WASHINGTON – The White House counterterror chief said Friday that despite U.S.-Yemeni relations fraught with debate and tension, the two sides are ratcheting up efforts to capture or kill militants.
John Brennan said he and Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh have had what he called "animated conversations" at times over U.S. frustrations with Yemeni foot-dragging in counterterrorism and Yemen's complaints that promised U.S. aid isn't arriving fast enough.
"But that is the hallmark of true friendship," Brennan said, in remarks about U.S. policy toward Yemen delivered at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Not telling the other what they want to hear, but telling the other what they need to hear."
Brennan's attempt to reassure the U.S. public that Yemen is cooperating in the hunt for al-Qaida comes just a day after U.S. officials said they had intelligence indicating al-Qaida's Yemen offshoot is planning another attack over the holidays. The faction is blamed for a failed attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas and more recently for trying to bring down two U.S.-bound cargo planes with printer cartridges packed with explosives.
The most recent intelligence indicates that this time Europe is the target, the U.S. officials say. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security matters.
Four CIA employees narrowly escaped harm when militants tried to bomb their vehicle Wednesday in Yemen's capital Sanaa, said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because details about the incident remain secret. The official said there was "no indication that the perpetrators knew specifically who they were targeting."
The U.S. has struggled to balance public praise of cooperation by Yemen's president with private laments that Saleh uses negotiations to milk more money or equipment out of the Americans.
That frustration was detailed in the recent disclosure of classified U.S. cables by WikiLeaks, revealing conversations in which Saleh trades cooperation in return for funding or military aid. The cables include an account of a Sept. 6, 2009, meeting in which Brennan and Saleh sparred over American pressure for a more aggressive counterterror campaign.
Brennan would only say publicly that he had apologized personally to Saleh for the WikiLeaks disclosures, a day before they were made public in the international press. He told Saleh "we deeply regretted the public release of purported diplomatic correspondence that resulted from despicable criminal activity."
In one cable, referring to a Dec. 2009 U.S. cruise missile strike on an al-Qaida camp in Yemen, Saleh tells U.S. officials his government will pretend the missiles were fired by Yemen. One of his subordinates in the meeting jokes that they will lie publicly to the Yemeni parliament to that effect.
Two U.S. officials familiar with counterterrorist operations say despite the WikiLeaks embarrassment, planning continues for joint U.S.-Yemen action against al-Qaida targets inside Yemeni territory. The officials insisted on anonymity to discuss classified operations.
Such action could include the use of U.S. special operations teams working with Yemeni counterterrorist forces, and armed Predator or Reaper drones, which are currently flown from Djibouti or other locations in the region.
Yemeni officials have expressed a preference for the use of drones to U.S. special operations missions on the ground, even when those forces work closely with Yemeni troops. The Yemenis complain that U.S. manned missions produce "too many civilian casualties," said one Yemeni official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic relations.
The official would not confirm the use of U.S. teams or drones in any future actions. The U.S. military special operations forces, together with the CIA, share intelligence on the ground with Yemen, from the satellite and unmanned platform feeds from craft Yemen allows the U.S. to fly over some parts of the country.
Senior administration officials have griped, however, that Yemeni counterterrorist forces are often slow to share human intelligence they glean from the tribal territories where al-Qaida militants are thought to be sheltering. The officials add that Yemen is often reluctant to allow U.S. intelligence officials to question militant suspects captured in those territories.
Brennan stressed that the U.S. approach to battling terrorism in Yemen goes beyond the military, but includes efforts to encourage and fund reform in Yemen's economy and system of government. Brennan said the U.S. has poured in funding and expertise to teach the Yemeni government how to provide services to the struggling population.
Associated Press Writers Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo contributed to this story.