IRBIL, Iraq — President Donald Trump painted a vivid picture for the world of the deadly U.S. military raid on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a raid that only a small number of people witnessed in real time.
A "beautiful" and "talented" dog got injured. A robot had been on standby to aid in the hunt for al-Baghdadi if needed. U.S. Special Operations Forces arrived in eight helicopters and were on the ground for about two hours. They entered al-Baghdadi's compound within seconds by blowing holes in the side of the wall. They chased al-Baghdadi into a web of underground tunnels — many of them dead ends — that they already knew existed. Before the U.S. forces left for the 70-minute, "very low and very, very fast" helicopter ride back along the same route from which they arrived, they captured some of al-Baghdadi's henchmen and seized "highly sensitive material and information" outlining the origin of ISIS and plans for future plots.
A few of those colorful details were wrong. Many of the rest were either highly classified or tactically sensitive, and their disclosure by the president made intelligence and military officials cringe, according to current and former U.S. officials.
The al-Baghdadi raid is the most high-profile exhibit of a reality U.S. officials have had to contend with since Trump took office: a president with a background in show business who relishes delivering a compelling narrative and deals daily with the kind of covert, life-and-death sets of facts that inspire movie scripts.The president, as the ultimate authority on classification, can declassify any piece of government information simply by releasing it publicly. And some top U.S. officials — including then-President Barack Obama, who signed a law to reduce the amount of classified material — have lamented the government's tendency to over-classify information. But current and former senior U.S. officials said from the earliest days of his presidency that Trump consistently wants to make public more than his advisers think is legally sound or wise for U.S national security.
"We agonized over what we would put in his briefings," one former senior White House official said, "because who knows if and when he's going to say something about it."
"He has no filter," the official added. "But also if he knows something, and he thinks it's going to be good to say or make him appear smarter or stronger, he'll just blurt it out."
On Monday, Trump declassified a photo of the dog, revealing its breed, which was classified. But the dog's name remains top secret. Inquiries about the dog flooded in after Trump disclosed that "the K-9 was hurt, went into the tunnel."
Trump also said Monday that he is considering releasing footage of the al-Baghdadi raid, and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the military is working on declassifying some images.
"We have video and photos," Milley said.
A couple of the president's statements on Sunday were inaccurate or left U.S. officials wondering where he got his information, officials said. The president said when U.S. officials notified Russia it would be entering airspace in western Syria, they told the Russians, "We think you're going to be very happy." But that phrase was not said on the call with the Russians, a U.S. official said. Trump also said al-Baghdadi was "crying and screaming" as U.S. forces chased him down, but U.S. officials said they didn't hear those sounds, and Milley told reporters he doesn't know the source of the president's information on that.
The overarching concern about Trump's disclosures on the al-Baghdadi raid, officials said, is that he gave America's enemies details that could make intelligence gathering and similar military operations more difficult and more dangerous to pull off.
Revealing that the U.S. possesses documents about future ISIS plans hurts the military's ability to use that information for quick follow-on operations, officials said. The president's disclosure that the U.S. had taken ISIS fighters from the compound complicated efforts to try to keep ISIS from knowing who is alive or dead for as long as possible while they interrogate them, officials said.
Some of the president's comments could complicate the intelligence gathering that leads to such raids because they revealed sources and methods the U.S. uses, officials said. They pointed to his saying that the U.S. knew of al-Baghdadi's whereabouts via technology, and also knew of the underground tunnels at his compound, which suggests the U.S. has infrared abilities to locate caves and tunnels.
"We knew it had tunnels. The tunnels were a dead end, for the most part. There was one, we think, that wasn't. But we had that covered, too, just in case," Trump said.
Other information Trump discussed provided America's enemies with tactical details on how the military carries out a raid like the one on al-Baghdadi, officials said, including the robot, the helicopter flight patterns and how U.S. forces entered the compound.
Some of the information, while not overly damaging, is just more than the military would like disclosed, officials said, such as that al-Baghdadi "had a lot of cash" and the president saying he was able to view the raid remotely "as though you were watching a movie."
Officials said the first major battle over disclosing details of military operations was in 2017 when Trump ordered airstrikes on areas controlled by the Assad regime in Syria.
The arguments against disclosures are usually based on concerns about revealing sources and methods or the idea that the more the president releases publicly, the weaker his argument about exerting executive privilege becomes. Sometimes he overrules them, while other times he simply says things publicly that they weren't expecting him to disclose.
Trump has since pushed the boundaries on a myriad of topics, officials said, and they don't expect that to be curtailed.
