Obama, the Bin Laden Raid, and Secrecy

Charges that the Obama administration leaked classified information about the Osama bin Laden raid for political gain are bunk.

Last week, a group of former Navy SEALs put out a spot criticizing President Obama’s handling of the Osama bin Laden raid, claiming he wasted valuable intelligence and put American lives on the line rushing to capitalize politically on the work of others. As already noted here, many of the SEALs in question are Republican operatives, which reasonably calls their objectivity into question. CNN’s Peter Bergen, who has been covering al Qaeda since its formation and written four books on the subject, says most of the charges are bunk.

Obama and his national security team made every effort — successfully — to keep the intelligence about bin Laden a closely held secret for almost a year, from the time they first identified what they believed might be the al Qaeda leader’s hideout in the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan, in August 2010 until May 1, 2011, when the raid was launched to kill him.


What precipitated the operation going public was not Obama’s announcement of the raid but the crash of one of the Black Hawk choppers used in the raid, which turned what had hitherto been a covert operation into a very public event.

Pakistani journalists started arriving at bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound soon after the helicopter crashed and started filing stories about the mysterious helicopter and its oddly shaped tail rotor. An Abbottabad resident even tweeted about the unusual sound of helicopters flying over the city in the middle of the night.

It wasn’t much of a leap for reporters to ascertain that these helicopters had particular features that had prevented them from being detected by Pakistani radar.

Soon after the SEALs had raided the Abbottabad command, Pakistani officials on the ground were interrogating bin Laden’s wives and children at the compound who told them that bin Laden had just been killed. None of this was going to stay secret for long.

Indeed, it was Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s top military officer, who sped up the Obama administration’s announcement of the raid. A few hours after the raid, Kayani told his American counterpart, Adm. Mike Mullen, “Our people need to understand what happened here. We’re not going to be able to manage the Pakistani media without you confirming this. You can explain it to them. They need to understand that this was bin Laden and not just some ordinary U.S. operation.”

Mullen then told Obama and his national security team, “Kayani has asked for us to go public,” which swayed Obama to announce the raid sooner than was planned. (Obama wanted to wait for 100% DNA confirmation that it was bin Laden. At the time of the president’s announcement about the raid the confirmation was at 95%.)

During his speech to the nation and world, Obama did not divulge the name of SEAL Team Six, saying only that a “small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability.”

It quickly leaked that SEAL Team Six had executed the raid, but this was hardly surprising as the SEALs are the principal Special Operations Forces in the Afghanistan/Pakistan theater, something that has been discussed in multiple news stories over the past several years and in bestselling books such as “Lone Survivor” by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.

And the SEALs have hargatedly kept a low profile of late, cooperating in a movie “Act of Valor” that was released in theaters this year, which actually featured real SEALs playing the parts of the heroes of the movie.

Perhaps if you had absolutely no knowledge of the U.S. military, or indeed access to Wikipedia where SEAL Team Six has had an entry since 2004, it would be news to you that SEAL Team Six, along with the Army’s Delta Force, are America’s premier counterterrorism units. Obviously, a mission to take out bin Laden would not be entrusted to any other than these elite units.

Furthermore, Bergen points out, there are still key details that have not been made public:

— How did the CIA find the real name of bin Laden’s courier who was the key to finding him?

— How was the courier’s cell phone first tracked down?

— How was he tracked to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad?

— How did the CIA establish a safe house in Abbottabad? And who staffed it?

Now, as NYT reporter David Sanger’s recent book points out, there was very real concern at the highest levels of the US national security team about the details that did come out. ABC’s Jake Tapper summarizing in June:

After the raid, Pakistani military officers “got even more pissed as the Americans, who had been so disciplined in the months leading up to the raid, made the situation even worse with a series of triumphalist-sounding comments. There was a huge and understandable hunger among the media for a play-by-play of the hunt for, and demise of, the world’s most wanted man. As day broke in a stunned Washington, John Brennan was rolled out in the White House press room to describe events that he only understood in fragmentary detail – much of it, as it turned out, suffered from the inevitable wild inaccuracy of first reports…

“At the Pentagon, top officers fumed at Brennan’s blow-by-blow description of how the SEALs operated; they believed that the former CIA officer had given away operational secrets never shared outside the tribe. (In fact, it appears no real secrets were divulged.) No one was angrier than Mullen himself, who still fumed about that news conference nearly a year later…

“By Wednesday of that week, Gates went to see Donilon, offering up a barbed assessment of how the White House had handled the aftermath of the raid.

