Did the Administration’s Own Propensity for Leaks Crash the SEAL’s Blackhawk?

The AP has an astoundingly detailed description of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. It describes the kinds of aircraft used, the minutes spent completing each part of the task, and even explained that the Geronimo name just served to indicate that the SEALs had reached stage “G” of the mission.

It also includes two details that, when considered together, suggests the troubling possibility that potential Administration leaks put the operation in danger.

First, the story explains that the mission was launched the night it was because too many people had been briefed on it and people were worried about leaks.

The decision to launch on that particular moonless night in May came largely because too many American officials had been briefed on the plan. U.S. officials feared if it leaked to the press, bin Laden would disappear for another decade.

That is, the Administration launched the mission on the night they did not because it presented optimal conditions, but because they (or CIA or DOD) worried that someone would actually leak advance details to the press of one of the most sensitive missions of the last decade. (I can’t remember who it was, but I have this vague memory of one reporter describing the raid after Obama’s announcement of it referencing a discussion of it that had taken place the previous morning, so before it happened. I thought at the time that it’d be weird for the Administration to do an advance briefing on this operation. If my memory is right on this count, it means advance news of the operation did leak to the press.)

Later in the article, the AP provides a description of why one of the two Black Hawks went down (and how that made them deviate from their planned stealth approach on the compound). The key factor, the AP notes, was the unexpectedly hot temperature, which thinned the air and made the chopper more difficult to maneuver.

The Black Hawks were specially engineered to muffle the tail rotor and engine sound, two officials said. The added weight of the stealth technology meant cargo was calculated to the ounce, with weather factored in. The night of the mission, it was hotter than expected.


The plan unraveled as the first helicopter tried to hover over the compound. The Black Hawk skittered around uncontrollably in the heat-thinned air, forcing the pilot to land. As he did, the tail and rotor got caught on one of the compound’s 12-foot walls. The pilot quickly buried the aircraft’s nose in the dirt to keep it from tipping over, and the SEALs clambered out into an outer courtyard.

Now, it may be there’s no connection between the Administration’s worry about leaks and the decision to launch the mission even though temperatures put the helicopters at risk. It may be that SEALs measure cargo down to the ounce but don’t bother to schedule around volatile spring weather.

But these two details make one thing clear: the mission was launched on a less than optimal night. And it was launched when it was because the Administration worried about impending leaks.

And even if there’s not a connection between the too-hot night and the imperative to launch when they did to pre-empt any leaks, the implication remains. The Administration suspected someone within the too-large but presumably very limited circle of people briefed on this raid either had already leaked or would leak this information to the press. The Administration believed someone in that tight circle might compromise operational security of a tremendously sensitive and dangerous mission.

Why isn’t that person–rather than Thomas Drake–awaiting trial?

  1. Than says:

    “Why isn’t that person–rather than Thomas Drake–awaiting trial?”

    Um, because a potential leaker hasn’t broken the law. Weak reasoning all around in this post.

    • emptywheel says:

      Uh, let’s see. If I’m right that a journalist had a briefing on the op the morning BEFORE the raid, then presumably either 1) someone did break the law, or 2) either Barack OBama or Leon Panetta leaked.

      And yes, if they were just worried about leaks, then no one necessarily broke the law. But I presume you would agree that that person should not have a job in national security?

      • BoxTurtle says:

        Depends on if the person was instructed to leak or not. I wouldn’t be a bit shocked if Obama told somebody to let a favored reporter have a scoop and then had second thoughts.

        Boxturtle (Never assume malice if it can be adequately explained by stupidity)

  2. PeteG60 says:

    I doubt if they had briefed a journalist beforehand. Leaks happen all the times and I would think that concern about a leak was nothing unusual. Weather in that region can be unpredictable, and these kind of glitches are easy to look at in hindsight but hard to predict in advance.

    • emptywheel says:

      Brief, accidentally reveal. Or maybe the journalist I thought I heard say “an admin official said to me yesterday morning” just made a mistake.

  3. orionATL says:

    – the cargo effects of hot, and thus thinned, air (molecules are more energetic) are well-known in civil aviation circles.

    – it is inconceivable they are not well-known in military circles.

    – the temperature abbottobad would have been publicly known from many available weather stations or web sites.


    – the seals’ lives were put a very great risk for a small, symbolic victory.

    – these guys (and the president and advisors) were lucky as hell, repeat, lucky as hell, to survive, let alone succeed at their objective.

    lucky the helicopter did not crash and burn, as happened in the iranian desert in 1980 due to an UNPREDICTED sandstorm at the beginning of the operation by u.s. special troops to rescue the american embassy hostages in tehran.

