The Clinton emails that raise questions over France's Libyan war


Intriguing emails sent to then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton shed revealing new light on the true motivations behind French president Nicolas Sarkozy's military intervention against the Libyan regime during the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. The messages, revealed as part of an ongoing US Congress probe into the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi in September 2012, show that France's head of state went to war for both military and economic reasons. They also show that the French intelligence services were active on the ground in the North African country to assist in the creation of a transitional government, while media-friendly French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy played the role of Sarkozy's personal representative in Libya. Thomas Cantaloube reports.

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A former American journalist and White House advisor sent Hillary Clinton detailed emails which shed new light on the reasons behind French president Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to intervene militarily in Libya in the spring of 2011. The messages are from veteran journalist Sidney Blumenthal, a one-time advisor to President Bill Clinton who joined the Clinton Foundation and who later worked with a group of American businessmen looking to win markets in Libya once its leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown. They were sent to Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state since 2008, about the situation in Libya.

The emails, written between February 2011 and December 2012, have been revealed as part of an ongoing congressional investigation into an attack in Benghazi in Libya in September 2012 which killed four Americans including the US ambassador J Christopher Stevens. The communications from 'Sid' contain a mixture of confidential information, political advice for Hillary Clinton – in particular that she should take all the credit when the rebels won – and recommendations and views on various Libyan politicians. They are not disinterested observations because Blumenthal was discreetly trying to promote the interests of his own group of businessmen. But he also sent America's top diplomat all the intelligence he could glean on Libya at a time when the Gaddafi regime was as opaque as ever, and the nature of the rebels fighting it hardly less so.

Above all, and as Sidney Blumenthal has since admitted, the contents of many of the emails he sent to Hillary Clinton were simply cut and pasted from messages he had in turn received from Tyler Drumheller, a CIA veteran who quit the agency in 2005 because he opposed the manipulation of intelligence by the Bush administration over Iraq. Drumheller, who served 25 years with the CIA and had been in charge of clandestine operations in Europe, later went to work as a private consultant but remained in very close contact with the world of intelligence. Some of the intelligence that Drumheller passed to Blumenthal and which was forwarded to Clinton was later circulated around the State Department.

These 50 or so messages contain some mistaken interpretations and factual errors as they were written in 'real time' at a time when events on the ground were changing on a daily basis in the rebellion against Gaddafi that had started at Benghazi on February 17th, 2011. But they also include an alternative interpretation of France's role in the Libyan conflict. Alternative in the sense that it does not correspond at all to the official version put forward by President Nicolas Sarkozy and those close to him. And alternative because this new version of events raises an enormous number of questions as to the real objectives of the French government, which did all it could to topple the Gaddafi regime.

Moreover, this interpretation of France's role in Libya comes from a former senior CIA operative who remained in contact with many sources both in Europe and at the agency's headquarters at Langley in the US. It also corroborates what was witnessed on the ground at the time, for example the presence of French spies and the role of philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (known as BHL).

Here are the main extracts from the memos that concern France:

  • 1. Sarkozy sees an opportunity to restore the image of the French military

On March 17th, 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1973 authorising a no-fly zone above Libya and the use of “all necessary measures” to enforce it, in other words the go-ahead for targeted air strikes. The first attacks, carried out by France, took place two days later. Blumenthal wrote on March 20th: “During the evening of March 20th, individuals with access to the French and British military and security leadership stated in confidence that French President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to have France lead the attacks on Libya's Muammar Gaddafi over an extended period of time.”

He continues: “According to these individuals, Sarkozy is genuinely concerned about the possibility that Gaddafi's troops will commit genocide against the people of Benghazi. However, he also sees this situation as an opportunity for France to reassert itself as a military power.”

On March 19th, the day of the first air strikes, Sarkozy justified the intervention by stating at the Elysée that France was: “...coming to the aid of a people in danger of death … in the name of the universal conscience that cannot tolerate such crimes. We are doing it to protect the civil population from the murderous madness of a regime which, in killing its own people, has lost all legitimacy.”

