“The Failing New York Times foiled U.S. attempt to kill the single most wanted terrorist, al-Baghdadi,” the president wrote. “Their sick agenda over National Security.”
Mr. Trump’s statement appeared to be based on a report by Fox News; he is known to be an avid viewer, and a version of the story was broadcast about 25 minutes before he posted. The report said that The Times had disclosed intelligence in an article on June 8, 2015, about an American military raid in Syria that led to death of one of Mr. Baghdadi’s key lieutenants, Abu Sayyaf, and the capture of his wife, who played an important role in the group.
That Fox News report cited comments by Gen. Tony Thomas, the head of the United States Special Operations Command, in an interview conducted Friday by the network’s intelligence correspondent, Catherine Herridge, at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
General Thomas said that a valuable lead on Mr. Baghdadi’s whereabouts “was leaked in a prominent national newspaper about a week later and that lead went dead.” He did not name The Times.
But a review of the record shows that information made public in a Pentagon news release more than three weeks before the Times article, and extensively covered at the time by numerous news media outlets, would have tipped off Mr. Baghdadi that the United States was questioning an important Islamic State operative who knew of his recent whereabouts and some of his methods of communication. Further, the information in the Times article on June 8 came from United States government officials who were aware that the details would be published.
A White House spokesman had no comment on Mr. Trump’s tweet. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that he believed Mr. Baghdadi, whose possible death has been the subject of repeated rumors, was still alive.
Here are the facts.
What happened in 2015 that led to the controversy?
Delta Force commandos conducted a raid in Syria on May 16, 2015, on the residence of Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic State’s top financial officer and a close associate of Mr. Baghdadi. The commando raid was the first in Syria against the militant group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and a trove of information was harvested from cellphones, laptops and other materials. Abu Sayyaf was killed, and his wife, Umm Sayyaf, was captured and flown out of the country for questioning.
That day, the Pentagon announced that the raid had taken place and that Umm Sayyaf had been detained.
“Last night, at the direction of the commander-in-chief, I ordered U.S. Special Operations Forces to conduct an operation in al-Amr in eastern Syria to capture an ISIL senior leader known as Abu Sayyaf and his wife, Umm Sayyaf,” Ashton B. Carter, the defense secretary at the time, said in a statement.
“Abu Sayyaf was involved in ISIL’s military operations and helped direct the terrorist organization’s illicit oil, gas and financial operations as well,” Mr. Carter added. “Abu Sayyaf was killed during the course of the operation when he engaged U.S. forces. U.S. forces captured Umm Sayyaf, who we suspect is a member of ISIL, played an important role in ISIL’s terrorist activities, and may have been complicit in what appears to have been the enslavement of a young Yazidi woman rescued last night.”
Until the raid, the American military had little knowledge about how the Islamic State leadership worked, and officials were eager to highlight the intelligence breakthrough.
The raid was covered extensively by the Western news media when it was announced, and accounts citing the Pentagon appeared the next morning on the front pages of dozens of newspapers, including The Times.
In the article cited by Fox News and published more than three weeks after the raid, The Times reported new details, including that as much as seven terabytes of data had been seized, which, with information from Umm Sayyaf, provided new insights into how Mr. Baghdadi operated and tried to avoid detection.
For example, the article noted that regional emirs in his organization were required to hand over cellphones before being driven to meetings with Mr. Baghdadi so their movements could not be tracked. Wives of the Islamic State leaders, the article noted, also played an important role in passing information to minimize the risk that the group’s communications would be intercepted.
At his appearance on Friday at the security conference, General Thomas was asked whether American forces had ever been close to capturing or killing Mr. Baghdadi.
“There were points in time when we were particularly close to him,” he responded. “Unfortunately, there were some leaks about what we were up to about that time. When we went after Abu Sayyaf, the oil minister who was very close to him, one of his personal confidants, he didn’t live, but his wife did. And she gave us a treasure trove of information about where she had just been with Baghdadi in Raqqa, days, if not within days, prior. And so that was a very good lead. Unfortunately, it was leaked in a prominent national newspaper about a week later and that lead went dead.”
The account by General Thomas — who at the time of the raid was the head of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, whose commandos target Islamic State leaders in Syria and Iraq — was imprecise in two aspects.
The Pentagon itself provided the confirmation on May 16, 2015, that Abu Sayyaf’s wife had been captured.
And the Times account was published not a week later, but 23 days after the Pentagon statement.
That gap matters because Mr. Baghdadi is almost certain to have taken precautionary steps, such as changing his pattern of behavior, shifting his location and adopting new procedures for communicating with other Islamic State commanders, in the days after the May 16 raid and the capture of a close associate — that is, well before the publication of the Times article on June 8.
The Pentagon raised no objections with The Times before the article was published, and no senior American official had complained publicly about it until now. Some officials expressed hope at the time that some of the details in the article would sow fear in the ranks of the Islamic State by demonstrating that the United States could penetrate the group’s secrecy.
What the military says
It is clear that Mr. Baghdadi would have known almost immediately from his own sources or from the Pentagon announcement and news media coverage of it that Umm Sayyaf was being held by the United States and was undergoing interrogation.
That raises a number of questions about why General Thomas pinned blame on what he viewed as a leak to a newspaper. If the military wanted to exploit the information from Umm Sayyaf about Mr. Baghdadi’s movements, why did the Pentagon rush to announce her capture on the day of the raid?
If the military gleaned intelligence from Umm Sayyaf about Mr. Baghdadi’s likely whereabouts, why did it not act in the three weeks after the May 16 raid? Did she initially refuse to cooperate? If so, that would have meant that the information she eventually provided would have been less timely.
Asked for comment, Kenneth McGraw, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command, declined to say which information in the Times article, if any, was a source of concern.
General Thomas “did not name a specific publication or a specific article in his remarks,” Mr. McGraw wrote in an email. “It would be inappropriate for me to make any further comment.”
Citing the need to protect classified information, Mr. McGraw also declined to say whether the Islamic State leader could have been expected to adopt new precautions soon after Umm Sayyaf’s capture or why the military did not go after him soon after the May 16 raid if information about his movements and patterns of behavior was likely to be perishable.
“Any intelligence used in the decision-making process would still be classified and not releasable,” Mr. McGraw wrote. “Any intelligence about Baghdadi’s behavior or new precautions he may have taken would still be classified and not releasable.”
Mr. McGraw also noted that the decision to immediately issue a news release confirming the capture of Umm Sayyaf was made by the Defense Department, not the Special Operations Command.
Former Obama administration officials said there were a number of reasons the Pentagon announced the raid and the detention of Umm Sayyaf. The White House, they said, had to notify Congress under the War Powers Resolution about the operation, which was the first Special Operations raid against the Islamic State in Syria. Further, the mission was mounted from Iraq, so the Iraqis also needed to be informed.
As a matter of policy, they said, the United States also needed to tell the International Red Cross that it had a detainee.
Mr. Carter, they said, also believed the American people should be informed about the first attempt to go after a member of Mr. Baghdadi’s inner circle. Nor did the Pentagon want to be accusing of capturing an important figure and covering it up.