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A rebel stands guard at the ruined offices of Libya's foreign intelligence service in Tripoli. Rebels at that office said that NATO has instructed them to avoid letting anybody read the papers scattered inside. Elsewhere in the city, however, The Globe and Mail searched through stacks of documents, some of which chronicle the efforts of security officers to save Col. Gadhafi's regime during its final months.

Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail/Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail

For those accustomed to great power, nothing is more confusing than a loss of control. That sense of bewilderment, of regimented order breaking into chaos, is a recurring theme in intelligence papers found by The Globe and Mail in Tripoli.

Two weeks of searching around ruined buildings and empty palaces turned up hundreds of documents left behind by the senior followers of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. The most revealing trove of material – tactical maps, internal memos, handwritten notes, surveillance records, signed confessions – had been dumped on a street in Bab Akkarah, a district where several of Col. Gadhafi's most trusted aides had lavish homes.

It is a fragmentary record, scattered on the wind and trampled under military boots, but the pieces can be assembled into a narrative of Col. Gadhafi's downfall. The documents suggest that his powerful security apparatus, an intelligence service once feared around the world, slowly unravelled during a summer of intense civil war. Some of his men tried to alert their superiors to urgent problems, writing in detail about equipment shortages, morale problems and rebel advances.

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Those clear-eyed assessments were less common, however, than internal correspondence suggesting that some of Col. Gadhafi's men succumbed to self-delusion, conspiracy theories, faulty intelligence and wishful thinking. They grasped at false hopes, made shoddy assumptions about their enemies and indulged in elaborate schemes to ferret out supposed traitors within their ranks. Audio files on a compact disc revealed that Col. Gadhafi's agents used high-quality microphones to surreptitiously record hours of conversation with those suspected of betraying him; the dialogue often wanders elliptically around political issues as the questioner, posing as a friend, tries to goad his target into saying something compromising.

At one point, an agent for Col. Gadhafi teases a businesswoman about her relationship with a military official: "Who is this officer to you?" the man asks. "He is a good friend to me, and I have always been there for him," the woman replies. The teasing is successful: On the defensive, she spills a torrent of words about the officer, who was suspected of having Tunisian ancestry – and, perhaps, too many links with revolutionaries there.

What is remarkable is that Col. Gadhafi's men bothered to comb through such nuanced information at a time when the rebels were fighting their way toward Tripoli. Similarly, it is amazing that they wasted time with bureaucratic details such as an official protocol for scavenging components from North Atlantic Treaty Organization aircraft, in case one of the foreign jets crashed; such contingency planning happened months after NATO bombardment had wiped out Col. Gadhafi's air defences.

All together, the papers suggest that the security officers inhabited a different reality. As that world crumbled, one of them even scribbled some lyrical prose, trying to describe the feeling: "If you've ever lost a lot of men in terrible ordeals, there's a saying: 'Even the wretched are happy to be alive, despite catastrophe.' "

See the documents: Gadhafi's paper trail

Graeme Smith is a Globe and Mail correspondent based in Istanbul.

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