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Loose Talk, Loose Ends About Libya

September 07, 1986|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Straus, a Washington-based journalist, is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey

WASHINGTON — After months of self-congratulation on the seemingly limitless benefits of the April 15 air strike on Libya, Administration officials are suddenly on the defensive. As the Pan American jetliner incident in Pakistan late last week shows, terrorism has not disappeared. At the same time, in Europe, U.N. Ambassador Vernon A. Walters, acting as a special presidential envoy, was being been rebuffed in his attempts to enlist further support for actions against Libya. At home, the State Department and White House are at odds over who should be running Libyan policy. In Libya itself, strongman Moammar Kadafi reappeared in public in Tripoli for the first time since the raid, then went to Zimbabwe where he confidently made a spectacle of himself at a meeting of nonaligned nations. (See story on Page 3.)

How has the Administration so quickly squandered the gains of its military operation against Libya? To hear it from some Administration insiders, the fault is with the press. Beginning with a Wall Street Journal story on Aug. 25, outlining the Administration's new "campaign" against Libya, reporters have trotted out a gaggle of "informed sources" who alternately sought to hype and dampen the prospects for another U.S.-Libya set-to. "If you want to write a story, you can always find someone in government to support your point of view," complained one State Department official.

But key U.S. officials insist the Administration's policy of unrelenting pressure on Libya remains unchanged. These officials do admit, however, that with the Administration split between Santa Barbara, where the President was vacationing, and Washington, the possibility for poor policy coordination increased. And, on a more somber note, a number of officials say that the untimely death on Aug. 23 of Deputy National Security Adviser Donald R. Fortier, prime architect of the Libyan policy, has deprived the Administration of its key coordinator.

Despite these disclaimers, the Administration has a problem primarily of its own making. Poor political judgment, overreaction to scanty intelligence reports and perhaps a touch of summer madness has characterized the handling of Libya this time around.

The facts, as they are known, about renewed Libyan terrorist planning are "pretty soft," to use the words of one State Department official. "We saw some signs of Libyan surveillance and planning," said an Administration official.

Still, the scanty new information--what another official calls "plans in the embryonic stage"--was enough to prompt a mid-August meeting of the National Security Planning Group (NSPG), a top-level government body that meets to discuss specific crises and threats. The NSPG ordered preparation of a national security decision directive, a short policy paper issued in the President's name (and concurred in by NSPG members) designed to enforce discipline on the federal bureaucracy. The directive was intended to martial all resources against Libya's reputed terrorist plans. But instead of focusing renewed government attention on the incipient Libyan threat, it is has sewn discord.

At the National Security Council, deemed the likely source of the press leaks, everyone is running for cover. At the State Department--all too happy to blame the contretemps on the NSC--there are complaints about self-aggrandizing NSC officials. As one State official put it, "Every time there is an NSC leak, there is a need for an increased NSC role to coordinate so there won't be any leaks."

Moreover, these officials contend, there has been no need for a renewed NSC role since January, when an agreement was finally hammered out on Libyan policy. One State Department official concludes, "It is State's lead now, at least until some bomb goes off or is about to go off."

State Department officials are also unhappy with their reduced access to intelligence information. President Reagan's disclosures in April that the United States had monitored Libyan government communications, showing their direct involvement in terrorist activities, was crucial in gaining public support for the air raid. But it also caused the Libyans to become more cautious in the way they transmitted messages. As a result, the Central Intelligence Agency has been forced to rely on old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger operations to keep track of Libyan-based terrorist activities. These "human assets" are much more vulnerable than electronic eavesdroppers. So when CIA officials read published reports of their intelligence findings, they clamped down. Now, many U.S. officials are informed of developments on a "need to know" basis. "It's damn frustrating," said an official, "kind of keeps you out of the flow."

But most frustrating to the State Department has been the impact of these revelations on Kadafi. "Our analysis is that the Libyans thought we floated the idea (of a new campaign), didn't like the public reaction and now have backed off," said one State insider.

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