Do you remember Libya’s alleged second chemical weapons facility near Tarhuna?
In February 1996, then-DCI John Deutch accused Libya of “building the world’s largest underground chemical weapons plant” near Tarhuna. A few months later, a State Department spokesperson explained:
Libya is constructing what would be the world’s largest underground chemical plants near a place called Tarhunah, about 60 kilometers southeast of Tripoli. They began this work, we think, in about 1992, and we know that their chemical weapons production facility at Rabta has been inactive since it was exposed in the late 1980s, partly as a result of our efforts. Tripoli, the government of Libya still insists that the chemical plant at Rabta was designed to produce just pharmaceuticals. It claims that this new site, Tarhunah, is a training site for Libyan workers of the much publicized civilian great man-made river project, which is ongoing there. But our indication is that this, that Tarhunah will be a reconfigured version of the plant at Rabta, and that it will, if it moves forward, be used to produce blister agents such as mustard gas and perhaps nerve agents as well.
This was kind of a big deal. During Congressional testimony, General Patrick Hughes, then Director of DIA, said “we have clear evidence that this is, indeed, a chemical weapons production facility that Libya is in the process of constructing, equipping, and putting into action.”
Hughes added, for a personal touch, “I do believe, and I personally can assure you, that the intelligence we have on this facility is good, and it does represent a threat to us in the chemical warfare regime.”
Yeah, I know. You see where this is headed. Hughes—who is rumored to have been a regular source for Bill Gertz—had a nice little picture in his presentation (right), which DOD reprinted in the 1996 edition of Proliferation: Threat and Response (Download the high resolution version).
Anyway, Tarhuna became a big, hairy for a couple of months. Asked if the United States would let the plant open, then-Secretary of Defense Bill Perry answered with one word: “No” and then, asked about the use of force, replied “I wouldn’t rule anything out or anything in.”
If you think that last statement might imply use of a nuclear weapon … well, so did others. Perry issued a second statement at Maxwell Air Force Base stating that he would never recommend using a nuclear weapon against a target such as Tarhuna. But he also stated that the United States might use nuclear weapons in response to an attack with chemical or biological weapons. (DOD reprinted the language in the 1997 edition of Proliferation: Threat and Response, in case anyone missed it.)
Perry’s statement that the United States might use nuclear weapons to respond to a chemical or biological attack—despite a 1979 pledge (reaffirmed in 1995) to “not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapons state party to the NPT … except in the case of an attack … by such state allied to a nuclear-weapon state”— has come to be known as “calculated ambiguity.” To be sure, the idea predated the Clinton administration and Perry surely favored it before 1996, but after Tarhuna it acquired a kind of kind of acceptance as part of US nuclear posture. (Scott Sagan critiques calculated ambiguity in “The Commitment Trap,” arguing for a pledge that the US “does not need to use its nuclear arsenal to punish any enemy who uses chemical or biological weapons against us or our allies.”)
After a couple of months, Tarhuna melted away as an issue. In December 1997, Jamie Rubin told reporters “construction has ceased,” adding the interesting clarification that “the Libyan government intended to use the Tarhuna plant as a chemical weapons manufacturing facility.” In 1999, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ronald Neumann stated “We have certainly believed at times that [Libya’s] intention was chemical weapons production” at Tarhuna, adding “I would remind you that it is also very easy to move back and forth between some of these issues. But it is obviously not something which we have the capability to monitor on a day-by-day basis.”
A Second Look at Tarhuna
Now that Libya has come out of the cold and declared its chemical weapons programs, I figured it might be a nice time to take a second look at Tarhuna.
First order of business: use the Department of Defense illustration to find the facility in Google Earth. Well, I’ll be damned. There it is, at 32°28’21.49”N, 13°25’43.67”E, looking much scarier than the picture. (Oh, and that isn’t the only construction in the neighborhood that might catch an analyst’s eye).
Second, let’s check the OPCW declaration—or at least accounts of it (contained in 12 binders, I believe it is confidential. At the very least, it ain’t online). Libya declared “one inactivated chemical weapons production facility [at Rabta], as well as two chemical weapons storage facilities have been declared.”
Libya’s declared facilities, according to an editorial in the CBW Conventions Bulletin, “do not in fact include the two underground production facilities reported in past US ‘public diplomacy’ and purported intelligence leaks – at Sebha (1990-93) and at Tarhuna (1993 on).”
Oh my, that’s awkward.
Libya did, however, import equipment for a second facility—according to Ambassador Donald Mahley, our man on the ground during Libya’s disarmament—“but had not actually installed the equipment (The equipment was still in shipping crates).”
Libya apparently declared two production lines at Rabta, the CBW Conventions Bulletin says, which may explain the second set of equipment. (Mahley doesn’t say when Libya procured the equipment.)
Although Mahley strongly states “that ‘doubts’ expressed in the 1980s about intelligence claiming Libya had a chemical weapons production facility at Rabta are themselves unfounded,” he kind of skips over doubts about Tarhuna.
That’s a shame, because I’d love to know why analysts got one right, but (perhaps) the other wrong. The Los Angeles Times reported that the goods on Rabta included “intelligence on the thickness of the plant’s walls – said to be designed to contain accidental explosions – and even the configuration of its sewers.” Maybe Tarhuna was just a Type I error—the kind of mistake you make when you err on the side of inclusion.
Mahley has a point of view, of course, but he isn’t out of bounds to herald the success in identifying the Rabta plant. The Reagan Administration had a devil of a time convincing our European allies that Rabta (which German companies helped build) was pumping out mustard gas—which it was, twenty-three tons in fact. But after a very tough diplomatic effort, Libya closed the plant in 1990—citing a fire that may have been just a convenient excuse for bowing to the pressure.
Libya—with the support of the United States, by the way—now wants to convert the Rabta facility into a factory “to produce low-cost pharmaceuticals to treat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, for use mainly in Africa.”
Ah, doesn’t that make you feel all warm and squishy inside?