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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Cairo. I'm Ari Shapiro.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

A consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts is trying to explain a multi-million dollar contract it signed with the Libyan government several years ago. The biggest part of the job was giving Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi an image makeover. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: In 2007, TV interviewer David Frost and two academics from the U.S. and the U.K. sat in a studio in Libya. As something crashed off-stage, Frost faced the camera.

Mr. DAVID FROST (Journalist): Hello and welcome to "Libya in the Global Age," a conversation with Moammar Gadhafi, who we're delighted is here.

OVERBY: The two-hour program was part of a, quote, "dialogue around the ideas of Moammar Gadhafi." The idea came from Monitor Group, a consulting firm founded by Harvard professors.

Under a $3 million-a-year contract, Monitor would pay Western experts to fix Libya's economy and Gadhafi's image. The foreign policy goal: to transform Gadhafi from a dictator to a, quote, "individual thinker" on questions of policy and philosophy. That's according to Monitor documents leaked to Libyan dissidents and posted online. So for example, Frost asked about direct democracy...

Mr. FROST: Was the inspiration for that Athens and the Athenians, or did you get the idea somewhere else?

OVERBY: Gadhafi's answers were translated into English.

Colonel MOAMMAR GADHAFI (Libyan Leader): (Through translator) No one has the right to have authority and power alone. This is what I came to the conclusion of, as a result of the conflict over power throughout human history.

OVERBY: The final touch of the makeover would have been a big biography. Monitor Group says it's now sorry it even attempted the book. But it says other parts of the contract were well-intended.

This all happened during a short golden age of U.S.-Libyan relations. In 2003, Libya took responsibility for the 1988 airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. And it agreed to pay the victims' families. The U.S. opened an embassy in Tripoli. Rutgers Professor Emeritus Benjamin Barber, one of the academics on the David Frost show, said on CNN this week that critics forget how things were.

Professor BENJAMIN BARBER (Rutgers University): And then try to go back and rewrite history - back in 2006 and 2007, when the Bush administration was working hard to create new alliances - and say those of us who were in Libya, trying to work internally for change, is I think more than dangerous.

OVERBY: But Dartmouth College Professor Dirk Vandewalle, the author of "A History of Modern Libya," says Monitor Group should have been smarter than that.

Professor DIRK VANDEWALLE (Dartmouth College): I think very few people that had really watched Gadhafi over the years had any illusions whatsoever. But I think there was also the feeling that in a sense there was an enormous amount of money that could certainly be made as the country opened back up.

OVERBY: Monitor Group never publicly disclosed any of the money it made. But the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA, says Americans need to know when foreign governments try to influence them.

William Luneburg teaches lobbying law at the University of Pittsburgh. He says FARA was enacted to fight Nazi propaganda in the 1930s.

Professor WILLIAM LUNEBURG (University of Pittsburgh): Whether it's burnishing Hitler's reputation or Gadhafi's reputation so that ultimately the United States foreign policy would be consistent with their interests, that seems to squarely sit within what FARA is about.

OVERBY: After being shown the provisions of the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a spokesman said Monitor Group is examining that question in more detail.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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