WASHINGTON — When U.S. officials promise there will be no American "boots on the ground" in Libya, they aren't talking literally, nor about footwear.
It's military shorthand that may look to some like rhetorical sleight of hand. But the CIA paramilitary officers now known to be operating alongside rebel forces in the North African nation aren't part of the U.S. military, and so they are excluded from the promise.
The U.S. and its allies are operating under United Nations authorization to provide protection for Libyan civilians and air cover against Moammar Gadhafi's warplanes. That does not rule out military ground forces, but the Obama administration has made a point of saying that American involvement will stop far short of that.
Paramilitary officers from the CIA's Special Activities Division have their own vehicles, airplanes and other equipment and most have previously served in the military. They sneak into hostile areas to collect intelligence or perform intelligence missions that the government doesn't want to talk about openly.
"Sneakers, they're wearing sneakers, not boots," said John Pike of the Globalsecurity.org think tank. "That's how they're clandestine."
There also is some debate on Capitol Hill over whether committing military ground forces would require broader authority from Congress, where some lawmakers already are peeved over what they said Thursday was a lack of consultation before the U.S. committed to be part of the international coalition in Libya.
But the military is not hitting the ground in Libya, the administration says repeatedly.
"What the president has made clear is that he will not send, has not sent and will not send American troops on the ground into Libya," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. "That is his position, and it has not changed."
In other words, there will be no invasion like the one in Iraq in 2003.
Gen. Carter Ham, who was commander of the Libya operation before it was handed over to NATO, has said the scope of the U.S. mission was made plain from the start.
"It's been very clear to me — and I think anyone who has heard the president or the secretary of defense speak to this, you know, no American boots on the ground, no American boots on the ground from this coalition," Ham said in a Pentagon press conference on March 21.
On Thursday, a day after revelations that the CIA has had officers in Libya for some time, Defense Secretary Robert Gates staked his job on a pledge that military troops wouldn't follow on the ground. He declared there would be no U.S. military forces there "as long as I am in this job."
So what's the CIA doing there? Some highly likely tasks for the small group of agency operatives inside Libya include judging the needs and strengths of the rebel force trying to oust Gadhafi and perhaps organizing and training the rebels.
"It's not the same thing," Nora Bensahel of the Center for a New American Security said of using the CIA as opposed to soldiers to gather intelligence or assess the abilities of the warring military forces there. "There is a distinction."
Testifying in an open session before the house Armed Services Committee, Gates declined to speak about what the CIA was doing. But the agency's mission was a subject of closed briefings for some lawmakers on Wednesday, and the discussion also included debate over whether to arm or train the rebels, congressional sources said.
The CIA had an office, or station, in the country before the rebel uprising, so it's unsurprising to many that the agency has people there now.
"It would be scandalous if they weren't there" to help establish who the rebels are and what's going on, said analyst Pike.
The revelation Wednesday of the CIA presence in Libya came as battlefield setbacks this week raised again the suspicion that the largely untrained and poorly equipped rebels cannot prevail militarily on their own.
"The CIA is engaged in establishing the needs of the opposition," former 30-year CIA operations officer Joseph Wippl said.
"Presently, these needs are military in nature as to targeting and weaponry but probably go beyond that to include political" issues and so on, said Wippl, now director of Boston University's Center for International Relations.
He noted that Obama has the legal authority to direct the CIA to engage in covert action by drafting and signing a "finding" that such action is in the interest of the United States.
Challenged at a Brussels press conference Thursday that CIA presence violates the U.N. resolution on the intervention, Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola rejected the suggestion. The resolution "says there will be no occupation," the chairman of NATO's military committee said.
The word is important.
"The term occupation has a very specific legal meaning (and) involves temporary responsibility for running a country and the military role in supporting that," said analyst Bensahel.
"Even having some military ground forces on the ground" would not violate the U.N. resolution, she said.
Others agreed.Comment on this story
"The U.N. resolution has plenty of wiggle room to allow for special forces and covert operations," said Michael O'Hanlon of The Brookings Institution.
"And frankly, I can't see doing this seriously without them," O'Hanlon said, adding that it would not be a matter of escalating involvement but rather of making involvement more competent. "At a minimum, they need to be there to learn more about the situation."
The expression "boots on the ground" has been associated with the U.S. intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s and some operations before that. Some military experts argue that it not only means military personnel, but specifically a significant or sizable number of military combat troops.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville, Anne Gearan and Adam Goldman contributed to this report.