By Robert Windrem: March 4, 2011
NBC News investigative producer for special projects
More than decade ago, a Washington writer penned a novel based on Moammar Gadhafi’s willingness to use chemical weapons. Called “Circle William,” the novel was based on a supposed plot by Gadhafi to use chemical weapons against the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem and a ship christening ceremony in Norfolk, Va. Predictably, the plot failed because of the heroic efforts of two brothers.
While there is no evidence that Libya would go after U.S. or Israeli targets — or even has the capability to do so — one of the book’s main premises is very real: Gadhafi has vast reserves of chemical weapons.
Libya has a “significant” stockpile of chemical weapons, developed during the 1980s, according to U.S. officials, but the U.S. also believes there is no evidence that he is prepared to use them against his own people. With the destruction of 3,500 aerial bombs in 2004, Gadhafi may not have the delivery systems needed.
“We have no indication he is planning to use them against his population … but he doesn’t always make rational decisions,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials do say the Libyan government recently updated security measures at the country’s chemical weapons storage and destruction facilities.
U.S. officials tell NBC News the facilities are on an air base near the town of Sebha, 250 miles south of Tripoli. The Libyans have been using a chemical neutralization process to destroy the weapons and are nearing completion of an incineration facility at Sebha.
Indeed, Libya has one of the world’s largest remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons.
Of the 23 tons of mustard gas declared by the Libyans in 2004, only about 9.5 tons remain, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, which has responsibility for overseeing the destruction of such weapons under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The destruction began in 2010 and was supposed to be concluded by May, but the situation in Libya clouds that timetable, say officials.
By comparison, as of last month the U.S. had more than 4,700 tons of chemical weapons agents still awaiting destruction, specifically mustard and blister agents as well as the nerve agents VX and sarin. The Russian stockpile is even larger, at more than 20,000 tons.
The Libyans declared their country had produced only mustard gas.
“And the declaration on precursor chemicals (those used to make chemical warfare agents) was also only for mustard gas,” said Michael Luhan, a OPCW spokesman.
Some in U.S. intelligence, however, were never convinced that the Libyans limited their chemical weapons production to mustard gas.
“I don’t know of anyone at the (Central Intelligence) Agency who was fully comfortable with the Libyans telling us everything we wanted to know,” said a former senior intelligence official. “The going assumption was they were lying whenever possible, and we were rarely proven wrong.”
Moreover, he said, U.S. intelligence believed that the Libyans had not been completely truthful on the quantity as well as the quality of the weapons. “We believed they were saving something for a rainy day.”
However, a current U.S. intelligence official said that while there was concern about nerve agents “because of the discovery of precursor chemicals,” it was only research and development.
“No one believed they were successful,” said the official. “Never a capability. Never actual stocks, just precursors. OPCW was concerned that Libya did not declare an R&D effort, but they didn’t.”
In addition to the stockpile, one inactivated chemical weapons production facility at Rabta, 60 miles south of Tripoli, was declared and has now been converted to a pharmaceutical plant, ironically, its original cover.
“The conversion is irreversible,” said Luhan.