True Spies, Episode 118: Special Relationships, Part 3 - Hands Across Libya
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Vanessa Kirby, and this is True Spies, Special Relationships, Part III - Hands Across Libya.
The Waldorf Astoria Hotel, in midtown Manhattan, is a byword for glamor and luxury. For more than 90 years, its art-deco lobby has echoed famous footsteps. From JFK to Jennifer Aniston, they’ve all stayed at the Waldorf. But pass through its hallowed doors in late December 2003, and you might just witness a meeting between two guests of a more secretive stripe. One is Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. He’s in New York for that year’s meeting of the UN General Assembly. The other is George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. They’re deep in conversation. It looks tense.
JIM LAWLER: Director Tenet confronted President Musharraf.
NARRATOR: The topic of their discussion? A.Q. Khan. He’s the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program - a national hero. But unbeknownst to President Musharraf, Khan has gone rogue.
JIM LAWLER: Director Tenet was armed with all the intelligence that my operation had collected on Khan's treachery and said, “He's selling out your country. He's dealing in nuclear weapons. We can't have that.” And Musharraf's reaction was, “I'm going to kill that son of a bitch.”
NARRATOR: That terse conversation at the Waldorf Astoria was the last in a long chain of meetings held in similarly well-appointed rooms across the globe - meetings that brought together leading figures in the CIA, MI6, and the Libyan government. This is the story of a once-in-a-generation collaboration between British and American intelligence agencies, a story about weapons of mass destruction, and a booming trade in the world's most deadly secrets. It’s about potential annihilation, rogue states, and rogue scientists. And yet - in True Spy tradition - it plays out not on the battlefield, but in private clubs and five-star hotels.
MICHAEL SMITH: The Bay Tree Hotel, the Mayfair Hotel, and the Travelers Club are all about giving the Libyans, giving Gadhafi, the absolute correct impression that he is being treated properly by the British establishment.
NARRATOR: It’s a mission that took down one of the most dangerous players in the global arms industry in an operation that also played a crucial role in normalizing relations with Libya’s oil-rich dictator, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
MICHAEL SMITH: For years, he was a pain in the side for both the British and the Americans.
NARRATOR: And it’s the final piece of a three-part True Spies anthology, all about the historic Special Relationship between the US and the UK.
JIM LAWLER: We like to say, as I talk to my British colleagues, that perhaps we hadn't had that close cooperation since World War II when we were running joint MI6 and OSS operations.
NARRATOR: Over the last two episodes, we’ve explored the origins of the Special Relationship with former Naval intelligence officer Dr. Anthony Wells. Now, in our final episode, let’s meet the men who’ll bring that saga into the 21st century.
JIM LAWLER: I'm Jim Lawler, a former CIA case officer for 25 years.
NARRATOR: If you’ve listened to this podcast before, Jim Lawler might well be a familiar voice. He’s the star of True Spies Episode 61: The Sociopathic Spy but this is the mission that made his name.
JIM LAWLER: I led the team which basically discovered and penetrated the A.Q. Khan network and then ultimately brought it down.
NARRATOR: The details of this operation are still highly classified. There are certain things Jim can’t speak about, which is why we’ve enlisted former military intelligence officer, journalist, and author Michael Smith to help us out with the bigger picture.
MICHAEL SMITH: My latest book is called The Real Special Relationship. It deals with the relationship between Britain and America in intelligence terms.
NARRATOR: But none of what you’re about to hear will make sense without knowing a little more about the man at the heart of this story: Abdul Qadeer Khan.
JIM LAWLER: Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan was born in India before India was separated from Pakistan. He left the Indian part of the subcontinent into Pakistan and was embittered by the way he was treated as he was basically forced out of his country. And he came west to The Netherlands and got a doctorate in metallurgy from Delft University. And then he went to work for a consortium called the Urenco Company, which stood for Uranium Enrichment Company.
NARRATOR: Urenco was a joint enterprise between the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. The company enriched uranium to the level where it could be used for peaceful nuclear power. It’s here that A.Q. Khan, a brilliant engineer and metallurgist, learned his trade in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
JIM LAWLER: And then India detonated a nuclear weapon. It was either ‘70 or ‘71, and Pakistan was quite desperate to have its own weapon. President Bhutto of Pakistan made this statement: “We will eat grass, but we're going to have a nuclear weapon ourselves.”
