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Officials cringe as Trump spills sensitive details of al-Baghdadi raid

Image: *** BESTPIX *** President Trump Makes Statement On The Raid That Kil
President Donald Trump makes a statement in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Oct. 27, 2019. Copyright Tasos Katopodis
Copyright Tasos Katopodis
By Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee and Kristen Welker with NBC News World News
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Some details the president has revealed are inaccurate, others are classified. Officials say they worry what to put in briefings for a man with no filter.


IRBIL, Iraq — President Donald Trump painted a vivid picture for the world of the deadly U.S. military raid on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a raid that only a small number of people witnessed in real time.

A "beautiful" and "talented" dog got injured. A robot had been on standby to aid in the hunt for al-Baghdadi if needed. U.S. Special Operations Forces arrived in eight helicopters and were on the ground for about two hours. They entered al-Baghdadi's compound within seconds by blowing holes in the side of the wall. They chased al-Baghdadi into a web of underground tunnels — many of them dead ends — that they already knew existed. Before the U.S. forces left for the 70-minute, "very low and very, very fast" helicopter ride back along the same route from which they arrived, they captured some of al-Baghdadi's henchmen and seized "highly sensitive material and information" outlining the origin of ISIS and plans for future plots.

A few of those colorful details were wrong. Many of the rest were either highly classified or tactically sensitive, and their disclosure by the president made intelligence and military officials cringe, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The al-Baghdadi raid is the most high-profile exhibit of a reality U.S. officials have had to contend with since Trump took office: a president with a background in show business who relishes delivering a compelling narrative and deals daily with the kind of covert, life-and-death sets of facts that inspire movie scripts.

The president, as the ultimate authority on classification, can declassify any piece of government information simply by releasing it publicly. And some top U.S. officials — including then-President Barack Obama, who signed a law to reduce the amount of classified material — have lamented the government's tendency to over-classify information. But current and former senior U.S. officials said from the earliest days of his presidency that Trump consistently wants to make public more than his advisers think is legally sound or wise for U.S national security.

"We agonized over what we would put in his briefings," one former senior White House official said, "because who knows if and when he's going to say something about it."

"He has no filter," the official added. "But also if he knows something, and he thinks it's going to be good to say or make him appear smarter or stronger, he'll just blurt it out."

On Monday, Trump declassified a photo of the dog, revealing its breed, which was classified. But the dog's name remains top secret. Inquiries about the dog flooded in after Trump disclosed that "the K-9 was hurt, went into the tunnel."

Trump also said Monday that he is considering releasing footage of the al-Baghdadi raid, and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the military is working on declassifying some images.

"We have video and photos," Milley said.

A couple of the president's statements on Sunday were inaccurate or left U.S. officials wondering where he got his information, officials said. The president said when U.S. officials notified Russia it would be entering airspace in western Syria, they told the Russians, "We think you're going to be very happy." But that phrase was not said on the call with the Russians, a U.S. official said. Trump also said al-Baghdadi was "crying and screaming" as U.S. forces chased him down, but U.S. officials said they didn't hear those sounds, and Milley told reporters he doesn't know the source of the president's information on that.

The overarching concern about Trump's disclosures on the al-Baghdadi raid, officials said, is that he gave America's enemies details that could make intelligence gathering and similar military operations more difficult and more dangerous to pull off.

Revealing that the U.S. possesses documents about future ISIS plans hurts the military's ability to use that information for quick follow-on operations, officials said. The president's disclosure that the U.S. had taken ISIS fighters from the compound complicated efforts to try to keep ISIS from knowing who is alive or dead for as long as possible while they interrogate them, officials said.

Some of the president's comments could complicate the intelligence gathering that leads to such raids because they revealed sources and methods the U.S. uses, officials said. They pointed to his saying that the U.S. knew of al-Baghdadi's whereabouts via technology, and also knew of the underground tunnels at his compound, which suggests the U.S. has infrared abilities to locate caves and tunnels.

"We knew it had tunnels. The tunnels were a dead end, for the most part. There was one, we think, that wasn't. But we had that covered, too, just in case," Trump said.


Other information Trump discussed provided America's enemies with tactical details on how the military carries out a raid like the one on al-Baghdadi, officials said, including the robot, the helicopter flight patterns and how U.S. forces entered the compound.

Some of the information, while not overly damaging, is just more than the military would like disclosed, officials said, such as that al-Baghdadi "had a lot of cash" and the president saying he was able to view the raid remotely "as though you were watching a movie."

Officials said the first major battle over disclosing details of military operations was in 2017 when Trump ordered airstrikes on areas controlled by the Assad regime in Syria.

The arguments against disclosures are usually based on concerns about revealing sources and methods or the idea that the more the president releases publicly, the weaker his argument about exerting executive privilege becomes. Sometimes he overrules them, while other times he simply says things publicly that they weren't expecting him to disclose.


Trump has since pushed the boundaries on a myriad of topics, officials said, and they don't expect that to be curtailed.

He's talked publicly about deploying a nuclear submarine in Asia, and more recently about nuclear weapons the U.S. never acknowledges it keeps in Turkey. Early in his presidency, Trump's disclosure of specific intelligence to Russian officials raised alarms among administration officials. After Trump wrote on Twitter in August that the U.S. was learning a lot about a mysterious explosion in Russia, a senior administration official told NBC News an aide would have to inform him his disclosure risked revealing sources and methods.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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