WASHINGTON -- Information gleaned by US and British agents in secret meetings with Libyans this fall will help unlock some of the mysteries in the world of illicit trade in nuclear, chemical, and biological materials, senior US intelligence officials said yesterday.
Libya, which agreed to give up its weapons programs Friday, told the agents that it possesses tons of mustard gas and other chemical weapons materials, facilities that could manufacture germ weapons, Scud missiles, and a more advanced nuclear weapons program than previously known, the officials said. They briefed reporters on condition that they not be identified.
That information, and more comprehensive inspections that Libya pledged to allow, will provide a window into the activities of countries or individuals marketing illegal weapons technologies on the black market, they said. Libya, previously linked to terrorist groups, could also help uncover extremists as part of the global war on terrorism.
"Once we have a chance to work through all the things we have collected from Libya and in conjunction with the international monitoring organizations, this will indeed help us to unravel other pieces to possibly get a clearer picture and we would hope disrupt" the flow of these materials, said a senior intelligence official involved in the secret talks with the Libyan leader, Colonel Moammar Khadafy.
The deal was brokered over nine months, after an overture from Libya as the United States prepared to invade Iraq following unsuccessful attempts to discover whether Baghdad had its own weapons of mass destruction program. US and British weapons specialists and intelligence agents met with Libyan officials in Europe, then paid secret visits to Libya in October and this month.
Another senior US intelligence official said Khadafy was "the driver of this," recalling that in several late-night meetings the Libyan leader was "consistent throughout in his intentions."
The talks helped US and British agents confirm much of what they had suspected about Libya's activities, and helped fill in some blanks, the officials said.
At the meetings in Libya in October and this month, US and British officials were taken to 10 sites. They were shown "tens of tons" of sulfur mustard gas, a blistering agent banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, thought to have been manufactured about a decade ago.
The officials also saw precursor chemicals for toxic gas, delivered in the 1990s, the US officials said, as well as aerial bombs the Libyans said were designed to carry mustard gas.
Libyans also showed the agents "dual-use" facilities used for medical or pharmaceutical research that could serve to make biological weapons. "What we did not find in the limited time that we had to sample and interview was direct evidence of a biological weapons program," a second senior intelligence official said.
The US and British officials took material samplings, snapped photos, and were granted "extraordinary" access.
But there were some surprises, including the relatively advanced state of Tripoli's nuclear weapons program. Libya disclosed and provided access to workable centrifuges, designed to enrich uranium for weapons, although no evidence has been found that they had a sufficient number to make bomb-grade material. Hundreds or thousands of centrifuges are required, each enriching uranium a bit more, before feeding it into another, to build a nuclear bomb.
Citing secrecy concerns, officials did not say where they believe Libya got some of the components for making the weapons -- only acknowledging that it acquired the Scud missiles from North Korea -- and did not identify the source of the nuclear centrifuges.
Still, proliferation specialists said the unparalleled access so far, and that expected by the International Atomic Energy Agency and other monitoring organizations, would be a boon to US and global efforts to stanch the flow of illegal weapons materials.
"There is no question that if Libya is going to open itself up to the kinds of inspections that this agreement calls for, it could prove to be not only the dismantlement of Libya's efforts to develop WMD but also help undo the efforts of others," said Karl Inderfurth,, former assistant secretary of state for South Asia and a professor of international relations at George Washington University. "We will learn what they have been able to acquire on the international black market for these activities."
Several countries have been suspected of bartering in weapons materials and missile technologies, including Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China, and some long-time US allies such as Germany. Some US companies could also be implicated, officials said.
With Libya's help, many questions could be answered.
"We still don't understand how Iran got their centrifuges and who their suppliers are," said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "If we could understand where Libya got them, that might help us shut down the supply of these machines. Did they procure them by bits, or totally assembled? These countries can't make these things themselves."
Libya remains on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland 15 years ago today, and the death of two US servicemen in a Berlin disco in 1986. US forces attacked Libyan targets after the Berlin bombing, and US sanctions have remained.