Is Obama Trying to Scare Qaddafi Out of Libya?

With news of CIA involvement, consideration for arming the rebels, and the sudden departure of top regime officials, the U.S. may be clearing the way for the colonel's exit

Perhaps two of the organizations least known for leaking, the CIA and the Obama White House, the latter of which has made a special habit of prosecuting leakers, appear to have both leaked the same story at the same time to the New York Times and to Reuters, the latter of which cites four separate sources. Together, they report that President Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the clandestine operations in support of Libya's rebels, including Central Intelligence Agency agents on the ground but not including arms for the rebels. It's possible that these officials all decided to risk joining past leakers in prison, like Bradley Manning. It's possible they all made the decision simultaneously, apparently on the same day, though the finding is now two to three weeks old. And it's possible they all chose to reveal about the same level of detail. Such a leak would be nearly unprecedented in scale and coordination -- nearly all such leaks are made by lone individuals -- and, judging by the Obama Department of Justice's past response to leaks, would bring about a large and almost assuredly successful investigation.

All of these things are possible. But it's also possible that the leak was planned, as so many U.S. government leaks are. There are several reasons that administrations willingly leak secrets: a desire to release information without publicly owning it or associating it with the president, legal restrictions that make it impossible for the White House to publicly acknowledge a program, or simply wanting to give the appearance that something should be a secret without actually keeping it that way. All of these factors could be in play in a possible decision to let slip Obama's secret finding. Such a leak makes appear Obama more bullish on Libya without requiring him to explain the plan for this new secret authority. It wards off domestic pressure without actually engaging those pressuring him. It also prepares the American people for the possibility of clandestine actions without actually carrying them out or even promising to consider carrying them out. After all, though the finding's approval may be broad, very little appears to have actually been done with it. Arming the rebels, the first logical step in a serious clandestine commitment, doesn't have the necessary congressional approval.

Perhaps most significant of all, leaking news of the finding would send a clear and no doubt chilling message to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the remainders of his regime: if you allow this war to continue, you could go up against the CIA. This may not be the administration's only such signal to Qaddafi. Over the past week, Obama administration officials have appeared surprisingly willing to answer questions about whether the U.S. is arming the Libyan rebels, though the officials always give some variation of the same answer: not yet, but we haven't ruled it out, and we've got legal authority to do it, so we might. U.S. administrations, from Reagan's arming of the Contras through today, have been incredibly tight-lipped about CIA-led missions to arm rebel groups. That the Obama team has appeared not only willing but eager to discuss a program on which it has not yet even decided is incredibly unusual.

It's possible that all this talk of arming the rebels could be, like Wednesday's oddly synchronized leaks about the secret finding, a sort of warning for Qaddafi. After all, if our primary goal was really arming the rebels, we would probably just do it, and in total secret. As a former U.S. official who worked on Libyan issues told Yahoo News's Laura Rozen, "I think that if we do arm the rebels, we will never hear about it. ... The Libyan rebels have said they want training by the Egyptian military. They say they don't want Americans on the ground. The Egyptian military will give them stuff, some of which they've bought from us, it will be called technical assistance, that is how it's going to happen."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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