    32 years later and these special operations

    are still working – or not – on a wing and a prayer.

    this pattern of depending on luck, while worshiping exotic technology, and “highly trained” soldiers, and spy-gained information

    is believing magic to win war,

    and is precisely why we have killed so many civilians in afghanistan and pakistan with drones.

    that and not caring a fig about the lives we destroy when our mojo goes south.

    as an aside,

    thinking back to the foolish charge that the original wikileaks presentation to the world of embassy and military cables,

    countered with the emotion-laden charge that wikileaks’ leak would be responsible for american or afghani deaths (what hubris!) and that wikileaks would have blood on its hands,

    would not a commander who sent troops on as dicey, or hopeless, mission be responsible for their deaths, should they occur?

    or is it that the moral criterion, seeking “the greater good”, is to be applied as an exigent in some cases (president, national security staff, and military commanders) but not so applied in others (wikileaks)?

    • emptywheel says:

      I’ve been waiting for someone to comment on whether the success of this, as compared to Operation Eagle Claw, is a testament to the wisdom of having a Team 6, which was formed bc of that earlier failure.

      So yeah, these guys lives were at great risk. But they also were that much better prepared to make shit up on the fly, which, it sounds like, is what they did.

      • orionATL says:

        absolutely better prepared, and precisely because of the failure of the iranian mission.

        the failure of eagle claw was a key reason we put these special units together.

        but the key to a non-disastrous-failure in the bin laden take down was not the well-muscled, infinitely well-trained, swim-two-weeks-under-water seals, slithering down ropes or jumping from an injured helio.

        the keys were

        – the weather, which was probably known but ignored (under eagle claw it had not been even known) and

        – pilot training, viz, “the pilot buried the nose in the sand” – this is the guy who should get a medal.

        as i understand from reading somewhere, perhaps from your substantial reporting here, after eagle claw failed, not only were the delta/seals set up,

        but a special pilot-training program was set up with its own secret wing within the air force to pilot for these special missions.


        i’d forgotten the iranian operation was named “eagle claw”, posthumously, “operation singed tail feathers” might have been a better moniker.

        more importantly,

        a successful eagle claw might have changed american history for the better had it had lead to carter’s re=election rather than reagan’s election.

        by now our gnp, national health care measures, median income, manufacturing, foreign trade would have been leagues ahead of where they are now.

        least this comment be misunderstood, we would be far ahead economically and morally of where we are now, not because of individuals named carter or clinton or obama, but because an extraordinarily foolish, nation-destroying ideology would not have gained control of our state and national politics.

        • JTMinIA says:

          “a successful eagle claw might have changed american history for the better had it had lead to carter’s re=election rather than reagan’s election.”

          I sat and thought about this comment for quite a while. I think that you could argue that the present Administration lawlessness traces back through W to Reagan and Ollie North et al. If we hadn’t had Reagan, then we might not have had the Contras and all that followed. I would love to read a sci-fi book in which Carter succeeded.

  4. onwatch says:

    The article also stated that it was a moonless night, an excellent condition for secrecy….

    • emptywheel says:

      Yeah, someone noted that to me on twitter.

      Though the new moon this month was 2 days later, on May 3, so they may have decided not to wait those two days. Furthermore, they may have decided to launch in May, not June (which after all would have given more time for the Raymond Davis fiasco to die down before we pissed off Pakistan again), out of the worry of leaks.

  5. orionATL says:

    remember the commercial (this was while i still watched teeveee, so its been a while) where a ball bounced and bounced and bounced from left to right, with little arcs tracking its path?

    that visual occurred to me as i thought “why would ‘an official’ provide ap with this info?” what’s the point?

    why, doing so keeps the bounce going for the prez!

    we may be hearing about this story for the next 16 months.

    in the past, ap has proved to be a trustworthy news source for a whitehouse;

    giving ap this piece of meat will keep them loyal to this whitehouse.

    one note on the ap story.

    setting a tone of tension, the ap story says this raid could only be done once because there would follow such an outcry in pakistan.


    was that not the exact agreement bush and sheeref(?) worked out over a decade ago – and renewed in 2008?

    the u.s was allowed to make one raid to get obama without notification to the pakistani gov.

    the pakistanis agreed they would howl like crazy at the american temerity.

