Pentagon & Congress

Spec ops community responds to bin Laden raid revelations

As television and internet headlines explode with the revealed identity of the Navy SEAL who claims to have shot and killed Osama bin Laden, members of the special operations community are reacting with a mix of disappointment and tempered support, sometimes in the same breath.

After reports earlier in the week that former Senior Chief Petty Officer Robert O'Neill was set to come forward in a two-part interview on Fox News over Veterans Day, The Washington Post reported Thursday that O'Neill had confirmed his identity as both the shooter and the interview subject.

O'Neill, 38, did not respond to emailed requests for comment, but Defense Department officials confirmed to The Associated Press that O'Neill had been a member of SEAL Team Six and had been present at the bin Laden raid.

His coming forward marks the first time a specific SEAL has taken direct credit for killing bin Laden, a taboo admission in Naval Special Warfare and other special ops circles seen as a violation of their "quiet professional" ethos.

"I'm a little disappointed at some of the notoriety that's coming to these people who are speaking about the [Osama bin Laden] raid," said retired Capt. Dick Couch, a former SEAL who has penned dozens of fiction and non-fiction books based on third-person stories. "The people that have come public and are making use of this to spring themselves forward in a public way, I think it cheapens the SEAL brand to some extent."

In Couch's view, Operation Neptune Spear was so complex and involved so many people that it's unseemly for one man to take the credit.

"These guys on that raid were afforded a great opportunity: They got to go on the raid that every SEAL would have wanted to go on," he said in a Thursday phone interview. "One was privileged to pull the trigger."

In the special operations community, there remain doubts about whether O'Neill fired the shot that killed bin Laden, said CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, who wrote the book "Manhunt" about the search for bin Laden and was the only outside observer to visit the compound where bin Laden was killed.

Other SEALs have given Bergen an account that differs from that of O'Neill.

"The point man — who hasn't been publicly identified, and won't be publicly identified, according to people who know him — shot at bin Laden as he poked his head out of his bedroom door, winging him — or mortally wounding him," Bergen said.

Then the SEAL on point grabbed two women in the room, worried that they had explosives, as O'Neill and fellow SEAL Matt Bissonnette finished bin Laden off as he was lying on the floor, dying, said Bergen, of the New America Foundation think tank in Washington.

Finding out who fired the fatal shot during the bin Laden raid is extremely difficult, in part because the bin Laden compound has been demolished, leaving no forensic evidence, Bergen said.

"There was no moon that night; there was no electricity in the house; there was no electricity in the neighborhood; everyone was on night vision goggles; there had been a helicopter crash; there were three firefights before the firefight that killed bin Laden; all of this took place in 15 minutes," Bergen said. "This is the confrontation with the most wanted man in American history, so I think people's recollections of what happened are likely to be clouded by all of those factors."

'You are a ghost'

A former Marine Corps intelligence officer who spoke to Navy Times on the condition of anonymity, said that while some may choose to come forward, he wouldn't disclose details of operations he'd been involved with, even after they're declassified.

"My professional reputation trumps all potential financial gain yet I completely understand why some decide to broadcast to generate an income," he said.

In the definitive account of the raid, author Mark Owen — a pen name for former Chief Petty Officer Matt Bissonnette — described himself as one of the three men whose bullets hit bin Laden, but gave credit to the "point man," the guy leading the group up the stairs through the compound.

"It doesn't really matter who shot him, and Mark Owen has never explicitly hammered that point home," his co-writer, Kevin Maurer, told Navy Times. "It was a team effort."

However, that account, which hit bookshelves a year after the raid, sent a shockwave through the "quiet professionals" of Naval Special Warfare.

"Any commander that's going to put SEALs in the field has to wonder, 'Am I going to read about this in a book sometime?' " Couch said.

Despite many operators' choice to keep quiet, the former Marine counterintel officer said, it should be a guy's story to tell as long as he's not breaking a contract.

"I was talking to a friend who is leaving that unit soon, who was not there for the OBL raid, and it's 100 percent accepted that while you are there, you are a ghost," he said. "Yet once you get out, it's up to you, unless you willfully break [a non-disclosure agreement],if you even signed one."

In fact, many in the community feel frustrated by the flag officers and political appointees who take credit for their missions, even covering missions in their memoirs.

"I believe there is an inversion of priority given to the actual folks who are responsible undertaking or actually performing the feats of skill needed to successfully complete special missions," the Marine said.

Still, talking at all is not doing the community any favors.

"NSW now has a reputation as being the most vociferous," he added. "Rangers are second place now, with Marines and Special Forces coming in last in line for public hero worship."

A warning

O'Neill's revelation came days after Rear Adm. Brian Losey, head of NSWC, and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci issued a reminder to special warfare sailors to stay out of the limelight when it comes to their service.

"At Naval Special Warfare's core is the SEAL ethos," according to the letter, which was obtained by Navy Times. "A critical tenant of our ethos is 'I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.' Our ethos is a life-long commitment and obligation, both in and out of the service. Violators of our ethos are neither teammates in good standing, nor teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare."

In response, former SEAL Jonathan Gilliam posted an open letter to NSW, calling out Losey for publicly chastising SEALS rather than "silently and professionally," but also echoing the sentiment that they should keep their mouths shut.

"You are a leader in whatever you choose to do, however if you choose to subscribe to the 'notice me' rockstar mentality of today's generation and political leadership, our Brotherhood of super men will continue to take a super plunge," he wrote.

Naval Special Warfare has declined to comment on O'Neill's identity until after his interview has aired Nov. 11 and 12.

Also this week, Bissonnetteappeared on the CBS show "60 Minutes" on Nov. 2 to discuss his legal troubles and the release of his second memoir about his time in the teams.

Bissonnette is under fire from the Justice Department for opting out of the DoD vetting process for his first book. The Associated Press reported he is on the hook for $4.5 million for profiting from the unapproved book.

Bissonnette is now suing his former lawyer for advising him to publish without DoD's approval. He second book, "No Hero: The Evolution of a Navy SEAL," went through the process and features redacted passages.

Staff writer Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

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