Foreign Policy Blogs

U.S. Expands Clandestine Military Action Abroad

Secret directive signed by General Petraeus in September gives U.S. military special forces the power to operate in friendly and hostile states in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.


Exposed by the New York Times on Monday, this order increases the power of U.S. armed forces abroad and authorizes clandestine military operations against terrorists and other hostile groups. The order does not appear to focus on specific groups or governments but it aims to “‘penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy” Al Qaeda and other militant groups, and to “prepare the environment” for future military attacks.

The order calls for the military special operations forces to accomplish tasks beyond the scope of conventional military activities and conduct operations that “cannot or will not be accomplished” by American intelligence or security agencies. It is an expansion of clandestine military operations previously endorsed by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld during the Bush administration, which authorized special forces missions to certain fragile states like Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria. This new order, on the other hand, gives the military permission to expand intelligence gathering activities and forge ties to indigenous groups using American troops, businesspeople, academics, and others. It also represents an attempt by the U.S. military to diversify its sources of intelligence and wean itself away from dependence on the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

It is unclear if the military has followed through on the order since it was signed in September but the U.S. military under the command of President Obama has been authorized to send teams to countries that do not have a significant American military presence or are hostile to American interests in order to build intelligence on security threats and prepare future military strikes.

It will be interesting to see how the White House reacts to this news. Was President Obama aware of Petraeus’ directive? Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation wrote yesterday, “If President Obama knew about this, authorized it and still supports it, then Obama has crossed a red line, and the president will stand revealed as an aggressive, militaristic liberal interventionist who bears a closer resemblance to the president he succeeded than to the ephemeral reformer that he pretended to be in 2008, when he ran for office.”