  • 2. 'How the French created the National Libyan Council, ou l'argent parle'

Two days later, on March 22nd, 2011, Blumenthal returns to his task with new information which he says comes in “strictest confidence” from a “knowledgeable individual”. He entitles the email 'How the French created the National Libyan Council, ou l'argent parle (1)' and in it he details the role of the French external intelligence agency, the DGSE, in the organisation of the Libyan opposition. The DGSE's officials were, it is claimed, “speaking under orders from French president Nicolas Sarkozy”. In return for their help – in particular France recognising them as the new government - the DGSE want the Libyan rebels to “favor French firms and national interests, particularly regarding the oil industry in Libya”, once they are in power.

On April 3rd, 15 days after the first air strikes, the rebel National Libyan Council (NLC) signed a letter – revealed by Libération in September 2011 – stating: “Regarding the agreement on oil made with France in exchange for the recognition of our Council, during the London summit, as the legitimate representative of Libya, we have delegated brother Mahmoud to sign this accord allocating 35% of all crude oil to the French in exchange for the total and permanent support of our Council.” According to Libération, this letter was addressed to the Emir of Qatar’s office, with a copy sent to the secretary general of the Arab League.


1. Blumenthal uses these French words in his message. They mean “or money talks”.

  • 3. Sarkozy is worried about the influence of the Islamists and asks Bernard-Henri Lévy to look into it

On March 27th, 2011, Blumenthal highlights the turmoil inside the beleaguered Libyan regime, though he also mentions how Nicolas Sarkozy finds the lack of concrete information about the situation “frustrating”. The email also underlines the French president's growing concern about reports that “radical/terrorist” groups are infiltrating the NLC high command. He despatches the high-profile French philosopher and media personality Bernard-Henri Lévy - often known by his initials BHL and erroneously described by Blumenthal as a “sociologist” - to use his contacts to discover the extent of this infiltration and influence.

  • 4. French special forces train the rebels

The same memo of March 27th writes of the rebels' “seemingly endless” supplies of weapons and ammunition and refers to training by French, British and Egyptian special forces.

  • 5. Sarko of Arabia

On April 3rd, 2011, Sidney Blumenthal, who relishes malicious gossip, points Hillary Clinton to an article in the Daily Beastwhich makes fun of the links between Sarkozy and intellectuals under the headline: 'Sarkozy: Statesman or Madman?' Blumenthal suggests that only the 17th century French playwright Molière could do “justice” to the story.

On April 18th, 2011, Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote in Le Monde to “give an account, here, on my return from another trip to Benghazi, of the reasons that give me hope”. Without a word about the presence of jihadists or otherwise, the philosopher refers admiringly to “cases of handguns hidden under packs of milk powder; four RPG7 anti-tank weapons; a MILAN anti-tank missile; an air-to-ground missile launcher taken from a Gaddafi regime helicopter and adapted for a pick-up truck”, all unloaded on the dock at Benghazi.

  • 6. The relationship between the French intelligence agency, the DGSE, and the rebels

In an email to Clinton on April 19th, 2011, Blumenthal writes about the arrival of ten British military advisors, which will allow both Britain and France to gain better intelligence and assess the needs of the rebels – and their prospects of survival. But the American also cites the concern of members of the National Libyan Council – also known as the National Transitional Council (NTC) - over the likelihood of the British and French providing “tangible assistance that will make a difference”. Senior officers in the NTC are also said to be “particularly bitter” about the French, as early in the rebellion the DGSE had “met with rebel leaders and encouraged them to rise up against” Gaddafi, while promising French aid “when the fighting began”.

These individuals also point out that officers from the DGSE continue to have a close relationship with rebel commander General Abdul Fattah Younis, encouraging him to “support French and British diplomatic and economic plans for post-Gaddafi Libya”.

  • 7. Humanitarian flights and visits by French businessmen

In an email on May 5th, 2011, sent with the words “French economic grab” in the subject line, Blumenthal writes how flights organised as part of a humanitarian operation by the French were also bringing in members of the DGSE and “representatives of major French corporations” who were “looking to establish working relationships with the rebel leaders ...”. The email names some of the companies involved as French construction giant Vinci, oil firm Total and European aerospace and defence company EADS (now Airbus Group). Blumenthal notes that the executives who come – with the aid of the DGSE – are from firms who have “close ties to the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy”. After the meetings these businessmen then leave “discreetly” by road via Tobruk to Egypt in convoys “organised and protected” by “para-military officers” from the DGSE.

