By Adam Levine
The White House awkwardly tried to explain away the fact that the president publicly talked about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, a covert program that officials never publicly acknowledged previously, during an online chat.
In a surreal White House press conference, spokesman Jay Carney tried to play down Obama's comments but at the same time the way he answered demonstrated that sensitive information was indeed at stake.
In multiple questions, Carney would not even say the word drone, instead referring to the "supposedly covert programs"
Carney would only answer the question based on a statement he had printed out. The statement reiterated president's comment that the strikes were surgical and avoided civilian risk, but did not speak to the issue of revealing what had been information that the administration was loathe to talk about.
"Everything I can tell you about it is on this piece of paper," Carney said. Earlier in the day, an administration official insisted to Dan Lothian that Obama's comment was "not a slip up."
Asked by CBS reporter Bill Plante "If the president acknowledged the drones, why can't you?," Carney said he would not discuss the issue any further.
CNN's Brianna Keilar asked Carney if the president made a mistake in stating the U.S. is flying drones into Pakistan to go after terrorists.
"He's the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States, he's the president of the United States," Carney said.
Republican Senator John McCain, Obama's 2008 presidential opponent and the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, had no issue with what Obama said.
“I think the Pakistani’s already knew. I think there are bigger issues between us and Pakistan than that. The biggest issue between us and Pakistan is that ISI continues to coordinate and work with the Haqqani network which is killing Americans," the Arizona senator told CNN's Ted Barrett.
"So you’re not necessarily critical of him discussing this publicly?," Barrett asked.
"No I’m not too much. No, I’m not really," McCain replied.
The chairman of the Armed Services committee was equally non-plused by the revelation.
“Everyone knows they’ve taken place. Heck the Pakistanis have been told it’s taken place. I’m not sure what the secret is," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, told Ted Barrett. "I’m surprised that was the first time he said it because the Pakistanis have said it repeatedly."
Levin then took a dig at the press.
"I don’t even know why it’s newsworthy. I’m surprised it is. I guess it is, right? I guess it came as a surprise to at least some news people," Levin said.
But Levin's democratic colleague on the Senate Select Intelligence committee, Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-California, appeared to take a swipe at Obama, prefacing a comment about drone strikes by saying that "once again this committee has been put in a difficult position of trying to avoid any mention of classified matters when various parts of the executive branch may be doing somewhat the opposite," Feinstein said during a Tuesday hearing.
"I ask members to be careful in their questions and statements and to remember that public discussion of some intelligence programs and assets can lead to them being compromised," Feinstein added.
A statement from Feinstein emailed to Politico said she was "not criticizing the president."
Over at the Pentagon, nobody would speak on the record, but a US official told Barbara Starr that “the President’s remarks on drones cause no problems. If anyone has missed drone strikes in Pakistan over the last decade they are Rip Van Winkle."