Robert Gates: No US 'Boots on Ground' in Libya

Gates declined to comment on questions about CIA activities in Libya, apparently making the distinction between intelligence teams sent into there and uniformed military personnel. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Robert Gates: No US 'Boots on Ground' in Libya

US defence secretary denies American troops will be deployed to Libya, but stays silent on CIA role

Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, emphatically ruled out deploying American ground troops inside Libya as details emerged of CIA intelligence teams being sent to the country.

Gates, testifying before the House of Representatives armed services committee, repeatedly denied that there were any plans for American soldiers to go into Libya. "Not as long as I am in this job," he said at one point.

But he declined to comment on questions about CIA activities there, apparently making the distinction between intelligence teams sent into Libya and uniformed military personnel. "I can't speak to any CIA activities, but I will tell you that the president has been quite clear that in terms of the United States military there will be no boots on the ground," Gates said.

US newspaper reports have said the CIA teams working on the ground include agents who were posted to the embassy in Tripoli and others put into the country since the rebellion began. They have been acting as spotters to identify military targets for air strikes and cruise missiles. But they have also been gathering intelligence on the nature of the Libyan rebel leadership, who to some extent remain an unknown quantity to US political and military leaders.

It has also been revealed that Barack Obama has signed a secret order that paves the way for CIA help to the Libyan rebels. Known as a "finding", the order was signed within the last three weeks amid a fierce debate as to whether the US and its allies should start to arm and train the rebels.

Intelligence sources insisted that the sort of order signed by Obama did not yet authorise such a large operation. Further authorisations would be needed if that decision was ever taken, one US intelligence source said. "Rather than full go ahead, the idea is that there is a nuance to this process," the source told the Guardian.

Experts said there was little surprise that CIA teams, as well as British agents and special forces, were already operating in Libya given the scale of the military strikes and a lack of information about the rebels. "If the CIA does not exist for this purpose, then what's the point?" said Professor Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University, who has advised the CIA on counterterrorism.

Hoffman said deployment of the CIA carried risks as agents could be killed or captured. Such an incident could feed into fears of the US being drawn much more directly into the conflict. "There are so many unknowns that carry a range of dangers. But so far it seems a modest effort," Hoffman said.

Other intelligence experts said the CIA teams needed a clearer mission to be effective. Larry Johnson, an ex-CIA agent and former counterterrorism expert at the state department, said Obama had not been clear enough on what the goal of US involvement in Libya was and that could hamper CIA operations. Obama had said the US did not intend regime change by force but at the same timeinsisted that Muammar Gaddafi must step down. "What's the mission? The CIA is simply a tool and the tool can only be as effective as the policy behind it," Johnson said.

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