For Two Decades, Americans Told One Lie After Another About What They Were Doing in Afghanistan
December 30, 2021
In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, U.S.-backed Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum’s forces murdered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners by jamming them into metal shipping containers and letting them suffocate. At the time, Dostum was on the CIA’s payroll and had been working with U.S. special forces to oust the Taliban from power.
The Bush administration blocked subsequent efforts to investigate the mass murder, even after the FBI interviewed witnesses among the surviving Afghans who had been moved to the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and after human rights officials publicly identified the mass grave site where Dostum’s forces had disposed of bodies. Later, President Barack Obama promised to investigate, and then took no action.
Instead, Hollywood stepped in and turned Dostum into a hero. The 2018 movie, “12 Strong,” a jingoistic account of the partnership between U.S. special forces and Dostum in the 2001 invasion, whitewashed Dostum — even as his crimes continued to pile up in the years after the prisoner massacre. At the time of the movie’s January 2018 release, Dostum was in exile, hiding from criminal charges in Afghanistan for having ordered his bodyguards to rape a political opponent, including with an assault rifle. The movie (filmed in New Mexico, not Afghanistan) was based on a book that a New York Times reviewer called “a rousing, uplifting, Toby Keith-singing piece of work.”
Warlord Dostum back in the fray as Taliban overwhelm Afghan north
December 30, 2021
The scene was a familiar one as warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum jetted into northern Afghanistan this week — a promise of bloodshed and vengeance, and no apology for his vicious past.
Despite a series of war crimes linked to his forces, the Afghan government is hoping Dostum’s military acumen and seething hatred of the Taliban can help beat back the current insurgent offensive.
At 67, the greying Uzbek militia leader is not quite in the fighting shape of his youth — he has just returned from medical treatment in Turkey — but his desire to be on the frontline does not appear to have dimmed.
Loaded on a commercial jet with a contingent of commandos, Dostum headed north Wednesday to join the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif after his nearby Sheberghan stronghold was captured by the Taliban at the weekend.
Dostum was back in the fight.
The US Used Afghan Women to Justify Its War. Now, It’s Leaving Them Behind. (2021)
December 30, 2021
Four days after Taliban-controlled Kabul fell to the United States and its military allies in 2001, First Lady Laura Bush took over the mic for her husband’s customary weekly radio address. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” Bush declared. “Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment.”Rhetoric around women’s rights in Afghanistan, and portrayals of US military forces as saviors of Afghan women, have been used to justify the US war there from the beginning. Nine days after US bombs started dropping, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) donned a burqa on the House floor to declare the offensive a “just war, which we have no choice but to wage” while listing the Taliban’s many restrictions on women’s lives—no work, no school, no medical care from male doctors—and their devastating economic and health consequences. The same day as Bush’s address, the State Department published a report that concluded: “Today, with Kabul and other Afghan cities liberated from the Taliban, women are returning to their rightful place in Afghan society—the place they and their families choose to have.” The following week, the New York Times editorial board hopped on the train, praising the liberation of Afghan women as a “collateral benefit” of the war, and calling for women’s participation in civic life and government.
CIA-backed Afghan troops ‘committed war crimes’: report (2019)
December 30, 2021
Afghan strike forces backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have committed abuses “amounting to war crimes”, according to a new report.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleges the troops “committed summary executions and other grave abuses without accountability”.
These include extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and attacks on healthcare facilities.
Afghanistan’s government told the BBC the current situation was unacceptable.
Disputing the report, the CIA said its covert operations were carried out in “accordance with law and under a robust system of oversight”.
Both the UN and the New York Times have previously highlighted allegations of abuses by Afghan strike teams.
This Is What Winning Looks Like (2014)
December 30, 2021
“This Is What Winning Looks Like” is a disturbing feature documentary about the ineptitude, drug abuse, sexual misconduct, and corruption of the Afghan security forces, as well as the reduced role of US Marines due to the troop withdrawal.
In February 2013, on his last day at the helm of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John R. Allen described what he thought the war’s legacy will be: ”Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory, this is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.”
However, the picture formed by VICE News correspondent Ben Anderson as he traveled to Afghanistan in December 2012 was anything but, finding that our legacy will likely be the exact opposite of what Allen posited—not a stable Afghanistan, but one at war with itself yet again.
The A-Team Killings (2013)
December 30, 2021
Last spring, the remains of 10 missing Afghan villagers were dug up outside a U.S. Special Forces base – was it a war crime or just another episode in a very dirty war?
In the fall of 2012, a team of American Special Forces arrived in Nerkh, a district of Wardak province, Afghanistan, which lies just west of Kabul and straddles a vital highway. The members installed themselves in the spacious quarters of Combat Outpost Nerkh, which overlooked the farming valley and had been vacated by more than 100 soldiers belonging to the regular infantry. They were U.S. Army Green Berets, trained to wage unconventional warfare, and their arrival was typical of what was happening all over Afghanistan; the big Army units, installed during the surge, were leaving, and in their place came small groups of quiet, bearded Americans, the elite operators who would stay behind to hunt the enemy and stiffen the resolve of government forces long after America’s 13-year war in Afghanistan officially comes to an end.
Did U.S. stop inquiry into Afghan massacre? (2009)
December 30, 2021
After a U.S.-backed warlord killed hundreds of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan, the Bush administration quashed inquiries, say government officials and human rights advocates.
After a mass killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war by the forces of an American-backed warlord during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Bush administration officials repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the episode, according to government officials and human rights organizations.
Taliban should be overthrown by the uprising of Afghan nation (RAWA 2001)
December 30, 2021
Again, due to the treason of fundamentalist hangmen, our people have been caught in the claws of the monster of a vast war and destruction.
