With President Barack Obama scheduled to speak to the nation tonight about the role the U.S. military is playing and will play in the military action in Libya, the White House national security and communications teams continue to scramble to get their stories straight.
For example, early last week it appeared that in the days running up to the announced NATO air strikes, White House national security briefers had initially informed ranking Republicans on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees that U.S. military personnel would have no active role in enforcing a "no fly zone" unless Congress was given advanced word, even though at that time U.S. military personnel were already engaged in the "no fly zone" effort.
"It was pretty fluid from hour to hour what role we'd be playing," says a White House communications staff source. "It may be that some Republicans and some Democrats up on the Hill weren't getting the proper information out of those briefings."
Further, and perhaps more troubling for the Obama Administration, White House sources confirm that in the run up to the decision to involve U.S. military personnel, President Obama was fully briefed that a large portion of the Libyan rebel forces most active in areas around such critical cities as Benghazi had ties to al Qaeda, particularly Al Qaeda in Iraq, the wing of the terrorist group that killed hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq.
"He was warned that should we reach a point where NATO needs to re-arm the rebels -- it appears that time is coming now -- we will be arming the very enemy that we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan," says a career employee at the State Department. "Secretary Clinton knows it, the White House knows it, but we're working with these thugs anyway because the President thinks it's the moral thing to do in the face of Gaddafi."
White House sources say that any re-arming of the rebels will not come from the U.S., even though U.S. resources almost certainly will be included in any equipment provided to the rebel forces by NATO.
White House sources say they expect a major turning point in both the rebellion and U.S. attitudes toward the intervention will come early this week if the town of Sirte falls to the rebels. Sirte is the hometown of Gaddafi. "If we can make the case that rebels are controlling large segments of the country, including the hometown of Gaddafi, then we think we can dismiss any criticism from Republicans and other critics," says a White House source. "Of course if things go south, we're in a bit of a mess."
The issue of re-arming rebels may come sooner than the White House wants if rebels in the city of Misurata, which is surrounded by Gaddafi forces, formally request rearmament via NATO or the UN.
"We know that the rebel forces could very well come back to haunt us, but it's a calculated gamble," says the White House source. "It's no different than the gamble President Reagan made in supporting the mujahedeen or the rebels in Nicaragua."
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