The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

McCain: I never told Qaddafi I would help him get weapons

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) denied that he promised to help Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi buy U.S. weapons in a late-night tent meeting between the two statesmen in 2009, as a WikiLeaked diplomatic cable implied. "It’s just outrageous," McCain told The Cable in an exclusive interview. McCain said that he never indicated to Qaddafi that he ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) denied that he promised to help Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi buy U.S. weapons in a late-night tent meeting between the two statesmen in 2009, as a WikiLeaked diplomatic cable implied.

"It's just outrageous," McCain told The Cable in an exclusive interview. McCain said that he never indicated to Qaddafi that he would help him get weapons in any way. "Of course not, that would have been ridiculous," he said.

The specific allegation made in the diplomatic cable sent by Joan Polaschik, the top U.S. diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli at the time, was that McCain had agreed to push Congress to allow the delivery of eight C-130 Hercules military transport planes that Qaddafi had purchased in 1972 but are still sitting in limbo at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) denied that he promised to help Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi buy U.S. weapons in a late-night tent meeting between the two statesmen in 2009, as a WikiLeaked diplomatic cable implied.

"It’s just outrageous," McCain told The Cable in an exclusive interview. McCain said that he never indicated to Qaddafi that he would help him get weapons in any way. "Of course not, that would have been ridiculous," he said.

The specific allegation made in the diplomatic cable sent by Joan Polaschik, the top U.S. diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli at the time, was that McCain had agreed to push Congress to allow the delivery of eight C-130 Hercules military transport planes that Qaddafi had purchased in 1972 but are still sitting in limbo at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

Prior to sending her report on the meeting back to Washington, Polaschik said she did not have the opportunity to clear her cable with McCain and the rest of the delegation: Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Susan Collins (R-ME), as is the custom with such reports.

Polaschik was at the meeting, but McCain denied Polaschik’s account and gave a different version of his conversation with Qaddafi on that topic.

"[Qaddafi] asked me, ‘Well, we’d like to get our C-130 upgrades.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s what you want,’ but I was noncommittal," McCain said. "I said, ‘I understand that’s your need,’ but I never said anything and I never did a single thing to follow up."

"I knew his record and I’m certain that Collins, Lieberman, and Graham would corroborate my version of events," McCain said.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment on McCain’s remarks.

So why would the head of the U.S. Embassy write a cable claiming that progress had been made on selling weapons to Qaddafi?

"At that time, the embassy was very interested in having a relationship with Qaddafi, but I can’t imagine why that diplomat said the things they said. It’s beyond me," McCain said.

He also said that the embassy asked him not to raise the case of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was about to be released by Scottish authorities. McCain ignored that request, however, and raised the issue of Megrahi with both Qaddafi and his son, Mutassim al-Qaddafi.

McCain also wanted to explain to The Cable his now infamous Aug. 15, 2009, tweet, in which he wrote, "Late evening with Col. Qadhafi at his ‘ranch’ in Libya – interesting meeting with an interesting man."

"I thought it was interesting because I thought it was bizarre," McCain explained.

The entire experience was strange, McCain said, because the Libyans had postponed the senators’ 4 p.m. meeting until 10 p.m. and then drove them out to the desert, where they spent most of their time interacting with Mutassim.

When Col. Qaddafi finally came out, he looked as if he had been sleeping and said several things that McCain said he found strange.

"One of the things he said to me was, ‘If you had pulled all the troops out of Iraq, you would be president of the United States.’ I’ve thought of a lot of reasons why I’m not president, but that wasn’t one of them," McCain said.

"Overall, I thought it was a very strange and bizarre experience."

The cable was first released and reported on in May, but resurfaced in several news stories following Qaddafi’s fall.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?