TRIPOLI, Libya—Reams of confidential documents reveal mounting desperation and disarray among top leaders of Col. Moammar Gadhafi's regime this past spring as power slipped through their fingers.
The files, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, were discovered in the office of Libya's spy chief and two other security agencies after the personnel fled their desks as civil war deepened. The documents expose an ossified culture within Libya's police state that proved largely incapable of switching gears to fight an actual war. Propaganda skills failed to translate into battlefield analysis, leaving soldiers furious and, in some cases, surprisingly clueless.
In one memo, dated April 26 and found in the now-abandoned office of Libya's former top spy, a general complains bitterly about the lack of intelligence: "I received no information from anywhere," he wrote. "I now think there isn't any entity at all that has precise or even imprecise information" about the rebels he was being asked to defeat.
Documents from early in the year suggest a casual dismissiveness of the rebellion. One field officer in February—around the start of the crisis—reported to his superiors in Tripoli that the protesters in his city of Al-Marj were merely local alcoholic troublemakers. A report from Tripoli's suburb of Tajoura dismissed marchers there as a nuisance akin to "stray dogs."
By late spring, however, Tripoli's intelligence chiefs were scratching their heads over intercepts of rebel phone calls that they simply couldn't decode.
Mounting panic led to open bickering and backstabbing. In a May 1 memo, a lieutenant colonel in the Investigations and Surveillance branch ripped into his colleagues, alleging that the department had "become the office of booze, prostitution and theft of detainees' possessions."
"The office chief brought in an Egyptian girl," the memo continued, "gave her pills that made her lose consciousness, locked her in an office and tried to rape her. She screamed and was rescued by a deputy."
As Libya descended into civil war, the spy apparatus hewed to its traditional playbook. In a memo labeled "Top Secret," one official argues for adding more informers to its ranks by forcing everyone on staff to each spy on 20 neighboring families.
Since Col. Gadhafi took power in a military coup in 1969, he has relied on a brutal police infrastructure created in large part by his brother-in-law Abdullah Senussi to control Libya. For years Libyans lived in fear of the security apparatus, which was determined to weed out any hints of defiance. The International Criminal Court has accused Mr. Senussi along with Col. Gadhafi and his son Seif al-Islam of war crimes for their actions during the six-month uprising.
On Thursday, the 42nd anniversary of Col. Gadhafi's rise to power, he broadcast a defiant new speech calling on Libyans to take up arms in his defense. Col. Gadhafi and his son Seif are in hiding. The whereabouts of Mr. Senussi and his senior colleagues are unknown.
The tipping point for control of the country came in April, as the government launched a final round of attacks against rebels in the Western Mountains. By May, rebels had repulsed that campaign, beginning the Gadhafi forces' slow but steady military retreat toward the capital, Tripoli. In August, rebels took the capital.
The first bare threads of that unraveling appeared months earlier. Soon after the rebellion began on Feb. 17, intelligence reports quickly claimed to identify its leaders. The reports reinforced Tripoli's propaganda message, blaming alcoholics, Islamic terrorists, criminals and drug dealers for the unrest.
Of the dozens of field reports reviewed by the Journal at Tripoli's Internal Security headquarters and intelligence headquarters, none addressed the possibility that the rebellion might have broader social support.
One typical document, dated Feb. 24 and labeled "Top Secret," purported to speak confidently about the inner workings of the rebels in Al-Marj, a rebel-held city in eastern Libya. "We have worked to infiltrate their cells," the report says.
The report identifies a dozen individuals and families as key organizers of the rebellion. But after having pointed a finger at the families, the report concludes that the real threat doesn't come from them at all. Instead it blames the "Shiite Muslim control" over Al Jazeera television and the BBC's broadcasts in Arabic.
"These channels are encouraging the people to revolt," the report says. "They are being organized and directed by Shiites." Libya is predominantly Sunni.
In late March, with Al-Marj and much of the rest of the eastern side of the country already lost to rebel control, Tripoli's spymasters turned their attention to localized rebellions erupting elsewhere—Misrata, Zawiya and the Western Mountains—and found themselves at a loss to find basic information on its enemies there.
It appears the Gadhafi regime had some success in infiltrating the rebel leadership in Benghazi. One report found on the desk of Mr. Senussi's deputy was penned by a man claiming to be a double agent working for one of the rebels' senior ministers.
"I can perform any suicide mission necessary, such as assassinating members of the [rebel] council or poisoning their food or water," the memo writer claims.
