This is WAY worse than the ‘Swift Boat’ thing

I had to groan when I saw the headline saying that the Obama campaign was accusing political opponents of using “Swift Boat tactics.” That’s because, not having been in a coma the past eight years, I know that when Democrats say those words, they’re not referring to the use of light watercraft to fight the Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta. If only they were.

Instead, as we all know full well, they’re invoking charges brought by a group called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” which raised questions about John Kerry’s war service. Democrats to this day so deeply resent what that group did that they have turned “Swift Boat” into a verb, one that refers to actions they regard as mean, nasty, unethical, uncalled-for and generally beyond the pale.

I am unable to agree with Democrats on this because, well, that group raised questions I was wondering about myself (such as, where are the scars from those wounds that sent him home?). But as a nonveteran, I felt I had no moral standing to raise them. I mean, maybe he did get to go home quicker than other veterans, but he was still there longer than I was.

So I initially sort of appreciated veterans publicly asking those questions, no matter with whom they were affiliated. But in the end, that discussion got into a lot of petty back-and-forth accusations about exactly what happened when and who did what to whom, and the whole thing wasn’t really helpful, and just left a general sour taste behind. And I’d just as soon not have such things front-and-center in a presidential election.

But I don’t see it the way Democrats do. So I groaned when I saw the words.

But then I read on, and saw what elicited the phrase.

Now, this, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty nasty stuff. Maybe Democrats ought to come up with a convenient name for this, and turn it into a verb.

The Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund seems to exist primarily to call into question, as we head into the home stretch of the election, any credit the President might received for killing Osama bin Laden. (That is far from the only question it raises, but that’s the one with the emotional punch.) And that is just beyond cheesy. It’s too petty for words.

This is nursery-school playground-taunt territory. Clearly, whoever was president at the time this happened gets a certain amount of credit for what happens on his watch — just as he gets the blame when it goes wrong. Jimmy Carter didn’t make that Iran rescue mission fail, but he certainly took the rap for it.

Reuters quoted Ben Smith, whom the group describes as a former SEAL, as saying:

Mr. President, you did not kill Osama bin Laden, America did. The work that the American military has done killed Osama bin Laden. You did not.

It’s easy to believe, in the moment he says that (at 6:55 into the above video), that this guy has been a Tea Party spokesman. He evinces that certain disdain-that-dare-not-speak-its-name that TPers seem to reserve entirely for this particular president.

But aside from the tone — I mean, come on. Nobody in the country is stupid enough to think the president personally suited up, went along on the mission and shot bin Laden himself, and no one in the country has tried for a second to make anyone think that. The simplest voter in the country would laugh at the proposition. So in what way do you suppose that the president is in any way trying to take anything away from the super-soldiers who carried out this amazing raid? Perhaps the most laudable thing the president is congratulated for having done was choosing to send in the SEALs as opposed to copping out with a bombing raid. And if you don’t think it took political courage to make that decision, you don’t know anything about politics or special ops, whatever your resume says.

I go further than that. My initial reaction was that hey, that Obama is a lucky guy to have been in charge on this particular watch. But as I learned more and more about the decision-making process that preceded the operation, I saw multiple points at which the wrong decisions could have been made, and POTUS made the right calls, even when very experienced smart people in his administration were doubting that was the way to go.

The bin Laden operation, furthermore, fits within an overall pattern that had distinguished the Obama administration well before that night in Abbottabad — a sharp increase in aggressively pursuing our nation’s enemies, in Pakistan and wherever else they hide.

Of course, the fig leaf this group is offering for its pettiness is that it is objecting to the very fact that I know as much about the long-term operation as I do. It’s accusing this administration of leaking government secrets for the purpose of its own political aggrandizement. (Which presents an interesting contradiction: If the administration is leaking actual, true intel, and that information shows the president in a good light, then how do you say the president doesn’t deserve credit for what happened?)

That’s a serious charge. I’ve seen no evidence that national security has in any way been compromised in this instance — but of course, I don’t have enough access to classified information to know for sure.

But I do know this: As I mentioned above, this president has been far more aggressive than any recent predecessor in using deadly force to take out terrorists, making George W. Bush look almost timid by comparison. While I have applauded the president for this, I acknowledge such an unprecedented pattern of aggression calls, in a liberal democracy, for a certain amount of sunshine. We need to know, at least in general, about the way the president makes decisions.

