In the frenzy of media coverage in the days after the covert U.S. operation that killed Osama bin Laden, top intelligence and military officials have been warning publicly and privately that leaks of operational details relating to the raid will be investigated and leakers could be prosecuted.
In a letter obtained by CNN on Wednesday, CIA Director Leon Panetta warned his staff that the disclosure of information could lead to investigation and prosecution. The operation "has led to an unprecedented amount of very sensitive -- in fact, classified -- information making its way into the press," says Panetta's letter. "Disclosure of classified information to anyone not cleared for it -- reporters, friends, colleagues in the private sector or other agencies, former agency officers -- does tremendous damage to our work. At worst, leaks endanger lives."
Disclosures about the raid, such as the existence of a CIA safe house in Abbottabad and the use of a top-secret, sophisticated drone to surveil the compound, have been widely reported, even though the government hasn’t yet confirmed these details on the record. Leaks will be investigated and could be turned over to the Justice Department for prosecution, Panetta said in the letter.
National Journal reported recently that Joint Special Operations Command, which ran the operation, has opened an operational security review to determine how damaging publicly disclosed information might be for future operations. As a result of the widespread leaking, senior military and administration officials said JSOC will likely be forced to adopt new methods to preserve its sensitive kill-and-capture capacity, an acute problem because the intelligence being analyzed may require it to conduct similar raids in short order.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday he was dismayed that an agreement made in the Situation Room that officials would not talk about any operational details from the raid only "lasted about 15 hours."
The disclosure of operational details is likely to make future missions much more difficult to carry out, Gates said. “I'm very concerned about this because we want to retain the capability to carry out these kinds of operations in the future. And when so much detail is available, it makes that both more difficult and riskier."
The leaking was not just from "one part of the government," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said, speaking alongside Gates at the Pentagon. "We've had far too many retired members who've spoken up, and we just need to get off the net."
All the loose talk means the U.S. has "gotten to a point where we are close to jeopardizing this precious capability that we have. And we can’t afford to do that," Mullen said.
"This fight isn't over, first of all. Secondly, when you now extend that to concern with individuals in the military and their families, from my perspective it is time to stop talking.... And we have talked far too much about this," Mullen continued. "We need to move on. It's a story that, if we don't stop talking it will never end. And it needs to.”
Gates said that the Navy SEALs involved in the operation were concerned for the safety of their families. 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.
Meanwhile, a sign within the Pentagon flashes reminders to employees using the exit to the subway station, urging them not to discuss sensitive information in public: "Loose lips can still sink ships," the sign says.
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Marc Ambinder contributed contributed to this article.