America, by forming an international coalition against Osama and his Taliban-collaborators and in retaliation for the 11th September terrorist attacks, has launched a vast aggression on our country.
Despite the claim of the US that only military and terrorist bases of the Taliban and Al Qieda will be struck and that its actions would be accurately targeted and proportionate, we have witnessed for the past seven days leaves no doubt that this invasion will shed the blood of numerous women, men, children, young and old of our country.
The people of Afghanistan have nothing to do with Osama and his accomplices (RAWA 2001)
December 30, 2021
On September 11, 2001 the world was stunned with the horrific terrorist attacks on the United States. RAWA stands with the rest of the world in expressing our sorrow and condemnation for this barbaric act of violence and terror. RAWA had already warned that the United States should not support the most treacherous, most criminal, most anti-democracy and anti-women Islamic fundamentalist parties because after both the Jehadi and the Taliban have committed every possible type of heinous crimes against our people, they would feel no shame in committing such crimes against the American people whom they consider “infidel”. In order to gain and maintain their power, these barbaric criminals are ready to turn easily to any criminal force.
US plan to improve Afghan intelligence operations branded a $457m failure
September 22, 2017
Pentagon’s use of taxpayers’ money under scrutiny after special watchdog finds contracts to train and mentor Afghan soldiers fell short of stated objectives
A $457m (£345m) Pentagon-funded programme to develop the intelligence capacity of Afghan defence and security forces has failed to meet its aims, according to a US watchdog.
The claim comes weeks after a scathing report found the US government had wasted $28m on Afghan uniforms with “forest” camouflaged patterns rather than the desert pattern better suited to 98% of the country’s terrain.
The report, by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar) said there was “no indication of improvement in overall intelligence operations” as a result of five contracts for training and mentoring, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, run by Legacy Afghanistan R&D and Afghanistan Source Operations Management (Asom). Only 47% of intelligence sites are ready to transfer to the Afghan government.
Afghanistan: dozens dead in Kabul bombing targeting government workers
The watchdog’s audit of training and mentoring contracts awarded to the Afghanistan national defence and security forces (ANDSF) between 2010 and 2013 said it was “almost impossible” to gauge the US government’s return on investment. This was due to a lack of performance metrics to track progress, said the report. Sigar found that neither Imperatis, the contractor, nor New Century Consulting, the subcontractor operating the programme, retained complete training records.
The watchdog also noted that Imperatis billed, on average, more than $1.8m a month under the Legacy contract for the period from March to December 2011, even though the training courses were cancelled in February 2011.
Using the records available, Sigar concluded that a “significant portion” of Afghan trainers and instructors failed to meet the minimum standards. Only 10 of the 24 police intelligence student trainees completed all nine courses required to be an interior ministry trainer; none of the four student trainees completed all six courses required to be a defence ministry trainer; and five out of six did not complete any of the four courses required to be a defence instructor.
The US Department of Defense had also met costs it was “not legally responsible to pay” as a result of failed monitoring by Imperatis, the report said.
Sigar’s January 2016 quarterly report to Congress, based on Afghan assessments, found defence and interior ministry intelligence capabilities were rated as high as “partially capable” but none as “fully operational”.
It recommended the US defence secretary conduct a review both of the award and oversight of the Legacy and Asom contracts, and of the ongoing ANDSF intelligence training and mentoring contracts, in order that they be better monitored.
Sigar has long criticised the Pentagon for wastefulness during the US’s longest war. In January, it told a Washington thinktank there was evidence that Taliban leaders had told their commanders to buy fuel, ammunition and weapons from Afghan soldiers because it was cheaper.
The office of the undersecretary of defence for policy, which was given a draft of the report, said it concurred with both Sigar’s recommendations.
A Department of Defense report, which followed the conclusion of Legacy and Asom contracts, noted that persistent capability gaps in the Afghan security forces’ intelligence collection and dissemination, along with other shortcomings, “have hampered more rapid development in their ability to maintain security and stability”.
In June, Donald Trump gave the Pentagon complete authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, after his defence secretary, James Mattis, suggested the war was being lost.
Wednesday 2 August 2017 14.03 BST Last modified on Wednesday 2 August 2017 14.11 BST
Find this story at 2 August 2017
© 2017 Guardian News
Defence contractor run by Colonel Tim Collins OBE under investigation for fraud in Afghanistan
September 22, 2017
Exclusive: He is also facing questions over a £116m US contract to train Afghan security forces in counterinsurgency
A defence contractor run by one of Britain’s best-known military figures is under criminal investigation by the US government’s watchdog against fraud and waste in Afghanistan, The Independent can reveal.
It can also be revealed that the company founded by Colonel Tim Collins OBE – who is best known for delivering a powerful speech to his men on the eve of the Iraq war – is facing questions over a $176m (£116m) US contract to train Afghan security forces in counterinsurgency.
His firm, New Century Consulting, is the subcontractor in a Pentagon contract held by the US company Jorge Scientific, now known as Imperatis. A financial audit of Imperatis, carried out on behalf of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar), identified $130m “unsupported” and “questioned” costs paid to New Century, to which most of the work was subcontracted.
John F Sopko, head of Sigar, said in a statement: “This is a classic example of a prime contractor not knowing how its subcontractors are spending hard-earned American taxpayer dollars.”
Last night Sigar, a US federal agency, told The Independent that it had an ongoing criminal investigation involving both New Century and Imperatis. The investigation began before the audit was carried out, and it is not known if they are connected.
Both New Century and Imperatis deny any wrongdoing and disagree with the findings of the audit, which include concerns about the $130m in “unsupported” costs. Col Collins said: “New Century has no knowledge of the criminal investigation which you allege.”
