WASHINGTON – CIA officers are on the ground in Libya, coordinating with rebels and sharing intelligence, U.S. officials say, but the Obama administration has not yet decided whether to take the further step of providing weapons to those trying to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The issue of whether to provide the ragtag rebel forces with arms has been controversial in Washington. On Wednesday, two key lawmakers came out against the idea.
“We don’t have to look very far back in history to find examples of the unintended consequences of passing out advanced weapons to a group of fighters we didn’t know as well as we should have,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., in an apparent reference to U.S. aid to Afghans fighting the Soviet Union during the Reagan administration.
“We need to be very careful before rushing into a decision that could come back to haunt us,” said Rogers, who chairs the House intelligence committee and who thus far has supported the U.S. intervention.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, echoed that in an interview. “I think at this point we need more information,” he said. “We don’t know enough about who they are.”
Rogers issued his statement shortly before a meeting of the committee in which administration officials briefed congressional leaders about the status of CIA activities in Libya. Later Wednesday, the White House issued a statement repeating 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,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
The White House had no comment on a report by Reuters that said Obama signed a presidential finding authorizing secret aid to the rebels within the last two or three weeks.
U.S. officials familiar with covert actions noted that a presidential finding can authorize a variety of steps that may or may not ultimately be taken. Members of Congress who would have been briefed on the finding would neither confirm nor deny its existence on Wednesday.
In Libya on Wednesday, dispirited rebel fighters continued their headlong retreat across eastern Libya, surrendering a strategic oil city they captured just three days earlier and fleeing eastward by the hundreds.
Forces loyal to Gadhafi appeared poised late in the day to seize a second oil refinery city, Port Brega, as rebels in gun trucks near the city turned and fled at the sound of exploding rockets and artillery. Gadhafi’s men had pushed rebels out of Ras Lanuf, site of a petrochemical complex and port, Wednesday morning.
A high-ranking member of Gadhafi’s entourage, meanwhile, dealt a serious blow to the Tripoli regime by abandoning his post and fleeing to Britain, where he stepped off a military plane and announced his resignation.
Musa Kusa, Libya’s foreign minister and former longtime intelligence chief, had long served as a top member of the Gadhafi family’s inner circle.
His apparent defection will give Western intelligence agencies a clearer picture of what is going on behind the scenes, whether there are further fractures within the regime’s elite as well as a gauge on the mood within the elite, identifying the doubters and the stalwarts.
But his access to battlefield intelligence may be limited, said Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence analyst who monitored Libya from 1990 to 2003.
“In the position of foreign minister, unless he’s still a close confidant, he’s not in the best position to report on the military, intelligence and security services,” said White, who is now a scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
The CIA has been on the ground in rebel-held areas of Libya since shortly after the U.S. embassy in Tripoli was evacuated in February, U.S. officials say. They have been meeting with rebels in an effort to learn more about them, and in some cases they are providing rebels with information about Gadhafi’s forces.
On Monday, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough told a group of journalists at the White House that “We’re looking at … specific nonlethal assistance of the sort that they might find useful.”
The CIA officers in Libya are part of a contingent of operatives from other Western nations. The public got a hint of the activity March 6, when a group of British special forces officers and a member of the intelligence service were detained by rebels and released.
In the early days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, teams of clandestine CIA officers and U.S. special operations troops entered secretly, paid off and coordinated with opposition groups, and used handheld equipment to call in and aim precision airstrikes against the regime armies. In Afghanistan, that was enough to topple the Taliban.
In Libya, the U.S. is leading an international effort to protect civilians by enforcing a no-fly zone and bombing Gadhafi’s military forces, but the coalition says it has not been coordinating with the rebels. In recent days, the rebels have been forced to retreat from towns they had seized, under heavy pressure from Gadhafi forces.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said officials told lawmakers that bad weather had been hampering airstrikes. “It’s been hard to give air support to the rebels,” he said.
The CIA sees no significant role being played by Islamic extremists among the rebels, U.S. officials say, but a NATO admiral told Congress this week there were “flickers” of al-Qaida sympathizers among the movement.
Obama has made clear the U.S. had not ruled out providing military assistance to the opposition.