WASHINGTON -- Libya is expanding its chemical weapons program and is dispersing chemical stockpiles to avoid detection, U.S. intelligence officials say.
After the November indictments by the United States and Britain of two Libyan agents in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988, the government of Col. Muammar el Kadafi has trucked large quantities of chemicals from its chemical weapons complex at Rabta to isolated sites throughout the country.
U.S. officials say they think Libya is moving the chemicals for two reasons. First, they say, Colonel Kadafi may fear the possibility of allied air strikes against the sprawling weapons installation about 40 miles southwest of Tripoli.
"The Libyans saw what happened to Iraqi military installations and want to protect against the same thing happening to them," a U.S. official said yesterday.
U.S. commanders say no such attack is imminent, although the Air Force has drawn up contingency plans for a strike.
Second, the officials say, the Libyan activity is part of a larger, continuing campaign to hide any suspicious-looking material and equipment so that the Libyans eventually can open Rabta for a much-touted international inspection.
Other intelligence reports indicate that Libya is building a second, smaller chemical weapons plant, either to replace or augment production at Rabta, which the CIA has described as the largest plant of its kind in the developing world.
"If Kadafi wants to reopen Rabta and get a clean bill of health from international inspectors, he's likely to store it elsewhere or set up another smaller production facility until the heat blows over," a U.S. intelligence official said.
The United States has sought to uncover new evidence of Libya's chemical weapons program, in part to bolster a campaign at the United Nations, led by the United States, Britain and France, that might result in sanctions against Libya for its role in the Lockerbie bombing.
Initial information about new Libyan activities came from a U.S. diplomat in the Middle East several weeks ago, and a fuller
picture was pieced together in Washington from a variety of government officials. In the wake of the indictments in the Pan Am bombing, Bush administration officials have been more willing to discuss classified information about Libya.
In a little-noticed section of his Senate testimony on global proliferation trends last week, Robert M. Gates, the director of central intelligence, reported that Libya has stockpiled as many tTC as 100 tons of chemical weapons, a much-higher figure than previous estimates.
He told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that Libya's chemical weapons program continues, adding that even if the Rabta plant is closed down, "the Libyans have no intention of giving up C.W. production." Without elaborating, he cited reports that Libya is building a second chemical weapons plant, "one they hope will escape international attention."
But he added that the project had not progressed very far, and that the American intelligence community believed that Libya still needed assistance "from more technically advanced countries to build one and make it work." Chemical weapons employ inert chemicals to kill, wound or incapacitate, while biological weapons use micro-organisms.
There is considerable disagreement among non-proliferation analysts in various government agencies about whether an alternate chemical weapons site exists and how far along it may have progressed.
Some intelligence officials are convinced that Libya is building another chemical weapons plant, citing the country's continuing purchase of precursor chemicals to make weapons.