Sigar has the job of overseeing reconstruction projects and activities, conducting audits and investigations to “promote efficiency” and “detect and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse”.
Auditors tasked by Sigar examined $175,873,361 in expenditure between October 2011 and March 2014 and found that Imperatis “did not retain sufficient supporting documentation for a subcontractor’s [New Century Consulting] costs.” This amounted to $129,707,328 in “questioned costs” – part of an overall total of $134,552,665 of unsupported costs racked up by Imperatis over its “Legacy East” contract with the Pentagon.
Sigar recommended that US Army Contracting Command should “determine the allowability of and recover, as appropriate, $134,552,665 in questioned costs identified in the report”. Its auditors warned of “material weakness and non-compliance” over the documentation held by Imperatis of New Century’s costs and said that “the government may have been charged for costs that were unallowable to the Legacy East project”.
Under the contract, New Century (NCC) has sent counterinsurgency advisers, many of them British, to Afghanistan, to run what amounts to an intelligence mentoring and training programme for the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). The aim is to take tactics developed and used during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and apply them in Afghanistan, to help the country’s soldiers and police recruit and use informants from within the Taliban.
In a statement yesterday, an Imperatis spokesperson said: “Imperatis and NCC maintain extensive records to evidence the costs incurred. These records were repeatedly offered to the auditors for their inspection, and remain available for review.”
Imperatis added: “Throughout performance of the Legacy East contract, NCC provided Imperatis with supporting documentation for every invoice submitted by NCC for payment as required by the terms of the contract.”
The company also claimed that the auditors based their findings on a sample of documents and did not seek to extend the sample size.
It added: “We are confident that further audit of the documentation would provide Sigar with complete assurance that all of the expenditures billed to the US government were incurred and claimed in accordance with the Legacy East contract, and in each case comply with all applicable cost principles.”
New Century also challenged the results of the audit, insisting it had provided all necessary documentation.
When The Independent first contacted him for his response, Col Collins responded: “Publish! I dare you!”
Yesterday, he said: “New Century was the subcontractor to Legacy East. Apart from that we have no privileged access to the matter mentioned nor have we been approached by the US government to assist or comment on the matter.
“The US government has now contracted directly with New Century to deliver these services based on the excellence of our performance and not least our administration and accounting which have been audited by the USG to their satisfaction.” Col Collins said he was unaware of any criminal investigation, and added: “Sigar’s concerns are not with my company.”
Lee Hess, division chief of Army Contracting Command, which runs the US Army’s outsourcing contracts, also challenged the Sigar audit. Speaking to The Independent yesterday at the request of New Century, he said that “the financial audit was not complete”. He added: “We are engaged with Sigar to try to complete the audit because it wasn’t properly completed when it was released.”
But last night a Sigar spokesman insisted the audit was complete. Referring to a meeting held last October to discuss the audit, attended by Mr Hess, the Sigar spokesman added: “He was fully aware of the findings and raised no objections.”
Whether or not the audit into New Century and Imperatis is complete, it emerged yesterday that both firms are the subjects of a criminal investigation by Sigar.
Referring to the British sub-contractor, a Sigar spokesperson told The Independent: “Sigar has an ongoing investigation of the company” and that the investigation began before the audit was carried out. When pressed for details, they said, “The investigation is criminal in nature”, but would not elaborate.
It is not known whether the investigation is connected to the issues raised in the recent audit. The investigation “is related to both companies”, said the spokesperson.
An Imperatis spokesperson said: “We have not been informed of any criminal investigation, nor do we have knowledge of one.”
When approached, a US Department of Defence spokesperson said: “It is the Department’s policy to first respond to Sigar on their recommendations before responding to your request.”
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The Pentagon’s Legacy programme is part of a wider effort which has seen billions spent in trying to create an Afghan army and police force capable of fighting the Taliban.
But the latest assessments of the Afghan National Security Force, released by Sigar earlier this year, show that only 11 out of 43 units are judged as being “fully capable”.
And the US Department of Defence’s latest progress report on Afghanistan, released six months ago, admitted: “Within the ANSF, reports of corruption range from Afghan National Police extortion at illegal checkpoints to higher-level corruption in the Afghan security institutions (eg pay-for-position schemes, taking bribes from contractors, and ‘land grabbing’).”
This comes amid mounting concern over the fate of funds spent in Afghanistan. Last week it emerged that US Department of Defence was unable to provide financial data on $890m spent on emergency reconstruction and humanitarian projects over the past decade.
Last Thursday, Sigar reported that the Afghan government was unable to account for $100m given to help fill a shortfall in its budgets.
Colonel’s reaction ‘Publish! I dare you!’
When first approached by The Independent, on the evening of 26 April, Colonel Collins went on the offensive. Within 10 minutes of being emailed, he responded: “Publish! I dare you!”
Five minutes later, he emailed again: “For completeness, this is a back [sic] slur you have alleged against myself and my company. I double dare you!”
In a third email, sent at 7.43pm, Colonel Collins wrote: “I am assuming your allegation is carried in the Tuesday edition? [Referring to his chief of staff] Greg, can we make sure someone buys a few copies in the Republic of Ireland as well as NI.”
Jonathan Owen Monday 27 April 2015 19:58 BST0 comments
Find this story at 25 April 2017
THE CRIMES OF SEAL TEAM 6
February 7, 2017
Officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, SEAL Team 6 is today the most celebrated of the U.S. military’s special mission units. But hidden behind the heroic narratives is a darker, more troubling story of “revenge ops,” unjustified killings, mutilations, and other atrocities — a pattern of criminal violence that emerged soon after the Afghan war began and was tolerated and covered up by the command’s leadership.
