WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is considering ways to broadly expand the role of U.S. Special Operations forces in the global campaign against terrorism, including sending them worldwide to capture or kill al-Qaida leaders, according to Pentagon and intelligence officials.
Proposals being discussed by Rumsfeld and senior military officers could lead Special Operations units to become more deeply involved in long-term covert operations in countries where the United States is not at 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 said, by defining it as "preparation of the battlefield" in a campaign against terrorism that knows no boundaries.
Some officials outside the Pentagon are concerned that the proposals could lead the military into covert operations that have traditionally been conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency under tightly controlled legal conditions set out by the president in secret "findings," operations which are then closely monitored by Congress.
The discussion whether to give Special Operations forces missions to capture or kill al-Qaida leaders may at some point conflict with the presidential ban on assassinations.
In past administrations, there was a clear effort to distinguish between combat activities conducted by Special Operations forces and missions handled by the CIA. But the line has blurred as the campaign against terrorism required greater cooperation among U.S. law enforcement, intelligence and military officials.
Some senior advisers to Rumsfeld said a legal finding allowing lethal force to be used as part of a mission against a terrorist leader might not be necessary to send Special Operations forces to hunt, capture or kill al-Qaida leaders, in any country - especially since the terror group attacked the United States on Sept. 11, creating a state of armed conflict.
No formal plans have been written for Rumsfeld, and discussions remain far from any form that might be presented to President Bush for his approval.
Rumsfeld is described by aides as frustrated that military operations in and around Afghanistan have reached a plateau without the elimination of al-Qaida.
A classified directive issued recently by the Pentagon to the U.S. Special Operations Command ordered it to formulate new operations for elite counterterrorism units 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 Rumsfeld to take the lead in attacking terrorist leaders beyond the Afghan theater, these officials said.