Mazzetti Talks About CIA Operations In Libya

Melissa Block talks with New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti about CIA operations in Libya.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

The U.S. and its allies are supporting Libyan rebels with air strikes. But the Obama administration says it has no intentions of providing American troops on the ground. What is becoming apparent, though, is that other Americans are on the ground in Libya and they're with the Central Intelligence Agency.

Joining us with more on this is New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. And, Mark, you're reporting tonight on CIA involvement in Libya. What have you learned?

Mr. MARK MAZZETTI (National Security Correspondent, New York Times): What we've learned is that several weeks ago the CIA put small teams of operatives into Libya to supplement some of the CIA operatives who have been working in the CIA station in Tripoli before they shutdown the embassy.

So, the CIA is now gathering information in the country to help the air strikes - the ongoing campaign of air strikes in Libya as well as both to sort of assist the rebels as well as to kind of vet them to find out just who these guys are. So, it's as much to gather intelligence about the rebels as it is to actively support them.

BLOCK: And this has certainly come into play because there is a lot of discussion now about whether the U.S. will, in fact, arm the rebels. And you're also reporting that President Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the CIA to do just that, although apparently it hasn't actually happened yet. Is that right?

Mr. MAZZETTI: That's right. This happened several weeks ago, sometime - perhaps in late February. And it's important to point out that this was also before the U.N. approved the no-fly zone, so before any military action. And it's possible that President Obama approved this to get things ready in case a covert campaign needed to be done without a military effort.

As we reported in today's paper, there is still this sort of fierce debate about whether to arm the rebels actively. So they have the authority to do it, yet the Obama administration has not signed off on it yet.

BLOCK: What are you learning about British involvement, British spies on the ground in Libya?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, the British role has been known for a bit of time because a team of British operatives were caught in early March by Libyans as they parachuted into the country. But what we learned today and the last couple of days is that there's a significant number of British Special Forces as well as MI6 intelligence operatives doing similar things. They're gathering intelligence for air strikes. They're directing some of the air strikes and they're also acting as sort of liaisons to the rebel forces.

BLOCK: And, Mark, what are some of the dangers of intelligence operations like this?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, like any kind of operations on the ground and you're having Americans in a hostile place, where there is not a declared American ground war if in fact a CIA operative were to be captured or killed, taken hostage, there are all sorts of risks for the Obama administration.

This is something that the Obama administration certainly wanted as it takes pains to say that it's stepping back from this military campaign. So, anytime you would have Americans put directly in danger, whether to the CIA or the military, poses risks for any president.

BLOCK: And the best estimate you have of the number of U.S. operatives right now in Libya?

Mr. MAZZETTI: I would say small numbers, perhaps no more than a couple dozen. Again, you don't need giant numbers in order to gather this intelligence. And they are presumably paying off Libyan sources as well to provide information as well. So it's a pretty small force.

BLOCK: New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. Mark, thanks so much.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Sure, thanks very much.

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