(CNN) -- Just a few years before becoming embroiled in fighting a rebellion, Moammar Gadhafi was spending millions of dollars a year to wage a PR campaign to burnish his global image as a statesman and a reformer, confidential documents show.
The mercurial leader hired The Monitor Group, a Boston-based consulting firm, to execute a public relations strategy that included paying think-tank analysts and former government officials to take a free trip to Libya for lectures, discussions and even personal meetings with Gadhafi starting in 2006.
According to a 2007 memo from Monitor to Gadhafi's intelligence chief, the campaign was to "enhance international understanding and appreciation of Libya... emphasize the emergence of the new Libya... [and] introduce Muammar Qadhafi as a thinker and intellectual."
The price: $3 million a year, plus expenses, for work that included consulting, briefings, analyses, and a steady stream of high-profile visitors to Libya -- at least one a month.
The memos were posted online by the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition.
Eamonn Kelly, senior partner at Monitor Group, is heading an internal investigation at the company. He said the visitors program was only a small part of a wider campaign to help build civil society there.
The vast majority of the work, he says, was bringing leadership training and expertise to the country, aimed at "promoting reform, improving the economic prosperity of the country and the people, modernizing the government and helping to heal the very broken civic society."
"We were not working for Gadhafi, we were working for Libya," Kelly said.
After one year's work, a 2007 memo from Monitor touted the results, including a dozen high-profile visitors, ranging from interviewer David Frost to eminent professors such as Francis Fukuyama, fellow at Stanford University. Monitor also took credit for positive media coverage and also highlighted a half-dozen positive articles written by some of the participants they sponsored.
For example, Benjamin Barber wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post entitled, "Gaddafi's Libya: An Ally for America?" and Andrew Moravcsik wrote a piece for Newsweek called, "A Rogue Reforms."
Although the firm had vowed to "provide operational support for publication of positive articles on Libya," there is no indication any of the pieces were written at Monitor's behest.
Instead, participants in the program who were reached by CNN say they believed they were being paid for the lectures they gave and the coaching they offered. They said they agreed to go because they were curious about Libya at a time when the regime had taken several positive steps toward the West and appeared to be open to change.
Barber points out that, starting in 2003, Libya "came out of the cold, thanks to Bush administration overtures: rejoined the West, made war on al Qaeda, started imprisoning al Qaeda warriors, paid (Lockerbie) reparations of $1.3 billion, and yielded their weapons of mass destruction."
Barber, an academic whose books on political theory include the best-seller "Jihad vs. McWorld," says he now wants to see Gadhafi driven out. But at the time, Barber tells CNN, "we thought -- and I think Monitor thought -- it was an opportunity to work at internal reform."
Another distinguished academic, Harvard's Joseph Nye, said he accepted the paid trip because "Gadhafi appeared to be changing his policy -- and introducing new ideas could further reform."
After he met with Gadhafi, Nye wrote an op-ed for The New Republic that contained both praise and criticism of the dictator.
Several other program participants, including Fukuyama and Harvard's Michael Porter, did not reply to inquiries.
Some of the visitors who met with Gadhafi later briefed American officials, according to Monitor's memo, including "senior officials in the White House" and "senior government officials" at the State Department and the Department of Defense.
The Monitor Group claimed that after they sponsored two trips to the country by former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, "he briefed Vice President Dick Cheney on his visits to Libya."
Cheney did not reply to an inquiry, but Perle told CNN he did not "brief" Cheney on Libya and that it was mistaken to suggest he had done any lobbying for Libya.
Still, the possibility that paid visitors later briefed government officials has Paul Blumenthal at The Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group that has reported on the subject, saying the firm should have registered as lobbyists for a foreign country.
"They really wanted these intellectuals to be able to influence policy on Libya," says Blumenthal, to talk to "people in the State Department and the Defense Department, and really convey the sense that Libya was this great new open place."
The Monitor Group has received an inquiry about their work from the Justice Department, according to Kelly.
Monitor also offered, in a letter to Gadhafi's intelligence chief, a 22-page proposal for a book about Gadhafi, to be produced for $2.9 million in fees and expenses. The book would cover Gadhafi's "ideas on democracy," the outline said, "so that the West gains a more accurate and balanced understanding of his actions and ideas."
The book project never reached fruition, and Monitor said in a statement the proposal was "a poor decision" that the firm seriously regrets.
But overall, said Kelly, Monitor stands by its main body of work. "We were working in a very different period, a period of promise, and we are heartbroken that that period clearly has ended."
Monitor wasn't the only U.S. firm that Gadhafi's regime engaged. In 2008, as Monitor's work was coming to a close, Libya retained a more traditional lobbying firm, The Livingston Group, led by former U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston, R-Louisiana.
The firm lobbied State Department officials and members of Congress for Libya in 2008 and 2009, introducing Libya's U.S. ambassador to dozens of members of Congress. Libya initially paid the firm $200,000 a month, but after a year, the billings had dwindled to just $30,000 a month.
Livingston declined an interview with CNN, but he told CNN affiliate WVUE that he ended the contract shortly after Gadhafi gave a hero's welcome to Lockerbie conspirator Abdelbeset al Megrahi upon his release from prison in Scotland. "That was just a bridge too far, and we had to fire the client," he said.
And before Livingston and Monitor, starting in 2004, Gadhafi's government engaged lobbyist Randa Fahmy Hudome during its effort to get Libya accepted in the international community and taken off the State Department's list of nations who sponsor terrorism. Libya paid her firm more than $3 million over the course of three years, she said.
"It certainly was not about money," Hudome said. "It was about national security principles at the time."