The scope of active US and British involvement with the Libyan rebels came under close scrutiny last night as it emerged that western intelligence agents were on the ground in the country and that Barack Obama had signed a secret order authorising covert help.
Obama signed an order, known as a "finding", within the last two or three weeks, Reuters reported. The move will undoubtedly fuel speculation that the US and its allies are planning to actively arm the rebels. The White House and the CIA both declined to comment on the report.
However, a US intelligence source pointed out such orders were the beginning of a process of authorisation and concrete actions - such as having agents actively supplying arms to the rebels - would need further authorisations before they can proceed.
"Rather than full go ahead, the idea is that there is a nuance to this process," the source told The Guardian.
However, at the same time details were revealed of CIA and British intelligence operations inside Libya itself, which do involve a presence on the ground though fall short of a full operation of assistance. The New York Times reported that the CIA had inserted clandestine agents into the country to gather intelligence and help with identifying targets for airstrikes.
They included spies who had already been stationed in Libya and others who have arrived more recently. The newspaper also reported that "dozens" of British agents and special forces were also inside Libya, helping direct attacks by British aircraft.
The claims will fuel fears that the Libyan conflict is rapidly escalating out of control, especially in the wake of disastrous setbacks to rebel forces on the battlefield. After a day of advances by Gaddafi forces, the rebels have lost almost all the ground they gained since the airstrikes began. Obama has been at pains to insist there will not be a US military force put on the ground in Libya. But the emphasis on arming the rebels and news of CIA agents will fuel the fears of those who see that event as a worrying inevitability.
Obama is coming under increasing domestic pressure from both Republicans and some Democrats. Their concerns vary, from some liberal Democrats who insist that Obama has acted unconstitutionally in ordering the strikes, to those who claim he has not yet outlined a concrete way to end the conflict and has been contradictory in stating how Gaddafi will be forced from power. To assuage such concerns, in part at least, Hillary Clinton and defence chief Robert Gates briefed the upper and lower houses of Congress on Wednesday afternoon. The briefing was closed to the press, but a few politicians spoke afterwards.
Republican senator Lindsey Graham said that the issue of CIA operations inside Libya had not been raised at the briefings and praised Clinton and Gates. "It was a good briefing," he told CNN.
Graham also said that he would not support the introduction of any ground troops into Libya but did support measures to assist the rebels. "The idea of aiding the rebels is something that pleases me," he said, "[but] if you introduce western forces on the ground you would undercut the opposition and it would backfire."