May 20, 2011

Many readers have jumped to the following conclusion: The Post has been trying to “out” the identities of the Navy SEAL Team 6 members who killed Osama bin Laden, which would be a sensational scoop but also could endanger the lives of the commandos and their families.

Two of The Post’s follow-up stories to the May 1 raid in Pakistan have fueled the perception.

One May 13 Style article in particular, “Seeing a SEAL in his native habitat,” by Post reporter Frederick Kunkle, provoked outraged e-mails to Kunkle and the ombudsman’s inbox. According to internal Post data, Kunkle’s story was the 11th-most-popular story on the Post Web site from May 12 to May 16.

Kunkle, a local reporter who was detailed to the National Desk to help cover the aftermath of Bin Laden’s death, wrote an atmospheric essay from Virginia Beach, near where East Coast-based SEALS train, about visiting known or suspected Navy SEAL hangouts, reporting on the reactions of local residents who may know or hang out with SEALs.

Some of the angrier e-mails accused The Post of treason. Here’s one:

“What are you thinking!!!!?You have exposed our elite military to unnecessary danger. It’s one thing to have our enemies search out targets. But to give them specific places, your editors and the traitor that wrote this piece should be tried for treason or stand and be judged by True Americans.”

And: “If one hair is damaged on the head of a SEAL team member or their families because their identity is made known just in a quest for a story, their blood will be on the hands of you, your newspaper and your stinking little reporter.”

Some of the e-mails were prompted by pejorative mentions of and links to Kunkle’s story from conservative news Web sites such as Fox Nation. Others, less fiery, seemed prompted by genuine concern for the safety of the raiders and their families.

I think that Kunkle’s story, and one May 2 article by Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia, “Who shot bin Laden?,” for which the reporter talked to former Navy SEALs to get a sense of what the bin Laden raiders are like, were interesting — and well within the legitimate boundaries of reporting on the assault.

The incendiary rhetoric from some on the right accusing Post journalists or other reporters of treason is reprehensible. It shows how little some conservatives know about the media and how reporters do their jobs, and it insults journalists who care about this country at least as much as self-proclaimed “True Americans.”

Nevertheless, I think that how far The Post and other media outlets go in reporting this story is a legitimate concern for readers and the military.

I covered the Navy specifically for five years and the military for almost eight. As an editor, I led a team of defense reporters for 12 years before coming to The Post. In the past few days I have heard heartfelt concern from special warfare officials, senior Pentagon officers and former officials about how much has been revealed about the bin Laden raid and how it could affect future operations and the safety of SEAL team members and their families.

After covering the Pentagon for a while, you get a sense of when the military is just trying to spin its talking points and when it has real issues. These are real issues, as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman, said at a news conference on May 18.

Enhanced security measures are being considered for SEAL team members and their families, Gates said, and he added that team members must never be identified by name.

Most of the concern I heard from military officials wasn’t about the media; it was directed at the White House and CIA and Pentagon officials for releasing so much detail. It’s also directed at retired military officials who sometimes say too much.

The military’s biggest concern is that the war with al-Qaeda isn’t over. More such raids are contemplated. Already some techniques used in the bin Laden raid may have been too well described to be used again. As Mullen said, “We have, from my perspective, gotten to a point where we are close to jeopardizing this precious capability that we have, and we can’t afford to do that. This fight isn’t over.”

I want The Post to keep covering this important story. But I urge reporters and editors to think once, twice, three times before using a compelling or enhancing detail in a story that could hurt the military the next time it sets its sights on an al-Qaeda target.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@
washpost.com
. For daily updates, read the omblog at http://voices.washingtonpost.
com/ombudsman-blog/
.