U.S., allies hoping to shine light on illicit arms market

Breakthrough on Libya raises officials' hopes

December 21, 2003|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON - By unraveling Libya's program for weapons of mass destruction, U.S. spy agencies and international arms control authorities are hoping to unlock some of the mysteries in the world of illicit trade in nuclear, chemical and biological materials, senior U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.

In agreeing to give up its weapons programs, Libya told U.S. and British spy agencies 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. Intelligence officials briefed reporters on condition that they not be identified.

That information, gleaned from U.S. and British agents who visited Libya for secret meetings this fall, 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" these materials, said a senior intelligence official involved in the secret talks with the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el Kadafi.

At meetings in Libya in October and this month, U.S. and British officials were shown "tens of tons" of sulfur mustard gas, a blistering agent banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The officials were also shown precursor chemicals for toxic gas, delivered in the 1990s, the U.S. officials said, as well as aerial bombs the Libyans said were designed to carry mustard gas.

Libya opened "dual-use" facilities used for medical or pharmaceutical research that could also 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.

Libya also disclosed and provided access to centrifuges, designed to enrich uranium for weapons, although no evidence has been found that they had a sufficient number to make bomb-grade material.

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. Nor would they identify the source of the centrifuges.

Still, proliferation specialists said that the unparalleled access to date, and access expected by the International Atomic Energy Agency and other monitoring organizations, would be a boon to U.S. 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 [weapons of mass destruction] 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.

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