"We are not contemplating that kind of action," Jay Carney, spokesman for President Obama, said. "We are talking about logistical support, providing intelligence assistance. This is aid and assistance to an effort that the French are undertaking."
Asked at his daily briefing if the United States would employ drones in Mali, Carney reiterated the logistical support being considered was "refueling, that kind of thing."
The press secretary's comments came after U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pledged to aid France's air assault in Mali, saying destroying Islamist militants there was part of a larger fight against al-Qaida.
"We're concerned that any time al-Qaida establishes a base of operations, while they may not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, ultimately that still remains their objective," Panetta said, referring to the expansion in Mali by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
"It is for that reason we have to take steps now to ensure that AQIM does not get that kind of traction," Panetta said on a flight to Portugal for NATO meetings.
Following the deadly Sept. 11 raid on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. classified intelligence indicated AQIM may been part of the attack. Former CIA Director David Petraeus said Nov. 16 this information was originally held back to avoid tipping off the terrorist group.
AQIM, based in Mali, a landlocked West African country south of Algeria that was a French colony, started out seeking to overthrow the Algerian government and institute an Islamic state.
The group has since declared its intention to attack Algerian, Spanish, French and U.S. targets.
It has gained strength as al-Qaida's central leadership in Pakistan weakens, stepping up kidnappings for ransom, smuggling and other lucrative criminal activities, Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said.
"In the coming years, general instability within the region could allow AQIM to further expand its influence," the bipartisan center said in a September 2011 report.
The United States has shared intelligence information that helped French jet fighters strike Islamist training camps and other militant positions in northern Mali Sunday, senior defense officials told The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
The proposed logistical support could include help with mid-flight refueling planes and air transport, they said.
France began targeting AQIM and its allies last weekend after a plea from Malian officials for help in stopping the Islamists' military advance.
Panetta would not describe the potential support in detail, saying no final decisions had been made.
Defense officials would not rule out the prospect of U.S. military cargo aircraft landing in Mali, where the United States for years has been conducting a counter-terrorism program, the Times said.
The officials would not say if the United States already has armed drones over Mali, the Times said. U.S. officials said Saturday they would consider sending drones to Mali.
The United States has spent $520 million to $600 million in the past four years to combat Islamist militancy from Morocco to Nigeria, including in Mali, U.S. officials have said.
The U.S. State Department said Washington and Paris were thinking the same way when it came to fighting AQIM.
"We share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington.
Panetta told reporters, "The fact is, we have made a commitment that al-Qaida is not going to find any place to hide."