NARRATOR: Fortunately for Pakistan’s top brass, they had a citizen perfectly well situated to answer their call. A.Q. Khan was more than willing to bring his expertise to bear in the service of his country.
JIM LAWLER: He took those designs and he contacted his government of Pakistan and offered to bring those designs - steal the designs basically - steal them and bring them back to Pakistan, which after some toing and froing with the Pakistani government, they decided to allow him to do that. He did. He came home. He formed - or they formed - an entity called Engineering Research Lab and it was so successful that ultimately it was renamed Khan Research Laboratory.
NARRATOR: Now in the employ of the Pakistani government, Khan began to build a nuclear bomb. The international community, however, was less keen on the idea of two nuclear powers at each other's throats in South Asia. The flow of nuclear materials toward Pakistan was closely monitored by the powers-that-be in the West, which meant that the Khan Research Lab had to get creative when it came to sourcing materials for their work.
MICHAEL SMITH: And in order to do that - and to get around the various people trying to stop Pakistan from getting a bomb - he set up a network of illicit contacts, people who should not have been talking to him or not supplying stuff to him. Some of them, not necessarily involved in the nuclear industry, just involved in shipping or transportation or producing metal parts or whatever. Some of them, of course, were involved in producing more key elements of the nuclear bomb, including, of course, enriched uranium.
NARRATOR: In other words, as well as being a skilled engineer, he had to be a skilled operator too. Working in the shadows, he secretly wove a web of influence across the globe. And while he was officially doing this for his country, in the meantime, Khan established a lucrative side hustle.
MICHAEL SMITH: He then set up his own freelance moneymaking business using all those illicit contacts, or using all those people who could provide various parts for a bomb or could transport them or could help the various countries he was going to provide a bomb for, produce their bomb. And obviously, the main countries he was looking at were rogue states - North Korea and Iran being the two main ones and Libya being another one.
NARRATOR: Not content with developing nuclear tech for his own country, he began selling his knowledge, expertise, and contacts to the highest bidders. His status within Pakistan made this possible. He was so well respected that, for the most part, he escaped his own government’s scrutiny.
JIM LAWLER: So he had, I think, a lot of Pakistani generals and influential people in his hip pocket. I mean, he had his own paid publicists and things like that. They named the lab after him. I mean, he could basically, within limits, do virtually anything he wanted and more or less escaped the attention of the Pakistani intelligence service. But he did this on his own. He did not have the approval of President Musharraf or the most senior levels of the Pakistani government.
NARRATOR: But Icarus flew too close to the sun. In the 1990s, Khan’s freelance activities finally caught up with him. There had been whispers about his extracurricular business interests as far back as the late 1970s - trickles of information. But in the information age, a trickle can so easily become a torrent. You see, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the British GCHQ and American NSA had been on High Alert for nuclear-related intelligence.
MICHAEL SMITH: It was one of the main targets in the post-Soviet period. Looking at the spread of nuclear weapons and the potential for terrorists to get hold of them, that was it was one of the leading targets at that time, understandably so.
JIM LAWLER: It was certainly a nightmare staring us in the face that if fissile material were to leak out of the Soviet Union, then some of the what I call the ‘wannabes’, like Libya or Iran or some others, they wouldn't need to have a centrifuge enrichment facility because they'd already had the fissile material. So it was a realistic threat.
NARRATOR: During this period, the American government even attempted to fund former Soviet laboratories to keep their nuclear scientists employed. Yes, they really were that worried.
JIM LAWLER: You could have all the fissile material in the world, but if you don't know how to make a weapon out of it, it would be useless. But we were thinking unemployed Russian nuclear weapons could certainly pose a big, big threat to world peace.
NARRATOR: The threat of this expert knowledge being out there, unregulated, was enough to send chills racing down spines in London and Washington D.C. And as the Agencies learn more about A.Q. Khan, they realize that he poses more of a threat than any disgruntled Russian scientist. He’s been playing his game for a long time - and has the chops to do some real damage.
JIM LAWLER: He's not a nuclear scientist per se, as much as he is a consummate networker. And he left a lot of people in Europe who were his friends that were still supplying him with needed components and designs.
