In a swipe at their chief Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee have asked the Obama administration to conduct an inquiry into recent comments by Sen. Dianne Feinstein that appeared to confirm the existence of a secret U.S. facility inside Pakistan used to stage missile strikes against Al Qaeda targets.
The unusual request by the Republicans seeks a "damage assessment" into the remarks by Feinstein, the new chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The request was made in a secret letter to Dennis Blair, Obama's new director of national intelligence, sent recently by Rep. Pete Hoekstra and other Republicans on the House intel panel, according to several congressional sources who were aware of the letter but declined to discuss it publicly because it discussed classified issues.
The request was quickly derided by Senate Democrats as an exercise in partisan mischief making intended to embarrass Feinstein. But the move underscored the extreme sensitivity surrounding CIA missile attacks inside Pakistan, which President George W. Bush sharply escalated last year and which President Obama has continued. The missile attacks have been credited by U.S. intelligence officials with killing as many as 80 Qaeda fighters over the past year. But the strikes have also stirred widespread protests inside Pakistan because of civilian casualties and have raised fresh concerns that they may even be destabilizing the Pakistani government.
At a public hearing Feb. 13, Feinstein told Blair she was surprised that there was such opposition in Pakistan to the surge in missile strikes, launched by the CIA using remote-controlled drones called Predators. "As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base," Feinstein said. Blair's response was noncommittal: he said that Pakistan was still "sorting out" how it worked with the United States on counterterrorism issues.
Feinstein's remarks immediately caused a stir in both Islamabad and Washington, where officials for years have steadfastly refused to comment publicly about Predator-related operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Officially, U.S. government spokesmen maintain, the U.S. does not have forces or equipment based in Pakistan. Questions about alleged Predator attacks inside Pakistan are met with denials in both Washington and Islamabad.
Still, some U.S. officials have at times acknowledged that there are one or more secret U.S. Predator bases in Pakistan, and their existence has been reported more than once in the media—both in Pakistan and by major U.S. publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. But as chairman of the Senate intel panel (who receives highly classified briefings on U.S. intelligence operations), Feinstein was the first American intelligence insider to talk publicly about the flights.
Phil LaVelle, a spokesman for Feinstein, maintained that the senator's remarks about the Predator base in Pakistan were simply a reference to information previously published by the media—not to anything she had learned in classified intelligence briefings. LaVelle specifically cited a story published on March 27, 2008, on the front page of The Washington Post. The story reported on a purported increase in the rate of Predator-related attacks and alleged that Predators were being launched "from bases near Islamabad and Jacobabad in Pakistan."
The alleged existence of Predator bases in Pakistan was also reported in The New York Times on Feb. 22, 2008. That story mentioned "a secret CIA base in Pakistan," as well as in Pakistani media reports. In the wake of Feinstein's remarks, however, media reports about the alleged base in Pakistan have increased. One blog even published a satellite photo apparently showing Predators on the ground at what is described as an airfield inside Pakistan.
Although Feinstein's comments at the Feb. 13 hearing made no reference to either of these stories, LaVelle told reporters at the time: "We strongly object to Senator Feinstein's remarks being characterized as anything other than a reference" to the news stories.
As if to underscore the sensitivity of the entire subject, Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, refused even to acknowledge the existence of the letter he and his colleagues sent objecting to Feinstein's comments. "If there was a letter like that, nobody would want to talk about it," he told NEWSWEEK. Another committee official said that he could neither confirm nor deny whether such a letter existed, but if it did, the document would be classified. Other congressional sources involved in intelligence oversight, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive matter, said they were aware of the letter. Blair's office had no immediate comment.
While details of the Republicans' secret submission to Blair remain sketchy, four sources familiar with the matter said they understood that in the letter, House committee Republicans asked that the intelligence czar undertake a "damage assessment" regarding Feinstein's statements. According to the sources, one branch of the intelligence czar's office that could be asked to conduct such an inquiry would be the National Counterintelligence Executive, an obscure unit whose duties include making sure that U.S. intelligence agencies are doing enough to keep foreign spies from stealing government and industrial secrets.
Even if the intelligence czar's office agreed to conduct such an assessment, it is unclear what consequences could follow. One former government official noted that in the past, senators have been removed from the Intelligence Committee for leaking confidential material, in some cases material that was not even highly classified. However, another current government official said that to oust a senator from the committee would require evidence that any release of classified information was intentional. At the moment, said the official, there is no reason to believe that Feinstein's statements—if they contained classified information—were anything but "inadvertent."
The dispute over Feinstein's comments comes at a time when there are mounting questions about the U.S. policy of conducting the missile strikes in the first place. Indeed, some critics are likely to ask if the larger "damage assessment" question should be whether the missile strikes create more security problems inside Pakistan than they eliminate.
Last year, following increasingly dire warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies that Al Qaeda and affiliated Islamic militant groups were establishing what amounts to a "safe haven" in tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the Afghan-Pakistan border, President Bush authorized a major increase in the use of Predators against suspected jihadist targets inside Pakistan. Bush did this by changing the "rules of engagement" under which U.S. forces were allowed to fire Predator-based missiles against suspected terrorist encampments. In the years after 9/11, the administration had generally restricted Predator-based missiles to situations in which the United States had very high "confidence"—90 percent or better—from intelligence reporting that a high-level Qaeda target like Osama bin Laden was at a particular place at a particular time.
Bush authorized a change in the rules so that Predators could fire missiles when there was a much lower confidence—50 to 60 percent—that non-Pakistani "foreign fighters" were present at a targeted location. Under the new rules, the U.S. launched an estimated 30 Predator-based missile attacks since last summer on targets inside Pakistan.
But according to an account in Wednesday’s New York Times, Pakistani intelligence officials told the paper that Al Qaeda has responded to the attacks by dispersing into smaller, more decentralized cells. The group has also replenished leaders killed in the strikes with new even harder-core recruits from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia and Uzbekistan. The recruits are transiting through Iran and end up in Pakistan's Waziristan region—believed to be Al Qaeda's main base—where the militants receive training, according to the account by Pakistani intelligence officials.
Though less experienced, these new younger recruits were described as even "more dangerous" and determined to foment insurgency inside Pakistan—a potentially ominous development given the weakness of Pakistani President Asi Ali Zardari's government. One apparent sign of that weakness was the recent decision by the Pakistani Army to agree to a truce with the Taliban in the Swat, a region about 100 miles north of the country's capital of Islamabad.
A high-level delegation of Pakistani officials, including military and intelligence chiefs, is currently visiting Washington to discuss antiterrorism operations with the Obama administration.
In a meeting Wednesday with reporters, Leon Panetta, the new CIA director, was asked whether Feinstein's statement about a Predator base in Pakistan had affected counterterrorism operations in that country. Panetta avoided comment on Feinstein's remarks and Predator operations, but did say: "Nothing has changed on efforts to go after terrorists and nothing will change with those efforts ... None of that has diminished and none of it will."