That new authority has been used to conduct nearly a dozen covert raids against suspected terrorist targets on foreign soil since 2004, the article reports.
Based on interviews with military and intelligence officials and senior Bush administration policymakers, The paper's report paints a picture of a shadow war conducted by commando teams from the US special forces' most elite units, often under the control of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It's a war beamed live via Predator drone cameras to US spy masters in control rooms halfway around the globe, but often invisible to in-the-dark foreign governments.
According to the Times, in the spring of 2004 the Bush administration signed the classified "Al Qaeda Network Exord," which simplified the approval process for US covert military strikes against Al Qaeda and its allies. Before, only the CIA had blanket authorization to go after terrorists abroad and attaining approval for military strikes could take days.
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 miles away.
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 C.I.A.-directed operations.
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.
The article did not specify which foreign countries were covered by the executive order, but said no raids had been conducted in Iran.
All strikes still require approval by the US civilian command, with exact criteria depending on the country. For covert attacks in Somalia, for example, only the defense secretary's approval is required, the report said, whereas attacks inside Syria or Pakistan need the president's sign-off.
Associated Press writer Pamela Hess notes that President-elect Barack Obama will inherit a series of executive orders, including the 2004 order reported by The New York Times, that give the Pentagon and US spy agencies enhanced authority.
Mr. Obama has said he wants to reverse some of Bush's executive orders. But Ms. Hess and others argue that Obama is unlikely to put the US military on a tighter leash while pursuing Al Qaeda.
Obama said in an August speech that he would target high-value terrorists in Pakistan without that government's permission.
"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and if President Musharraf won't act, we will," Obama said, referring to Pakistan's president. Musharraf since has been replaced by President Asif Ali Zardari.
London's The Times Online reports the forces fighting the US "secret war" include the Green Berets, Navy Seals, Rangers, and a shadowy unit code-named Gray Fox. The article reports the number of US special forces at about 50,000, though less than 10,000 are "earmarked" for combat.
Some bloggers were dismissive of The New York Times report. Writing on The Weekly Standard website, Bill Roggio argues that the US military's expanded authority was already obvious to anyone who has been following the campaign against Al Qaeda.
With very little time and effort, I tracked down seven of these so-called secret attacks. One of the most brazen attacks occurred in the country of Madagascar in January 2007. That's right, Madagascar. U.S. special operations forces from the hunter killer teams of Task Force 88...
killed Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, one of Osama bin Laden's brothers-in-law who has deep roots in al Qaeda as a financier and facilitator.
U.S. intelligence tracked Khalifa for a long time (he lived in Saudi Arabia) and waited for the right moment to pounce. The Task Force made it look like Khalifa was killed in a robbery, but it was clear this was a hit.
It can't really be considered surprising that the military has been carrying out these types of operations. By late 2006, for example, it was already clear that Special Forces had been carrying out secret missions in allied countries that were part of a classified program designed to help the United States track terrorist networks.
But taking such actions in Pakistan and now Syria may involve high diplomatic risks and offer limited military gain, say experts outside the military. "It could be morally justifiable, legally justifiable, and strategically a mistake," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.