- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, JANUARY 30, 2012, 11:46 P.M. ET
Obama Exploits the Navy SEALs
There may be political value in detailing how our special forces hunted bin Laden, but doing so threatens troop safety and future missions.
By LEIF BABINAmerica's premier Special Operations force is once again in the headlines after a team of Navy SEALs rescued two hostages from captivity in Somalia last week. Elite U.S. forces have carried out such operations periodically over the past decade, always with skill and bravery. The difference in recent months is that the details of their work haven't remained secret. On the contrary, government officials have revealed them for political gain—endangering our forces in the process.
The floodgates opened after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden last May, and the Obama administration's lack of discretion was on display again at last week's State of the Union address. As President Obama entered the House chamber, in full view of the cameras, he pointed to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and exclaimed: "Good job tonight, good job tonight." Clearly something had happened that he wanted the world to know about.
After delivering his speech, which included multiple references to the bin Laden raid, the president again thanked Mr. Panetta. "That was a good thing tonight," he said as if to ensure that the viewing public, if they missed it initially, would get it a second time around.
Sure enough, shortly thereafter, the White House announced the successful rescue of the hostages in Somalia by U.S. Special Operations forces. Vice President Biden appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" to highlight the success the next morning, and Mr. Panetta also publicly praised it. Then came the "anonymous U.S. officials" to provide extensive details of who conducted the raid and how. As with the bin Laden operation, the top-secret unit that carried it out was again front-page news, as were its methods and tactics.
Our special operators do not welcome this publicity. In fact, from conversations I've had in recent days, it's clear they are dismayed by it.
Adm. William H. McRaven, America's top special-operations commander, wrote in his 1996 book "Spec Ops" that there are six key principles of success in special operations. Of paramount importance—especially given the risk and sensitivity of the missions and the small units involved—is what the military calls "operational security," or maintaining secrecy. If the enemy learns details and can anticipate the manner and timing of an attack, the likelihood of success is significantly reduced and the risk to our forces is significantly increased.
It's difficult for military leaders to enforce strict standards of operational security on their personnel while the most senior political leadership is flooding the airwaves with secrets. The release of classified information has also opened a Pandora's box of former and retired SEALs, special operators, and military personnel who have chosen to violate their non-disclosure agreements and discuss intricate details of how such operations are planned and executed.
We've already begun seeing specific examples of strategic harm from the post-bin Laden leaks. In June, Pakistan arrested several individuals who allegedly provided information to the CIA in advance of the raid. One of those charged with treason was a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi. This Sunday, Mr. Panetta confirmed to "60 Minutes" that Dr. Afridi had provided "very helpful" intelligence to the CIA. That may have condemned Dr. Afridi to death or life imprisonment.
Such disclosures are catastrophic to U.S. intelligence networks, which often take years to develop. Recklessness not only puts lives at risk but could set U.S. intelligence-collection efforts back decades. Our ability to carry out future operations is significantly degraded—something not lost on Pakistan.
A week after the bin Laden raid, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed dismay about Washington's loose lips, telling a town hall meeting of U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune: "Frankly, a week ago Sunday, in the Situation Room, we all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out bin Laden. That all fell apart on Monday—the next day."
Do the president and his top political advisers understand what's at stake for the special-operations forces who carry out these dangerous operations, or the long-term strategic consequences of divulging information about our most highly classified military assets and intelligence capabilities? It is infuriating to see political gain put above the safety and security of our brave warriors and our long-term strategic goals. Loose lips sink ships.
Mr. Babin is a former Navy SEAL officer who served three tours in Iraq, earning a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. He left active duty six months ago.