Cablegate: Libya Enforces Travel Restrictions Against U.S. Officials
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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 TRIPOLI 000588
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E.O. 12958: DECL: 7/21/2018
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SUBJECT: LIBYA ENFORCES TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS AGAINST U.S. OFFICIALS REF: A) TRIPOLI 530, B) TRIPOLI 412, C) STATE 55839, D) TRIPOLI 478 (NOTAL), E) 07 TRIPOLI 165, F) TRIPOLI 515
CLASSIFIED BY: John T. Godfrey, CDA, U.S. Embassy - Tripoli, Dept of State. REASON: 1.4 (b), (d)
1. (C) Summary: Four years after re-establishing diplomatic relations, the Government of Libya (GOL) remains deeply concerned about efforts to cover internal political issues and actively seeks to prevent Emboffs from traveling in-country and engaging with Libyans. The GOL has actively enforced new strictures to prevent certain foreign diplomats from traveling outside Tripoli without prior permission and a travel permit. The measures have been justified on security grounds; however, they appear to be largely motivated by a desire to circumscribe reporting on internal political issues and to specifically target U.S. diplomats. While perceptions of foreign interference are known to be a particularly neuralgic issue for the GOL, recent actions to limit our activities nonetheless go beyond the pale, the more so since since they appear to specifically target U.S. diplomats. Since March, there have been five instances of proposed in-country travel by Emboffs - involving five different officers and four different putative destinations - that the GOL has effectively blocked. Given that the regime's other recent measures on sensitive bilateral issues appear to have been authored at the highest levels, engagement by senior officials in Washington with their GOL interlocutors will likely be necessary to mitigate the current constraints on Post's ability to conduct in-country travel and engagement with Libyans. End comment.
ATTEMPTS TO CONDUCT IN-COUNTRY TRAVEL, ENGAGEMENT STRIKE A NERVE
2. (C) As reported ref A, an attempt to visit the historical Berber heartland in March prompted an angry response from the MFA and a prohibition against travel to the city of Zuwara by Emboffs. MFA interlocutors angrily denounced Post's attempt to engage with the Berber community as "unacceptable interference" in Libya's domestic affairs. Following the Berber incident, CDA and P/E Chief spoke with MFA counterparts to clarify the mechanism by which proposed in-country travel could be coordinated through the MFA to avoid complications.
3. (C) Following the protocol established in those discussions, post proposed in early March that Poloff visit the southern city of Sabha (located some 650 km southeast of Tripoli, in the Fezzan Province) to meet with Libyan officials to discuss local government and migration issues. The MFA claimed to support the visit and offered to facilitate meetings with local Libyan officials. Post formally advised the MFA of Emboff's travel plans on March 30; however, on April 19, the MFA asked that the visit be delayed to allow additional time to arrange meetings with the Basic People's Congress in Sabha. The MFA also requested changes in the language of the diplomatic note advising the GOL of the proposed visit. Post sent a new diplomatic note, incorporating the MFA's suggested changes, on April 22 regarding Poloff's proposed visit to Sabha on May 6, and was in regular contact with the MFA concerning trip logistics from May 1-6.
EMBOFF DETAINED TO PREVENT TRAVEL TO SABHA
4. (C) On May 6, Libyan security officials pulled Poloff out of line on the tarmac at Tripoli International Airport while he attempted to board a commercial flight from to Sabha. A plainclothes security official took Emboff's travel documents; other plainclothes security officials and uniformed police prevented Poloff from boarding the flight. A uniformed police officer told Poloff he was not allowed to wait on the tarmac and escorted him inside the terminal, where he was directed to report to the senior security official on site at the airport to retrieve his travel documents. Poloff was subsequently detained for approximately an hour in the senior security official's office, where he was surrounded by four to six uniformed and plainclothes security officials and two armed guards in uniform. Security officials attempted to question Poloff about his work at the Embassy and accused Poloff of not having a valid residence permit to remain in Libya. Poloff was told during the course of questioning that his luggage had not been loaded on the aircraft because security officials had decided well before the flight that he would not be allowed to travel. (Note: The MFA was aware that Poloff intended to travel on May 6 and gave no indication that there was any problem with the proposed trip. End note.) Nearly two hours after he was to have boarded the flight, security officials informed Poloff that he must "leave the airport immediately" without further explanation.
