RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
National security issues are beginning to figure in this presidential campaign. With his foreign travel this week, Mitt Romney is laying out his own views on how the United States should deal with Iran and other challenges. He's been careful not to criticize President Obama while abroad, but here at home, Romney and other Republicans have been highlighting what they say is a pattern of national security leaks by the Obama administration. NPR's Tom Gjelten looks at what's been divulged and whether national security has been compromised.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Obama White House has actually been aggressive in prosecuting leakers, but Republican critics say the effort has been selective, with the administration pursuing whistle blowers, but permitting leaks that make President Obama look strong. Here is Mitt Romney, last week, before the VFW.
MITT ROMNEY: This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. Whoever provided classified information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration, must be exposed, dismissed, and punished.
GJELTEN: In that speech, Romney pointed to the administration's release of what he said were secret operational details of the raid against Osama bin Laden last year. That's President Obama's biggest foreign policy accomplishment.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed.
GJELTEN: In the days that followed, administration officials revealed that the raid was carried out by a Navy SEAL team. They told how they learned bin Laden was probably in that compound, and they confirmed that the helicopters used in the raid employed stealth technology. The administration may have wanted to tell the story in such a way as to show off U.S. capabilities and diminish al-Qaida, but the Pentagon was uneasy about the details revealed.
In a new book, the New York Times' David Sanger reports that Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered White House officials his own strategic communications advice - shut the (bleep) up. All this is campaign fodder. Romney cited Gates in his VFW speech last week. Republican members of Congress want to know whether the White House gave classified information to Hollywood director Kathryn Bigelow who's doing a movie on the bin Laden raid.
Retired SEAL commander, Ryan Zinke, is one of two formers SEALs who have organized anti-Obama political action committees. Interviewed on FOX News, Zinke said he and his SEAL colleagues don't like what the Obama White House revealed about the bin Laden operation.
RYAN ZINKE: When you disclose a specific team, you know, what it does is, it puts that team, the dependents, and the military, you know, members at home and abroad, at risk. That's what we have to stop.
GJELTEN: All these criticisms have been a bit undercut, however, by the Commander of the bin Laden raid. Admiral William McRaven, now the head of the U.S. Special Operations Command. At a press conference in May, McRaven wished Bigelow good luck with her film, and said the bid Laden raid was not, in his words, overly sensitive. He made similar comments last week at the Aspen Security Conference.
ADMIRAL WILLIAM MCRAVEN: We did, I think, 11 other raids that evening in Afghanistan. Now, I don't want to diminish the nature of this raid. It was a little bit more sporty.
MCRAVEN: And we understood that there were some strategic implications to it, but at the end of the day, it was what we have been doing, really, for ten years. We get on helicopters, we go to objectives, we secure the objectives, we get back on helicopters and we come home.
GJELTEN: As for saying it was a SEAL team that carried out the raid, some active duty SEALs apparently feel fine about identifying themselves. Several took part in a recent action film called "Act of Valor." The film depicted a typical SEAL helicopter raid.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "ACT OF VALOR")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: But for now the birds will drop you off outside the city where your POC is a Commander Pedros(ph). We'll give you more details in route. (Unintelligible), how do you copy?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Roger, main. OK. We've got a helo landing on the deck. We're going to meet a Mexican SOF commander and his team. They're going to help...
GJELTEN: Whether an orchestrated SEAL campaign to defeat President Obama will have any impact, remains to be seen. Presumably the Romney team hopes so, but former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, who has written a memoir about his SEAL experience, is uncomfortable with the idea of SEALs organizing for a particular political purpose.
ERIC GREITENS: I actually think it's very important that the Navy SEAL community stay out of politics. It's very important for us, as a group of Navy SEALs, to make sure that the message that we send to the country is that we're ready to serve any commander in chief, the elected head of the armed forces, that the people of the United States elect, and that that is our mission, that's our duty, as Navy SEALs.
GJELTEN: The Obama Administration's critics, however, say the revelations about the bin Laden raid are just part of a larger pattern of national security leaks. There are at least three other examples. Reporters learned about an al Qaida double agent. Sources described how the U.S. decides which al-Qaida figures should be killed and which should be captured. And some unidentified officials confirmed that the so-called Stuxnet cyber weapon, used against Iran, was a U.S.-Israeli creation.
Such information can have consequences. Jason Healey, director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council, says now that the whole world knows the United States is using offensive cyber weapons, the U.S. is likely to be blamed if a cyber war ever breaks out.
JASON HEALEY: It's going to be very difficult for the United States to be able to plausibly deny any kind of significant attack. Any time there's a future significant attack anywhere in the world, the local leaders, local press, is going to have a very easy time saying that the CIA and the United States was behind this.
GJELTEN: President Obama last month said the notion that my White House would purposefully release classified national security information is offensive. It's wrong. But in more recent statements, White House officials have qualified that statement a bit, saying only that the president himself has not divulged secrets, nor authorized anyone else to leak classified information. That seemed to leave open the possibility that someone in the administration independently revealed secrets, and an off-the-cuff comment last week from Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, did not help.
SENATOR DIANE FEINSTEIN: I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from its ranks. I don't know specifically where, but I think they have to begin to understand that and do something about it.
GJELTEN: Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, later said she regretted having speculated about the source of leaks, but the damage was done. Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed two federal prosecutors to investigate the security leaks, but Republicans say the case demands an independent special counsel. Of course, this is not the first time an administration has been suspected of leaking classified information.
In four books about the Bush administration's war and counterterrorism policies, journalist Bob Woodward had access to many senior officials and divulged many secrets. But this is an election year, and in the absence of higher-profile security issues, the controversy over the Obama team's alleged leaks is certain to linger. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.