The CIA-Libya leak … or, aren’t we supposed to get intel before bombing stuff? **UPDATED**

Shouldn't we know what ... or who ... we're blowing up?

I’m not in the intelligence business. Nor do I work in the White House or Pentagon. But if I was, or did, and I was helping to plan the bombing campaign that kicks off the creation of a U.N.-authorized no fly zone in Libya, I’d want to know exactly where or what our guys would be bombing, and exactly who it is we’re protecting. But then, that’s me. 

And if  I wanted a certain dictator to feel squeezed, particularly at a time when he’s dealing with a major defection, I might send a “senior intelligence official” out to brief a couple of reporters on background, so I could get the letters “CIA” onto satellite TV, hopefully in his living room in Tripoli. Those letters have a funny way of setting people off.

Wednesday night’s ”breaking news” based on a leak from somewhere deep inside the Obama administration — or maybe not that deep –  caused a lot of sturm und drang, particularly on MSNBC, where first Rachel Maddow, and then Ed Schultz broke and dissected the story that was simultaneously “breaking” on CNN, and online on the websites of ABC News, CBS (citing the National Journal, whose story puts the number of CIA operatives at “more than a dozen,” describing their presence as a “break glass in case of emergency toolkit” in case the rebels’ situation becomes even more grave than it is) … the Associated Press, Reuters, and probably Fox (I don’t watch it.) The story has already been picked up by the BBC (citing American media outlets), and by morning, will be all over satellite TV, including presumably, in North Africa. Maybe even in Libya. If I were in the Obama administration, that’s precisely how I’d like it.


The information, apparently first given to Reuters by a “senior administration official” and the the New York Times, later confirmed (via other “senior administration officials?) by CNN, NBC and the National Journal, tells Qaddafi two things:

1. The CIA is in your country. And see how scary and ominous some Americans say that is? Be afraid.


2. You may be beating back the rebels, who are untrained and quick to retreat, but we’re thinking about giving them serious weaponry. We may not have done it yet, but we’re thinking about it.

I’m pretty cynical, but I doubt some colonel pulled a Bradley Manning here. The administration wanted this information known. The reason I think that is because of the nature of the information itself, which it turns out, is far less ominous and war-mongery than the breathless headlines and breaking news Wednesday night suggested (we’re apparently talking about maybe a dozen guys in-country, almost all based in the eastern, rebel-held parts of Libya). Besides, presidential administrations leak things this way all the time, by giving them to a few major outlets and letting it go from there.

Here’s a clip from the New York Times story:

WASHINGTON — The Central Intelligence Agency has inserted clandestine operatives into Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and to contact and vet the beleaguered rebels battling Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, according to American officials.

Ah, so it’s more than one “official.” Nah, this ain’t no leak. Going on:

While President Obama has insisted that no American military ground troops participate in the Libyan campaign, small groups of C.I.A. operatives have been working in Libya for several weeks as part of a shadow force of Westerners that the Obama administration hopes can help bleed Colonel Qaddafi’s military, the officials said.

In addition to the C.I.A. presence, composed of an unknown number of Americans who had worked at the spy agency’s station in Tripoli and others who arrived more recently, current and former British officials said that dozens of British special forces and MI6 intelligence officers are working inside Libya. The British operatives have been directing airstrikes from British jets and gathering intelligence about the whereabouts of Libyan government tank columns, artillery pieces and missile installations, the officials said.

American officials hope that similar information gathered by American intelligence officers — including the location of Colonel Qaddafi’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 American spies are meeting with rebels to try to fill in gaps in understanding who their leaders are and the allegiances of the groups opposed to Colonel Qaddafi, said United States government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the activities. American officials cautioned, though, that the Western operatives were not directing the actions of rebel forces.

And from the National Journal version (which I have to say includes some pretty rank speculation, like “there are no U.S. military troops on the ground … yet…):

The CIA operations inside Libya highlight the delicate balancing act that the Obama administration is facing when it comes to the U.S.-led military intervention there. Obama has been adamant that there will be no U.S. military “boots on the ground” inside Libya, and U.S. Special Operations personnel in nearby countries have been placed on high-alert but not yet deployed, according to military officials familiar with the matter.

But with the administration openly considering direct assistance to Libya’s rebels, the administration appears to have decided that it needed to get CIA operatives into position there to make contact with Libya’s disparate insurgents and begin orchestrating the logistics of providing weaponry, money, and other forms of aid to the fighters.

The small teams of CIA operatives are currently clustered primarily in eastern Libya, the de-facto rebel capital, according to the person with knowledge of their activities. Beyond the outreach efforts to Libya’s rebels, the U.S. personnel are also meant to gather frontline intelligence about possible targets for future coalition airstrikes, this person said.

The CIA declined to comment.

