- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The CIA has sent small teams of operatives into Libya and helped rescue a crew member of a U.S. fighter jet that crashed, and the White House said Wednesday it was assessing “all types of assistance” for rebels battling Moammar Gadhafi’s troops.

Battlefield setbacks are hardening the U.S. view that the poorly equipped opposition probably is incapable of prevailing without decisive Western intervention, a senior U.S. intelligence official told the Associated Press.

Lawmakers, in private briefings with top Obama administration officials, asked tough questions about the cost of the military operation and expressed concern about the makeup of the rebels.

Members of Congress quoted officials as saying the U.S. military role would be limited, and heard President Obama’s director of national intelligence compare the rebel forces to a “pickup basketball team.”

“No decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any groups in Libya,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “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 Mr. Obama decided to arm them.

An American official and a former U.S. intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, told the AP about the CIA’s involvement in Libya after the agency was forced to close its station in Tripoli, the capital.

They said 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.

They suffered only minor injuries, the military has said. Officials have declined to say what mission the F-15 was on at the time it went down. The crew ejected after the aircraft malfunctioned during a mission against a Libyan missile site.

The former intelligence officer said some CIA officers had been staging from the agency’s station in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

The New York Times first reported the CIA had sent in groups of CIA operatives and that British operatives were directing airstrikes.

Mr. Obama said in a national address Monday night that U.S. 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. That would require a presidential finding.

In that event, the CIA would take the lead, as it has done in the past such as in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. In those covert action programs, 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.

Col. Gadhafi’s land forces outmatch the opposition by a wide margin and are capable of threatening the civilian resistance, said the senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Lawmakers met with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, and intelligence head James Clapper

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