Two weeks after France began bombing Libya, in March, 2011, Hillary Clinton's old friend and advisor Sidney Blumenthal passed her an intelligence memo that supposedly revealed France's true — and quite unflattering— motivations for toppling Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. While France's then-President Nicolas Sarkozy publicly said he wished to free the Libyan people from tyranny, Blumenthal's memo argues that he was driven by a cocktail of less lofty incentives, including a desire for Libyan oil, and a fear that Qaddafi secretly planned to use his vast supply of gold to displace France's primacy in the region.
Libya watchers aren't so sure that Blumenthal was passing the US Secretary Of State solid intelligence. "For me, it's not credible," former French diplomat and Libya expert Patrick Haimzadeh told VICE News when asked about the Blumenthal memo. Haimzadeh worked at the French embassy in Tripoli from 2001 to 2004, and wrote the 2011 study In the Heart of Qaddafi's Libya. "In 2011, everyone was saying anything and everything about Libya," Haimzadeh said. "But in fact, no one really knew what was going on. At the time, the French intelligence services and the CIA were in the dark. For example, the French services said the war would last three days — in reality, it took eight months."
It appears that Clinton's office too was awash in Libya rumors. Nearly a third of all the emails she received on the security and political situation in Libya during her tenure as Secretary of State came from Blumenthal, a longtime Clinton associate who was not formally employed by the State Department. He was on the payroll of the Clinton Foundation, bringing in $10,000 a month as a consultant, while pursuing his own business interests in Libya. Blumenthal's emails to Clinton now have been made public in response to a FOIA lawsuit filed by VICE News.
Clinton's correspondence reveals that Blumenthal regularly sent her intelligence-cable-style updates on Libya that cited anonymous sources who claimed to be close to the country's political elites.
These briefs were prepared by Blumenthal's business partner and former CIA operative Tyler Drumheller, a consultant with plans to take advantage of economic opportunities in a post-war Libya. Both Drumheller and Blumenthal worked with a Libyan company called Osprey, a start-up that hoped to profit off medical and military contracts in the chaos after the war.
Though those contracts may have eventually needed the approval of Clinton's State Department, Blumenthal has repeatedly denied he intended to use his connections to the Secretary of State to further his business interests. Since Libya fractured after the NATO-led intervention in 2011, the lucrative business opportunities didn't materialize, and Osprey never really got off the ground.
Much of the intelligence Blumenthal fed to Clinton was quite odd. One email suggested that Libyan elites wanted warm relations with Israel, another that European spy agencies were encouraging tribal leaders to declare a semi-autonomous tribal zone in the east of the country. The nuggets of information were always attributed to unnamed sources, and "knowledgeable individuals." Still, Clinton regularly forwarded these emails to her staff to ask for their take.
The most recent batch of Clinton emails reveals perhaps the most bizarre morsel of Blumenthal-baked intelligence to date. An April 2, 2011 memo titled "France's client/Q's gold" quotes "knowledgeable individuals" with insider information about French President Nicolas Sarkozy's motivation for bombing Libya. The military campaign, the anonymous sources say, was designed to quash plans by Gaddafi to use $7 billion in secret gold and silver to prop up a new African currency. The French worried the move would undercut the currency guaranteed by the French treasury, known as CFA franc, that's widely used in West Africa and acts as a strong link between France and many of its former African colonies. After French intelligence officials got wind of this secret plan, the Blumenthal memo reports, Sarkozy freaked out: "This was one of the factors that influenced [his] decision to commit France to the attack on Libya."
The idea France sought to undermine Libya's plan to start a new currency has long been a trope on conspiracy theory websites — a particularly engaging version can be found on ufo-blogger.com.
It was, however, well known in Libya watcher circles that Gaddafi had some designs to start his own monetary system. "Qaddafi had plans to establish a Pan-African currency. But in my opinion, that is not what triggered the decision to intervene in Libya," explained Haimzadeh. "Sarkozy decided to intervene as early as February 21," long before Gaddafi's plans became known. For Haimzadeh, the timeline just doesn't add up.
Though Blumenthal was not an employee of the State Department at the time he passed along the gold conspiracy, Hillary Clinton clearly took his views seriously, and sometimes even encouraged aides to put the information to use.
On Aug. 27, 2012, for instance, Blumenthal's intelligence claimed that a new Libyan president would "seek a discreet relationship with Israel." Then, Clinton forwarded on the e-mail to her top policy aide Jacob Sullivan with a note attached: "If true, this is encouraging. Should consider passing to Israelis." Other intelligence dispatches were met with more skepticism, with Clinton aides suggesting that not all the information was credible.
Though it's unclear what Clinton's staff thought of the Blumenthal memo, it attributes less than flattering motives to the French President's decision to intervene in Libya.
In the spring of 2011, Sarkozy took the lead among European nations in pushing for an air campaign against Qaddafi. As protests against the regime began to devolve into a bloody civil war, Sarkozy sent the famous French intellectual, Bernard Henri-Levy — who, the Blumenthal memo says, was considered in Libya a "self-promoter" and a "semi-useful, semi-joke figure" — to meet with rebels in the National Transition Council (NTC).