In other words, before we started dropping bombs alongside other U.N. partners, we and the Brits put some eyes and ears on the ground to figure out just what the hell and who the hell we’d be bombing, and to figure out how strong, or how weak, both Qaddafi and the rebels might be. Isn’t that what the CIA is supposed to do? And not to put too fine a point on it, shouldn’t we assume that this is what administrations routinely task the CIA to do in advance of bombing campaigns? In fact, when we get poor ground intel, we get dead civilians. Just ask the Afghans.

I realize that just the thought of the CIA running around the third world stokes anxiety in the hearts of my fellow liberals, but folks, that’s what the agency was designed for. It’s their job to help U.S. policymakers understand the countries we’re operating in, particularly one that is as unknown to us as Libya, since we pretty much shifted resources out of there after George W. Bush put them back on the oily good list.

The CIA is also not the military, despite the way the Bush administration melded the two when it came to interrogating detainees in Iraq. Their presence in Libya in no way suggests, as the National Journal story implied, that an injection of U.S. ground troops is imminent. I know that in the post-Dubya mindset, everything is Vietnam. But really, everything is not Vietnam.

One more clip from the Times story:

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 F. Ham, who handed over control of the Libya mission to NATO on Wednesday, said in an e-mail last week. “Libya hasn’t been a country we focused on a lot over past few years.”

Several weeks ago, President Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the C.I.A. to provide arms and other support to Libyan rebels, American 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.

Also included in the Times’ reporting is the fact that while airstrikes mapped out by drones have been highly effective in destroying Qaddafi’s tank columns, government forces have begun getting out of their tanks and taking to civilian cars — SUVs and other civilian-style vehicles, making it harder to spot them, particularly as you get into more populated areas. It was necessary, and I think, prudent, in that instance, to get some intel in there on the ground, in order to figure out who and what to hit. Otherwise, the U.S. risks accidentlly blowing up civilians. And then, the same liberals who went ballistic over this rather ordinary development on Wednesday, would go to defcon 12 over the “murders” of civilians by the bloodthirsty “George W. Obama.”

One last clip from the Times:

Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, who recently retired as the Air Force’s top intelligence official, said that Libya’s flat desert terrain and clear weather have allowed warplanes with advanced sensors to hunt Libyan armored columns with relative ease, day or night, without the need for extensive direction from American troops on the ground.

But if government troops advance into or near cities in along the country’s eastern coast, which so far have been off-limits to coalition aircraft for fear of causing civilian casualties, General Deptula said that ground operatives would be particularly helpful in providing target coordinates or pointing them out to pilots with hand-held laser designators.

And what “ground operatives” can we use? Well the British have put in MI6 and special forces. But President Obama has expressly taken U.S. ground troops off the table. So if not members of the CIA, who? (In that case, Ed Schultz’s statement that we have “boots on the ground” Wednesday was also not accurate, though he meant it in support of the administration’s policy in Libya.)

As to the “finding” — which is not an order to arm the rebels, but simply sets the conditions if such a decision were to be made, here’s what Reuters reported:

Obama signed the order, known as a presidential “finding”, within the last two or three weeks, according to government sources familiar with the matter.

Such findings are a principal form of presidential directive used to authorize secret operations by the Central Intelligence Agency. This is a necessary legal step before such action can take place but does not mean that it will.

As is common practice for this and all administrations, I am not going to comment on intelligence matters,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement. “I will reiterate what the president said yesterday — no decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any group in Libya.”

… People familiar with U.S. intelligence procedures said that Presidential covert action “findings” are normally crafted to provide broad authorization for a range of potential U.S. government actions to support a particular covert objective.

In order for specific operations to be carried out under the provisions of such a broad authorization — for example the delivery of cash or weapons to anti-Gaddafi forces — the White House also would have to give additional “permission” allowing such activities to proceed.

Former officials say these follow-up authorizations are known in the intelligence world as “‘Mother may I’ findings.”

Rachel Maddow on Wednesday brought up the question of whether the president had gotten that “mother may I” permission, including whether the administration had adhered to the Boland Amendment, crafted after Iran Contra and requiring consultation with Congress on the conduct of covert foreign operations. Maddow and Michael Isikoff discussed whether the president had informed the “gang of eight” in Congress about the covert operation finding, and she played part of an interview with a member of the “gang of eight,” who did some serious dancing in not answering whether he knew anything about anything.

But the timing described in the Reuters report — two to three weeks ago, before the airstrikes began — and the history of how the Obama administration has operated regarding covert ops in the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan would seem to suggest that these would likely have been among the consultations the White House has insisted it had with the leadership of Congress (which Nancy Pelosi – who as House minority leader would be a member of the group of eight- confirmed.)

