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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rumsfeld Wants More Covert Action

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald 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 far from the battlefields of Afghanistan, according to Pentagon and intelligence officials.

Proposals now being discussed by 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 al-Qaida 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 CIA. 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 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-Qaida 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-Qaida," a senior adviser to 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 Rumsfeld, and the discussions remain far from any form that might be presented to U.S. President George W. 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 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 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 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 CIA case officers.

Rumsfeld was said to be dissatisfied that it was the CIA 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 U.S. military personnel after the war in Afghanistan began. And it was the CIA that paid off local warlords in order to obtain their cooperation with the U.S.-led military campaign against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

In some cases, efforts by U.S. 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 CIA field officers, because the U.S. soldiers were not allowed to hand out cash.

George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, is described as not opposing the proposals, and at least one Pentagon official said discussions were underway with the intelligence sector on how to work out new arrangements between Special Operations forces and U.S. intelligence. This would "optimize each other's capabilities" in ways that have not been possible up to now, the official said.

According to a definition supplied by one former senior lawyer for the CIA, 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, a highly secretive Army Special Operations unit, to capture terrorists overseas and then bring them back to the United States, the former CIA 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."