WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is considering ways
to expand broadly the role of American Special Operations forces in the global
campaign against terrorism, including sending them worldwide to capture or kill
Al Qaeda leaders far from the battlefields of Afghanistan, according to Pentagon
and intelligence officials.
Proposals now being discussed by Mr. Rumsfeld and senior military officers could ultimately lead Special Operations units to get more deeply involved in long-term covert operations in countries where the United States is not at open war and, in some cases, where the local government is not informed of their presence. This expansion of the military's involvement in clandestine activities could be justified, Pentagon officials believe, by defining it as "preparation of the battlefield" in a campaign against terrorism that knows no boundaries.
Some officials outside the Pentagon express concerns that the proposals ultimately could lead the military into covert operations that have traditionally been conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency under tightly controlled legal conditions; these are set out by the president in secret "findings," which are then closely monitored by Congress.
The discussion whether to give Special Operations forces missions to capture or kill individual Qaeda leaders may at some point conflict with the executive order prohibiting assassinations.
In past administrations, there was a clear effort to distinguish between the combat activities conducted by Special Operations forces and missions handled by the C.I.A. But the line has gradually blurred as the campaign against terrorism required greater cooperation among United States law enforcement, intelligence and military officials.
Indeed, some senior advisers to Mr. Rumsfeld say a legal finding allowing lethal force to be used as part of a mission against a terrorist leader may not be necessary to send Special Operations forces to hunt, capture or kill Al Qaeda leaders in any country especially since the terror network attacked the United States on Sept. 11, creating a state of armed conflict.
"We're at war with Al Qaeda," a senior adviser to Mr. Rumsfeld said. "If we find an enemy combatant, then we should be able to use military forces to take military action against them."
No formal plans have yet been written for Mr. Rumsfeld, and the discussions remain far from any form that might be presented to President Bush for his approval.
Mr. Rumsfeld is described by aides as frustrated that military operations in and around Afghanistan have reached a plateau without the elimination of Al Qaeda.
A classified directive issued recently by the Pentagon to the Special Operations Command ordered it to come up with fresh thinking on how elite counterterrorism units could be sent to "disrupt and destroy enemy assets," according to three Pentagon and administration officials who have seen the document.
The directive made clear that proposals for increased funds, new equipment and more personnel would be considered if Special Operations forces were cleared by the president and Mr. Rumsfeld to take the lead in attacking terrorist leaders far beyond the Afghan theater, those officials said.
More broadly, officials outside the Pentagon say that as Mr. Rumsfeld tries to stretch the limits on Special Operations activities, he may be moving them into areas of political intelligence-gathering and related clandestine operations traditionally conducted by C.I.A. case officers.
Mr. Rumsfeld was said to be dissatisfied that it was the C.I.A. that first developed ties to Afghan warlords as early as two years before Sept. 11, which put them in a position to introduce those warlords to American military personnel after the war in Afghanistan began. And it was the C.I.A. that paid off local warlords in order to obtain their cooperation with the American-led military campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
In some cases, efforts by American Special forces working with anti-Taliban commanders in Afghanistan to buy back Stinger missiles were slowed by the fact that they had to await payments to those Afghan fighters by C.I.A. field officers, because the American soldiers were not allowed to hand out cash.
George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, is described as not opposing the proposals, and at least one Pentagon official said discussions were under way with the intelligence sector on how to work out new arrangements between Special Operations forces and American intelligence. This would "optimize each other's capabilities" in ways that have not been possible up to now, the official said.
In fact, American troops have over the years been assigned to C.I.A.-led operations, with Vietnam being an often-cited example. Likewise, a traditional unconventional warfare mission for Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, has been to develop relationships and train foreign armies or guerrilla groups sharing goals with the United States.
In Afghanistan, a senior Defense Department official said, there was "an ad hoc relationship that was operationally driven" and that forced Special Operations forces and C.I.A. officers to cooperate and work together more closely, but with bumps and glitches in the process. Now, the official said, the idea is to formalize a closer relationship, with Special Operations forces playing a greater role in intelligence and "direct action" operations that is, those that use lethal force.
A number of Pentagon and administration officials said a central goal of stepping up Special Operations missions would be to seek out terrorist leaders themselves in their safe houses or as they travel the world to coordinate attacks or seek havens.
In the United States military, two highly secretive groups are designated for counterterrorism missions: the Army Special Operations unit known as Delta Force, also called the Combat Applications Group; and the Naval Special Warfare unit known as SEAL Team 6, also called the Development Group, senior Pentagon and military officials said.
Those two units have a second specialized mission counter-proliferation that is important to a Bush administration that has given greater emphasis in its national security policy to combating biological, chemical and nuclear weapons that may fall into the hands of terrorists or their state sponsors.
While the American military does not deny the existence of those units, it also does not officially confirm their existence or provide details on their operations.
"The people in these units are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anywhere around the world," a military officer said. "They are very highly trained, with specialized skills for dealing with close-quarters combat and unique situations posed by weapons of mass destruction."
According to a definition supplied by one former senior lawyer for the C.I.A., a covert action is "an activity or activities of the United States government to influence the political, economic or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly."
Some years ago, a State Department counsel issued an opinion that stated that the president, as commander in chief, had the power to order Delta Force to capture terrorists overseas and then bring them back to the United States, the former C.I.A. lawyer recalled.
"So there are legal theories that would support the president simply doing this on his own, as commander in chief," the lawyer observed. "Frankly, it is a question of what Congress will accept."
Mr. Bush, like President Clinton before him, authorized "lethal" covert action findings against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, allowing the use of deadly force in the C.I.A.'s covert operations intended to destroy the terrorist network.
A senior administration official argued that having vowed war on Al Qaeda, on terrorists with global reach and nations that assist them, "If we find a high-value target somewhere, anywhere, in the world, and if we have the forces to get there and get to them, we should get there and get to them."
With a stealthy, mercurial adversary like Al Qaeda, which learns quickly and adapts its tactics to the American response, the military has to be allowed to react just as quickly, this official said.
"Right now, there are 18 food chains, 20 levels of paperwork and 22 hoops we have to jump through before we can take action," the official said. "Our enemy moves faster than that."
The head of the United States Special Operations Command, Gen. Charles R. Holland, has briefed Mr. Rumsfeld and a very small group of senior Defense Department and military officers on initial thinking. While some of the missions could be conducted under the direction of regional war-fighting commanders, others could be the sole mission of the Special Operations Command working independently around the world, which also would break new ground in the military, officials said.
Special Operations forces played a central and highly celebrated role in toppling the Taliban government in Afghanistan and routing Al Qaeda.
But today, a number of Defense Department and military officials say some of those elite units have been deployed for too long in the more traditional of their unconventional roles, especially in support of the time-consuming, if still important, sweeps for pockets of enemy fighters and arms caches.
"They've become distracted by conventional uses," a Pentagon official said.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company