The not-so-secret operation: Gates hits out at Bin Laden leaks

  • @guyadams

Careless talk costs lives, the White House warned yesterday, saying that unauthorised leaks about the special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden are now endangering US troops, harming diplomatic relations and jeopardising the country's ability to carry out similar operations in future.

The Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, told reporters that "too many people in too many places" have been sharing inside information on the daring assassination which saw two helicopters full of US Navy Seals descend on the al-Qa'ida leader's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in the early hours of 1 May.

So many details are now in the public domain that troops who took part in the raid are concerned that they could be identified and targeted by Islamist terrorists, Mr Gates said. The administration has already been forced to step up security for both the men and their families.

President Barack Obama's inner circle finds the leaks particularly frustrating because they violate an agreement which was reached among the 100-or-so senior officials who were privy to inside information about the operation, Mr Gates told a Pentagon press briefing.

"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," he said. "Well, that lasted about 15 hours."

The perils of information being passed to the press in an unauthorised fashion were immediately apparent. Early reports of the raid suggested, for example, that Bin Laden was armed and cowering behind his wife when he was shot and killed. Both details later turned out to be untrue.

Though the US military, which is facing potential budget cuts, is anxious to use its Boys-Own-style success for PR purposes, the failure to keep a lid on information about this supposedly classified operation makes it harder for similar raids to succeed in future, Mr Gates added. "When so much detail is available, it makes that both more difficult and riskier," he said.

The exact source of the leaks is hard to pinpoint. White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon was initially authorised to brief journalists about the raid on the day after it happened. However, he only shared relatively sketchy details with them.

More colourful information began emerging once members of Congress were given information about the operation. Much of it was credited to un-named "security officials," and the White House is understood to privately believe that sources in the Pentagon spoke with several reporters, on an off-the-record basis.

Retired Navy Seals then began popping up on news channels praising their former colleagues and sharing other details gleaned from old military contacts. Some of it was sensitive, including speculation about the new "stealth" helicopter the Seals used.

Unlike previous administrations, the Obama regime is also aware that America's international image isn't always well served by being seen to crow about successful military operations. That's particularly the case with the Bin Laden assassination, since it involved an unauthorised incursion into a sovereign state.