Tuesday, May 31, 2011

‘Loose Lips’ Warning Still True

‘Loose Lips’ Warning Still True
by Richard Tomkins

The flood of intelligence information hitting newsstands, websites and television in the wake of the U.S. raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is now a dribble but damage has most likely already been done.

“Loose Lips Sink Ships,” was the warning during World War II. It’s just as true today—if not more so—given the technological advances that spread information near and far within seconds, but the common sense of it all fell by the wayside as the nation rejoiced at the death of the Islamist mass murderer who has so changed the world in which we live.

“My concern is that there were too many people in too many places talking too much about this operation,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a Pentagon briefing after days during which unidentified government officials and formal briefers disclosed much sensitive information about the May 1 Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan.

“I’m concerned about this,” Gates said, “because we want to retain the capability to carry out [sic] these kind of operations in the future. And when so much detail is available, it makes that more difficult and riskier.”

One of the first to publicly disclose sensitive information was none other than the country’s loquacious Vice President, Joe Biden.

President Barack Obama, in announcing the raid and death of bin Laden late on the night of May 1, was careful to refer to the special operations team that conducted the raid only as a “small team of Americans” and “counter-terrorism professionals.”

Media speculation immediately centered on involvement of the Navy’s elite SEAL teams but no official confirmation was available.

Then Biden, speaking at a North Atlantic Council awards dinner in Washington on May 3, let it slip.

“Let me briefly acknowledge tonight’s distinguished honorees,” he said. “Adm. James Stavridis [sic] is the real deal. He can tell you more about and understands the incredible, the phenomenal, the just almost unbelievable capacity of his Navy SEALs and what they did last Sunday.”

The unit was later identified through speculation and unidentified sources as the so-called SEAL Team 6 based in the Virginia Beach area. Soon reporters were nosing around, trying to find the haunts of team members and people who may know them.


Meanwhile, unidentified government sources and sometimes official briefers chummed the media feeding frenzy with information and details of the raid–accurate and inaccurate, complementary and contradictory.

We lapped it up.

We learned that the initial tip-off that eventually led to bin Laden’s whereabouts and demise came from interrogations of suspected terrorists, that U.S. intelligence personnel monitored cell phone communications of suspected bin Laden couriers in Pakistan, that U.S. operatives had a clandestine listening/watching post for months, just a short distance from a compound where bin Laden hid with his wives and that stealth, unmanned aerial vehicles were involved in the intelligence collection.

Soon the number of SEALs involved in the operation, how they got to the site outside Islamabad, the types of aircraft involved, even the name of the bomb-sniffing dog taken with them were in the public domain.

And then came a revelation that would give al Qaeda’s terrorist cohorts, followers and facilitators pause and spur actions that will complicate U.S. efforts to hunt them down.

An unidentified senior intelligence official told Pentagon reporters that as “a result of the raid, we’ve acquired the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever.” News sources later said that the mother-load comprised at least five computers, possibly 100 storage devices, such as flash drives, as well as hard drives.

“Instead of broadcasting the intelligence grab, we might’ve waited a while–so we could more fully exploit some of the windfall before alerting al Qaeda operatives to take defensive measures,” said Peter Brookes, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation.

Brookes, once employed by the Central Intelligence Agency, said bin Laden’s cronies would have taken measures to cover their tracks anyway after his death, but the information revealed about the materials seized could make them more thorough in doing so.

Franklin Was Right

CIA Director Leon Panetta has since waved a stick at his employees, warning them against divulging information without authority. He said an investigation would be conducted and warned of possible sanctions for anyone who has leaked information.

It’s believed other agencies, including the military services, are doing the same to protect against information leaks.

“We have, from my perspective, gotten to a point where we are close to jeopardizing this precious capability we have (special operations and intelligence), and we can’t afford to do that,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said. “We have talked far too much about this. We need to move on. It’s a story that, if we don’t stop talking, will never end. And it needs to.”

Republican Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, echoed that sentiment.

“I was surprised at the level of detail that was authorized to be disclosed,” he said. “I am deeply troubled by the stream of leaks of additional information that jeopardize ongoing intelligence operations.

“Keeping America’s classified information protected, including the smallest details, is a serious responsibility that rises above politics.”

Neither the House nor Senate Intelligence committee, however, has yet scheduled hearings specifically on the intelligence leaks. In fact, there appears to be little agitation for them, a far cry from the Valerie Plame affair in which the Bush White House was pilloried by liberals and so-called “progressives” and accused of outing the CIA operative in retaliation after her husband wrote a piece for the New York Times claiming the Bush Administration had lied in saying Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had wanted to buy yellow cake uranium from Niger.

The material could be used for making a nuclear weapon, and Bush cited it as one of many justifications for the Iraq war.

The hue and cry went on for years, but in the end it emerged that Plame was not a covert operative–so causing her identity to be known was not a criminal offense and/or security breach. Only one person was ever convicted of an offense: I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s then chief of staff. His conviction, however, had to do with giving false information to investigators.

But then, President Bush and his administration could do no right in the eyes of liberals and progressives and was always suspect of wrong doing.

But that was then, this is now.

Hopefully the spigot of intelligence leaks on the bin-Laden raid is coming to an end as the war against terrorism continues and the need for protecting ways and means to hunt terrorists down continues.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as once saying, “Three men can keep a secret if two are dead.” What was true then, is true now, and if the secrets aren’t kept, our intelligence and military forces will bear the burden for loose lips.

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