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March 29, 2011

White House: No Decision to Arm Rebels; Obama Considering All Options

by Dan Robinson

The White House says no decision has been made to provide arms to rebel forces in Libya, but says President Obama is considering all options to help the Libyan people.  A White House statement late Wednesday came amid reports Obama approved a secret authorization in recent weeks for covert efforts to support international actions to protect civilians from attack by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

News reports late Wednesday quoting unidentified U.S. government sources said President Obama signed an order, known as a presidential finding, within the last two or three weeks to clear the way for a range of possible actions.

Approval of a finding does not necessarily mean weapons are now flowing to Libyan rebels, who on Wednesday were reported to have withdrawn from a key coastal town under attack by Gadhafi forces.

The president would also have to sign off on specific actions, and there was no immediate indication that this had occurred.

In addition, The New York Times also quoting unidentified officials, said the CIA has put an unknown number of operatives into Libya to gather intelligence and make contact with anti-Gadhafi rebels.

The newspaper said the CIA declined comment on the report, which also quoted what it called current and former British officials as saying British special forces and intelligence officers were in Libya.

CNN quoted a U.S. intelligence source as confirming a CIA presence in Libya to increase "military and political understanding" of the situation there.

In his major speech on Libya this week, President Obama said there would be no effort to oust the Libyan leader by military means.  But he has said that supplying arms to opponents of Mr. Gadhafi remains a possibility.

In response to media inquiries, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement noting it was common practice to decline comment on intelligence matters.  

Carney reiterated what Mr. Obama said in television interviews the previous day, that no decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or any group in Libya.

However, Carney said this is not being ruled out or in, adding that the administration "is and reviewing options for all types of assistance that we could provide to the Libyan people, and have consulted directly with the opposition and our international partners about these matters."

Earlier in the White House news briefing, Carney responded this way to reporters asking what specific considerations President Obama is wrestling with regarding any potential decision to provide other than non-lethal assistance to rebels.

"The broader question of assistance to the opposition is one that we are looking at very closely," said Carney. "We are coordinating with the opposition and exploring ways we can assist them with non-lethal assistance and we will look at other possibilities of assistance as we move forward."

Carney said Mr. Obama is committed not just to quick action, but making the right choices for the long-term.  The president, he added, is not going to rush into anything without carefully considering desired outcomes and how U.S. help can be most effective.

Reporters noted that conditions on the ground in Libya have changed even since President Obama's major speech on Libya this past Monday, with rebels losing ground to Gadhafi forces.

On concerns about possible al-Qaida influence or presence among Libyan rebel forces, Carney said the U.S. and partners in the international coalition continue to evaluate the makeup of the Libyan opposition.

News of the reported presidential finding came as administration officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the military Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper briefed U.S. lawmakers on Libya.