THE WEDDING PARTY MASSACRE
ON THE AFTERNOON of March 6, 2002, Lt. Cmdr. Vic Hyder and more than two dozen operators from SEAL Team 6 boarded two Chinook helicopters en route to eastern Afghanistan hoping that within hours, they would kill or capture Osama bin Laden.
Earlier that evening, general officers from the Joint Special Operations Command had scrambled the SEALs after watching a Predator drone video feed of a man they suspected was bin Laden set off in a convoy of three or four vehicles in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, where al Qaeda forces had fortified themselves. Although the video had revealed no weapons, and the generals had only tenuous intelligence that the convoy was al Qaeda — just suspicions based on the color of the man’s flowing white garb and the deference others showed him — they were nervous that bin Laden might get away again, as he had a few months earlier after the bombing of the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001. This was a crucial moment: Kill bin Laden now and the war could be over after only six months. The vehicles were headed east toward the Pakistani border, as if they were trying to escape. The mission was code-named Objective Bull.
Afghanistan’s Paktia province is about the size of New Hampshire, with 10,000-foot ridgelines and arid valleys with dried riverbeds below, nestled along the border with Pakistan’s tribal areas. The prominent mountain range often served as the last geographic refuge for retreating forces entering Pakistan. As the special operations helicopters approached the convoy from the north and west, Air Force jets dropped two bombs, halting the vehicles and killing several people instantly.
That was not how the SEALs wanted the mission to develop. Inside the helicopters, some of the operators had pushed to hold off any air attack, arguing that they had plenty of time to intercept the convoy before it reached the Pakistani border. “The reason SEAL Team 6 exists is to avoid bombs and collateral damage,” said a retired SEAL Team 6 member who was on the mission. “We said, ‘Let us set down and take a look at the convoy to determine if it’s al Qaeda.’ Instead, they dropped several bombs.”
The bombing stopped the convoy along a dry wadi, or ravine, with two of the trucks approximately a kilometer apart. Survivors began to flee the wreckage, and over the radio, Hyder and his team heard the order that the convoy was now in a “free fire zone,” allowing the Chinooks’ gunners to fire at anyone deemed a threat, regardless of whether they were armed. The SEALs had no authority over the helicopter gunners.
The two Chinooks landed separately, one near each end of the convoy. Both teams exited the helicopters to find a grim scene. The SEALs with Hyder came out and separated into two groups. One, led by an enlisted operator, took in the damage to one of the vehicles. Men, women, and a small girl, motionless and in the fetal position, appeared dead. Inside the vehicle were one or two rifles, as is customary in Afghanistan, but none of the men wore military clothing or had any extra ammunition. “These were family weapons,” said the retired SEAL.
The SEALs from the other helicopter immediately headed up a steep hill after landing to locate an armed man who had been shot from the helicopter. When they reached the hilltop, the operators looked down in disbelief at women and children, along with the man — all were dead or mortally wounded from the spray of gunfire from the Chinook’s gunners, who had unloaded after the free fire zone had been declared. They realized the man had been trying to protect the women and children.
Other SEALs on the ground proceeded as though the survivors were combatants. Hyder and an enlisted operator named Monty Heath had gone in a different direction and saw a survivor flee the bombed vehicle toward a nearby berm. Heath fired once, hitting the man, sending him tumbling down the back side of the small rise.
At that point, Hyder began assessing the damage and surveying the dead. “I was going around to the different KIAs with my camera to take photos,” Hyder told me in an interview, using the military term for enemies killed in action. “It was a mess.”
Hyder said that he and a few other SEALs began to bury the casualties near a ravine by piling rocks over them. As he did so, he approached the man Heath had shot. “He was partially alive, faced down, his back to me, and he rolled over. I shot him, finished him. He was dying, but he rolled over and I didn’t know whether he was armed or not. That was the end of that.” Hyder said that his single shot had blasted open the man’s head.
According to Hyder, the encounter ended there. But the retired SEAL who was on the mission tells a different story. According to this source, after shooting the man, who turned out to be unarmed, Hyder proceeded to mutilate his body by stomping in his already damaged skull. When Heath, who witnessed Hyder’s actions, reported them to his team leader in the presence of other members of the team, “several of the guys turned and walked away,” said the retired SEAL. “They were disgusted.” He quoted Heath as saying, “I’m morally flexible but I can’t handle that.” Heath refused to comment for this article.
The retired SEAL, who spent the better part of two decades at the command, said he never asked Hyder why he mutilated the corpse. It wasn’t necessary. He assumed it was a twisted act of misplaced revenge over the previous days’ events — specifically, the gruesome death of Hyder’s teammate Neil Roberts.
reset-5-1484005850 Top: Photo of helicopter on Takur Ghar. Bottom left: Screengrab from drone feed during the battle of Roberts Ridge. Bottom right: Candid photo of U.S. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts. Photos: U.S. Department of Defense; Screengrab from video by U.S. Department of Defense; U.S. Navy by the Roberts family
LESS THAN 48 HOURS before Objective Bull commenced, a small reconnaissance group from SEAL Team 6’s Red Team had tried to establish an observation post on the 10,000-foot peak of Takur Ghar, overlooking the Shah-i-Kot valley, where forces from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division intended to strike the last redoubt of al Qaeda forces massed in Afghanistan. Neil “Fifi” Roberts, a member of the SEAL recon team, fell 10 feet from the back of a Chinook and was stranded as the helicopter took fire from foreign al Qaeda fighters who were already on the snow-covered mountaintop. Two hours passed before the SEALs in the damaged helicopter were able to return. They didn’t know it, but Roberts was already dead, shot at close range in the head shortly after his helicopter departed the mountaintop. A Predator drone video feed filmed an enemy fighter standing over Roberts’s body for two minutes, trying to behead the dead American with a knife.
