The Obama administration is debating a plan to begin drone strikes against militants in remote areas of Yemen, a move that would represent a major escalation of U.S. involvement there, according to two U.S. officials.
Use of missile strikes by unmanned drones is one of several options that administration officials have been discussing in recent days in response to an attempt by militants in Yemen to place explosives on cargo jets bound for the U.S. two weeks ago, the officials said.
The U.S. has been flying unmanned aircraft over Yemen since earlier this year, but the drones have been used for surveillance and not for attacking militants who have taken refuge in the country's rugged hinterlands.
The option under consideration by the White House would escalate the effort, enlisting Yemeni government support for drone strikes and developing more intelligence sources about where militants are hiding, the officials said.
The plan, along with other options, is expected to be debated by senior officials in coming weeks. The two U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
A senior Obama administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sunday that the U.S. was "engaged in a robust dialogue with the Yemeni government about a range of things, and have been even before the recent events."
The prospect that the strikes would go forward remains unclear. Winning Yemeni approval for airstrikes carried out exclusively by the U.S. could prove difficult.
In a rare admission Sunday, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr Qirbi told CNN that U.S. drones were used in "surveillance operations" and there was "intelligence information that is exchanged about the location of the terrorists by the Americans."
But in a sign of the sensitivity Yemen feels about allowing U.S. military operations, he said that recent airstrikes against militant hide-outs had been conducted by the Yemeni air force.
The Washington Post reported Sunday that the U.S. had been flying drones over Yemen for several months but had not fired any missiles because it lacked sufficient intelligence on militants' locations.
It has not previously been reported that the Obama administration is considering seeking the approval of the Yemeni government to launch such strikes. CIA officials declined to comment Sunday night.
The discovery last month of a plot to blow up airliners with bombs hidden inside computer printers has forced officials to reassess the U.S. approach in Yemen, amid growing evidence that an Al Qaeda faction in the Arabian Peninsula is intent on attacking the U.S. and its allies.
But the use of drone strikes in Yemen carries risks, including the possibility that an escalation of the campaign could worsen unrest within Yemen, especially among tribes that are giving sanctuary to militants. Such a move could also weaken Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose grip on power is showing signs of slippage.
If a campaign of drone strikes begins, the U.S. also would have to be careful not to be maneuvered by Saleh into going after his opponents among Yemen's powerful tribes.
Enlisting the support of Saleh is considered vital before deciding whether to proceed, the two U.S. officials said, because he has shown a willingness to break off cooperation if the U.S. undertakes operations on Yemeni territory without his approval.
If approved, U.S. involvement in Yemen could come to resemble its effort in Pakistan, where the CIA has been carrying out an escalating campaign of drone strikes against militants in the tribal areas, with unacknowledged assistance from the Pakistani government.
The effort in Yemen is unlikely to ever reach the scale as the one in Pakistan, where multiple strikes have been occurring every week. There are believed to be fewer militants in Yemen and far fewer drones available, since most of the CIA's resources are focused on Pakistan.
One of the issues U.S. officials are debating is whether Pentagon equipment and personnel should be placed under CIA control for the purpose of carrying out an expanded covert program in Yemen, the two officials said.
The U.S. has been providing equipment and training to Yemeni armed forces, and a small number of U.S. Special Forces troops are in the country to assist with the effort and with developing intelligence on the whereabouts of militants.
But administration officials have decided that the growing threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Al Qaeda that is believed to be responsible for the latest plot, requires ramping up U.S. covert operations, the officials said.
Until now, the relatively small number of attempts by the U.S. and the Yemeni government to kill militants in Yemen have been carried out by other means — either by bombs dropped from conventional aircraft or cruise missiles fired from U.S. Navy vessels. In other cases, Yemeni security forces have undertaken ground operations against suspected militant hide-outs.
U.S. Predator and Reaper drones are considered likely to produce better results because they can linger unseen for hours over a single location to gather intelligence and can immediately respond when an opportunity arises to fire a missile. Drone strikes are also considered more precise than other airstrikes and thus less likely to cause civilian casualties.
In his only public comments, President Obama on Oct. 29 emphasized the need to work cooperatively with Yemen's government.
"Going forward, we will continue to strengthen our cooperation with the Yemeni government to disrupt plotting by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and to destroy this Al Qaeda affiliate," Obama said. "We'll also continue our efforts to strengthen a more stable, secure and prosperous Yemen so that terrorist groups do not have the time and space they need to plan attacks from within its borders."
Forensic analysis of the cargo bombs indicated they were constructed by Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who is also believed to have built the devices used in two previous attempted attacks, including a failed effort to blow up a U.S. airliner in December.
Asiri is also believed to have built the bomb used by a suicide attacker last year against Saudi Arabia's intelligence director.
Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.