Multi-wall carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) were exposed to a CF radio-frequency (rf) plasma. High-resolution photoelectron spectroscopy shows that the treatment effectively grafts fluorine atoms onto the MWCNTs, altering the valence electronic states. Fluorine surface concentration can be tuned by varying the exposure time. Evaporation of gold onto MWCNTs is used to mark active site formation. High-resolution transmissionelectron microscopy coupled with density functional theory (DFT) modelling is used to characterise the surface defects formed, indicating that the plasma treatment does not etch the tube surface. We suggest that this combination of theory and microscopy of thermally evaporated gold atoms onto the CNT surface may be a powerful approach to characterise both surface defect density as well as defect type.