CIA officers are on the ground in Libya, coordinating with rebels and sharing intelligence, U.S. officials say, but the Obama administration has not yet decided whether to take the further step of providing weapons to those trying to oust Moammar Kadafi.
The issue of whether to provide the ragtag rebel forces with arms has been controversial in Washington. On Wednesday, two key lawmakers — a Republican and a Democrat — came out against the idea.
"We don't have to look very far back in history to find examples of the unintended consequences of passing out advanced weapons to a group of fighters we didn't know as well as we should have," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), in an apparent reference to U.S. aid to Afghan guerrillas fighting the Soviet Union during the Carter and Reagan administrations.
"We need to be very careful before rushing into a decision that could come back to haunt us," said Rogers, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee and who has supported the U.S. intervention in Libya so far.
Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, echoed that in an interview. "I think at this point we need more information," he said. "We don't know enough about who they are."
Rogers issued his statement shortly before a meeting of the committee in which administration officials briefed congressional leaders about the status of CIA activities in Libya. Later Wednesday, the White House issued a statement repeating that "no decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any group in Libya."
The White House had no comment on a report by Reuters that said President Obama had signed a presidential finding authorizing secret aid to the rebels within the last three weeks.
U.S. officials familiar with covert actions noted that a presidential finding can authorize a variety of steps that may or may not ultimately be taken. Members of Congress who would have been briefed on the finding would neither confirm nor deny its existence on Wednesday.
The CIA has been in rebel-held areas of Libya since shortly after the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Tripoli, was evacuated in February, U.S. officials say. Agency officials have been meeting with rebels to learn more about them, and in some cases they are providing them with information about Kadafi's forces.
The CIA officers in Libya are part of a contingent of operatives from Western nations. The public got a hint of the activity March 6, when several British special forces officers and a member of the intelligence service were detained by rebels and released.
In the early days of the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, teams of CIA officers and U.S. special operations troops entered secretly, coordinated with opposition groups and used handheld equipment to call in and aim airstrikes against the government armies. In Afghanistan, that was enough to topple the Taliban.
In Libya, the U.S. has been leading an international effort to protect civilians by enforcing a no-fly zone and bombing Libya's military forces, but the coalition says it has not been coordinating with the rebels seeking to oust Kadafi's government. Rebel leaders, however, have said they are in contact with allied military representatives in Europe to help commanders identify targets for the air assault.
The CIA sees no significant role being played by Islamic extremists among the rebels, U.S. officials say, but a NATO admiral told Congress this week that there were "flickers" of Al Qaeda sympathizers among the movement.
Obama has made clear that the U.S. has not ruled out providing military assistance to the opposition. The rebels have been routed in recent days by Kadafi's better-armed forces, even as allied warplanes are bombing Kadafi's tanks and ammunition storage depots.
House members said the issue of arming the rebels did not come up at their meeting. The White House is required to notify Congress when the president authorizes covert action, but it only has to tell a small group known as the "Gang of Eight," made up of members of the party leadership and leaders of the intelligence oversight committees. On Wednesday, officials briefed a larger group of lawmakers.
Lisa Mascaro, Peter Nicholas and David S. Cloud in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.