Slippery-slope syndrome: With the CIA ‘finding,’ how deep is the U.S. wading into Libya’s civil war?

It's an old question, but we've been through enough of these interventions now -- from Vietnam to Kosovo to Afghanistan -- to insist on asking it once again: Is the United States on a slippery slope in Libya, one that will lead to American military involvement on the ground? The evidence, on balance, is that under President Obama the U.S. presence is going to expand quickl -- but covertly.

Intelligence experts both in and out of government caution that there is a long way to go, and that Obama is a very deliberative president who is informed by a half-century of mission creep dating back to Vietnam. One U.S. official who spoke to National Journal about the covert "finding" signed recently by Obama emphasized that it mainly authorizes contacts with, and intelligence gathering on, the Libyan opposition, and that a more robust assistance program requires yet another presidential decision. "It's a nonlethal finding. Nothing goes boom," said Vince Cannistraro, a former head of operations at the CIA's counterterrorism center who used to process such findings at the National Security Council -- and who spent a good part of his career dealing with Libya under Moammar Gadhafi. "It doesn't authorize any guns or arms. It's things like radios, cell phones."

Beyond that, the Obama administration has been extremely careful to take a step-by-step approach to Libya, often following the more aggressive French and British (whose Special Air Service teams are reportedly already in Libya). Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top administration officials told U.S. lawmakers privately on Wednesday that Washington has made no decision on sending arms to the opposition forces.

Still, it's also fair to point out that Obama has shown a great partiality to enlisting the CIA and its paramilitaries to fight wars covertly that he doesn't want to commit the U.S. military to engaging in publicly. In Pakistan, Obama has stepped up the agency's activities, and last fall The Wall Street Journal reported that Obama was giving the CIA operational control over elite Special Forces teams secretly in Yemen. Senior U.S. intelligence officials also acknowledge that the CIA's task in Iraq will grow as the U.S. military departs this year.

A nonlethal "preliminary" finding like the one that Obama is believed to have signed is required because the CIA's activities in Libya go beyond the normal intelligence gathering it does around the world, said a former senior agency official who would discuss presidential findings only on condition of anonymity. "It's the difference between collection and influencing outcomes," he said. "If the CIA is taking part in activities which are potentially going to influence a change of government, it goes beyond collecting foreign intelligence. You need authority from the president."

The next step, actually providing arms or aiding them in any active way against Gadhafi, would probably require a "lethal" finding, he and other former intelligence officials said.

Other factors may come into play as well. Gates, who has been notably skeptical of a no-fly zone and other types of U.S. involvement, plans to leave office by the end of the year, and he might be replaced by a more aggressive champion of military or covert action.

Above all, now that Obama has openly staked his credibility on Gadhafi's departure, the president may have little choice but to arm and aid a badly outgunned and undertrained opposition, lest a long stalemate and a possible slaughter result. "The opposition isn't very much of a military force," Cannistraro said. "They're a bunch of kids, mostly. Some of them are looking at guns for the first time in their lives." The slope does seem slippery -- but it's not yet clear how steep it might be.

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