WASHINGTON >> The CIA has sent small teams of operatives into Libya after the agency’s station in the capital was forced to close, and officers assisted in the rescue one of the two crew members of an F-15E Strike Eagle that crashed, an American official and a former U.S. intelligence officer told The Associated Press today.
The agency’s precise role in Libya is unclear. 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 battling Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in the event President Barack Obama decided to arm them.
The American official and the former U.S. intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the CIA helped safely recover the fighter jet’s weapons specialist, who was first picked up by rebels. 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 of the crash March 21. The crew ejected after the aircraft malfunctioned during a mission against a Libyan missile site.
The former intelligence officer said some CIA officers also 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.
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.