NARRATOR: Khan’s network is his greatest strength. But it’s also his greatest weakness. When this operation begins in the mid-1990s, email, cell phones, and satellite comms were still a relatively new technology for the average consumer. But GCHQ, Britain’s signals intelligence agency, has already become adept at intercepting these communications.
MICHAEL SMITH: Although this is at its heart an MI6-CIA operation, the knowledge of what A.Q. Khan's doing comes from signals intelligence.
NARRATOR: They hone in on Khan’s wide digital footprint.
MICHAEL SMITH: Once you do that, once you get email connections, once you get telephone communications, you have the traffic, you have the various people involved. You know who's involved. You can look at how they react in emails and you can see from the signals intelligence who might be a good target to recruit, but who aren't the people to recruit in any event? Who are the people to try to recruit?
NARRATOR: As per the long-standing agreement between the two countries, GCHQ shares this information with the Americans. And it’s here that the CIA, with its unrivaled global reach and resources, enters the picture in force.
JIM LAWLER: The operation had its genesis in late '97, early '98.
NARRATOR: Naturally, Jim can’t go into the details surrounding the attempt to infiltrate A.Q. Khan’s network. But he can say this:
JIM LAWLER: Let me give you an analogy. When the Russian intelligence service, the Soviet intelligence service, the Cheka, was formed by Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1917, his existential challenge was that of the counter-revolutionaries. And Dzerzhinsky came up with a brilliant idea, if you will, to defeat the counter-revolutionaries. He'd have to become a counter-revolutionary. I decided if I wanted to defeat proliferators, I'd have to become a proliferator. So we created certain entities overseas that appeared to be proliferating companies, companies dealing in merchandise necessary to a weapons of mass destruction program.
NARRATOR: If you build it, they will come.
JIM LAWLER: We built a very attractive ‘honey pot’, if you will. And sure enough, pretty soon elements of Dr. Khan's network, within a few months, started showing up on our doorsteps. I can't be more specific than that.
NARRATOR: This wholesale infiltration of Khan’s network, which used an array of agents handled by CIA and MI6 officers, was no easy feat. It took place over six years, consuming thousands of man-hours, and costing an undisclosed, but presumably vast amount of money.
JIM LAWLER: Well, I was given every resource I ever needed. I had the constant attention of George Tenet and the entire seventh floor as well as the National Security Council and the president.
NARRATOR: They had the information. They had the people. They had the cash. But what they didn’t have was leverage. Remember, since Pakistan had achieved its nuclear ambitions in the early 1980s, A.Q. Khan was almost universally beloved in his home country - and held enormous sway with the government there. They weren’t going to come down on him unless they had to. And after leveling the playing field with their rancorous neighbor to the south, who could blame the Pakistanis for lionizing the engineer? It would take something big - something concrete - to force Pakistan to act against him. As it turned out, that something was Libya.
MICHAEL SMITH: In April 2,000, the British Joint Intelligence Committee, the JIC, says there are indications, as yet unconfirmed, that Khan is supplying uranium enrichment equipment to Libya.
NARRATOR: Let’s step away from Khan for a moment and meet the man who will, inadvertently, lead to his downfall. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi - Libya’s tyrannical leader for life.
JIM LAWLER: He had come into power sometime in the late 70s, I believe, and had sponsored a lot of terrorist activities around the world. And he decided that he would like a nuclear weapon.
NARRATOR: Well, what self-respecting dictator wouldn’t? But even among that rare and deeply unpleasant class of people, Colonel Gadhafi had a reputation for unpredictability. Ludicrously wealthy as a result of Libya’s fossil fuel resources, the Colonel used this fortune to strike out against his enemies in the West.
JIM LAWLER: So he had almost unlimited financial resources to exercise his whims of supporting ‘liberation groups’ as he would call them, terrorist groups around the world. Anything to oppose the imperialism of the West.
NARRATOR: Needless to say, this is not the type of man who can be entrusted with nuclear technology.
MICHAEL SMITH: Now, whether he would ever use it against the West is another matter, but he would certainly use it against neighbors he wanted to subdue, not necessarily the missiles, but having the missiles would give him much more importance, much more ability to influence people around him.
