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Michael Bronner

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Civil War (Hold the Mustard...)

Posted: 03/17/11 03:18 PM ET

The dictator's son, it turns out, has a helium giggle.

You don't hear it much these days. Rather, Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the 38-year-old second son of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and long-considered the heir-apparent to his father's mantle, has been the voice of hellfire and defiance since the Libyan rebellion broke, issuing bloodcurdling ultimatums and assuring the world that he and his kin are prepared to fight to the death in defense of his father's "revolution."

But Seif was full of fun when we met in early 2004, high on the diplomatic coup he'd helped engineer with the Bush Administration -- an epic agreement in which Libya agreed to abandon its WMD programs and pay restitution for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in exchange for renewed relations with the West and removal from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

I was a producer at the weekday edition of 60 Minutes then, and Seif agreed to a series of interviews about the deal.

For all that seems mutable about the young Gaddafi today, there is a permanent legacy of the deal he supported then, of significant immediacy today: The destruction of some 3,300 aerial bombs and a large percentage of the 23.5 metric tons of chemical blister agent they were designed to deliver.

"We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet," he said last week, but it will not be to the last mustard shell, thankfully -- Seif al Islam al-Gaddafi has assured the world of both.


****

Our small CBS team was taken first, on a drizzly February day, to Bab Al Azizia, Gaddafi's barracks compound in the southern suburbs of Tripoli, and told to wait next to a pile of rubble.

There's a lot of rubble at Bab Al Azizia -- the US bombed the compound in April 1986 in response to the terrorist bombing of the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, which killed two US servicemen and was credited to Gaddafi based on telex intercepts in which Libyan agents in Tripoli offered congratulations to comrades at the Libyan embassy in East Berlin for a job well done. Gaddafi's family, including Seif al-Islam, was sleeping when warplanes struck, and the Libyan leader has preserved the destruction at Bab Al Azizia as quixotic symbol of defiance (it was from Bab Al Azizia that Gaddafi made his recent umbrella speech on Feb. 21st, to prove he was in Libya, not Venezuela, as the current violence began).

As it turned out, the particular pile of rubble we'd been led to that afternoon in 2004 was strategically placed: As we chatted and swatted flies, Seif al-Islam suddenly popped out from behind a nearby wall, dressed in a long, traditional "holi" robe and grinning ear-to-ear at his well-played prank (he was seemingly unaccompanied and the machinations by which he was positioned in such an unlikely hiding place were, indeed, mysterious).

The first thing he wanted to show us -- tellingly then, at the supposed dawn of renewed relations with the United States, and particularly compelling now in the wake of the United Nations Security Council resolution March 17th approving a no-fly zone -- was another pile of rubble, this one capped with the helmets of two American pilots whose F-111 bomber was shot down in the 1986 raid.

"Some Americans -- they forgot their helmets here in Libya," said the young Gaddafi of the dead pilots, loosing a peel of startlingly high-pitched laughter. "We gave them a lesson," he said when he settled down. "That we're not afraid of you -- that we'll stand tall, and we did."

The stairs creaked as he led us through the half-standing house from which he narrowly escaped the American bombs as a 14-year-old boy. "Is it safe to go up there?" asked our correspondent, Vicki Mabrey.

"I don't know!" he said, cracking himself up again.

The entire interaction with him, from the start, seemed designed to keep us guessing.


****

On Dec. 20th, 2003, a little more than a month before, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair employed a little stagecraft of their own, giving simultaneous press conferences to announce the Libya deal.

The Mad Dog of the Desert (as Reagan called Gaddafi) had "agreed to immediately and unconditionally allow inspectors from international organizations to enter Libya," Bush said. "These inspectors will render an accounting of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and will help oversee their elimination."

"This decision by Colonel Gaddafi is an historic one and a courageous one, and I applaud it," Blair added. "It will make the region and the world more secure."

The fairly bald subtext was that the Iraq invasion had scared the daylights out of Gaddafi and forced him to the negotiating table.

I was at Newark airport, en route to Colorado for Christmas and watching the presser on TV, when a call came in on my CBS cell phone: "Libya," said the senior producer on the other end, who typically liked to lead with single-word sizzlers ("Guatemala" was a prior one, which got us into a little trouble).

It had emerged that Seif al-Islam, who was living in London then, writing his PhD dissertation at the London School of Economics (or nicking it from other authors, as some of his current accusers allege), had played a crucial role in brokering the deal alongside more hard-core members of Gaddafi's inner-circle, like longtime spymaster Mousa Kousa.

If Libya's leaders were turning a corner and going straight, it obviously made sense for them to allow the weekday edition of 60 Minutes into its most secret weapons sites (Obviously!). I quickly petitioned a murky mix of contacts to pass word to Seif al-Islam that the broadcast was interested in doing a piece. Then went skiing (it would become a theme).

The call came a week later.

"Mr. Michael! Your meeting with Mr. Saif al-Islam is tomorrow! In London!" said Mr. L., the young Gaddafi's squire (or something). I was still in Colorado, and it was snowing.

Several delayed flights later, finally in a London black cab en route to town with 45 minutes to make the meeting, the phone rang again. It was Mr. L.

--"Mr. Michael! The meeting! It is no longer in London!"

--"Um..."

--"Mr. Saif al-Islam has been called urgently to Geneva. The meeting will take place aboard his airplane. Mr. Ali is waiting for you at your hotel. You can take a shower."

Wayne Nelson, a longtime CBS producer and my partner on the piece, was also waiting at the hotel, having flown in from New York. We got into a silver sedan with a stranger who introduced himself as Mr. Ali, a spark plug of a fellow who shepherded us to London City Airport - out onto the tarmac and into a waiting biz jet.

As we climbed aboard, we saw them loading Seif's skis into the hold. The plane had sofas for seats. The pilots and flight attendant were spun-up, ready to go. After about 20 minutes, the young Gaddafi, supposedly bound for urgent business, popped up the jet stairs in a ski hat, ready to party and grinning ear to ear.

We gave our pitch as we overflew Europe (Seif looking like he was itching for a drink as much as we were, though nobody dared pull the trigger when the hostess took orders). We explained, among other things, that we'd need more than 24 hours notice if we were to go ahead with the shoot. He listened, kind of, then was whisked away immediately upon our midnight landing in Geneva.

"That was weird," said Nelson.

It was sleeting in town. Hopefully (for Seif) it was dumping up in the mountains.