Pentagon said to be discussing use of units to work abroad
Oliver Burkeman in New York
Tuesday August 13, 2002
The US government is considering plans to send elite military units on missions to assassinate al-Qaida leaders in countries around the world, without
necessarily informing the governments involved, it was reported yesterday.
The Pentagon is discussing proposals which could see special operations units dispatched to capture or kill terrorists wherever they are be lieved to
be hiding, despite a long-standing presidential order forbidding US personnel from carrying out assassinations abroad, the New York Times reported.
Senior army advisers believe they could justify the practice on the grounds that it would constitute "preparation of the battlefield" in a war
against terrorism that has no boundaries, because the September 11 terrorist attacks in effect initiated a worldwide state of armed conflict, the
"We're at war with al-Qaida. If we find an enemy combatant, then we should be able to use military force to take military action against them," a
senior adviser to the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was quoted as saying.
The plan was said to be caus ing concerns in other parts of the US government because it might blur the line between army activity and missions
usually handled, under strict legal guidelines, by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The president and Congress monitor CIA activities to ensure compliance with a presidential executive order first signed by President Gerald Ford, but
regularly renewed since, forbidding government-sponsored assassinations.
The order followed revelations of CIA plans to murder foreign leaders including Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo.
But Mr Rumsfeld is said to be frustrated by the CIA's activities in Afghanistan, especially when the activities of special forces working with local
war lords were slowed down because the Afghans were still waiting for cash payments they were promised for cooperating against the Taliban.
The CIA's director, George Tenet, was understood not to oppose the proposals Mr Rumsfeld is considering, and discussions were under way to negotiate
a new relationship between the agency and the army, an official said.
The soldiers who would be used in any such plan are the army's secretive Delta Force and the navy's Seal unit.
"The people in these units are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anywhere around the world. They are very highly trained, with specialised
skills for dealing with close-quarters combat and unique situations posed by weapons of mass destruction," a military officer said.
A senior official in the Bush administration told the New York Times that the US had to adapt its methods to match al-Qaida's for speed and stealth.
"If we find a high-value target somewhere, anywhere in the world, and if we have the forces to get there and get to them, we should get there and get
to them," the official said.
"Right now, there are 18 food chains, 20 levels of paperwork and 22 hoops we have to jump through before we can take action. Our enemy moves faster
Shortly after last September's attacks, Dick Cheney, the vice-president, indicated that the administration might review the ban on assassinations,
because "to be able to penetrate organisations you need to have on the payroll some very unsavoury characters... It is a mean, nasty, dangerous,
dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena."
Asked directly if there was a law which would outlaw assassinating Osama bin Laden, he said he did not think so, "but I'd have to check with the
lawyers on that".
Presidents since Mr Ford have often been accused of sidestepping the executive order by launching targeted military attacks primarily to kill leaders,
such as the 1986 attack on Libya authorised by Ronald Reagan, of which he later commented that he would not have shed tears if it had happened to kill
the Libyan leader, Muammar Gadafy.