TRIPOLI, Libya — The CIA and other Western intelligence agencies worked closely with the ousted regime of Moammar Gadhafi, sharing tips and cooperating in handing over terror suspects for interrogation to a regime known to use torture, according to a trove of security documents discovered after the fall of Tripoli.
The revelations provide new details on the West's efforts to turn Libya's mercurial leader from foe to ally and provide an embarrassing example of the U.S. administration's collaboration with authoritarian regimes in the war on terror.
The documents, among tens of thousands found in an External Security building in Tripoli, show an increasingly warm relationship, with CIA agents proposing to set up a permanent Tripoli office, addressing their Libyan counterparts by their first names and giving them advice. In one memo, a British agent even sends Christmas greetings.
The agencies were known to cooperate as the longtime Libyan ruler worked to overcome his pariah status by stopping his quest for weapons of mass destruction and renouncing support for terrorism. But the new details show a more extensive relationship than was previously known, with Western agencies offering lists of questions for specific detainees and apparently the text for a Gadhafi speech.
They also offer a glimpse into the inner workings of the now-defunct CIA program of extraordinary rendition, through which terror suspects were secretly detained, sent to third countries and sometimes underwent the so-called enhanced interrogation tactics like waterboarding.
The documents mention a half dozen names of people targeted for rendition, including Tripoli's new rebel military commander, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj.
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, which helped find the documents, called the ties between Washington and Gadhafi's regime "A very dark chapter in American intelligence history."
"It remains a stain on the record of the American intelligence services that they cooperated with these very abusive intelligence services," he said Saturday.
The findings could cloud relations between the West and Libya's new leaders, although Belhaj said he holds no grudge. NATO airstrikes have helped the rebels advance throughout the six-month civil war and continue to target regime forces as rebels hunt for Gadhafi.
Belhaj is the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a now-dissolved militant organization that sought to assassinate Gadhafi.
Belhaj says CIA agents tortured him in a secret prison in Thailand before he was returned to Libya and locked in the notorious Abu Salim prison. He insists he was never a terrorist and believes his arrest was in reaction to what he called the "tragic events of 9/11."
Two documents from March 2004 show American and Libyan officials arranging Belhaj's rendition.
Referring to him by his nom de guerre, Abdullah al-Sadiq, the documents said he and his pregnant wife were due to travel to Thailand, where they would be detained.
"We are planning to arrange to take control of the pair in Bangkok and place them on our aircraft for a flight to your country," they tell the Libyans. The memo also requested that Libya, a country known for decades for torture and ill-treatment of prisoners: "Please be advised that we must be assured that al-Sadiq will be treated humanely and that his human rights will be respected."
The documents coincide with efforts by the Gadhafi regime over the last decade to emerge from international isolation, even agreeing to pay compensation to relatives of each of the 270 victims of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The documents show the CIA and MI6 advising the regime on how to work to rescind its designation as a state sponsor of terror – a move the Bush administration made in 2006. Both agencies received intelligence benefits in return.
The validity of the documents, not written on official letterhead, could not be independently verified, but their content seems consistent with what has been previously reported about intelligence activities during the period.
Later correspondence deals with technical visits to Libya to track the regime's progress in dismantling its weapons programs.
In one undated memo, the CIA proposes establishing a permanent presence in Libya.
"I propose that our services take an additional step in cooperation with the establishment of a permanent CIA presence in Libya," it says. It is signed by hand "Steve."
Another memo is a follow-up query to an apparent Libyan warning of terror plots against American interests abroad.
One document is a draft statement for Gadhafi about his country's decision to give up weapons of mass destruction.
"Our belief is that an arms race does not serve the security of Libya or the security of the region and contradicts Libya's great keenness for world peace and security," it suggests as wording.
But much of the correspondence deals with arrangements to render terror suspects to Libya from South Africa, Hong Kong and elsewhere. One CIA memo from April 2004 tells Libyan authorities that the agency can deliver a suspect known as "Shaykh Musa."
"We respectfully request an expression of interest from your service regarding taking custody of Musa," the memo says.
CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood declined to comment Saturday on specific allegations related to the documents.
"It can't come as a surprise that the Central Intelligence Agency works with foreign governments to help protect our country from terrorism and other deadly threats," Youngblood said. "That is exactly what we are expected to do."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also declined to comment on intelligence matters.
In Tripoli, Anes Sherif, an aide to Belhaj, said the documents provided little new information: "We have known for a long time that (the British and U.S. governments) had very close relations with Gadhafi's regime."
Amid the shared intelligence and names of terror suspects are traces of personal relationships.
In one letter from Dec. 24, 2003, a British official thanks Gadhafi's spy chief Moussa Koussa – who later became foreign minister and defected early in the uprising – for a "very large quantity of dates and oranges" and encourages him to continue with reforms.
"Your achievement realizing the Leader's initiative has been enormous and of huge importance," the British official says. "At this time sacred to peace, I offer you my admiration and every congratulation.