13. Minutes of a Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Libya and Indochina


  • Chairman
  • Henry Kissinger
  • State
  • William Porter
  • William Sullivan
  • Defense
  • Lawrence Eagleburger
  • Gen. Alexander Haig
  • R/Adm. Daniel Murphy
  • JCS
  • Adm. Thomas Moorer
  • V/Adm. John Weinel
  • CIA
  • James Schlesinger
  • George Carver
  • [2 names not declassified]
  • NSC
  • B/Gen. Brent Scowcroft
  • Richard Kennedy
  • James Hackett


It was agreed that:

—A working group will be organized to prepare an options paper on the Libyan situation. The group should be chaired by State and include representatives of OSD, CIA and the NSC staff. The group is to address the question of what next steps we should be prepared to take [Page 21] if another attack on U.S. aircraft is initiated by Libyan aircraft over international waters.

—There will be no leaks of WSAG discussions or agency positions on the Libyan situation.

[Omitted here are conclusions unrelated to Libya.]

Mr. Kissinger: Is Clements coming to the meeting?

Mr. Eagleburger: He’ll be here as soon as he can. I’ll do the best I can to substitute for him until he arrives.

Mr. Kissinger: First, I want to discuss these flights off Libya.

Mr. Porter: I understand the flight is in a go position.

Mr. Kissinger: We have received more messages from our Chargé in Libya during the past week than from our Ambassador in Cambodia, where a shooting war is going on, in a year. The Chargé has now figured out that the rules of engagement for the flight over the Mediterranean are dangerous. I must admit that our Chargé in Tripoli has a point there. If the Libyans are willing to shoot down our planes at a range of fifty miles out at sea, we have to be sure the rules of engagement are very carefully drawn. What are they, anyway?

Adm. Moorer: The rules we have imposed are so severe that the fighter pilots must be smarting about them. The admiral in command of the Task Force must declare an aircraft hostile before our fighters can attack it, and he has very strict requirements that must be met before he can declare an aircraft hostile. The approaching aircraft must move into position to attack our planes, or be vectored toward one of them, or be ordered to fire on them, [2 lines not declassified]

Mr. Kissinger: What is the range you are referring to?

Adm. Moorer: [1 paragraph (5 lines) not declassified]

Mr. Kissinger: Those rules sound fine to me. I’m just trying to be responsive to this fellow in Tripoli who is sending us these messages. What is his name?

Mr. Porter: Josif. Harold Josif.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Porter) Are you satisfied with these rules of engagement?

Mr. Porter: I’m satisfied. I would like to give the exercise some visibility and provide advance notice to the Libyans. Otherwise, the rules of engagement are in the area of technology and if Admiral Moorer is satisfied with them, they are O.K. with me.

Adm. Moorer: We couldn’t make them any tighter.

Mr. Porter: How many planes will there be with the [less than 1 line not declassified]

Adm. Moorer: Two A–7’s and four fighters flying cover. [2 lines not declassified] We won’t get into a combat situation unless the Libyan planes get within firing range.

[Page 22]

Mr. Porter: If they do, how do you think it will come out?

Adm. Moorer: I think ours will come out on top.

Mr. Kissinger: Are we going to let the Libyans know two hours ahead of time?

Adm. Moorer: My understanding was that we were not.

Mr. Porter: The Greeks are out. We don’t plan to notify them, but I think we should inform the Libyans in advance.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Adm. Moorer) What do you think?

Adm. Moorer: I don’t think we should give them any advance notice.

Mr. Porter: If we do, how much should we tell them? Should we tell them a [less than 1 line not declassified] is coming with a fighter cap?

Adm. Moorer: If we have to tell them anything, I would just say that a transport is flying over the open sea with fighter cover.

Mr. Porter: I think it’s important that this flight have high visibility. We should tell them. We don’t have to say when the flight will take place, just that a [less than 1 line not declassified] is coming by.

Adm. Moorer: Then you will have established a precedent. Every time we want to fly over the area, we will have to notify the Libyans.

Mr. Porter: No, not every time, only under special circumstances. This is a very special situation.

Mr. Schlesinger: What is the purpose of the warning? Can it reach a high level in the Libyan Government in two hours, a high-enough level for them to make a decision about it?

Mr. Porter: I don’t care whether it reaches a high level or not. We want to do it for the record. We’ll do whatever we can to establish the record that we gave them advance notice. If necessary, we’ll throw a rock with a note tied to it through the Foreign Office window.

Adm. Moorer: I have no problem with giving them notice for the record.

Mr. Kissinger: This would not be done in connection with any other country, would it?

