Politically speaking, Navy SEALs aren't the safest targets to rail against in a presidential race, but the Obama campaign isn't hesitating to take down a group of former SEALs who've criticized the president's national security decisions.
On Thursday morning, campaign officials waged a full court press against the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, a group of former U.S. Special Forces and intelligence officials accusing President Obama of leaking vital national security secrets and taking too much credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden. When the group launched its anti-Obama media campaign Wednesday, consisting of TV ads and a 22-minute film, it wasn't clear if Obama officials would avoid a potentially messy confrontation or refute the military veterans publicly. But now the campaign has made clear it views the attacks in the same light as the 2004 John Kerry "Swift Boat" attack ads, which, however misleading, were painfully effective.
"The Republicans are resorting to 'Swift Boat' tactics because when it comes to foreign policy and national security, Mitt Romney has offered nothing but reckless rhetoric," Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt told Reuters' Mark Hosenball last night. Taking a direct shot at the leaders of OPSEC, an Obama campaign official lambasted the group's accusations about national security leaks this morning. “No one in this group is in a position to speak with any authority on these issues and on what impact these leaks might have," said the official, speaking on background, "and it’s clear they’ve resorted to making things up for purely political reasons.”
Apparently, the administration has decided this is a battle worth fighting, a calculation that has its own risks and potential payoffs. On one hand, it's not clear that elevating the discussion over who deserves credit for the bin Laden mission is valuable to the administration. As a May 2011 USAToday/Gallup poll showed, Americans overwhelmingly credit the U.S. military and the CIA for the mission over the president. "The U.S. military and the CIA emerge as the big winners in the public's eyes," wrote Gallup's Frank Newport. "Nearly 9 of 10 (89%) say the military deserves 'a great deal of credit,' while 62% say the same about the CIA."
At the same time, it's possible that OPSEC's message could gain traction and hurt the Obama campaign, which would make it worth refuting. As we noted yesterday, rebutting the ad shouldn't be hard to do. "Mr. President, you did not kill Osama bin Laden, America did," intones the OPSEC film. It's pretty obvious to most Americans that the president didn't personally kill Al Qaeda's number one leader, even though he did authorize the mission. Also, there are numerous examples of the president giving credit to the Navy SEALs and other national security officials like this quotation given on the night the raid was announced:
Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome. The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice. We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country.
Additionally, as The Los Angeles Times' Ken Dilanian notes today, a number of OPSEC leaders identify as Republicans, such as Fred Rustmann, who worked for the CIA for 23 years before retiring in 1990, Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL and chairman of OPSEC, and Chad Kolton, an OPSEC member and former flack in the Bush administration. At this point, the effectiveness of the OPSEC attacks rely almost exclusively on the identity of who's leveling the attacks (former Navy SEALs) rather than the merit of the attacks. Still, the jury's out on whether it's a fight worth picking for the Obama campaign.