12. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • Escorted Reconnaissance Flight off Libya

In 1972 Libya declared a “restricted area” reaching 100 miles around its capital. We protested, citing international law and custom which prevented restricting freedom of airspace over the high seas and advised Libya that we would adhere to international aviation practices. On a regular basis we have flown reconnaissance missions over international waters in the Central Mediterranean, including Libya’s “restricted area,” without incident.

On 21 March two Libyan aircraft fired at and attempted to force down a U.S. [less than 1 line not declassified] reconnaissance aircraft which was about 82 nautical miles off Libya. We have reiterated our right to fly in international waters to Libyan civil air officials and, on 10 April, to the Libyan Foreign Ministry. The issues are complicated and Libyan officials are likely to take considerable time to study them before responding.

What is at issue is our right to freedom of air space over international waters. The Libyan attack was unprovoked and clearly illegal. If not met with an appropriate response from the U.S. Government, Libya’s claims will be reinforced. There is a consensus that we should establish our rights by resuming reconnaissance operations off Libya.

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Defense and the JCS propose to provide armed fighter escorts for a [less than 1 line not declassified] reconnaissance aircraft which would fly a mission similar to that of 21 March except that it would proceed point-to-point without any orbits en route and would be manned by a reduced crew. The escort would be provided by an aircraft carrier in the area. The closest point of approach to Libya would be 75 nautical miles.

The arguments for this proposal include:

—To establish our right to operate in international airspace.

—To confirm our refusal to accept Libya’s (or any other) unilateral, illegal declaration of a “restricted area” that includes international space.

—To resume collection of intelligence information on the Middle East, including Soviet involvement in the area.

—To provide some degree of protection to our aircraft as it conducts reconnaissance.

—To prevent Libya from claiming that this is the way to deal with the United States.

The arguments against this proposal include:

—We may be accused of resorting to military means to assert our rights.

—Arabs will exploit any incident as “proof” of our collusion with Israel, specifically in the recent Beirut raid, but generally as well.

—Libya’s reaction might be to seek ways to retaliate rather than be subdued by our show of force.

—Libya’s planes are on “strip alert” and are equipped with air-to-air missiles. They are “prepared” for Israeli air attacks and might mistake our mission and attack. There are also indications Libya is looking for an opportunity to create an incident as an excuse for a total break with the U.S. In any event, our planes could be threatened. Even with an escort, there is a risk our reconnaissance aircraft could be lost.

—Middle East anti-U.S. emotions are being inflamed as an aftermath of Israel’s raid on Lebanon and a U.S.-Libya incident would add fuel to the fire, possibly endangering the 3,000 Americans in Libya and the major oil investments there.

There are risks involved, but I believe we should not delay much longer the assertion of our right to operate in international airspace. To do so would only invite similar challenges elsewhere and even bolder challenges by Libya. Anti-American demonstrations in the area can be expected to lessen after today’s funeral services in Lebanon for those killed in the Israeli raid and the simultaneous observances in Libya. We can monitor these sentiments over the next few days before scheduling a reconnaissance mission with armed escort. In any event, it is probably desirable to wait until Under Secretary Newsom departs Algeria on 16 April before conducting the proposed mission. In addition, Secretary Rogers recommends that we delay the flight for a few days at least (Tab A). We could further reduce the risks by notifying the Libyan Govern[Page 20]ment of our intentions in advance, which also would establish that any provocation would be at their hand, not ours.


That you approve armed escort of a reconnaissance flight off Libya on 17 April, with the Libyan Government to be notified in advance.

  1. Summary: Kissinger proposed the resumption of reconnaissance flights off the Libyan coast.

    Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 739, Country Files, Africa, Libya. Top Secret; Outside the System. Sent for action. Nixon initialed his approval of the recommendation. Tab A was not attached. A memorandum from Kissinger to Nixon, April 17, informed the President of the successful completion of an escorted reconnaissance mission off the Libyan coast. (Ibid.)