Saturday, May 14, 2011

Whatever Happened to OPSEC?

If truth is the first casualty of war, then operations security or OPSEC, runs a close second. In this age of targeted leaks and instant media, it has become virtually impossible for the U.S. to protect sensitive details of classified missions, even when the lives of special forces and intelligence operatives are on the line.

The latest case-in-point? The killing of Osama bin Laden by members of SEAL Team 6 less than two weeks ago. Details of the secret raid began trickling out in the hours after the assault on the terror leader's compound in Afghanistan. Since then, the flow of information has become a veritable flood, creating concerns about the compromise of data collected during the mission--and the safety of the operators who gathered it.

In fact, members of SEAL Team 6 expressed worries about the safety of their families in a recent meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. With so much information about the unit--and its activities--entering the public domain, the SEALs are rightly concerned that their family members might become terrorist targets. As the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot reported yesterday:

Gates said the threat of retaliation has increased as international interest in the covert operations team has placed a spotlight on the unit after operational details, which were going to be kept secret, were released the next day.

"The one thing I would tell you," Gates told a meeting with about 1,000 Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., "... is that I think there has been a consistent and effective effort to protect the identities of those who participated in the raid, and I think that has to continue."

"We are very concerned about the security of our families - of your families and our troops, and also these elite units that are engaged in things like that."

Equally disturbing is the willingness of government officials to jeopardize the security of SEAL team members and their dependents. According to Mr. Gates, the senior administration officials who watched the raid unfold from the White House also agreed to keep key elements of the mission classified. That "promise" didn't last for a single news cycle; within hours, sources were telling the media that SEAL Team 6 was the unit that "got" bin Laden.

"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."

With the team's participation confirmed, it took only a Google search to gain information on their home base at Dam Neck, Virginia. From there, it only takes a little legwork to locate SEALs in Virginia Beach (where the Dam Neck annex is located) and surrounding communities.

Indeed, some of the local SEALs could be potentially identified through their family connections. At least two of them are married to prominent professional women, well-known in the Tidewater area. Appropriately, both women have removed references to their husband's profession from their own, on-line biographies. But you can still find older listings that identify their spouses as SEALs, based in the Hampton Roads area. And, with the use of various "people search" tools, you can glean even more information.

It's happened before. In the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the families of B-52 crew members assigned to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana reportedly received threatening letters and phone calls from unknown individuals. Obviously, the base doesn't publish a public roster of its bomber crews, so the information--including home addresses--was obtained from public records. Similar databases could be used to locate the homes of SEAL team members.

Responding to leaks about the bin Laden operation (and potential threats to the SEALs and their families), Secretary Gates said the Defense Department is looking for ways to "pump up the security." But officials must strike a balance between protection and operational secrecy. A sudden, massive security presence in certain locations around Virginia Beach could also provide information to terrorists. Additionally, there's the challenge of determining who might be at risk and how to protect them. Beyond spouses and children, there are support personnel and contractors who are a part of the team's infrastructure. They also represent potential targets.

While DoD wrestles with security concerns, someone might want to take a look at those leakers. To its credit, the Obama Administration has been aggressive in going after individuals who disclose classified information, but there has been no talk about investigating the leaks surrounding the SEAL raid.

And for obvious reasons; many of the disclosures originated at the highest levels of government, among individuals with some access to information about the mission. In some cases, details leaked to the press proved false, but enough accurate information was gleaned to provide an accurate description of the raid--and its participants. Now, as various officials take their victory lap, the SEALs are concerned about the safety of their families.

To be fair, all administrations leaks for political reasons. But there is also a time and a place to keep secrets and the bin Laden raid was one of those occasions. Officials who kept the intelligence-gathering and operation carefully under wraps were far too anxious to share their information with members of the press, with little regard for the consequences. Operations Security begins at the top of the command chain, and some members of the current administration have displayed a reckless disregard for secrecy, and the military personnel who might be affected by unauthorized disclosures to the press.

Attorney General Eric Holder has spent years investigating CIA interrogators who supposedly tortured terrorist detainees--gaining information that eventually led the SEALs to Osama bin Laden. That inquiry is continuing, with no end in sight. If only Mr. Holder would devote similar time and resources to the leaks that followed the killing of Osama bin Laden. Then maybe, just maybe, the operatives assigned to future secret missions could rest a bit easier.

They deserve nothing less.


Paul G. said...

Irony: I never knew until now that the home of the seals was Dam Neck, Virginia or that at least two of them are married to prominent professional women.

ExRat said...

In an administration where politics seems to trump every other consideration, it's not entirely surprising that the information would leak. What is surprising is that it leaked so quickly, presumably from a small group whose members are readily identifiable.

Brian said...

The line taken over here is “The MoD does not comment on UK Special Forces as to do so would impair operational capability and risk personal security.”

Chris said...

Paul G: +1

Aut said...

As a Navy wife OPSEC is DRILLED into us. The fact upper level government and military and the press are throwing it out the windows angers, annoys and upset me. We have started a movement to remind those offenders, OPSEC matters, and it effects everyone. Please feel free to check it out, join it, and share the word!