    • Nell says:

      Another data point to support the ‘keep the bounce going’ assumption: Note the effort to undo the damage of using ‘Geronimo’:

      Back at the White House Situation Room, word was relayed that bin Laden had been found, signaled by the code word “Geronimo.” That was not bin Laden’s code name, but rather a representation of the letter “G.” Each step of the mission was labeled alphabetically, and “Geronimo” meant that the raiders had reached step “G,” the killing or capture of bin Laden, two officials said.

      I call b.s. Why wouldn’t steps in the op be labeled with the standard mil alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie…) in which G = golf? Because it’s not SEAL-y enough? Because assassination teams use their own, Injun-fighting alphabet?

  6. mzchief says:

    The plan unraveled as the first helicopter tried to hover over the compound. The Black Hawk skittered around uncontrollably in the heat-thinned air, forcing the pilot to land. As he did, the tail and rotor got caught on one of the compound’s 12-foot walls. The pilot quickly buried the aircraft’s nose in the dirt to keep it from tipping over, and the SEALs clambered out into an outer courtyard.

    Alrighty then. [F]or most Western elites nothing is worth dying for, and any price is acceptable to live (hat tip Ian Welsh). What person then wants to participate in something which requires dealing with an amazing amount of complexity and an almost flawless team implementation to avoid the 98% chance or better of dying only to have it mucked up by some narcissistic prima donas supposedly directing the team effort and their PR flacks (hat tip SNL)? That’s a total liability from the get-go.

  7. Nell says:

    This account also seems to reinforce the view that the mission was a hit from the beginning, that there was never the slightest intention to arrest OBL — as does Obama’s response to criticism on the legality front.

    • lysias says:

      Latest Navy Times has an article saying that SEAL Team Six has training where an individual has a hood over his head, the hood is taken off, and he has to shoot any bad guys he sees within seconds. They seem to be a shoot-first unit.

      Navy Times also says Delta Force, the Army Special Forces unit, is miffed that it wasn’t given the job, because it has more experience with capture missions.

      • lysias says:

        I dug out the Navy Times article on SEAL training. It’s on page 3 of the May 16 issue, entitled “Five Things Every Sailor Should Know About SEAL Secrets”. Here’s the final paragraph:

        5. Make my day. Word of bin Laden’s demise quickly prompted analysis of how the takedown went down. For SEALs, the ability to assess the situation, gauge the threat and react quickly — often in split seconds — comes from training. Among the close-quarters defense tools they use is the “hooded box drill.” The SEAL shooter, his head covered as he stands in a drakened room inside a box about 5 feet square, must quickly decipher threats moving about him and kill the bad ones once the hood is pulled off his head. The idea: Kill the bad guys first, or get yourself killed.

  8. rjvg50 says:

    It turns out that sometimes I *do* expect the Spanish Inquisition when the information leaks.

  9. eCAHNomics says:

    The added weight of the stealth technology meant cargo was calculated to the ounce, with weather factored in. The night of the mission, it was hotter than expected.

    Now do they believe in global warming?

  10. AmosAnan says:

    When I saw the image of Obama gnawing on his hand while allegedly watching some sort of ‘live’ video of the raid on bin Laden’s compound, I couldn’t help but think that his major concern was in becoming a Jimmy Carter like president after the fiasco of the raid to free the Iran hostages. (I don’t see Obama as caring much about anything other than his political future and what he, personally, can get out of a situation.)

    Now there’s that “heat-thinned air” condition that somehow wasn’t anticipated.

    Really! Does anyone remember the commander of the Iran hostage raid who kept calling reporters who asked about the raid “candy assed” and yet only succeeded in killing Americans and guaranteeing that the hostages would never be freed without some sort of concession to the government in Iran? Heat was the problem. They didn’t anticipate the much greater difficulty in landing, taking off and flying under desert heat.

    “Nobody could have anticipated …”

  11. eCAHNomics says:

    Carter lovers: Don’t forget that it was the Carter Doctrine that first enunciated that the U.S. would defend “its” oil (which inconveniently lies under others’ soil) in the ME by use of military force.

    • orionATL says:

      the dismissive “carter lovers” misses by a mile the point i made quite clearly in the last paragraph @15.

      the issue is ideology, not individual presidents.

      we have been in the iron grip of an economically destructive, intellectually and morally stultifying ideology -a nation destroying ideology – from jan, 1981 to the present.

      • mzchief says:

        At the risk of being simplistic, it seems to me there’s a system– a machine– to go with that ideology. Folks have been turning the crank on that machine for decades.

