Washington: The United States and Britain have inserted covert intelligence agents into Libya to make contact with rebels and to gather data to guide coalition air strikes, a report said on Wednesday.
The White House refused to comment on the apparent shadow war in Libya, and also declined to discuss another report that President Barack Obama had signed a secret order allowing Central Intelligence Agency operations in the country.
A senior US official did, however, warmly welcome the defection to Britain of Libyan Foreign Minister Mussa Kussa, interpreting his flight as a sign that Muammar Gaddafi's inner circle was beginning to crumble under massive pressure.
The New York Times said the CIA had inserted clandestine agents into Libya to gather data for airstrikes and establish links with rebels, who on Wednesday lost a swathe of captured territory to Gaddafi loyalists.
Obama has insisted no American ground troops will be deployed in the bid to shield civilians in Libya. But the Times said small groups of American covert agents had been conducting missions inside Libya for several weeks.
It also cited current and former British officials as saying dozens of British special forces and MI6 secret intelligence service agents were also on the ground in Libya collecting data on government forces and weaponry.
ABC News, meanwhile, reported that Obama's presidential order, or "finding", authorised covert CIA operations to "aid the effort" in Libya.
Such presidential orders set down a legal framework for conducting covert actions and would generally be required before the launch of clandestine missions.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to confirm or deny the reports, citing "common practice" not to comment on intelligence matters.
"I will reiterate what the President said yesterday -- no decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any group in Libya. We're not ruling it out or ruling it in," said Carney.
"We're assessing and reviewing options for all types of assistance that we could provide to the Libyan people, and have consulted directly with the opposition and our international partners about these matters."
Intense debate is taking place within the administration, in Congress and between the United States and its coalition partners over the idea of arming rebels in Libya.
Some opponents worry about the leanings of some fighters, especially since NATO's top commander Admiral James Stavridis said on Tuesday that while most rebels were "responsible”, some showed "flickers" of al Qaeda or Hezbollah sympathies.
Senior Obama administration officials have said for several days that senior Gaddafi cohorts knew he was on borrowed time and were beginning to consider their positions, but there had been little evidence to support their claims.
But their hopes that Gaddafi's regime could fall got a huge boost late Wednesday with the dramatic flight to Britain by Kussa, a former Libyan intelligence chief, who said he was resigning.
"This is a very significant defection and an indication that people around Gaddafi think the writing's on the wall," a senior US administration official said on condition of anonymity.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, pressed on with its effort to justify and explain its tactics in the Libyan mission.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and the top uniformed US officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, conducted classified briefings on Capitol Hill.
Many lawmakers, especially Republicans, have complained they were not sufficiently consulted about the Libya operation before Obama launched it two weeks ago and have raised sharp questions about US strategy.
Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, said the question of possibly arming Libyan rebels needed deep thought.
"It needs cautious consideration and this administration has proceeded with caution generally and I'm sure they will on this one as well," he said.
Influential Democratic Senator John Kerry said that it was clear that the hard-pressed rebels needed "need some kind of assistance”.
Veteran Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg weighed in on Gaddafi's fate amid suggestions he could seek exile, and reflected sentiments of his New Jersey home state where some of the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing lived.
"My personal wish is that Gaddafi leaves in a box," Lautenberg said.
First Published: Thursday, March 31, 2011, 11:54