Several administration officials held a classified briefing for all senators on Thursday afternoon in the bowels of the Capitol building, leaving lawmakers convinced President Barack Obama is ready to attack Libya but wondering if it isn't too late to help the rebels there.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns led the briefing and was accompanied by Alan Pino, National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, Gen. John Landry, National Intelligence Officer for Military Issues, Nate Tuchrello, National Intelligence Manager for Near East, Rear Adm. Michael Rogers, Director of Intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Rear Admiral Kurt Tidd, Vice Director of Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Several senators emerged from the briefing convinced that the administration was intent on beginning military action against the forces of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi within the next few days and that such action would include both a no-fly zone as well as a "no-drive zone" to prevent Qaddafi from crushing the rebel forces, especially those now concentrated in Benghazi.
"It looks like we have Arab countries ready to participate in a no-fly and no-drive endeavor," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters after the briefing.
Asked what he learned from the briefing, Graham said, "I learned that it's not too late, that the opposition forces are under siege but they are holding, and that with a timely intervention, a no-fly zone and no-drive zone, we can turn this thing around."
Asked exactly what the first wave of attacks would look like, Graham said, "We ground his aircraft and some tanks start getting blown up that are headed toward the opposition forces."
As for when the attacks would start, he said "We're talking days, not weeks, and I'm hoping hours, not days," adding that he was told the U.N. Security Council resolution would be crafted to give the international community the authority to be "outcome determinant" and "do whatever's necessary."
The Security Council adopted the resolution on Thursday evening by a vote of 10-0 with 5 abstentions.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told reporters that he expected the military operations to be run out of Sicily, where NATO Base Sigonella and U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella are located.
"I know we have naval assets that are some distance away, so this would have to be U.S. Air Force Europe that would have the majority load for the time being, if the order is given," said Kirk.
Inside the briefing, several senators asked questions about how quickly the no-fly zone could be implemented, whether that was enough to stop Qaddafi's forces, what other military options might be used, and whether the administration had waited too long to act.
"There were concerns about the protection of civilians and one of those concerns was, is it too late," one Senate staffer who was in the meeting told The Cable.
Both Graham and Kirk said that they believed it was not too late, but that the success of the mission depended on super-quick implementation.
"It seems that the administration is moving and now the only question is time," said Kirk. "A lot still depends on the rebels at the very least holding Benghazi. If they do, there may be time for the international political system to respond. If they collapse quickly, no."
Graham and Kirk both said that they had thrown their support behind Obama's new Libya policy.
"I want to take back criticism I gave to them yesterday and say, ‘you are doing the right thing,'" said Graham. "My money is on the American Air Force, the American Navy, and our allies to contain the Libyans, and anybody on our side that says we can't contain the Libyan air threat -- I want them fired."
But Obama lost longtime supporter Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) who said in Thursday morning's hearing with Burns that any military intervention in Libya should require a formal declaration of war by the U.S. Congress.
Lugar also opposes military intervention in Libya on the grounds that the nation can't afford it at a time of deep fiscal debt and called on Obama to explain why attacking Libya is in America's national interest. The humanitarian argument just isn't enough, he said.
"We would not like to stand by and see people being shot, but the same argument could be made in Bahrain at present and perhaps in Yemen, so if you have a civil war it's very likely people are going to be out for each other," Lugar told The Cable in an interview. "This debate cannot be totally divorced from the realities of what are the contending issues right here and now."
But Graham responded to Lugar's caution in an interview with The Cable, saying that the risk of doing nothing and allowing Qaddafi to remain in power after Obama said "he must go" is far greater than that of getting involved militarily.
"They have my authorization. You can't have 535 commander in chiefs," Graham said. "I would like to have a vote in the floor when we get back saying they did the right thing. But that shouldn't restrict the president from taking timely action."
At Thursday morning's hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz said that Qaddafi's forces had reestablished control over large swaths of territory and that the Libyan leader had tens of planes and hundreds of helicopters in use.
He called the plan to impose a no-fly zone in a few days "overly optimistic" and said "it would take upwards of a week."
Schwartz was also clear that while the U.S. military can impose a no-fly zone, that's not likely to stop Qaddafi all by itself. He also noted that to do so effectively might require diverting some resources from the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The question is, is a no-fly zone the last step or is it the first step?" Schwartz said.
Asked by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) whether a no-fly zone could turn the momentum, Scwartz replied, "A no-fly zone, sir, would not be sufficient."