Hagel on Thursday defended the decision to formally acknowledge a failed mission to rescue American journalist James Foley and others held in Syria earlier this year, amid criticism from Republicans over the disclosure.
The White House and Defense Department, in a rare public confirmation of a covert mission, acknowledged late Wednesday that President Obama sent special operations troops to Syria this summer on a secret mission to rescue American hostages held by Islamic State extremists. The mission was not successful.
Hagel echoed White House and State Department claims, though, in saying the only reason they acknowledged the mission was because media outlets already knew about it.
“There were a number of news outlets that were aware of the action, of the raid,” he said Thursday. “It was a decision made by the administration, which we concurred with, to address the mission.”
The statement follows criticism from Republicans, regarding both the formal acknowledgement and the apparent leak beforehand to some members of the press.
Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on Thursday called for an investigation into the leak.
“Successful or not, such operations are incredibly sensitive, even after they have concluded. Disclosure of these missions puts our troops at risk, reduces the likelihood that future missions will succeed, and risks the lives of hostages and informants alike,” he said in a statement. “While I believe it was unwise for the White House and Department of Defense to formally acknowledge this operation; it is outrageous that someone would be so selfish and short sighted to leak it to the media.”
He urged Hagel and other officials to investigate the matter “immediately and thoroughly.”
The disclosure prompted comparisons to past leaks from the administration, regarding details of the successful Osama bin Laden raid and other operations.
“This is sort of the same thing,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, “One can’t help but assume that this is sort of [to try] to help the PR, that they tried to rescue the hostages.”
In some cases, the administration has launched investigations into security leaks and has come under criticism from free press and whistleblower groups for aggressively prosecuting the leakers.
In this case, critics voiced concerns that the disclosure jeopardizes other hostages.
Hagel said Thursday “there’s always risks” in any decision they make.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the administration had no intention of making the mission public, but was forced to do so because reporters were preparing to publish stories about it.
Hagel did later say in a press conference that the threat posed by the militant Islamic State group is “beyond anything we’ve seen,” because the group is “sophisticated and well- funded.”
The United States “will not relent our efforts to bring our citizens home and their captors to justice,” Hagel said about the failed mission aimed at rescuing American hostages held by the group last month.
Journalist James Foley, who was executed by the group Tuesday, was included in that group of hostages, Hagel said.
Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that the rescue mission was detailed publicly because media outlets were prepared to report about it.
“This operation, by the way, was a flawless operation, but the hostages were not there,” Hagel said.
The Islamic State, Hagel said, is an imminent threat to the United States. Tuesday’s beheading of Foley, which was posted online, shows that.
The effort to stop the Islamic State, Dempsey said, has involved seven humanitarian airdrop missions, more than 60 daily intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and 89 targeted airstrikes on Islamic State positions in northern Iraq. Air Force and Navy aircraft have participated in the airstrikes, Dempsey said.
Hagel said more nations would join the United States, Great Britain, France and other allies in the joint effort to stop the Islamic State.
“It is possible to contain” the Islamic State, Dempsey said, adding that the group’s momentum has been stopped. He said the sense that the Islamic State was going to overrun much of Iraq led many people to acquiesce to its domination.