The CIA has sent more than a dozen covert operatives to Libya as part of an escalating U.S. effort to vet the rebels working to oust Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi and lay the groundwork for funneling American aid to the insurgents, according to a person with direct knowledge of the CIA operations there.
The CIA’s deployment to Libya, which is virtually certain to expand in the coming days, comes amid word that President Obama has authorized U.S. intelligence agencies to provide direct assistance to the Libyan rebels. There are no U.S. military personnel on the ground in Libya yet, though the United Kingdom, America’s closest battlefield ally, has several dozen Special Air Service commandoes and M16 agents already operating there. News of the CIA deployments to Libya was first reported by The New York Times and then independently confirmed by National Journal.
The CIA operations inside Libya highlight the delicate balancing act that the Obama administration is facing when it comes to the U.S.-led military intervention there. Obama has been adamant that there will be no U.S. military "boots on the ground" inside Libya, and U.S. Special Operations personnel in nearby countries have been placed on high-alert but not yet deployed, according to military officials familiar with the matter.
But with the administration openly considering direct assistance to Libya's rebels, the administration appears to have decided that it needed to get CIA operatives into position there to make contact with Libya's disparate insurgents and begin orchestrating the logistics of providing weaponry, money, and other forms of aid to the fighters.
The small teams of CIA operatives are currently clustered primarily in eastern Libya, the de-facto rebel capital, according to the person with knowledge of their activities. Beyond the outreach efforts to Libya's rebels, the U.S. personnel are also meant to gather frontline intelligence about possible targets for future coalition airstrikes, this person said.
The CIA declined to comment.
The CIA personnel are thought to have deployed to Libya after Obama signed a Presidential Finding authorizing American intelligence agencies to provide aid to the rebels. It's not known whether the finding covers weaponry and armaments or is limited to money, communication gear, and other forms of non-lethal assistance. News of the classified authorization was first reported by Reuters.
The administration's marching orders to the CIA and other intelligence agencies was intended to provide the intelligence community with the capacity to rapidly assist rebel forces should the situation dictate it. One official familiar with the finding said it was a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency tool kit if rebels requested assistance or if America's national interest compelled its use.
Meanwhile, a U.S. military official said that British special forces troops have provided on-the-ground targeting information for NATO airstrikes. A covert British unit, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, has been tasked to operationally “prepare the battlefield.” A second U.S. military official said that Britain also had teams of personnel from the SAS, one of its most elite special-operations unit, and MI6 operating inside Libya.
The United States has special operations forces at a base within several hundred miles of Libya but has not yet sent them into the country.
The Presidential Finding would not necessarily permit the insertion of special forces troops, but a broader national-security decision directive, which could also be classified, would.
In interviews with broadcast networds on Tuesday, Obama said he “was not ruling out” providing assistance to the Libyan rebels, but “neither was he ruling it in.” That verbiage suggested that a decision about such assistance has not been made.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Wednesday that “[t]he broader question of assistance to the opposition is one that we’re looking at very closely. We’re coordinating with the opposition and exploring ways that we can assist them with non-lethal assistance, and we’ll look at other possibilities of assistance as we move forward.”
Responding to reports of the finding, Carney issued a statement saying that he would not "comment on intelligence matters," but added that "no decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any group in Libya. We’re not ruling it out or ruling it in. We’re assessing and reviewing options for all types of assistance that we could provide to the Libyan people, and have consulted directly with the opposition and our international partners about these matters."
White House officials have described the Libyan resistance as a motley collection of forces. Some of those rebels have bragged to the media about their participation in activities linked to al-Qaida, but the U.S. intelligence community, which is devoting a significant amount of resources to identify and vet them, does not believe that any Islamist movement has a strong presence among any of the rebel groups.
Disclosure of the finding came a few hours after Libya's foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, defected to the United Kingdom, and after British Prime Minister David Cameron urged other members of Qaddafi's government to resign from their posts.