NARRATOR: In private, the leaders of the Arab world mocked Gadhafi for his vanity. If he got his hands on a nuke, they wouldn’t be laughing anymore. But in 2003, Coalition forces invaded Iraq. Spooked by the sudden vulnerability of his fellow despot, Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi enlisted his intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, to reach out to the West to negotiate a thawing of relations. A key part of any agreement would be the halting of Libya’s nuclear weapons program.
JIM LAWLER: It was really a logical decision, one of the few logical decisions that Gadhafi made. He saw that Saddam was about to fall after being invaded and he decided maybe it was better to be a friend of the UK and the United States as they needed infrastructure for the oil fields and technology.
NARRATOR: Moussa Koussa didn’t approach the Coalition directly. The Libyan spy chief used a proxy - a Palestinian who was known to have links with MI6.
MICHAEL SMITH: Within weeks you've got this Palestinian telephoning MI6, his contact at MI6, and saying that Gadhafi wanted to talk.
NARRATOR: It just so happened that Seif Gadhafi, the dictator’s son, was studying in London. Perfect. MI6 reached out and made contact.
MICHAEL SMITH: Seif was used as an initial go-between. He was invited to a hotel in Mayfair. It is a very, very rich area of London and lots of rich Arab people stay in hotels there.
NARRATOR: The meeting was led by Sir Mark Allen, a senior MI6 officer and an accomplished student of the Arab world.
JIM LAWLER: Mark was very senior in MI6 at one time. I think he was rumored to be in line to become the head of MI6. That never happened.
NARRATOR: He was a member of what was known within MI6 as The Camel Class - a slightly derisive nickname for Middle-Eastern specialists, coined by waggish officers working on Soviet issues during the Cold War.
MICHAEL SMITH: The Soviet Union guys were well known within the service as The Master Race, which reflects the fact, of course, that the Soviet Union was the main target during that period.
NARRATOR: But that was then. During the War on Terror, it was The Camel Class’s time to shine. Weapons of mass destruction, especially those held by anti-western dictators in the Middle East and North Africa, had become a hot topic. Removing the threat of a nuclear Libya - and doing it peacefully - would be a great coup for the Anglo-American coalition on the world stage. Behind the scenes, it would also cut off a key market for A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation business. Fortunately, Sir Mark Allen’s meeting with Seif Gadhafi in Mayfair went well. Arrangements were made to travel to Libya.
MICHAEL SMITH: Allen and his colleague, the MI6-Libya expert, fly to Tripoli a few days after the meeting with Seif and they meet Gadhafi personally.
NARRATOR: As Allen and his colleague approach the venue for their meeting, they’re greeted by the sight of a huge, Army-style tent. They’re led inside, where Gadhafi and a few members of his close circle are waiting for them. The tent’s drab exterior does not prepare them for what they find within it.
MICHAEL SMITH: Inside, it's extravagantly decorated with beautiful carpets, silk, tapestries, and cushions. And in the Arab world, you sit around on cushions and talk to people. And the cushions are embroidered with quotations from the Libyan leader’s many speeches attacking the West. I'm sure it was an amazing sight to be inside that tent and see all this in all its glory.
NARRATOR: Over a series of meetings, Gadhafi puts his cards on the table. He is willing to abandon his nuclear ambitions in return for a thawing of relations with the West.
MICHAEL SMITH: He can sell his oil to the British, to the Americans. He becomes a favored friend of the Americans and the British. That is what it's sold to him as being. And that's how he sells it to himself.
NARRATOR: But Gadhafi is deeply paranoid. He’s not content to trade on the word of British spooks. After all, they aren’t the ones holding the big guns.
MICHAEL SMITH: Gadhafi is absolutely insistent that the Americans have to be a party to this deal if he's going to give up his weapons of mass destruction.
NARRATOR: The dictator needs the Americans onside if he hopes to escape the fate of Saddam Hussein. MI6 intends to make that happen.
MICHAEL SMITH: Richard Dearlove, who was then chief of MI6, and Allen fly across to Washington to brief President Bush and George Tenet, then CIA director.
NARRATOR: The Americans are eager to bloodlessly neutralize another despotic presence in the Arab world. They also spy an opportunity to leverage this beautiful new friendship to secure solid evidence against A.Q. Khan. And this is where the two operations - the Libyan negotiations and the A.Q. Khan takedown team - collide. By now, it’s 2003, and the overall operation against Khan has been wearing on for almost a decade. It’s time to close the net.
