The U.S. would consider military force if necessary to stem al Qaeda's growing ability to use its hideout in Pakistan to launch terrorist attacks, a White House aide said Sunday.
The president's homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend, said the U.S. was committed first and foremost to working with Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, in his efforts to control militants in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. But she indicated the U.S. was ready to take additional measures.
"Just because we don't speak about things publicly doesn't mean we're not doing things you talk about," Townsend said, when asked in a broadcast interview why the U.S. does not conduct special operations and other measures to cripple al Qaeda.
"Job No. 1 is to protect the American people. There are no options off the table," she said.
The national intelligence director, Mike McConnell, said he believed that Osama bin Laden was living in the tribal, border region of Pakistan. Bin Laden is the leader of the al Qaeda network and mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
McConnell said Musharraf's attempt at a political solution to peace in the region had backfired by giving al Qaeda a place and time to regroup.
"Al Qaeda has been able to regain some of its momentum," McConnell said. "The leadership's intact. They have operational planners, and they have safe haven. The thing they're missing are operatives inside the United States."
In the National Intelligence Estimate released last week, analysts stressed the importance of al Qaeda's increasingly comfortable hideout in Pakistan that has resulted from a hands-off accord between Musharraf and tribal leaders along the Afghan border.
That 10-month-old deal, which has unraveled in recent days, gave al Qaeda new opportunities to set up compounds for terror training, improve its international communications with associates and bolster its operations.
Since then, U.S. officials have said they expect Pakistan to launch more military strikes on Islamic militants while the Bush administration pumps hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid into lawless tribal regions to fight extremism.
On Sunday, Townsend reiterated the importance of Musharraf's efforts.
"We should also be clear that we believe Pakistan has been a very good ally in the war on terrorism," she said. "Musharraf has been the subject of numerous assassination attempts. Al Qaeda's trying to kill him. They get what the problem is. And we're working with them to deny al Qaeda and the Taliban the safe haven."
McConnell also sought to bolster the leader of Pakistan, a key U.S. partner in its fight against terrorism. "President Musharraf is one of our strongest allies," McConnell said.
Townsend spoke on "Fox News Sunday" and "Late Edition" on CNN. McConnell appeared on "Meet the Press" on NBC.
The National Intelligence Estimate also suggested that al Qaeda was regaining strength and reconstituting its leadership in Pakistan in part because of increasing terrorism activity in Iraq. Critics have charged the administration with pulling resources from the hunt for bin Laden along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to prosecute a war in Baghdad which has subsequently strengthened the terror group.
On Tuesday Townsend said that U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq are connected.
"These aren't separate conflicts," she said. "These are clearly a single conflict by a single determined enemy who is looking for safe haven. And if they don't have safe haven in Afghanistan, they look for safe haven someplace else.
"They'd like to find it — and bin Laden has been quite clear — they'd like to find it in Iraq. But if they don't find it in Iraq, they're going to look someplace else, whether that's northern Mali, in the Maghreb or that's Somalia in West Africa."