WASHINGTON — On Aug. 14, 2009, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., met with Moammar Gadhafi and the Libyan dictator's son in a tent in Tripoli in the middle of the night.
The elder Gadhafi, tired from fasting in preparation for Ramadan, was largely silent as his son, national security adviser Mutassim Gadhafi, ranted that the United States hadn't adequately rewarded Libya for giving up its nuclear program in 2003 and renouncing terrorism.
Mutassim Gadhafi asked Graham, who was accompanied by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, to help deliver eight C-130 Hercules military transport planes Libya had purchased — in 1972.
Political disputes between the countries had grounded the aircraft. They've sat in limbo at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, outside Atlanta, for almost four decades.
A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli describes the meeting:
"Senators McCain and Graham conveyed the U.S. interest in continuing the progress of the bilateral relationship and pledged to try to resolve the C-130 issue with Congress and Defense Secretary Gates."
Graham chuckled Thursday when he was asked whether he'd ever delivered on his pledge to the Gadhafis to endeavor to free up the C-130s.
"We never did anything," the senator said. "I didn't feel comfortable pushing the Pentagon to provide military aircraft to Libya. None of us did."
Graham's meeting with Gadhafi, and many other such episodes, are described in secret State Department cables that McClatchy obtained from WikiLeaks, a self-described "nonprofit media organization" that's released tens of thousands of U.S. diplomatic documents in the last year in defiance of government secrecy laws.
Dozens of cables reveal Graham's meetings with dictators, heads of state, military strongmen and communist chiefs around the globe over the last seven years.
The cables show Graham, 55, a member of Senate Armed Services Committee, as a kind of shadow secretary of state negotiating an array of sensitive matters, from terrorism and war to Iran's nuclear ambitions, North Korea's missile tests and China's currency manipulation.
The Graham that emerges from the cables is somewhat at odds with his public persona as a colloquial, loquacious senator who loves the limelight and is never at a loss for words. Away from Washington, outside the United States and in private meetings with foreign leaders, Graham comes across as quieter and more circumspect. In these meetings, Graham the polished pol gives way to Graham the diplomat.
Graham, after meeting Thursday in Cairo with Egyptian military and opposition leaders, criticized WikiLeaks as betraying important confidential communications with the cables' release.
"It compromises our national security and has a chilling effect on candid conversations with world leaders and military officials," Graham told McClatchy from Cairo. "Some of this stuff is life and death. You have to conduct foreign policy with a certain amount of privacy and candor."
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was detained in April 2010 and is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on charges that he passed to WikiLeaks 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables from a classified Internet network to which he had access.
The Justice Department is exploring whether it can prosecute Australian-born Julian Assange, a co-founder of WikiLeaks, under anti-espionage laws. He's fighting Sweden's bid to extradite him from Britain over alleged sex crimes.