Behind the Story: Reporting on Special Forces
The extraordinary interest in the U.S. government’s killing of Osama bin Laden has made public an unusually large amount of information about sensitive intelligence methods and the secret units of the Joint Special Operations Command, and not without potential consequences.
Several administration officials, intelligence policymakers, and military planners tell National Journal in interviews that the rich level of detail provided to reporters, even by authorized spokespeople, may compromise the government’s ability to conduct a similar operation in the future.
And National Journal has learned that JSOC, which ran the operation, has opened an operational security review to determine how damaging publicly disclosed information might be for future operations. Those reviews are standard, but JSOC will likely be forced to adopt new methods to preserve their sensitive kill-and-capture capacity, senior military and administration officials said, an acute problem because the intelligence being analyzed may require them to conduct similar raids in short order.
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Administration officials acknowledge the bin Laden killing as a once-in-a-decade event and recognize as legitimate the media and public’s demand for details.
But several revelations have convinced senior administration officials that people with security clearances are speaking too freely. Some blame members of Congress, dozens of whom have been given extensive briefings on the intelligence and the raid.
Among the disclosures causing heartburn: the existence of a CIA safe house in Abbottabad, the use of a sophisticated drone to surveil the compound, and the extent to which the CIA was able to monitor what was happening inside. Though the government hasn't confirmed these details on the record, they've been reported authoritatively enough to be seen as accurate.
When The Washington Post reported that President Obama noted that the loss of a “$15 million helicopter” was worth the capture of bin Laden, the paper was revealing more than it realized:
normal Blackhawk helicopters cost around $5 million. Terrorists and potential adversaries like China now have a dollar figure to help them figure out precisely how the Blackhawk was modified for its stealth mission.
“It’s fair to say that this is one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in the history of the intelligence community and the military. They deserve enormous credit,” a senior administration official who is concerned about the release of public information said. “And a lot of these agencies, in particular [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] and [National Security Agency], almost never receive the praise they deserve. But, yes, after an important week spent explaining to the American people what happened and why it matters to them, it's time for all of us to go back to keeping the conversations about these topics squarely in the proper classified channels.”
Vice Adm. William McRaven, JSOC’s commanding general, expected a degree of exposure before the raid but hopes that his command’s 15 minutes of fame are over soon, two military officials said. Others say the administration’s preparations for the raid were so secret that it could not simultaneously develop a plan to deal with the desire for information once the killing was revealed. Some senior JSOC officers are prepared to deal with a future that includes more openness about their operations.
Before publication, many reporters fact-check potentially sensitive information occasionally agree to withhold details if they are not germane to the story and could jeopardize U.S. troops’ safety.
And reporters have been asked not to disclose the names of other parts of the military involved in preparing the SEALs for the raid, and all have been cautioned not to name any participants. Those SEALs who belong to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group are considered strategic national-security assets, and it is a crime to knowingly disclose their names, the same as disclosing the identities of undercover CIA case officers. JSOC counterintelligence officers are increasing their presence in the towns and cities where the SEAL squadrons are based, to dissuade any disclosures.
In Britain, where the military’s special missions units, the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service, are not classified, the security services work largely to keep the names of members of the units out of the media.
But JSOC’s existence as the umbrella command for America’s special missions units and standing counter-terrorism task forces is classified, as is basic information about its structure. Protecting JSOC’s secrecy is expensive. For many, it is vital to national security. But its veil of secrecy may be untenable in an age where every explosion is reported within minutes of it occurring.
Inevitably, some of the information, like the writings in bin Laden’s diary, will become public. Col. Roland Guidry (ret.), one of JSOC’s founding members and a legend in special operations forces, said he blames President Obama and his aides for the sunlight bathing the SEALs.
“The pre-mission Operational Security was superb, but the post-mission OPSEC stinks,” he said. “When all the hullabaloo settles down, JSOC and [the SEALs] will have to get back to business as usual, keeping the troops operationally ready and getting set for the next mission; the visibility the administration has allowed to be focused on JSOC and [the SEALs] will make their job now more difficult.”
Guidry said that the “administration’s bragging” about details like the existence of the bin Laden courier network and efforts to eavesdrop on cell phones would encourage the enemy to adapt by changing their cell phones, e-mail addresses, web sites, safe houses, and couriers. He also thinks the administration should not have disclosed precisely what types of equipment it found in bin Laden’s compound, such as bin Laden’s use to thumb drives to communicate.
“Why did the administration not respond like we were trained to do 30 years ago in early JSOC by uttering two simple words: ‘no comment’?” he asked.
It isn’t clear, however, that the Obama White House is sanctioning these leaks. After two early attempts to give reporters a basic chronology of the events, the White House began to decline requests to clarify details, referring reporters to the Pentagon and the CIA.
One problem is both the Pentagon and the intelligence community still compartmentalize sources and methods differently. For example, it is hard for the CIA to know whether providing a certain detail about the technology a JSOC door-kicker uses to breach a wall would constitute an operational security violation.
The concern about information leakage comes amid one of the biggest information-sharing efforts to date. Virtually everyone with a Top Secret clearance who works in counter-terrorism has access to the “take” from the bin Laden raid. Leading the effort is the Defense Intelligence Agency’s National Media Exploitation Center. “We are trying to get as much warning-relevant material out as rapidly and widely as possible,” a senior intelligence official said.