The press is reporting that Senator Diane Feinstein, while chairing a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence yesterday, February 12, on the subject of Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States, had a slip of the tongue.
Reporting from 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.
The Senate Intelligence Committee website has a witness statement, but does not make a transcript of the hearing available. You can buy the transcript from FedNews but, hey, what good is the Internet if you can't get stuff like that free? Good old C-SPAN has a for-pay video and transcript page that at least lets you get a glimpse of the transcript gratis. Here's what you can do. If you go to the C-SPAN link you should find a Watch Video box on the right side of the page; in the Search Text box search for "predator;" when a video box pops up, click on Show Transcript. You should see the transcript on the right side of the page, but won't be able to print or download it.
Scroll down the transcript and you'll see that at minute 27:45, while asking the witness a question, Senator Feinstein refers to a National Public Radio story of February 3, 2009, concerning the effectiveness of Predator drone strikes in Pakistan. At minute 29:29, while asking a follow-up question, she returns to the topic of Predators and makes the statement: "As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base."
Her spokesman tried to explain that slip away as a reference to Washington Post stories that had already let the cat out of the bag (see here and here). But that explanation doesn't wash. Clearly, she just wasn't thinking and blurted out something she shouldn't have.