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Posted at 5:45 PM ET, 03/ 7/2011

Ben Bonk, CIA analyst who dealt with Libya, dies

By Jeff Stein

Ben Bonk, a top CIA official who played a key role in Moammar Gaddafi’s renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, died quietly at his home in McLean on Feb. 26. He was 56 and had skin cancer, a friend said.

Bonk was involved in some of the most important events in modern counterterrorism history, from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, to warning President Bush about impending al- Qaeda attacks, to secret meetings with Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, Musa Kusa, that led to Libya’s WMD disarmament and cooperation with Washington against al-Qaeda.

At the time of his death, he was head of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program. He had also been deputy chief of the Counterterrorism Center and, before that, national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, among other ranking positions.

About 40 former agency colleagues, friends and admirers, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, and Cofer Black, head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, gathered to honor Bonk’s life at services in Vienna last Thursday.

"The agency family is saddened by the loss of Ben Bonk, a stand-out intelligence officer and consummate public servant who leaves an impressive legacy,” CIA spokesman George Little said in a statement over the weekend. “He was a gifted analyst, extraordinary teacher, and thoughtful manager. We'll always remember him as a great person--someone who combined superior intellect with a terrific sense of humor. Our hearts go out to his wonderful family."

Ken Robinson, a former Army Special Forces officer, recalled meeting Bonk during a patrol against Iranian gunboats that were attacking Western shipping in the Persian Gulf in 1987 and 1988.

Bonk was an analyst in the Joint Intelligence Liaison Element, which was supporting U.S. combat operations. Analysts usually sat at desks, far from the action, writing reports. Not Bonk.

“Every day, he asked to join me on combat operations, because he wanted to have total ground truth of the situation we were facing,” Robinson said in an interview Sunday.

“It was important to him not to be the second or the third source, but to smell the cordite and to understand the issues. He was not swashbuckling, or arrogant, and he was not there doing it for his manhood. He was doing it to be able to accurately define what is the issue. And to do that you had to get out and get salt in your face and see it for yourself.”

One night they came under fire from one of the Iranian swiftboats, Robinson said. Bonk “picked up a 60 millimeter machine gun and returned fire.” There were no casualties.

In September 2000, Bonk was on a team of CIA officials who traveled to Crawford, Tex., to brief presidential candidate George W. Bush.

“To highlight the danger of terrorists obtaining chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons,” the 9/11 Commission report said, “Bonk brought along a mock-up suitcase to evoke the way the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult had spread deadly sarin nerve agent on the Tokyo subway in 1995." (In fact, the operatives carried packets of liquid sarin wrapped in newspapers that they punctured with sharpened umbrella tips.) "Bonk told Bush that Americans would die from terrorism during the next four years."

Meanwhile, Washington and London had long been trying to figure out how to turn the erratic Gaddafi their way. The ouster of Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 2003, according to many accounts, did it: Gaddafi feared he might be next.

The CIA sent Bonk to meet secretly with Musa Kusa in London. Both were fellow Michigan State alums. They chatted about Magic Johnson and other team greats.

“Then Bonk got deadly serious,” according to author Ron Suskind’s account in “The One Percent Doctrine.”

Bonk told Kusa, dubbed “The Envoy of Death” for masterminding the assassination and kidnapping of Libyan opposition officials abroad, that the United States wanted to put the 1988 bombing of PanAm 103 behind them.

“Everything has changed after 9/11,” Bonk told Kusa. “Two things. We’re going to need you to give up your destructive weapons. And, most importantly, we’ll need assistance to fight the terrorists.”

Kusa, now Gaddafi's foreign minister, "said he understood,” Suskind wrote, “and, that evening, he gave Bonk key names, including that of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a Libyan operative who would soon be the first major U.S. capture in the so-called ‘war on terror,’ and several others that would help the U.S. government unwind a Pakistani group involved in the spreading of nuclear-weapons technology to other Muslim countries.”

Eventually, Gaddafi settled with the relatives of those killed on Pan Am 103. Diplomatic relations were restored.

Today, a sliver of Bonk’s legacy lives on in Libya, where the shells that once contained some 3,300 chemical weapons have been destroyed.

By Jeff Stein  | March 7, 2011; 5:45 PM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy, Intelligence, Military  | Tags:  Musa Kusa; Leon Panetta; John McLaughlin; Cofer Black; Ken Robinson  
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Nice Obit. Thanks.

Posted by: DCNative41 | March 8, 2011 9:27 PM | Report abuse

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