- ...To the Shores of Tripoli
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Oslo—On November 5, 1985, a small private jet that CBS News had chartered for myself, producer Jennifer Siebens, and a two-man camera crew touched down in Tripoli, Libya after a two-hour flight from Paris, across the Mediterranean. Met at the airport by senior government media types, we were immediately shuttled to our hotel in central Tripoli overlooking Green Square. And green it certainly was. Indeed, they must have emptied the contents of their local Benjamin Moore store of "Clover Green," since that's what made the square Green. They'd simply paved it all over and painted it. Not a blade of grass, not a single living thing. Which it turns out was an entirely appropriate metaphor for Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, then and now. [End Page 124]
In those days there were two principal reasons that Western journalists were summoned to Tripoli for an audience with the Leader. Either he had done something of which he was inordinately proud and wanted to boast—or he was afraid. We suspected in our case it was the latter. And not without reason. At 2 o'clock in the morning on April 15, 1986, the United States would launch a massive air attack on Libya, dropping 60 tons of bombs on five targets, one of them Bab al-Azizia, the lavish compound where Gaddafi lived and worked. Gaddafi managed to escape with his nine lives intact, fleeing after receiving a telephone call warning him the planes were in the air.
But that was all in the future when we arrived the previous November. For two days, our handlers stalled. They took us to see clinics where Libyans were receiving free medical treatment, to construction sites where snazzy new apartments were being built for Libyans by their Leader. We were each given our own copy of the Green Book, Colonel Gaddafi's rules for law and behavior, his philosophy of life and government. Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book had nothing on the benevolent Leader of Libya and his Green Revolution—neatly ignoring those pesky Western scientists who'd coined the phrase the Colonel perverted for his own, far less generous and compassionate ends.
But above all, we spent a lot of time hanging around our hotel waiting for our summons to Bab al-Azizia. Not surprisingly, the hotel was somewhat thinly populated. Libya had by then wandered pretty far off the traditional tourist routes. Indeed, Western relations with Libya had been cooling since the arrival of the Reagan administration in the United States in January 1981. That May, the United States closed the Libyan "People's Bureau" (embassy) in Washington and expelled the entire staff in response to conduct "generally violating internationally accepted standards of diplomatic behavior," after Gaddafi was heard talking about ordering the assassination of the new American president. Relations continued to deteriorate. In August 1981, two Libyan jets fired on U.S. aircraft participating in a routine naval exercise in the Gulf of Sidra, recognized as international waters by everyone except Colonel Gaddafi. The American planes, returning fire, not unsurprisingly promptly downed both Libyan attackers. On December 11, 1981, the State Department invalidated all U.S. passports for travel to Libya, effectively a total travel ban, and advised all Americans to leave the country. The following March, the government prohibited imports of Libyan crude into the United States and launched an extensive trade boycott. At the same [End Page 125] time, America's allies were busy. In 1984, the British severed diplomatic relations with Libya after a British policewoman was killed by somone firing on demonstrators from an upstairs window of the Libyan embassy in London.
By the time we'd pitched up in Tripoli, Gaddafi was pretty firmly ensconced in the pantheon of pariah world leaders. All sorts of allegations swirled about him—nefarious plots hatched around the world and carried out by his agents embedded in Libyan embassies, or his support of known and unknown international terrorists. All of this Gaddafi vehemently denied.
So Jennifer and I were amused, though hardly surprised, when we emerged from...