The United States would "back away" from the continuing confrontation with Libya if Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi called off his plans for "dozens of other terrorist actions around the world," Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead said yesterday.
Interviewed on the CBS program "Face the Nation," Whitehead appeared to suggest the possibility of a face-saving formula to defuse the U.S.-Libyan crisis short of a U.S. military strike, which the Reagan administration has strongly hinted is imminent.
The object of the U.S. threats and military moves "is to get Qaddafi to change his conduct and, by his realizing the kind of dangers that he runs by continuing to conduct these horrible terrorist actions all over the world, we hope that he will change his conduct," Whitehead said.
"That is our objective. We're not out to overthrow him. We're not out to remove him in any way."
The current crisis and U.S. military moves in the Mediterranean were set in motion by the bombing nine days ago of a West Berlin nightclub where a U.S. Army sergeant and a Turkish woman were killed and 204 persons were injured.
Administration officials have said they had intelligence information that such an attack in West Berlin was planned but that it did not reach key U.S. Army commanders in Europe in time to vacate West Berlin nightspots frequented by U.S. Army personnel.
In discussing the West Berlin incident, Whitehead was more circumspect than the NATO commander, Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, who last week cited "indisputable evidence" linking Libya to the attack.
"Well, to use the word indisputable is a . . . that's a big word, and it's an important decision to make, that we find the evidence indisputable," Whitehead said.
"There is very considerable evidence that links Qaddafi to that action . . . . But I think in this case only the president is going to make the decision that the evidence is indisputable, and he has not yet made that decision."
Whitehead also said no evidence exists to support Qaddafi's claim that he has evacuated Libyan military personnel from likely targets of a U.S. military strike and replaced them with foreign civilians, including Americans.
Asked if the administration's harsh rhetoric does not virtually require it to follow through with a military strike against Libya, Whitehead replied:
"Not if he changes his conduct. Not if he stops training terrorists, financing terrorists, supplying them with arms, supplying them with documents. As soon as he stops those actions, then we would certainly back away from our actions."
Whitehead added that the United States "would certainly listen to a response" from Libya in the next few days suggesting a willingness to call off planned terrorist operations.
It was not clear from the interview whether Whitehead was deliberately sending a conciliatory signal to Qaddafi to prevent the confrontation from escalating further. A White House spokesman said he would have no comment on the remarks.
Whitehead said the United States has information about Qaddafi's "plans for literally dozens of other terrorist actions around the world, and it is those plans that we must react to to protect the lives of Americans which are in danger by his plans if he goes forward with them."
Without discussing details, he said those plans are "specific" and suggested that one of the administration's main objectives is to force Qaddafi to call them off. Asked how the United States would know that the Libyan leader is prepared to "change his conduct," Whitehead said:
"By his actions, by his simply calling off the actions that he's now planning."
An administration official said later that Whitehead's mention of Qaddafi's plans for future attacks appeared to be a reference to information received by the United States soon after ships of the U.S. 6th Fleet sailed into the Gulf of Sidra along the Libyan coast last month, setting off a brief military clash.
Newsweek magazine reported last week that the Central Intelligence Agency had warned that Qaddafi's agents have had "no fewer than 35" American targets under surveillance overseas and that a message was sent March 26 from Tripoli to Libyan agents in Paris, Belgrade, Geneva, Rome, Berlin and Madrid telling them to prepare to act