After Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, President Obama and the White House were criticized for leaking classified information about the raid in what critics called an effort to harvest positive media attention. Some have leveled similar criticism regarding Wednesday's revelation that U.S. special operations forces failed in a mission to rescue freelance photojournalist James Foley in Syria before ISIS fighters beheaded him. Why reveal this information now, except to cover Obama politically, critics ask.
It’s a valid concern if such revelations could harm future rescue attempts — and ISIS holds at least one more American journalist. But with or without those revelations, ISIS is surely studying the Foley raid. Only those with highly classified information can say for sure if ISIS can learn anything about U.S. sources and methods from Wednesday's revelations they wouldn't discover anyway.
|Relying too much on eyes in the sky can blind or misdirect those on the ground.|
Obama may be getting a bum rap on this one. It may also be the case that the White House was coming clean and getting ahead of a story that needs to be told. U.S. intelligence services, despite their obvious technological superiority, continue to fail at the more complicated and dangerous task of gathering reliable human intelligence on the ground. Relying too much on eyes in the sky can blind or misdirect those on the ground.
Such failures have become common in recent years, and they can have catastrophic results. In 2004, the Senate Intelligence Committee criticized the CIA for its near-complete inability to collect good intelligence in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. After his investigation, then-Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said, “Most alarmingly, after 1998 and the exit of the U.N. [weapons] inspectors, the CIA had no human intelligence sources inside Iraq who were collecting against the [weapons of mass destruction] target.” That gap didn’t prevent then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet from telling President George W. Bush that invading Iraq would be “a slam dunk.”
Much more recently — February, in fact — the U.S. intelligence community was sleeping as recent events began to unfold in Ukraine. According to the Daily Beast's Eli Lake and Christopher Dickey, American intelligence services downplayed the sudden buildup of troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border because there were no medical units among them. Therefore, they were considered unlikely to be an invading force. As a result, U.S. officials were caught off-guard when Russian units poured into the Crimea, and they were also well behind the eight ball as Russian-led militias began seizing towns in eastern Ukraine.
The bipartisan 2004 report from the Senate Intelligence Committee identified a serious problem with U.S. intelligence capabilities and it appears little has been done to remedy it. In November 1970, the Operation Ivory Coast POW rescue mission in North Vietnam failed for the same reason the Syria mission did. Despite perfect execution by U.S. special operations forces, the American POWs weren’t rescued because they weren’t where we thought they would be. President Nixon demanded a shakeup in U.S. intelligence community after that embarrassing failure. It looks like a similar shakeup is in order.