He's talked publicly about deploying a nuclear submarine in Asia, and more recently about nuclear weapons the U.S. never acknowledges it keeps in Turkey. Early in his presidency, Trump's disclosure of specific intelligence to Russian officials raised alarms among administration officials. After Trump wrote on Twitter in August that the U.S. was learning a lot about a mysterious explosion in Russia, a senior administration official told NBC News an aide would have to inform him his disclosure risked revealing sources and methods.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Courtney Kube is a correspondent covering national security and the military for the NBC News Investigative Unit. She and and Carol E. Lee are the authors. NBC News. October 28, 2019
October 29, 2019
Voices4America Post Script. Take that in- Officials cringed as Trump spilled sensitive details of al-Baghdadi raid! The man is a filterless, reckless imbecile- with no limits, bragging and lying and putting people at risk. Nothing more to say. #Unfit4POTUS #ImpeachRemove
Below is my summary of what happened on Sunday, what happened and what was true and what was not.
Trump held a bizarre press conference on Sunday in which he turned a victory for our amazing and brave troops into a claim of glory and talk about himself.
As Matt Stieb summarized the press conference (New York magazine, October 27, 2019):
"Any time President Trump speaks for 48 minutes straight, you can expect some pretty unhinged remarks; on Sunday, things started to get weird just 90 seconds in, when Trump described the ISIS leader as"whimpering and crying and screaming all the way" to the back of a tunnel in his compound, where he detonated a suicide vest as he was surrounded by three of his children. The president, who did little to hide his enjoyment in the moment, said that "it was just like a movie."
Here are some highlights and analyses of Trump's talk.
1. Did Trump identify Osama bin Laden before 9/11?
At the 50 minutes Press Conference which soon devolved into Trump deranged boasts about his own brilliance, he claimed Baghdadi "the biggest one we've ever captured."
He also said that the ISIS leader had been a global threat "long before I took office"—a not-so-subtle dig at the Obama administration, which had killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden."
He downplayed the importance of the killing of Osama Bin Laden during President Obama's watch: "Hamza bin Laden was a big thing, but this is the biggest there is. This is the worst ever. Osama bin Laden was very big but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Center. This is a man who built a whole — as he would like to call it — a country, a caliphate. And was trying to do it again."
Trump also took a moment to take credit for having identified bin Laden as a terrorist threat before 9/11.
Here are the facts about Trump's claim to have identified Osama bin Laden before our Intelligence services did.
At October 27 Press Conference, Trump said : "You know, if you read my book, there was a book just before the World Trade Center came down. And I don't get any credit for this but that's OK. I never do. But here we are. I wrote a book, a really very successful book and in that book about a year before the World Trade Center was blown up, I said there is somebody named Osama bin Laden, you better kill him or take him out, something to that effect, he's big trouble. Now, I wasn't in government. I was building buildings and doing what I did but I always found it fascinating. But I saw this man, tall, handsome, very charismatic making horrible statements about wanting to destroy our country. And I'm writing a book. I think I wrote 12 books. All did very well. And I'm writing a book, World Trade Center had not come down. I think it was about, if you check it was a year before the World Trade Center came down. And nobody heard of al-Baghdadi. And no one heard of Osama bin Laden until really the World Trade Center.
But about a year, a year and a half before the World Trade Center, before the book came out, I was talking about Osama bin Laden, you have to kill him, you have to take him out. Nobody listened to me. And to this day I get people coming up to me and they said you know what, one of the most amazing things I've seen about you is that you predicted that Osama bin Laden had to be killed before he knocked down the World Trade Center. It's true. Most of the press doesn't want to write that but it is true. If you go back and look at my book, I think it's 'The America We Deserve.' I made a prediction — let's put it this way, if they would have listened to me, a lot of things would have been different." (Trump inappropriate and boastful remarks underlined. Trump major false claim in bold).
Reality. there is only one—yes, just one—brief reference to Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda in the book Trump and a co-writer published in 2000 called The America We Deserve.
Instead of one looming crisis hanging over us, we face a bewildering series of smaller crises, flash points, standoffs, and hot spots. We're not playing the chess game to end all chess games anymore. We're playing tournament chess—one master against many rivals. One day we're all assured that Iraq is under control, the UN inspectors have done their work, everything's fine, not to worry. The next day the bombing begins. One day we're told that a shadowy figure with no fixed address named Osama bin-Laden is public enemy number one, and U.S. jetfighters lay waste to his camp in Afghanistan. He escapes back under some rock, and a few news cycles later it's on to a new enemy and new crisis."
Gratitude for the research to Kara Vogt, Mother Jones, October 27, 2019.
