“One thing I’ve learned is every time I turn around, I face a group of lawyers,” Panetta told reporters in Rome, where he met with Italian leaders as part of a previously scheduled European trip, which has come to be dominated by the chaos in Mali.
“It’s no different now,” he said. “Lawyers basically have to review these issues to make sure they feel comfortable that we have the legal basis for what we’re being requested to do. And I understand the need for that.”
The United States is barred from offering direct military aid to Mali because the weak government there took power in a military coup last year.
But the legal issues surrounding any U.S. support for an allied mission there are more complicated.
Despite the ban on direct military aid, a senior American official said Wednesday that the Malian government had made an appeal for U.S. help in recent days.
The disclosure appeared to contradict earlier U.S. characterizations that only France had been asked to intervene.
“The Malian government made a specific request of the United States, as they did the French, several days ago for assistance in combating the threat posed by the rebels” in the country’s north, the State Department official said.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, did not detail the Malian request further. Another official later said the request was a general appeal to support Mali under terms of a plan drafted by the United Nations last month.
It was not clear whether Mali sought the same kind of direct combat help now being provided by the French.
The Obama administration has offered money and logistical support to field an African force that would help the Malian government, and it is weighing French requests for logistical help such as transport or aerial refueling.
The United States has already expanded intelligence-sharing with France in support of the Mali operation, U.S. officials said.
U.S. spy agencies have limited visibility into the crisis. American officials said the CIA does not fly surveillance drones over Mali and has a relatively small presence on the ground, based in the capital, Bamako.
The agency has diverted some resources to the country, officials said, but has been stretched by other demands across the region, including the effort to track weapons in Libya and the escalating civil war in Syria.
The United States could furnish French forces with aerial imagery collected by American spy satellites and military aircraft.
But the main U.S. military surveillance effort over the country was suspended by the American ambassador to Mali, Mary Beth Leonard, after the coup raised fears that if a spy plane crashed, its crew might be taken hostage by extremists.
The U.S. military previously monitored Mali with a fleet of small, unmarked turboprop planes equipped with high-tech sensors and flown by contractors — a makeshift approach that reflected the heavy demand for drone aircraft in Afghanistan and other trouble spots.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress approved the open-ended use of military force against al-Qaeda and its allies. Since then, the Bush and Obama administrations have used that as the authority to launch military action against far-flung al-Qaeda affiliates, including networks in Yemen and Somalia.
So far, however, the Obama administration has not explicitly taken that step against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with some U.S. officials arguing that the network is isolated in remote parts of Africa and does not represent a direct or imminent threat to American interests.
Panetta flatly declared that the insurgency in Mali is being led by AQIM, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, and suggested that there is a legal basis for the United States to act.
“They are a threat,” he said. “They are a threat to our country. They’re a threat to the world. Wherever they locate and try to establish a base of operations, I think that constitutes a threat that all of us have to be concerned with.”
The State Department issued a warning Wednesday against all travel by U.S. citizens to Mali. The U.S. Embassy in Bamako remains open, but employees may not travel north of the city.
The Obama administration’s deliberations over whether and how to become involved in Mali contrast with other NATO allies in Europe — such as Denmark, Britain, Germany and Italy — that have been quicker to promise military assistance to France.
Whitlock reported from Rome. Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.