Pentagon Officials Face Scrutiny From Congress

Pentagon leaders testified on Capitol Hill about military operations in Libya. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were met with skepticism by both Democrats and Republicans on the Libyan operation. The overriding question: How long will it take?

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The military intervention in Libya came under attack today on Capitol Hill from both parties. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joints Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen spent the day explaining and defending the mission to lawmakers.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN: The long missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were on the minds of many lawmakers today, now at Libya. The committee's chairman, Congressman Buck McKeon, a California Republican, got right to the point with Defense Secretary Gates.

Representative BUCK McKEON (Republican, California): How long do you anticipate our military mission will last?

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): The military mission is a limited one and does not include regime change. Personally, I felt strongly about that. We've tried regime change before, and sometimes it's worked, and sometimes it's taken 10 years.

BOWMAN: So if the United States isn't willing to topple Libya's leader, Moammar Gadhafi, through force, it may have to settle for another long war. Already, the Pentagon has spent more than a half billion dollars on the Libyan operation, and Gates couldn't say how long the U.S. military will be part of the NATO effort. Gates and Mullen kept repeating that NATO allies are now in the lead and not the U.S.

Here's Admiral Mullen.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): NATO has evolved in ways where they are really contributing significant amount of capability in four aspects of this mission: no-fly zone, arms embargo, civilian protection and humanitarian assistance. And I think they will continue to do that.

BOWMAN: Mullen said the U.S. now will play more of a supporting role, providing such things as refueling planes and communications aircraft. But while the military is reducing its role, others in the U.S. government are playing a bigger part.

NPR and other news organizations are reporting that CIA operatives are now on the ground. They'll train Libyan rebels, call in airstrikes and maybe provide weapons.

Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland reminded Gates that a similar effort worked in overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Representative ROSCOE BARTLETT (Republican, Maryland): Do you see the use of CIA and U.S. Special Forces in Libya as following the blueprint we used in Afghanistan?

Sec. GATES: 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.

BOWMAN: Just not military boots. All day, Secretary Gates tried to limit what he talked about to the military's role, which he hopes is on a decline. But the legislators wouldn't let him. Democratic Congressman Rob Andrews of New Jersey pushed Gates to define success beyond the military for the entire U.S. government.

Representative ROB ANDREWS (Democrat, New Jersey): What would that look like?

Sec. GATES: Well, I think a policy success would be the removal of the Gadhafi regime and at least the beginnings of the emergence of a, more or less, democratic government in Tripoli.

BOWMAN: What kind of government might come to power after Gadhafi is anyone's guess. NATO's military commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, told Congress this week the Libyan rebels may include some members with ties to al-Qaida. Congressman Bartlett asked Gates about that.

Rep. BARTLETT: Sir, are we now aiding and abetting the same organizations that we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Sec. GATES: To be honest, other than a relative handful of leaders, we don't have much visibility into those who have risen against Gadhafi.

BOWMAN: Gates said the opposition, whoever they are, needs military training and a working command structure.

Sec. GATES: It's pretty much a pick-up ballgame at this point.

BOWMAN: So that's were things stand. The administration supports rebels it doesn't really know. Success is defined as the end of the Gadhafi regime, but the military isn't authorized to topple it, instead it hopes that economic and political isolation will cause the regime to fall. That's why Congressman Andrews asked this question.

Rep. ANDREWS: Do you have any sense of what the plan B would be if this one doesn't work?

Sec. GATES: I think keeping the pressure on Gadhafi has merit and is a worthy objective on its own.

BOWMAN: A worthy objective with no timetable.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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