The nation's top special operations commander ordered military files about the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout to be purged from Defense Department computers and sent to the CIA, where they could be more easily shielded from ever being made public.
The secret move, described briefly in a draft report by the Pentagon's inspector general, set off no alarms within the Obama administration even though it appears to have sidestepped federal rules and perhaps also the Freedom of Information Act.
An acknowledgement by Adm. William McRaven of his actions was quietly removed from the final version of an inspector general's report published weeks ago. A spokesman for the admiral declined to comment. The CIA, noting that the bin Laden mission was overseen by then-CIA Director Leon Panetta before he became defense secretary, said that the SEALs were effectively assigned to work temporarily for the CIA, which has presidential authority to conduct covert operations.
"Documents related to the raid were handled in a manner consistent with the fact that the operation was conducted under the direction of the CIA director," agency spokesman Preston Golson said in an emailed statement. "Records of a CIA operation such as the (bin Laden) raid, which were created during the conduct of the operation by persons acting under the authority of the CIA Director, are CIA records."
Golson said it is "absolutely false" that records were moved to the CIA to avoid the legal requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.
The records transfer was part of an effort by McRaven to protect the names of the personnel involved in the raid, according to the inspector general's draft report.
But secretly moving the records allowed the Pentagon to tell The Associated Press that it couldn't find any documents inside the Defense Department that AP had requested more than two years ago, and could represent a new strategy for the U.S. government to shield even its most sensitive activities from public scrutiny.
McRaven, who oversaw the bin Laden raid, expressed concerns in the report about possible disclosure of the identities of the SEALs. The Pentagon "provided the operators and their families an inordinate level of security," the report said. McRaven also directed that the names and photographs associated with the raid not be released.
"This effort included purging the combatant command's systems of all records related to the operation and providing these records to another government agency," according to the draft report. The sentence was dropped from the report's final version.
Since the raid, one of the SEALs published a book about the raid under a pseudonym but was subsequently identified by his actual name. And earlier this year the SEAL credited with shooting bin Laden granted a tell-all, anonymous interview with Esquire about the raid and the challenges of his retiring from the military after 16 years without a pension.
The refusal to make available authoritative or contemporaneous records about the bin Laden mission means that the only official accounts of the mission come from U.S. officials who have described details of the raid in speeches, interviews and television appearances. In the days after bin Laden's death, the White House provided conflicting versions of events, falsely saying bin Laden was armed and even firing at the SEALs, misidentifying which of bin Laden's sons was killed and incorrectly saying bin Laden's wife died in the shootout. Obama's press secretary attributed the errors to the "fog of combat."
A U.S. judge and a federal appeals court previously sided with the CIA in a lawsuit over publishing more than 50 "post-mortem" photos and video recordings of bin Laden's corpse. In the case, brought by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, the CIA did not say the images were operational files to keep them secret. It argued successfully that the photos and videos must be withheld from the public to avoid inciting violence against Americans overseas and compromising secret systems and techniques used by the CIA and the military.
The Defense Department told the AP in March 2012 it could not locate any photographs or video taken during the raid or showing bin Laden's body. It also said it could not find any images of bin Laden's body on the USS Carl Vinson, the aircraft carrier from which he was buried at sea. The Pentagon also said it could not find any death certificate, autopsy report or results of DNA identification tests for bin Laden, or any pre-raid materials discussing how the government planned to dispose of bin Laden's body if he were killed. It said it searched files at the Pentagon, Special Operations Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., and the Navy command in San Diego that controls the Carl Vinson.
The Pentagon also refused to confirm or deny the existence of helicopter maintenance logs and reports about the performance of military gear used in the raid. One of the stealth helicopters that carried the SEALs in Pakistan crashed during the mission and its wreckage was left behind.
The Defense Department also told the AP in February 2012 that it could not find any emails about the bin Laden mission or his "Geronimo" code name that were sent or received in the year before the raid by McRaven. The department did not say they had been moved to the CIA. It also said it could not find any emails from other senior officers who would have been involved in the mission's planning. It found only three such emails written by or sent to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and these consisted of 12 pages sent to Gates summarizing news reports after the raid.
The Defense Department in November 2012 released copies of 10 emails totaling 31 pages found in the Carl Vinson's computer systems. The messages were heavily censored and described how bin Laden's body was prepared for burial.
These records were not among those purged and then moved to the CIA. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. James Gregory said the messages from the Carl Vinson "were not relating to the mission itself and were the property of the Navy."