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Panetta Ties Delay of Aid in Mali to Legal Questions

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, “All of us concur that we ought to provide whatever assistance we can to assist the French in their effort and ultimately insure that West African nations take responsibility” for the security in Mali. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said U.S. assistance to France in its fight against Islamist militants in Mali is being delayed because of questions raised by Obama administration lawyers.

“I find that every time I turn around I face a group of lawyers,” Panetta told reporters yesterday in Rome, where he met with Italian Defense Minister Giampaolo di Paola. The administration lawyers want “to be sure that they feel comfortable that we have the legal basis to do what we are being requested to do” in aiding the French effort, he said.

President Barack Obama also understands the “need to have that kind of basis” before the U.S. can provide airlift and logistics support in addition to some intelligence information that’s already being provided to France, Panetta said.

“Those are the discussions that are occurring,” he said. “I’m not going to say that these questions are insurmountable.”

In 2001, Congress passed authorization for the president to use military force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That authority remains available, and that’s why “I’m confident we will be able to provide this assistance” to France, Panetta said.

France has committed about 1,700 troops to the Mali mission, including 800 already in the country, with the goal of destroying or capturing militants who split the country in two early last year and began moving south toward the capital last week. Some of the insurgents are part of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.

Aid Considered

Since France’s military action began on Jan. 11, the Pentagon has been weighing providing assistance, including refueling capability, airlift and additional intelligence information.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Jan. 15 that the U.S. couldn’t directly aid current Mali’s government, which was installed through a coup led by a military officer who had received Pentagon training.

She said there were no restrictions on helping allies such as France and other African nations, which are preparing to send forces to Mali under United Nations authorization.

“We are precluded under the counter-coup restrictions from funding a military that has been involved in a coup until democracy has been restored, but we’re not precluded from assisting allies and partners in trying to restore security to that country,” Nuland told reporters.

The U.S. is preparing to send military trainers and supplies to assist those soldiers before they deploy to Mali, she said.

Panetta Meeting

Panetta met with di Paola in Rome yesterday after visiting with the Portuguese and Spanish defense ministers earlier in the week.

“All of us concur that we ought to provide whatever assistance we can to assist the French in their effort and ultimately insure that West African nations take responsibility” for the security in Mali, Panetta said.

Italy said yesterday that it would provide logistical aid to the French military forces in their air operations in Mali.

Asked if the Mali mission is being viewed in the U.S. as a French mission, Panetta said, “This is an international effort. I believe it should be an international effort.”

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