Feinstein's Blurt Leads to U.S. Confirmation That It Uses Pakistani Air Base

Sen. Dianne Feinstein's blurt during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last week forced the U.S. intelligence and military community to acknowledge on Thursday that the U.S. is targeting Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives using unmanned drones based in Pakistan.

The senator's slip sent reporters into overdrive and led to the discovery of a 2006 picture provided by Google Earth that appears to show Predator drones at Shamsi air base 200 miles southwest of Quetta.

A senior U.S. official confirmed to FOX News that Pakistani leaders -- despite their public protests and denials -- have been giving the U.S. some targets in the tribal areas of their own enemies, and have given the U.S. blanket permission to go after any "Arabs" in those areas because they are assumed to be Al Qaeda operatives.

The Pakistanis themselves are still officially denying the arrangement, a decision predicated on the weak federal government and extreme anti-Americanism in tribal communities, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Area in the Northwest, where Taliban and Al Qaeda support is strongest.

Feinstein's remarks, which were characterized as "foolish" by U.S. officials, were unusual for the experienced chairwoman of the intelligence panel.

According to intelligence sources, Feinstein's statement, at a hearing on the threat assessment with new Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, appears to be the first time a member of the U.S. government has publicly acknowledged that Predator vehicles are operating from a base inside Pakistan.

"Mr. Holbrooke, in Pakistan, ran into considerable concern about the use of the Predator strikes in the FATA area of Pakistan," Feinstein said to Blair, referring to Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. "And yet, as I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base." 

Feinstein's spokesman suggested at the time that her comment was merely a reference to a March 2008 report in The Washington Post that discussed the use of Pakistani bases as part of the Predator campaign. The article did not attribute the information to U.S. officials.

The Predator campaign, considered the single greatest factor in degrading Al Qaeda's capabilities,  is credited with the killing of eight members of the terrorist group's leadership since last summer.

The acknowledgement that the Pakistanis not only are turning a blind eye to U.S. operations in their territory, but also are lending a hand by supplying a staging area could create political problems for the fragile government of President Asif Ali Zardari. The U.S. was permitted to use Shamsi to launch attacks on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S.

Amb. Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for International Studies, said Feinstein's slip was definitely not intentional.

"Hell no," Schaffer told FOXNews.com. "I am quite sure that was not a subtle signal by the U.S. government. Senator Feinstein said what she said and I am quite confident the U.S. government did not want [it] to be acknowledged, both because of the usual concerns about operational security ... but secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, it's intensely politically embarrassing to the government of Pakistan."

One counterterrorism official told FOX News that tacit agreement with the Pakistanis would be well understood, even if covert. The U.S. would "deal with the garbage the Pakistanis can't for domestic reasons," while the Pakistanis would blame the U.S. publicly but cooperate behind the scenes.

Despite Pakistan's assistance providing access to the Shamsi base, a U.S. official said Thursday that Islamabad is slow-rolling a series of joint command centers that would allow intelligence and full-motion video from the UAVs to be shared, and which would allow an increase in the speed of the hunt for Al Qaeda and other insurgent leaders.

The model the U.S. is pushing is based on the same system the U.S. set up in Turkey, which is fully functioning and helping Turks share intelligence that allows U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles to strike the PKK -- the Kurdish terror group that has hounded Turkey for nearly 30 years. In so doing, the Turks don't have to send tanks and troops into Iraq.

Pakistanis have been sent to Turkey to observe how it works, but they have been slow to sign on. A joint coordination center with this capability has been built by the U.S. on the Afghan side of the border at the Torkham border crossing in the Khyber Pass, but it is not operational and the Pakistanis are stalling on participating.

Late last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern for civilian casualties resulting from the unmanned drones and said she was talking with Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the situation along their border.

But instead of stating U.S. position toward Pakistan, she left wide open where U.S. policy would go next.

"There's little doubt in anyone's mind that the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan are a source of instability for Afghanistan, for Pakistan, and far beyond the borders of those two countries. So there will be more to report about our views as to how we're going to proceed in the future," she said.

Schaffer said the best thing the U.S. could do would be to offer economic assistance to Pakistan and its border regions while keeping a low profile, something that the U.S. often finds difficult to do.

"These are things the U.S. will eventually be implementing that minimizes the U.S. visibility and maximizes the Pakistani visibility," she said of upcoming decisions on economic aid.

"We've got a substantial number of troops in Afghanistan. We can't fix Afghanistan without Pakistan being part of the solution," Schaeffer said.

FOX News' Jennifer Griffin and Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.