For example, also per Reuters:

In 2009 Obama gave a similar authorization for the expansion of covert U.S. counter-terrorism actions by the CIA in Yemen. The White House does not normally confirm such orders have been issued.

Why would the White House proceed any differently this time?

Meanwhile, the CIA deployment would seem to address concerns that have been expressed by members of Congress, who have questioned whether the administration has a clear knowledge about who the rebels are. That issue came up in Congressional hearings Wednesday, in which members grilled Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and SecDef Gates about whether their are any al-Qaida among the Qaddafi opponents.

How would the U.S. determine the answer to that question without putting our own eyes and ears on the ground? Surely people don’t believe American warplanes should just start bombing, and figure out who we’re helping later…

As to what the intel teams have actually been up to, MSNBC has this:

The CIA sent small teams of operatives into Libya after the agency’s station in the capital was forced to close, and CIA officers assisted in the rescue of one of the two crew members of an F-15E Strike Eagle that crashed, an American official and a former U.S. intelligence officer told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

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.

They suffered only minor injuries, the military has said. The crew ejected after the aircraft malfunctioned during a mission against a Libyan missile site.

Because U.S. and allied intelligence agencies still have many questions about the identities and leadership of anti-Gadhafi forces, any covert U.S. activities are likely to proceed cautiously until more information about the rebels can be collected and analyzed, officials said.

“The whole issue on training and equipment requires knowing who the rebels are,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA Middle East expert who has advised the Obama White House.

The CNN version also cites the Reuters report, adding that:

In early March, a U.S. official told CNN “the intelligence community is aggressively pursuing information on the ground” in Libya.

Again, the points are that 1) the U.S. wants to know who precisely the rebels are before making a decision about how much to help them, and whether to arm them; and 2) the CIA operatives in the country, based on a presidential finding that’s at least two weeks old, are there to gather data, not to fight the civil war at the rebels’ side.

All of this comes amid two big developments, one good, one bad.

The bad: the Libyan rebels are still in disarray, and in many cases, are in retreat.

The good: the country’s foreign minister has defected to the U.K.

From the BBC:

Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa is in Britain and “no longer willing” to work for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, the Foreign Office says.

He flew in from Tunisia on a non-commercial flight and was questioned for several hours by British officials.

The Foreign Office in London called on other members of the Libyan government to abandon Colonel Gaddafi.

His apparent defection comes as rebels in Libya are retreating from former strongholds along the eastern coast.

The rebels have now lost the key oil port of Ras Lanuf and the nearby town of Bin Jawad, and are also in full retreat from Brega.

In the west, the rebel-held town of Misrata is still reportedly coming under attack from pro-Gaddafi troops, reports say.

‘Own free will’

A British Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We can confirm that Moussa Koussa arrived at Farnborough Airport on 30 March from Tunisia. He travelled here under his own free will.

“He has told us that he is resigning his post. We are discussing this with him and we will release further detail in due course.

“Moussa Koussa is one of the most senior figures in Gaddafi’s government and his role was to represent the regime internationally – something that he is no longer willing to do.

“We encourage those around Gaddafi to abandon him and embrace a better future for Libya that allows political transition and real reform that meets the aspirations of the Libyan people.”

UK intelligence officials who hope that his deep knowledge of the Libyan regime will help bring about its early end, says the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Humphrey Hawksley.

Interestingly enough, the top story on Al Jazeera is about Libya as of early Thursday. But their headline focuses on Koussa, not the CIA.

Of course, it’s possible that the Obama administration is flying by the seat of its pants in Libya. But it’s also possible that the administration is doing all that it can without a ground invasion to dislodge the stubborn Qaddafi, including by getting better intel on him, while dangling the now public threat of the CIA at his doorstep, alongside the start   (hopefully) of defections from his inner circle.

It’s fine to oppose the Libya operation, or to oppose the war, or the CIA in general, or the Obama administration and its policies. But let’s also be realistic about what military action entails. At the heart of any successful military operation is intelligence. In Libya, we didn’t have it, so apparently, the Obama administration decided to try and get it.

A couple of UPDATES as of 7:50 a.m. (the original post was written overnight):

I have no idea where the rank speculation on-air on NPR this morning, that the CIA operatives are “training the rebel forces” came from. That’s not in any of the original reports. And this is what NPR is reporting online:

Obama told NBC these airstrikes could determine the coalition’s future course in Libya.

“Do we start getting to a stage where Gadhafi’s forces are sufficiently degraded, where it may not be necessary to arm opposition groups? But we’re not taking anything off the table at this point,” he said.

To Arm Or Not To Arm

But if airstrikes are not enough, arming the rebels is the next option — giving them some type of anti-tank weapon or rocket-propelled grenades.

