FACT CHECK: Did Trump Reveal A ‘Covert’ SEAL Team?

Brad Sylvester | Fact Check Reporter

An article published in Newsweek on Dec. 26 claimed that President Donald Trump had revealed a covert Navy Seal team with a video he posted to his Twitter account.

“Donald Trump Twitter Account Video Reveals Covert U.S. Navy SEAL Deployment During Iraq Visit,” reads the headline.

Verdict: False

The unit and soldiers shown on Trump’s Twitter account are not “covert” operators, according to former American special force members and military experts. However, some still believe the photos and videos may pose a security threat.

Fact Check:

The photos and videos posted to Trump’s Twitter account were from his Wednesday surprise visit to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. During his time at the base, Trump and First Lady Melania Trump posed for pictures with a group of what appeared to be special force operators wearing their combat gear, including vests and night vision goggles. Footage of the encounter later appeared on a video montage that was posted to the president’s Twitter account.

The faces of special force operators are sometimes blurred in pictures in order to protect their identity. However, this was not done in this case. Similarly, a pool report about the trip was later sent out that seemed to identify a Navy Seal by name. “At one point Kyu Lee, told Trump he was the chaplain for Seal Team Five,” reads the report.

“President Donald Trump and the White House communications team revealed that a U.S. Navy SEAL team was deployed to Iraq,” claimed the Newsweek article.

But former special force members and military experts pointed out that the alleged special force operators shown, and any SEAL teams deployed to Iraq, are not in fact “covert,” as the Newsweek headline claims.

A covert operation is defined by the Department of Defense (DoD) as “an operation that is so planned and executed as to conceal the identity of or permit plausible denial by the sponsor.” In other words, the government would go to great lengths to conceal the identity of the operatives and their affiliation to the U.S.

But this is not the case with those shown in the video.

“The photo itself seems to indicate their affiliation with the United States, which would be somewhat inconsistent with a covert operation, which is deliberately intended to preserve plausible deniability,” Geoffrey Corn, a professor of law with expertise in military and national security law, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email.

Wesley Morgan, a military affairs reporter for Politico, in a tweet identified the soldiers as members of an advisory task force under the command of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Iraq, or CJSOTF-I, whose mission was not covert.

“This is overwrought. It’s unusual to show these guys’ faces, but they are part of the ‘white’ SOF advisory task force CJSOTF-I, not JSOC operators, and their mission is not ‘covert,’” reads the tweet.

SOF stands for special operations forces, JSOC for joint special operations command, and “white” refers to non-classified information. Corn couldn’t confirm that the soldiers were part of a CJSOTF-I advisory mission, but said their operations wouldn’t be covert, even if the task force was “engaged in direct action combat.”

Jack Murphy, a special forces veteran who served as a sniper and team leader for the 3rd Ranger Battalion, also refuted the claim that those shown were covert.

“Navy SEALs and other SOF soldiers deployed to Iraq are not ‘covert.’ Only the CIA conducts covert operations. The military conducts clandestine operations, but deployments to Iraq are not even that, they are Title 10 operations, which are publicly announced,” wrote Murphy in an email to TheDCNF.

Title 10 generally refers to the authority for the military and the DoD to conduct operations under U.S. law. It is often distinguished from Title 50, which is the authority granted to intelligence agencies like the CIA to conduct operations, including covert operations.

However, some remained concerned that the photos and videos that appeared on Trump’s Twitter page may have endangered the soldiers shown in them.

“The president clearly violated operational security. This is the more important point: what the president did endangers the lives of the Navy SEALs pictured and is completely unacceptable, no matter your political leanings,” James Waters, a former Navy Seal platoon commander, told TheDCNF in an email. “The faces of each of the operators is plainly visible (still today) and could be used by enemy forces and terrorists for targeting purposes.”

Others, such as Murphy, are not convinced Trump did anything wrong.

“American soldiers do not operate under a covered status like CIA officers, and DOD routinely publishes unredacted photos of SOF soldiers on .gov websites nearly every day,” Murphy told TheDCNF.

The White House and the DoD did not respond to a request for comment.

Newsweek also did not respond to a request for comment.

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Brad Sylvester

Fact Check Reporter

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