The U.S. military has used broad secret authority since 2004 to carry out nearly a dozen previously undisclosed attacks against al-Qaida and other militants in Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere, according to senior U.S. 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 spring 2004 at the direction of President Bush, the officials said. The secret order gave the military new authority to attack al-Qaida anywhere in the world, and a more sweeping mandate to conduct operations in countries not at war with the United States.
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 mission - captured by the video camera of a remotely piloted Predator aircraft - in real time in the CIA's Counterterrorist Center at the agency's headquarters in Virginia.
Some of the military missions have been conducted in close coordination with the CIA, according to senior U.S. officials, who said that in others, such as the Special Operations raid in Syria on Oct. 26, military commandos acted in support of CIA-directed operations.
As many as a dozen other 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 evidence not sufficient enough to justify an attack.
More than a half-dozen officials, including current and former military and intelligence officials as well as senior Bush administration policymakers, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. forces had carried out reconnaissance missions in Iran using different classified directives.
According to a senior administration official, the authority was spelled out in a classified document called "al-Qaida 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 obtain approval for missions on a case-by-case basis, which could take days when there were only hours to act, the order specified a way for Pentagon planners to receive permission 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," the official said, "the American response would not have to be worked out on the fly."
The 2004 order was a step marking the evolution of how the U.S. government sought to kill or capture al-Qaida terrorists around the world. It was issued after the Bush administration had 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, 2001, attacks, Bush issued a classified order authorizing the CIA to kill or capture al-Qaida militants around the world. By 2003, U.S. intelligence agencies and the military had developed a deeper understanding of al-Qaida's extensive global network, and Rumsfeld pressed hard to unleash the military's vast firepower against militants outside Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 2004 order identifies 15 to 20 countries, including Syria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other Persian Gulf states, where al-Qaida militants were believed to be operating or to have sought sanctuary, a senior administration official said.
Even with the order, each 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.
But even with the 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 in June. In that case, an operation to send a team of Navy SEALs and Army Rangers into Pakistan to capture Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's top deputy, was aborted at the last minute.
Negotiations to hammer out the 2004 order took place over nearly a year and involved wrangling among the Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department about the military's proper role around the world, several administration officials said.