Eventually, two other elements of a quick reaction force — one of which included Hyder — landed at the top of Takur Ghar. In the ensuing 17-hour battle with the al Qaeda fighters, six more Americans were killed, and several were wounded. After the bodies were recovered, Hyder and the other members of Red Team were forced to reckon with the mutilation and near beheading of their fellow SEAL. Hyder was new to SEAL Team 6, but as the ranking officer on the ground during that operation, he was technically in charge. He took Roberts’s death hard.
Neil Roberts was the first member of SEAL Team 6 to die in the Afghan war, and among the first elite operators who died after 9/11. Beyond the dehumanizing manner in which the al Qaeda fighters had treated his corpse, Roberts’s death pierced the SEALs’ self-perception of invincibility.
The battle of Roberts Ridge, as it came to be known, has been frequently described in books and press accounts. But what happened during Objective Bull, the assault on the convoy in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, has never been previously reported.
Roberts’s death, and the subsequent operations in eastern Afghanistan during the winter 2002 deployment, left an indelible impression on SEAL Team 6, especially on Red Team. According to multiple SEAL Team 6 sources, the events of that day set off a cascade of extraordinary violence. As the legend of SEAL Team 6 grew, a rogue culture arose that operated outside of the Navy’s established mechanisms for command and investigation. Parts of SEAL Team 6 began acting with an air of impunity that disturbed observers within the command. Senior members of SEAL Team 6 felt the pattern of brutality was not only illegal but rose to the level of war crimes.
“To understand the violence, you have to begin at Roberts Ridge,” said one former member of SEAL Team 6 who deployed several times to Afghanistan. “When you see your friend killed, recover his body, and find that the enemy mutilated him? It’s a schoolyard mentality. ‘You guys want to play with those rules?’ ‘OK.’” Although this former SEAL acknowledged that war crimes are wrong, he understood how they happen. “You ask me to go living with the pigs, but I can’t go live with pigs and then not get dirty.”
SEAL Team 6 patches. Clockwise from top left: Blue Squadron, known as the Pirates; Gold Squadron, known as the Crusaders or Knights; Red Squadron, known as the Redmen; and Silver Squadron.
NO SINGLE MILITARY unit has come to represent American military success or heroism more than SEAL Team 6, officially designated as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and known in military vernacular as DevGru, Team 6, the Command, and Task Force Blue. Its operators are part of an elite, clandestine cadre. The men who make it through the grueling training represent roughly the top 10 percent of all SEALs. They are taught to live and if necessary die for one another. The extreme risks they take forge extreme bonds.
Made up of no more than 200 SEAL operators when the Afghan war began, SEAL Team 6 was the lesser known of the U.S. military’s elite “special mission” units. Created in 1980 and based at the Dam Neck Annex of Naval Air Station Oceana near Virginia Beach, the command prided itself on its culture of nonconformity with the larger military. The unit’s name itself is part of an attempt to obscure U.S. capabilities. When it was commissioned, the Navy had only two SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land) assault teams, but founding officer Cmdr. Richard Marcinko hoped that the number six would lead the Soviet military to inflate its assessment of the Navy’s SEALs.
When SEAL Team 6 first deployed to Afghanistan in January 2002, the command had three assault teams, Red, Blue, and Gold, each with a mascot. Red Team, known as the Redmen, employed a Native American warrior as a mascot; Blue Team, known as the Pirates, wore the Jolly Roger; and Gold Team, known as the Crusaders or Knights, wore a lion or a crusader’s cross.
The prevailing narrative about SEAL Team 6 in news coverage, bestselling books, and Hollywood movies is unambiguously heroic; it centers on the killing of Osama bin Laden and high-profile rescue missions. With few exceptions, a darker, more troubling story has been suppressed and ignored — a story replete with tactical brilliance on battlefields around the world coupled with a pattern of silence and deceit when “downrange” actions lead to episodes of criminal brutality. The unit’s elite stature has insulated its members from the scrutiny and military justice that lesser units would have faced for the same actions.
This account of the crimes of SEAL Team 6 results from a two-year investigation drawing on interviews with 18 current and former members of the unit, including four former senior leaders of the command. Other military and intelligence officials who have served with or investigated the unit were also interviewed. Most would speak about the unit only on background or without attribution, because nearly every facet of SEAL Team 6 is classified. Some sources asked for anonymity citing the probability of professional retaliation for speaking out against their peers and teammates. According to these sources, whether judged by its own private code or the international laws of war, the command has proven to be incapable and unwilling to hold itself accountable for war crimes.
Most SEALs did not commit atrocities, the sources said, but the problem was persistent and recurrent, like a stubborn virus. Senior leaders at the command knew about the misconduct and did little to eradicate it. The official SEAL creed reads, in part: “Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond.” But after 9/11, another code emerged that made lying — especially to protect a teammate or the command from accountability — the more honorable course of action.
“You can’t win an investigation on us,” one former SEAL Team 6 leader told me. “You don’t whistleblow on the teams … and when you win on the battlefield, you don’t lose investigations.”
BY THE TIME the two dozen Red Team operators departed for Objective Bull, tension had built up between Hyder, a commissioned officer, and the enlisted operators technically under his command. The situation was not particularly unusual. Historically, SEAL Team 6 is known as a unit where officers “rent their lockers,” because they typically serve about three years before rotating out, whereas the enlisted operators remain for much of their careers, often for a decade or more. Simply put, the unit is an enlisted mafia, where tactics are driven by the expertise developed by the unit’s enlisted assaulters, whose abilities and experience at making rapid threat decisions make up the command’s core resource. Officers like Hyder, who did not pass through the brutal SEAL Team 6 internal training program, known as Green Team, are often viewed with suspicion and occasionally contempt by the enlisted SEAL operators.