“‘I have a new strategic communications approach to recommend,’ Gates said in his trademark droll tones, according to an account later provided by his colleagues.

“What was that, Donilon asked?

“‘Shut the f@*k up,’ the defense secretary said.”

It’s quite reasonable, then, that operators several rungs down the ladder—including those who aren’t Republican operators—would have shared these frustrations. Through the magic of scuttlebutt, these sentiments doubtless spread through the community. And, quite often, this sort of thing takes on a life of its own, living on long after the actual facts have been sorted out.

As it turns out, little if any information that was supposed to remain secret leaked out. As Bergen hints above, a lot of things that are theoretically classified as actually pretty widely known within informed circles. A lot of information simply becomes public information in bits an pieces, whether because formers divulge the information or because reporters learn about it and report it. Eventually, those who know what they’re looking for can piece things together from “open source” documents.

Additionally, while protecting classified information and especially the sources and methods that lead to its collection is of huge importance—lives are quite literally at stake in many cases—the fact of the matter is that there are competing priorities. As Bergen notes, there was a huge amount of pressure from our ostensible allies in Pakistan to release information.  Once the announcement was made, there was also an enormous appetite from the American press for details. And, yes, Obama and his advisors do have the goal of getting re-elected. While none of those goals should trump protecting the lives of American or allied intelligence officers—and there’s no indication that they did—they do create pressure to make decisions about what information to release in a shorter window than would happen absent those other considerations. That’s simply the nature of the nature of high stakes decision-making.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Intelligence, Military Affairs, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Justin Abroad says:

    Joe Biden himself broke it to the press that Seal Team Six performed the operation. That was classified, and it matters very much to those who serve. And, oh, it’s ILLEGAL.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Get ready for the tar and feathering, James

  3. Andy says:


    I see two problems. First, information was released that should not have been released. One example – the fact the CIA had a safe-house in Abbotabad and the fact that the CIA used a vaccination program to try to get intel on who was living in the compound. This compromised the people involved in this operation and, last I checked, the Pakistani doctor who participated was arrested and charged with treason. So the D-bag who released that information completely screwed that guy – who risked quite a lot to help us – and further made recruiting future assets that much more difficult.

    Secondly, is that the administration and all the leakers could not keep the facts straight after the raid. How many versions did we hear? UBL was armed, he wasn’t armed, he was reaching for a gun, he wasn’t reaching for a gun, he shot at the SEALS, he didn’t shoot at the SEALS, his youngest wife had a gun,his wife didn’t have a gun, his wife was a human shield, his wife wasn’t a human shield, the SEALs had orders to kill UBL, the SEALS didn’t have orders to kill, the SEALS had orders to play tiddlywinks (ok I jest on that last one). etc.

    I could go on, but I think you get the point. Of course, we have to expect some of that, but in this case just about every permutation of what might have happened was “leaked.”

    You’re right that a lot of information about the raid was rightfully released even if it took several “leaks” for the information to be factually correct.

    I’ve actually read Bergen’s book and it’s pretty good. (For one thing it puts to rest the bogus charge that the Taliban offered to hand UBL over after 9/11). One criticism I’d make of the administration is that they should have better anticipated the media storm and been better prepared to react more swiftly with accurate information. Usually, when facts aren’t yet clear, the best course of action is to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you when I do.” And according to Bergen, the administration did game out what they would do if a helo went down along with a lot of other contingencies and how they would handle that from an information release standpoint. So it’s not like they weren’t grappling with this issue.

    More than that what bothers me is the coterie of beltway insiders who seem to imagine themselves as little “deep throats” on any and every topic. It’s speaks of a culture of egotism that much of Washington has become. These senior and mid-level officials can’t wait for the facts to sort themselves out before calling their press contacts to become the next “anonymous source” for bogus information. This isn’t a problem with this Administration, but one of Washington insiders more generally. Unfortunately, I don’t see it going away anytime soon.

