Obama goes public on drone strikes

Invariably, any time a public official in Washington is asked about drones strikes over Pakistan, the answer is the same: "We are not able to discuss intelligence matters."

But on Monday night all that changed when for the first time since taking office President Obama publicly acknowledged the deadly drone strike campaign waged on al Qaeda militants operating inside Pakistan and in the tribal regions along the Afghanistan border.

During an online question-and-answer session sponsored by Google's new social media outlet, Google Plus, Obama surprised listeners with candid answers to a question about the C.I.A.'s worst kept secret: missile strikes inside Pakistan.

"So, obviously, a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and going after al Qaeda suspects who are up in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan," the president said.

That was the statement that caught everyone's attention. The FATA is inside Pakistan, an acknowledgement of U.S. policy.

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At Tuesday's White House press briefing, reporters asked spokesman Jay Carney if the president made a mistake when he spoke about the drone campaign openly. Carney refused to go beyond what the president said and declared that he was "not going to discuss broadly or specifically supposed covert programs."

A senior defense official who spoke to Fox News on the condition of anonymity, pointed out that the president was careful not to mention the Central Intelligence Agency's involvement in the program.

"He came close to crossing a line," this official said, "but he didn't say who conducts these missions."

The CIA has never acknowledged publicly that they in fact carry out the strikes, but officials speaking on background have done so repeatedly. The U.S. military has long said it has no drone operation over Pakistan.

Although Pakistan's government has complained these strikes violate its sovereignty, Obama claimed this is the least intrusive method for going after these militants.

"Our ability to respect the sovereignty of other countries and to limit out incursions into somebody else's territory is enhanced by the fact that we are able to pinpoint strike an al Qaeda operative in a place where the capacities of that military in that country may not be able to get them," Obama said.

To go after these militants in any other way, he said, would involve "more intrusive military actions."

The president's remarks are unlikely to weaken the already fragile relationship with Pakistan because it's mostly immaterial to them whether or not the U.S. is discussing the operations or not.

It may, however, change that one-liner that press secretaries and spokesman in Washington so frequently utter about not talking about intelligence matters.