The Obama administration plans to give the Libyan opposition $25 million in non-lethal assistance in the first direct U.S. aid to the rebels after weeks of assessing their capabilities and intentions, officials said Wednesday.
Amid a debate over whether to offer the rebels broader assistance, including cash and possibly weapons and ammunition, the administration has informed Congress that President Barack Obama intends to use his so-called "drawdown authority" to give the opposition, led by the Transitional National Council in Benghazi, up to $25 million in surplus American goods to help protect civilians in rebel-held areas threatened by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who recommended that Obama authorize the assistance, said the aid would go to support the council and "our efforts to protect civilians and the civilian populated areas that are under threat of attack from their own government in Libya." She said the aid "will be drawn down from items already in government stocks that correspond with the needs that we have heard from the Transitional National Council."
Congress was notified in writing of the plan late last week and was briefed in greater detail on Tuesday by Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, officials said.
Initially, the administration had proposed supplying the rebels with vehicles and portable fuel storage tanks but those items were dropped from the list of potential aid on Wednesday after concerns were expressed that those could be converted into offensive military assets, the officials said.
The list is still being revised but now covers items such as medical supplies, uniforms, boots, tents, personal protective gear, radios and Halal meals, the officials said. Most of the items are expected to come from Pentagon stocks, they said.
"There is an urgency in providing these commodities," the State Department said in a notice sent last Friday to lawmakers and obtained by The Associated Press.
"This is not a blank check," Clinton told reporters, adding that the move was consistent with the U.N. mandate that authorized international action to protect Libyan civilians and acknowledging that the opposition is in dire need of help.
"This opposition, which has held its own against a brutal assault by the Gadhafi forces was not an organized militia," she said. "It was not a group that had been planning to oppose the rule of Gadhafi for years. It was a spontaneous response within the context of the broader Arab spring. These are mostly business people, students, lawyers, doctors, professors who have very bravely moved to defend their communities and to call for an end to the regime in Libya."
The move comes as U.S. allies step up their aid to the rebels, with Britain, France and Italy sending military advisers amid calls for the U.S. to offer direct assistance outside its participation in NATO military operations. France and Italy have both recognized the Transitional National Council as Libya's legitimate government, something the U.S. has yet to do.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that Obama was aware of the allies' decision to send in advisers "and hopes -- believes -- that it will help the opposition. But it does not at all change the president's policy on no boots on the ground for American troops."
There has been much debate over whether to supply the rebels with weapons and the officials said that option remains on the table.
The officials said the non-lethal assistance would be monitored to ensure it is used properly, although they noted that the items to be sent present a low risk of misuse.