MICHAEL SMITH: Tenet puts forward Steve Kappes as the man to be the American lead on this. Very, very good, very experienced operations officer.
NARRATOR: Steve Kappes, a CIA Middle-East specialist, will be Sir Mark Allen’s partner for the rest of the operation.
JIM LAWLER: Steve is a former Marine. He was at this time the associate deputy director of operations, as I recall. That's the second-highest position in the operations directorate.
NARRATOR: Kappes flies to Geneva - neutral territory - to meet with Moussa Koussa, the Libyan spy chief.
MICHAEL SMITH: To reassure him and to build up confidence. Yes. This isn't just the Brits doing some rogue operation on their own. The US is fully locked into this and discussing with him what was going on.
NARRATOR: Moussa Koussa assures the joint operation that Libya is committed to halting the development of weapons of mass destruction.
JIM LAWLER: And on every other WMD like biological and chemical. I believe they were pretty forthcoming, but on nuclear, they were absolutely stonewalling us, saying that they did not have any kind of nuclear weapons program.
NARRATOR: Moussa Koussa is lying. Guess how we know?
JIM LAWLER: Occasionally Dr. Khan would meet with the head of the Libyan nuclear program in various locations outside of Libya. And let me just put it this way. We have some friendly liaison relationships with some of these countries, and therefore, maybe a technical operation might have been possible.
MICHAEL SMITH: So the CIA are doing these black jobs, getting into anywhere where something is held - or might be held - that belongs to Khan or his network and planting bugs everywhere and anywhere.
NARRATOR: The CIA have spent years undertaking ‘technical operations’ against A.Q. Khan. Kappes is very, very aware that what Moussa Koussa is telling him isn't the full truth by any stretch of the imagination. The Libyans are holding back.
NARRATOR: Colonel Gadhafi, in a move that must have seemed terribly cunning at the time, was trying to have his cake and eat it. Normalized relations with the West - all that oil money - and a secret nuclear program? The best of both worlds. But the CIA and MI6 couldn’t outright accuse the Libyans of lying through their teeth - not without evidence. And then…
MICHAEL SMITH: With Libyan cooperation sort of very iffy, teetering on the edge, an MI6 agent inside Khan's network reveals a German freighter is on its way from Dubai to Libya, carrying equipment vital to Libya's nuclear weapons program.
NARRATOR: Dubai is where Abdul Qadeer Khan has made his home. This is not a coincidence. The MV BBC China, the cargo ship in question, is operated out of Germany. Some shadowy phone calls are made, and the German government orders the ship to be diverted to a port in Italy.
JIM LAWLER: The BBC China was stopped, and offloaded the largest supply of nuclear equipment in history.
MICHAEL SMITH: And the freighter is diverted into the Italian port of Taranto, where its cargo is found to be components for centrifuges to produce enriched weapons-grade uranium.
NARRATOR: MI6 demands another meeting with Moussa Koussa. He’s got some explaining to do.
MICHAEL SMITH: He was asked why, if the Libyans were so keen to negotiate a way out of their nuclear programs, they were still procuring components from that nuclear centrifuges [shipment]. What was the ship doing on its way to Libya? And. Moussa Koussa insists this is stuff that had been ordered long ago before they did the deal with the Brits. And he always intended to reveal it. But as a result of those MI6 concerns, Gadhafi agrees that British inspectors should be allowed to inspect Libya's WMD material.
NARRATOR: The negotiations are now under immense pressure. If the Coalition decides that Libya just can’t be trusted, they might have to abandon the operation altogether.
MICHAEL SMITH: While there was obvious openness over the chemical and biological programs, it was clear to the inspectors that Libyans were still holding back. So Moussa Koussa called to Britain urgently and there was a meeting at the Bay Tree Hotel in Burford.
NARRATOR: Burford, a chocolate-box town nestled in the English countryside, does not seem like an obvious setting for nuclear bargaining. The Bay Tree Hotel? Even less so.
MICHAEL SMITH: And it is just a beautiful hotel with beautiful rooms.
NARRATOR: But Mark Allen and Steve Kappes are intent on making their Libyan guest comfortable. Comfortable people let their guard down. That’s when you strike.
