President Reagan said Monday that two Libyan cables intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies--before and after the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque that killed an off-duty U.S. soldier--provided the heart of the evidence that he relied upon to justify his order for a bombing strike against Tripoli and other targets.
“The evidence is now conclusive that the terrorist bombing of La Belle discotheque was planned and executed under the direct orders of the Libyan regime,” Reagan said in a nationally televised speech. “Our evidence is direct, it is precise, it is irrefutable,” said the President, who cited these Libyan communiques:
--On April 4, a message was intercepted from the Libyan Embassy in East Berlin informing Col. Moammar Kadafi’s headquarters in Tripoli that a terrorist attack would take place the next day.
--On April 5, the same day that a bomb exploded at the West Berlin disco--killing Army Sgt. Kenneth T. Ford and a Turkish woman and injuring more than 200 people--the embassy told Kadafi that the attack was a success.
“On March 25, more than a week before the attack, orders were sent from Tripoli to the Libyan People’s Bureau (the official name of the embassy) in East Berlin to conduct a terrorist attack against Americans to cause maximum and indiscriminate casualties,” Reagan said. “Libya’s agents then planted the bomb.”
White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes said earlier that personnel from the Libyan Embassy were seen and identified in West Berlin, apparently on surveillance missions before the terrorist attack.
Moreover, Speakes said, the United States has learned that Libya was planning terrorist attacks against U.S. diplomatic missions in 10 African countries, as well as areas of the Middle East and Latin America. In one African country, for example, three Libyan agents were reportedly planning to bomb a U.S. embassy and to kidnap the ambassador.
All told, Libya was targeting up to 30 American embassies for possible attack, Secretary of State George P. Shultz told reporters Monday night.
“We have solid evidence about other attacks Kadafi has planned against United States installations and diplomats and even American tourists,” Reagan said.
Retaliation against terrorism has been the declared policy of the Administration since its first week in office. On Jan. 27, 1981, Reagan said, “Let terrorists be aware that when the rules of international behavior are violated, our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution.”
Risk to Civilians
However, the Administration has been reluctant to follow this policy in the past because it was not able to determine with certainty the responsibility for attacks and because it found it difficult to identify terrorist targets that could be struck without injuring innocent civilians.
But the West Berlin attack changed all that. It was this incident--the last of a mounting number of terrorist acts against Americans in which U.S. officials have suspected Libyan involvement--that convinced the Administration that Kadafi was to blame.
The Administration also had no problem determining targets associated with terrorism in Libya. “It is easier (to select a target) when it is a specific state than it is when it is a small group in an alleyway in Beirut,” a senior Administration official said.
Although Speakes tied the U.S. raids directly to the West Berlin bombing, he said the U.S. military action was intended to deter Libya from sponsoring future terrorist acts.
Administration spokesmen have sought to link Kadafi to earlier assaults--especially the December submachine-gun attacks at Vienna and Rome airports--but it has never before had the sort of solid evidence required to justify a military reprisal.
Kadafi a ‘Smoking Gun’
Shultz, long an advocate of reprisals against terrorists, has said that “Kadafi is his own smoking gun,” a reference to the Libyan leader’s frequent public statements praising attacks on Americans, Israelis and others whom he considers enemies.
But the Administration chose to wait until it had documentary evidence of specific Libyan action. Intelligence agencies still “do not have any specific information yet” to link Kadafi to the bombing of a Trans World Airlines jetliner over Greece earlier this month in which four Americans were killed, Speakes said.
Administration officials said that Vernon A. Walters, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has described the evidence to the allied government leaders he met during a whirlwind tour of London, Bonn, Paris and Rome.
Apparently, the evidence was persuasive only to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who authorized the use of British bases to launch the attack. The other allies--Italy and West Germany the most outspoken of them--urged the United States to avoid military action even though West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said there was some evidence linking Libya to the disco bombing.
Abu Nidal Blamed
U.S. officials said the Rome and Vienna airport attacks on the counters of TWA and El Al, the Israeli airline, were carried out by followers of Abu Nidal, a renegade Palestinian who broke with the Palestine Liberation Organization because he considered it too reluctant to use terrorism as a tactic.
The United States, however, charged that Kadafi was responsible for the attacks because Abu Nidal was supported by Libya. Abu Nidal also is supported by Syria, but the Administration chose to play down the Damascus government’s connection.
Administration spokesmen hinted in December at possible military action against Libya in reprisal for the Rome and Vienna attacks. But the United States decided at that time to impose economic sanctions instead. Officials conceded then that the action virtually exhausted the range of possible nonviolent measures against Kadafi.