How the White House mobilized the CIA’s Libya vanguard

Laura Rozen

Last Thursday March 24th, President Barack Obama, just back from a five-day trip to Latin America, convened his national security team for a White House meeting on Libya.

The meeting came five days into the U.S.'s air strikes targeting Libyan air defenses and military sites. And some lawmakers on Capitol Hill were already expressing misgivings over what they said were insufficient White House consultations with Congress on the nature and depth of America's military commitment there.

The Thursday meeting appeared as a sort of afterthought in the publicly announced March 24 schedule for the president: "Also in the afternoon, the President will meet with his national security team to review our efforts in Libya." But the confab stretched from the afternoon into evening--and by the time it wound down, CIA Director Leon Panetta had offered to send CIA personnel covertly to work on the ground in Libya.

"Once again, we were the only ones at the table who stepped up," Panetta later described the Agency's role, according to a source who requested anonymity because of the sensitive subject matter. 

A CIA spokesman did not provide comment on the CIA's role in Libya, which was first reported Wednesday by the New York Times.

There were many reasons the sudden commitment of personnel came from the CIA, and not the U.S. military. Not surprisingly, political concerns place high on that list, with a war-weary American public skeptical about any more long-term troop commitments in the Arab world. Indeed, on March 18, Obama had explicitly told a group of congressional leaders at a White House briefing on Libya that he had not authorized any deployment of U.S. ground troops, according to Hill officials with knowledge of the briefing.

That same refrain was repeated today, in Defense Secretary Robert Gates' testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

Asked by a committee member if there were any U.S. "boots on the ground" in Libya, Gates responded: "Not that I am aware of," and then added: "The opposition said they don't want any."

Gates then fielded another question about the likelihood of a later deployment of U.S. troops on the ground in Libya.

"Not as long as I am in the job," he replied sharply.

So with no U.S. ground troops in play, the CIA is tasked with gathering intelligence and performing logistical groundwork at a critical stage of the effort to rein in Muammar Gadhafi from brutalizing civilians and tip the balance against him in Libya's civil war.

Former CIA officers who have worked on the region said they believed the operatives are gathering intelligence on the Libyan opposition forces, to help better assess who the rebels are and what are their capabilities and organization structures, to inform U.S. decision-making including on possibly training them. Additionally, the former officials say, CIA personnel would be helping identify targets for precision air strikes.

"They are in there collecting intelligence, deepening our understanding of who the rebels are," one former U.S. intelligence officer who has worked on the Middle East told The Envoy Thursday on condition of anonymity. "It gives intelligence color to what is in fact a covert action, interacting with the rebels. They are not doing quasi-covert diplomacy, they are doing intelligence."

Air-strike logistics will also be a critical component of the CIA mission, the former intelligence said. "In the paramilitary world, where you've got an air campaign, you need what are called FACs—forward air controllers—someone who can provide coordinates [for targets]," he explained. "In modern warfare, you don't drop 1,000 bombs to hit one target."

Of course, there's a disconnect between the White House's depiction of the Libyan mission as a bid to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe, and the recent reports suggesting deepening covert U.S. involvement on the ground. But the former senior intelligence official said it would be naive to have believed it would have been otherwise once the first U.S. Tomahawk missiles exploded in Libya last Saturday.

"I would hope there was not a single person in the administration [involved in Libya decision-making] who was childish enough to think that anybody who was involved in the first military operation … could ever again be engaged in a relationship with the Gadhafi regime," the source said. "It ain't going to happen. Of course we took sides. We crossed that rubicon."

But another former CIA officer took a different view, saying the disconnect may arise from a certain degree of wishful thinking in the administration's initial decision-making on Libya.

"It's really simple: we incrementally get involved and [then] don't know what to do," the second former CIA officer said. The Obama administration "really thought a little pressure and he [Gadhafi] will fall."

"The model is we [the CIA] go in and do a limited amount of training," the second former CIA official said. "So there is someone we can work with—as we increase air operations, and eventually hit artillery and armor."

"Those clowns" -- the Libyan rebels -- "are not able to do anything effective until they are trained and have new weaponry, " likely from Egypt, the former CIA officer said. He suggested the CIA's ground-branch division, which includes many personnel who have para-military backgrounds, may also get tasked with "train[ing] the Libyan rebels how to fight, how to shoot, how to organize into groups."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee Thursday that he estimated there were only 1,000 Libyan rebels who had a real military background. The rebels are joined by civilians without much military experience. Mullen also estimated that Muammar Gadhafi had a 10-to-one advantage in military weaponry over the rebels, including tanks and armored vehicles.

Defense Secretary Gates, a former CIA analyst and CIA director, offered lawmakers three possible scenarios for Libya.

"One is that someone from his military takes [Gadhafi] out and then cuts a deal with the opposition," Gates told the House panel Thursday. "Another would be the tribes abandon him and cut their own deals with each other. Another alternative —our preferred option—[is that] these opposition forces and tribes come together and begin to create a democratic state that protects [the] rights of its people."

At the same time that he outlined the best-case option, Gates also cautioned that the United States' ability to influence such outcomes is extremely limited. "We don't have any real influence with the tribes."

(Defense Secretary Robert Gates, center, sits with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, left, and Vice President Joe Biden, right, as they listen to President Barack Obama speak about Libya at the National Defense University in Washington, Monday, March 28, 2011.: Charles Dharapak/AP)