Even before the attack on the convoy and the alleged mutilation of the dead Afghan, Hyder had committed at least one killing with questionable justification. Several weeks earlier, in January 2002, Hyder killed an unarmed Afghan man north of Kandahar during the unit’s first ground assault of the war. In that operation, Hyder led a team of Red operators on a nighttime mission to capture suspected al Qaeda militants in a compound. After securing several detainees and cordoning the area, Hyder and his men waited for their helicopters to arrive and extract them. During the mission, the SEALs reported receiving small arms fire from exterior positions, though no one was hit. After 90 minutes, as the helicopters were nearing the rendezvous point, one of the SEALs alerted Hyder that an old man who had been lying in a ditch nearby was walking toward the SEALs’ position.
In an interview, Hyder said the man had approached his position with his arms tucked into his armpits and did not heed warnings from other SEALs to stop. Hyder acknowledged that the man likely did not understand English and probably couldn’t see very well. Unlike the SEALs, the man was not wearing night-vision goggles. “He continued to move towards us,” Hyder said. “I assessed he was nearing a distance where he was within an area where he could do damage with a grenade.” Hyder said that a week earlier, a militant had detonated a concealed grenade after approaching some American CIA officers, seriously injuring them. “He kept moving toward us, so at 15 meters I put one round in him and he dropped. Unfortunately, it turned out he had an audiocassette in his hand. By the rules of engagement he became a legitimate target and it was supported. It’s a question, why was he a threat? After all that activity, he’d been hiding in a ditch for 90 minutes, he gets up, he’s spoken to, yelled at in the dark … it’s disturbing. I’m disappointed he didn’t take a knee.”
Hyder, who was the ground force commander for the Kandahar operation, was cleared in an after-action review of the shooting. The rules of engagement allowed the ground force commander to shoot anyone he viewed as a threat, regardless of whether they were armed at the time of the shooting. But in the eyes of the enlisted SEALs of Red Team, Hyder had killed a man who didn’t have to die. Two of the operators with Hyder reported afterward that the man was not a threat. One of those operators was Neil Roberts.
“The SEALs believe that they can handle the discipline themselves, that’s equal to or greater than what the criminal justice system would give to the person.”
The morning after Objective Bull, Red Team gathered at Bagram Air Base. Most of the operators held a meeting to discuss what had happened on the mission. No officers were present, and the enlisted SEALs used the meeting to address Hyder’s alleged mutilation of the dead Afghan the previous day. The discussion covered battlefield ethics. Inside a heated tent, as many as 40 SEAL Team 6 operators asked themselves how they wanted to treat their fallen enemies. Should they seek revenge for Roberts? Was it acceptable, as Hyder had done with the wounded man whom he executed, to desecrate the dead?
“We talked about it … and 35 guys nodded their heads saying this is not who we are. We shoot ’em. No issues with that. And then we move on,” said a former SEAL who was present at the meeting. “There’s honor involved and Vic Hyder obviously traipsed all over that,” he said. “Mutilation isn’t part of the game.”
Nonetheless, Red Team did not report Hyder’s alleged battlefield mutilation, a war crime. In what would become part of a pattern of secrecy and silence, the SEAL operators dealt with the issue on their own and kept the incident from their chain of command.
“The SEALs believe that they can handle the discipline themselves, that’s equal to or greater than what the criminal justice system would give to the person,” said Susan Raser, a retired Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent who led the agency’s criminal division but did not investigate this mission. “They have an internal process that they think is sufficient and they are not inclined to cooperate unless they absolutely have to.” Raser, who conducted investigations into both regular SEAL units and SEAL Team 6, said that in her experience, SEALs simply didn’t report wrongdoing by their teammates.
Senior leaders at the command knew the grisly circumstances of Roberts’s death had unsettled Red Team. “Fifi was mutilated,” said a retired noncommissioned SEAL leader who was involved in internal discussions about how to prevent SEAL Team 6 from seeking revenge. “And then we had to address a very important question, how do you get the guys’ heads straight to mitigate any retaliation for Fifi? Otherwise we knew it’s going to get out of control. A third of the guys literally think they’re Apache warriors, then you had the Muslim way of removing a head. I understand the desire, I don’t condone it, but there was definite retaliation.”
Hyder told me that he did not desecrate the body. “I deny it,” he said, adding that he didn’t understand why Heath would have claimed to have witnessed it. “Even if it was true, I don’t know why he would say that.” Hyder said he was not aware of the Bagram meeting held by the enlisted operators about him or the accusations. “Why would I do that?” he asked. “Somebody else is making this up. Memories get distorted over 14 years. They’re telling you how they remember it. There was a lot of chaos. I’m telling you the absolute truth.”
After the deployment, SEAL Team 6’s leadership examined Hyder’s actions during Objective Bull. For some of them, what was most troubling was not that Hyder might have taken gratuitous revenge for Roberts’s death on an unrelated civilian, but that on more than one occasion, as ground force commander, he had fired his own weapon to neutralize perceived threats. “If you have multiple incidents where the ground force commander pulls the trigger on a deployment, you have a total breakdown of operational tactics,” said one retired SEAL leader. “It’s not their responsibility — that is why we have DevGru operators.”
Beyond the story of the alleged mutilation, the sight of the dead civilians killed during the opening airstrikes of Objective Bull, especially the women and children, left members of Red Team with deep psychological scars. “It ruined some of these guys,” said the former SEAL operator on the mission.
Six days after Objective Bull, the Pentagon announced at a press conference that an airstrike had killed 14 people, who a spokesperson said were “somehow affiliated” with al Qaeda. Sources at SEAL Team 6 who were present during the operation estimated the number of dead was between 17 and 20. Inside the command, the incident became known as the Wedding Party bombing after it was learned that the convoy was driving to a wedding.
