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!"
--"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.
"Mr. Michael! You and the team will leave for Libya tomorrow, from London, with Mr. Seif al-Islam!" It was Mr. L. again. The young Gaddafi, and whomever he consulted with at home, had agreed to play ball.
We negotiated a little longer lead time -- they also agreed to a long on-camera interview in London before carrying on to Tripoli -- and flew over from New York.
Fortunately, when we set up for a formal two-camera interview in Seif al-Islam's swank Belgravia bachelor's pad, a member of our crew had similar skin color: She reached over the short, well-lighted distance between them and, without asking permission, dabbed foundation make-up on the full-mouth-sized hickey veritably carved across the dictator's son's neck.
When the cameras finally rolled, he said serious things about his desire for change in Libya.
"Libya is a safe country now," he told us. "We have to be the spearhead of all positive changes in the Middle East. People want to do business and to develop the country and to -- create that safe environment where they can invest and can work and receive tourists and not be all the time worried about confrontation with the international community . The people want a different direction...You can ask anyone in Libya. Do you want WMD? Or do you want to open up your economy and to be integrated with the world economy and to develop your country?"
You enter the infamous Rabta Industrial Complex, long considered the largest chemical weapons production facility in the developing world, through a dark tunnel built into a mountain of sandbags in the remote desert some 60 miles from Tripoli. And only with permission: There are gun positions throughout the rocks. Inside, there are additional layers of sandbags massed three stories high inside, with anti-aircraft gun positions all around.
When we arrived in a microbus with our Libyan security minders - the first journalists ever allowed to visit the top-secret site - there was a terrified plant manager who hadn't gotten the full memo about why we were coming. He had the official story down: Al-Rabta was built in the remote desert on the orders of The Leader (Col. Gaddafi) as part of a revolutionary jobs-creation program for the upwardly-mobile offspring of local shepherds, he assured us. The giant chemistry set housed within al-Rabta's walls was used for pharmaceuticals, not chemical weapons. The sandbag ramparts were erected to thwart fierce desert winds. And the anti-aircraft guns? He only smiled - the nervous, fearful smile of a bureaucrat in a country where the wrong answer means death.
International weapons inspectors were in the process of securing 23.5 metric tons of mustard gas - Libya's full stockpile - produced at al-Rabta in the 1980s. Much of it had been stored, quite precariously, in plastic jugs at three separate warehouses in Tripoli suburbs. The inspectors convinced Gaddafi to agree to relocate the chemical agent in a remote desert storage facility 475 clicks (kilometers) from the capital. They also stripped al-Rabta of all specialized industrial equipment used in chemical weapons production and confiscated a second, parallel set the Libyans kept as back-up.
The laborious (and dangerous) process of incinerating the mustard gas is supposed to be completed by May 15th of this year, but 9.5 metric tons of the original 23.5 have yet to be destroyed, raising some concern (mostly among pundits) that Gaddafi might use chemical weapons to end the rebellion ("US Fears Tripoli May Deploy Gas as Chaos Mounts" was the headline in the Wall Street Journal).
A high-level US official with first-hand knowledge of all aspects of neutralizing Gaddafi's WMD programs dispatched with those fears in a recent conversation:
"In terms of it being an efficient mass casualty-producing weapon -- forget it," he told me (he requested anonymity because details of the program remain classified). "It is unlikely that the mustard gas that may still remain in operable condition is going to be an effective area weapon given the lack of a delivery system."
When the weapons inspectors destroyed all 3,300 aerial bombs in Libya's stockpile in Spring 2004, they eliminated the only direct delivery system at Gaddafi's disposal. While it may be possible to use conventional explosives to crudely disperse mustard gas, Gaddafi has only a few experts qualified enough to handle chemical agent, and the storage facility is so far out of town, without an airstrip anywhere near it, that the prospect seems highly unlikely, according to the US official. In addition, the storage facility lacks air conditioning, rendering it highly unlikely that any of the 30-year-old chemical agent remains viable. As for the mustard stored in the liter-sized plastic bottles, the most effective way to harm anyone with that would be to splash it -- an almost certainly suicidal form of hand-to-hand chemical warfare.
