Citing former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ memoir, the father of a National Guardsman whose son was killed in Afghanistan is blaming White House leaks about the Osama bin Laden raid for the Taliban’s downing of a transport helicopter that killed his son, 17 members of SEAL Team 6 and 12 other U.S. troops.
Douglas Hamburger, whose son was killed in the Aug. 6, 2011, crash of Extortion 17, last week filed a statement with a House oversight subcommittee quoting Mr. Gates as telling White House aides he feared the Taliban would use military tactics contained in administration leaks to target Americans in Afghanistan.
He quoted a passage from Mr. Gates’ memoir, “Duty,” in which the former defense chief wrote that he had a pledge from White House aides that they would not release details about the SEAL Team 6 raid that killed bin Laden. Mr. Gates said the aides broke their promise and began “pouring out” tactics and methods just hours later.
Three months after the May 2011 bin Laden raid, the CH-47D Chinook helicopter was shot down by a Taliban fighter with a rocket-propelled grenade standing on a tower about 100 yards from what was supposed to be a secret landing zone.
“Releasing their identity put a target on their backs, along with any support troops that went into battle with them,” Mr. Hamburger, father of Army Staff Sgt. Patrick D. Hamburger, 30, of Lincoln, Neb., said in the statement filed with the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security.
Some families of those killed suspect that Afghans betrayed the SEALs in revenge for the bin Laden raid. Their suspicion is based not just on the Taliban’s nearby positioning with a rocket-propelled grenade. They note the Taliban’s ability to infiltrate Afghan security forces and then turn their guns on Western troops.
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To Mr. Hamburger, Mr. Gates’ warning proved prophetic: In his best-selling book, Mr. Gates recounted the debate on whether to unleash SEAL Team 6 on a compound in Pakistan that proved to be bin Laden’s hideout. He wrote of the confirmation of the kill and of Mr. Obama leaving the White House War Room to tell the nation that al Qaeda’s leader, the man who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, was dead.
Within hours, a flood of leaks ensued. Republicans charged that the White House was putting troops in danger to reap political capital while the president’s re-election campaign was underway.
In his congressional statement, Mr. Hamburger quoted from the Gates memoir: “Before we broke up and the president headed upstairs to tell the American people what had just happened, I reminded everyone that the techniques, tactics, and procedures the SEALs had used in the Bin Laden operation were used every night in Afghanistan and elsewhere in hunting down terrorists and other enemies. It was therefore essential that we agree not to release any operational details of the raid. That we killed him, I said, is all we needed to say. Everybody in that room agreed to keep mum on details. That commitment lasted about five hours. The initial leaks came from the White House and CIA. They just couldn’t wait to brag and to claim credit. The facts were often wrong, including details in the first press briefing. Nonetheless the information just kept pouring out. I was outraged and, at one point, told [National Security Adviser Thomas] Donilon, ‘Why doesn’t everybody just shut up?’ To no avail.”
In the raid’s aftermath, Mr. Gates publicly complained about bin Laden leaks in a clear message to the White House. But he did not elaborate on the fact that, at that time, he believed he had a firm agreement from Obama aides not to leak details.
The White House declined to comment.
“When it suits the White House political purposes, it discloses national security information in leaks,” said Larry Klayman, a lawyer representing three families of those killed in the Chinook. “When they want to cover anything up, it becomes national security information. The entire procedure is dishonest and criminal.”
The House national security subcommittee held Congress’ first, and likely last, hearing last week on the Chinook’s downing. Mr. Hamburger did not testify, but his statement was put into the investigative record.
“Never before had a president in office released the identity of any Special Forces Team involved in a covert operation,” Mr. Hamburger wrote. “Until Bin Laden was taken out, no one had really heard of SEAL Team VI. Its name and missions were always kept quiet for protection for themselves and their families.
“With Bounties on their heads and a target on their back, [30 Americans] were shot down by the Taliban who were positioned in a tower of a building in the perfect place at the exact time to launch an attack on the CH-47D when it was most vulnerable — at landing. How can anyone justify putting our troops at such risk?” the bereaved father wrote.
In his insider account, Mr. Gates wrote that SEAL Team 6 members told him that the White House leaks endangered their lives.
“The SEALs shared with me their concerns about the leaks, particularly the fact that reporters were nosing around their communities trying to find them,” he wrote. “They were worried about their families.”
Said Mr. Hamburger: “Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted that the SEAL Team that carried out the raid on Bin Laden now feared for their safety.”
Extortion 17’s mission that night was to back up 47 Army Rangers who had landed in the Tangi Valley hours earlier hunting a senior Taliban leader.
One of the worst days for U.S. troops in Afghanistan before Extortion 17 was the 2008 Battle of Wanat, in which nine soldiers were killed by Taliban fighters invading an outpost. An investigation revealed that Afghan security forces betrayed the soldiers and collaborated with the Taliban in the attack.
There is no indication in U.S. Central Command’s thick investigative file on Extortion 17 that investigators interviewed any Afghan officials.
Garry Reid, assistant secretary of defense for special operations, told the subcommittee that “we do not believe the mission was compromised.”
“I just do not trust the Afghanis,” said Rep. John Mica, Florida Republican.
The Washington Times reported Sept. 16, 2012, on the extensive amount of information leaked by the administration in the months after the death of bin Laden.
On May 3, 2011, for example, a few days after the raid, The New York Times published a large graphic depicting the bin Laden compound and a description of how the mission was carried out.
Emails obtained by the watchdog group Judicial Watch revealed that White House strategists were seeking avenues to get the bin Laden story out to the public.
On June 15, 2011, a month after the raid, White House communications aide Ben Rhodes wrote to Pentagon spokesman Douglas Wilson about a proposed movie: “We are trying to have visibility into the [bin Laden] projects, and this is likely the most high-profile one. Would like to have whoever the group is that’s going around in here at the WH to get a sense of what they’re doing/what cooperating they are seeking.
The movie, “Zero Dark Thirty,” chronicled the hunt for bin Laden and the raid that killed him, earning more than $138 million as one of the most-watched films of the year.