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CIA Secretly at Work Inside Libya

A Libyan rebel scans the field as they wait for the signal to advance at an intersection just outside Brega, April 3, 2011
A Libyan rebel scans the field as they wait for the signal to advance at an intersection just outside Brega, April 3, 2011

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Published reports say CIA officers are at work inside Libya.  But just what they are doing is not clear and, in keeping with practice, the CIA would not comment on the reports.  The Obama administration has said it has not yet decided whether to arm the Libyan rebels.  But, there is much the CIA may be doing in Libya short of that.

Analysts say it should come of no surprise that the CIA is already at work in Libya.  Reva Bhalla, Middle East analyst for the private intelligence firm, Stratfor, says gathering intelligence is the most basic function of the CIA.

"Obviously when you have a military campaign like this under way you’re going to need people on the ground, painting [identifying] targets for air strikes, [and] not only on the military aspect but just in trying to figure out just who is the opposition - who are they actually dealing with, are there any viable leaders who show the potential for unifying this very fractious country," said Bhalla.

Beyond gathering intelligence

According to published accounts, an unknown number of CIA officers, along with British intelligence and special forces counterparts, are working with the Libyan rebels.  The CIA has its own paramilitary component, known as the Special Activities Division.  But what the CIA might be doing in Libya beyond just gathering intelligence is unclear.

By all accounts, the Libyan rebels are poorly trained and equipped.  They made some advances, but have been pushed back by Libyan army counterattacks. The Obama administration has said it has not yet decided to arm the Libyan rebels, but has said firmly it will not send in U.S. ground troops, preferring to stick with the enforcement of the no-fly zone.

Offering what he says are personal views, former senior CIA officer Emile Nakhleh says it is likely the CIA is providing some form of non-lethal assistance to the rebels, especially in terms of communications and organization.

"They probably would provide them with communications gear, from the most basic walkie-talkies to a bit more advanced cellular telephones," said Nakhleh. "Two, they might perhaps help train them in how to attack or how to anticipate Gadhafi’s attacks.  I mean, the fact is, they’re just a bunch of ragtag enthusiastic opposition people to the regime but have no idea even of how to organize."

Nakhleh believes, however, that there is nothing stopping CIA officers from training the rebels on captured weapons.

"We would need to train them how to use the weapons they have already captured from the Gadhafi forces. Some of them have captured some of these rockets and they don’t know how to fire them.  So we can, I think, do all kinds of things before, even way below, the level of arming them with U.S. arms," said the former CIA officer.

But many analysts believe that for the rebels to turn the tide back in their favor, they will need sophisticated weapons, such as those the U.S. provided to Afghan rebels fighting Soviet occupation in the 1980s - and specialized training on how to use them.

Secret authorization

According to published accounts quoting Obama administration sources, President Barack Obama signed a secret authorization, known as a presidential “finding,” authorizing possible future training and arming of the rebels.

But such a program carries great risks.  In 1961, a CIA-trained force made an unsuccessful attempt to land at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba and topple Fidel Castro.  It was a humiliation for the then-new president, John F. Kennedy.

In the 1980s, the CIA, in concert with Pakistan, armed and trained anti-Soviet Afghan rebels. The rebels, known as mujahedin, drove the Soviet army out, but many of their members went on to form the nucleus of the Taliban and al-Qaida. And many of the sophisticated weapons the mujahedin received, such as shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles, were unaccounted for at war’s end.

Reva Bhalla says the governments involved in the anti-Gadhafi coalition are worried about both a kind of Bay of Pigs in the desert, where the rebels are defeated, and possible infiltration of the rebels by radical Islamists.

"I think that’s the biggest question that’s on the minds of many of these governments because it just isn’t clear," said Bhalla.  "This is not a very sophisticated or militarily capable opposition force.  And then there’s the concern of whether some of the more Islamist militant types are mixed in within this opposition.  And if they’re going to be moved to arm and supply these rebels, is that something that is going to have serious blowback down the line.

What the CIA actually ends up doing in Libya may never be publicly known.  But, as former CIA officers have pointed out, the larger an operation, the more difficult it is to keep it secret.

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