The Pentagon let slip that one of its training camps to help fight Islamic State terrorists is in Jordan — information the pro-U.S. kingdom had specifically requested be kept private, and the latest gaffe in a series of sensitive leaks coming out of the Department of Defense.
In order to hide its flub, which was first announced to reporters during a briefing last week, the Pentagon has scrubbed its public transcripts of any mention of the training camp.
Pentagon officials acknowledged Monday that one of its officers, who was briefing reporters on condition of anonymity last week, likely made the mistake. The Pentagon’s policy is to discuss only the contributions its partner nations are making to its operations against extremists in Iraq and Syria only after those partner nations have publicly spoken about those contributions.
In Jordan’s case, that did not happen, a senior Pentagon official said.
Security analysts are befuddled by the high-level operational “screw-up.”
“Either the official made a mistake or is deliberately leaking information to put the administration’s plans for Syria in a better light in an attempt to defuse criticism that the administration has bungled efforts to aid Syrian rebels,” said James Phillips, a national security analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
The latest information leak comes as the Obama administration is under fire from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for revealing too much information at the Pentagon’s briefing last week of an upcoming military plan to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
It was at that briefing where the U.S. military revealed the information about Jordan, which fears retaliation, analysts say, if it’s seen as being too close to the U.S. or getting too involved in neighboring Syria.
Pentagon officials on Thursday gave defense reporters details about the planned operation, which raised the ire of Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said the information jeopardized U.S. success in the region.
Even a Democratic lawmaker said she was “mind-boggled” at the level of detail made publicly available about such a high-risk mission.
“I was similarly mind-boggled, and didn’t understand at all, how this could be part of a strategic plan in what they’re talking about,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a captain in the Hawaii Army National Guard and an Iraq War veteran, said on CNN. “That you’re not only outlining the timeline, which is troubling, but you’re also talking about specifically how many troops, how many brigades, where they’re coming from and what they’re going to be doing.”
Security analysts are equally befuddled.
“I was really surprised by that briefing,” said Kenneth Pollack, a scholar on Middle Eastern political-military affairs and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It went way beyond what I expected any uniformed military officer to say. I was in Iraq last month. I got ‘backgrounded’ by the U.S. military and Iraqi military, and they told me most of that — not all of that, but most of it. And they swore me to secrecy.”
In addition to providing the details of the mission, the military official also let slip Jordan was making demonstrable progress toward being ready to train the Syrian rebels, and its training site would be up and running before most of the other nations involved in the plan.
“Saudi Arabia’s site will take somewhere between 30 and 90 days to fully bring online,” the official said last week. “So it will come into the picture shortly after Jordan and Turkey are there. And then Qatar has also offered a site, but that one is going to take probably six to nine months to bring it up and get it fully online.”
In the edited transcript, released Thursday, Jordan was nowhere to be seen.
“The four sites are coming online, specifically the site in [edited], a turnkey facility is ready to go,” the transcript states. “We’re working through some final technical agreements with them that we anticipate being signed any day, if it has not already been signed. The site in Turkey is also nearly a turnkey facility, and that technical agreement with Turkey was actually just signed today. Saudi Arabia’s site will take somewhere between 30 and 90 days to fully bring online. So it will come — come into the picture shortly after [edited] and Turkey are there.”
The Jordanian Embassy in Washington did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The operational flub now exposes Jordan to potential threats.
Jordan, a key ally in the multinational Operation Inherent Resolve coalition, is one of four Arab partner nations that has been dropping bombs on Islamic State militants in Syria.
The Islamist group recently captured a Jordanian pilot who had crashed his warplane in Syria and killed him by burning him alive inside a cage, prompting the Hashemite kingdom to swear vengeance on the Islamic State and — among other things — post a picture of King Abdullah II in combat fatigues.
But to avoid further attacks and perils posed by neighbor Syria, Jordan has been trying to conceal some of its interactions with the U.S. military, analysts say.
In addition, Jordanians are still undecided about whether the Syrian rebel groups are trustworthy and are concerned that training them before Syrian President Bashar Assad has been unseated and replaced could threaten Jordan, said Nick Heras, a research associate for the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security.
“If Assad is removed, then you could have issues with the jihadists taking over in Syria, where they’re using Syria for a base of attacks that could further destabilize Jordan,” he said.
Each of the countries participating in bombing raids over Syria has submitted various special requests to the U.S. military in an effort to shield themselves from the wrath of the Syrian government and other neighbor nations, said a second senior Pentagon official.
“A lot of the coalition partners have had their caveats and sensitivities, and they’ve basically said, ‘Hey, don’t go there,’” the official said.
The Pentagon has been doing its best to honor the various requests of the ally nations, the first official said.
“It’s our policy to only discuss the contributions that our partner nations make after those partner nations have publicly spoken about those contributions,” the official said. “So if Saudi Arabia has publicly said ‘We’re going to host training sites,’ then that’s our signal to publicly talk about training in Saudi Arabia.”
But that policy appeared to change Thursday, when a military official unveiled a plethora of information to reporters and bucked that trend.
Now that the U.S. military has made public its plans to use Jordan as a training site, that information serves as a double-edged sword against the war ally, Mr. Phillips said.
Jordan may be feeling belligerent after launching a frenzied bombing campaign on the Islamic State after the group killed the Jordanian pilot, but the nation remains a target of opportunity to the terrorists, Mr. Phillips said.
“It may make that training more of a lightning rod for attacks by the Assad regime or ISIS,” he said.