“If their defeat is to be prevented, it’s inevitable that they get weapons from somewhere else,” says Frank Anderson, president of the Middle East Policy Council, a nonpartisan think tank. In the 1980s, he worked with the CIA, training Afghan rebels to fight the Soviets.

But here’s an important detail to keep in mind: Sending in weapons also means sending in someone to train the rebels to use the weapons.

“You don’t need specialists. What you need is someone who can teach very simple tactical behaviors,” Anderson says. “It doesn’t take a long time.”

Those trainers wouldn’t have to come from the United States.

Still, if the Obama administration is looking for a quick and painless way to shift the balance of power on the ground, arming the rebels may not do it.

That’s very interesting. But it doesn’t indicate the U.S. is either training or arming the Libyan rebels now. In fact, per the Guardian, quite the opposite is true:

Both sides in the Libya conflict are running short of weapons and ammunition after almost two weeks of intense fighting that has brutally exposed the military shortcomings of the rebels, the Guardian has been told.

The rebels were forced into yet another retreat on Wednesday, withMuammar Gaddafi‘s forces regaining much of the territory taken by them at the weekend and threatening to humiliate the western coalition by again coming within striking distance of Benghazi.

Concern is deepening in the coalition about the rebels’ fragile morale and lack of military experience to mount a sustained challenge to the regime.

A military stalemate is now a real possibility, partly as both sides are struggling to re-equip their forces.

With fighting continuing in Misrata and regime forces pushing east as far as the strategic town of Ajdabiya, the issue of rearming has become paramount.

Coalition bombing raids had helped “chop the legs off” Gaddafi’s supply chain, meaning he could no longer get replacement rockets and other ammunition to the frontline. “Ammunition is going to become an issue,” said a defence source. “The regime’s logistics are very stretched. Their ability to move ammunition 400 to 500 miles is becoming constraining.

“In terms of trying to bring the fighting to a stop, chopping the legs off the supply chain is a very effective move. Regime forces have been seriously degraded. But there is more to do to prevent more bloodshed, to prevent more loss of life.”

While the regime is thought to be “hurting more and missing more” because many of its heavy weapons have been destroyed, the rebels could struggle to take advantage because of their own problems. They do not have a supply chain or logistical mechanisms.

Many of the rebels have not experienced being under fire before the last three weeks and there is no sign of any improvement in their fighting capability.

Though the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the foreign secretary, William Hague, have hinted that arming the rebels might be allowed under the terms of the two UN resolutions, it is understood the UK has not provided any equipment so far, and there are no plans to do so at this stage. No training has been provided either.

A defence source insisted there had been “no request for ground forces” and that it was clear from the start that the coalition had “no intention” of providing ground forces.

Meanwhile, NATO has officially taken command of the Libyan operation, as of about 2:00 this morning, U.S. EST time.

And the Koussa defection IS the big story here. Andrew Sullivan posts this Nic Robertson tweet:

Along with this:

Behind the big headline:

Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught tells us that Koussa was not alone, and that there are several senior Libyan government figures waiting to fly to European capitals. She said they include the current head of intelligence, the oil mininster, the secretary of the general peoples’ congress and a deputy foreign minister. She tells us:

It seems the government of Gaddafi is collapsing around him tonight, and they’re running for the hills.  But its all about Cololnel Gaddafi here.


UPDATE 2 8:23: Dave von Ebers has a smart take on the history of U.S. presidents, the CIA, and foreign intervention.

And call it “reverse jihad” — Libyan-Americans are heading back to their home country to fight Qaddafi.

Age wasn’t about to stop Libyan-American Ibrahim Elfirjani from joining the fight to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. So the 60-year-old owner of an auto repair shop left his home in Illinois and trekked to Libya to help the opposition on the frontlines of the conflict.

“I decided my birth country needs me today. … I’m an old man but I have energy to kick this dictator out,” Elfirjani, of Orland Park, Ill., told by phone from Libya, during a stop near the Egyptian border to pick up communications equipment for the rebel fighters. “My heart is still young … 25 years old.”

Elfirjani is one of an unknown number of Libyan-Americans who have journeyed home to join the fight against Gadhafi. While some have taken up weapons, others are helping in the humanitarian effort, working to create a transitional government or shuttling supplies to the rebels on the frontlines. Their participation comes with a risk: At least one Libyan-American man has been killed in the fighting.

UPDATE 3: Fareed Zakaria on limited interventions, and why they make more sense than buying the whole country.

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2 Responses to The CIA-Libya leak … or, aren’t we supposed to get intel before bombing stuff? **UPDATED**

  1. All quite right. Makes perfect sense.
    But it does seem kind of an ‘offensive’ posture rather than a ‘defending the civilians’ posture.
    All well-intentioned, I’m sure. But it is a slippery, oily slope.

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