Lawmakers question Pentagon officials on Libyan rebels, costs

Lawmakers on Thursday expressed new frustrations over the Obama administration’s Libya intervention as senior Pentagon brass said U.S. national security officials know very little about Libyan opposition groups.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee that the Libyan opposition is a number of disorganized groups with differing agendas.

“It’s pretty much a pick-up game at this point,” Gates said, adding that it is unclear whether the rebels have a collective leader or if they are working in unison. “Other than a handful of leaders, we don’t have a good picture of the opposition,” he said bluntly.

Under questioning by Rep. Rick LarsenRichard (Rick) Ray LarsenDems win nail-biter in charity congressional soccer game Overnight Finance: Trump signs repeal of auto-loan policy | Justices uphold contracts that bar employee class-action suits | US, China trade war 'on hold' Free traders applaud Trump as China tariff threat recedes MORE (D-Wash.) about steps the U.S. military is taking to organize the rebel elements, Gates responded that “part of the challenge is the rebels are so disparate and so scattered.”

This means U.S. and coalition forces “have little means of doing that,” the outgoing defense secretary told the panel.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) pressed the defense officials on efforts to get arms to Libyan opposition fighters, which, as he put it, “seem to be getting their butts whipped.”

Administration and Pentagon officials, Mullen said, have yet to decide on whether to take steps to arm the rebels.

Echoing comments Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John KerryJohn Forbes KerryJohn Kerry to NYU Abu Dhabi: We can't address world problems by 'going it alone' Juan Williams: Trump's dangerous lies on Iran Pompeo: US tried, failed to achieve side deal with European allies MORE (D-Mass.) told reporters Wednesday evening, Mullen told Miller “there are plenty of nations with the arms and skills sets to do this.”

Members of both parties expressed frustration over the duo’s assessment of the rebels, though Republican members pushed the point with more gusto.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) questioned how U.S. national security officials can have so little information. He said it is concerning that officials are unable to tell lawmakers what leaders might come after Moammar Gadhafi, or how future Libyan leaders might act on the regional stage.

Gates shot back that the coalition acted not to boost the opposition elements, but because “we know a lot about Gadhafi” and how destabilizing to the region he could be.

The defense secretary also told lawmakers that the U.S. military's involvement in Libya likely can be paid for by amending a war-funding request already submitted to Congress.

The Pentagon spent about $550 million during the first days of the campaign, and it expects costs to level off soon at about $40 million a month.

Gates told committee members “it would be hard to eat this cost in our base budget.” He suggested the Libya costs can be covered by shifting funds within a war-funding bill for Afghanistan and Iraq “without amending the topline of that request.”

Gates later said another option is to redirect to the Libya operation already appropriated war funding that Congress directed for “things we do not need and do not want.”

He said Pentagon officials are still in deliberations with White House budget officials about how best to finance the operation.

The defense secretary was also questioned as to why the administration opted against consulting closely with Congress before the onset of the bombing and a no-fly zone campaign.

Turner said it appears to many lawmakers that the War Powers Act “has not been complied with.”

The defense secretary said he has worked for eight presidents, and seven have taken similar actions as Obama did on Libya. The congressional notification for armed conflicts has been a tension point between the executive branch and Congress “for 35 years,” Gates said.

Turner told Gates and Mullen that “there is a significant question whether you have Congress’s support,” adding: “I think if there was a vote today, I doubt it would pass.”

Larsen said moments later that he is confident such a vote on the House floor would, as votes on many other issues of late, fall along partisan lines.

Gates added clarity to the timetable under which President Obama made the final decision to act in Libya, saying the commander-in-chief did not decide “until Thursday evening,” meaning March 17. The president spoke with key lawmakers the next day, a timeline Gates called reasonable.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon officials assured skeptical and concerned lawmakers that Obama has no intention of inserting U.S. ground troops into Libya.

Several Democratic panel members said they would not support American ground troops being placed on Libyan soil.

On Wednesday, following a classified White House briefing with lawmakers, a frustrated House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) said he feels to resolve the situation in Libya, boots on the ground will be required.

“We did no-fly zones in Iraq and Bosnia, and those didn’t resolve anything,” McKeon told The Hill. “For this thing to be resolved, someone is going to have to put boots on the ground.”

On Thursday, McKeon said the administration military goal of protecting Libyan civilians and its political objective that Gadhafi relinquish power “seems like two mutually exclusive points.”

“This sounds like foreshadowing of an entrenched military operation,” McKeon said. “If it is not permissible for [Gadhafi] to remain in power, why is there a limited military mission?”

The Pentagon officials said one hope is the military mission — along with economic and other steps — will collectively compel Gadhafi to step down, or some forces from within his government or military will force him to do so. Those new leaders would then “cut a deal” with Libya’s tribes, he said.

Other scenarios for how the situation ends, according to Gates:

  • Libya’s tribes oust Gadhafi, “and a cut with each other.”
  • Rebel forces and the tribes form an alliance to topple Gadhafi and form a democratic government.

But, the defense secretary added, Washington has little “influence or sway with the tribes, and administration officials “haven’t really” discussed those potential outcomes.

The White House on Thursday said NATO has taken sole control of the operations to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, 12 days after military operations against Col. Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya began. The operation is now codenamed "Unified Protector."

- Michael O'Brien contributed.