Although the administration has pledged that no U.S. ground troops will be deployed to Libya, officials said Wednesday that President Obama has issued a secret finding that would authorize the CIA to carry out a clandestine effort to provide arms and other support to Libyan opposition groups.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, insisted that no decision has been made.
In the face of a new onslaught by government troops, rebel forces fled eastward Wednesday from cities and towns they had captured just days ago. But Gaddafi suffered a political defeat with the defection to Britain of his foreign minister, Musa Kusa, the most senior official to break ranks since the coalition bombing campaign began nearly two weeks ago.
House and Senate lawmakers briefed in a closed-door session by top administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, said they received a picture of mixed progress on the ground in Libya.
The headlong rebel retreat through the oil hubs of Ras Lanuf and Brega, en route to the strategic city of Ajdabiya, demonstrated the limits of their fighting ability against the superior firepower and military organization of Gaddafi loyalists. It also underscored how dependent the anti-Gaddafi forces have become on airstrikes and missile attacks by the Western-led coalition.
“Our volunteer forces in the front have only got light weapons and are facing a very large military might,” said a rebel spokesman, Col. Ahmad Bani. The largely untrained and poorly organized force lacks anti-tank and other heavy weapons.
Bani called on NATO forces to intervene more forcefully, although a U.S. military official said coalition airstrikes, including attacks by U.S. AC-130 gunships, had continued apace in combat areas along the Libyan coast, with 32 U.S. and 23 coalition airstrikes in the 12-hour period through midday in Libya.
Administration officials said U.S. participation in the strikes would subside rapidly once NATO formally takes overall command this week of all aspects of the operation.
Officials said they saw Libyan government gains during the day as temporary and part of the “fluid” back and forth of the ground combat. But they did not dispute the likelihood that the rebels will need more equipment and training to prevail, increasing the pressure to find out more about the opposition.
Several lawmakers briefed by Clinton, Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they were told that the United States is still trying to put together a full picture of the Libyan rebellion but believes that it does not contain large numbers of radical Islamic militants.