CIA Operatives Have Been on the Ground in Libya for Weeks

A Libyan rebel walking with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) flashes the victory sign as smoke billows from a distance in the eastern city of Ajdabiya on March 30, 2011. The first air strike in two days against Moamer Kadhafi's forces in the east was carried out near Ajdabiya, where rebels are sheltering after having been routed from their frontlines. AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS (Photo credit should read MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images/Getty

The CIA has placed covert operatives on the ground in Libya to gather intelligence for air strikes and reach out to rebels fighting Muammar Qaddafi's loyalists. Yesterday Reuters reported that President Obama had signed a secret order called a "finding" — the first step in authorizing a clandestine CIA mission. But officials now say it's been underway for weeks. When Obama first addressed the country about enforcing the U.N. resolution a little under two weeks ago, one of the parameters for U.S. involvement was no ground troops. Even as the coalition moved under NATO's leadership, Obama has insisted that the U.S. military will not deploy ground troops to Libya. Nonetheless, small groups of CIA operatives have been communicating and vetting rebels for weeks, "as part of a shadow force of Westerners that the Obama administration hopes can help bleed Colonel Qaddafi’s military," officials told the New York Times. The apparently not-so-secret finding was signed earlier this month.

Beyond the CIA presence, officials say the agency has been building a network of informants to support the coalition and help the U.S. assess the rebels. A number of American informants who worked at the agency's station in Tripoli, recent American arrivals, dozens of British special forces, and MI6 intelligence officers are working inside Libya. American officers have been trying to determine the location of Qaddafi's munitions depots and locate clusters of Qaddafi loyalists to figure out what communications and possibly weapons support is needed, as well as weaken Qaddafi's military to spur defections.

Officials cautioned that Western operatives aren't directing rebel forces, but meeting with them to understand who the rebel leaders are and the opposition's allegiances on the ground. The Dish's Andrew Sullivan, an Obama stalwart, broke ranks to criticize the strategy:

It's so surreal, so discordant with what the president has told the American people, so fantastically contrary to everything he campaigned on, that I will simply wait for more confirmation than this before commenting further. I simply cannot believe it. I know the president is not against all wars - just dumb ones. But could any war be dumber than this - in a place with no potential for civil society, wrecked by totalitarianism, riven by tribalism, in defense of rebels we do not know and who are clearly insufficient to the task?

Meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has encouraged aggressive response to the conflict, is being celebrated as the most popular man in Libya with French flags flying in Benghazi, a rebel stronghold. A sociologist inside the country writing from the blog Revolutionology reports shouts of:

“Sarkozy mia mia!” (Mia mia means, literally, “100%.” It’s a common expression meaning 'great.”)

“Thank you Sarkozy! Also, thank you Obama. Thank you Cameron.”

A rebel fighter in Ras Lanuf told the blogger, “If it weren’t for Sarkozy,” he said, “all these guys would be dead. So would the people of Benghazi.”

C.I.A. Agents in Libya Aid Airstrikes and Meet Rebels [NYT]
CIA Operatives Are Aiding Rebels [WSJ]
On The Latest From Libya [Andrew Sullivan/Dish]
Nicolas Sarkozy: The most popular man in Libya [Revolutionology]
Related: Reuters: Obama Secretly Authorized First Step Toward Covert U.S. Support for Libyan Rebels