Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to Capitol Hill Wednesday to brief members of Congress about the U.S.participation in military operations to protect civilians in Libya. The briefing came just as media reports surfaced that President Barack Obama has signed a secret presidential finding authorizing covert operations to aid the efforts of the rebels fighting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's army.
President Obama dispatched some of his top level cabinet members to Capitol Hill to try to dampen the anger expressed by many lawmakers that Congress was not adequately consulted over U.S. military activities in Libya. The briefing was closed to the press, but open to all members of Congress.
After the briefing on the House side, Gates and Clinton left without comment. Reporters seized the chance to ask the lawmakers who stepped up to the microphone whether or not the U.S. would begin to provide arms to the Libyan rebels, who now appear to be in retreat from Mr. Gadhafi's better-equipped and better-organized army. None of them would comment about any possible covert operations, saying that would be classified information.
But earlier Wednesday, one key Republican House leader spoke out and said that he opposes providing arms to the Libyan rebels until the U.S. knows more about them. Republican House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said in a statement that the United States needs "to be very careful before rushing into a decision that could come back to haunt us." He said it is safe to say what the rebels stand against, but he does not really know what they stand for, and pointed out there can be unintended consequnces of providing arms to a group that is not well known.
Democratic Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland said he did not believe Libyan rebels have requested arms. "Well the first thing, I don't believe the rebels have asked to be armed because I have been to Libya, I have met with Ghadhafi, there is a tremendous amount of ammunition all over Libya. There are over 20,000 manpads [man-portable air-defense systems, commonly known as shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles], and the opposition has been able to secure a lot of this. Now whether they know how to use it, that is another issue."
In an interview late Tuesday with NBC news, President Obama said he is not ruling out arming Libyan rebels, but said he has also not made a decision to arm them. He says right now coalition forces are degrading Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces' capabilities.
"One of the questions that we want to answer is 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 are not taking anything off the table at this point. Our primary military goal is to protect civilian populations and to set up the no-fly zone. Our primary strategic goal is for Khaddafi to step down so that the Libyan people have an opportunity to live a decent life," the president said.
Republican Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana was furious that President Obama did not consult Congress before starting the military action in Libya, and was not placated by Wednesday's high-level briefing. Asked if he knew how long U.S. forces would be in Libya, he vented his frustration, echoing the anger of many Republcian lawmakers.
"They did not give any time. They just said the United States is turning this over to NATO, and we will not have boots in the ground and we will not have forces involved. The fact is, we are a big part of NATO. It is impossible for us not to be involved if NATO is involved," Burton said.
Even some Democratic lawmakers said the president should have asked Congress to authorize U.S. military action in Libya, saying they probably would have approved it due to the strong humanitarian reasons for the action. But many expresed concerns about the costs of military action, at a time when Congress is already locked in a fierce battle over how much to cut domestic government spending. Lawmakers said the costs of the U.S. military operation in Libya are estimated to amount to about $40 million a month.