WASHINGTON -- The White House is seeking greater and swifter cooperation on intelligence sharing with the Yemeni government and more opportunities to train Yemeni counterterrorism teams in the aftermath of the airline package bombs, a senior administration official said Sunday.
The official also said evidence points to the plot's aim to blow up cargo planes inside or en route to the U.S.
The Obama administration's careful response since the plot was foiled shows the White House's concern that pushing Yemen publicly to ramp up counterterrorist cooperation or to agree to a more visible U.S. military presence could backfire. Washington does not want to raise questions among Yemenis about the legitimacy of the embattled government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and its dependence on the United States.
Cooperation between the U.S. and Yemen on counterterrorism matters is already fairly good and was improving since the White House made the country a priority, the official said.
But now the White House is using the near-miss of the multiple package bombs as a way to "push for more" collaboration, added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to share the high-level strategy deliberations.
In particular, the U.S. wants more real-time access to intelligence gleaned by Yemeni counterterrorist forces and intelligence services, the official said. The U.S. is also seeking greater access to question detainees in Yemen suspected of belonging to that country's terror faction, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP, the official added.
The al-Qaida affiliate claimed responsibility Friday for the airline plot in which two bomb-filled packages were sent late last month -- one discovered in Dubai and the second intercepted in the United Kingdom. The industrial explosive PETN was packed into the toner cartridges of Hewlett-Packard printers destined for addresses in Chicago.
The official insisted the push for greater Yemeni cooperation does not include seeking permission to engage in more unilateral military American action against AQAP, such as U.S. special operations kill-and-capture teams on the ground.
An interagency counterterrorism team has evolved over the past year in Yemen, as the administration has tried to determine what mix of U.S. government capabilities is best suited to the mostly clandestine mission. Those elements include the CIA, FBI, and elite U.S. special operations units, according to multiple current and former U.S. officials.
The challenge is getting the Yemenis to agree on who they'll work with, and how much access they'll grant, one former official said.
The U.S. is allowed to fly pilotless Predator drones and other observation aircraft over Yemeni territory, many of them launched from the U.S. base in nearby Djibouti.
Yemeni officials have resisted basing the drones inside their country, though that would enable the aircraft to stay above their observation targets longer. The first armed U.S. drone strike occurred in Yemen in 2002 against a suspect in the bombing of the destroyer USS. Cole. It was widely publicized and was damaging to the Yemeni administration.
Far more welcome to the Yemeni government are the ranks of U.S. special operations trainers, up to 100 at any one time, who work with the country's military. They concentrate on training members of two elite branches of government -- the National Security Bureau, which is much like the U.S. CIA, and Yemen's Counterterrorist Unit.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday in Australia that the U.S. could do more to help train Yemeni forces to combat terrorists. He was not specific, but officials told the Associated Press last week that military aid to Yemen would double to $250 million in 2011.
The hardest part is resisting the urge to "shove money and people" at the problem, one official said. Another challenge is to refrain from pushing so hard for more counterterrorist cooperation that they alienate the Saleh government and stall what Obama administration officials describe as their "whole of government" approach to Yemen.
Instead of looking at AQAP in isolation, they view the country's problems as caused by a wider confluence of factors. The resulting instability has allowed AQAP a foothold in the country, according to two senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the strategy.
Feeding Yemen's instability, they said, is an ailing economy where some three-quarters of the budget comes from oil revenues -- which are running out. Almost half the population are teenagers or younger, below the age of 15, and many live on less than $2 a day.