The United States weighed launching a cyber-attack to disrupt Libyan air defenses before the start of an air campaign against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces, officials said late Tuesday, as Qaddafi loyalists were still holding out in his home town, underscoring the challenges facing the country’s new leaders.
The assault would have hacked into the Qaddafi regime’s computer networks to cut links between early-warning radar and surface-to-air missiles threatening NATO aircraft, two defense officials said, confirming an account first published by The New York Times.
“A broad range of operations were considered,” a senior defense official told AFP.
But a cyber offensive was eventually ruled out and at no point was the administration “close to pulling the trigger,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials and some military officers argued against a cyber assault out of concern it could set a dangerous precedent that could open the door to similar moves by other countries, including Russia or China, the Times reported.
Administration officials also had doubts whether the cyber offensive could be organized quickly enough and whether President Barack Obama had the legal authority to approve a digital attack without notifying Congress, said the Times, citing unnamed officials.
The Washington Post reported that the debate on a potential cyber attack never reached the White House and that officials concluded bombing air defense sites would be more effective.
The NATO-led air campaign began on March 19 and is still underway, though allied governments say they are close to wrapping up the operation now that Qaddafi is in hiding and his forces chased out of the capital Tripoli.
Military officers have declined to openly discuss the tools and methods at the disposal of a newly created U.S. Cyber Command, which is assigned the task of waging digital warfare.
Clinton hails “Libya’s victory”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed “Libya’s victory” during a visit to Tripoli on Tuesday but fighters loyal to Qaddafi were still holding out in his home town, underscoring the challenges facing the country’s new leaders.
Clinton was the most senior U.S. official to come to Tripoli since Qaddafi’s 42-year rule ended in August. Her visit was marked by tight security, reflecting worries that Libya’s new rulers have yet to establish full control over the country.
After meeting Libya’s de facto prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, she spoke of the need to bring the powerful and heavily-armed regional militias that emerged from the war to oust Qaddafi under central rule.
“We are encouraged by the commitment of the National Transitional Council (NTC) to take the steps necessary to bring the country together,” Clinton said, according to reuters.
“I am proud to stand here on the soil of a free Tripoli and on behalf of the American people I congratulate Libya,” Clinton said. “This is Libya’s moment, this is Libya’s victory, the future belongs to you.”
NATO reiterated on Tuesday that its mission was very close to an end but said it was premature to set a timetable for a conclusion of its operations, which alliance officials expect to be announced in coming weeks.
NTC failure to capture Sirte
Nearly two months since capturing Tripoli, the NTC has stamped out most pro-Qaddafi resistance but has so far failed to capture Sirte, a city on the Mediterranean coast that Qaddafi made into a showpiece for his autocratic rule.
That failure has raised questions about the NTC’s ability to exert its authority over the entire country and postponed the launch of its promised democracy program.
NTC forces were a few days ago poised to declare victory in Sirte, but on Tuesday they were being forced to retreat in some places and taking intense fire from the dwindling force of Qaddafi loyalists boxed into a small area of the city.
At the eastern end of Sirte’s seafront, a Reuters reporter saw the spot where, an hour earlier, mortars had landed in a cluster of NTC fighters.
Thirteen of them were killed in the incident, witnesses said. Blood from one of the victims stained the steps of a nearby house.
In several places in the city, locations that a day earlier were firmly under the control of anti-Qaddafi fighters were too dangerous to access because of fire coming in from loyalists.
Sirte is now the last major Libyan town where pro-Qaddafi forces are holding out, after the other bastion of resistance, Bani Walid, fell to the country’s new rulers on Monday.
Another frustration for NTC leaders is that Qaddafi, wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of ordering the killing of civilians, has not been captured. He is in hiding, possibly deep in Libya’s Sahara desert.
“We don’t know where he is but we hope he can be captured or killed soon, so you don’t have to fear him any longer,” Clinton said during a meeting with students at the University of Tripoli. “Then you have to move forward.”