In a direct attack on one of President Barack Obama’s political strengths, a group of former special operations and CIA officers started a campaign this week accusing Obama of recklessly leaking information about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and other security matters to gain political advantage.
The new group, called the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, using shorthand for “operational security,” describes itself as nonpartisan, but some of its leaders have been involved in Republican campaigns and tea party groups.
A 22-minute video called “Dishonorable Disclosures” featured on its website appears to be aimed squarely at the president, echoing charges made previously by Mitt Romney and other Republicans.
The Obama campaign immediately compared the effort to the so-called Swift Boat advertisements against Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign.
Like that operation, which attacked Kerry’s military record in Vietnam, the OPSEC site goes after Obama’s strong points on national security — specifically his role in overseeing the successful military-CIA operation that killed bin Laden in May 2011.
Security officials and members of both parties in Congress have sharply criticized leaks about classified operations under Obama, as well as briefings for reporters on the bin Laden raid and assistance to filmmakers making a movie about the operation. But the administration also has overseen an unprecedented number of prosecutions for disclosures to the press. In June, Attorney General Eric Holder directed two U.S. attorneys to investigate recent leaks discussed in the video.
Chad Kolton, who was spokesman for the director of national intelligence in the Bush administration and now represents the OPSEC group, said that because it was classified as a 501©(4) educational group under tax laws, it was not required to identify donors. He said the group had raised nearly $1 million since June and intended to run television and Internet ads, as well as host showings of “Dishonorable Disclosures.”
Kolton rejected the comparison with the Swift Boat advertisements because they reflected narrow differences of opinion between Kerry and other former servicemen about his war record.
He said the OPSEC group had a broader purpose in speaking out against leaks and politicization of the Navy SEALs and CIA and hopes to keep working after the election. No one who was involved in the Swift Boat campaign is working with the OPSEC group, he said.
Asked whether the group was not itself bringing the SEALs and CIA into the presidential campaign, Kolton said that leaks were a bipartisan concern, noting that some Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have complained about leaks and suggested that some have come from the White House.
Of the video’s anti-Obama tone and content, Kolton said: “I realize you see a lot of criticism directed at the Obama administration. But that’s the current administration.”
He said “several dozen” former military and intelligence officers were supporting the campaign, which he said reflected widespread concern about dangerous disclosures.
Among the featured former members of the elite Navy special operations teams are Benjamin Smith, whose Facebook page identifies him as a model and actor who served in Iraq and later became a spokesman for the Tea Party Express and several Republican campaigns. Another former SEAL member, Scott Taylor, serves as the group’s president and ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for Congress in Virginia in 2010.
In an effort to portray Obama as a braggart taking credit for the accomplishments of special forces and intelligence operatives, the video omits some of the president’s remarks in announcing bin Laden’s killing. In that late-night televised address, Obama credited 10 years of “tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals,” but that is edited out.
In a CNN interview last month, Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the raid as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, said, “The president and his national security team — I’m not a political guy, but I will tell you, as — as an interested observer in this, they were magnificent in how they handled it start to finish.”
He added: “At the end of the day, make no mistake about it, it was the president of the United States that shouldered the burden for this operation, that made the hard decisions, that was instrumental in the planning process, because I pitched every plan to him.”
Asked about the OPSEC group, Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said: “The Republicans are resorting to Swift Boat tactics because when it comes to foreign policy and national security, Mitt Romney has offered nothing but reckless rhetoric. His two major foreign policy speeches never even mentioned al-Qaida once, and he hasn’t outlined a plan for America’s relations with a single region of the world.”
LaBolt said Obama had promised in 2008 that he would “end the war in Iraq in a responsible way and refocus on taking out al-Qaida’s leaders, and few would question that he’s kept his word.”