"I'm not ruling it out," President Barack Obama told NBC News in an interview Tuesday. "But I'm also not ruling it in. We're still making an assessment partly about what [Moammar] Gadhafi's forces are going to be doing. Keep in mind, we've been at this now for nine days."
Today, Reuters reported that Obama had signed a secret agreement to provide support for the rebels. That agreement was not confirmed.
But even Obama's Tuesday statement puts him at odds with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has said that the rebels won't get arms. "We are not in Libya to arm people," he told Sky News. "We are in Libya to protect civilians against attacks."
Despite Rasmussen's statement, NBC News reported today that the coalition was thinking of providing arms and quoted a senior European diplomat as saying that option was being actively considered.
There is some question as to the rebels' ability to make use of any arms shipments. "Events of the last 24 hours have only exposed how giving them extra weapons is unlikely to be enough to drive them on to Tripoli, especially if training is not provided in how to use them as most in this ad-hoc army have little if any military experience," wrote Oliver Poole, reporting for the London Evening Standard from Ajdabiya.
The United States' experience with arming rebels has been a mixed bag. During the 1980s, the CIA funneled arms to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, which is credited with helping the Muslim fighters drive out Soviet forces. The covert effort was later popularized in the movie "Charlie Wilson's War," after the Texas congressman who helped push through funding for the arms.
Perhaps the most infamous rebel arms program was the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-1980s. The United States secretly sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to help fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, a violation of U.S. law at the time.
Ed Timperlake, a former Pentagon official who last served as the director for technology assessment, said that if the United States does arm the Libyan rebels, it will likely do so using older Russian weapons. The problem, however, is that "weapons do not respect lines drawn on a map," and it's likely that some would make their way out of Libya.
"Russian weapons arriving in perhaps through Egypt can proliferate to Tunisia and Morocco, creating additional problems," Timperlake told AOL News. "Usually there is also no thought to getting weapons back -- the Charlie Wilson war aftermath."
Such arms deals would likely be done through the intelligence community, according to Matt Schroeder, director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Providing arms might be a good idea, but the threat of proliferation for some weapons outweighs the benefits, he said.
"There will be diversion," Schroeder said. "There's no way you can control entirely the items you provide to the rebels."