Muammar Gaddafi's Libya may not be sinking yet, but it's low in the water and springing new leaks by the day.
Italy, a key player in North Africa, sniffed the winds of change, then decided to abandon old ally Gaddafi and recognize the revolutionary junta in Benghazi.
Last Wednesday, Libya's Foreign Minister, Moussa Koussa, dressed in his trademark grey shirt, grey jacket and grey trousers, defected to Britain, inflicting a major blow on the faltering Gaddafi regime.
Agents of British intelligence, MI6, spirited former intelligence chief Koussa out of Libya via Tunisia and to a military airfield in southern England.
The tall, dour Koussa was always the man in the shadows, the éminence grise behind Muammar Gaddafi's tent, the spy master who knew all the secrets and, one supposes, where the skeletons are buried.
Moussa Koussa has been closeted in London with British intelligence. MI6 will have a huge number of questions to ask the man who headed up Libyan intelligence for some 15 years, either officially or unofficially, and acted as a top advisor to the Libyan strongman.
Her Majesty's spooks are debriefing Koussa about the loyalty of Gaddafi's military and tribal supporters, and his "Plan B" in case of defeat. In spite of denials, the US, Britain and France are already sending increasing numbers of special forces into Libya, as I've reported for two months. Egypt's army, which is still under heavy American influence, is also aiding Libya's rag-tag rebels.
My old friend, Libya's former foreign minister, Dr. Ali Treiki, also reportedly defected. In 1987, I flew with Treiki to Tripoli to interview Muammar Gaddafi.
Treiki, a soft-spoken intellectual who was Libya's most accomplished diplomat, was not in Gaddafi's inner circle. But he always exercised a calming influence on the volatile Libyan leader, and restrained him from some more extreme actions. Treiki will likely figure in any new Libyan government.
The military officer this writer named three weeks ago as the most likely leader of the Benghazi insurgents, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, has been named military chief. Other Libyan "assets" of CIA are being flown in from North America.
British intelligence's most interesting questions to Koussa will be about the still enigmatic bombing of US Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 and a French UTA DC-10 in 1989.
Libya was blamed for bombing the Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 people. Western investigators accused two Libyan agents of planting a bomb aboard the doomed aircraft. Under threats of crushing sanctions, Libya reluctantly handed them over. One of them, a small fry named Abdulbasit el-Megrahi, was convicted by a Scottish court and jailed for life.
The common view was that the Pan Am atrocity was revenge for the US bombing of Libya in 1986. A year later, Gaddafi showed me the ruins of his private quarters where a bomb had killed his two-year old daughter. "Why are the Americans trying to kill me?" he asked.
A year later, a bomb destroyed a French UTA airliner over the Sahara, killing 171. France had just defeated Libya in a sharp border conflict over Chad. The late head of French intelligence, SDECE, told me French President Francois Mitterand ordered him to kill Gaddafi, but then cancelled the operation - a bomb hidden in Gaddafi's aircraft - when Franco-Libyan relations improved.
In 1999, French investigators and magistrates, who were curiously allowed to search the files of Libyan intelligence, found Libya guilty of the UTA attack. Six Libyan officials, including the deputy chief of intelligence, Abdullah Senoussi, were convicted in absentia. Senoussi insisted to me over dinner in Tripoli that he and his nation were innocent. But it certainly looked like Libya was getting revenge for its defeat in Chad, and the attempt on Gaddafi's life. I wondered if the amiable Senoussi - from traditionally anti-Gaddafi Benghazi - had not been set up as a fall guy.
Lockerbie is another story. Some veteran observers believed al-Megrahi was framed to implicate Libya when the real culprit was Iran, seeking revenge for the downing of an Iranian airliner over the Gulf in July 1988 by the USS Vincennes that killed 290, mostly pilgrims, headed for Mecca. President George Bush Senior actually decorated the captain of the Vincennes for this heinous crime and called him a "hero."
But questions over Megrahi's guilt grew. Scotland's respected legal system was considering an appeal that was likely to have revealed efforts by western agents to frame the Libyan. To head off this embarrassment, Britain sent him back to Libya, claiming he was about to die from cancer. In return, British oil and commercial interests in Libya were quickly expanded. It was a remarkably cynical business, greased by Tony Blair, oozing synthetic charm and hypocrisy from every pore.
Libya never admitted guilt for these aerial crimes, but paid out $1.5 billion blood money in 2008. US President George promptly "pardoned" Libya, ended punishing sanctions, and allowed US oil firms to return to Libya. The hapless Meghrahi was welcome home by Libyans as a hero and sacrificial lamb.
We still don't know who really bombed Pan Am 103 or the full story about the UTA airliner. Hard evidence has been lacking.
Moussa Koussa may reveal the truth about these two notorious crimes to British intelligence, as well as the alleged Libyan bombing of a Berlin disco that triggered the 1987 US attempt to kill Gaddafi, as well as information on Libya's supposed nuclear program - which was, in fact, a pile of nuclear junk bought by the wily Gaddafi so he could "give it up" to Washington, allowing George Bush to proclaim a great victory in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons (to disobedient nations, that is).
Another question: will Koussa himself be charged with crimes? One suspects a deal was made before he defected to spare the wily Libyan spook. The man in grey is stepping out of the shadows.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011