The most secret site in Gaddafi's WMD program -- the nuclear enrichment site, al-Hashan, also known as "Site A," is far less dramatically situated -- a short drive from Tripoli, behind a gate on a shady lane.
When we arrived, the project head had been better briefed and seemed almost glad to see us. He had graduated from the University of Southern California and seemed nostalgic. He nonetheless denied our request to interview him on-camera, as well as our back-up request - to shoot him "in-shadow" (silhouetted or otherwise obscured to the point of being unrecognizable, and of course unnamed).
"No," he said, "but you may film my shadow." Meaning his actual shadow.
Since there was no sun shining in the indoor industrial halls at al-Hashan, where teams of mostly Western-educated technicians had labored at installing centrifuge cascades in hopes of someday enriching uranium into bomb fuel, we spent the better part of a half-hour following him around in the courtyard, filming his shadow (ridiculously) while he discussed the demise of the Libyan bomb program.
Gaddafi had been able to purchase centrifuge technology with the help of AQ Khan, father of Pakistan's bomb program and the world's most dangerous nuclear proliferators (acting, it is widely believed, with the connivance of the Pakistani military). But the program got only as far as installing a fraction of them -- one 9-machine cascade and one partially completed 19-machine cascade, with parts for a 64-machine set found still in their wrappings when US and British weapons inspectors arrived. It takes thousands of centrifuges arrayed in complex and highly fragile interconnected cascades to enrich uranium to bomb-grade levels. The Libyans weren't even close.
(The Bush Administration airlifted 25 metric tons of shrink-wrapped centrifuges, uranium and sensitive documentation to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, staging a dramatic press conference with commandos guarding the loot as if it contained actual nuclear weapons.)
Overheated from all the traipsing in the sun at al-Hashan, we retired with the nuclear program head to the relative cool of his modest office, where he said the most memorable line of the day (with cameras off). "Thank god it's over," he said. "We could never have gotten it to work."
Seif al-Islam al-Gadaffi, second son of Muammar, had given us extraordinary access to what had been Libya's most secret weapons sites. Before we left him, he gave us an equally clear view of the fine line where rhetoric hits the red line -- both in terms of the limits of democratic reform in the Middle East and his own moral compass regarding Libya's place in history.
It had been only a matter of months since his father, Col. Gaddafi, had agreed to pay more than $2 billion in compensation to the families of the 270 people who died in the Lockerbie bombing, for which Gaddafi had also formally accepted responsibility in a letter from Libya's UN ambassador to the Security Council. Yet despite being a party to the negotiations, Seif al-Islam had a surprising take-away:
"I still believe we had nothing to do with Lockerbie," Seif told us. Paying restitution was merely playing politics, he said. "This is a global political game...The real criminal is free somewhere."
He was equally candid, and startlingly clear, on the prospects of democracy in the Middle East, not only in Libya, but throughout the region -- places like Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where pro-democracy demonstrations are being put down with bullets today.
"I think we are talking now in Libya more about developing direct democracy in Libya, because we want to go forward and not to go backward," a smiling Seif told us in his Belgravia apartment that day in 2004.
"Democracy?" asked Vicki Mabrey, the correspondent.
"Yes!" said smiling Seif.
VM: "How does your father feel about that?"
Seif: "My father is the father of the idea of direct democracy!"
VM: "He wants people to go to the polls and maybe vote him out?"
Seif: "It's not like this. He wants the people to-- to-- to-- to be the rulers and, all of them, to be the presidents and to abolish any layers between people and power. Then the people can manage their society, their lives and their future."
VM: "But there can only be one leader..."
Seif: "The Leader is leader."
VM: "The leader is Muammar Gaddafi?"
Seif: "The Leader is the leader." (wicked smile)
Make no mistake.