The emergence of a group of former special operations soldiers dedicated to running adverts critical of President Barack Obama’s national security policy has raised the prospect of a 2012 version of the infamous Swift boat campaign.
That effort in 2004 played a vital role in derailing John Kerry’s bid to beat President George W Bush by casting doubts over the Massachusetts senator’s Vietnam War record which Democrats had placed at the heart of their campaign.
Now the people involved in the tongue-twistingly named Special Operations Opsec Education Fund Inc appear to want to do the same by attacking Obama’s handling of the death of Osama bin Laden, as well as a flood of national security leaks from inside his administration.
At first glance both Opsec and the Swift boaters appear to have many similarities drawn from the shadowy underworld of political dirty tricks. But there are important differences too.
Both the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Opsec are avowedly non-partisan groups that claim not to be taking a party political stance. Instead they say they are just campaigning on a specific issue. Yet both display strong links to Republicans. Three major donors to the Swift boat campaign, including oil baron T Boone Pickens and Houston construction magnate Bob Perry, were prominent Texas Republican fundraisers. Several Republican-linked communication consultants gave media advice to the group. Numerous Swift boat veterans in the group were also Republicans.
With Opsec there are also clear links. Opsec president Scott Taylor is a former Republican congressional candidate. Another supporter and spokesman, Chad Kolton, was a former intelligence spokesman under Bush. Finally, one of the ex-CIA officials appearing in the group’s 22-minute long introductory documentary is Paul Vallely, who has publicly cast doubt on the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate.
The funding behind the Swift boat campaign was clearly linked to Republican party supporters. Tax filings for the group in 2005 revealed that more than half of it came from just three major Texan Republicans, including a $4.45m tranche from Bob Perry.
With Opsec the position is less clear. The group has filed its financial status as a social welfare group. Under American campaign finance laws that means it can keep its donors’ identities private. It has, however, raised $1mof backing so far and has appealed for public donations in the wake of its launch.
The Swift boat group produced a series of TV adverts and a book, Unfit for Command, that sought to cast doubt on the veracity of Kerry’s claims about his military service. It questioned whether he deserved certain medals and alleged that he had made up descriptions of part of his career in Vietnam. It also attacked him for joining the anti-war movement after leaving the service.
However, the Swift boaters were criticised for getting many allegations wrong or for being often made up of people who had served little or no time with Kerry themselves. Senator John McCain called the group’s first ad “dishonest and dishonorable”.
Opsec’s claim to be non-partisan is dubious. In the 22-minute film only Obama is attacked. However, their argument is more solid. There is little doubt that Obama and his officials have sought to extract political gain from the death of Bin Laden. Nor is there any real doubt as to the scale of leaks from the administration on matters of national security like the controversial “kill list” of Islamic terrorists or the US involvement in the Stuxnet cyber-worm that was used against Iran.
The FBI is investigating those leaks, and Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein has called for political hearings about the matter. In campaigning on this issue Opsec is making a political argument that has support not just in Republican circles
The Swift boaters generated interest with a press conference, a book and a series of TV adverts. But their main impact was simply in getting people talking about them, even if it was negatively. Any debate over Kerry’s war record could be seen as hurting something that had previously been seen as one of the candidate’s strong points.
Opsec can be seen in the same light. The initial documentary, which is presented with flashy graphics and is slickly produced, is meant to get people talking. Opsec aims to follow up its launch with TV adverts in Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina and Nevada – all key battleground states. Again the aim is to cast doubt on something currently seen as an Obama strong point: his hardline stance on national security and the success of killing Bin Laden.
The Swift boat impact has been seen as successful. Though the reasons for Kerry’s loss are varied and complex, the Swift boat controversy is usually cited as a major contributing factor. At the very least it put the Kerry campaign on the defensive in a contest against Bush that it had expected to be mainly about the president’s record.
Only time – and the airing of TV ads – will tell what the Opsec group’s impact will be. So far it has not succeeded in entering the debate. On the day of its launch the group’s documentary has just 302 views on YouTube and its website has less than 3,000 “likes” on Facebook. However, the Swift boat group also got off to a slow start, yet by the end of the 2004 election the term “Swiftboating” had entered America’s political lexicon.