Killing Bin Laden: Keeping Secrets in the Age of WikiLeaks

Killing Bin Laden: Keeping Secrets in the Age of WikiLeaks

Yes, it's still possible to keep explosive news under wraps — provided you're the U.S. government

America can keep a secret.

For all of the news media's talk about the scattershot distribution of information in the digital age — WikiLeaks leaks, Twitter overshares, breaches of privacy on iPhones, Google, Facebook and PlayStation — President Obama's stunning announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden on Sunday proves the U.S. can still protect information when it counts.

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According to the White House's account, the government kept its plot to capture or kill Bin Laden a secret as it pursued one of his trusted couriers over four years and two administrations.

(Above, White House officials watch the situation unfold live Sunday/White House photo by Pete Souza.)

It tracked the elusive Al Qaeda leader to a compound almost entirely off the grid in Abbottabad, Pakistan — no telephones, no Internet — and Navy Seals struck in a mission so surgically precise that even a man who live-tweeted the assault didn't realize what was happening.

NBC's David Gregory — who often pushes for more disclosure from the White House as the host of "Meet the Press" — called bin Laden's death "a reminder of how little we sometimes know about what’s going on inside the government."

Also read: Accidental Tweeter of Bin Laden Raid Inundated With Media Requests

Everything worked for U.S. operatives in keeping the government's suspicions from the media.

President Obama displayed a perfect poker face throughout — even on the eve of the operation, when he met with victims of the Southern storms, played golf, then slayed Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington on Saturday night, where, by the way, 2,600 members of the media were gathered to toast him.

As comedian Seth Meyers joked about bin Laden's whereabouts ("Did you know every day from 4 to 5 he hosts a show on C-SPAN?") the President laughed, knowing that U.S. forces were as close as they had ever been to killing the Al Qaeda leader.

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The killing of bin Laden was born of old-fashioned spycraft, carried out in real time.

When the Navy Seals struck Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Obama and more than a dozen members of his national security team were gathered in the White House Situation Room, able to the watch events unfold live, according to White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan.

That's a dozen more people than could've kept a juicy secret in a media company, that's for sure.

The mission also reveals U.S. intelligence is far more advanced than many Americans imagined. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll in September 2010 found that 67 percent of Americans believed it was unlikely the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks would ever be captured or killed — a stunning vote of no confidence in the U.S.'s ability to bring him to justice.

At the same time, the killing shows that the government is far less transparent than reports about leaks — Wiki and otherwise — might lead you to believe.

Sure, news leaks on Twitter. Keith Urbahn, chief of staff for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld,  was widely credited with "breaking" the news of bin Laden's death at 10:25 p.m. ET, nearly an hour before Obama addressed the nation.

But that was after the White House had alerted members of the press, as some journalists like to say, to stand by for news.

At that point, with bin Laden's body in U.S. custody, there was no need to keep a lid on it any longer. (And Urbahn wasn't really sure about the news himself. "Ladies, gents, let's wait to see what the President says," he wrote. "Could be misinformation or pure rumor.")

It is still possible to keep secrets — both within the U.S. government, and from it.

But not forever. Even the mastermind of 9/11 — concealed behind 18-foot walls in a quiet, million-dollar compound, far from where he was widely believed to be and willfully eschewing the communications technology of the modern world — wasn't able to hide from the U.S. government indefinitely. 

It's a harrowing thought for anyone who crosses it — and a reminder of how secretive the U.S. can be — no matter how hard it is for anyone else to keep secrets.

[Photos courtesy of the White House]