President Donald Trump and the White House communications team revealed that a U.S. Navy SEAL team was deployed to Iraq after the president secretly traveled to the region to meet with American forces serving in a combat zone for the first time since being elected to office.
While the commander-in-chief can declassify information, usually the specific special operations unit is not revealed to the American public, especially while U.S. service members are deployed. Official photographs and videos typically blur the individual faces of special operation forces, due to the sensitive nature of their job.
The president's video posted Wednesday did not shield the faces of special operation forces. Current and former Defense Department officials told Newsweek that information concerning what units are deployed and where is almost always classified and is a violation of operational security.
Trump flew to Iraq late Christmas Day after facing a barrage of negative headlines over the holiday season amid a partial government shutdown. The president and first lady Melania Trump posed for pictures with U.S. service members at al-Asad air base in Iraq.
The clandestine trip came a week after Trump ordered the Pentagon to begin planning the withdraw of roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and around 7,000 from Afghanistan over the next few months. The abrupt decision prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who disagreed with the drawdown.
A pool report during Trump's visit said the details of the trip were embargoed until the president finished giving his remarks to a group of about 100 mostly U.S. special operation troops engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Syria.
The pool report went on to say that Trump paused to take a selfie with U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Kyu Lee, who said he was the chaplain for SEAL Team Five, based out of Coronado, California. The chaplain said Trump told him: "Hey, in that case, let's take a picture."
After Air Force One left the Iraqi airspace, Trump posted a video to his Twitter account of his time spent with American forces during his visit to Iraq. Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," plays over the video and shows the president and the first lady posing for pictures with service members that appear to be from SEAL Team Five. The special warfare operators are dressed in full battle gear and wearing night vision goggles.
The video cuts to team members shaking the president's hand before cutting to other special operations personnel and support troops.
Malcolm Nance, a former U.S. Navy intelligence specialist with experience in Iraq told Newsweek on Wednesday that posting the video was a break from traditional procedures that are usually strictly enforced and designed to safeguard the identities of U.S. special operation forces, especially when deployed to a combat zone.
"Operational security is the most important aspect of personnel deployments. The real names, faces, and identities, of personnel involved in special operations or activities, are usually a closely held secret in a combat zone," Nance said. "Revealing them casually, through an unusual media exposure even if it's the commander in chief, would prove a propaganda boom if any of this personnel are detained by a hostile government or captured by a terrorist group. There would be no denying who you are and what you do."
Contacted by Newsweek, the Pentagon referred questions to the White House communications team.
Naval Special Warfare Command and the White House did not return a request for comment from Newsweek as of publication.
"The deployments of special operation forces, including Navy SEALs are almost classified events, as to protect those men and women that are on the front lines of every overt and covert conflict the United States is involved in," a Defense Department official told Newsweek on condition of anonymity.
"Even during special operation demonstrations for congressional delegations or for the president or vice president, personnel either have their faces covered or their face is digitally blurred prior to a release to the general public," the official said.
"I don't recall another time where special operation forces had to pose with their faces visible while serving in a war zone," the Pentagon official added.
Update 12/30, 6:15 p.m. — A previous version of this article used the word 'covert' in its headline to mean the presence of a U.S. Navy SEAL team is generally not acknowledged by the Defense Department. Although used correctly, many readers took exception to the use of 'covert' in conjunction with this particular special operations unit from a legal context, so we have removed the word from the headline.