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‘Valuable’ Libyan Defections Aid Coalition as CIA Assesses Rebels’ Intentions

March 31, 2011 at 6:23 PM EDT
As Washington debates arming Libyan rebels, reports quoting unidentified officials say CIA teams are now operating in rebel-held eastern Libya. Jeffrey Brown discusses the U.S. role in Libya with Luis Rueda and Paul Pillar, both former CIA intelligence officers with extensive Middle East experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more, we turn to two former intelligence officials with experience in this part of the world. Luis Rueda retired from the CIA last year after a 28-year career, spent mostly as an agent and station chief in the field, including in the Middle East. Paul Pillar served in a variety of intelligence analysis and management positions throughout his time with the agency, including as a part of the team that negotiated with the Libyans over disbanding their nuclear program. He’s now at the faculty — on the faculty at Georgetown University.

Welcome to both of you.

PAUL PILLAR, former CIA official: Thank you.

LUIS RUEDA, former CIA intelligence officer: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Pillar, I will start with you.

How valuable are these defections, particularly that of Moussa Koussa?

PAUL PILLAR: Quite valuable.

And Koussa was in the upper echelons of the foreign affairs and national security apparatus of Libya for, oh, almost 30 years. He was head of the External Security Organization, which is basically Libya’s intelligence service for some 15 years before he became foreign minister.

And I think it’s fair to say he was Gadhafi’s top security guy for much of the last couple of decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, fill in the picture a bit more, though. We mentioned the purported ties to Lockerbie, but also the more recent — the efforts to sort of bring Libya back, I guess, and to talk about nuclear — its nuclear holdings, including that you were involved in. So, what — what — fill in that picture. How does that play into it?

PAUL PILLAR: Koussa was our interlocutor, my interlocutor, going back to 1999, after the Pan Am 103 suspects were surrendered, which was the object of the multilateral sanctions against Libya.

And at that point, the Libyans came to us and said: Let’s talk. We have shared concerns with regard to Islamic extremist terrorists.

And so, in the last couple of years of the Clinton administration, secret talks were initiated. And Moussa Koussa, in his capacity as external security organization chief, was our principal contact.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in meeting him, what was he like, and, in particular, do you have any hints as to why he would have acted as he did now?

PAUL PILLAR: Moussa Koussa is a suave, polished, smart official who would fit in quite nicely as an ambassador or minister for a Western government. This is not somebody who comes across like a revolutionary.

And I can’t help but think that he feels more comfortable in the West right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a take on the defections, the importance of these defections?

LUIS RUEDA: I think it’s critically important, because Moussa Koussa, as Paul said, has had contacts and access to the highest levels of the Libyan regime for decades. This is a man who can tell us where the fishers are, who supports Gadhafi, who doesn’t support Gadhafi, help us reach out to individuals who may be willing to oust Gadhafi.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the same time, the British have to say right away they’re not giving him any particular immunity. I mean, there is all that past.


JEFFREY BROWN: How do you weigh that in to seeking information, but not forgetting what he did in the past?

LUIS RUEDA: That’s a hard thing for the British to negotiate. If I were Moussa Koussa, the first thing I would ask for is immunity. And that’s one of the things he’s very concerned about.

It is up to the coalition to decide how important is his cooperation, whether they can get cooperation from him without giving him immunity, or that’s part of the price we have to pay to remove Gadhafi.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, let’s turn to the reports of CIA personnel on the ground, starting with you. What would they be doing? What are they doing there?

LUIS RUEDA: I think they would have two basic overarching missions.

The first one would be to collect intelligence on the opposition, who they are, what their goals are, what their plans are, what their capabilities are, and to assess their military capability, or lack thereof. What do they need to become effective against Gadhafi?

The other thing would be, if — if deemed appropriate by the administration, is provide command-and-control, training, communications for the opposition, which are things they readily lack and need, and also targeting information for the coalition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that sound generally right? Are there analogies that you look to when you think about what happens on the ground in a moment like this?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, let me just mention the collection-of-information side. Probably our biggest information need right now is, who are these rebels?