  • 8. Bernard-Henri Lévy as Sarkozy's personal representative

In the same email of May 5th, Blumenthal outlines the key role played by Bernard-Henri Lévy for the French government in Libya. In particular the memo points to the way Lévy obtained a written agreement from rebel leaders that France would get “favourable consideration” in “all business matters”. Blumenthal states that Levy politely made it clear to TNC officials that they “owed a debt to France” for the early support given by Paris and that President Sarkozy “needed something tangible to show the leaders of France's business and political communities”. Lévy is also said to have told the TNC that in private Sarkozy had been criticised by leaders of the Jewish community in France for supporting the rebels before finding out their stance on Israel. The business agreement would “help deflect these complaints in Paris”, Lévy apparently told them.

Blumenthal ends the discussion by noting that, according to French security, Lévy was using his status as a journalist to provide cover for his activities on behalf of the French presidency, and that he was working “under the direct orders of Sarkozy”. Though the French security services complain about Lévy's status as a “gifted amateur” they did admit that he was “very effective in dealing with the rebels, while carrying Sarkozy's complete trust”.

  • 9. Gaddafi will be executed

In an email dated August 30th, 2011, Blumenthal discusses the internal politics of the transitional government, the NTC, and in particular what they intend to do with any senior figures from the Gaddafi regime who are captured. The International Criminal Court (ICC) had contacted the NTC requesting that any such captives should be handed over to them for prosecution. However, Blumenthal notes that while the NTC had indicated that they would extradite nearly all senior figures to The Hague in Holland for trial, including Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, they would not do the same for Gaddafi himself. He would be “held for trial in Libya”, indicates the memo. It continues: “[The NTC] added that it was very likely that if Muammar Gaddafi is captured by one of the regional militias that make up the bulk of the NLA [editor's note, the National Liberation Army] he will be summarily executed.” ICC protests about this stance were waved away.

In the end Muammar Gaddafi was killed on October 20th, 2011, as a result of a NATO air strike on a convoy that was fleeing the town of Syrte.

  • 10. Sarkozy wants contracts for French companies

In his email of September 16th, 2011, Blumenthal, who was himself working for a group of American businessmen who wanted to win contracts in Libya, writes about the visit the previous day by Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron. He says that both men aimed to press the NTC to “reward” their countries' early support for the uprising against Gaddafi. Blumenthal states that the two leaders were expecting “favourable contracts” for French and British firms looking to play a major role in the oil industry in Libya. He adds: “... Sarkozy feels, quite strongly, that without French support there would have been no revolution and that the NTC government must demonstrate that it realizes this fact.”

  • 11. French expected 35% of new contracts in Libya and wanted to oversee partition of country

Sidney Blumenthal continued to send emails to Hillary Clinton in 2012, after the secretary of state had complimented him on his work and asked him to keep her informed. In a memo sent on March 8th, 2012, Blumenthal writes about the high commercial expectations that the French had after the fall of Gaddafi – they had hoped for some 35% of all new contracts. But it goes on to note that after reaching informal agreements with former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, these accords had been delayed or even ignored when Abdurrahim el-Keib became head of the new government in late 2011.

He also quotes an “extremely sensitive source” as stating that the DGSE and the British secret intelligence service the SIS, usually known as MI6, “intend to control the move towards a semi-autonomous state under a federal system”. However they were said to have been surprised by el-Keib's determination to hold the country together, by force if necessary. The claim that France was supporting the partition of the country did not entirely convince Clinton herself, who forwarded the message to her team asking for more information.

This series of emails by Sidney Blumenthal, based on information from ex-CIA operative Tyler Drumheller, was clearly designed to serve their author's own interests, both his financial interests and connections with firms who, ultimately, failed to gain a foothold in Libya, and that of his status as a well-informed courtier to Hillary Clinton. Nonetheless, they deserve to be taken seriously. For Clinton herself read them, sent them to her staff and complimented Blumenthal for his efforts on several occasions. This means that the US department of state was not presenting her with a different version of events. In other words, these emails represent, almost on a day to day basis, how the American administration interpreted the war in Libya as it unfolded. In that respect they bear the same value as the French interpretation of events that has been presented by the Sarkozy administration up to now.


  • The French version of this article can be read here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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