Shorter after, Sarkozy invited Council leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil to the Elysee Palace, recognized the NTC — which the Blumenthal memo refers to as "France's client" — as the country's official government, and began pressuring other NATO countries to take military action in Libya.
Just two weeks before Blumenthal sent the Gaddafi-gold memo, Clinton met with Sarkozy in France, where the president pressed her to back an air campaign in Libya. At the time, in justifying his enthusiasm for military intervention, Sarkozy said publicly that France had "decided to assume its role before history" to ward off a "killing spree." The French military, he said, was determined to defend any Libyans who wanted "liberate themselves from servitude."
The Blumenthal memo tells a very different story. Aside from fears over the new Libyan-backed African currency, Blumenthal's sources reported to Clinton that Sarkozy was motivated by four primary concerns: Libyan oil, an opportunity to increase French influence in Northern Africa, a global stage for the French military to strut its stuff, and Sarkozy's desire to improve his domestic standing.
It's true that in the spring of 2011, Sarkozy was headed into an election the following year with almost 70 percent of French citizens expressing disapproval of his job performance. Some saw Sarkozy's decision to intervene as a desperate move to recover from these record popularity lows. Statistics published by pollster TNS Sofres in February 2011 showed that 66 percentof the population supported France's intervention in Libya.
Coincidentally, the French president was seriously tainted by a formerly cozy relationship with Libya's dictator.
Qaddafi traveled to France in December 2007, immediately after Sarkozy's first election as president, for a controversial five-day visit aimed at brokering a $200 million arms deal. Sarkozy proved solicitous to the Libyan dictator: he allowed him to hunt in the Rambouillet forest, once the hunting preserve of French kings, and to take a private tour of the Louvre museum with his female bodyguards. Qaddafi also requested, and got, permission to pitch a heated Bedouin tent in the gardens of the Hôtel de Marigny, which is used as a residence for state visitors. (To be fair, he was allowed the same privilege during a visit to Italy.)
According to French daily Le Monde, Sarkozy allegedly said, in private, that he could no longer bear the sight of the Libyan dictator, after Gaddafi commented on the "oppression" of women in France and urged young people in the suburbs to "rise up."
Sarkozy's relationship with Gaddafi took another odd turn when allegations surfaced that the Libyan leader had helped fund the president's 2007 electoral campaign. In 2012, French investigative news site Mediapart published an official document dating back to 2006 detailing plans for the dictator to bankroll Sarkozy's campaign to the tune of 50 million euros. The document — which was disputed by Sarkozy — surfaced among the archives of the demolished Qaddafi regime, and has been backed up by several former regime insiders.
Fabrice Arfi, a French investigative journalist at Mediapart who helped uncover the alleged links between Qaddafi and Sarkozy, is skeptical that the the Blumenthal memo captures France's true motivations for war in Libya. "At first glance, this hypothesis [that France's intervention was motivated by Gaddafi's plans for a Pan-African currency] seems far-fetched," he told VICE News by phone. "Personally, I don't have any elements that accredit this theory, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is false."
The Blumenthal intelligence does, however show that American policy makers weren't sure what motivated France's Libya adventure. "Even in the upper reaches of American intelligence, Sarkozy's arguments to justify this war are not taken seriously," Arfi explained. "Even among his allies, no one seems to believe France's version of the Libya intervention."
There's also plenty of circumstantial evidence to back up the connection between France's eagerness to see Qaddafi go, and its oil interests. In 2011, French lefitst daily Libération, not sympathetic to the center-right Sarkozy, published a letter from Libya's rebel-backed National Transitional Council, promising to reserve 35 percent of the country's crude oil to France in return for its "total and permanent support."
That letter was later bolstered by another, and previously released, Blumenthal memo, which informed Clinton that French intelligence services met with NTC figures in the early days of the uprising to solidify French primacy in the post-Qaddafi oil sector.
The memo, dated March 22, 2011 and titled "How the French created the National Libyan Council, ou l'argent parle,'" French for "money talks," warned Clinton that the French intelligence service DGSE "began a series of secret meetings" with prominent Libyan opposition figures, and passed them "money and guidance." These French spies, "speaking under orders from [Sarkozy] promised that as soon as the [council] was organized France would recognize [it] as the new government of Libya."
Blumenthal's intelligence did indicate that Sarkozy expected monetary gain in exchange for his early support of the rebels. "In return for their assistance… the DGSE officers indicated that they expected the new government of Libya to favor French firms and national interests, particularly regarding the oil industry in Libya."
For his part, Sarkozy has denied France was motivated by oil interest. Indeed, in Libya's post-Gaddafi political scene, France has not been able to profit from its oil sector. According to Reuters, the French oil company Total was producing 55,000 barrels of crude oil per day in Libya prior to the conflict. In a 2013 report on its activities, Total said its production in the country had climbed back to pre-2011 levels by 2012, but that production had stalled in 2013, following the blocking of pipelines as a result of political and social unrest. Ultimately it was Chinese and Russian companies that won the bulk of Libya's oil contracts.
And if Sarkozy thought an overseas war would bolster his domestic appeal, he turned out to be wrong on that score as well. Even though the intervention in Libya proved popular, the president's approval rating continued to dip, hitting yet another all-time low in May 2011. The following year, he lost his re-election bid to François Hollande.
Sarah Françoise and Pierre Longeray contributed reporting.