President Obama has signed a secret presidential finding authorizing covert operations in Libya, a U.S. official told Fox News, although the administration says it still hasn't decided whether to arm rebel forces there.
The presidential findings establish a framework of legal authorities for covert action. They can authorize specific actions, such as arming the rebels, or establish authorities under which future actions might be taken after permissions are given to undertake them.
In other words, covert actions won't start until the president signs off again.
Another senior American official, however, says CIA operatives are already on the ground in Libya and are currently gathering intelligence and aiding rebel forces.
The Pentagon has begun drafting plans for arming the rebels if needed, sources told Fox News, but officials caution that no decision has been made because not enough is known yet about the rebels.
It will take “a little more passage of time and more interaction” with the Libyan rebels before the U.S. can make a well informed decision as to whether to arm the Libyan rebels, a senior Obama administration official told Fox News, but the official also cautioned that senior policymakers are not, at present, convinced that doing so “will bring about the desired outcome.”
That said, “we are very much looking at it” as a policy option, the official added.
The question of whether to arm the rebels has risen to the forefront of the debate over U.S. intervention in the war-torn country, as Obama has come out strongly against sending American ground troops to help oust Libya leader Muammar al-Qaddafi while also hesitating to support efforts behind the scenes to negotiate Qaddafi's exit.
More than a week after the start of coalition airstrikes on Qaddafi military sites in support of U.N.-authorized no-fly zone, the U.S. and its allies are presently in the position of seeing whether rebels can seize the moment and turn the tide against Qaddafi forces. U.S. military leaders have expressed skepticism that the rebels will prevail on their own.
Obama and his national security team are still hoping that events on the ground – such as the death or resignation of Col. Qaddafi – might spare them from having to make a decision about arming the rebels, the senior administration official told Fox News.
A senior military official told Fox News that the Pentagon is planning how and with what weapons it might arm Libyan rebel forces, but questions of legality have prevented the administration from springing the plan into action.
Although the legal framework exists within the U.N. resolution to arm rebels -- as has been pointed out repeatedly by members of the Obama administration this week -- the question is whether or not this rebel group falls into that legal framework.
"It's a question of the group's legitimacy," the military official said.
As NATO Supreme Allied Commander Adm. Stavridis pointed out Tuesday on Capitol Hill, intelligence has shown "flickers" of possible Al Qaeda involvement among these rebel groups, and this senior military official reinforced that point Wednesday, telling Fox News that "there is certainly an element there."
If the U.S. were to arm rebels the other big question is how to do it without putting troops on the ground. The simple answer the Pentagon is considering: Make the allies do it.
To fight Qaddafi's armored vehicles, the rebels need RPGs, the military source told Fox News. They also need ammunition, fuel and communications capabilities.
"The presumption is that if you give them weapons, you would need someone to train them," the official said, and because of the administration's promise not to put U.S. boots on the ground, that mission would likely fall to the special operations forces of partner countries, like the British or the French.
The senior administration official who spoke to Fox News on condition of anonymity also raised concerns about the "legal framework" for arming the reels.
“This is very much in line with what we have been saying. We are examining whether this group is the kind of entity we could provide arms to," the official said. "You could call that a legal question or a political one. But obviously if you give weapons to the wrong groups, it works counter to our interests.”
Asked about the caliber of U.S. intelligence on the Libyan rebels, the administration official acknowledged: “We are limited in what we have, especially given the outbreak of hostilities. We don’t have people on the ground. And intelligence is only so good. I’m not saying we don’t have the capability of developing a better read on these people – we do, and we are – but policy makers are very keen to get a clearer picture as soon as possible.”
The official noted that formal U.S. relations with Libya only date back about eighteen months, and that even since then, the country has remained “a fairly murky place.” Consequently, the official confirmed that the U.S. is relying more heavily than it ordinarily would on the intelligence provided by allied nations that have longer-standing ties in Tripoli.
Fox News' James Rosen, Justin Fishel and Mike Emanuel contributed to this report.