Are Obama critics using 'Swift Boat' tactics?

A group with Republican and tea party ties says President Obama leaked information and took too much credit for the US Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It reminds some of the 'Swift Boat' attack on Sen. John Kerry when he challenged former President Bush in 2004.

Pete Souza/White House/Reuters/File
President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and other members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, in this May 2011 file photo.

The demise of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last year arguably was President Obama’s greatest national security achievement. For many Americans victimized or traumatized by the 9/11 terrorist attacks 10 years earlier, it brought a kind of closure. Large crowds literally danced in the streets outside the White House when Mr. Obama made the announcement.

But now, Obama’s actions since bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs and CIA operatives in a nighttime raid on his Pakistan hideout are being turned against him by political opponents – some with apparent connections to the Republican Party and the tea party movement.

Many see it as an echo of the “Swift Boat” attacks questioning Sen. John Kerry’s Vietnam combat record during the Massachusetts Democrat’s challenge of former President George W. Bush in 2004.

The attack on Obama, scheduled as TV ads to be shown in half a dozen battleground states, comes from the “Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund,” which is registered as a “social welfare group” (not a political organization) and therefore is not required to make public its donors.

The thrust of the group’s 22-minute documentary video is that Obama took undue credit for the risky SEAL raid, leaking information about the operation for political gain.

"Mr. President, you did not kill Osama bin Laden, America did,” Benjamin Smith, identified as a former Navy SEAL, says in the film. “The work that the American military has done killed Osama bin Laden. You did not."

"As a citizen, it is my civic duty to tell the president to stop leaking information to the enemy," Mr. Smith says. "It will get Americans killed."

The special operations group attacking Obama may not be formally political, but it appears to have significant political ties.

The group's president, Scott Taylor, is a former Navy SEAL who in 2010 ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for a congressional seat in Virginia, Reuters reports. A spokesman for the group, Chad Kolton, served in the Bush administration as a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence.

The New York Times reports that Mr. Smith, the former Navy SEAL in the video, has been a spokesman for the Tea Party Express and several Republican campaigns.

The Obama campaign was quick to respond.

"The Republicans are resorting to 'Swift Boat' tactics because when it comes to foreign policy and national security, Mitt Romney has offered nothing but reckless rhetoric," campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt told Reuters, adding that Romney's "two major foreign policy speeches never even mentioned Al Qaeda once, and he hasn't outlined a plan for America's relations with a single region of the world."

Others have noted that neither Romney nor his running mate, US Rep. Paul Ryan, has foreign policy or national security experience. For that matter, neither did Obama when he ran for the presidency in 2008, although Vice President Joe Biden was an acknowledged expert in the field during his six terms in the US Senate.

In Senator Kerry’s case, his actions as commander of a 50-foot Swift Boat in the rivers of Vietnam frequently making enemy contact, which earned him a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts, were supported by many of the US Navy sailors who served with him. Vietnam War POW Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona called the Swift Boat attacks on Kerry “dishonest and dishonorable.”

Still, the attacks had their political effect. Kerry went on to lose the presidential race to an incumbent who had avoided Vietnam service by joining the Texas Air National Guard.

Since the Vietnam War (and since 9/11) how or whether politicians served in the military can be used to support or criticize them. None of the four men on the two presidential tickets has served in the military, although two of them – Obama and Ryan – are young enough not to have faced the possibility of being drafted.

In Obama’s case involving bin Laden, it is generally accepted that he alone made the final decision to launch a dangerous mission – one that could have ended disastrously, as did former President Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran. That operation in April 1980, which cost the lives of eight US servicemen, likely added to Carter’s failure to be reelected.

Obama’s most notable defender in the bin Laden episode may be the four-star naval officer who commands all US Special Forces, including Navy SEALs.

“The president and his national security team – I'm not a political guy, but I will tell you, as, as an interested observer in this – they were magnificent in how they handled the start to finish,” Adm. William McRaven, Commander, US Special Operations Command, told CNN last month. “At the end of the day, make no mistake about it, it was the president of the United States that shouldered the burden for this operation, that made the hard decisions….”

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