NATO acknowledged Friday that its airstrikes had hit rebels using tanks to fight government forces in eastern Libya, saying no one told them the rebels used tanks.

British Rear Adm. Russell Harding, the deputy commander of the NATO operation, said in the past, only forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi had used heavy armored vehicles. ~Seattle Post-Intelligencer (AP)

Mistakes are unavoidable in any military effort, and friendly-fire incidents take place even within well-organized armies, and NATO is being asked to do the impossible in Libya. Granting all of that, this does stand out as an impressive failure to acquire the most basic information about the forces that NATO is trying to support. It’s also hard to believe the specific claim that NATO officials didn’t know this. No one told them? Didn’t anyone attempt to find out?

There have been reliable reports that the rebels possessed tanks circulating for weeks. Granted, those reports tended to be dismissive and pointed out that the rebels didn’t know how to use them very well or at all, but that they had tanks was something that informed observers knew about the rebels. The Los Angeles Times published this report nine days ago:

At an army base in Benghazi, Yahya Abdulsalam, a rebel guard, said nine captured government T-72 Soviet-made tanks inside the garrison could not be operated because rebels didn’t know how to turn on the engines.

“We’re trying to find some soldiers who know how to use these tanks, but the only tanks they know are the older ones,” Abdulsalam said.

If someone closely following the news out of Libya could be aware of this, how is it that the people in charge of running the Libyan war weren’t?

Update: Mark Thompson is being a bit too generous in his assessment:

This was bound to happen: U.S. military officials, at least, have gone out of their way to say they are not in contact with the rebels, so how would NATO know when the rebels snared some of Gaddafi’s tanks?

Reading news accounts might have helped.