By the way, I’m not outraged at the parties who appear in this group’s video, which is the centerpiece of the campaign. I don’t doubt their sincerity. There is a fundamental cognitive disconnect between people who devote their lives to serving their country in the more sensitive parts of our national security apparatus, and people who are elected and directly accountable to the voters of this country. The national security types live by operational security, and have a tendency to see any kind of public disclosure of what they do as a close cousin to treason, rather than the exercise of political accountability. Political figures can indeed go too far in the service of self-interest. But even legitimate disclosure, the kind of thing a political leader should disclose, will not be acceptable to people who, just as legitimately, define their success in large part by their ability to keep secrets.

My beef is with the people who put this piece of emotionally-charged propaganda together, and released it at such a moment. The release of this video, at this time, would make the charges in the video itself about the president’s timing in announcing bin Laden’s death rather laughable. Except, you know, there’s nothing funny about it. (And I don’t even quite follow the logic that it was somehow politically advantageous to the president to announce the success of the operation immediately. If he’d done it a week later, as they suggest, he’d have gotten just as big a political boost.)

The amount of information that is appropriate for keeping a president accountable will always be debatable, and we should engage in it energetically, to the extent we can do so without damaging the very security we seek to protect (ah, there’s the ironic rub).

And we’ve been engaging in it, as the NYT reminds us:

Security officials and members of both parties in Congress have sharply criticized leaks about classified operations under Mr. Obama, and some Republicans have complained about news briefings on the Bin Laden raid and assistance to filmmakers making a movie about the operation.

The next sentence reminds us of something else the group pointedly ignores:

But the administration has also overseen an unprecedented number of prosecutions for press disclosures, and in June, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. directed two United States attorneys to investigate leaks discussed in the Opsec video.

The petty way this group has gone about conducting its political offensive makes me less inclined to take it on faith that they know things that I do, and those things make the president look bad.

Perhaps the verb for this, going forward, should be “Opsecing.” No, that doesn’t look right. “Opsecking?” Nah. Still needs work…

27 thoughts on “This is WAY worse than the ‘Swift Boat’ thing

  1. Steven Davis II

    Brad your knowledge of the OPSEC group is less than 24 hours old. Maybe you should ask your career Navy officer father his thoughts on disclosing details of military missions and see what he has to say.

    The men who are members of OPSEC are 1000 times the man you wish you were.

  2. Jeff Morrell

    “That’s a serious charge. I’ve seen no evidence that national security has in any way been compromised in this instance — but of course, I don’t have enough access to classified information to know for sure.”

    I hope like hell you don’t have access to ANY classified information.

    It is pathetic the number of violations of sensitive and classified information these days. The military itself is bad enough anymore. Disclosing the unit involved in the Bin Laden raid wasn’t appropriate, much less the details.

  3. Steven Davis II

    Maybe Eric H. Holder, Jr. should direct a few lawyers to investigate his failed Fast and Furious program. But that’d be like Donny Meyer directing investigators into his buddies Danny Frazier, James Metts, and Jake Knotts video poker investigation.

  4. Barry

    I am not voting for President Obama but he has never claimed to have killed Bin Laden.

    For someone to insinuate that he believes that is a bald faced lie.

  5. Brad

    Here’s an excerpt from what Tim just linked us to:

    BLITZER: …with admiral McRaven, as the orchestrator, the architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden… this is the guy who’s sitting right here, who had the guts to tell the commander in chief, we should do it, let’s do it, and when you ordered that raid, and when you said, you think — you didn’t even know for sure that bin Laden was in a Abbottabad in that compound, about a mile or so away from the west point of Pakistan, did you?

    ADMIRAL WILLIAM MCRAVEN, COMMANDER, U.S. SPECIAL OPERATIONS: Well, let me make one thing clear, I didn’t order the raid.


    BLITZER: But he told the president of the United States that he thought he could do it.

    MCRAVEN: And this is not a small point. The fact of the matter is, it was the president of the United States that ordered the raid.

    BLITZER: And he deserves an enormous amount of credit for that decision.

    MCRAVEN: Absolutely, he does.

  6. Brad

    I never realized, until reading that transcript, how incoherent Wolf Blitzer can be. I edited his opening lines there so that they made SOME sense, although they were still ungrammatical. Here’s what he actually said:

    BLITZER: We always think of, in recent years, of course, at least in the past year, with admiral McRaven, as the orchestrator, the architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And you know, we’ve all read a lot about it. I know Peter Bergen is here, he’s written a whole book about it, an excellent book about it. But this is the guy who’s sitting right here, who had the guts to tell the commander in chief, we should do it, let’s do it, and when you ordered that raid, and when you said, you think — you didn’t even know for sure that bin Laden was in a Abbottabad in that compound, about a mile or so away from the west point of Pakistan, did you?

    Gee, I’m not a broadcast guy, and even I could do (slightly) better than that…

  7. Brad

    Where was he even GOING with that nonsentence? “We always think of, in recent years, of course, at least in the past year, with admiral McRaven, as the orchestrator, the architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.”

