Gossip and unauthorized leaks from U.S. officials, politicians and retired military officers about the highly classified raid to kill Osama bin Laden have jeopardized the ability of special forces to carry out similar operations in the future, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"Too many people in too many places are talking too much about this operation," Gates said, adding that the level of disclosures and blabbing violates an agreement reached in the White House Situation Room on May 8 to keep details of the raid private.
"That lasted about 15 hours," Gates said sourly.
The cascade of details surfacing about the highly classified event makes similar operations in the future "that much more difficult and riskier," Gates told reporters at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday.
"It is time to stop talking," agreed Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a pointed directive to officials, politicians and the retired military officers often featured on cable news programs, he added, "Get off the net."
Members of the Navy SEAL team that tore into bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed the 9/11 mastermind had expressed concern to Gates about the safety of their families after the team had been identified publicly and officials from the White House, the Pentagon and Congress widely discussed the operation.
In a meeting with hundreds of Marines at Camp Lejeune last week, Gates acknowledged such concerns. He said the Defense Department had mounted "a consistent and effective effort" to protect the identities of those who participated in the raid.
"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," Gates told the Marines.
"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," he added. "And so we're -- I -- 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."
White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon initially disclosed sketchy details of the raid they day after it happened. But more information poured forth from Capitol Hill after members of Congress were briefed on the operation and as retired SEALs and others began explaining tactical details. Much of the information published was credited to unnamed officials.
Officials and politicians have discussed the "stealth" helicopter that the SEALs were forced to leave behind after it malfunctioned over bin Laden’s compound and the use of "stealth" drones that watched the compound for weeks before the raid, unseen by Pakistani air defense facilities. Leakers have also disclosed details of how the SEALs had planned to storm the compound, the back-up plan once the helicopter malfunctioned, and other tactical pieces of information.
"We have gotten to a point where we are close to jeopardizing the precision capability that we have, and we can’t afford to do that," Mullen told reporters. "This fight isn’t over."