5. (C) Following the incident at the airport on May 6, the MFA TRIPOLI 00000588 002 OF 004 sent Post a diplomatic note asking that the Sabha trip be "delayed". A senior Libyan official told CDA on May 8 that while the MFA would attempt to coordinate with security officials to reschedule the visit, elements of the security apparatus, particularly the External Security Organization (ESO), were deeply uncomfortable with attempts by reporting officers to travel in-country and engage with Libyans outside of narrowly circumscribed official channels. To date, the MFA has not arranged the requested Sabha visit; Post has been informed that all Emboffs are currently banned from traveling to Libya's third largest city.
MFA ATTEMPTS TO REQUIRE THAT ALL DIPLOMATS OBTAIN "PERMISSION" FOR IN-COUNTRY TRAVEL
6. (SBU) As reported ref B, the MFA sent to Western European and North American missions on May 19 a diplomatic note requiring that all diplomatic missions obtain "permission" (the Arabic wording is exact) for diplomats and/or members of their families to travel more than 70 km outside of Tripoli, regardless of the purpose of travel. Per guidance in ref C, Post has adopted a policy of notifying the GOL of travel by Emboffs and their families outside the 70 km radius. Add language on 'ya'ani greater Tripoli area"
SECURITY SERVICES OBSTRUCT CHARGE'S TRAVEL TO BENGHAZI & POINTS EAST
7. (C) On May 23 - after receipt on May 19 of the MFA note requiring permission to travel and before receipt of ref C guidance on May 23 - security officials attempted to prevent CDA and two Emboffs from making a trip to Benghazi and eastern Libya for tourism. Four security officials, who identified themselves as External Security Organization (ESO) officials, met CDA inside the terminal at Tripoli International Airport and demanded to see his travel permit. Security officers were overheard discussing in Arabic the arrival of "the Americans" in the terminal. The officials noted that they were informed on May 22 that three Emboffs would attempt to travel to Benghazi. The ESO officials told CDA that the Emboffs would not be allowed to travel to Benghazi because they had not obtained permission to do so. CDA and Emboffs nonetheless attempted to check in for the flight; however, a security official physically went behind the airline counter to instruct the agent not to allow them to check in for their flight. After multiple phone calls to senior MFA and security officials, the security officials at the airport agreed to allow the officers to travel; however, they refused to allow Emboffs to ride on the same airport shuttle bus with other passengers and kept them under close observation.
8. (C) A Buraq Air agent told CDA and Emboffs during the encounter on May 23 that all Libyan-owned airlines with domestic service - Buraq Air, Libyan Arab Airlines, and Afriqiyah - received instructions from GOL officials in May that they were not to allow U.S. diplomats to board domestic flights from Tripoli without special permission from security organizations. The Buraq agent clarified that the instructions applied only to U.S diplomats, vice the entire diplomatic community.
9. (C) In Benghazi, security officials subjected CDA and Emboffs to a steady stream of harrassment. A security officer met CDA and Emboffs on the tarmac in Benghazi and immediately began questioning them about their trip. During a road trip from the Benghazi airport to Susa (some 200 km northeast), four security officials closely followed CDA and Emboffs. When they stopped at a scenic overlook, a security official in one of the chase cars got out and took numerous photographs of CDA, Emboffs and their locally-hired driver from a distance of five to ten feet. CDA confronted the official, who refused to identify himself and refused to stop taking photos. The same individual aggressively snapped hundreds of photographs of CDA, Emboffs, and the locally-engaged driver during the subsequent two days of their trip to eastern Libya. The driver, who is from Benghazi and is regularly used by Emboffs when they visit the east, said security officials routinely question him "for hours" after each visit by Emboffs and had instructed him to report any trip coordination with Emboffs at least 24 hours before their planned arrival in Benghazi. (Note: P/E Chief traveled to Benghazi and eastern Libya in early May and used the same driver, who is also used by PD officers when they travel in the east. End note.) Following Poloff's May 22 phone call to arrange a pick-up from the Benghazi airport, the driver had notified local security officials that the CDA and Emboffs planned to travel to Benghazi. TRIPOLI 00000588 003 OF 004
EMBOFFS DENIED "PERMISSION" TO TRAVEL IN SUPPORT OF U.S. PROGRAMS
10. (C) In late June, Post formally advised the MFA via diplomatic note that two Emboffs would accompany an Export Control and Border Security (EXBS) team to Benghazi, where they planned to conduct a three-day course on July 12-15 for 50 Libyan officials responsible for airport security and passenger screening. Post provided detailed information on Emboffs' proposed travel and clearly stated that they were to provide logistical support to the U.S. delegation. On July 9, the MFA informed Post via diplomatic note that Emboffs would not be permitted to travel to Benghazi in support of the EXBS training program (text of note sent via email to NEA/MAG). The note provided no explanation for denying permission to Emboffs to travel in support of the program. Post has cancelled the Benghazi portion of the airport security training course; a parallel EXBS airport security training program at the Tripoli International Airport is currently underway. In a meeting on July 15, MFA Americas Department Director Matari expressed frustration and conceded that such decisions were driven by security organizations, but said he would see what he could do to help. He advised that Emboffs seek in the interim to obtain the travel permit mandated in the May 19 diplomatic note to facilitate their in-country travel.
