WASHINGTON — Libyan foreign minister Musa Kusa, one of dictator Moammar Gadhafi's most trusted confidants who defected Wednesday, is a man of two very different sides, according to current and former Western officials.
Sophisticated and Western-educated, he piloted Libya's emergence from the diplomatic cold over the last decade and struck a deal that led to compensation for families of the victims of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
But Kusa, as Gadhafi's then-intelligence chief, likely knew in advance about the bombing. And he was kicked out of the United Kingdom in 1980 after promising in a newspaper interview that Libya would kill two dissidents living in Britain, according to reports at the time.
"He's certainly no angel," said one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the controversy surrounding Kusa's defection.
While his role changed in 2009 from spy chief to top diplomat, Kusa likely knows most of the Gadhafi regime's deepest secrets — and is probably holding back from his debriefers in hopes of avoiding a trip to the International Criminal Court.
Kusa's break with the regime he served so long "is huge," said Wayne White, a former top State Department intelligence analyst who watched Libya from 1990 to 2003. "Gadhafi is going to be extremely concerned, because somebody he trusted so much did this to him."
It also will force others close to Gadhafi "to look around and see if they need to find a way off the Titanic," White said.
There were reports of other high-level defections from Gadhafi's regime Thursday, and the White House was quick to cast Kusa's departure as a major blow to the Libyan dictator. But the regime so far has proven resilient, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that Gadhafi's military is nowhere near the breaking point.
Kusa, in his early 60s, was an interlocutor with the United States and Britain right up until he travelled from Libya to neighboring Tunisia this week and flew to Farnborough Airfield in England. Even as the Obama administration demanded Gadhafi leave and slapped sanctions on the Libyan leader and his associates, top State Department officials kept channels open to Kusa, seeking among other things his help in the evacuation of U.S. diplomats and private citizens.
He participated in secret talks that led to Libya's abandoning its weapons of mass destruction programs, and — despite his initial personal opposition to them — led Libya's end of the Lockerbie negotiations.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Kusa would not receive immunity from prosecution for any wrongdoing.
Asked whether Kusa should be prosecuted, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, "the investigation of Lockerbie continues. And obviously, new information and new facts, I'm sure, will be looked at."
Kusa has not been charged in connection with the Lockerbie bombing, which killed 270 people, or any other case.
But White, the former State Department analyst, said it is virtually impossible that he did not know about plans for the terrorist attack.
"The whole notion that these guys were rogues is ridiculous," he said of the two Libyan men tried in the case. "Given the way that regime operated, he knows everything about Lockerbie. He knows where all the bodies are buried."
White speculated that Kusa is withholding much of what he knows for now, hoping to cut a better deal for himself.
As foreign minister, Kusa advocated improving relations with the United States and Europe, according to State Department cables leaked by the WikiLeaks organization.
The Western diplomat said Kusa proved to be "effective" in the negotiations over Lockerbie and Libya's WMD programs.
He will now need to use the same skills to negotiate his own fate.
"I don't know to what extent his hands are bloody," the diplomat said. For many years, he led Libya's intelligence ministry, which "did bad things overseas, and did bad things at home," he said.
According to a March 2009 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Libya's External Security Organization, which Kusa led until 2009, "is targeted by rights groups and opposition leaders as the organization responsible for silencing political opposition to al-Qadhafi's rule using repressive tactics that violate victims' human rights."
(Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY