Reports: Obama secretly authorized CIA action in Libya, Al Qaeda may be looking to join rebels

The authorization isn’t very recent, either. According to sources, it was “within the last two or three weeks.” Which is interesting for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that coalition operations are only 12 days old. Was the CIA working on regime change before we’d even committed to the UN effort? Did Sarkozy and Cameron know about the CIA’s role when they signed onto the coalition or will they be blindsided by this? And what happens now to the political dynamics in Libya and abroad when Qaddafi starts screeching that he was right all along about the rebellion being a secret mission by the satanic crusader American government to blah blah blah blah?

Here’s a better question, actually. Why, oh why, is this being leaked? Reuters has no fewer than four U.S. officials confirming that the order was signed. Did they leak because they’re alarmed that the mission is quietly being escalated below the radar or are they coming clean about it as cover for Obama, so that he doesn’t look underhanded later if/when the fact of CIA involvement is discovered by the press? Better to get this info out when the mission is still young and people are still forming opinions about it than to surprise them later.

People familiar with U.S. intelligence procedures said that Presidential covert action “findings” are normally crafted to provide broad authorization for a range of potential U.S. government actions to support a particular covert objective.

In order for specific operations to be carried out under the provisions of such a broad authorization — for example the delivery of cash or weapons to anti-Gaddafi forces — the White House also would have to give additional “permission” allowing such activities to proceed.

Former officials say these follow-up authorizations are known in the intelligence world as “‘Mother may I’ findings.”…

Because U.S. and allied intelligence agencies still have many questions about the identities and leadership of anti-Gaddafi forces, any covert U.S. activities are likely to proceed cautiously until more information about the rebels can be collected and analyzed, officials said.

If I understand the article correctly, no “Mother may I” finding has been filed yet. He’s given the CIA the green light to conduct some sort of action, be it propaganda, funding, training, or beyond, but they’re still busy sizing up the rebels before jumping in. Which brings us to this bitter pill that’s just breaking at the Daily Beast. The fact that this story is coming out literally within an hour of Reuters’s story about the CIA order is making me woozy:

As the battle for the future of Libya continues, the excitement is almost palpable among Libyan-born al Qaeda fighters and other Arabs hunkered down in Pakistan’s remote and lawless tribal area. According to Afghan Taliban sources close to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group, some of the 200 or so Libyans operating near the Afghan border may be on their way home to steer the anti-Gaddafi revolution in a more Islamist direction.

Now, as the White House and NATO continue to debate the possible ramifications of arming the Libyan opposition, the Haqqani network-linked Afghan commander says Libyan al Qaeda affiliates seem to be more “enthusiastic” about the war against Gaddafi every day. And from what the Afghan Taliban commander has seen, there appears to be more than “flickers” of al Qaeda’s presence in Libya, the description given by NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis. According to the Afghan commander, al Qaeda fighters can’t believe their good luck that U.S. and NATO aircraft—the same forces that have dropped bombs on their heads in Afghanistan and Pakistan—are now raining down ordnance against Gaddafi.

Eli Lake of the Washington Times reported last night that up to 1,000 “freelance” jihadis may already be among the Libyan rebels’ rank and file. If the movement’s hospitable to them, AQ might figure there’s a place for them too. Or maybe the AQ story is propaganda drummed up by the Taliban to embarrass the U.S. and inflate Al Qaeda’s role in this year’s Middle East turmoil. Supposedly, even most-wanted Libyan-born Al Qaeda kingpin Abu Yahya al-Libi might eventually head home to spearhead the new Islamist movement inside the country, although I tend to doubt it now that everyone knows that the CIA’s operating in the area.

If that’s not enough good news for you for one day, let’s try one more piece. This time it’s the AP’s turn to ring the alarm bell:

Fresh battlefield setbacks by rebels seeking to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi are hardening a U.S. view that the poorly equipped opposition is probably incapable of prevailing without decisive Western intervention — either an all-out U.S.-led military assault on regime forces or a decision to arm the rebels.

Gadhafi is reaching deeper into his military ranks to send reinforcements onto the battlefield, has adopted new, unconventional tactics to counter the effects of coalition airstrikes, and apparently is convinced he can retain power by gradually retaking a degree of control of eastern Libya, a senior U.S. intelligence official said Wednesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence on the condition and capabilities of regime and rebel forces…

Helping propel the Gadhafi forces eastward was a change in battlefield tactics, the senior U.S. intelligence official said. Having seen much of their armor pounded by Western airstrikes earlier, Gadhafi commanders left many tanks and other armor in hiding places in Sirte and advanced eastward instead with small convoys of sedans, minivans, SUVs and other civilian vehicles that the official called “battle wagons” armed with small rockets and other weaponry.

In other words, knowing that his heavy weaponry was a target for NATO and also knowing that he could beat the rebels without it, Qaddafi decided to … beat them without it. Your move, coalition.

Needless to say, there’s precisely zero chance of Obama putting U.S. troops on the ground to oust Qaddafi, especially with fears growing about jihadist elements on the rebel side. It would mean the end of his presidency; even his, ahem, “anti-war” base, most of which has duly defended him for staging this intervention thus far, would desert him if American soldiers end up dying on the streets of Tripoli. So clearly, per O’s secret order, we’re going to start arming the rebels in earnest and doing what we can to force them to vet their own side for jihadis. In fact, maybe we’ll end up making a little trade with them: For each wanted terrorist they hand over, they get a few extra RPGs. It’ll be like a promotional giveaway.

I’ve got a few updates coming, but let’s stop here for the moment. My head is spinning.

Update: How dependent are the rebels already on western air cover for their advances? Quote:

By Tuesday afternoon, it was the rebels’ turn to flee again — in a tangled, panicked traffic jam of gun trucks and civilian cars — as Gaddafi’s forces pounded them once again with a barrage of missile fire and sniper shots. It was a familiar scene, and Bin Jawad may yet become a most familiar front line. “They hit us with a Grad missile,” says Ali Adel Sherif, 19, whose friend was carried into the emergency room in the nearby town of Ras Lanuf on a stretcher, his face and arms bloodied by shrapnel. “It came from behind us in the hills and we could hear sniper fire.”

There was another factor. While there were reports of allied air strikes, TIME saw no sign of fighter-jet support as incoming shells from Gaddafi’s loyalists rained down on the rebels. “Sarkozy betrayed us,” shouted one man on Tuesday afternoon, referring to the French President whose aircraft saved Benghazi from almost certain reconquest by Gaddafi last week. “There are no airplanes,” screamed another.

Well, no, technically, Sarkozy didn’t betray anyone. The point of the airstrikes according to the UN resolution is to protect civilians, not blow holes in Qaddafi’s front lines. Funny how even the guys on the ground are confused about that. More from AFP:

Panicked rebels called for air strikes as they fled in their hundreds eastwards through Uqayla, where they briefly regrouped, then on to Brega, where they also halted temporarily before charging to the main city of Ajdabiya, 120 kilometres away.

“We want two things: that the planes drop bombs on Kadhafi’s tanks and heavy artillery; and that they (the West) give us weapons so we can fight,” rebel fighter Yunes Abdelghaim told AFP.

The 27-year-old, who was holding a Russian AK-47 assault rifle and French flag, said it seemed as if the coalition had halted its air strikes for two days coinciding with a London conference on the Libyan crisis.

“We want the French to bomb the (Kadhafi) soldiers,” said another fighter, Ali Atia al-Faturi, as the sound of shelling and gunfire grew louder.

Update: Beaten to the punch by Reuters, the NYT files its own story about CIA agents operating inside Libya.

The Central Intelligence Agency has inserted clandestine operatives into Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and make contacts with rebels battling Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces, according to American officials…

The C.I.A. presence comprises an unknown number of American officers who had worked at the spy agency’s station in Tripoli and those who arrived more recently. In addition, current and former British officials said, dozens of British special forces and MI6 intelligence officers are working inside Libya. The British operatives have been directing airstrikes from British Tornado jets and gathering intelligence about the whereabouts of Libyan government tank columns, artillery pieces, and missile installations, the officials said.

By meeting with rebel groups, the Americans hope to fill in gaps in understanding who the leaders are of the groups opposed Colonel Qaddafi, and what their allegiances are, according to United States government officials speaking only on condition of anonymity because the actions of C.I.A. operatives are classified. The C.I.A. has declined to comment.

What if they info they glean about opposition leaders indicates that they’ll be hostile to the U.S. once in power, might shelter terrorists, etc? Does that change our strategy going forward? Realistically it can’t: We’re not going to pull out after Obama’s rhetoric about preventing a massacre in Benghazi, no matter how distasteful and counterproductive to American aims some of the rebels might be.

Update: Here’s Paul Wolfowitz last night on CNN encouraging the White House to formally recognize the Libyan opposition, even though, er, the CIA apparently still isn’t done vetting them yet. It pains me to say it, but Tom Friedman may have identified the most crucial component of this war right now: Luck.