White House, intel chief split on Libya assessment

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 10, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The nation's top intelligence official told Congress Thursday that Moammar Gadhafi will eventually prevail in his war with Libya's rebels, provoking a rare public dispute with the White House, which says its policy is intended to force the Libyan leader from power.

The fissure between the White House and the intelligence community led one top Republican senator to call for the resignation of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence. But the White House said President Barack Obama retains full confidence in him.

Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Libyan civil war was descending into a "kind of stalemate back and forth," but that in the long term "the regime will prevail." As the top U.S. intelligence official, Clapper oversees the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and his assessments generally reflect the community's consensus judgments.

Army Gen. Ronald Burgess, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, endorsed Clapper's assessment, saying momentum was shifting to Gadhafi's forces after initially being with the opposition.

"Whether or not it has fully shifted to Gadhafi's side at this time in-country I think is not clear," Burgess said. "But we have now reached a state of equilibrium where . . . the initiative, if you will, may be on the regime side."

Hours after Clapper spoke, Thomas Donilon, Obama's national security adviser, offered a different assessment, suggesting sharply diverging views between the White House and the U.S. intelligence community.

He said the intelligence chiefs' analysis was "static" and "unidimensional," based on the military balance of power, and failing to take into account both Gadhafi's growing isolation and international actions to boost his opponents.

"I'm talking about looking into the future here," said Donilon, who was asked about Clapper's remarks in a conference call with reporters.

Under fire for a response that critics say is timid and too reliant on reaching consensus with allies, the White House Thursday suspended operations of the Libyan embassy in Washington and announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Libyan opposition leaders next week during a special trip to Tunisia and Egypt, which already have overthrown their autocratic leaders.

But her initiative seemed ultra-cautious compared with that of France, which Thursday became the first major power to recognize the rebels' council as Libya's legitimate government. In Brussels, defense ministers of the 28-member NATO alliance remained divided over calls for imposing a no-fly zone and agreed only to deploy additional ships into the Mediterranean Sea, to enforce a U.N.-approved arms embargo.

Gadhafi lost the eastern half of his country and some western cities to the rebellion last month, but his regime and his remaining military forces appeared to have recovered their balance Thursday. While the situation remains fluid, Gadhafi's forces dislodged rebels from the eastern oil terminal city of Ras Lanouf and seized most of the hard-fought western city of Zawiya, news reports said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an Armed Services Committee member and a prominent GOP voice on security issues, urged the president to replace Clapper, saying his comments were "not helpful to our national security interests."

"His comments will make the situation more difficult for those opposing Gadhafi. It also undercuts our national efforts to bring about the desired result of Libya moving from dictator to democracy," Graham said in a statement. "Some of his analysis could prove to be accurate, but it should not have been made in such a public forum." Graham didn't attend the hearing.

The U.S. public stance was more guarded than that of U.S. allies.

France and Britain issued a joint statement saying "Moammar Gadhafi and his clique should leave," and urging more support for the opposition.

"We should send the clear political signal that we consider the (National Libyan) Council to be valid political interlocutors, and an important voice for the Libyan people," they said in a joint letter to the European Council, referring to the 30-member transitional body named by the Libyan opposition.

Obama, who has let European and Arab powers publicly take the diplomatic lead during the three-week-old Libya crisis, hasn't gone that far.

Donlion didn't answer a question about whether Washington would follow France's lead in recognizing the National Libyan Council. But he described the council as the "de facto authorities in parts of Libya where they are in control."

He said U.S. contacts are intended to determine what assistance the council needs, and to understand its leadership structure and intentions.

Donilon also said the administration is sending a U.S. disaster response team into eastern Libya, the first overt U.S. government presence on the ground there since the uprising began on Feb. 17.

Obama's policy is "aimed at the goal of having Gadhafi leave office," the national security adviser reiterated.

But Clapper's testimony underscored how difficult that could be.

He told the Senate committee that he thinks "Gadhafi is in this for the long haul" and that he doesn't think Gadhafi "has any intention . . . of leaving."

Later, enumerating his reasons for believing that Gadhafi would prevail, Clapper said that the regime has more military supplies and can count on the army's best trained, "most robustly equipped" units, including the 32nd Brigade, which is commanded by Gadhafi's son, Khamis, and the 9th Brigade.

The bulk of its hardware comprises Russian-made air defenses, artillery, tanks and other vehicles, "and they appear more disciplined about how they treat and repair that equipment," Clapper continued.

The rebels, he said, are "in for a tough row."

Clapper disputed assertions that a no-fly zone could be quickly and easily imposed on Libya, saying Gadhafi commands the Middle East's second largest air defense system after Egypt's.

"They have a lot of Russian equipment, and there is a certain quality in numbers. Some of that equipment has fallen into the oppositionists' hands," he continued.

The system comprises about 31 surface-to-air missile sites and a radar complex that "is focused on protecting the (Mediterranean) coastline where are 80 or 85 percent of the population is," Clapper said. Gadhafi's forces also have "a large, large number" of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

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