Hyder finished his tour at SEAL Team 6 shortly after returning from the Afghanistan deployment and was later promoted to the rank of commander, the Navy equivalent of a lieutenant colonel. He was awarded the Silver Star for his efforts at Takur Ghar to save Roberts and the rest of the Red Team recon element. A few years later, after Hyder’s name was mentioned for another rotation in Red Team, some of Hyder’s former operators informed SEAL Team 6 leadership that he was not welcome back in the unit.
Neil Roberts’s bent rifle was placed on the wall of Red Team’s room at the SEALs’ base near Virginia Beach, a visible reminder of their teammate, their first deployment, and the troubles that would follow.
BLOODY THE HATCHET
ONE CLEAR SIGN that all was not right with the command was the way sadism crept into the SEALs’ practices, with no apparent consequences. A few months after Objective Bull, for example, one of Hyder’s operators began taunting dying insurgents on videos he shot as part of his post-operation responsibilities. These “bleed out” videos were replayed on multiple occasions at Bagram Air Base. The operator who made them, a former SEAL leader said, would gather other members of Red Squadron to watch the last few seconds of an enemy fighter’s life. “It was war porn,” said the former SEAL, who viewed one of the videos. “No one would do anything about them.” The operator who made the bleed-out videos was forced out of SEAL Team 6 the following year after a drunken episode at Bagram in which he pistol-whipped another SEAL.
The SEALs’ successes throughout 2002 resulted in the Joint Special Operations Command choosing the unit to lead the hunt for al Qaeda, as well as the invasion of Baghdad in March 2003. The rise of JSOC as the sharp tip of America’s military effort led to a similar increase in size and responsibility for SEAL Team 6 in the early years of America’s two post-9/11 wars. By 2006, the command rapidly expanded, growing from 200 to 300 operators. What were originally known as assault teams now formally became squadrons, and by 2008, the expansion led to the creation of Silver, a fourth assault squadron. One result of the growth was that back in Virginia, the captain in command of the entire 300-SEAL force had far less oversight over tactical battlefield decisions. It was at this point that some critics in the military complained that SEAL Team 6 — with their full beards and arms, legs, and torsos covered in tattoos — looked like members of a biker gang. Questions about battlefield atrocities persisted, though some excused these actions in the name of psychological warfare against the enemy.
Against this backdrop, in 2006, Hugh Wyman Howard III, a descendant of an admiral and himself a Naval Academy graduate, took command of Red Squadron and its roughly 50 operators. Howard, who has since risen through the ranks and is currently a rear admiral, was twice rejected by his superiors for advanced SEAL Team 6 training. But in 1998, after intervention by a senior officer at Dam Neck, Howard was given a slot on Green Team. Because of Howard’s pedigree, SEAL Team 6 leaders running the training program felt pressure to pass him. After being shepherded through the nine-month training, he entered Red Squadron. Howard took the unit’s identity seriously, and after 9/11, despite the questionable circumstances that led to his ascent, his influence steadily grew.
In keeping with Red Squadron’s appropriation of Native American culture, Howard came up with the idea to bestow 14-inch hatchets on each SEAL who had a year of service in the squadron. The hatchets, paid for by private donations Howard solicited, were custom-made by Daniel Winkler, a highly regarded knife maker in North Carolina who designed several of the period tomahawks and knives used in the movie “The Last of the Mohicans.” Winkler sells similar hatchets for $600 each. The hatchets Howard obtained were stamped with a Native American warrior in a headdress and crossed tomahawks.
At first the hatchets appeared to be merely symbolic, because such heavy, awkward weapons had no place in the gear of a special operator. “There’s no military purpose for it,” a former Red Squadron operator told me. “But they are a great way of being part of a team. It was given as an honor, one more step to strive for, another sign that you’re doing a good job.”
For some of Howard’s men, however, the hatchets soon became more than symbolic as they were used at times to hack dead fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others used them to break doorknobs on raids or kill militants in hand-to-hand combat.
During the first deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was common practice to take fingers, scalp, or skin from slain enemy combatants for identification purposes. One former SEAL Team 6 leader told me that he feared the practice would lead to members of the unit using the DNA samples as an excuse to mutilate and desecrate the dead. By 2007, when Howard and Red Squadron showed up with their hatchets in Iraq, internal reports of operators using the weapons to hack dead and dying militants were provided to both the commanding officer of SEAL Team 6 at that time, Capt. Scott Moore, and his deputy, Capt. Tim Szymanski.
Howard, who declined to answer questions from The Intercept, rallied his SEALs and others before missions and deployments by telling them to “bloody the hatchet.” One SEAL I spoke with said that Howard’s words were meant to be inspirational, like those of a coach, and were not an order to use the hatchets to commit war crimes. Others were much more critical. Howard was often heard asking his operators whether they’d gotten “blood on your hatchet” when they returned from a deployment. Howard’s distribution of the hatchets worried several senior SEAL Team 6 members and some CIA paramilitary officers who worked with his squadron.
reset-1-1484001268 Top left: Red Squadron tattoo. Top right: A bearded Red Squadron SEAL in Afghanistan. Bottom left: A Winkler hatchet similar to those issued to Red Squadron. Bottom right: Undated photo of Adm. Wyman Howard. Photos: Facebook; airsoft-army.com; www.lightfigher.net; Facebook
BEGINNING IN 2005 and continuing through 2008, as U.S. Special Operations forces became more central to the American military strategy, the number and frequency of operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan increased dramatically.
