The Pentagon has deployed about 100 troops to Niger to conduct unmanned reconnaissance flights over Mali and will share intelligence with French forces fighting al Qaeda-affiliated militants.
Obama, in a letter to congressional leaders, said the last 40 of the approximately 100 military personnel had arrived in Niger on Wednesday and were "deployed with weapons for the purpose of providing their own force protection and security."
"This deployment will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region," the president said.
The United States and Niger signed a Status of Forces Agreement last month that governs the presence of American troops in the country, paving the way for sending unarmed drones and military personnel.
A Pentagon official said U.S. Africa Command, which handles military ties with Africa, had sent the unmanned planes to Niger "to support a range of regional security missions and engagements with partner nations."
The U.S. already has drones and surveillance aircraft stationed at several points around Africa. Niger granted permission for U.S. drones "to be stationed on its territory to improve intelligence on al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters in northern Mali and the wider Sahara, a senior Niger government source said in January."
News that the U.S. has a "secret" drone base in Saudi Arabia was leaked earlier this month:
"The Saudi base, which was constructed two years ago, was first used to launch the drones that killed American-born Al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. Though much of the debate has focused on the targeting of U.S. citizens, only four Americans have been killed in U.S. airstrikes in Yemen since 2002. By comparison, at least 24 people have already been killed by U.S. drones in Yemen this year, and since the campaign started more than 3,000 militants and civilians have been killed in strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia."
Also during February, Michael Isikoff, national investigative correspondent for NBC News, broke the story of a newly obtained, confidential Department of Justice white paper that hints at the details of a secret White House memo that explains the legal justifications for targeted drone strikes that kill Americans without trial in the name of national security:
The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes.
Isikoff's report further revealed that the Obama administration believes that high-level administration officials -- not just the president -- may order the killing of “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or an associated force even without any evidence that they are actively plotting against the U.S.
Marcy Wheeler (aka Emptywheel) has reported on the use of drones and Isikoff's report extensively, including this article on Friday, "John Yoo and the Obama White Paper and Killing Americans in America and Yemen."