WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A key member of Congress came out strongly on Wednesday against supplying arms to the rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said no decision had been made.
Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee, declared his opposition to supplying arms to the rebels just before Clinton and three other senior U.S. officials went to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers about U.S. military operations in Libya.
A number of U.S. lawmakers have complained vociferously that they were not adequately consulted before the Obama administration joined in a multinational coalition conducting air strikes aimed at protecting civilian from attacks by Gaddafi’s forces this month.
Some of the lawmakers continued complaining about the mission after the classified, closed-door briefing on Wednesday with Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I don’t think we should be there (in Libya) at all,” said Republican Representative Dan Burton. “It sounds like they just jumped into this thing.”
Burton said the senior officials told lawmakers that arming the rebels was “something they’re going to think about.”
Clinton, emerging from the session, told reporters “no decision” had been made by the administration about whether to arm Libyan rebels, a step some analysts say could be a logical next phase of the war.
President Barack Obama says the objective of the U.S. and allied campaign is to apply steady pressure on the Libyan leader so he will ultimately step down from power.
Some lawmakers, such as Republican Senator John McCain, have called on Washington to arm the rebels. Obama has not rejected the option.
Rogers, whose position means he is briefed on intelligence matters, did rule it out — for now. He said not enough is known about the rebels, and the wrong decision could “come back to haunt us.”
“It’s safe to say what the rebels stand against, but we are a long way from an understanding of what they stand for,” Rogers said in his statement.
On Tuesday, NATO operations commander U.S. Admiral James Stavridis said intelligence has shown “flickers” of al Qaeda or Hezbollah presence among the Libyan rebels. Other U.S. officials denied these groups were significantly involved.
“We don’t have to look very far back in history to find examples of the unintended consequences of passing out advanced weapons to a group of fighters we didn’t know as well as we should have,” Rogers said. “Even if you think you know them, you can’t guarantee that those weapons won’t later fall into the hands of bad actors.”
The United States helped arm guerrillas against Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan in the 1980s, only to have some of the fighters later join the Taliban now battling U.S. forces.
Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who is testing the waters for a run at the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, said he is open to sending arms to the Libyan rebels. He said Obama put U.S. prestige on the line by saying Gaddafi “must go” but not setting in motion a way for it to happen.
“So I would personally be open to arming the rebels. How we do that and what level of capacity has to be thought through. But we can’t have a situation where we say Gaddafi must go and he sticks around,” Pawlenty said after a political appearance in Ohio.
Clinton said on Tuesday that arming the rebels was allowed under the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the military intervention in Libya.
“Arming the Libyan rebels is a logical next step if the goal is Gaddafi’s fall,” said Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.
“However, it increases the political risks, as the Libyan rebels are not a known group (and) it increases coalition ‘ownership’ of the problem, making it harder to walk away should additional problems emerge,” Byman said.
While Britain appears to be open to the idea of arming the rebels, France is more cautious. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe says a new U.N. resolution would be required.
Additional reporting by Missy Ryan and Steve Holland; editing by Doina Chiacu and Mohammad Zargham