Sen. Dianne Feinstein's blurt during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last week forced the U.S. intelligence and military community to acknowledge on Thursday that the U.S. is targeting Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives using unmanned drones based in Pakistan.
The senator's slip sent reporters into overdrive and led to the discovery of a 2006 picture provided by Google Earth that appears to show Predator drones at Shamsi air base 200 miles southwest of Quetta.
A senior U.S. official confirmed to FOX News that Pakistani leaders -- despite their public protests and denials -- have been giving the U.S. some targets in the tribal areas of their own enemies, and have given the U.S. blanket permission to go after any "Arabs" in those areas because they are assumed to be Al Qaeda operatives.
The Pakistanis themselves are still officially denying the arrangement, a decision predicated on the weak federal government and extreme anti-Americanism in tribal communities, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Area in the Northwest, where Taliban and Al Qaeda support is strongest.
Feinstein's remarks, which were characterized as "foolish" by U.S. officials, were unusual for the experienced chairwoman of the intelligence panel.
According to intelligence sources, Feinstein's statement, at a hearing on the threat assessment with new Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, appears to be the first time a member of the U.S. government has publicly acknowledged that Predator vehicles are operating from a base inside Pakistan.
"Mr. Holbrooke, in Pakistan, ran into considerable concern about the use of the Predator strikes in the FATA area of Pakistan," Feinstein said to Blair, referring to Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. "And yet, as I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base."
Feinstein's spokesman suggested at the time that her comment was merely a reference to a March 2008 report in The Washington Post that discussed the use of Pakistani bases as part of the Predator campaign. The article did not attribute the information to U.S. officials.
The Predator campaign, considered the single greatest factor in degrading Al Qaeda's capabilities, is credited with the killing of eight members of the terrorist group's leadership since last summer.
The acknowledgement that the Pakistanis not only are turning a blind eye to U.S. operations in their territory, but also are lending a hand by supplying a staging area could create political problems for the fragile government of President Asif Ali Zardari. The U.S. was permitted to use Shamsi to launch attacks on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S.