The U.S. is establishing a Predator drone base in Niger that will assist the French military operation in Northern Mali but could also mark the beginning of a longer term surveillance mission in Western Africa.
President Obama notified senior Congressional leaders Friday that a force of approximately 100 American military personnel is now in Niger to set up the base.
In a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, Obama said the personnel had finished deploying to Niger on Tuesday with the consent of the government of Niger.
"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," said the letter.
"I directed this deployment of U.S. forces in furtherance of U.S. national security interests, and pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations and as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive," said Obama, who noted he was making the notification to be consistent with the War Powers Resolution.
U.S. officials told ABC News the deployment will establish a base in Niger so that unarmed Predator surveillance flights can be flown over Mali and other countries in the region.
One of the officials said that in recent weeks the U.S. has begun flying Predators over Mali as had been requested by the French when they launched their military intervention against al Qaeda-linked Islamist separatists in January. The French also requested airlifts for some of their forces and refueling tanker operations for their aircraft.
The official said the U.S. surveillance operation will be based in Niamey, Niger's capital, which will enable flight operations closer to Mali.
U.S. Africa Command developed a plan a few weeks ago that proposed setting up a base in Niger to enable long term surveillance operations in western Africa.
Niger officials have been receptive to the proposal, but a U.S. official said details still remain to be worked out.
One of the officials said the new operation announced by the White House is focused on assisting the French and providing surveillance for other areas of western Africa. However, the official said it is also possible that it could morph into the separate concept proposed by Africa Command.
Another official said the U.S. effort will consist of several unarmed Predator drones and the support teams required to maintain them.
The French request for a military airlift was quickly approved by the U.S. and beginning on January 21, five C-17s flew 925 French military personnel and their equipment to Mali and Niger. An additional 50 Chadian soldiers were also transported from Chad to Niger.
The request for refueling assistance was held up over American legal concerns that doing so might indicate the U.S. was a military participant in the intervention.
Those concerns were eventually resolved and as of Thursday the U.S. had flown 35 refueling missions that have provided 1.4 million pounds of jet fuel for French fighters conducting operations over Northern Mali.
Early on the United States met a French request to provide intelligence information, but France's specific request for Predator drone flights over Mali was not approved until recently.