        • orionATL says:

          i’m still trying to understand all this, but the way i got it figured for now is that ideology is the key legitimizing (and deligitimizing) social sanction a political group can apply to a particular political or social policy.

          take derivatives, credit default swaps , etc.,

          if it is agreed to allow such a financial entity to exist,

          then there arises the question of under what constraints?

          – under tight regulation

          -under loose or no regulation.

          the prevailing ideology will determine (legitimize) the choice.

          in this illustration, right-wing, “the corporation/individual will self-regulate (greenspan, rubin, summers)” legitimized little or no regulation of derivatives in the clinton and bush presidencies.

          the same will be true for policy on oil – and alternatives to oil .

          ideology will legitimate some policy approaches to our oil/energy problems and de-legitimate others (alternative energy, global warming). there is a good reason oklahoma oilmen the koch brothers are spending tens of millions funding right-wing political organizations. these organizations, together with the media, carry the legitimizing message.

          to continue with your analogy, if oil/energy is our problem,

          we can turn the crank of the machine all we wish, but the inputs to the machine and the outputs from the mach will be different for different reigning ideologies.

          so, from my viewpoint, the reigning ideology determines politicians’ policy choices almost ( though no quite) regardless of political party.

          the amorphpus, completely unsystematic, non-philisophical ideology of the american right wing, acendent in the u.s. for the last 32 years, dictates virtually all the details of public policy choices.

  12. DrTerwilliker says:

    It was too hot for the helicopters to be flying? WTF? How much does each of these magic machines cost? One million? Five million? And they work great but not if its hot? Were we planning to use them to invade Canada? So much for American Know-How. And the Sacred Defense industry.

      • DrTerwilliker says:

        I understand that. But it does kind of make all the stealth tech, uh, almost worthless, doesnt it? Esp if the commenter who stated each of these gizmos costs $60 million is correct. Unless we’re only going to invade other counties in the late Fall – early Spring from now on.

  13. Adam503 says:

    Who planned and approved a SpecOps mission plan with no margin for error is not a smart man. Human beings always make errors. He’s lucky this time. Luck always runs out.

    Anyone remember the Iranian hostage rescue disaster. Wrecked helicopters burning in the desert.

    Whoever decided to approved a mission plan with no margin for error should be reprimanded. If the plan cut so close sending only 2 helicopters, then send another helicopter. Couple fewer men on each chopper, more cargo room, and not flying overloaded.

    • spanishinquisition says:

      “Who planned and approved a SpecOps mission plan with no margin for error is not a smart man”

      I agree whoever did it wasn’t a smart person. Reading about planning the weight of the helicopter to the ounce based on the temperature sounds like it was bound to have problems. Temperature is not uniform…there’s lots of microclimates in any given area. I’d have to know where their original temperature reading came from (though it sounds like it was an estimate rather than a boots-on-the-gound reading) because you could have the heat radiation coming from the compounding and the surrounding paved roads, which would be microclimates hotter than surrounding areas…it sounds like the helicopter that crashed was in a hotter microclimate than the other helicopters that landed further away. It wouldn’t surprise me if the compound itself caused the crash because it was throwing off its radiant heat from earlier in the day.

    • regulararmyfool says:

      Hell, I am old enough to remember the raid on North Vietnam to free some of the POWs in 1970. In case you have not heard of that, it was a total fiasco. They hit the wrong place. The POWs had already been moved, from the target compound that they had actually been in, months before.

      Wikipedia carries the complexity of the raid in an entry called Operation Ivory Coast. If you read it, please, keep in mind that every single solitary piece of so called intelligence was totally wrong despite the painstaking detail reported. The minuteness of the planning was thrown off consistently by human error during the attack.

      Only good damned luck saved the rescuers from all being killed or captured.

      So,I was not surprised by the absolutely total failure to rescue the hostages in Iran.

  14. donbacon says:

    people were worried about leaks.

    Score one for Julian Assange.

    from zunguzungu:

    Julian Assange sees governments as conspiracies and then sees that the best way to attack this organization is to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s information environment, the idea being that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning. Then the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function.

    • emptywheel says:

      That logic doesn’t hold.

      First, DevGru has always been close hold, as distinct from SIPRNet that a bajillion people can access.

      Furthermore, if there was a leak–or even suspicion of one–it proves they continue to share information more broadly then they should, not that they’ve shared less than they should.

      • donbacon says:

        That logic doesn’t hold.

        The logic holds. the mission was launched the night it was because people were worried about leaks, and that, together with poor information on temperature and bad reasoning, may have caused the crash of the SEAL’s helicopter. This is the result that Assange sought:

        The conspiracy [the U.S. CIA in this case] will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function.