Mr. Porter: No. I prefer just to tell the Libyans and to tell them only the bare fact of the flight.

Mr. Kissinger: Al (Haig), you’re shaking your head, what’s your objection?

Gen. Haig: If we give them a warning, it is likely to make it more of a test of manhood for the Libyans.

Mr. Porter: I understand what you are saying, but I think we should do it.

Adm. Moorer: The trouble is, a warning gives them time to get their aircraft armed with missiles and it could make it more dangerous for our planes.

[Page 23]

Mr. Porter: I’m not saying we have to give them a lot of notice. We can just give them one or two minutes and still make the record of having notified them.

Mr. Eagleburger: If we have to notify them, why not do it just as our planes are entering their radar screens?

Mr. Porter: It would be hard to tell when that will happen.

Adm. Moorer: No it’s not, it’s very easy. We know exactly when that will happen, at 2 p.m. Washington time, or 9 a.m. Libya time.

Mr. Eagleburger: If you’re going to give them two hours notice, you’ll never find anyone in the Foreign Office at 7 a.m.

Mr. Porter: Don’t worry, we’ll find someone.

Mr. Carver: When it is 2 p.m. in Washington, isn’t it 9 p.m. in Libya?

Adm. Moorer: No, the flyby will take place at 2 a.m. Washington time, which is 9 a.m. Libya time. Maybe I said it wrong.

Mr. Kissinger: Why not give them less than two hours notice? What about one hour?

Mr. Porter: We could do it indefinitely by just telling them that we will be passing through international air space, without saying when.

Adm. Moorer: I don’t think it makes any difference what we tell them. They are going to lie about it anyway, so why not do it to suit ourselves. We don’t want to do it in a way that gives them a big advantage.

Mr. Kissinger: That’s right, I don’t want to compromise the operation. Jim (Schlesinger) what do you think? What do you consider is the chance they will jump us?

Mr. Schlesinger: The last time, the pilots of the Libyan planes didn’t get the [less than 1 line not declassified] and as a result they were relieved and sent home [less than 1 line not declassified] I think the chances are high that there are standing orders to shoot the next one down.

Adm. Moorer: That is all the more reason not to give them much notice.

Mr. Porter: It’s also a reason we should make a record of notification.

Mr. Schlesinger: Another factor is that they’ve been confusing us with the Israelis. There is less chance that will happen if we tell them in advance that we’re coming through.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Schlesinger) What do you recommend?

Mr. Schlesinger: Now you’re asking me for a policy judgment.

Mr. Kissinger: It’s not unknown for you to make one.

[Page 24]

Adm. Moorer: Why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too, by giving them just one hour notice?

Mr. Kissinger: Where is the Deputy Secretary of Defense?

Adm. Murphy: He’s taking care of some stockpile matters.

Mr. Kissinger: What’s the matter with his sense of priorities?

Adm. Murphy: He’s making a statement on stockpiles. But I can say that Mr. Clements favors a warning to the Libyans.

Mr. Kissinger: So there are two issues involved here, (a) to warn the Libyans for the record and (b) to protect our aircraft. The two are contradictory. In the first instance, if we notify them we are coming and they know the aircraft are not Israeli planes, they may not attack; but if they are committed to attack anyway, the warning will make their attack more effective. How much notice will the Libyans have from the time the planes first enter their radar scopes?

Adm. Moorer: Not a lot. Frankly, I don’t know how they can confuse our planes with the Israelis. [less than 1 line not declassified]

Mr. Schlesinger: The Libyans don’t know that. [1 line not declassified] They have convinced themselves the Israelis are going to attack them and that we are helping the Israelis. [1 line not declassified]

Mr. Kennedy: Even if we do warn the Libyans, will they believe us?

Mr. Kissinger: That’s a different question. If we give them two hours notice, won’t it take them at least an hour to get organized and get their planes into the air?

Mr. Porter: Why tell them when we’re coming? We can just say we expect to be passing through international air space at some indefinite time, adding that we are making no threat to their air space. We can pass that word to them with a minimum amount of warning time.

Mr. Kissinger: To achieve the objective of having them hold back their fighters on realizing that the planes are ours rather than the Israelis, we would have to give them time to do something after receiving our notice.

Adm. Moorer: But they may already have made the decision to attack, anyway.

Mr. Kissinger: Then there is nothing we can do, except make the record.

Adm. Moorer: You could make a strong case that you had warned them. They are not exactly imbued with integrity, but we could have our cake and eat it by warning them at the last minute.

