The Outing of the SEALs Has SecDef Ticked Off

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Gates at Camp Lejeune Thursday / DoD photos by D. Myles Cullen

A Marine asks Gates a question Thursday at Camp Lejeune

Remember when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld got that question about “hillbilly armor” in 2004 from a soldier in Kuwait complaining about lousy protection for troops in the war in Iraq? And Rumsfeld’s timeless response: “As you know, you go to war with the Army you have.”

It turns out the question, from a member of the Tennessee Army National Guard, had been suggested to him by a reporter traveling with his unit. Kind of makes you wonder who suggested this softball tossed Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ way on Thursday at Camp Lejeune:

I’m going to go a bit out of the norm questions here. I understand that this — the answer to this question might be limited, or not at all, due to security reasons. But with the recent events with Osama bin Laden and the named SEAL Team 6, what measures are being taken to protect the identities and the lives of the SEAL team members?

Gates seemed eager to answer the question, which obviously hadn’t been planted (Marines generally don’t take suggestions from reporters).

But there was a perfect storm in play here: Gates is now officially a short-timer (due to leave office at the end of next month). The killing of Osama bin Laden on his watch is the high point of a highly-regarded career. He has spoke often and fervently of his care and concern for the troops he has had to order into harm’s way. And dammit — details about the raid began leaking, after a solemn White House pact not to do so, within 24 hours of the raid.

So it’s fair to say that question wasn’t a softball tossed at Gates; it was placed atop a T-ball batting tee.

Gates swung mightily:

Well, I think, first of all, there is an awareness that the threat of retaliation is increased because of the action against bin Laden. I think that there has been great — ” and then he stopped, wondering if he should continue down this path.

Then he resumed: “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.”

That’s a pretty amazing statement. Here you have the nation’s warlord calling out his senior colleagues inside the Obama Administration for spilling the beans. Although he didn’t name names, there was ire inside the Pentagon at White House homeland security chief’s John Brennan’s Monday on-the-record briefing, which offered far more detail than a background session conducted the same day at the Pentagon. Brennan spoke in front of cameras about bin Laden being protected by female human shields, and implied he was armed — both of which had to be retracted as untrue the next day (the very act of retraction means the speaker had drifted into discussing operational details that had to be…retracted).

At least they can keep their lips zipped at the Pentagon: during that Defense Department confab with reporters, one asked

Can you confirm that it was a SEAL team?

…to which the senior defense official, who under the ground rules of the briefing cannot be further identified, responded:

Not going to comment on units or numbers.

How tough was that? Apparently too tough for two of the nation’s top leaders. Later the same day, May 3, Vice President Joe Biden let the cat out of the bag. While the press had been reporting SEAL Team 6 carried out the mission, no one in government had confirmed that fact.

But at a fancy dinner in honor of the Atlantic Council’s 50th anniversary, where U.S. NATO chief Adm. James Stavridis was honored, Biden couldn’t contain himself.

Let me briefly acknowledge tonight’s distinguished honorees.  Admiral James Stavridis is a, 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.

(Feel free to ignore the fact that the SEALs killed bin Laden on Monday.)

Biden, never one known for verbal reticence, then repeated his gaffe:

Folks, I’d be remiss also if I didn’t say an extra word about the incredible events, extraordinary events of this past Sunday.  As Vice President of the United States, as an American, I was in absolute awe of the capacity and dedication of the entire team, both the intelligence community, the CIA, the SEALs.  It just was extraordinary.

(If you’ve every been to one of these shindigs, you know how boring they can be — so credit goes to Biden for livening things up.)

Not only did Biden say it twice, he got confirmation that same evening from a pretty good source: CIA director Leon Panetta, who told PBS that the decision to shoot bin Laden “was all split-second action on the part of the SEALs.”

Back at Lejeune on Thursday, Gates surrendered on the operational details — including the unit involved. He retreated, and set up a new line of defense:

The one thing I would tell you, though, 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. And without getting into any details, I would tell you that when I met with the team last Thursday, they expressed a concern about that, and particularly with respect to their families. As you say, I can’t get into the details in this forum, but we are looking at what measures can be taken to pump up the security.

Those steps, in addition to providing some additional physical protection to SEALs and their families, will also include cyber defenses, to protect their online life, defense officials suggest.

Unfortunately, the media glare — here at Time, as well as around the globe — has been unrelenting. Some retired SEALs, alas, have been available for TV interviews, and one has just published a book on his SEAL story.

The Washington Post has a story today on SEAL-spotting in and around the Virginia Beach home base of those who carried out the mission, even naming the SEALs’ purported favorite hangouts: the Ready Room, Hot Tuna, C.P. Shuckers, Waterman’s Surfside Grill.

That should make things easier for tourists…and terrorists.

Two things are certain: the SEALs will be leery of their new boss, Defense Secretary-to-be Panetta. And you just know after all this publicity work is already underway on a new, hyper-super-secret military squad that’s going to make SEAL Team 6 look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

(PHOTOS: See the history of the Navy’s SEALs here.)