The U.S. bombing raid on Libya was planned with hopes that Muammar Qaddafi would be killed when the principal target, his command post, was destroyed with four 2,000-pound bombs, informed officials said yesterday.
"We hoped we would get him," one U.S. official involved in planning the raid said, "but nobody was sure where he would be that night."
National Security Council officials had even drafted a statement for administration use that described Qaddafi's death as "fortuitous," another administration official said yesterday, but no statement was made after it appeared Qaddafi survived the raid Monday night.
Navy and Air Force pilots participating in the attack were not told during prestrike briefings that the intent of their mission was to kill Qaddafi, one knowledgeable source said, but Qaddafi's residential compound and personal tent were not put off limits to attackers. The strike plan called for at least one F111 bomber to blast Qaddafi's compound with four 2,000-pound bombs in the knowledge that the bursts could damage everything in the vicinity.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes and Defense Department spokesman Robert B. Sims refused to comment yesterday on whether Qaddafi's house was targeted. Referring to a videotape displayed yesterday of Air Force laser-guided bombs going into the military barracks at the Qaddafi compound, Sims said: "We have shown you the attack, and we hit what we aimed at."
Sims, when asked whether dropping four 2,000-pound bombs on Qaddafi's compound violated the executive ban against assassinating heads of state, replied: "We did not know where he was. We did know where the nerve center for terrorist training was, and that's what we attacked. That was the target and not any individual."
Officials either involved in the raid planning or who received subsequent briefings from the Central Intelligence Agency or the Pentagon, added these details about Monday's attack and the exchange of fire in the Gulf of Sidra between Libya and the United States on March 24 and 25:
*Intelligence officials estimate that when Navy bombers struck Libyan antiaircraft positions at Surt last month during the Gulf of Sidra exercises, about 30 people were killed or wounded; six of the casualties are believed to be Soviet technicians at the site.
*After the April 5 terrorist bombing of the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, which the Reagan administration has blamed on Libya, President Reagan was given two sets of targets in Libya by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One contained military targets and the other economic targets, including oil fields and storage areas. Reagan chose the military targets and stressed that civilian casualties were to be avoided as much as possible.
*Reagan, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger spoke in venomous terms about Qaddafi. One official quoted Weinberger as saying that Qaddafi had forfeited his right to occupy space on the planet, although Sims yesterday said "this sounds out of character" for the secretary. This hostility at the top influenced the decision to put Soviet Il76 transport planes on the target list for the raid Monday. The transports posed no military threat to U.S. bombers, but served as Qaddafi's equivalent of Air Force One, sources said. Destroying the planes, it was argued, would be a blow to Qaddafi's prestige. Sims said yesterday that as many as five IL76 transports were destroyed.
*Planners at the CIA, White House and Defense Department were under pressure to come up with a retaliatory strike quickly. A Navy battleship could have shelled coastal targets without risk of losing planes and pilots. But this was rejected on the grounds that it would remove the element of surprise and take too long. One F111 apparently was shot down in the raid; the two crew members were declared killed-in-action yesterday.
*Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when asked to allow F111 bombers and aerial tankers to take off from British soil for a vaguely described raid "to suppress terrorism," initially reminded Reagan's emissaries that the bombers were supposed to be for NATO missions. She was eventually persuaded of the need to help the U.S. combat terrorism.
In recounting preparations for the raid, officials said that the aircraft carriers USS America and USS Coral Sea and their escorting warships played hide and seek with Soviet warships trying to track them in the Mediterranean shortly before the attacks were launched. The battle group managed to give the Soviets the slip near Sardinia on Monday, thus preventing the Soviets from seeing the change of course toward Libya and preserving the element of surprise of the raid staged at about 2 a.m. Tuesday Libyan time (7 p.m. EST).
Before the raid Monday, the carriers reported that 20 of their 24 A6E Intruder bombers were ready to go, an unusually high percentage to be free of electronic or mechanical problems, officials said. Naval aviation leaders said all five principal targets could have been hit with 18 of the 20 A6E bombers, thus saving the Air Force F111 crews the grueling flight from Britain. Others have suggested that the bombing would not have been as thorough with only 18 bombers.
But the Air Force was already involved in advance planning, particularly because the F111s could electronically jam Libyan defenses and guide bombs to their targets with lasers. Consequently, the raid remained a two-service operation, which also provided Washington with a much desired British stamp of approval, officials said. The National Security Agency also dispatched a special "Burning Wind" transport plane packed with eavesdropping equipment to listen to the Libyans at a critical point during the raid.
Two F111s which swept over Tripoli 350 feet above the ground got too close together as they dropped their bombs, informed sources said. The smoke and debris kicked up by the first plane's bombs distorted the laser beam guiding the second F111's bombs to their target. The suddenly unguided bombs went off course, and may have been the reason residences and embassies were apparently damaged.
The F111 apparently hit by antiaircraft fire barely made it back out to sea before crashing, killing Capt. Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci and Capt. Paul F. Lorence. They were the first American fliers killed in action since the bombing of Lebanon on Dec. 4, 1983, when two bombers were shot down and a Navy pilot was killed.
Navy electronics specialists had learned about the vulnerabilities of Libya's defenses, particularly about how to avoid getting hit by Soviet-installed SA5 missiles, during the exercise across the Qaddafi-proclaimed "line of death" in the Gulf of Sidra in March, officials said. This knowledge shaped the low-level bombing runs this week. The one plane that was hit is believed to have been a victim of antiaircraft guns, not missiles, but the evidence is not conclusive.
The initial reports of damage inflicted by the strike disappointed White House officials because it seemed slight, according to some sources. Some officials pressed for a second strike, and were still doing so yesterday. But more recent reconnaissance runs and other intelligence have documented that the damage to Libya's military facilities was more extensive than originally believed.
Pentagon spokesman Sims yesterday said Navy A6 bombers in their attack on Benina air field east of Benghazi destroyed "at least" four MiG23 Flogger planes, two Soviet helicopters and two F27 propeller aircraft. He said Qaddafi's alternative command post at the army barracks at Benghazi suffered major damage.
Weinberger, Shultz and other administration officials have insisted that the United States was not trying to kill Qaddafi, despite the attack on the Bab Azizzia Barracks housing his personal troops, a big tent often occupied by the Libyan leader and the residence of his family.
A White House official yesterday said, however, that "we couldn't be unmindful of the fact he [Qaddafi] pitched his tent there." He added that he did not believe the Pentagon "thought [Qaddafi] had a back door."
Giving what he termed "a professional assessment" of the Air Force-Navy strike, Sims said: "This was a near flawless professional operation under extremely difficult circumstances -- the middle of the night, long distance from bases. It was rather extraordinary. I don't think we've had anything like it in the U.S. military annals, frankly."