Mr. Kissinger: Unless there is a possibility they may turn it off. If we think they will, we have to give them time to do so. On the other [Page 25] hand, if we are convinced they won’t, we should give them as little time as possible. Well, we’ll let you know the decision in a couple of hours.

Mr. Schlesinger: I think it is important to let them know that the planes are U.S. and not Israeli.

Adm. Moorer: Then we’ll have to tell them each time we fly past Libya.

Mr. Schlesinger: Maybe so.

Mr. Kissinger: What are we collecting there, anyway?

Adm. Moorer: [less than 1 line not declassified]

Mr. Kissinger: [less than 1 line not declassified]

Adm. Moorer: Sure, they may. [1 line not declassified] The information [less than 1 line not declassified] is not that important. It’s the threat to the principle of operating freely over international waters that bothers us.

Mr. Kissinger: That’s the only reason the White House is interested.

Adm. Moorer: We could do without the [less than 1 line not declassified] but we’re concerned about the principle.

Mr. Eagleburger: Mr. Clements said he wanted to discuss this morning what we should do as a next step. He thought it was important to consider what we do next if there is an attack by Libyan planes on our aircraft.

Mr. Kissinger: Can we get together a joint paper on what we should do if something happens? Let’s get a little group together, including State, Defense, CIA and someone from the NSC staff, to consider next steps. I have a suspicion we are building a Wagnerian drama here.

Adm. Moorer: Probably nothing at all will happen.

Mr. Kissinger: The basic question is whether we are going to let Libya turn off U.S. flights 75 miles off the coast.

Mr. Schlesinger: No, we’re not.

Mr. Porter: The answer to that is no, but we think the timing is wrong to fly another flight. If we veto the Arab resolution in the United Nations and then fly an [less than 1 line not declassified] flight past Libya later the same day, it will look like a deliberate provocation.

Mr. Kissinger: Is there ever going to be a right time for such flights?

Mr. Porter: Probably not. We have a big gas deal with Algeria that is close to signing. They could turn that off if we get into a fight with Libya.

Mr. Kissinger: Has State ever, at any time in the last four weeks, considered the timing satisfactory for another flight?

Mr. Porter: No, you’re quite right. There’s never a good time, but we think this is a particularly bad one.

Mr. Kissinger: Has State ever approved flying this flight?

[Page 26]

Mr. Porter: We have approved the principle of resuming the flights, but not the timing. If there is a veto in the U.N. and a flight the same day it will even look as though we are defying the U.N. Security Council.

Mr. Kissinger: When I brought this issue up four weeks ago the bureaucracy showed great ingenuity in finding objections to the resumption of the flights.

Mr. Porter: There is a gas shortage east of the Mississippi. We need that contract with Algeria badly and it will be a big problem if the deal falls through. The timing is never right for this kind of flight; I’ll agree with that 100%.

Mr. Kissinger: The Libyans made a pass at a U.S. plane five weeks ago. For five weeks this government has sat on its hands and done nothing. We have been afraid to fly past a country of two million people. We are debating with ourselves, constructing devious arguments. Next we’ll discover that no one has consulted the Greeks and we’ll start worrying about them.

Mr. Porter: It’s not true that we have done nothing. We have made protests to the Libyans.

Mr. Kissinger: There is something wrong with our policy process here. We are afraid to fly 75 miles offshore from a two-bit country and now you tell us that Algerian gas deals are threatened by our flying over international waters. How can the Algerians possibly consider our flights a threat to them?

Gen. Haig: If the gas deal is all that fragile, they’ll find some other excuse for breaking it off.

Mr. Clements arrived at this point.

Adm. Moorer: We should keep it simple, just tell them the minimum we have to as late as possible before the flight.

Mr. Kissinger: Well, the President will make the decision. I don’t want any leaks about this.

Mr. Porter: About what?

Mr. Kissinger: About these discussions and the views of the various agencies.

Mr. Porter: There won’t be any leaks, and when the decision is made you can be sure we’ll support it.

Mr. Kissinger: The decision to fly the flight has already been made, but I will bring your reservation about the timing to the President’s attention.

Mr. Porter: Actually, we covered the timing problem in our previous comments. The only new item is the pending U.N. Security Council vote.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Libya.]

  1. Summary: The Washington Special Actions Group met to discuss hostile Libyan actions against U.S. reconnaissance flights over international waters.

    Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–91, WSAG Meeting Minutes, 1973. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the Situation Room at the White House. At the April 17 WSAG meeting, it was decided that reconnaissance missions would resume over international waters off the coast of Libya “in the normal manner”. (Ibid.)