U.S. sends C.I.A to Libya to gather intelligence, vet rebels under secretly authorized order from President Obama

A Libyan rebel fires in air as others wave Libyan pre-Gadhafi flags as they ride a vehicle at twilight in Benghazi, Libya.

The Obama administration has sent teams of CIA operatives into Libya in a rush to gather intelligence on the identities and capabilities of rebel forces opposed to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, and assessing “all types of assistance” for the rebels according to U.S. officials.

While the White House debates whether to arm rebels battling Moammar Gadhafi’s troops, U.S. officials have acknowledged that the CIA has sent small teams of operatives into Libya and helped rescue a crew member of a U.S. fighter jet that crashed.

Battlefield setbacks are hardening the U.S. view that the poorly equipped opposition probably is incapable of prevailing without decisive Western intervention, a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press.

Still, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday: “No decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any groups in Libya. We’re not ruling it out or ruling it in.”

The CIA’s precise role in Libya is not clear. Intelligence experts said the CIA would have sent officials to make contact with the opposition and assess the strength and needs of the rebel forces in the event President Barack Obama decided to arm them.

An American official and a former U.S. intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, told the AP about the CIA’s involvement in Libya after the agency was forced to close its station in Tripoli, the capital.

They said CIA helped safely recover the F-15E Strike Eagle’s weapons specialist, who was first picked up by rebels after the crash March 21. The pilot was rescued by Marines.

The former intelligence officer said some CIA officers had been staging from the agency’s station in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

The New York Times first reported the CIA had sent in groups of operatives and British operatives were directing airstrikes.

Obama said in a national address Monday night that U.S. troops would not be used on the ground in Libya. The statement allowed for wiggle room as the president explores options in case he decides to use covert action to ship arms to the rebels and train them.

In that event, the CIA would take the lead, as it has done in the past such as in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. In those covert action programs, CIA officers along with special operation forces were sent in, providing arms to opposition forces to help fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The CIA’s efforts represent a belated attempt to acquire basic information about rebel forces that had barely surfaced on the radar of U.S. spy agencies before the uprisings in North Africa.

Resistance: Hundreds of resurgent Libyan rebels gather near Nofilia, 62 miles from Sirte yesterday as Gaddafi forces pushed them back further east.

Among the CIA’s tasks is to assess whether rebel leaders could be reliable partners if the administration opts to begin funneling in money or arms.

Obama took a key step in that direction by issuing a secret authorization known as a presidential “finding,” designed to pave the way for the flow of money or weapons. News of the finding, signed several weeks ago, was first reported Wednesday by Reuters.

Under law, the CIA requires special permission from the president to carry out activities designed to influence foreign events. A finding establishes a framework of legal authorities for specific covert activities, and in some cases for future actions that can be taken only after specific permission is given.

Such operations are fraught with risks. The CIA’s history is replete with efforts that backfired against U.S. interests in unexpected ways. In perhaps the most fateful example, the CIA’s backing of Islamic fighters in Afghanistan succeeded in driving out the Soviets in the 1980s, but it also presaged the emergence of militant groups, including al-Qaeda, that the United States is now struggling to contain.

Giving the CIA an expanded role in Libya would enable the administration to bridge the gap between the restrictions on coalition airstrikes and Obama’s stated goal of bringing Gaddafi’s four-decade rule to an end.

The CIA’s Special Activities Division includes paramilitary operatives who could help guide rebel operations as well as allied airstrikes.

Even amid an escalating campaign of coalition airstrikes, opposition forces have repeatedly mounted ill-advised assaults on Gaddafi positions and have been forced to retreat from territory they had gained.  Seems like more help is on the way for the rebels.

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