The White House faced criticism Friday that it had failed to safeguard secrets about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and that the leaks could jeopardize future operations.
Information about the US raid and what was found at the al Qaeda leader’s hideout in Pakistan has steadily leaked out since bin Laden was killed by at team of Navy commandos on May 2.
CIA Director Leon Panetta was the first to reveal some details to a hungry media, confirming that US Navy SEALs led the assault and that his spy agency had only circumstantial proof beforehand that bin Laden was inside the walled compound.
Citing unnamed officials, media reports soon presented a blow-by-blow account of the operation, including identifying the SEAL unit that carried it out, the use of a secret helicopter, the role of a CIA safe house nearby, an estimate of the number of flash drives and hard drives found and a plethora of details about bin Laden’s correspondence.
The leaks in the Obama administration are “out of control,” said Michael Scheuer, a former CIA officer who once worked in the unit that tracked bin Laden.
“The information about the stealth helicopters, the information about the CIA safe house, the details about bin Laden’s habits, his planning, his contacts. All of that compromised further operations,” he said.
The leaks will “make further operations harder, more difficult, probably more bloody.”
Fears that the leaks may have gone too far have triggered a round of finger pointing in Washington, with some blaming the White House and others suspecting members of Congress and their aides.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a veteran of the intelligence world and former CIA chief, joked with a heavy dose of sarcasm Thursday that there had been an agreement among top deputies meeting at the White House that no details about the assault would be made public.
“Frankly a week ago Sunday, in the (White House) situation room, we all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out bin Laden,” Gates told an audience of Marines.
“That all fell apart on Monday, the next day.”
The Pentagon chief’s press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said Gates was not criticizing any particular person or office but was worried about the effect of divulging secrets vital to national security.
Gates “was indeed voicing his concern about the breakdown in operational security after the killing of Bin Laden,” Morrell told AFP on Friday.
“Anonymous sources revealing secret information about the tactics, training, and equipment of covert forces put at risk our ability to successfully mount similar missions in the future,” he said.
Gates also said the government was looking at stepping up security for the Navy SEAL team after some of the commandos expressed concerns about the safety of their families.
The daring raid has sparked an avalanche of media interest in the secretive SEAL “Team Six” that carried out the operation, as well as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and its chief, Vice Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the assault.
A veteran of the Special Forces, Roland Guidry, a retired colonel, said “the visibility the administration has allowed to be focused on JSOC and (the SEALs) will make their job now more difficult.”
He accused Obama’s team of “bragging” about the raid and divulging details that should have been kept secret, including what was discovered in bin Laden’s compound and how the Al-Qaeda architect communicated with his deputies.
“The pre-mission Operational Security was superb, but the post-mission OPSEC stinks,” he told the National Journal, which first reported details of the raid.
Details have leaked out partly because spy and law enforcement agencies share information much more widely more than they once did, after being heavily criticized for holding back intelligence before the September 11 attacks.
The CIA and at least nine other agencies are poring over the vast trove of material found at the compound, and officials said information gleaned from the review is sometimes shared across the government to help head off possible attacks.
US intelligence officials agreed that too much had been revealed, but would only express their concern anonymously.