MICHAEL SMITH: And so he's being treated well until they get to sit down and have a discussion. And, at that point, he's confronted by Kappes with comprehensive details of this major operation that they build up, how much they know about what Khan is doing, and how much they know about what Libya is asking for. How much they know about the whole Libyan project to get nuclear weapons.
NARRATOR: Hearsay. Slander!
MICHAEL SMITH: It includes a recording of a conversation in Casablanca obtained with one of these covert entries, one of these black bag jobs that the CIA has been doing. A conversation between Khan himself and the head of the Libyan nuclear weapons program. It's highly incriminating.
JIM LAWLER: And so then our negotiators confronted the Libyans with their mendacity, and they had to come clean.
NARRATOR: Moussa Koussa has nowhere to turn. This is the power of intelligence - collected methodically, patiently, painstakingly, all in the service of this moment.
MICHAEL SMITH: And Kappes says, 'Look, centrifuges and uranium enrichment point to one direction only. That's military, not peaceful. So stop bullshitting us, basically.”
NARRATOR: But Kappes doesn’t want to go too far. He still needs a relationship with Moussa Koussa if Libya is going to come in from the cold.
MICHAEL SMITH: In order to soften the blow, he produces a letter for Gadhafi from Bush himself. And he says, “Look, the president doesn't write this sort of letter very often.” So Colonel Gadhafi can know this is the president himself saying, “You do this, we'll do that, but you've got to do this.”
NARRATOR: At every level - from low-key jobs to globally important operations like this one - managing personalities and egos is at the core of spycraft. The letter from the president fulfills its function.
MICHAEL SMITH: Koussa goes back and talks to Gadhafi at that point. MI6 and CIA inspectors are taken back to Libya. This is early December 2003 for a second, much more open inspection. And a few days later, there's a meeting at the Travelers Club between the various factions.
NARRATOR: The Traveler’s Club, a private member’s club in London’s Piccadilly, has a long association with spies, explorers, and other men of the world. And yes, we do mean ‘men’.
MICHAEL SMITH: The Travelers is male-only. And it's traditionally been the place where - if you were someone who traveled widely, if you were an explorer, or if you were in the Foreign Office, a diplomat and, particularly, MI6 officers - this would be your club. It's a natural place for Mark Allen to choose as a place to take the Libyan delegation. And of course the Libyans are well aware of these traditions and it has an impact in that way on Gadhafi and on Moussa Koussa, and on the Libyans generally at the delegation. The Bay Tree Hotel, the Mayfair Hotel, and the Travelers Club are all about giving the Libyans, giving Gadhafi, the absolute correct impression that he is being treated properly by the British establishment.
NARRATOR: In a room thick with the musk of old smoke and antique furniture, the CIA, MI6, and the Libyans come to a final agreement. So the day after the Traveler's Club meeting, Blair telephones Gadhafi to confirm the deal.
NARRATOR: It means a lot to Gadhafi that a politician with the stature of Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has deigned to treat him as an equal. Behind closed doors, the deal is finalized. But there’s one last step.
MICHAEL SMITH: It needed to be absolutely certain that this deal was actually being taken seriously by the Libyans and that it would go ahead.
NARRATOR: The Coalition spy agencies needed Gadhafi to go public with the deal - once it was out in the open, it would be much harder for the dictator to renege on his promises.
MICHAEL SMITH: The entire agreement had to be published by the Libyan news agency. So it was out there for anyone in Libya to see. So it was out there for other Arab states to see. BBC Monitoring Service is asked to check on this.
NARRATOR: The BBC Monitoring service is a division of the British national broadcaster which uses Open Source intelligence to keep tabs on the world’s media. It provides information to several departments of the British government including the intelligence services. The Arabic department of the Monitoring Service was asked to translate the agreement in the form that the Libyans had broadcast it.
MICHAEL SMITH: And Blair is told, "Look, the agreement has come through. They've published it. They did what you asked them to do."
NARRATOR: While all this is going on in the United Kingdom, the American side of the operation is content that it has enough leverage to finally close the net on A.Q. Khan, which brings us to the meeting at the Waldorf Astoria in late 2003 - the one we encountered at the very start of this episode. It’s a whispered to-and-fro between CIA Director George Tenet and Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, who denies any knowledge of Khan’s activities.
