WASHINGTON -- As NATO forces attacked the Gaddafi regime in Libya this spring, an American citizen attempted to help negotiate the dictator’s orderly exit -- for a hefty fee.
The New York Times reported on Friday that Neil Livingstone, a terrorism expert and Republican candidate for governor in Montana, sought a $10 million dollar retainer from Gaddafi and his sons to help arrange safe passage from Libya.
“The idea was to find them an Arabic-speaking sanctuary and let them keep some money in return for getting out,” Livingstone told the Times.
While secretly lobbying Gaddafi, Livingstone was also advocating the personally profitable idea of a peaceful exit on CNN. He appeared on Piers Morgan Tonight on March 22, three days after NATO first launched airstrikes and cruise missiles against Libyan forces.
Livingstone’s actions raise uncomfortable questions about the role of expert guests on television news. While CNN presumably didn't know about his attempted contact, Livingstone’s appearances on the news network in all likelihood would have allowed him to lobby Gaddafi more effectively, presenting an image of influence and sympathy to the Libyan ruler. But his actions were also a potential violation of American sanctions against the Libyan regime.
During the interview, Livingstone expressed doubt that the air campaign would topple Gaddafi, citing the superiority of his army over the poorly-trained rebels in eastern Libya. An entrenched and enraged Gaddafi, he said, could potentially launch Libyan-backed terrorist attacks in retaliation for the American role in the intervention.
Livingstone’s solution on CNN was to offer Gaddafi a negotiated way out -- exactly the same solution he was suggesting behind the scenes to the Libyan ruler.
“We've not given him very many choices,” Livingstone said. “There may be some diplomacy going on behind the scenes, but he doesn't really have any place he wants to go right now. We've frozen his assets. And those things may be negotiable at some point in order to push him out.”
He claimed that the American failure to offer diplomatic alternatives might result in the dangerous situation for the U.S. On August 23, with rebel soldiers securing the capital city of Tripoli and Gaddafi’s whereabouts unknown, Livingstone repeated his argument during another appearance on Piers Morgan Tonight:
“What the family wanted was some type of exit strategy and they didn't have that. Because the international community really said we're going to put you on trial in The Hague. We've confiscated all of your resources. There really wasn't any good exit strategy.”
Livingstone’s actions may also have violated the sanctions enacted by President Obama during the intervention that barred business dealings with a number of Libyan insiders, including Gaddafi.
While Americans could apply for permits from the Treasury Department to conduct such business, it is unclear if Livingstone did so. A Treasury Department official said that the permit was “pending,” but would not confirm that an application had been submitted.
Livingstone's outreach to the Gaddafi government came during a difficult period for Americans who had worked to help the Gaddafi regime during the short period of detente between the United States and the North African country between 2003 to 2009. Lobbying and consulting firms that held contracts with the Gaddafi government faced tough scrutiny from the press and pro-Transitional National Council activists for their dealings with the dictator during these years.
One firm, The Monitor Group, a business consulting firm run by individuals affiliated with Harvard University Business School, came under federal investigation after documents leaked by the Libyan rebels showed that the group had a multi-million dollar contract to boost the images of both Gaddafi and his son, Saif Al-Islam. The Monitor Group, which had not registered as a foreign agent as required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, was forced to admit that they were in violation of the law and retroactively register with the government.
Were Livingstone to have secured a contract with Gaddafi, he and his associates would have been required to register as foreign agents, just as Monitor was ultimately forced to do.