  8. Juan Caruso

    “That’s a serious charge. I’ve seen no evidence that national security has in any way been compromised in this instance — but of course, I don’t have enough access to classified information to know for sure.” -B.W.

    Your honest admissions (those of an experienced reporter) attest to a major problem with today’s journalists in general, they are too willing to express their opinions without disclosing their relative incompetence to have a compelling ones in the subject matter, as you have. That is precisely why I would be comfortable ‘grandfathering’ you under the licensing guidelines for journalists (repeated from earlier comments on this blog):

    1) Either possess expertise in matters upon which you, the journalist, report facts to readers, or disclose your inexpertise.
    2) Report contrary assessments by dissenting experts when topics are controversial.
    3) Never write an opinion piece without related education and experience that sets you apart from uneducated, inexperienced readers.

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    In defense of Wolf Blitzer, written transcripts of speech often sounded incomplete, because most of us do not speak in full paragraphs or even full clauses. We gesture, or the tone of our voice conveys enough meaning. I found that plenty of Germans didn’t even seem to notice that I was not speaking in full sentences, because they understood clearly what I meant from my tone of voice, gestures and the context.

  10. tavis micklash

    SD II – “Brad your knowledge of the OPSEC group is less than 24 hours old. Maybe you should ask your career Navy officer father his thoughts on disclosing details of military missions and see what he has to say.”

    Its impossible for the POTUS to leak information. By definition he is the final authority on what is classified and not.

    Its irresponsible to do this if it can hurt people in the field though. Its also cowardly to use proxys to leak it though. own it if you are going to try to profit from it.

    As President you are Commander in Chief. You get to take credit and blame for anything this military does. We certainly wouldn’t have pulled punches if the mission flopped in a Bay of Pigs or Carter’s attack to free hostages in Iran.

  11. tavis micklash

    SD II “@tavis – Did you watch the video? It doesn’t sound like you did.”

    I must admit I have not seen the 22 minute video. Cant play flash videos at work. I did hear portions on Fox News Yesterday on the drive home though.

    My comments were more based on general leaks and the President.

    As far as the President taking credit that was just based on my time in the Navy. If as a department we passed an inspection the engineer took credit since he managed the department. Since the Captain is overall in charge of the Ship he takes credit, and on and on.

    So in theory the president if he wished could take credit for me passing an Operational Readyness Exam. He just wouldn’t for something so mundane.

    Saying this it always pissed me off that I was the one only getting 4 hours of sleep on average a day for 3 weeks and getting nothing in the end. Yet the Engineer/Captain gets a Commendation medal. Thats the way things work in the military. Its one reason why I have never look backed once after I did my required time.

    The video probably has nothing to do with what I said and thats why you made the comment too. In that case I’m just being a goon.

  12. Steven Davis II

    Maybe Obama 2016 is more your taste in movies. From the producer of Schindler’s List.

    As someone asked on another forum, for a president who wants to appear as being so transparent why don’t we hear interviews with fellow classmates (high school, college, law school) of his on MSNBC or CNN, why don’t we hear interviews of former girlfriends of his on The View, etc… Does anyone know anything about him pre-1990?

  13. Steven Davis II

    Currently airing at the Columbiana Grand Stadium 14

    2016 Obama’s America
    PG , 1 hr 27 min


  14. Phillip

    I took a different view of this video, especially the direct accusation of the President “leaking” information. For me, this kind of thing is something we may see more and more of, especially as our democracy at a federal level continues its slide into dysfunction and paralysis. We may start to see more direct challenge from the military towards civilian rule, not just from retired or inactive officers, but even from within the ranks of active-duty military. Hand-in-hand with the transition of the US from a fully democratic state to more of an oligarchic one, there will be increasing support for a greater role for the military in the active governance of the nation. It will be very slow and incremental, but I bet you’ll see more of this over time.

  15. Brad

    Wow, Phillip. With all due respect, I must say that is a remarkable example of post-Vietnam anti-military paranoia.

    If anything, I would say that the military today is more marginalized than at any time in my life since the decade after 1975. Too few people have a clue what it is all about.

    And what in the world do you mean by “the transition of the US from a fully democratic state to more of an oligarchic one”? That sounds like something I’d hear at either an Occupy or a Tea Party rally, take your pick.

    When was that golden era when you believe this country was more democratic than it is now? What I see, looking at our nation’s 236-year history, is a general trend toward democratization, for good or ill. (I say “for good or ill” as one who prefers a republic to direct democracy.)