        In this case it’s OPSEC and not administrative security but the same elements are there — a concern for leaks leading to poor information flow leading to a questionable decision which had the potential of seriously damaging the “conspiracy.”

        • emptywheel says:

          There’s no indication this was about info flow. Rather, the “too many people briefed” was instead an indication that if anything info flow had been too rich.

          If they were responding to Manning (and there’s not reason to believe they were at this level), the compartment would be so small that there’d be no risk of leaks.

  15. forest says:

    Managing disinformation has to be easier than running a campaign. What reason do we have to believe anything said about that event?

  16. mafr says:

    American technology sometimes too sophisticated.

    so the person you have written about previously, Viktor Bout, was hired to air transport supplies in Iraq with his rickety russian airforce planes, cause the American transports didn’t operate well in Iraq

    Later this year, both the Army and Air Force will seek Pentagon approval to proceed to the next stages of development for new aircraft meant to carry big loads, then land on poorly built, short runways–or no runways at all. The Army and Air Force both want to fly demonstrators by 2015.

    (popular mechanics)

  17. Swopa says:

    If I may solve a couple of mysteries here, via (ugh) Politico:

    The top intelligence overseers on Capitol Hill were notified that the administration believed it had found Osama bin Laden, and they were informed of a coming strike a full day before the helicopters landed in Abbottabad.

    House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, each received a call from CIA chief Leon Panetta on Saturday.

    Ruppersberger described Panetta’s message as this: ‘It looks like it might be imminent and we’ll let you know when it occurs.’

    It’s likely that such tips were given to all of the members of the ‘Big 8’ — the leaders of each party in each chamber and the top lawmakers from each party on the House and Senate intelligence committees — as all of them had been kept apprised of the bin Laden manhunt.

    I suspect that this is the “discussion” mentioned by the reporter EW recalls hearing (i.e., a discussion that did NOT include the reporter himself/herself) Also, in the AP story, “American officials” (as in “too many American officials had been briefed on the plan”) meant more than just officials within the Obama administration itself.

    • emptywheel says:

      Well, the way I recall it was “An official told me yesterday morning”–that’s as near as I can remember the quote. In which case, yes, it would have included the reporter, though it may well have come through Congress.

      Though I’m a little disinclined to always blame Congress on this stuff. They actually seem to leak less than Exec branch officials, and a LOT of the leaks post-raid were clearly Exec branch folks running their mouth.

    • Nell says:

      The tail is all that remains. The rest was blowed up real good, per special op procedure. I’m sure that the US mil would prefer no one else get it, but only so much knowledge will come out of it. Open source informed speculation about the modifications to the Black Hawk is available at NPR’s Science Friday (the May 6 or 13 show).

  18. stannenb says:

    I’ll note the following the following from Joe Biden shortly after the raid that killed Bin Laden:

    He was also proud of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill. “What was even more extraordinary was — and I’m sure former administration officials would appreciate this more than anyone — there was such an absolute overwhelming desire to accomplish this mission that although for over several months we were in the process of planning it, and there were as many as 16 members of Congress that were briefed on it, not a single solitary thing leaked.”

    I read elsewhere (and I can’t find the citation right now) that Congress was briefed because they had to get a special appropriation for the costs of this operation, something I find a bit hard to believe.

    But, if you told 16 members of congress about this, you’d hear the leak clock ticking, too.

  19. stagemom says:

    wow. i said (to the wall) on sunday night that i thought he released his birth certificate for cover.
    mix that with the royal wedding, and a press banquet and voila–perfect PR storm!

  20. john2 says:

    The administration probably felt they had to brief several people they couldn’t trust. If they briefed Senators Feinstein and Lieberman, and Reps. Pelosi, Boehner that would be worrisome enough right there. In my opinion.

  21. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Bloody good question.

    The idea that field ops can calculate loads down to the ounce is bullshit. A little rain will put off that calculation by pounds, let alone a little mud, grease, an unaccounted for ration, medical kit or belt of ammunition. Weather, of course, as the SAS found out in Gulf War One, is notoriously fickle, which means that aircraft are built to operate within broad parameters, not down to a single degree of temperature.

    If such things generally, let alone after the failed Iranian hostage mission in 1979, were not fully anticipated – which includes failure modes and responses – the SEALS, the Navy, JSOC and Mr. Obama’s government have more to worry about than a single lost aircraft. If the government is using that crap as techno-spin, it’s lame even by the standards of Tom Clancy.