Skip to main content

Special ops bravado hurts national security

By Michele L. Malvesti and Nancy Walbridge Collins
updated 8:36 AM EDT, Wed May 1, 2013
Vice President Joe Biden, left, President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, second from right, watch the mission to capture Osama bin Laden from the Situation Room in the White House on May 1, 2011. Click through to see reactions from around the world following the death of the al Qaeda leader. Vice President Joe Biden, left, President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, second from right, watch the mission to capture Osama bin Laden from the Situation Room in the White House on May 1, 2011. Click through to see reactions from around the world following the death of the al Qaeda leader.
HIDE CAPTION
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michele Malvesti, Nancy Walbridge Collins note anniversary of Bin Laden raid
  • They say day reminds us to reject culture that publicly details special ops missions
  • Books, movies on missions hurt national security, team morale, they say
  • Writers: Leaks about missions can distort view of how military power used, must be reined in

Editor's note: Michele L. Malvesti teaches national security issues at Yale University, where she is a senior fellow with the University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Nancy Walbridge Collins teaches international affairs at Columbia University, where she is a research fellow with the University's Saltzman Institute of War & Peace Studies.

(CNN) -- Wednesday is the second anniversary of the Osama bin Laden raid.

The terrorist leader's death made the world safer, but the bombings in Boston on Patriots' Day are a cruel reminder that we will never prevent every act of terror. In the United States, we accept that risks coexist with our culture of freedom. Yet we also must act with greater responsibility in the face of ongoing threats.

We can begin by rejecting a culture that drives details of our nation's special operations missions out into the open, thereby weakening our national security.

Michele Malvesti
Michele Malvesti
Nancy Walbridge Collins
Nancy Walbridge Collins

The aftermath of the raid in Abbottabad is a powerful example of this problem. We have tolerated, and at times encouraged, a steady stream of marketing and promotion that glorifies the mission and its participants: "No Easy Day," an unauthorized, tell-all bestseller by a special operator; "Zero Dark Thirty," a blockbuster film based on insider accounts; and "The Shooter," an Esquire magazine profile that sparked a scramble for personal credit amid competing claims over who fatally shot bin Laden, and how and where.

We might think such visibility honors our nation's special operations forces -- expertly trained units that conduct clandestine, high-risk missions, often to combat terrorism -- but when these shadow warriors become public figures it produces unintended consequences.

First, the extensive attention creates backlash and division that ultimately detract from national readiness. Thousands contributed to the decade-long hunt for bin Laden, and future missions will demand similar support across military services and civilian agencies. Most public portrayals, however, romanticize one moment or individual while neglecting many others. This weakens the entire team's morale and leads to resentment, fair or unfair, that degrades the willingness of all to collaborate fully on the tasks at hand. Collective action is the cornerstone of success. Our country cannot afford such internal discord.

Second, excessive public accolades contribute to the overuse and misuse of special operators. These forces have proven their ability to address a range of 21st century security threats, but they do not have unlimited capacity. Yet special operators are increasingly asked to take on more conventional missions better done by the military's general purpose forces or that divert them from maintaining readiness for missions they are uniquely qualified to conduct. Simply because they can do just about anything does not mean they should be called upon to do everything. We should respect the limits and specializations of these forces.

Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011, at a compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan. Click through to see images of the compound where he spent the last days of his life. Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011, at a compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan. Click through to see images of the compound where he spent the last days of his life.
Bin Laden's compound
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
Photos: Compound of bin Laden Photos: Compound of bin Laden
Who really killed bin Laden?
Bin Laden Raid - SEALs' Accounts

Third, most portrayals depict an exceptionally narrow and violent view of special operations that weakens our collective understanding of military power. Films and books brandish dramatic raids, such as rescuing hostages or killing terrorists. They overlook conflict-prevention activities our forces undertake every day, such as training the militaries of other nations to better provide for their own defense.

Since such missions are difficult to showcase to impressive effect, they are not so marketable in the media. But when public depictions are skewed toward lethal actions and fail to account for nuanced forms of power and deterrence, we undermine public discourse on how best to leverage military force for our national security.

Our leaders must counter this misrepresentation and overexposure. Their first step? Act more responsibly. Senior officials are a primary driver behind these profiles, trumpeting operations almost as a matter of routine. Sometimes this is to inform the public, but often it is to claim credit or, even worse, to divulge insider knowledge.

This encourages misleading and unauthorized disclosures from others, including from some operators themselves, leading to more sensationalism. Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates reportedly expressed great frustration with leaked details on the Abbottabad raid, saltily asking his White House colleagues to "Shut the f... up." We should hold those indiscreet individuals accountable.

We can't legislate common sense, but we can reject leaks and unseemly competition for credit. We call upon the Department of Defense to take the lead and issue a new weighty policy directive that states clear and specific guidelines for the appropriate release of operational information. The directive must codify who can divulge what, when and under which conditions, and call for a universal commitment to accurate reports that also maintain operational security.

Officials vigorously protect information before a mission; they must remain equally disciplined in their communications afterwards. Our nation's battles are far from over.

Officials then must hold themselves and each other to these standards. If not, they undermine their credibility and erode the trust that is essential in civil-military relations. Those who risk their lives serving the nation must be confident that the people sending them into harm's way will not make personal or political gain a bigger priority than the protection of the mission's integrity.

On May 1st, honoring the collective team that got bin Laden is warranted; glorifying the shooters is not.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michele L. Malvesti and Nancy Walbridge Collins.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT