A secret 2004 order gave the US military the authority to attack al-Qa'ida targets anywhere in the world, according to a US report today.
Senior American officials told the New York Times that the classified order was used to carry out nearly a dozen previously undisclosed attacks against al-Qa'ida and other militants in Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere.
Typically carried out by US Special Operations forces, the broad, secret order was authorised by then-defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and approved by President George Bush.
One such attack occurred in 2006 when a Navy Seal team raided a suspected militants' compound in the Bajaur region of Pakistan, a former top official at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) told the newspaper.
The secret order allowed cooperation in several attacks between military and CIA forces, which usually do not operate together directly.
Officials said some of the missions were conducted in close co-ordination with the CIA while others, such as the Special Operations raid in Syria on October 26, involved military commandos operating in support of CIA-directed operations.
A further dozen operations were cancelled in the past four years, because officials decided the missions were too risky, too diplomatically explosive or relied on insufficient evidence.
No raids were carried out in Iran using this authority, the officials said.
The order enabled planners at the Pentagon to get the go-ahead for a mission much more quickly than previously, when approval could take days.
The 2004 order identified 15 to 20 countries where al-Qa'ida militants were believed to be operating or to have sought sanctuary, a senior administration official said.
These included Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and several other Persian Gulf states.
But even with the order, each mission required a high-level government approval - from at least the defence secretary for missions in Somalia, while operations in Syria and Pakistan needed presidential approval.
The White House, the US Defence Department and the US military all declined to comment.Reuse content