WASHINGTON — Opening the window just a little further into his secret war on terrorists, President Obama publicly acknowledged for the first time on Friday that United States military forces had taken “direct action” against groups affiliated with Al Qaeda in Somalia andYemen.
In a letter to Congress, Mr. Obama said American forces had engaged in “a limited number” of operations against members of the Shabab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, arguing that both posed a terrorist threat to “the United States and our interests.”
He gave no further details in the unclassified letter, which accompanied the latest update to lawmakers under theWar Powers Act about military operations around the world. More details about the scope of the operations were included in the classified section of the report, administration officials said.
The disclosure formally confirmed what had long been known here and abroad, that the American war on Al Qaeda has spread far from the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it began more than a decade ago. In the past, officials acknowledged helping Somalia and Yemen battle extremists without confirming that American forces were sometimes involved in the fight.
“In all cases, we are focused on those Al Qaeda members and affiliates who pose a direct threat to the United States and to our national interests,” George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said Friday in a statement. “This report contains information about these operations owing to their growing significance in our overall counterterrorism effort.
“Going forward,” Mr. Little added, “the American people should know that we will do what is necessary to defend our country against those who would threaten us.”
Advocates who have been pressing the government in and out of court to be more open about its use of force overseas called the acknowledgment a small step toward transparency.
“While any voluntary disclosure is welcome, this is not much of a breakthrough,” said Steven Aftergood, who heads the government secrecy project at the Federation of American Scientists. “The age of secret wars is over. They were never a secret to those on the receiving end.”
Mr. Aftergood added, “As in the case of C.I.A. drone operations and other widely reported acts, the only question has been how much reality is the U.S. government willing to acknowledge?”
The administration has been taking halting steps toward more public discussion of long-secret elements of the war. Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, recently gave a speech publicly acknowledging and defending the use of unmanned drone strikes.
The declassification of the Yemen and Somalia actions in Friday’s letter had the strong support of Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argued that the military needed to be open when it could about operations, an administration official said.
Still, the letter said nothing not already known from news accounts, and the government continues to fight efforts to reveal more about actions overseas, including the legal justification for killing Americans affiliated with Al Qaeda. The administration has overseen more prosecutions for leaks than all of its predecessors.
By PETER BAKER