WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. lawmaker said Thursday that unmanned CIA Predator aircraft operating in Pakistan are flown from an air base in that country, a revelation likely to embarrass the Pakistani government and complicate its counter-terrorism collaboration with the United States.
The disclosure by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, marked the first time a U.S. official had publicly commented on where the Predator aircraft patrolling Pakistan take off and land.
At a hearing, Feinstein expressed surprise over Pakistani opposition to the campaign of Predator-launched CIA missile strikes against Islamic extremist targets along Pakistan's northwestern border.
"As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base," she said.
The basing of the pilotless aircraft in Pakistan suggests a much deeper relationship with the United States on counter-terrorism matters than has been publicly acknowledged. Such an arrangement would be at odds with protests lodged by officials in Islamabad, the capital, and could inflame anti-American sentiment in the country.
The CIA declined to comment, but former U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, confirmed that Feinstein's account was accurate.
Philip J. LaVelle, a spokesman for Feinstein, said her comment was based solely on previous news reports that Predators were operated from bases near Islamabad.
"We strongly object to Sen. Feinstein's remarks being characterized as anything other than a reference" to an article that appeared last March in the Washington Post, LaVelle said. Feinstein did not refer to newspaper accounts during the hearing.
Many counter-terrorism experts have assumed that the aircraft take off from U.S. military installations in Afghanistan and are remotely piloted from locations in the United States. Experts said the disclosure could create political problems for the government in Islamabad, which is considered relatively weak.
The attacks are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, in part because of the high number of civilian casualties inflicted in dozens of strikes.
The use of Predators armed with Hellfire antitank missiles has emerged as perhaps the most important tool of the U.S. in its effort to attack Al Qaeda in its sanctuaries along the Pakistani-Afghan border. A New Year's Day strike killed two senior Al Qaeda operatives who were suspected of involvement in the bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel.
They were among at least eight senior Al Qaeda figures reportedly killed in Predator strikes over the last seven months as part of a stepped-up missile campaign.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said Feinstein's comments put Pakistan's government on the spot.
"If accurate, what this says is that Pakistani involvement, or at least acquiescence, has been much more extensive than has previously been known," he said. "It puts the Pakistani government in a far more difficult position [in terms of] its credibility with its own people. Unfortunately it also has the potential to threaten Pakistani-American relations."
As chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein is privy to classified details of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. The CIA does not publicly acknowledge a campaign against Pakistan-based extremists using remotely piloted planes, making Feinstein's comment all the more unusual.
Feinstein's disclosure came during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee by U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair on the nation's security threats. Blair did not respond directly to Feinstein's remark, except to say that Pakistan was "sorting out" its cooperation with the United States.
Pakistani officials have long denied that they have even granted the U.S. permission to fly the Predator planes over Pakistani territory, let alone to operate the aircraft from within the country.
The civilian leadership that took over from an unpopular former general, Pervez Musharraf, last year, has gone to significant lengths to distance itself from the Predator strikes.
The Pakistani government regularly lodges diplomatic protests against the strikes as a violation of its sovereignty, and officials said the subject was raised with Richard C. Holbrooke, a newly appointed U.S. envoy to the region, who completed his first visit to the country Thursday.
But a former CIA official familiar with the Predator operations said Pakistan's government secretly approves of the flights because of the growing militant threat.
Feinstein prefaced her comment about the Predator basing Thursday by noting that Holbrooke "ran into considerable concern about the use of the Predator strikes in the FATA areas," a reference to what Pakistan calls its Federally Administered Tribal Area along the border with Afghanistan.
Many Pakistanis believe that the civilian leadership, despite public anger, has continued Musharraf's policy of giving the United States tacit permission to carry out the strikes.
The CIA has been working to step up its presence in Pakistan in recent years. It has deployed as many as 200 people to the country, one of its largest overseas operations besides Iraq, current and former agency officials have estimated. That contingent works alongside other U.S. operatives who specialize in electronic communications and spy satellites.
In his prepared testimony Thursday, Blair said that Al Qaeda had "lost significant parts of its command structure since 2008."
Times staff writer Laura King in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.