WASHINGTON -- At first, the publicity was immense. Details streamed across the tops of newspapers and blared over television networks of a brazen Libyan plot to assassinate President Reagan or his top aides.
The radical leader of the North African nation, Col. Moammar Khadafy, had dispatched a hit squad to carry out the task, the reports said.
On Dec. 2, 1981, White House aides confirmed Reagan had been told of the Khadafy plot -- first word of which leaked out days earlier in magazine reports. The White House said security precautions were being taken.
For the next several weeks, a crisis atmosphere gripped Washington and the nation. Everywhere, people talked of the 'Libyan hit Squad.' ---
Nearly a year has passed since that initial publicity and the tension and fear it created. Today, security at the White House is near normal. Officials say no longer are there serious fears of a Libyan assassination team.
'I have no reason to believe that the Libyans have an assassination team out to kill the president,' said one Senate Intelligence Committee aide familiar with the evidence. 'That specific threat has subsided.'
Throughout the episode and in succeeding months, Americans never got any of the ecidence Reagan cited of hit squads gunning for him, his aides or top Cabinet officers.
All that was generated were questions -- questions that still linger.
Was there really a hit squad, a threat to the foundation of America? Did Libya invent a threat to embarrass Reagan? Was it an administration hoax aimed at artificially heightening friction between the United States and Libya, the hub of worldwide terrorist activity?
Was the publicity designed to win sympathy for Reagan to offset public resentment over economic woes? Did the media splash scare off the terrorists, or did it hinder FBI efforts to apprehend the would-be assassins?
Answers to those questions may never be known.
First evidence of the Libyan plot appeared when Secret Service agents clamped a tighter-than-usual shield around Reagan and his inner circle. Reagan then verified he had ordered Secret Service protection for his 'troika' of top aides -- presidential counselor Edwin Meese III, White House chief of staff James Baker and deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger also were under special security, because of threats Khadafy would settle for the slaying of a Reagan aide.
As part of elaborate security precautions, anti-sniper teams stood poised on the White House roof. Mock presidential motorcades wended through Washington, decoys to snare would-be assassins without risking Reagan's life.
The president, seriously wounded eight months earlier by disturbed drifter John W. Hinckley Jr., reportedly traveled at times in unmarked cars.
Reporters scratched and clawed for details. Reports mushroomed. There were disclosures a five-man, Libyan-trained hit squad was headed toward America's borders.
Then there were stories of two five-man teams, armed with missiles that could destroy Air Force One or a presidential motorcade. One report said the international outlaw known as 'Carlos' was leading a hit squad.
Artists' renderings of some alleged members of the terrorist hit squads were slipped to reporters and appeared on an Immigration and Naturalization Service bulletin board at a border crossing in San Diego.
On Dec. 6, 1981, four days after the White House confirmed the threats, Khadafy on television denounced Reagan as 'silly,' 'ignorant' and a 'liar' for alleging his hit squads were bound for the United States.
'We are sure we haven't sent any people to kill Reagan or any other people in the world,' Khadafy said.
The State Department promptly responded in a statement that it had 'strong evidence' Libya had engaged in an assassination plot.
Reagan told reporters, 'We have the evidence and he (Khadafy) knows it.'
But within weeks, White House officials were backtracking -- seeking to quell reports about the hit squad. The issue soon died almost as quickly and mysteriously as it surfaced.
Law enforcement, intelligence and diplomatic officials interviewed by United Press International largely seem to agree the evidence of a Libyan threat was real.
They provide morsels to support their contentions, but still closely guard their intelligence sources.
'Members of the team were identified as being in North America,' said the Senate intelligence aide. 'The threat was serious.'
The aide said intelligence sources confirmed as many as 10 terrorists forming two squads. The official discounted as 'off the wall' rumors of any involvement by the outlaw 'Carlos.'
A group known as the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions - previously unheard of -- sent communiques to the news media claiming credit for the attack. In a later communique, the group mentioned ties to Libya.
'The fact that somebody fired at Chapman gave added emphasis' to the Khadafy threat, said one diplomatic source.
At about the same time, Maxwell Rabb, the American ambassador to Italy and a Jew who is a close Reagan friend, was reported to have been urgently recalled to Washington because of threats against his life - presumably by the Libyans. On returning to Italy, Rabb refused to discuss the reports on grounds it was a matter for Italian security authorities.
Italian authorities denied Rabb had left hurriedly, but did not rule out the possibility of terrorist threats.
On Jan. 18, 1982, the Lebanese group operating in Paris claimed credit for assassinating Lt. Col. Charles Ray, the U.S. military attache in Paris shot while leaving his house.
Then on April 3, 1982, the Lebanese factions claimed responsibility for killing Yakov Barsimantov, an Israeli diplomat, in Paris.
Two months ago, on Aug. 22, the same group claimed responsibility for planting a bomb under the car of Roderick Grant, U.S. commercial officer in Paris. As Grant drove off, the bomb fell into his empty parking place. When French authorities tried to disarm it, it exploded, killing two ordnance experts.
Authorities say the same 7.65mm Czech weapon was used in all four Paris attacks.
French law enforcement authorities, contacted by UPI, say the terrorist attacks in Paris may be linked to Libya, but also hypothesize the new Lebanese factions might be connected to an extreme right, anti-semitic group called 'Direct Action' with ties to the Palestinians.
The attacks on diplomats were initiated after a series of assassinations of Khadafy's opponents abroad. In April 1980, Khadafy set a June 10 deadline for his opponents to return to Libya, but by then his foes already were dying.
On March 21, 1980, Libyan businessman Mohamed Salem Rtemi was found dead in Rome. In April, 1980, Libyan journalist Muhammad Mustafa Ramadan was shot dead in London, and Libyan businessman Aref Abdul Gelie was shot dead in a Rome cafe.
Rome police arrested Libyan Yousef Msallata Vidha for the Gelie killing and quote the suspect as saying Gelie was 'an enemy of the people and of Khadafy, which is one and the same thing.'
In the ensuing months, several more dissident Libyans -- a lawyer, a former diplomat, a merchant, a former junior army officer, a businessman and finally, a Libyan graduate student at Colorado state university - were shot.
While U.S. officials now express confidence the Libyan assassination threat to Reagan is over, they say there is no evidence Libyan-sponsored terrorism is waning. The threat last year to Reagan and the wave of killings have served to accelerate administration moves to sever ties with Libya.
Months before the reports of hit squads, Reagan ordered closing of Libya's Washington embassy and expulsion of Libyan diplomats to the United States, saying he would 'not conduct business with a regime that grossly distorts the rules of international behavior.'
Days after the threat to his own life was publicly disclosed, Reagan issued a request for American citizens to leave Libya immediately. He banned all travel to that country by Americans.
Oil companies, including Occidental, Exxon and Mobil, soon moved their employees out of the country and began shutting their Libyan operations.