WASHINGTON — The chief of the secretive US special operations command has lobbied against the release of names of American commandos killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday.
Thirty US troops were killed on Friday when their Chinook helicopter was shot out of the sky in a remote Afghan valley, but in a break with Pentagon practice, the identities of the dead service members have not been released.
The dead included 22 members of the elite Navy SEAL commandos and three Air Force special operators, and senior officers overseeing the special forces are reluctant to publicly identify the slain troops, officials said.
“There were concerns expressed by the SOCOM (US Special Operations Command) commander about the safety of the members of the unit and their families and the families of the fallen,” a senior military officer told AFP.
“He’s raised concerns and senior leaders are looking at it right now,” the officer added, requesting anonymity.
But officials noted that the names of dead service members are not classified as secret under US law.
Since the loss of the chopper, several families have come forward and publicly identified their loved ones in television interviews.
Admiral Eric Olson, who formally stepped down as SOCOM chief on Monday, has spoken previously about the need to uphold secrecy to protect the safety of servicemen and their families.
Under the Pentagon’s rules, the identities of dead service members are released publicly 24 hours after families are notified about the death of their loved ones.
The remains of the 30 US service members killed in the helicopter crash were returned to the United States on Tuesday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. But despite requests from news organizations, a solemn transfer ceremony at Dover attended by President Barack Obama and other top officials was closed to the media.
The military said the fallen troops could not be identified “due to the catastrophic nature of the crash,” and that next-of-kin were not in a position to grant approval for media access to the transfer ceremony.
Obama lifted a blanket ban on media coverage of the return of flag-draped caskets in 2009, allowing families of fallen troops to decide whether to permit cameras.
Documenting the return of troops killed on the battlefield has long been a sensitive political issue and Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, was accused of trying to hide images of caskets arriving at Dover from the public.
In Afghanistan, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force has said the CH-47 Chinook was sent in after US ground forces asked for reinforcements in the Tangi valley of Wardak province, southeast of Kabul.
The dead also included five US Army aviators who served as the helicopter crew, seven Afghan commandos and an interpreter.
US Central Command meanwhile named a senior officer to head up an investigation into the incident.
General Jeffrey Colt, deputy commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division, will “conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the crash,” Central Command said in a statement.
The military says the crash has not prompted any changes in tactics and downplayed the potential threat posed to Chinooks or other aircraft in the NATO-led force.