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In wake of cargo plot, U.S. weighs options on Yemen

From Jill Dougherty and Elise Labott, CNN
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State Department: Yemen cooperating
  • Officials say last week's incidents highlight vulnerabilities
  • Those vulnerabilities are in aviation and maritime security in Yemen
  • The administration is holding high-level talks on how to approach the Yemen situation

Washington (CNN) -- The Obama administration is having a series of high-level meetings on how to approach the situation in Yemen this week in the wake of a plot to send bombs from Yemen to the United States, senior U.S. officials said.

The discussions will address a variety of issues on security and the scale and pace of aid.

But officials say last week's incidents have first and foremost highlighted the vulnerabilities in aviation and maritime security in Yemen. They say the State Department and Department of Homeland Security are on the verge of instituting a new program, the details of which were actually agreed to before last week. Officials describe the plan, which will be run by DHS but paid for by the State Department, as a program to train, equip and assist Yemen with aviation and maritime security in a more effective way.

While the Transportation Security Administration already has the mandate to provide secondary screening of passengers bound for the United States and to screen all air cargo, the Obama administration is increasingly worried about gaps in the system that could leave the United States vulnerable. These gaps are related less to technology and more about corruption and capacity within the Yemeni government, officials said.

"It's not just about people and cargo," one official said. "You can have all the X-ray machines you want, but if someone is paid to turn the machine off at the right time, that doesn't do one bit of good."

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As part of the plan, TSA will have a long-term presence in Yemen for the next few years, the officials said. In addition to providing more equipment and coaching of Yemeni authorities on how to screen cargo, the U.S. personnel will also be working with the Yemen's interior ministry to vet new hires.

Officials describe a vibrant debate within the administration on the right balance between military aid and development assistance in aiding Yemen in its wider counterterrorism efforts.

Officials at U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the region, have proposed a $1.2 billion package of military equipment and training over the next six years. But some outside of the military believe the United States is already giving an appropriate level of military assistance to Yemen, including the frequency of drone strikes.

The United States has already ramped up its assistance to Yemen over the past several years. Baseline U.S. assistance to Yemen increased from $17.2 million in fiscal year 2008 to $67.5 million in 2010. President Obama has already requested around $106.6 in baseline assistance for FY 2011.

U.S. counterterrorism assistance has more than doubled over the past year from $67 million in FY 2009 to $150.5 million in FY 2010.

Officials said that much of this year's assistance has only recently been obligated, and new programs are in the process of being implemented.

U.S. Special Forces troops have expanded the type of training they're giving to Yemen's military, while adding more special operations forces to the training mission there.

A defense official with knowledge of the counterterrorism effort calls it "more complex training," that combines air support with tactical operations on the ground. He says the top number of special operations forces in Yemen number "no more than 50, but the exact number constantly fluctuates with specific operations."

Earlier this year Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved spending $150 million to train and equip Yemen's security forces, specifically so they can fight al Qaeda. That includes helicopters, planes and other equipment -- and more than doubles the amount of aid the U.S. military authorized in 2009. A senior defense official says the United States and Yemen have shared surveillance and intelligence on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula activity inside the country.

You can have all the X-ray machines you want, but if someone is paid to turn the machine off at the right time, that doesn't do one bit of good.
--unidentified senior U.S. official

"This doesn't really change the calculus on the military or operation side," another official said. "Most folks feel we are already doing what we need to be doing."

The United States is also expanding its intelligence operations in Yemen with more operatives and analysts working closely with the Yemen government and other U.S. partners inside Yemen, a U.S. official said. The increased focus on Yemen predates the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit.

U.S. officials had said earlier this year that there were ongoing discussions at the White House about what the level of CIA activity should be in Yemen, including the possibility of having the CIA mount a drone operation in Yemen similar to the one in Pakistan that has led to the deaths of a number of al Qaeda operatives who were the targets of the missiles fired from the unmanned planes.

However, any decision to pursue such an action would most likely require the approval of Yemen's president, who this past weekend indicated his country would not accept foreign intervention in tracking down al Qaeda.

Officials at the White House and State Department are concerned that increasing the size of military assistance might be counterproductive and not absolutely necessary. There is also concern that Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh will use U.S. weapons against his political enemies and further destabilize the country.

Some favor a more modest approach that provides counterterrorism aid, including training and equipment as part of a broader plan to promote development and stability in the country.

Officials do note Yemeni forces have stepped up attacks against militants over the past year, and especially since the failed Christmas Day attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound flight by Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was trained in Yemen.

But they say while the Yemeni government has reaffirmed its commitment to fighting militants, there is still concern about the lack of political will by President Saleh in launching a full-scale assault against al Qaeda.

They acknowledge a variety of challenges to giving aid to Yemen, including corruption, transparency and the weak capacity of the government of President Saleh, whose country is the poorest in the Arab world and which is facing a violent separatist movement in the south as well as a rebellion in the northwest. That is why the State Department has called for more training of Yemeni police, security services prosecutors, intelligence officers and working with the Yemeni government to pass relevant laws.

Officials warn that unless the United States helps develop Yemen, the country risks becoming a failed state, which would allow Al Qaeda to operate with complete impunity.

"It's not just training, it involves mentoring and advising," one official said. "Of course we need to and will help with the immediate security, but we have to work even harder on the big-picture development issues that are making Yemen even more of a longer-term threat than the threat posted by the immediate short-term issues."

CNN Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence and National Security Producer Pam Benson contributed to this report.