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How do we know what's going on?

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IN our present confrontation with Libya, it is obviously important that we know what is going on in that country. Our policies seem to be based on assumptions that Colonel Qaddafi is in trouble, that his regular military is near revolt, and that a push from the outside may well topple him. How do we know? This is a time when we should be obtaining the most accurate information possible on the mood within Libya, the attitude of the population toward Qaddafi, and the longer-term Libyan reaction to the United States attack.

In the highly controlled conditions within Libya and in the absence of a US embassy, our government must rely on other sources, each of which has limitations.

US newspapers and television networks have correspondents in Libya. Presumably we have intelligence agents and are in touch with friendly foreign diplomats, including the Belgians, who officially protect US interests, as well as businessmen and Libyan exiles.

US journalists do a good job at a time like this. Those stationed in or near Libya have made frequent trips, and the ones experienced in sensing a foreign political system can probably get a feel of the internal situation. Television tends to be crisis oriented, episodic, and immediate, giving impressions more than analysis. Print journalists, of whatever media, tend to write for the present and for the reader. Apart from what they write, journalists may well be inhibited in going out of their way to convey their thoughts to US officials. While in Libya even the best ones are severely circumscribed in their movements.

There are limits, also, on what foreign embassies, including those that officially protect our interests, can do to help our assessment. With interests of their own, they may not be attuned to the type of information needed by the United States. Given their own sensitive positions in a country such as Libya and noticing how leaky the US government is, they may also be reluctant to share sensitive assessments with us.

Businessmen have their own agenda. In a country where the foreigner stands out, and is vulnerable to being expelled, businessmen are unlikely to seek the kind of broad nonbusiness contacts and to ask the kind of questions necessary for an accurate political assessment.

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