WASHINGTON – It's a polite faceoff of spies vs. diplomats, as the Obama administration debates how aggressively to pursue Libya's vast weapons stores, including tons of caustic mustard agent and thousands of anti-aircraft rockets that experts fear could fall into the hands of terrorists or Libyan loyalists.
The State Department wants to wait for fighting to abate before moving throughout Libya to locate and secure fugitive leader Muammar Qaddafi's massive weapons stores, according to two U.S. officials. It's also stressing working through the nascent Libyan rebel government.
Some U.S. intelligence officials have been pushing to expand the CIA's role in Libya to track down the weaponry faster, unilaterally without the rebels' help if necessary. They fear the rockets in particular may be quickly sold, ending up with al-Qaida or fueling a Libyan insurgency for years to come, the officials say.
Already, the prices of the shoulder-launched missiles called MANPADs have fallen on the regional black market, the officials say, suggesting some of Qaddafi's stores are already being sold.
While many of the aging rockets may not work, the Soviet-era missiles can take down a helicopter or civilian jetliner.
The White House has resisted calls to expand the CIA's covert mission, just as it has ruled out deploying U.S. troops on the ground in Libya, one current and one former U.S. official said. The administration is pushing instead for other NATO partners to step in and take up the hunt.
A senior administration official who has been privy to discussions about finding Qaddafi's weapons said State Department and CIA officials have been working closely on the matter and that no such disagreements about strategy have been aired.
All officials and former officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.
The CIA has small teams of officers, backed by private U.S. contractors with special operations experience helping to guide Libyan rebel fighters, according to two former U.S. officials. Since the CIA teams are operating covertly, they are not considered to be official participants in the U.N.-sanctioned mission to protect civilians in Libya.
Military advisers from Britain, France, Italy and Qatar have done the bulk of the work advising rebels and NATO bombers on the whereabouts of the enemy. The CIA teams are much smaller, and most of U.S. intelligence gathering has been done electronically, through U.S. military drone, satellite and spy plane feeds.
That's left few resources to track Qaddafi's weapons. The State Department disarmament teams consist of a handful of people, operating so far in only rebel-held areas, two officials said.
The State Department expressed confidence Thursday that Libya's raw nuclear material and the deadly chemicals are secure, though State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland acknowledged the fate of the thousands of rockets and conventional weaponry is less clear.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the leaders of the rebel government in Libya, the Transitional National Council, had obligations to the international community as well as to their own people as they take control of the Arab country.
"We will look to them to ensure that Libya fulfills its treaty responsibilities, that it ensures that its weapons stockpiles do not threaten its neighbors or fall into the wrong hands, and that it takes a firm stand against violent extremism," Clinton said in a statement Thursday night.
Monitoring the nuclear and chemical materials is easier since they were accounted for when Qaddafi agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program in 2003.
Sensitive elements of Libya's nuclear program had already been removed by 2009, Nuland said. U.S. intelligence indicates remaining uranium concentrate known as yellowcake is safe at the Tajura research facility about 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of Tripoli, she said, and Qaddafi's store of mustard agent is protected in heavy bunkers at an ammunition reservation in Waddan, a remote Saharan oasis.
Nuland didn't say who controlled the sites. But she said both stockpiles weren't imminent threats and that they would be of no use to Qaddafi loyalists as part of a last-stand struggle against rebels fighting for control of the capital.
"Libya doesn't have the means right now to turn this yellowcake into anything dangerous," Nuland said.
The mustard agent, she added, doesn't amount to "weapon-ready chemicals, (because) they can't be converted on the dot and they are in these massive drums inside heavy bunkers and we are able to monitor their security through our national technical means."
Nuland said the State Department's envoy to the Libyan opposition, Chris Stevens, was working with officials in Benghazi on how to take control over the yellowcake and chemical facilities and on destroying MANPADS as they are discovered.
Nuland said there has been a lot of "fear-mongering" about Libyan missiles and other threats, but she conceded that officials were concerned about the spread of the MANPADs.
"I don't think anybody knows," how many of the weapons Qaddafi has amassed, she said. Estimates had ranged from 15,000 to as high as 30,000, although U.S. officials said Thursday the total was probably slightly lower.
"This was not something that Qaddafi was in the business of publishing. And he is good at hiding stuff." Qaddafi was never required to outline his full arsenal of conventional weapons as part of the 2003 disarmament agreement.
The State Department has spent $3 million on two international weapons teams to locate and destroy such systems in rebel-held parts of the country. The teams have demolished nearly 30 Russian SA-7 launchers, according to Alexander Griffiths, director of operations for the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, one of the weapons abatement groups. But they are only scouring rebel-held battle sites and arms depots and are not sent into combat hot zones.