Obama’s silence on death of Maj. Gen. Harold Greene comes under fire

August 6, 2014

President Barack Obama, joined by Prime Minister of Algeria Abdelmalek Sellal, left, and President of Mauritania Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, center, speaks during the opening session at the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington on Wednesday. The president’s decision to not release a statement about the shooting death of Army Maj. Gen. Harold Greene in Afghanistan has come under fire. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno released a statement of condolence on Tuesday following the mass shooting that killed Army Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene and wounded at least 15 others. The soldiers, ambushed at a military training academy west of Kabul, were professionals committed to their jobs, Odierno said, and “it is their service and sacrifice that define us as an Army.”

But the shooting has been met with silence from another member of Greene’s chain of command: President Obama. The commander in chief has said nothing about the incident, leaving it to the Defense Department and his own press secretary, Josh Earnest, to discuss it. Earnest said Tuesday that Obama had called Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, for the latest information, and added that it was a “painful reminder of the service and sacrifice that our men and women in uniform make every day for this country.”

Obama made several public appearances Wednesday, including at the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit. He didn’t address the issue in any of them.

CNN’s Jake Tapper addressed the president’s approach in a brief piece Wednesday afternoon. Checkpoint also looked into it, and was told by a national security official that the administration does not want to signal that the death of a general officer merited a different response that any other service member’s would. As a general matter, the official said, the White House wants it to be known that every loss of life is tragic.

The source added that the president has commented on military losses mostly when the United States loses a significant number of troops in a single incident — such as when a CH-47D helicopter flying under the call sign “Extortion 17″ was shot down in Afghanistan three years ago today, killing 30 U.S. service members, seven Afghan commandos, an Afghan interpreter and a U.S. military working dog.

Perhaps the way the Extortion 17 disaster has metastasized for the Obama administration helps explain its careful approach now.

Some family members and conservative leaders have accused the White House of putting a target on the backs of those killed in Extortion 17 by disclosing shortly after al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s was killed on May 2, 2011, that it came at the hands of Navy SEALs in a heliborne raid into Pakistan from Afghanistan. Critics surmise that the helicopter was targeted specifically because it carried many personnel from the same SEAL Team 6 that carried out the raid on bin Laden’s compound.

U.S. military officials have not made that tie. Nevertheless, a case can be made that it’s smarter for the White House to carefully manage what it says on emotionally sensitive issues like Greene’s death.

Here’s a sampling of criticism today online:

It’s fair to ask if some of Obama’s same critics would have found fault with him for offering condolences on Greene’s death because he hasn’t done the same for each lower-ranking service member. Either way, the controversy continues.

UPDATE: Aug. 7, 1:25 p.m.: Obama addressed Greene’s death for the first time today, saying in an appearance at Fort Belvoir, Va., that he was a dedicated soldier.

“Our prayers are with the Greene family, as they are with all the Gold Star families,” Obama said.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · August 6, 2014