  4. Mark Ivey says:

    “SEAL boat Veterans for Truth” WooT

  5. John Burgess says:

    The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration (that’s two, so it’s a trend, right?) both seem(ed) incapable of considering the public affairs aspects of high level operations before they undertook them. As the saying goes, public affairs was only brought in at the crash, not at the take-off.

    Ideally, there would have been a PA plan in place before the operation started. That plan would have considered what information was vital to release, what would be useful, and what would be held back. This is not exactly rocket science, but it is very much how public affairs works (or should work) in business and government.

  6. Andy says:

    @John Burgess:

    According to Bergen’s book, there was a plan in place – actually several plans depending on what happened (for example, if they went in and UBL wasn’t there and they got out cleanly, then the plan was to deny and not comment). Unfortunately, the plan turned out to be inadequate to the circumstances and pace of events.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    It cracks me up that the Bushies exposed a covert operative and not a single Republican cared.
    Yet they all have their hair on fire over this.
    Can you imagine the bragging that Cheney would be doing had he been able to get OBL? He’d be crowing from the tree-tops. Of course he was not capable. Shooting his friend in the face on a stocked game farm…sure. Actually get justice for the 3000 that died on his watch? Never.
    If a Republican had gotten OBL they’d already be chiseling his/her face on Mt. Rushmore.
    But any little thing to bash Obama for doing it.
    What a bunch of whiney-assed-titty-babies Republicans have become.

  8. @C. Clavin: Except, Valerie Plame was NOT a covert operative. Her husband listed her as a CIA employee on his “Who’s Who” page. But, hey, keep throwing the BS “facts” out.

    Oh, and let’s not forget that John Kerry exposed CIA officer Fulton Armstrong at the John Bolton confirmation hearings. Where was the liberal outrage?

  9. stonetools says:

    The Obama Administration plan to release information should be compared not to some perfect and perfectly executed Administration plan that might exist on some Platonic reality , but to what happens in the real world . No plan survives contact with reality, etc.

    It appears that the Obama Administration got things mostly right in its release of information after the killing of OBL. “Mostly right” and not perfect is about as much as we can expect.
    The point of all these ads at this time, of course, is not even handed discussion about the Administration’s PA policy but an attempt to besmirch the Administration’s greatest foreign policy triumph. Any analysis of these ads should be done in the light of that point.

  10. C. Clavin says:

    @ William Teach…make believe pirate…
    An unclassified summary of Plame’s employment history at the CIA disclosed in a court filing by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald indicated that Plame was “covert” when her name became public in July 2003.
    The summary was part of an attachment to Fitzgerald’s memorandum to the court supporting his sentencing recommendation on Scooter Libby.
    Have a swash-buckling day.

  11. The Colourfield says:

    @William Teach:

    No he didn’t. She is listed as his wife, there is no mention of the CIA for either him or her.

  12. C. Clavin says:

    @ Colourfield…
    Do you think Teach is going to come back and say…sorry, you were correct?
    Probably not. That takes some anount of spine.

  13. Drew says:

    Good essay.

    If this is effectively the correct analysis and tone, this issue should die.

  14. wr says:

    @Andy: If your concern is that too much information was let out by the administration, thus jeopardizing security, I don’t understand how you’re also complaining about all the conflicting stories. If there were many different stories being circulated, then all those enemies of freedom could hardly know which was true and which false, thus undercutting the threat from them finding out too much truth.

    You may have other reasons for disliking the plethora of accounts in the initial confusion, but to lump that in with fears about breached security due to government leaks or bragging in simply dishonest. If “every permutation of what might have happened” was leaked, isn’t that essentially the same as leaking nothing?

  15. Nikki says:

    Hey, James…still believe in the honor and intent of those OPSEC SEALs?

  16. James Joyner says:

    @Nikki: This post already walks that back based on additional evidence. Your links, however, provide no further evidence discrediting the group.

    That some—including, as I noted yesterday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs—think these guys shouldn’t be speaking out doesn’t mean that they don’t have every right to do so. While I’m uncomfortable with retired general and flag officers speaking out on partisan matters, there’s no reason at all that former enlisted men and more junior officers can’t or shouldn’t. And, so far as I’m aware, the author of the tell-all book (which Doug has posted on already) isn’t a member of OPSEC.