WASHINGTON – While the White House debates whether to arm rebels battling Moammar Gadhafi's troops, U.S. officials have acknowledged that the CIA has sent small teams of operatives into Libya and helped rescue a crew member of a U.S. fighter jet that crashed.
Battlefield setbacks are hardening the U.S. view that the poorly equipped opposition probably is incapable of prevailing without decisive Western intervention, a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press.
Still, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday: "No decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any groups in Libya. We're not ruling it out or ruling it in."
The CIA's precise role in Libya is not clear. Intelligence experts said the CIA would have sent officials to make contact with the opposition and assess the strength and needs of the rebel forces in the event President Barack Obama decided to arm them.
An American official and a former U.S. intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, told the AP about the CIA's involvement in Libya after the agency was forced to close its station in Tripoli, the capital.
They said CIA helped safely recover the F-15E Strike Eagle's weapons specialist, who was first picked up by rebels after the crash March 21. The pilot was rescued by Marines.
The former intelligence officer said some CIA officers had been staging from the agency's station in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
The New York Times first reported the CIA had sent in groups of operatives and British operatives were directing airstrikes.
Obama said in a national address Monday night that U.S. troops would not be used on the ground in Libya. The statement allowed for wiggle room as the president explores options in case he decides to use covert action to ship arms to the rebels and train them.
In that event, the CIA would take the lead, as it has done in the past such as in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. In those covert action programs, CIA officers along with special operation forces were sent in, providing arms to opposition forces to help fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
"They're absolutely committed to keeping the U.S. role limited," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. "Nobody is making guarantees we'll be out in two weeks."
The top NATO commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, has said he's seen "flickers" of al-Qaida and Hezbollah among the rebels, but no evidence of significant numbers within the political opposition group's leadership.
During the meeting, Clapper, compared the rebel forces to a "pick-up basketball team." He indicated that intelligence has identified a few questionable individuals within the rebel ranks but no significant presence, according to lawmakers.
Lawmakers expressed frustration because administration officials couldn't say when the U.S. operation might end.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Clinton and Gates did not provide much information about the future in Libya.
"Do we arm the rebels? What happens if Gadhafi holds on? What is our next move?" said Smith.
Smith said arming the rebels may make sense, but added, "I think we have to figure out who exactly we would be arming. There are a lot of different rebel groups. I think we need greater intelligence on who is on the ground."
The Pentagon put the cost of the Libyan operation so far at $550 million. Blumenauer said officials estimated the cost could be $40 million a month depending on the length of the operation for the U.S. "It could be higher," he said.
Lawmakers, especially Republicans, are smarting from what they consider a lack of consultation from the administration and Obama's decision not to seek congressional authorization for the use of force.
The briefings — the Senate had a separate session later Wednesday — came 12 days after the no-fly zone began. Obama did speak to congressional leaders the day before the military action began.
"I understand how evil Gadhafi is. I don't understand the unwillingness to come to Congress first," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
Republicans, however, don't speak with one voice on the issue.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Obama's 2008 presidential rival, said the president couldn't wait for Congress to take even a few days to debate the use of force "there would have been nothing left to save in Benghazi," the rebels' de-facto capital.
Stavridis told the House Armed Services Committee that "the strike part of this and the aviation combat air patrol will be filled largely by the allies" and the U.S. will focus on things such as "intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, refueling, ... combat search and rescue."
An Associated Press-GfK poll found the country split on U.S. involvement in military actions in Libya, with 48 percent approving and 50 percent disapproving.
About three-quarters say it's somewhat likely that U.S. forces will be involved in Libya for the long term. Fifty-five percent say they would favor the United States increasing its military action to remove Gadhafi from power, although only 13 percent favor U.S. ground troops, a step Obama has said he would not take.
The poll was conducted in the days leading up to the president's speech.
Associated Press writers Lolita Baldor and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.
CIA background on Libya: http://tinyurl.com/62k7okd