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Rumsfeld Expresses Concern Over Last Week’s Press Leaks

By Vernon Loeb

and Bradley Graham

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed consternation Monday with recent press reports on the presence of U.S. special forces in Afghanistan and said defense officials who leaked the information had violated federal criminal law and put soldiers’ lives at risk.

Rumsfeld said a close hold on information is justified by the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are fighting against a ruling government militia, the Taliban, and a shadowy terrorist organization, al-Qaida, that do not present conventional military targets. In such a war, the success of U.S. attacks is dependent upon surprise.

“It is not in our country’s interest to let them know when, how or even why we are conducting certain operations,” Rumsfeld said, adding that the release of such information “was a violation of federal criminal law and something that was totally (in) disregard for the lives of the people involved in that operation.”

With special operations just beginning on the ground in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld’s stern warning to his employees seemed almost certain to further chill relations between the Pentagon and the media even as information is being more closely held than in recent U.S. military conflicts.

Rumsfeld’s focus on press leaks at the beginning of his regular news briefing placed new and vivid emphasis on a theme he first struck Sept. 12, the day after terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. At that time, Rumsfeld said a defense official willing to leak information is someone willing to violate the law and “frustrate our efforts to track down and deal with terrorists.”

His comments Monday were directed at an article published Friday in The Washington Post that said small numbers of U.S. special forces were on the ground in Afghanistan. The article said nothing about raids by U.S. Army Rangers and other Special Forces that began later Friday, although reports by CBS and NBC broadcast Friday night revealed that those operations were underway.

Rumsfeld said the reports did not jeopardize lives: “All returned safely,” he said But Rumsfeld said he was “floored” that defense officials had provided classified information about the presence of special forces in Afghanistan.

Asked whether he planned to search for the leaker, Rumsfeld said he didn’t have time, but added: “I hope that the people who were parachuting in don’t find the person.”

The Washington Post has a long-standing policy of not publishing material it believes would jeopardize operational security or put soldiers’ lives at risk. As a matter of practice, the Post reviews potentially sensitive material with administration officials and over the past month has not published specific details cited by officials as endangering national security.