WASHINGTON // While the White House debates whether to arm rebels battling Muammar Qaddafi's troops, US officials have acknowledged that the CIA has sent small teams of operatives into Libya and helped rescue a crew member of a US fighter jet that crashed.
Losses on the battlefield have fed the US belief that the poorly equipped opposition probably is unable to oust Col Qaddafi without decisive Western intervention, a US intelligence official said.
Still, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said on Wednesday: "No decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any groups in Libya. We're not ruling it out or ruling it in."
The CIA's precise role in Libya is not clear. Intelligence experts said the CIA would have sent officials to make contact with the opposition and assess the strength and needs of the rebel forces in the event the US president, Barack Obama, decided to arm them.
A US official and a former US intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, revealed the CIA's involvement in Libya after the agency was forced to close its station in Tripoli.
They said the 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.
The former intelligence officer said some CIA officers had been staging from the agency's station in Dubai.
The New York Times first reported the CIA had sent in groups of operatives and British operatives were directing airstrikes.
Mr Obama said in a national address on Tuesday that US troops would not be used on the ground in Libya. The statement allowed for wiggle room as the president explores options in case he decides to use covert action to ship arms to the rebels and train them.
In that event, the CIA would take the lead, as it has done in the past such as in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks and the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. In those covert action programmes, CIA officers along with special operation forces were sent in, providing arms to opposition forces to help fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
The top NATO commander, US navy Adm James Stavridis, has said he's seen "flickers" of al Qa'eda and Hizbollah among the rebels, but no evidence of significant numbers within the political opposition group's leadership.
James Clapper, the US intelligence chief, has compared the rebel forces to a "pick-up basketball team". He indicated that intelligence has identified a few questionable individuals within the rebel ranks but no significant presence, according to legislators.