a period by the Bush administration.  When I briefed Secretary Powell, shortly after President Bush took office, Powell was surprised that these negotiations had taken place,  and even more surprised that they had been kept secret. 

The Bush administration picked up the negotiations once again After the 9/11 attack and in August 2003 Libya finally agreed to pay about $2.7 million in compensation to the victims of the PA 103 bombing and to deliver a letter to the UN Security Council accepting responsibility for the attack.  Then in December 2003, Libya announced that is was giving up its weapons of mass destruction program as a result of secret negotiations between US and UK intelligence agencies.  

From the very beginning of Martin’s and my negotiations we had structured the talks with the Libyans on a stair step model so that when they did something we required, we would reciprocate with something they wanted.  The issues were related in the first instance to terrorism, but also included weapons of mass destruction led by the CIA and Libyan behavior in Africa, which was directed by then Assistant Secretary for Africa, Susan Rice.  It was a complicated negotiation from the outset, but ultimately extremely successful. 

It was always politically sensitive, particularly in the beginning when any leak would have caused a political firestorm from the families of victims and from Congress.  Secretary Albright and President Clinton took a real risk in authorizing us to proceed.

There are several important points about these negotiations.  First, there would not have been a successful resolution had we not agreed, in the first instance, to negotiate, face to face with the representatives of a State Sponsor of Terrorism, one that had cost multiple American lives.  Second, our success owed considerable debt to several foreign countries, starting with the United Kingdom, but also including the Saudis who hosted our initial talks, and the Egyptians and Palestinians who put pressure on Qaddafi.  Third, this was a victory of intelligence and diplomacy.  While Qaddafi may have been sobered by the US attack on Libya, which was allegedly designed to assassinate him, there was no indication from 1986 to 1999, that military action would change Qaddafi’s policy.  Fourth, this negotiation would never have succeeded had the Bush Administration not been willing to pursue a course that Clinton had started and charted.  President Bush could have made the Clinton negotiations public and caused considerable political damage for the Democrats.  He did not do so, which indicates the great advantage we have when our diplomacy is backed by bipartisan cooperation. 

With this bipartisan success, as well as the progress in the negotiations with the North Koreans, the question has to be asked why some politicians continue to oppose negotiations with our enemies.  If we can negotiate with Qaddafi, and Kim Jun Il why not Nasrallah of Hezbollah, or Haniyya of Hamas?  What is the difference? Is it the $1.5 billion dollars Qaddafi paid? Is it that Israel stands in our way?  And how could it be Israel when they have just concluded a deal with Hezbollah on release of prisoners and have been in negotiations with Hamas over the return of Gilad Shalit? It is a mystery to me how we can make these distinctions.  Isn’t it time for us to scrap the general policy of no negotiations with terrorists or their sponsors, and replace it with a judgment in each case as to the likelihood of a successful resolution, which is in the US interest?