The Pentagon is promoting a global counterterrorism plan that would allow Special Operations forces to enter a foreign country to conduct military operations without explicit concurrence from the U.S. ambassador there, administration officials familiar with the plan said.
The plan would weaken the long-standing "chief of mission" authority under which the U.S. ambassador, as the president's top representative in a foreign country, decides whether to grant entry to U.S. government personnel based on political and diplomatic considerations.
The Special Operations missions envisioned in the plan would largely be secret, known to only a handful of officials from the foreign country, if any.
The change is included in a highly classified "execute order" -- part of a broad strategy developed since Sept. 11, 2001, to give the U.S. Special Operations Command new flexibility to track down and destroy terrorist networks worldwide, the officials said.
"This is a military order on a global scale, something that hasn't existed since World War II," said a counterterrorism official with lengthy experience in special operations. He and other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the proposal is classified.
The Pentagon sees the greater leeway as vital to enabling commando forces to launch operations quickly and stealthily against terrorist groups without often time-consuming interagency debate, said administration officials familiar with the plan. In the Pentagon view, the campaign against terrorism is a war and requires similar freedom to prosecute as in Iraq, where the military chain of command coordinates closely with the U.S. Embassy but is not subject to traditional chief-of-mission authority.
The State Department and the CIA have fought the proposal, saying it would be dangerous to dilute the authority of the U.S. ambassador and CIA station chief to oversee U.S. military and intelligence activities in other countries.
Over the past two years, the State Department has repeatedly blocked Pentagon efforts to send Special Operations forces into countries surreptitiously and without ambassadors' formal approval, current and former administration officials said.
The State Department assigned counterterrorism coordinator J. Cofer Black, who also led the CIA's counterterrorism operations after Sept. 11, as its point person to try to thwart the Pentagon's initiative.
"I gave Cofer specific instructions to dismount, kill the horses and fight on foot -- this is not going to happen," said Richard L. Armitage, describing how as deputy secretary of state -- a job he held until earlier this month -- he and others stopped six or seven Pentagon attempts to weaken chief-of-mission authority.
In one instance, U.S. commanders tried to dispatch Special Forces soldiers into Pakistan without gaining ambassadorial approval but were rebuffed by the State Department, said two sources familiar with the event. The soldiers eventually entered Pakistan with proper clearance but were ordered out again by the ambassador for what was described as reckless behavior. "We had SF [Special Forces] guys in civilian clothes running around a hotel with grenades in their pockets," said one source involved in the incident, who opposes the Pentagon plan.
Other officials cited another case to illustrate their concern. In the past year, they said, a group of Delta Force soldiers left a bar at night in a Latin American country and shot an alleged assailant but did not inform the U.S. Embassy for several days.
In Pentagon policy circles, questions about chief-of-mission authority are viewed as part of a broad reassessment of how to organize the U.S. government optimally to fight terrorism. In this view, alternative models of U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence authority -- possibly tailored to specific countries and situations -- should be considered.
Pentagon officials familiar with the issue declined to speak on the record out of concern that issues of bureaucratic warfare would overshadow a serious policy question.