By Debbie Siegelbaum - 05/19/11 10:18 AM EDT
Pakistan should be left to deal with the new leader of al Qaeda if intelligence shows he is there, the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said Wednesday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the U.S. should not repeat the mission that U.S. forces undertook to kill Osama bin Laden, in which President Obama ordered a team of Navy SEALs into Pakistan without notifying the country’s government.
Feinstein has said it was "very gutsy" of Obama to go after bin Laden in Pakistan and praised the intelligence community for its work. In a statement after bin Laden's death, Feinstein said, "I congratulate the CIA for finding him and providing the information that led to his death."
Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan and Obama’s order for U.S. forces to move into the country without approval have seriously tarnished relations between the two countries. U.S. officials have indicated they worried the mission could have been compromised if Pakistan’s government had been notified.
Feinstein’s position conflicts with another key senator, though, who said the U.S. should keep any information it gets about Ayman al-Zawahiri to itself.
“I don’t have confidence in Pakistani intelligence,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said he would make sure any information about al-Zawahiri’s location stayed within U.S. ranks.
Levin said a drone attack against al-Zawahiri was a possibility.
“Maybe we would do it with a drone, which would be preferable if you could confirm it,” he said. “It depends on the degree of certainty, the location, is he staying in the middle of a city; it depends on a whole lot of circumstances.”
During his presidential campaign, Obama said he would chase down bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders inside Pakistan.
“Let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again,” Obama said in 2007. “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [then-Pakistan] President [Pervez] Musharraf won’t act, we will.”
After bin Laden’s death, Obama noted that promise. But the White House did not provide comment when asked if the same standard now applied to al-Zawahiri.
Al-Zawahiri had been considered al Qaeda’s second-in-command to bin Laden, and is now presumed to be the terrorist organization’s head.
In an interview Sunday with “60 Minutes,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said he believes al-Zawahiri is hiding out in Pakistan.
A staffer on the House Intelligence Committee said Wednesday that Rogers’s statements on “60 Minutes” were not formulated from intelligence information gleaned from his position on the committee.
Instead, Rogers was expressing “a widely held public belief that al-Zawahiri is in Pakistan,” the committee staffer said.
Feinstein and other lawmakers involved with intelligence matters said Rogers should not have been speaking so openly.
“I think there’s too much being said right now, and it’s a very sensitive time and I think the less said, the better,” Feinstein said in response to the congressman’s public remarks.
Whether or not al-Zawahiri is even in Pakistan remains unclear for lawmakers.
“I’m not aware of his whereabouts,” said Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “I’m sure we are in pursuit of him — he’s the No. 2 person in al Qaeda — but I don’t know of any specific plans, nor do I know of his location.”
Members were in consensus, however, that al-Zawahiri’s location and any U.S. action against him should not be discussed publicly.
“Those are military, national security decisions that are made by the commander in chief, and certainly shouldn’t be done through the newspapers,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “For multiple purposes, including strategic ones, you don’t want to be talking about them too wide and broad.”
Other senators agreed with Levin’s assessment.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who serves on Levin’s committee, said his policy “is to take whatever action is reasonably justified to attack him.”
Rubio concurred, saying, “We are in a war on terror and we have an obligation to take every step that is reasonable and possible to win that war.”
Sen. John McCain, the ranking member of Levin’s panel, said the factors involved would be pivotal in determining how the U.S. should pursue al-Zawahiri.
“There’s so many factors involved with an operation of that nature,” the Arizona Republican said. “We can’t make a decision unless [we] have all the facts; I can’t make that kind of judgment.”
“We’ve told terrorists that they’re not safe anywhere, but you have to know the scenario,” he added.
Jordy Yager contributed to this report, which was updated at 11:49 am on May 19.