The disclosure formally confirmed what had long been known both in Washington and the region, that the American war on Al Qaeda has spread far from the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan where it began more than a decade ago. In the past, American officials acknowledged helping Somalia and Yemen battle extremists without confirming that American forces were themselves sometimes involved in the fight.
“In all cases, we are focused on those Al Qaeda members and affiliates who pose a direct threat to the United States and to our national interests,” George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said Friday in a statement. “This report contains information about these operations owing to their growing significance in our overall counterterrorism effort.
“Going forward,” Mr. Little added, “the American people should know that we will do what is necessary to defend our country against those who would threaten us.”
Advocates who have been pressing the government in and out of court to be more open about its use of force overseas called the public acknowledgment a small step toward transparency.
“While any voluntary disclosure is welcome, this is not much of a breakthrough,” said Steven Aftergood, who heads the government secrecy project at the Federation of American Scientists. “The age of secret wars is over,” Mr. Aftergood said. “They were never a secret to those on the receiving end.”
He added, “As in the case of C.I.A. drone operations and other widely reported acts, the only question has been how much reality is the U.S. government willing to acknowledge?”
The administration has been taking halting steps toward more public discussion of long-secret elements of the war.Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, recently gave a speech publicly acknowledging and defending the use of unmanned drone strikes.
The declassification of the Yemen and Somalia actions in Friday’s letter had the strong support of Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argued that the military needed to be open with the public when it could about operations, an administration official said.
Still, the letter told the public nothing that it did not already know from news accounts, and the government continues to fight efforts to provide more information about its overseas actions, including the legal justification for killing American citizens affiliated with Al Qaeda. The Obama administration has also overseen more prosecutions for illegal leaks than all of its predecessors combined.
By Peter Baker/ The New York Times