The Pentagon pushed back on assertions Thursday that either NATO or the U.S. military is actively engaged in a manhunt for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, underscoring ongoing sensitivities over the strict parameters of the U.N. mission there.
Marine Col. David Lapan said the U.S. is conducting aerial surveillance of Libya in support of NATO's military mission to protect civilians from attack by government forces. But he said this does not amount to targeting Gadhafi, whose exact whereabouts are unknown.
He said it is not NATO's mission to target or hunt down individuals.
That statement conflicted with comments by British Defense Secretary Liam Fox, who said Thursday that NATO intelligence and reconnaissance assets are being used to try to hunt down Gadhafi.
"I've confirmed with folks at NATO and through the command structure that they are not involved in targeting any particular individual, that they are not involved in a manhunt," Lapan told reporters. "NATO itself and the US's part of NATO are not."
Lapan acknowledged, however, that he can only speak for U.S. military assets, and not for any U.S. intelligence agencies. The Associated Press has reported that the CIA is operating in Libya. That covert operation is outside the NATO operation. NATO nations, too, have sent off-the-books military advisers to Libya who operate alongside the NATO-led mission but have a wider mandate to cooperate with the rebels.
U.S. defense officials have struggled to very carefully describe American military activities in Libya, to insure they don't violate the U.N. mandate or trigger a political firestorm at home, where many lawmakers have loudly opposed any expansion of U.S. military involvement.
On Thursday, Lapan said that U.S. intelligence data is not provided directly to the rebels, but may indirectly get to the opposition forces through other allies.