WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A group of former U.S. intelligence and Special Forces operatives is set to launch a media campaign, including TV ads, that scolds President Barack Obama for taking credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden and argues that high-level leaks are endangering American lives.
Leaders of the group, the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund Inc, say it is nonpartisan and unconnected to any political party or presidential campaign. It is registered as a so-called social welfare group, which means its primary purpose is to further the common good and its political activities should be secondary.
In the past, military exploits have been turned against presidential candidates by outside groups, most famously the Swift Boat ads in 2004 that questioned Democratic nominee John Kerry’s Vietnam War service.
The OPSEC group says it is not political and aims to save American lives. Its first public salvo is a 22-minute film that includes criticism of Obama and his administration. The film, to be released on Wednesday, was seen in advance by Reuters.
“Mr. President, you did not kill Osama bin Laden, America did. The work that the American military has done killed Osama bin Laden. You did not,” Ben Smith, identified as a Navy SEAL, says in the film.
“As a citizen, it is my civic duty to tell the president to stop leaking information to the enemy,” Smith continues. “It will get Americans killed.”
An Obama campaign official said: “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, and it’s clear they’ve resorted to making things up for purely political reasons.”
Obama has highlighted his foreign policy record on the campaign trail, emphasizing how he presided over the killing of bin Laden, as well as how he ended the war in Iraq and set a timeline for winding down the war in Afghanistan.
However, Obama has come under sharp attack from Republican lawmakers who have accused his administration of being behind high-level leaks of classified information.
They have pointed to media reports about clandestine drone attacks, informants planted in al Qaeda affiliates and alleged cyber-warfare against Iran that Republicans say were calculated to promote Obama’s image as a strong leader in an election year.
The White House has denied leaking classified information.
The president of Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund Inc, Scott Taylor, is a former Navy SEAL who in 2010 ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for a congressional seat in Virginia.
Calling itself “OPSEC” for short – which in spy jargon means “operational security” – the anti-leak group incorporated last June in Delaware, a state that has the most secretive corporate registration rules in the U.S.
It also set itself up as a nonprofit organization under section 501(c)4 of the U.S. Tax Code, allowing it to keep donors’ identities secret. Spokesmen for the group declined to discuss its sources of financing.
Several group representatives say their main motivation for setting up OPSEC was dismay at recent detailed media leaks about sensitive operations.
In an interview, Taylor denied OPSEC had any political slant. He described the group as a “watchdog organization” but added that the current administration “has certainly leaked more than others.”
OPSEC spokesmen said the group has about $1 million at its disposal and hopes to raise more after the release of its mini-documentary, entitled “Dishonorable Disclosures,” which aims, in spy-movie style, to document a recent spate of leaks regarding sensitive intelligence and military operations.
Following the film’s release, OPSEC’s spokesmen said, the group expects to produce TV spots on the anti-leak theme that will air in a number of states, including Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina and Nevada – key battleground states.
Fred Rustmann, a former undercover case officer for the CIA who is a spokesman for the group, insisted its focus on leaks was “not a partisan concern.” But he said the current administration had been leaking secrets “to help this guy get re-elected, at the expense of peoples’ lives…. We want to see that they don’t do this again.”
Chad Kolton, a former spokesman for the office of Director of National Intelligence during the George W. Bush administration who now represents OPSEC, also said the group’s message and make-up are nonpolitical.
“You’ll see throughout the film that concern about protecting the lives of intelligence and Special Forces officers takes precedence over partisanship,” he said.
Responding to criticism about the president taking credit for the bin Laden raid, an Obama campaign official pointed to an interview with CNN last month in which Admiral Bill McRaven, commander of the raid, said: “At the end of the day, make no mistake about it, it was the president of the United States that shouldered the burden for this operation, that made the hard decisions, that was instrumental in the planning process, because I pitched every plan to him.”
“I think Admiral McRaven knows more about the President’s role in the bin Laden operation than this group,” the campaign official said.
(Additional reporting by Lauren French and Alexander Cohen in Washington. Editing by Claudia Parsons and Ciro Scotti)