“The Shell Game” and the Osama bin Laden Documents
What could possibly compel the government to go out of its way to hide the official record on the most important raid in history? It’s hard to fathom, but a recent Associated Press article by Richard Larner shows that the Pentagon is doing just that by sending all its records on the Osama bin Laden raid to the CIA, effectively sealing them into the “FOIA black hole” of government secrecy, and it has Archive Director Tom Blanton wondering if we have a “shell game in place of open government.”
An accurate account of Operation Geronimo –already muddled in the days after bin Laden’s death by what White House press secretary called the “fog of combat” and conflicting versions of events which falsely said that bin Laden was armed and even firing at the SEALs, misidentified which of bin Laden’s sons was killed, and incorrectly said bin Laden’s wife died in the shootout– will now be harder to obtain.
Adm. William McRaven, the nation’s top secret special operations commander, ordered the Department of Defense to purge its computers of all files on the Navy SEALs raid on bin Laden and send them to the CIA. This decision was only recently revealed in a draft report by the Pentagon’s inspector general –and expunged from the final version– which was obtained and published last week by the Project on Government Oversight. The almost-secret decision to transfer the files, ostensibly done to protect the identities of the SEALs involved (the same SEAL team whose members have already begun writing best-selling books and granting tell-all interviews), was made under the pretense that the SEALs were effectively working for the CIA while conducting the raid, and thus all the files were CIA records.
That’s the government’s take, anyway. What the transfer really did was ensure that the files would be placed in the CIA’s operational records, a records system that –due to the 1986 CIA Operational Files exemption– is not subject to the FOIA and is a black hole for anyone trying to access the files within. The move prevents the public from accessing the official record about the raid, and bypasses several important federal records keeping procedures in the process.
(It’s important to remember that the DOD currently redacts all current soldier names and information from the records it processes and releases under FOIA. So moving them to the CIA to protect the soldiers’ identities, which are already protected by the b(6) privacy exemption, is a red herring.)
Despite the Obama Administration’s pledge to be the most transparent in history, this latest maneuver is entirely in keeping with the government’s position on bin Laden raid records. It is not, however, a new technique. Secretary of State/National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, as well as Secretaries of State Al Haig and Caspar Weinberger, all attempted to hide what they claimed were their “personal papers” under the “shell” of the Library of Congress, where the Freedom of Information Act does not reach. In the case of Kissinger, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “the fact that the documents had been removed by the head of the agency shortly before the expiration of his term of office raised an inference that the removal had been motivated by a desire to avoid FOIA disclosure.”
Upset by the Pentagon and White House’s open-door policy with Hollywood, misleading statements in press conferences, leaks (gasp!) of national security information to magazines, and the official administration position that any official release of documents could harm US national security, the Archive published an electronic briefing book documenting the public’s attenuated record of the most important American military action of the twenty-first century. The officially disclosed record is anemic. And thanks to the DOD’s transfer of files to the CIA, it’s likely to stay that way.
The desire to protect the identities of the SEAL team involved is understandable. However, maintaining secrecy of a covert operation by providing Hollywood nearly unfettered access to the official record while denying it to the public is nonsense. Transferring the files makes them more difficult for the public to access, bypasses federal procedures, and is antithetical to the FOIA. Hopefully the Obama Administration will realize the mistake in appearing “anti-transparent” by allowing the CIA to hide the record on its singular achievement, and will change course and compel the agencies to disclose what the public is entitled to.