2. Trump's divulged sensitive information about the Baghdadi raid. First, what was true? Then, what might have consequences for our military? Yes, if the president says it, it is no longer classified information.
a. Trump asserted, al-Baghdadi "died like a dog, he died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming, and crying. " Is that true?
Secretary of Defense Espy said, I don't have those details." Espy speculated to cover for what was most likely another Trump lie," The president probably had the opportunity to talk to the commanders on the ground."
The New York Times reported this today, "Those surveillance feeds could not show what was happening in an underground tunnel, much less detect if Mr. al-Baghdadi was whimpering or crying." The Times also reported, "Mr. Trump would not have received any real-time dialogue from the scene, the officials said, because the last thing American military planners want is to invite critique, second-guessing or even new orders from the Situation Room in the middle of an active military raid."
As to the tone Trump took to describe al-Baghdadi's death, "Highlighting and repeating that language is not especially dignified for the United States. We should always take a higher moral ground, and talking about an individual's death is not particularly productive," Mchael Leiter, who led the US National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011, (Alex Ward, Vox, October 27, 2019).
"What the president should've spent more time on was highlighting ISIS's atrocities, like the killing of the Jordanian pilot. That's appropriate: It shows that ISIS wasn't at war with the West, it was at war with all peoples who are civilized, including Muslims who don't adhere to their extremely strict view of Sunni Islam."
b. During his question-and-answer session, Trump divulged multiple sensitive details about the raid in Syria that could possibly give US enemies intelligence advantages.
"Talking about how many aircraft, where the aircraft are flying in, how they're breaching a building, other technology they can bring to bear, knowledge about the tunnels and the mapping of those tunnels, these are operational details which are only about preening, " Leiter told Ward, Vox, October 27, 2019.
This is also from Alex Ward:
"Trump spent a lot of time after his prepared remarks offering more information than his administration would've surely preferred. Here are just a few examples:
- "Two or three efforts" to get Baghdadi were scrapped over a few weeks because of the terrorist leader's unpredictable movements.
- Before the raid, the US knew that Baghdad's compound had tunnels through which he might try to escape.
- US troops blew a hole through a door in order to go inside the compound.
- The US had more DNA than it needed to verify that the one of the men killed in the raid was Baghdadi.
- The US killed scores of people in Baghdadi's circle and captured others.
- The US used eight helicopters and other ships and planes to help with the strike.
No matter how many ways you cut it, that's a lot of information. The US usually offers some detail to help the public understand how such a daring operation went down, but not so much that it gives Americans — and potential adversaries — so much inside information about equipment, intelligence, planning, or tactics.
"I think the president disclosed more than what was necessary, and it could provide an advantage to our adversary," Leiter told Ward.
"Part of the reason is that the ISIS members will have more data on how the US conducts raids of this nature, learn that American intelligence has nitty-gritty intelligence on the layout of terrorist compounds, and assume that US intelligence officials may learn new information from captured people and documents. Any warning to ISIS members that the US has this newfound font of knowledge could lead them to change their ways, which makes the intelligence less useful over time."
In other words, it will now be somewhat harder for the US to fight off ISIS thanks to Trump's ill-advised comments.
3. Trump told Russia bout the raid but didn't tell Congress, notably the #3 person in line for the Presidency, What the...!
Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted her displeasure after Trump's comments. "The House must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians but not top Congressional Leadership were notified of in advance, and on the administration's overall strategy in the region," she said. "Our military and allies deserve strong, smart and strategic leadership from Washington."
As Speaker Nancy Pelosi said to Trump last week: Why do "all roads lead to Vladimir Putin"?
Have a look at Trump's thank you comments: "This raid was impeccable, and could only have taken place with the acknowledgment and help of certain other nations and people. I want to thank the nations of Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and I also want to thank the Syrian Kurds for certain support they were able to give us."
Russia heads Trump's list, though our military has said the help of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds made the raid possible, "The Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, one official said, provided more intelligence for the raid than any single country." (New York Times, October 27, 2019)
4. As to the authenticity of the Situation Room photo Trump posted, there are questions.
As reported, the raid took place at 3:30PM Washington time on Saturday. The photo, as shown in the camera IPTC data, was taken at "17:05:24". The time stamp is 95 minutes after raid, and the cords are not plugged into laptops.
At time of the raid, Trump was at golf course.
To conclude, as Alex Ward said, Trump could've just given his Baghdadi remarks and walked away. He didn't — and made a mess.
And further, just in case you are wondering about the likely long turn effect of al-Baghdadi's death, this article describes the current military and diplomatic consensus:
Leader's Death Will Damage ISIS, but Not Destroy It