By Barbara Starr
U.S. Special Operations forces are in Libya and nearby countries aiding in the collection of intelligence regarding suspected Libyan militia who were part of the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, a U.S. military official told CNN.
The intelligence gathering effort is just part of a broader involvement by the American military in the aftermath of the September 11 attack, including providing security on Thursday to an FBI investigative team that traveled to Benghazi.
The special operations units are employing various methods to investigate, including communications intercepts, satellite and drone imagery and face-to-face meetings with those who may have information, the official said.The official declined to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the information.
The gathered information is being used to assemble proposed targeting packages for military action if ordered by the president. Those targeting packages have to include the latest intelligence demonstrating why a target would be attacked, what weapons would be used, and how the military would limit civilian casualties.
A U.S. military strike, or capture of suspects in Libya, still remains highly problematic as the Libyan government has opposed U.S. intervention.
In the immediate days following the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, the military quickly prepositioned aircraft and military teams in Sigonella, Italy, to conduct a full evacuation of Americans from Libya had it become necessary, according to a U.S. military official. Those movements were in addition to the 50-person Marine security team that was flown into Tripoli, the capital, the day after the assault.
Although Americans were able to leave the country via commercial air, the quick response is an indication of just how unsure the U.S. military was about the security situation on the ground and whether American citizens could be kept safe.
In addition, as CNN has previously reported, two Navy warships capable of firing Tomahawk missiles were quickly positioned off the coast of Libya, and surveillance of known militant strongholds by drones was stepped up. All of this is just part of an undisclosed, multifaceted effort by the Pentagon to position assets off Libya to protect Americans until they could leave Libya, be in position to conduct a military strike if ordered by the president, and collect constant intelligence on possible perpetrators of the attack and the militia movements they may have belonged to.
Those warships had moved away from Libyan waters in recent days, but CNN has learned one ship was sent back and was close offshore during the entire time the military was securing the area around the Benghazi compound on Thursday, while the FBI conducted an investigation of the site.