Arming the Libyan Rebels

by Daniel Foster

Are we already doing it?

Reuters is reporting that President Obama signed a secret “finding,” as far back as two to three weeks ago, authorizing covert support of the Libyan rebels — including, potentially, cash and weapons.

The president told Diane Sawyer yesterday that it was “fair to say that if we wanted to get weapons into Libya, we probably could,” and that the administration was “looking at all our options.”

Separately, the New York Times is reporting today that there is a “fierce debate” involving the White House, the Pentagon, and Foggy Bottom on the wisdom of arming the rebels.

The debate has “prompted an urgent call for intelligence” about the rebels, amid fears that the agglomeration of anti-Qaddafi forces contains a substantial number of al-Qaeda and other terrorist sympathizers. SecState –

who met for a second time with a senior opposition leader, Mahmoud Jibril — acknowledged that as a group, the rebels were largely a mystery. “We don’t know as much as we would like to know and as much as we expect we will know,” she said at a news conference.

The French, apparently, feel most strongly about the issue:

A European diplomat said France was adamant that the rebels be more heavily armed and was in discussions with the Obama administration about how France would bring this about. “We strongly believe that it should happen,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

But the administration and its allies in Congress appear, for the time being to be exercising caution:

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he had had conversations with two senior administration officials about this issue. Mr. Levin said he was most concerned about how the rebels would use the weapons after a cease-fire. “Would they stop fighting if they had momentum, or would they be continuing to use those weapons?” he asked.

Gene A. Cretz, the American ambassador to Libya, said last week that he was impressed by the democratic instincts of the opposition leaders and that he did not believe that they were dominated by extremists. But he acknowledged that there was no way to know if they were “100 percent kosher, so to speak.”

Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said some who had fought as insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan were bound to have returned home to Libya. “The question we can’t answer is, Are they 2 percent of the opposition? Are they 20 percent? Or are they 80 percent?” he said.

I was joking with Rich the other day that what the Defense Department needs is a program to develop basic infantry weapons — rifles, man-portable anti-aircraft weapons, and anti-armor weapons — that are disposable. That is, that break down and become non-functional along a fairly short timeline: six months or a year. Better yet, we need weapons with a remote on/off button that the president can deactivate at his discretion. Better yet, we need “smart” weapons linked up to transponders embedded in each American serviceman’s uniform such that they won’t fire if an American soldier is down-barrel.

Get DARPA on that and I’d consider supporting the arming of the Libyan rebels.

UPDATE: Now the Times is saying there are in fact CIA operatives on the ground — along with British special forces and MI6 — coordinating with the rebels:

WASHINGTON — The Central Intelligence Agency has inserted clandestine operatives into Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and make contacts with rebels battling Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, according to American officials.

While President Obama has insisted that no American ground troops join in the Libyan campaign, small groups of C.I.A. operatives have been working in Libya for several weeks and are part of a shadow force of Westerners that the Obama administration hopes can help set back Colonel Qaddafi’s military, the officials said.

The C.I.A. presence comprises an unknown number of American officers who had worked at the spy agency’s station in Tripoli and those who arrived more recently. In addition, current and former British officials said, dozens of British special forces and MI6 intelligence officers are working inside Libya. The British operatives have been directing airstrikes from British Tornado jets and gathering intelligence about the whereabouts of Libyan government tank columns, artillery pieces, and missile installations, the officials said.

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