Was this a move to protect the identities of the SEAL team that raided the compound in Abbottabad in May 2011? Or was it a new strategy to defeat FOIA requests by the Obama administration? The Associated Press had pursued documents from the military mission that killed Osama bin Laden, from which the administration had leaked plenty, from the Vice President down. After more than two years of getting the stonewall treatment from the Pentagon, a new IG report explains that the Pentagon doesn’t have the documents any longer:
Records about the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout were ordered purged from Pentagon computers and sent to the CIA — a place where they could be more easily shielded from ever being made public.
A draft report by the Pentagon’s inspector general briefly described the secret move, which was directed by the top U.S. special operations commander, Adm. William McRaven.
The transfer did not set off alarms within the Obama administration even though it appears to have sidestepped rules governing federal records and circumvented the Freedom of Information Act.
The IG concluded that the move was intended to shield the SEALs from public identification. However, it also creates a new strategy to evade FOIA requests, as the AP points out:
But secretly moving the records allowed the Pentagon to tell The Associated Press that it couldn’t find any documents inside the Defense Department that AP had requested more than two years ago, and could represent a new strategy for the U.S. government to shield even its most sensitive activities from public scrutiny.
“Welcome to the shell game in place of open government,” said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a private research institute at George Washington University. “Guess which shell the records are under. If you guess the right shell, we might show them to you. It’s ridiculous.”
McRaven’s directive sent the only copies of the military’s records about its daring raid to the CIA, which has special authority to prevent the release of “operational files” in ways that can’t effectively be challenged in federal court. The Defense Department can prevent the release of its own military files, too, citing risks to national security. But that can be contested in court, and a judge can compel the Pentagon to turn over non-sensitive portions of records.
A court would likely approve redacting the names of SEALs before release, too, as those wouldn’t be newsworthy enough for the risk of exposure — so privacy is unlikely to be the real reason for the shell game in this case. Courts also provide plenty of leeway for protection of truly sensitive information regarding national security, which would mean even more redactions before the documents got into the hands of the AP. That’s exactly what the FOIA legal process is designed to protect while providing as much transparency as reasonably possible to government operations.
Why, then, pull this stunt, especially without seeking the necessary approval of the National Archives and Records Administration? This was a successful operation, remember, and one repeatedly cited for political purposes during the 2012 election. The White House made this a topic of national debate almost from the time the SEALs evacuated the compound, arguing that it showed Barack Obama to be tough on terrorism.
The most obvious conclusion is that there’s something in the file that doesn’t make the operation, the Pentagon, the CIA, and/or the administration look good, but, er … the mission was a success, and a rather spectacular one at that. How bad could it be? Or is this just a bad habit from the most untransparent administration evah? I’m genuinely puzzled.