The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East signed a secret order last fall that set the stage for increased clandestine and covert operations against militants and other threats across the region, defense officials said Tuesday.
Gen. David Petraeus signed an order in September authorizing Special Operations forces to deploy to allied and hostile nations in the Mideast, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa to conduct surveillance missions and work with local forces, two officials said on condition of anonymity because the document is classified.
Petraeus' seven-page order also appears to authorize specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country's nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive, according to The New York Times, which first revealed the directive in Tuesday editions.
The newspaper, citing anonymous sources, said that the new order does not authorize offensive action. Instead, the newspaper said, the Pentagon's goal is to build new networks to "penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy" militant groups, including al-Qaida, and "prepare the environment" for future attacks.
The Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order of Sept. 30 is mainly intended to codify established activities Ã¢â‚¬â€ some of which have been under way for years Ã¢â‚¬â€ and more systematically coordinate and pay for them, one defense official told The Associated Press.
The order gives Pentagon officials the authority to plan actions inside countries where the U.S. is not at war, another senior military official said.
The order also authorizes special operations forces, the Defense Intelligence Agency and other branches of the Defense Department to carry out activities ranging from recruiting local intelligence sources to fostering local insurgent acts against an enemy.
If for example the U.S. wanted to destroy a factory for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in a hostile country, U.S. forces could try to find someone locally to do that.
But just because the execution order exists on paper does not mean the military can act without approval, officials said.
Any plan must be sent to the head of Central Command and the National Security Council for approval, the military official said on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the subject.
It was unclear whether the military had used the order for any major actions since Petraeus singed it. But it may have played a role in a recent increase in U.S. military activity in Yemen, where al-Qaida linked militants planned the failed Christmas Day airliner attack over Detroit by the so-called underwear bomber.
The Defense Department plans to more than double to $150 million this year the money spent on helicopters, weapons and other counterterrorism efforts to help local security forces pursue militants associated with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
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