The New York Times revealed on Monday that the United States military received broad, overarching authorization from the Pentagon in 2004 to attack al Qaeda targets in over a dozen Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf nations including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.

According to the report - which was published on the New York Times website on Monday - US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was a signatory to the highly classified order which came into effect on 2004.  The al Qaeda Network exord, (executive order) allowed for US paramilitary and special forces to engage hostile targets anywhere in the world and included the power to conduct operations in countries not at war with the US.

This new revelation by the New York Times is sure to put further strain on already frayed diplomatic ties between the US and Pakistan, which hit a low point in September of this year when President Zardaris government accused the United States of having violated Pakistans sovereignty by sending a special forces team to raid a militant sanctuary inside their borders. Allegedly, close to 20 militants were killed in the operation in Angoor Adda in South Waziristan, part of Pakistans largely ungoverned northwestern tribal region.

The diplomatic row which ensued led to an uncharacteristically harsh rebuke from the normally reserved Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani and Gen Tariq Majid, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee who stated that Pakistan reserves (the) right to retaliate.

According to the New York Times, the raid in Angoor Adda was not the first such incident to have occurred. In 2006, a Navy SEAL task force raided a militant compound in Bajaur while US Central Intelligence Agency officials observed the entire operation at the CIA headquarters in Virginia, through the lens of a hovering Predator drone.

However, the report also points out the strict requirements for such an operation to be granted approval. Despite the broad nature of the secret authorization, each operation still required a green-light from either the Defence Secretary or - as in the case of Pakistan along with a handful of other nations - the President himself. Allegedly, as many as a dozen operations were cancelled over the last four years either due to questionable intelligence or the potential diplomatic ramifications.

The New York Times described one aborted operation in June of 2005 when a team of Navy SEALs and Army Rangers were to capture Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladens top deputy, as he attended a meeting in Bajaur, along the Pak-Afghan border. However, following a heated debate over the quality of the intelligence, the military aborted the operation citing concern that the mission was too risky.

However, it is notable that some, such as former CIA Director Peter Gross were strongly in favour of the 2005 operation. Other US intelligence officials, such as Lt Gen Stanley A. McChrystal, former head of Joint Special Operation Command, had been lobbying for years to win permission for commando missions into Pakistan.

The subject of US ground raids in Pakistan has been a deeply controversial one for the two War on Terror allies. The US government often calls on Pakistan to do more to stop al Qaeda and the Taliban from regrouping and consolidating within the largely ungoverned tribal belt along the Pak-Afghan border. In reply, the Pakistan government has often countered by referring to its extensive military operations in Waziristan and Bajaur since 2003.