WASHINGTON -- President Bush's senior national security advisers are debating whether to expand the authority of the CIA and the military to conduct far more aggressive covert operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
The debate is in response to intelligence reports that al-Qaida and the Taliban are intensifying efforts to destabilize the Pakistani government, according to several senior administration officials.
Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and a number of President Bush's top national security advisers met at the White House on Friday to discuss the proposal, part of a broad reassessment of American strategy after the assassination 10 days ago of Pakistan's opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto.
Yesterday in Pakistan, Bhutto's husband accused members of Pakistan's ruling regime of involvement in his wife's killing and called for a U.N. investigation, while President Pervez Musharraf insisted that the government was competent to run the investigation.
Several participants in the meeting argued that the threat to Musharraf's government is so grave that both Musharraf and Pakistan's new military leadership are likely to give the United States more latitude, said officials who declined to speak on the record because of the highly delicate nature of the discussions.
The specific options under discussion are unclear and highly classified. Officials said no decision had been made, but the options would likely involve the CIA's working with the military's Special Operations forces.
The Bush administration has not formally presented any new options to Musharraf, who gave up his military role last month, or to his successor as the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who the White House thinks will be more sympathetic to the American position than Musharraf. Kayani was an aide to Bhutto early in his career and later led the Pakistani intelligence service.
But from the White House to the Pentagon, officials see an opportunity in the changing power structure for the Americans to advocate for the expanded authority in the nuclear-armed country.
"After years of focusing on Afghanistan, we think the extremists now see a chance for the big prize - creating chaos in Pakistan itself," one senior official said.
In the past, the administration has largely stayed out of the tribal areas, in part for fear that exposure of any American-led operations there would so embarrass the Musharraf government that it could further empower his critics, who have declared that the Pakistani leader was too close to Washington.
Even now, according to officials, some in the State Department are arguing that American-led military operations on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan could result in a tremendous backlash and would ultimately do more harm than good. That is particularly true, they said, if Americans were captured or killed in the territory.
In part, the White House discussions may be driven by a desire for another effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. Currently, CIA operatives and Special Operations forces have limited authority to conduct counterterrorism missions in Pakistan based on specific intelligence about the whereabouts of those two men, who have eluded the Bush administration for more than six years, or of other members of the terrorist organization hiding in or near the tribal areas.
The new options for expanded covert operations include loosening the reins of the CIA to strike selected targets in Pakistan, in some cases using intelligence provided by Pakistani sources, officials said.
The United States has about 50 soldiers in Pakistan. Any expanded operations using CIA operatives or Special Operations forces, like Navy SEALs, would be small and tailored to specific missions, military officials said.
Friday's meeting, which was not publicly announced, included Stephen J. Hadley, Bush's national security adviser; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and top intelligence officials.
Spokesmen for the White House, the CIA and the Pentagon declined to discuss the meeting, but the session reflected an urgent concern that a new al-Qaida haven was solidifying in parts of Pakistan and needed to be countered, one official said.
There was also talk of how to handle the period between now and the Feb. 18 elections, and the aftermath of those elections.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.