This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Last week Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced his desire to expand the role of Special Operations forces in the war against Al Qaeda — even in countries with which the United States is not at war, and without informing local governments first. But while it may be tempting to hawks in Washington, allowing the American military to undertake missions that have traditionally been the job of the Central Intelligence Agency would be a very bad idea.
To begin with, Mr. Rumsfeld's proposal would undermine vital checks that currently keep the c=I.A.'s Special Activities Division (its covert operatives) from getting out of control, as they did on several occasions during the cold war. Under present regulations, before the C.I.A. can conduct a lethal mission abroad the president must issue a finding to authorize the move. The agency also must notify Congress's intelligence committees, which can veto the operation. The C.I.A. is also bound by Executive Order 12333, which prohibits assassinations. Military forces would not be subject to these constraints.
Using Special Operations forces as Mr. Rumsfeld proposes would also violate international law, which does not permit one country to send hit squads into another. The United States would no doubt argue that if a country harbors terrorists it effectively defaults on its own sovereignty — giving Washington justification for taking the law into its own hands. Indeed, there is an analogous rule in international law that authorizes states to hunt down pirates in the waters of another country if that second country fails to do the job itself. But such incursions are only allowed when the host state is "unwilling or unable" to act against the pirates (in this case, the terrorists). Just who will make that call is far from clear under this new arrangement. The United Nations Security Council has itself forbidden the harboring of terrorists. But it stopped short of authorizing unilateral measures to punish countries that do, which is what Mr. Rumsfeld is planning.
Sending American troops into foreign countries without permission could also have disastrous policy consequences, infuriating whatever nation found its sovereignty flouted by the United States. Just imagine Germany's reaction if the Delta Force raided Qaeda cells in Hamburg without getting Berlin's approval. The fallout of such missions becomes even more serious when you consider how the United States would respond to such behavior by another country.
One needn't look far for an example. Just last week, the Bush administration complained bitterly after Russia, without asking anyone's permission, sent attack helicopters and fighter planes over the Georgian border to chase Chechen rebels. "You can't violate sovereignty," insisted one Bush administration official. But that is just what Mr. Rumsfeld is proposing. Tellingly, Moscow justified the incursion by pointing out that it, too, is fighting a war against Islamist terror.
Finally, the Bush administration should recognize the grave potential dangers for American personnel. Military operatives captured overseas during wartime are treated as prisoners of war under strict guidelines set out by the Geneva Conventions. These rules only apply if they are wearing uniforms, however; soldiers in civilian clothes, as Special Operations forces would be under Mr. Rumsfeld's plan, may not be entitled to such protections. They can be executed as spies; if they have killed, they may be treated simply as murderers.
Given all of these concerns, the potential costs of Mr. Rumsfeld's proposal clearly outweigh any imaginable gains — especially now, when the United States is struggling to preserve its antiterror alliance and to build a coalition against Saddam Hussein. The very fact that the Pentagon is considering the move is worrisome because it fits a pattern of power-grabbing by the secretary of defense. Allowing the Special Operations forces to take over C.I.A. functions would undermine recent efforts by the administration and Congress to unify the American intelligence community in the hope of reducing the kind of failures that led up to Sept. 11. Indeed, it is consistent with other steps Mr. Rumsfeld has taken, like arguing against a proposal (from a commission headed by Brent Scowcroft) to give the director of central intelligence more control. Secretary Rumsfeld has also sought to create his own undersecretary of defense for intelligence, to further enhance his control over this field.
Mr. Rumsfeld and the White House must remember that the current system, while imperfect, is structured in this way for a reason. Furthermore, even the strongest superpower in history needs friends and cooperative partners. It is precisely the wrong time to undermine those relationships with missions of the type Mr. Rumsfeld is proposing — missions that would dangerously expand the Pentagon's powers and antagonize the country's closest allies.
When Lawrence J. Korb wrote this piece he was vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and served as assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985. Lawrence J. Korb is currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Jonathan D. Tepperman is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs.