Update: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton downplayed the likelihood of an al Qaeda contingency among the Libyan rebels, but she acknowledged “we are still getting to know those who are leading the transitional national council.”
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) wants to know much more about the Libyan rebels the U.S. and NATO allies have been aiding with air strikes and humanitarian assistance for more than a week.
“There have been several reports about the presence of al Qaeda among the rebels,” Inhofe said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. “What do we know about this?”
Admiral James Stavridis, the NATO supreme allied commander in Europe, said military leaders have been examining the “composition and personalities” of the leadership of the opposition forces and found them to be “responsible men and women who are struggling against Qaddafi.”
As for intelligence reports Inhofe had cited, Stavridis said only that the military has “seen flickers of al Qaeda and Hezbollah” but did not have detailed information about those instances.
Inhofe wasn’t satisfied by the comments, asking somewhat rhetorically whether it would have been a good idea to get more intelligence details about these “flickers” before the U.S. and NATO started launching air strikes on their behalf.
Stavridis insisted that “there was a good amount of intelligence done” before the air strikes began.
Asked about the possibility of elements of al Qaeda among the opposition in Libya, White House spokesman Jay Carney said members of the administration have spent a lot of time talking to the Libyan opposition, according to a pool report.
“The leaders that Secretary Clinton met have made clear what their principles are, and we believe that they are meritorious,” Carney said. “…That doesn’t mean that everyone who opposes Muammar Qadhafi in Libya is someone whose ideals we can support.”
The top NATO commander Stavridis also told the Senate panel there’s a reasonable chance Muammar Qaddafi would leave under pressure from the U.S. and its coalition partners.
“You could see a wide range of possibilities ahead of us — from a static stalemate to Qaddafi cracking,” he said. “If we work all elements of power, there’s more than a reasonable chance of Qaddafi leaving.”
In response to a question from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is pushing for military action to topple Qaddafi, Stavridis testified that a stalemate in Libya would not be in the U.S. interest but did not specify reasons why isolating Qaddafi wouldn’t be a better solution.