11. (C) On July 9, Post formally advised the MFA via diplomatic note that the Public Affairs Officer, CDA and their son would travel on July 20 to the Graeco-Roman ruins at Cyrene (east of Benghazi) for tourism. The PAO also intended to meet with representatives of the Global Heritage Fund, who received a USG grant for archaeological work being done at the Cyrene site. Despite daily inquiries between July 14 and 20, the GOL failed to issue travel permits for PAO and CDA. Inquiries to airline officials suggested that Emboffs would not be allowed to board the flight to Benghazi without travel permits; the trip was therefore cancelled.
TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS APPEAR TO TARGET U.S. DIPLOMATS
12. (C) In addition to instructions prohibiting Libyan air carriers from boarding U.S. diplomats for domestic flights from Tripoli, the May 19 diplomatic note requiring diplomats and their families to obtain permission for travel more than 70 km outside Tripoli appears to be targeted at western diplomats, particularly those from the U.S. The requirement for travel permits has been on the books for some time; however, it has not been consistently enforced. Diplomats at the embassies of Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Chad and Sudan told Emboffs their missions did not receive the MFA's note requiring travel permits and are not required to notify the GOL in advance of in-country travel. Egyptian and Tunisian diplomats laughed off the suggestion that they would comply with the requirement, noting that if the GOL tried to enforce it against them, their governments would immediately reciprocate with similar strictures on Libyan diplomats accredited to Cairo and Tunis. European diplomats report that while certain EU embassies provide the GOL with advance notice of their travel (the U.K., for instance), there are no known instances in which the GOL has restricted a European diplomat or their family from traveling outside Tripoli. Several eastern European missions that received the May 19 note told us they have no intention of complying with the requirement; personnel from those missions have subsequently traveled without incident (and without permits) to Benghazi, Sabha and Ghadames.
13. (C) Comment: Despite comments by senior GOL officials attesting to the desire for broader and deeper ties, significant elements of the regime, particularly within the security apparatus, remain deeply skeptical of U.S.-Libya bilateral re-engagement in general, and of Emboffs' travel and outreach in particular. The GOL maintains an expansive definition of "unacceptable interference" in its domestic affairs; security organizations regard any effort to engage with Libyans and to report on domestic issues as dangerously subversive, reflecting the regime's overweaning focus on pre-empting any potential challenge to its authority. While perceptions of foreign interference are known to be a particularly neuralgic issue for the GOL (witness the March 2006 attack on the Italian consulate in Benghazi and the December 2007 arrest of a Lukoil executive on charges of industrial espionage), GOL officials appear to harbor particular concerns about U.S. diplomats. Blunt demarches by senior GOL officials (refs D, E) have underscored TRIPOLI 00000588 004 OF 004 the GOL's concern. Recent actions by the GOL to limit our activities nonetheless go well beyond the pale, particularly since they appear to have specifically targeted U.S. diplomats. We now have five instances of proposed in-country travel by Emboffs (involving five different officers and four different putative destinations) since March that the GOL has effectively blocked. Given that the regime's other recent counter-productive measures on the bilateral front appear to have been authored at the highest levels (refs A, D and F), engagement by senior officials in Washington with their GOL interlocutors will likely be necessary to mitigate the current constraints on Post's ability to conduct in-country travel and engagement with Libyans. End comment. GODFREY