Graphic images of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s dead, broken body captured on video after rebels overran his headquarters belie an earlier period in history when the Libyan ruler was very much on the offensive against American interests.
While public opinion remains sharply divided over the merits of the military campaign President Obama organized in concert with NATO allies to remove Gaddafi from power, there was less debate 30 years ago about the Libyan government’s connection with international terrorism, its belligerent posture toward the U.S., and the need for a forceful response.
Gaddafi finally did receive his comeuppance thanks to Lt. Col. Oliver North and other key figures in the Reagan Administration who orchestrated highly successful counter-terrorism campaigns that are instructive to contemporary challenges.
A compelling but overlooked resource that highlights some of the actions North and others took to bolster America’s national security standing can be found in the final arguments Brendan Sullivan, a partner in the Washington D.C.-based firm Williams & Connolly, presented on July 5, 1989 in connection with the Iran-Contra affair. Sullivan delivered his statement on behalf of North in the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. The charges against North were ultimately dismissed or vacated on appeal.
Sullivan’s court statement is worth reviewing in the post 9/11 era because it demonstrates that key national security figures like North can pay a high personal price even as they advance America’s best interests and close points of vulnerability that can be exploited by dangerous elements.
Terrorist incidents were on the rise in the early 1980s, Sullivan told the court.
“There were literally hundreds of them,” he said. “One in four involved Americans or American property overseas…There was widespread fear on the part of Americans and government officials that they could not travel abroad without risk.”
Gaddafi, who was closely aligned with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, was very much a part of this equation. The provocations began in the late 1970s when Gaddafi unilaterally extended Libya’s long-recognized 12-mile coastal limit to the point where he claimed control of the Gulf of Sidra located off the North African coast in the Mediterranean where U.S. Sixth Fleet often conducted naval exercises.
This was a direct challenge to the United States that President Reagan met head on when he ordered naval exercises to take place just beyond Libya’s internationally recognized 12-mile limit in 1981. Reagan also approved new rules of engagement that made it clear U.S. forces could retaliate immediately if they were attacked; they did. American F-14 Tomcats escorting U.S. ships downed Libyan fighter jets in the Mediterranean after they had targeted the American aircraft. Gaddafi backed away from any further direct confrontations but continued to pursue covert terror operations and maintained an extensive hit list that included William P. Clark, a deputy Secretary of State.
When President Reagan later uncovered “irrefutable evidence” that Gaddafi was behind a terror attack that resulted in the deaths of U.S. servicemen in Germany, he quickly settled on a plan to move aggressively against the Libya regime.
Sullivan commented on the instrumental role North played in this effort while serving with the National Security Council (NSC). Charlie Allen, who Sullivan described as a “high ranking CIA official,” is cited as someone who was very familiar with North’s contributions to counter-terrorism.
In April 1986, North was a key official in developing options to respond to the Libyan sponsored bombing of the La Belle Disco in West Berlin where two American servicemen were killed. Once the presidential decision had been made to retaliate against Libya, North worked, according to Allen at a herculean pace to assure effective coordination of the plan to strike at Colonel Gaddafi’s terrorist infrastructure. Allen said he worked day to day with North for over 22 months and there was no American official that did more to implement these policies than did Colonel North. He believes major progress was made. For a time, terrorism seemed to abate. There were fewer incidents. In his opinion as an expert on terrorism, Americans felt safer and they were safer.
But North himself was suddenly in great danger.
“The problem is that Colonel North paid a terrible price for his work in the counter-terrorism area,” Sullivan said. “He was targeted for assassination by the Abu Nidal group known as the ANO (Abu Nidal Organization), which Mr. Allen, the expert, called the most dangerous, most capable terrorist group in the Middle East and one of the most dangerous in the world.”
At the time, ANO was one of the most well-coordinated, well-financed, and most lethal terror operations in the world, Allen had informed the court. He also said that ANO was partnered with Gaddafi and had the ability to strike inside the U.S.
“And so the man who worked to strike back at terrorists became their target,” Sullivan continued. “The man who developed a plan to hunt the terrorists became the hunted.”
Abu Nidal died of gunshots in Baghdad in August 2002.
Even so, Sullivan’s statement indicates that North should not expect to ever be free of danger.
“Colonel North will remain under threat for the rest of his life,” Sullivan said. “We’re dealing with an Islamic principle known as Quasas, which is very similar to the idea of a vendetta. Danger to Colonel North persisted even after he was out of the NSC. In 1987, he was again notified by the FBI of another serious threat. Libyan agents inside the U.S. including some residing within 20 miles from his home, were collecting intelligence information about his travel and work habits and location. These Libyans were arrested but were released on bond and one of them disappeared and remains at large today.”
“North carries a terrible burden because of his work to fight terrorism. It may be that as Charlie Allen says the world is safer as a result of Colonel North’s efforts but Colonel North lives with the threat and his family lives under the cloud.”
Some of the key lessons to be drawn from the Iran-Contra affair that involved the diversion of funds to anti-communist rebels in Central America have been lost within the larger drama of the Cold War. But with Daniel Ortega, the communist leader of Nicaragua from the 1980s, back in power, and with Tehran pursuing nuclear weaponry, the controversy over Iran-Contra is worth re-examining.
North’s experience does suggest that when courageous, patriotic men and women take a stand against terrorist activity and hostile foreign powers they do not necessarily earn the support of the political class; quite the opposite may be true.
Moreover, the dispute over executive power that flowed out of Iran-Contra is very relevant to today’s politics. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney, then a Republican congressional representative from Wyoming, served as one of the lead authors for the 1987 minority report on Iran-Contra.
While there is a legitimate debate about some of the initiatives the Reagan Administration advanced at this time, there is no escaping how effective North’s efforts were to the cause of national security.
This much is made evident from an intriguing detail in Sullivan’s court statement that went unnoticed in news media.
“We always left out one mysterious segment because we couldn’t talk about it, but there were two letters sent to the court, which I think are important for the court to consider,” Sullivan said. “Even though we can’t know the details, this is one of Ollie North’s significant contributions about which no allegation of wrongdoing is made and unfortunately it cannot be described. But the project, in very briefest form was highly classified and still is today (keep in mind this is 1989). It provided great benefit to the United States. North was responsible for the coordination of this project that began in August 1981.”
Allen, the CIA official, told the court that North’s project “eliminated” a significant vulnerability to the U.S.
Is this project still classified?
If the information that Sullivan was reticent to reveal can now be put into circulation without compromising U.S. interests, it would be worth driving home the point that it is not by accident that terrorists and hostile governments are forced into a position where they must play defense.
The successful counter-terrorism efforts advanced under the Reagan Administration should not be lost on contemporary U.S. policymakers charged with protecting the American homeland from additional attacks. Nor should they lost site of the high personal price that courageous, patriotic men and women often pay when the political class sees an opportunity to advance its own interests.
That’s a subject for the next post.