WASHINGTON - The United States military since 2004 has used broad,
secret authority to carry out nearly a dozen previously undisclosed
attacks against Al Qaeda and other militants in Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere, according to senior American officials.
These military raids, typically carried out by Special Operations
forces, were authorized by a classified order that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld
signed in the spring of 2004 with the approval of President Bush, the
officials said. The secret order gave the military new authority to
attack the Qaeda terrorist network anywhere in the world, and a more
sweeping mandate to conduct operations in countries not at war with the
In 2006, for example, a Navy Seal team raided a suspected militants' compound in the Bajaur region of Pakistan, according to a former top official of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Officials watched the entire mission - captured by the video camera of
a remotely piloted Predator aircraft - in real time in the C.I.A.'s
Counterterrorist Center at the agency's headquarters in Virginia 7,000
Some of the military missions have been conducted in close
coordination with the C.I.A., according to senior American officials,
who said that in others, like the Special Operations raid in Syria on
Oct. 26 of this year, the military commandos acted in support of
But as many as a dozen additional operations have been canceled in
the past four years, often to the dismay of military commanders, senior
military officials said. They said senior administration officials had
decided in these cases that the missions were too risky, were too
diplomatically explosive or relied on insufficient evidence.
More than a half-dozen officials, including current and former
military and intelligence officials as well as senior Bush
administration policy makers, described details of the 2004 military
order on the condition of anonymity because of its politically delicate
nature. Spokesmen for the White House, the Defense Department and the
military declined to comment.
Apart from the 2006 raid into Pakistan, the American officials
refused to describe in detail what they said had been nearly a dozen
previously undisclosed attacks, except to say they had been carried out
in Syria, Pakistan and other countries. They made clear that there had
been no raids into Iran using that authority, but they suggested that
American forces had carried out reconnaissance missions in Iran using
other classified directives.
According to a senior administration official, the new authority was
spelled out in a classified document called "Al Qaeda Network Exord,"
or execute order, that streamlined the approval process for the
military to act outside officially declared war zones. Where in the
past the Pentagon needed to get approval for missions on a case-by-case
basis, which could take days when there were only hours to act, the new
order specified a way for Pentagon planners to get the green light for
a mission far more quickly, the official said.
It also allowed senior officials to think through how the United
States would respond if a mission went badly. "If that helicopter goes
down in Syria en route to a target," a former senior military official
said, "the American response would not have to be worked out on the
The 2004 order was a step in the evolution of how the American
government sought to kill or capture Qaeda terrorists around the world.
It was issued after the Bush administration had already granted
America's intelligence agencies sweeping power to secretly detain and
interrogate terrorism suspects in overseas prisons and to conduct
warrantless eavesdropping on telephone and electronic communications.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Bush issued a classified
order authorizing the C.I.A. to kill or capture Qaeda militants around
the globe. By 2003, American intelligence agencies and the military had
developed a much deeper understanding of Al Qaeda's extensive global
network, and Mr. Rumsfeld pressed hard to unleash the military's vast
firepower against militants outside the combat zones of Iraq and
The 2004 order identifies 15 to 20 countries, including Syria,
Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and several other Persian Gulf states,
where Qaeda militants were believed to be operating or to have sought
sanctuary, a senior administration official said.
Even with the order, each specific mission requires high-level
government approval. Targets in Somalia, for instance, need at least
the approval of the defense secretary, the administration official
said, while targets in a handful of countries, including Pakistan and
Syria, require presidential approval.
The Pentagon has exercised its authority frequently, dispatching
commandos to countries including Pakistan and Somalia. Details of a few
of these strikes have previously been reported.
For example, shortly after Ethiopian troops crossed into Somalia in
late 2006 to dislodge an Islamist regime in Mogadishu, the Pentagon's
Joint Special Operations Command
quietly sent operatives and AC-130 gunships to an airstrip near the
Ethiopian town of Dire Dawa. From there, members of a classified unit
called Task Force 88 crossed repeatedly into Somalia to hunt senior
members of a Qaeda cell believed to be responsible for the 1998
American Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
At the time, American officials said Special Operations troops were
operating under a classified directive authorizing the military to kill
or capture Qaeda operatives if failure to act quickly would mean the
United States had lost a "fleeting opportunity" to neutralize the
Occasionally, the officials said, Special Operations troops would
land in Somalia to assess the strikes' results. On Jan. 7, 2007, an
AC-130 struck an isolated fishing village near the Kenyan border, and
within hours, American commandos and Ethiopian troops were examining
the rubble to determine whether any Qaeda operatives had been killed.
But even with the new authority, proposed Pentagon missions were
sometimes scrubbed because of bad intelligence or bureaucratic
entanglements, senior administration officials said.
The details of one of those aborted operations, in early 2005, were
reported by The New York Times last June. In that case, an operation to
send a team of the Navy Seals and the Army Rangers into Pakistan to
capture Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's top deputy, was aborted at the last minute.
Mr. Zawahri was believed by intelligence officials to be attending a
meeting in Bajaur, in Pakistan's tribal areas, and the Pentagon's Joint
Special Operations Command hastily put together a plan to capture him.
There were strong disagreements inside the Pentagon and the C.I.A.
about the quality of the intelligence, however, and some in the
military expressed concern that the mission was unnecessarily risky.
Porter J. Goss,
the C.I.A. director at the time, urged the military to carry out the
mission, and some in the C.I.A. even wanted to execute it without
informing Ryan C. Crocker, then the American ambassador to Pakistan. Mr. Rumsfeld ultimately refused to authorize the mission.
Former military and intelligence officials said that Lt. Gen.
Stanley A. McChrystal, who recently completed his tour as head of the
Joint Special Operations Command, had pressed for years to win approval
for commando missions into Pakistan. But the missions were frequently
rejected because officials in Washington determined that the risks to
American troops and the alliance with Pakistan were too great.
Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for General McChrystal, who is now director of the military's Joint Staff, declined to comment.
The recent raid into Syria was not the first time that Special
Operations forces had operated in that country, according to a senior
military official and an outside adviser to the Pentagon.
Since the Iraq war began, the official and the outside adviser said,
Special Operations forces have several times made cross-border raids
aimed at militants and infrastructure aiding the flow of foreign
fighters into Iraq.
The raid in late October, however, was much more noticeable than the
previous raids, military officials said, which helps explain why it
drew a sharp protest from the Syrian government.
Negotiations to hammer out the 2004 order took place over nearly a
year and involved wrangling between the Pentagon and the C.I.A. and the
State Department about the military's proper role around the world,
several administration officials said.
American officials said there had been debate over whether to
include Iran in the 2004 order, but ultimately Iran was set aside,
possibly to be dealt with under a separate authorization.
Senior officials of the State Department and the C.I.A. voiced fears
that military commandos would encroach on their turf, conducting
operations that historically the C.I.A. had carried out, and running
missions without an ambassador's knowledge or approval.
Mr. Rumsfeld had pushed in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks to
expand the mission of Special Operations troops to include intelligence
gathering and counterterrorism operations in countries where American
commandos had not operated before.
Bush administration officials have shown a determination to operate
under an expansive definition of self-defense that provides a legal
rationale for strikes on militant targets in sovereign nations without
those countries' consent.
Several officials said the negotiations over the 2004 order resulted
in closer coordination among the Pentagon, the State Department and the
C.I.A., and set a very high standard for the quality of intelligence
necessary to gain approval for an attack.
The 2004 order also provided a foundation for the orders that Mr.
Bush approved in July allowing the military to conduct raids into the
Pakistani tribal areas, including the Sept. 3 operation by Special
Operations forces that killed about 20 militants, American officials
Administration officials said that Mr. Bush's approval had paved the way for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates
to sign an order - separate from the 2004 order - that specifically
directed the military to plan a series of operations, in cooperation
with the C.I.A., on the Qaeda network and other militant groups linked
to it in Pakistan.
Unlike the 2004 order, in which Special Operations commanders
nominated targets for approval by senior government officials, the
order in July was more of a top-down approach, directing the military
to work with the C.I.A. to find targets in the tribal areas,
administration officials said. They said each target still needed to be
approved by the group of Mr. Bush's top national security and foreign
policy advisers, called the Principals Committee.