PAUL PILLAR: Who are the opposition?

And one has to worry about the extent to which the very Islamic extremists, about whom Moussa Koussa and I were talking 12 years ago, may be part of that. So, I think that’s probably at the top of the list of priorities with regard to collection of information.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you do that — how do you do that? I mean, how do you literally make the contacts, get inside, and figure out who you can trust and who not?

LUIS RUEDA: Well, in a situation like that, where they’re at war and people show up, it’s as simple as knocking on the door and saying: Hi. We’re with the CIA. We represent the U.S. government.


LUIS RUEDA: Yes. It is — it becomes a liaison relationship.

It hard to disguise the fact that you have Americans on the ground asking questions. You just can’t get around that issue. So, you provide a service to them: Look, we’re here to assess. We’re here to train. We’re here to open channels of communications.

And then your officers on the ground start to assess the individuals. They collect the information, who they are, what their paths are. We run traces on them. Hopefully, they recruit individuals who cooperate and say, look, here’s what I understand. Here’s what’s happening.

And that’s how you start the ball rolling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, now, what if the president’s sort of helped clear something up? I mean, the president says — and we heard Secretary Gates say again no boots on the ground. And yet we hear CIA on the ground. Now, what is the distinction? Are they not considered boots?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, they probably don’t wear boots. But I think, when the secretary of defense is being questioned by members of Congress, and that phrase is used, I would interpret it as I assume Secretary Gates interpreted it, that is to say, military personnel, no special operations.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, is that — is that within the community or within the military? I mean, the public — you think the public understands the difference?

PAUL PILLAR: I don’t know what the public understands, but I think it’s a significant difference from the standpoint of defining what our policy and posture is.


LUIS RUEDA: It is. It’s one of the roles the CIA plays.

You put uniformed military personnel in a country and that has diplomatic and legal repercussions. It’s a military action, whereas you insert CIA officers, and despite the fact that it’s been now made public, there’s deniability. There’s the ability to operate without there being an overt or an obvious U.S. hand.

So, I agree that, when Secretary Gates says boots on the ground, he means uniformed military personnel. But what we have is potentially a handful of people that could be denied.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, once they’re there, does that necessarily help lead toward military involvement? Or can they just stay there, again, as we heard from Secretary Gates, to provide some kind of support short of arming and — and military involvement?

LUIS RUEDA: Well, that was one of the things that covert action and the CIA theoretically provides. It’s a gap between a harshly worded demarche and military invasion.

We can sustain that operation as long as there is a viable opposition and the opposition is doing their work, without the insertion of U.S. troops. The goal is not to have the CIA personnel, the U.S. take over. What it is, is an effort to provide support and give them the things they need, so they can do the job themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give them the things they need, short of arms, according to Senate — Secretary Gates.

PAUL PILLAR: That’s where it seems to lie.

But if it did come to more direct U.S. military involvement, clearly, the intelligence resources there would play a major role in assisting that kind of mission. The analogy there would be Afghanistan, 2001, in which CIA people were first in. They were ready. And then, when we intervened militarily, that had a major part in supporting the military effort.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that a fair analogy? I mean, there were — every situation is different, of course, right?

LUIS RUEDA: It is, but it is something that the CIA does very well.

And it is the lean, fast, very flexible capability to go inside and prepare and be ready for any option, whether that option is to continue providing communications or guidance or whatever support, or pave the way for additional military involvement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, briefly — and, briefly, I mean, as you said, this depends on having a viable group that they can work with.

LUIS RUEDA: Yes. Yes. And that’s the most important thing for this administration, is to understand what they’re — what they’re dealing with.


Luis Rueda, Paul Pillar, thank you both very much.

LUIS RUEDA: Thank you.

PAUL PILLAR: Thank you.