WASHINGTON -- It could hardly have been a more perfect storm, and it was all because of a single question in a routine briefing.
On Feb. 19, U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in the Middle East, gave reporters a standard background briefing about the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State. The official who conducted the briefing responded to one question with a discussion of a particularly sensitive part of the campaign: the U.S.-led coalition’s plans to take back Mosul, a key Iraqi city that the Islamic State captured in a shocking victory last summer. The official indicated that 20,000 or more Iraqi troops would ideally start the Mosul offensive in April 2015.
Opponents of the Obama administration screamed too. “Never in our memory," hawkish Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote to President Barack Obama the day after the briefing, "can we recall an instance in which our military has knowingly briefed our own war plans to our enemies.”
And almost immediately, the notoriously leak-phobic Obama administration entered damage control mode.
The White House said it could not confirm the comments, instead punting the question to the Department of Defense. Meanwhile, hours after the briefing, newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Ash Carter refused to address the specifics, even though they had already been provided to reporters. Asked about the timing of the Mosul offensive, Carter said, “Even if I knew exactly when that was going to be, I wouldn’t tell you."
To make matters worse, the two U.S. partners who are essential to the plan's success -- the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurds -- seemed equally perturbed. Iraq's government issued a protest over the revelation, and the Kurdish region's representative to the U.S., Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, said on Thursday that her government was "surprised" by the announcement.
Neatly wrapped in newsprint, a little scandal had landed in the laps of skeptics who have long questioned the White House's strategy to combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. After a week of mixed messaging from all corners of the Obama administration, the Pentagon indicated late on Friday that the attack is likely to come in the fall. The announcement leaves last Thursday's briefing seeming even more puzzling and the White House’s strategy looking even clumsier and more disorganized.
The ongoing confusion about who knew of the Mosul details and who approved their release has given critics two equally powerful lines of attack: first, that officials are careless enough to release details of war strategy that could prove helpful to U.S. enemies; and second, that the administration can’t even coordinate the release of its own sensitive information.
The McCain-Graham letter exemplified the first criticism. And in an interview with The Huffington Post on Tuesday, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, turned to the second: "I can't believe [Obama and Carter] are claiming they didn't know, were out of the loop," he said, calling the entire episode "baffling."
A large part of the problem is that the administration has struggled to issue a clear response to the briefing.
The White House continues to say it was not involved in the briefing, and has referred reporters asking questions to the Department of Defense. Meanwhile, the Defense Department will say only that Carter was aware of the briefing but not of its content. And CENTCOM will not specify who authorized the briefing.
Immediately after the Mosul disclosure, some officials attempted to make a more robust defense: that the revelations would actually help the U.S. score a victory against ISIS.
A Pentagon official told The Washington Post the day after the briefing that the announcement was intended to put ISIS fighters "into a defensive crouch, which saps their energy."
The same day, The Post published a separate story quoting another unnamed defense official who said the comments were intended to make most ISIS fighters flee Mosul prior to the U.S.-aided Iraqi assault.
In the days since, a different explanation has surfaced. The briefing, several officials said, was not intended to cover the details on Mosul that ended up grabbing the headlines.
"If a question about Mosul didn't come up, it wouldn't have been covered in such detail," one official involved in organizing the briefing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told HuffPost on Wednesday.
The administration has also faltered in its efforts to clarify just how consequential the revelations were. When Carter told reporters on Feb. 20 that he would be disinclined to share the planned date of the offensive even if he knew it, he implied that publicizing the timing would, in fact, be a risk to U.S. strategy.
But then came the turnaround. That same day, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes downplayed the episode, arguing in a CNN interview that nothing was revealed that was different from what the administration had already been saying about the plan to retake Mosul. "The bottom line is that this operation will be conducted when the time is ready," Rhodes said.
Defense officials have since picked up that refrain.
"Pretty much everything that was briefed has been discussed before in different fora," one defense official who asked not to be named told HuffPost, adding that the information in the briefing should have been considered "heavily caveated."
"We've seen timelines shift," the official said. "Come April, if it's not where we're at, it's not the end-all be-all. There is no timeline: It's a snapshot of what we think could happen."
Maj. Curtis Kellogg, a spokesman for CENTCOM, said in a Wednesday email that the details discussed in the briefing "revealed nothing of operational value" to the Islamic State.
This is the present approach: Just play down the importance of the briefing. But opponents continue to latch onto the discrepancies in the administration's line.
McCain dismissed the idea that the president and defense secretary didn't know about the briefing's content. "It was sort of an immaculate conception?" he scoffed. "One then wonders about the chain of command."
The Arizona Republican added that his inquiry to the White House about who authorized the briefing had not yet been answered. As the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain helped guide Carter to his confirmation to the Pentagon's top position just weeks ago.
Burr expressed similar doubts.
“I think there are a lot more people in the dark on that decision than there were knowledgeable that it was going to happen," he said. “There's nothing that happens in this government that the White House doesn't sign off on."
Some analysts share that suspicion, and have hinted at strategic reasons for the revelations, just like some administration officials did early on after the briefing. To Joel Wing, a widely cited independent researcher on Iraq, the incident looked like a conscious response to mounting pressure on the administration -- including from the Iraqis -- to show something tangible for its monthslong military offensive against the Islamic State.
Speculation aside, it is clear that the criticism has had an impact just as the Obama administration is attempting to win support in Washington for the fight against ISIS, including congressional approval for an authorization to use military force. The fact that the Pentagon is now signaling a complete shift in plans from what was indicated at the briefing is likely to bolster skepticism about the administration's strategy.
The department seems aware that damage control is in order. Kellogg, the CENTCOM spokesman, assured HuffPost in his email that the Pentagon would "respond appropriately to [McCain's and Graham's] concerns and in an expeditious manner."