However, far from being a tell-all, the six-page document is filled with information that is either benign or inaccurate. Among other things, it gets many names of senior rebel leaders wrong.
By April, the war was expanding and so was the sense of panic inside Tripoli. Mr. Senussi's office did get apparently credible information, but the news was ominous. The reports suggested that the rebels were exploiting the country's porous southern borders to receive arms and aid.
One memo contained intercepted phone calls between military commanders in Chad who reported Qatari weapons convoys approaching Libya's southern border with Sudan, apparently intended for anti-Gadhafi forces. Another intelligence memo, dated April 4, warned that French weapons, including Stinger antiaircraft missiles and Milan antitank rockets, were making their way to Libyan rebels via Sudan.
French officials declined to comment on the document's claims. Qatari officials didn't return email requests for comment.
The critical breakdown of intelligence-gathering, however, came in April and May as the regime battled to keep control over its western border crossing with Tunisia and the Western Mountain area.
With Gadhafi forces mostly pushed out of the eastern side of Libya, the rebels—aided by NATO and Qatari forces—began massing around mid-April in the Western Mountains, closer to Tripoli, with the intent of pushing for control of the capital city.
Amid the files reviewed by the Journal are hundreds of pages of intercepted rebel phone calls from the months of April and May. But the transcripts brim with terse, cryptic exchanges between rebels who clearly seem aware that their phones are probably tapped. One transcript, dated May 3, includes this exchange:
"The other things we'll talk about later," says one person.
"And what about our other friend?" responds the second person.
In the end, pro-Gadhafi forces appeared to be at a major disadvantage when, on April 17, they began a major offensive to cleanse the Western Mountains of rebel encampments and secure the border with Tunisia to Libya's west.
For four days, Gadhafi forces shelled the hilly outcroppings and villages in and around Nalut near the border crossing. Still, the rebels managed to seize control of the Tunisian border crossing and force a retreat of hundreds of government soldiers.
Smarting from the defeat, Lt. Gen. Mohammed al-Issawi, a three-star general in charge of the offensive, penned a blistering eight-page memo on April 26 to Libya's armed-forces chief.
The 45-year army veteran told his superiors that his two attempts to destroy the rebels' mountain headquarters failed due to lack of intelligence. Specifically, he said, he lacked information about rebels' numbers, weapons, training and deployments.
The memo excoriates the high command for deploying the wrong units for the land battle. Gen. Issawi wrote that Tripoli had sent him roughly 300 soldiers from the air force and navy who had no experience in ground combat. Morale, he said, was disastrous.
Furthermore, he said, the faulty intelligence from Tripoli-based commanders left these troops exposed to a hostile local population and ignorant about the size of their enemy. "Only later did we realize…the rebels were more numerous than we were and they had good weapons and vehicles," he wrote. "They were not weaker than us qualitatively or quantitatively, as we had been told in our orders."
Gen. Issawi was relieved of command after his second failed offensive in the mountains, according to his memo. His current whereabouts are unclear.
By May, rebels from the Western Mountains were advancing toward Tripoli. A few regime stalwarts sent memos trying to alert Tripoli to the danger.
Maj. Gen. Ajaily Aqil filed one report warning that the regime was in danger of losing the loyalty of the strategic village of Al-Asabaa, a hamlet that for weeks had blocked the rebel advance out of the Western Mountains along a key route to Tripoli.
Loyalty was turning, the general said, due to years of corruption by local regime officials. "Some pro-Gadhafi officials and VIPs in this area have behaved badly," the general wrote, "by taking cars, money and weapons for themselves." Gen. Aqil's whereabouts aren't known.
In mid-May, NATO bombed Libya's intelligence-bureau compound, forcing it to be abandoned. On a sprawling wooden conference table inside Mr. Senussi's destroyed office, the spy chief left behind an Arabic-language book titled "The Cancer of Administrative Corruption."
On the desk of Mr. Senussi's deputy are several piles of papers likely among the last reports to have been read there.
One of the reports states that "the majority of those currently working for the intelligence administration are ill-prepared to carry out intelligence duties." The author of the report asks for permission to recruit more people "with academic and professional qualifications."
Another report left on the desk proposes a decidedly old-fashioned method for beefing up the regime's intelligence failures: Require everyone employed by the intelligence bureau to become neighborhood spies.
"If each person takes on the task of monitoring the five families to the left, right, front and back of the their house, then in this way we can benefit from the huge number of employees working for these [intelligence] units," the report suggests.
Wall Street Journal