Published July 12, 2011
The Gawker website is under fire for trying to expose the CIA agent who may have helped lead the effort to kill Usama Bin Laden -- despite efforts by the U.S. government and media to keep his identity secret for security reasons.
Using red arrows pointing to a full-length picture and close-up photos of the possible agent, Gawker reporter John Cook on July 6 wrote a piece under the headline “Is This the Guy Who Killed Bin Laden?” The story has since sparked an angry response from former intelligence agents -- as well as Gawker’s own readers -- who say Cook’s post was irresponsible and could have deadly consequences.
“This whole business of exposing people is a real serious matter. It’s not entertainment, some people may think it is, but it’s not … There are real people out there that are going to be killed because of this,” said Charles Faddis, a former CIA operations officer who spent 20 years working international hot spots and who headed the CIA’s Terrorist Weapons of Mass Destruction Unit before retiring in 2008.
“I don’t have a lot of patience for this,” added Faddis, speaking about attempts to out the identity of a CIA operative. “This is serious, this is really serious. It’s completely irresponsible.”
Some Gawker readers also weren’t amused. A commenter named “Myrna Minkoff” wrote in response to Cook’s story:
“If this is the guy who tracked down Bin Laden, I can think of no better way to thank him for his outstanding civil service than by outing him on a highly trafficked web site and putting his career, his life, the lives of his loved ones in danger. Hooray!”
Another commenter “joelydanger” wrote:
“Consider that the next time you decide to write another article that tries to glorify DEVGRU, the CIA, or anyone and anything else used on the mission. You're causing harm and danger to the very people you're claiming to be heroes.”
But Cook insisted he didn’t compromise anyone’s security by posting the photos.
“I do not believe my post put anybody in physical danger,” Cook said in an email response to several questions posed by FoxNews.com. “I do not believe that people whose photographs are distributed by the White House as part of its public relations efforts have a reasonable claim to ask that no one speculate as to who they are.”
Cook was referring to a series of official White House pictures taken from the Situation Room during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The most famous of those photos, seen on televisions, newspapers and websites around the world, showed President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other officials watching a live feed of the raid.
Barely visible in that photo is the right jacket arm and the bottom of a necktie that appear to belong to a tall man standing behind Gates. Other pictures taken in the Situation Room during the raid, posted on the White House Flickr feed, show full-on shots of a tall man whose jacket and tie appear to match those of the man standing behind Gates in the earlier photo.
On July 5, the Associated Press published an extensive article on a CIA agent who led the hunt and eventual takedown of Bin Laden. The article referred to the agent only as “John,” explaining: “The Associated Press has agreed to the CIA's request not to publish his full name and withhold certain biographical details so that he would not become a target for retribution.”
Later that same day, the website Cryptome, a Wikileaks competitor that publishes leaked, sometimes classified documents and information, used clues from the AP article to home in on photos from the White House Flickr feed and other AP photos that might show “John.” The article noted that “John” appeared just out of frame in the famous photo.
The following day, Cook picked up the Cryptome info and published the photos from the White House Flickr feed, beneath the “Is This the Guy Who Killed Bin Laden?” headline. Cook’s post also included an AP file photo of CIA Director Leon Panetta leaving a briefing on Capitol Hill, where the man who may be “John” is seen in the background.
“Of course, it could be a random staffer who happened to be in both locations with John,” Cook wrote. “Or it could be the guy who iced bin Laden.”
The New York Observer posted a story late Tuesday that claimed to have confirmed the identity of the CIA agent, starting with the AP article and the Situation Room photo, and it posted photos online of the man it said was the agent.
Cook said he and his Gawker editors discussed potential safety concerns before publishing the information and photos.
“We came to the conclusion that it is highly unlikely that the White House would distribute for publication a photograph of a man whose life would be endangered if his photograph were ever published. Likewise, we decided that it is highly unlikely that such a man would publicly accompany the director of Central Intelligence, in the presence of AP photographers, to Capitol Hill to testify.”
But those White House photos do not identify the man in question, only noting that the group of people are “members of the national security team,” numerous Gawker commenters pointed out.
“You seem to have not noticed that they took great pains to make sure his face wasn't in the shot and he was never identified by name,” Myrna Minkoff wrote, when another commenter challenged her criticism of the Gawker post.
Other commenters chimed in.
“Sure it'll put him, his friends, and his family in danger regardless of whether or not he's actually the guy, but it'll generate some pageviews and advertiser revenue, and that's the IMPORTANT thing, right?” wrote someone using the name “dgoat.”
“You should still be ashamed of yourselves.”