On Wednesday morning, the press was pointing out that President Donald Trump was “the first president since 2002 not to visit troops at Christmastime.” At that very moment, however, the president and first lady were airborne en route to Al Asad Airbase in Iraq. His visit – and comments – drove out a number of apparent operational security experts.
TWITTER GOES DARK, BUT THE PLANE LIGHTS UP?
There were many signs that Trump was on his way somewhere secretive, but the president’s critics are trying to pin an OPSEC breach on him because he stopped tweeting. The president had been tweeting a lot over the Christmas holiday, and then he went silent. When the White House released the news that he was in Iraq, for some, that was all the evidence they needed.
Never mind that other reporters were noting that there was no Marine guard outside the West Wing. Never mind that amateur aircraft trackers were reporting that a Boeing VC-25, the military version of the 747, was flying over Europe using a bogus callsign and “HEX code.” And one eagle-eyed person snapped a photo of this aircraft flying over Yorkshire in northern England. While there are two aircraft used as Air Force One, the sight of one of them over Great Britain is a fairly good indication that either Trump or Vice President Mike Pence are going somewhere.
The president’s Twitter silence was simply not operationally relevant. The Russians and Chinese militaries already have eyes on the president 24 hours a day. I guarantee you that he cannot leave the White House without someone observing and relaying that information. Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban, however, do not have that ability. And even if they did, they would have few effective means of alerting anyone on the ground with the ability to react to that information without our electronic and signals intelligence experts intercepting the message.
The White House did not give away the game by not tweeting.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND OPERATIONS SECURITY
This is reminiscent of the kerfuffle when First Lady Melania Trump tweeted a short video from inside the cockpit of an MV-22 Osprey over Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling earlier this month. Some tried to say she was revealing sensitive, even classified, information by showing the digital cockpit display in action. I pointed out at the time that YouTube is full of similar videos taken by the aircraft’s pilots and crew. Others said he was endangering herself by tweeting that she was off to visit more service members at Norfolk Naval Base, and aboard the USS George H.W. Bush.
Her tweet gave away no more information than is available on her daily public schedule given to the press, but the Twitter “experts” didn’t care. It’s maddening. Having a Twitter soapbox does not make one an expert in operations security.
THE SILLY SEAL NONTROVERSY
During the visit, Trump posed with a group of Navy SEALs, and the White House released the video. Some were outraged that the president revealed the fact that SEALS are at Al Asad, and the video didn’t obscure their faces. Newsweek was even able to round up one anonymous “Defense Department official” who said that the deployments of special operations teams “are almost classified events, as to protect those men and women that are on the front lines of every overt and covert conflict the United States is involved in.”
“Almost” classified events? That’s like being a little pregnant. Either something is classified, or it isn’t.
According to the Navy chaplain who spoke to the president, the men are from SEAL Team 5, stationed in Coronado, Calif. Which almost certainly means that their mission, despite the headline, is not “covert.” Nor is it any secret that special operations forces from across the services have been heavily involved in Syrian operations. The identification of the team from which these men come is marginally useful to ISIS, at best. It’s not as if ISIS has a dossier on the backgrounds of individual SEAL commanders that they’ll use to try to anticipate a particular course of action, like Patton proclaiming, “Rommel, you glorious bastard, I read your book!”
As for the White House not obscuring the SEALs faces… all I can say is that from the video, they look like eagerly willing participants. SEALS are cocky, but they don’t normally, from my experience, go walking around the FOB in “full battle rattle” including night vision goggles. These guys happily posed for pictures with their commander-in-chief. They probably even emailed them to their spouses later that same day.
Regardless of your personal opinion of the president, he did the right thing here. The men and women he visited are no doubt thankful that he chose Al Asad as his first combat zone visit.
Everything else is just noise.