  16. Phillip

    I knew that comment came at the risk of being labeled “paranoid.” But let me clarify that it’s not something I think is imminent, not paranoid like the makers of “Obama 2016.” It’s just a long-range guess, something like maybe 25, 35, 50 years down the road.

    As you know though, I do believe that elections at the federal level will become less and less meaningful over time, that the President and even the Congress will continue to have less ultimate say in the overall direction of the country on domestic policy at least, that “democracy” in the sense of American citizens truly being given real political choice is on its way out, VERY gradually I grant you. As for “oligarchy,” I should more properly use the term “plutocracy” or “corporatocracy,” and there I simply mean the society that it seems most of the right-wing in America would prefer implemented, the general direction the country’s been headed since 1980. So, using the example of various nations in history including a number of examples in Latin America in the past, the military has been called upon to exercise rule “on behalf” of the corporate interests. A banana republic, in other words.

    Also, pointing out the relative paralysis of our federal system is not unique to me certainly. But judging by the profound impact 9/11 had on our nation, I’m just guessing that we’re one truly existential and/or WWII-sized crisis away from a substantial shift in our mode of governance. Anyway, just my gut feeling that’s where we’re ultimately headed, but it will take a long time. Hey, I hope I’m wrong, but seeing this video made we wonder if this wasn’t the first of many we might see in years to come.

    I’ll leave it to others to judge how “marginalized” the most powerful military assembled in the history of planet could possibly be.

  17. Phillip

    And I should add this is not an “anti-military” view. I don’t believe this is something that would brew from within the military. This is something that anti-democratic elements within civilian society would eventually suggest (“let’s end this gridlock, this paralysis, let’s be a can-do nation again” etc. etc.)

  18. Mark Stewart

    I watched the entire video. My thoughts kept coming back to their video title – dishonorable.

    They refer to themselves as silent professionals. And yet here they whine like political neophytes. Man up, gentlemen.

    The situation with the exposure of the Pakistani doctor was most unfortunate. But I am pretty sure that the Stuxtnet virus was first exposed by a Russian computer security firm lead by a man with close ties to Putin’s regime. And I couldn’t care less that the leaks “even exposed the name of the dog that went on the mission.” As I said, whiney stuff.

    Most importantly, I want to know that the President of the United States has final authority over the kill list and the drone strikes. That is absolutely as it should be.

    We spent 10 years hunting Osama bin Laden. Leaking some information about the mission is just another price of success. What would be far worse is to have these operators acting without political oversight and control. That would be the real scary scenario.

    What a bunch of pansies.

  19. Mark Stewart


    That’s why the saying goes rank has its privileges. Of course, it also has its responsibilities.

  20. Steve Gordy

    I agree with Phillip. While the military is less representative of the U.S. population in general than at any other time within my memory, there is certainly less critical oversight of military spending than has been the case for most of our history. An entity that gets 20% of the federal budget is hardly marginalized.

  21. Brad

    Two or three points:

    First, by “marginalized,” I mean culturally. Just as I noted that it’s hard for career military personnel to appreciate politicians, it’s perhaps harder for most Americans to appreciate the culture of military service.

    Second, Steve, the number I’ve been seeing recently — Ryan cited it in that speech I linked to the other day — is that the military is more like less than 16 percent of the federal budget. As opposed to 39 percent in 1970. So yes, even in that sense, more marginalized today. But more to my point, in those days most American men had served in the military, and it was better understood and appreciated.

    Third, with reference Phillip’s worry about the military coming to act on behalf of “corporate interests” in some antidemocratic manner… As distanced as the military may (intentionally) be from politics, there’s a greater gulf, in terms of values, between it and Wall Street. As much self-interest (as opposed to the military ideal of self-sacrifice to something greater than oneself) as there is in politics — which was part of what the guys in this video were reacting to — at least there is SOME element of the notion of public service in politics. The unfettered pursuit of gain that is high finance and big business is far more alien to a military officer than politics is. Add to that the fact that so much of the military culture is about DEFENDING democracy — few mantras are invoked more often.

    You mention banana republics. It’s instructive to draw a contrast between militaries of those countries and our own. First, there is a cultural difference in the societies overall. In those countries, there is less of an ingrained devotion to the concept of a nation of laws and not men. In those countries, there is unfortunately more of a tradition of pursuing ANY high position — in politics, in business, in the military — for the benefit of oneself and one’s family and friends.

    Aside from that, in this country we have so long taken measures to prevent military officers from forming the kinds of ties — with their own subordinates, with political leaders and others in the broader communities — by the simple expedient of constantly transferring them around. I grew up moving every year or two in part as a measure to prevent what I saw when I lived in South America. A military junta took over Ecuador when I lived there, and there was a higher-profile coup in Brazil during that same period.

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