It’s the latest outrage fail after over a week of “outrage!” including Trump’s announcing the pullout of all American forces from Syria, a major reduction of troops from Afghanistan eventually leading to a full withdrawal, and his telling a seven-year old that belief in Santa is “marginal” at that age. During Trump’s Wednesday surprise Christmas visit to US troops in Iraq, he posed for a photo op with a Navy SEAL team deployed to Iraq; and after flying out of Baghdad posted the video to Twitter, yet the video was uploaded before the SEAL team members’ faces could be blurred out to protect their identities according to protocol.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 26, 2018
This immediately prompted howls and headlines that Trump exposed “covert” and “classified” ops from pundits and the media; however, a number of military and special forces experts, including some members of American special forces themselves quickly pointed out this was hugely exaggerated given that SEAL team 5 — the unit Trump posed with while they wore full combat gear and night vision goggles — is a “white” unit (not classified), whose department with Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Iraq (CJSOTF-I) is public knowledge.
Among the more prominent special forces combat veterans to weigh in, former Green Beret Jack Murphy and editor-in-chief of veteran-run NEWSREP, pointed out the following while linking to a Defense Department image sharing platform, which is full of public images showing currently deployed SF personnel: “Deployments to Iraq are not covert. SOF soldiers are not under a covered status in Iraq. DOD publishes unredacted photos of SOF soldiers just about every day,” wrote Murphy.
No, it doesn’t. Deployments to Iraq are not covert. SOF soldiers are not under a covered status in Iraq. DOD publishes unredacted photos of SOF soldiers just about every day: https://t.co/9t2Mbqbh8W https://t.co/nNIZrMbkEk
— Jack Murphy (@JackMurphyRGR) December 27, 2018
And retired US Army Special Forces officer and author Lino Miani had this to say:
For the record. I’m not too twisted up about the President tweeting the pics of those SEALs.
There is nothing covert or clandestine about what those guys are doing in Iraq.
Showing their faces was surprising but that camera shyness is usually overblown. #TrumpInIraq
— Lino Miani…Unofficial🎄 (@MeanLin1) December 27, 2018
Bob Wilson, a retired Army Colonel who served on the National Security Council in the Obama and Trump administrations (and author of a WaPo op-ed this week on Gen. Mattis) dismissed the whole “news” event as “ridiculously false”.
Col. Wilson noted that while unusual according to standard protocol, the hype over Trump supposedly exposing a “secret” deployment is false:
Again, reflexive anti-Trumpism makes people stupid. https://t.co/ADanVdYkzy
— Bob Wilson (@aoindependence) December 27, 2018
Further, Politico’s military affairs reporter Wesley Morgan agreed and explained why the outraged media pundits have no idea what they’re talking about, as these were not JSOC operators standing by Trump in the photo (in which case they would indeed be “covert”):
This is overwrought. It’s unusual to show these guys’ faces, but they are part of the “white” SOF advisory task force CJSOTF-I, not JSOC operators, and their mission is not “covert.” https://t.co/zMyJJZzpXi
— Wesley Morgan (@wesleysmorgan) December 26, 2018
Hate to get back into this, but here is a former Green Beret colonel who commanded CJSOTF-A, the “white” special operations task force in Afghanistan, which included a rotating set of SEAL teams doing a mission analogous to the SEAL team in Anbar https://t.co/9e4XWDuxdh
— Wesley Morgan (@wesleysmorgan) December 27, 2018
Chill with the “OMG Trump revealed covert SEALs thing.”
He didn’t. It’s fine.
Team 5 is a white (not classified) unit, whose department with Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Iraq (CJSOTF-I) is mostly-public knowledge.
— Angry WH Staffer (@AngrierWHStaff) December 27, 2018
None of this stopped unnamed Pentagon sources from feeding the hype over what at worst was a minor failure of protocol regarding Trump’s Christmas visit to Iraq.
One official told Newsweek, “Even during special operation demonstrations for congressional delegations or for the president or vice president, personnel either have their faces covered or their face is digitally blurred prior to a release to the general public.” The anonymous DoD source claimed further, “I don’t recall another time where special operation forces had to pose with their faces visible while serving in a war zone.”
But another prominent military analysis website run by veterans took the opportunity to educate the public on what “covert” actually means within the context of military operations:
— Task & Purpose (@TaskandPurpose) December 27, 2018
Task & Purpose notes that while photographing deployed special forces troops is not ideal, it in no way constitutes revealing “covert ops” as many of the headlines are now claiming.
“Is it a secret that these guys are out there in that part of the world? No,” a defense official told Task & Purpose on condition of anonymity. “It’s been a little more sensationalized than we would’ve hoped.”
The military analysis site explains:
As it stands, the vast majority missions carried out by U.S. special operations forces are non-statutory clandestine operations under Title 10 rather than explicitly (and legally) covert operations under Title 50; OPSEC, in the case of the former, is usually designed to conceal an operation for tactical purposes rather than fully embrace the level of plausible deniability usually referred to spies. In this context, the only true “covert” operation carried out by U.S. special operations forces was the SEAL Team 6 raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
Simply belonging to a SEAL Team doesn’t make your every move “covert,” especially if you’re hanging out in the DFAC during the commander-in-chief’s visit.
All of this is to say that if SEAL Team 5 was deployed to Iraq on a covert mission, there’s no way in hell anyone, including conventional U.S. forces, would likely know they were there. I mean, Lt. Lee, the SEAL chaplain, was identified as a member of SEAL Team 5 in the public pool report and photographed by Agence France-Presse. No commander on an actual “covert” mission would ever let that happen, no matter how amped they are to hang out with the commander-in-chief, given the gravity surrounding Title 50 activities; even letting personnel engage with the commander-in-chief in public completely negates the plausible deniability that supposedly comes with covert operations.
This may seem like a pedantic argument, but it’s an important one, especially for matters of civil-military engagement. But make no mistake: Revealing the identities of SOF personnel is still bad news, even if they’re not tasked with a real “covert” mission.
So ultimately we just witnessed another 24-hour Trump outrage news cycle dominated by total hype, extreme overstatement, and sensationalism driven by willed ignorance and reflexive anti-Trumping — all of which of course leads to further bad analysis.
And we don’t expect any mainstream media corrections to be issued after such deep investment in the fake story.