WASHINGTON — The CIA has inserted clandestine operatives into Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and make contacts with rebels battling Moammar Gadhafi's forces, according to U.S. officials.
While President Barack Obama has insisted that no U.S. ground troops join in the Libyan campaign, small groups of CIA operatives have been working in Libya for several weeks and are part of a shadow force of Westerners that the Obama administration hopes can help set back Gadhafi's military, the officials said.
The CIA presence comprises an unknown number of U.S. officers who had worked at the spy agency's station in Tripoli and those who arrived more recently. In addition, current and former British officials said, dozens of British special forces and MI6 intelligence officers are working inside Libya. The British operatives have been directing airstrikes from British Tornado jets and gathering intelligence about the whereabouts of Libyan government tank columns, artillery pieces, and missile installations, the officials said.
U.S. officials hope that similar information gathered by U.S. intelligence officers - including the location of Gadhafi's munitions depots and the clusters of government troops inside towns - might help weaken Libya's military enough to encourage defections within its ranks.
In addition, the U.S. spies are meeting with rebels to try to fill gaps in knowledge of who their leaders are and the allegiances of the groups opposed to Gadhafi, said U.S. government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the activities.U.S. officials cautioned, though, that the Western operatives were not directing the actions of rebel forces.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
The United States and its allies have been scrambling to gather detailed information on the location and abilities of Libyan infantry and armored forces that normally takes months of painstaking analysis.
"We didn't have great data," Gen. Carter Ham, who handed over control of the Libya mission to NATO on Wednesday, said in an email last week. "Libya hasn't been a country we focused on a lot over past few years."
Several weeks ago, President Barack Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the CIA to provide arms and other support to Libyan rebels, U.S. officials said Wednesday. But weapons have not yet been shipped into Libya, as Obama administration officials debate the effects of giving them to the rebel groups. The presidential finding was first reported by Reuters.
In a statement released Wednesday evening, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, declined to comment "on intelligence matters," but he said that no decision had yet been made to provide arms to the rebels.
Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who leads the House Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday that he opposed arming the rebels. "We need to understand more about the opposition before I would support passing out guns and advanced weapons to them," Rogers said in a statement.
Because the publicly stated goal of the Libyan campaign is not explicitly to overthrow Gadhafi's government, the clandestine war now going on is significantly different from the U.S.-assisted Afghan campaign to drive the Taliban from power in 2001. Back then, U.S. CIA and Special Forces troops worked alongside Afghan militias, armed them and called in airstrikes that paved the way for rebel advances on strategically important cities like Kabul and Kandahar.
A spokesman for Britain's Ministry of Defense declined to comment, citing a policy not to discuss the operations of British Special Forces.