JIM LAWLER: And Musharraf's reaction was, “I'm going to kill that son of a bitch.” And Director Tenet said, “No, we're not asking you to do that, but you just need to stop him.” And Director Tenet is very effective, in essence, he's a very effective case officer. And President Musharraf did the right thing. He knew he couldn't kill him. But here he was, the founder or the creator of the Islamic bomb, as you said earlier. But he put him under house arrest for the next five years and basically curtailed his activities. And this, of course, led to the whole downfall of the network.
NARRATOR: In March 2004, Tony Blair flies to Tripoli to sign trade agreements that bring Libya in line with Western values - including a $900m oil deal with British Petroleum.
MICHAEL SMITH: And a month before that, in fact, Khan had confessed on Pakistani TV to having passed nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya.
NARRATOR: But don’t shed too many tears for the Father of Pakistan’s Bomb.
JIM LAWLER: From what I understand, he had a palatial residence in Kahuta in Pakistan. I doubt it was too onerous.
MICHAEL SMITH: He died in October 2021 when Imran Khan was Pakistani prime minister and was given a state funeral.
NARRATOR: Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, was destined for a less comfortable end. When a series of revolutions known collectively as the Arab Spring raged through North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, Gadhafi was deposed by a rival faction - the National Transitional Council, or NTC. As you might remember, the NTC was supported by the American-led Nato. So what gives? Wasn’t the 2004 deal supposed to be the start of a beautiful friendship? Well, when it comes to acts of unilateral foreign policy, spy agencies like the CIA and MI6 can advise, but the decision is out of their hands.
MICHAEL SMITH: And MI6 is warning against it. David Richards, General David Richards, the chief of defense staff, is warning against it.
NARRATOR: Nonetheless, Nato invaded. Gadhafi was removed and killed by NTC forces. His presence had been unpredictable, brutal, and despotic. After his death, chaos ensued.
MICHAEL SMITH: The incursion of dangerous groups like Isis, Islamic State, like al-Qaeda happens. And we're still at this stage of trying to recover Libya from what happened back then and the mistakes that were made there.
NARRATOR: But that was all to come. The joint operation to take down A.Q. Khan and bring Libya in from the cold had been a roaring success. When it comes to understanding the ways in which Britain and America use their Special Relationship to act on the world stage, there are few more potent examples.
JIM LAWLER: Normally, we keep each other informed. We share intelligence, things like that. But I think it's rare where we actually do joint operations together. I may be wrong, but I had not experienced that before.
NARRATOR: Maybe one day, we’ll know the whole story.
JIM LAWLER: I'd say it's going to be at least 30 years before real sensitive details come out. This is just considered to be a very, very sensitive thing. It touches on some other countries. It consumed almost 10 years of my life, and yet I'm still hesitant to talk about it in detail because of the sources and methods involved.
NARRATOR: We’d like to thank Anthony Wells, Michael Smith, and Jim Lawler for their invaluable contributions to this anthology. And if you like your spy stories to be written by people who know what they’re talking about, Jim’s new book is available now.
JIM LAWLER: My newest novel, which has just been released, is called In the Twinkling of an Eye. It's about a Russian North Korean conspiracy to develop a very, very devastating genetic bioweapon for assassination and genocide.
NARRATOR: Anthony’s latest work of historical fiction, Room 39 and the Lisbon Connection is also available. You can also pick up a copy of Michael Smith’s The Real Special Relationship. Join us next time, as we take a deep dive into the murky depths of financial crime - and the dangerous lives of those who speak out against it. Or, if you’re a subscriber to *Spyscape Plus* on Apple Podcasts, there’s no need to wait: you can listen to it right now.
SPYEX Consultant James 'Jim' Lawler (pictured) served for 25 years as a CIA operations officer in various international posts and as Chief of the Counterproliferation Division's Special Activities Unit. He was a member of the CIA's Senior Intelligence Service from 1998 to 2005.
Michael Smith served in the British Army Intelligence Corps and has worked as a journalist for the BBC, Daily Telegraph, and The Sunday Times. He is also the author of several books including The Secrets of Station X, The Spying Game, and Foley. He lives in England with his wife and family.