WASHINGTON – The State Department expressed confidence Thursday that Libya's raw nuclear material and deadly chemicals are secure, trying to dispel fears that the near collapse of Moammar Gadhafi's regime means terrorists could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction.
The fate of thousands of rockets is less clear, and other U.S. intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts criticized slow work by State Department to locate and buy back dangerous munitions like the estimated 15,000 to 25,000 shoulder-fired missiles in Gadhafi's weapons stores.
Two U.S. officials said the prices of such missiles in the region have fallen, suggesting that some of Gadhafi's weapons may already be reaching the market, though there is no sign that al-Qaida-linked terrorists have managed to buy any. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a high-level briefing on the subject.
That's feeding a debate within the administration over whether to devote more U.S. resources, including manpower on the ground, to find and secure the potentially deadly or at the very least, lucrative, material.
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 who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters. The Obama administration is debating whether to widen the role of those U.S. intelligence teams to include hunting for Gadhafi's weapons arsenal, several officials said.
The administration has ruled out sending any U.S. troops to Libya, and is resisting internal calls inside the intelligence and counterterrorism community to expand the CIA's covert mission, two former U.S. officials said. 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 already have the main job of feeding intelligence to the rebels and NATO bombers on the whereabouts of the enemy. U.S. intelligence relies primarily on military drone, satellite and spy plane reports to track Gadhafi's weaponry, including conventional weapons that could fuel an insurgency long after the fall of the Libyan regime.
Monitoring the nuclear and chemical materials is easier since they were accounted for when Gadhafi agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program in 2003.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said sensitive elements of Libya's nuclear program had already been removed by 2009. She said U.S. intelligence indicates remaining uranium concentrate known as yellowcake is safe at the Tajura research facility about 10 miles east of Tripoli. Gadhafi's store of mustard agent is protected in heavy bunkers at an ammunition reservation in Waddan, a remote Saharan oasis, she said.
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 Gadhafi 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 shoulder-launched antiaircraft missile systems called MANPADS.
"I don't think anybody knows," how many of the weapons Gadhafi has amassed, she said. Estimates had ranged up to 30,000, although U.S. officials said Thursday the total was probably slightly lower.
"This was not something that Gadhafi was in the business of publishing. And he is good at hiding stuff." Gadhafi was never required to outline his full arsenal of conventional weapons as part of the 2003 disarmament agreement.
MANPADS, or man-portable air-defense systems, are a particular threat because a single rocket can bring down a helicopter or a passenger plane. The Cold War-era rockets Gadhafi assembled are aging, and although the weapons are especially easy to operate they are also difficult to maintain and many may no longer work.
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.
While the United States is not willing to send in conventional U.S. troops, it is prepared to offer civilian police assistance if the Libyan opposition requests such help from the United Nations, Nuland said.
Nuland didn't say whether that would include sending American police to Libya or simply providing training and equipment. The U.S. has no plans to send soldiers to Libya as part of any post-Gadhafi force, and the rebel-allied government is not likely to ask for it, she said.
The opposition said at a meeting of international diplomats in Istanbul that it likely would seek international civilian police support.
International police experts, including Americans, have been deployed in numerous post-conflict areas in the past, such as Cambodia, Kosovo and East Timor. France and Italy, because of their paramilitary gendarmerie and carabinieri police forces, often have taken the lead in these operations.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.