Scores of U.S. Strikes in Libya Followed Handoff to NATO

Since the United States handed control of the air war in Libya to NATO in early April, American warplanes have struck at Libyan air defenses about 60 times, and remotely operated drones have fired missiles at Libyan forces about 30 times, according to military officials.

The most recent strike from a piloted United States aircraft was on Saturday, and the most recent strike from an American drone was on Wednesday, the officials said.

While the Obama administration has regularly acknowledged that American forces have continued to take part in some of the strike sorties, few details about their scope and frequency have been made public.

The unclassified portion of material about Libya that the White House sent to Congress last week, for example, said “American strikes are limited to the suppression of enemy air defense and occasional strikes by unmanned Predator” drones, but included no numbers for such strikes.

The disclosure of such details could add texture to an unfolding debate about the merits of the Obama administration’s legal argument that it does not need Congressional authorization to continue the mission because United States forces are not engaged in “hostilities” within the meaning of the War Powers Resolution.

Under that 1973 law, presidents must end unauthorized deployments 60 days after notifying Congress that they have introduced American forces into actual or imminent hostilities. That deadline for the Libyan mission appeared to pass on May 20, but the administration contended that the deadline did not apply because the United States’ role had not risen to the level of “hostilities,” at least since it handed control of the mission over to NATO.

In support of that argument, the administration has pointed to a series of factors, noting, for example, that most of the strikes have been carried out by allies, while the United States has primarily been playing “non-kinetic” supporting roles like refueling and surveillance. It has also said there is little risk of American casualties because there are no ground troops and Libyan forces have little ability to exchange fire with American aircraft. And it noted that the mission is constrained from escalating by a United Nations Security Council resolution.

The special anti-radar missiles used to suppress enemy air defenses are usually carried by piloted aircraft, not drones, and the Pentagon has regularly said that American military aircraft have continued to conduct these missions. Still, officials have been reluctant to release the exact numbers of strikes.

Under military doctrine, strikes aimed at suppressing air defenses are typically considered to be defensive actions, not offensive. On the other hand, military doctrine also considers the turning on of air-defense radar in a no-fly zone to be a “hostile act.” It is not clear whether any of the Libyan defenses were made targets because they had turned on such radar.

The administration’s legal position prompted internal controversy. Top lawyers at the Justice Department and the Pentagon argued that the United States’ military activities did amount to “hostilities” under the War Powers Resolution, but President Obama sided with top lawyers at the State Department and the White House who contended that they did not cross that threshold.

On Monday, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, acknowledged the internal debate, but defended the judgment made by Mr. Obama, noting that the applicability of the War Powers Resolution to deployments has repeatedly prompted debate over the years.

The House of Representatives may vote later this week on a proposal to cut off funding for the Libya mission. The proposal is backed by an odd-bedfellows coalition of antiwar liberals and Tea Party Republicans.

They are opposed by an equally unusual alignment of Democrats who support the White House and the intervention in Libya, and more hawkish Republicans.

On Monday, a group that includes prominent neoconservative figures — including Liz Cheney, Robert Kagan, William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz — sent Republicans an open letter opposing efforts to cut off funds for the mission.

[Source: By Charlie Savage and Thom Shanker, New York Times, 20Jun11]

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