One former SEAL Team 6 senior leader said that he and others at the command were concerned that the scale and intensity of the violence in Iraq was so great that U.S. operators might be tempted to engage in retaliatory mutilations, a tactic al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency sometimes employed. “Iraq was a different kind of war — nothing we’d ever seen,” said the now-retired Team 6 leader. “So many dead bodies, so many, everywhere, and so the potential opportunities for mutilations were great.”
The operational tempo was very high. “On my 2005 deployment in Afghanistan, we only went on a handful of ops,” said a retired SEAL who served under Howard. “By the time we moved over to Iraq, we were doing missions as much as five nights a week. Iraq was a target rich environment, and Wyman allowed us to be more aggressive.” According to several former SEAL Team 6 leaders, it was JSOC commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal who ordered the increased operational tempo and pushed SEAL Team 6, including Howard, to conduct more frequent raids to help wipe out the insurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Howard, according to two of his former operators, was more willing than previous officers to greenlight operations based on “weak” intelligence, leading to more raids and strikes. As a result, Howard became popular among the enlisted SEALs under his command, several of whom defended and praised him.
Howard’s critics argue that the hatchets were emblems of the rogue, at times criminal, conduct on the battlefield the commander was encouraging. “Every one of us is issued and carries a suppressed weapon,” said one former senior SEAL, referring to the Heckler & Koch assault rifles, equipped with silencers, issued to the operators. “There just isn’t a need to carry a two-pound hatchet on the battlefield.” For those who favored them, this former SEAL said, the hatchets could be justified as being no more than knives. “It’s a great way to explain it away, but they have the hatchets to flaunt the law. Our job is to ensure that we conduct ourselves in a way befitting the American people and the American flag. The hatchet says, ‘We don’t care about the Geneva Conventions’ and that ‘we are above the law and can do whatever we want.’”
Critics inside the command were troubled by the combination of battlefield aggression and Howard’s lack of military discipline. A retired noncommissioned officer said Howard’s encouragement and provision of Winkler hatchets was simply adding fuel to the fire. The power of the Native American mascot, he said, was not to be dismissed. Since the 1980s, when Red Team was first created, there were many operators in the unit who had experienced a “metamorphosis of identity and persona” into Native American warriors. “Guys are going out every night killing everything. The hatchet was too intimate, too closely aligned with a tomahawk, to have been a good idea.” The former SEAL, who himself had served in Red during his career, said that by giving operators the weapon of their battlefield persona, Howard sent an unmistakable message to his men: Use it. “That’s when you take away a hatchet,” the retired SEAL said. “Not provide them.”
During one Iraq deployment, Howard returned from a raid to an operations center with blood on his hatchet and his uniform. Back at the base, he gave a speech to a group of analysts and nonoperational officers in which he told them that his bloody appearance was a demonstration of how a battlefield commander should lead. One operator, who confirmed Howard’s remarks, added his own: “That’s the business we’re in.”
HEAD ON A PLATTER
THE DEATH AND attempted decapitation of Neil Roberts on Takur Ghar affected no one so profoundly as Britt Slabinski, the operator who led the rescue team back up the mountain only to find that Roberts was already dead. One former teammate who served with Slabinski described his effort that day — outnumbered and with inferior fire support, taking incoming fire from the moment the helicopter landed — as “one of the most heroic things I’ve ever seen.” On the day when SEAL Team 6 lost its first operator in the post-9/11 era, Slabinski became a unit legend.
By all accounts, Slabinski, a second-generation SEAL who joined Team 6 in 1993, was an excellent sniper and reconnaissance operator. Thin and lanky, he was less physically imposing than many SEALs but was charismatic and dedicated. After Roberts’s death, Slabinksi wanted revenge. In audio of an unpublished interview with the late Malcolm MacPherson, author of a 2005 book about Roberts Ridge, Slabinski describes in great detail an operation that took place about a week after Objective Bull. In that mission, known as Objective Wolverine, Slabinski and his fellow SEALs were sent in Chinook helicopters to follow a convoy they believed was filled with al Qaeda fighters escaping to Pakistan. A drone flying above the convoy showed the occupants of three vehicles were heavily armed.
After the Chinook miniguns strafed the vehicles and stopped them, Slabinski and his team of snipers landed and moved to a rise several hundred yards away from one of the trucks and began firing sniper rounds at the militants. In that brief firefight, the SEALs killed nearly 20 foreign al Qaeda fighters, some of whom carried U.S. military equipment taken from Takur Ghar. Slabinski told MacPherson that Wolverine had been “really good payback.”
“Just a phenomenal, phenomenal day. We just slaughtered those dudes.” After describing one particular fighter who from a distance had resembled Osama bin Laden, Slabinksi continued: “To this day, we’ve never had anything as good as that. Oh my gosh. We needed that … there was not a better group of people to go and do that. The guys needed that to get back in the saddle because everyone was gun shy.”
“I mean, talk about the funny stuff we do. After I shot this dude in the head, there was a guy who had his feet, just his feet, sticking out of some little rut or something over here. I mean, he was dead, but people have got nerves. I shot him about 20 times in the legs, and every time you’d kick him, er, shoot him, he would kick up, you could see his body twitching and all that. It was like a game. Like, ‘hey look at this dude,’ and the guy would just twitch again. It was just good therapy. It was really good therapy for everybody who was there.”
Audio from an unpublished interview with Britt Slabinksi conducted by Malcolm MacPherson, author of a 2005 book on the battle of Roberts Ridge.
Shortly after that operation, Slabinski returned to the SEAL Team 6 base at Dam Neck. He was awarded a Navy Cross, the second highest battlefield award for heroism. For several years afterward, the leaders at the command limited Slabinski’s battlefield exposure — assigning him to Green Team as an instructor, for example — hoping the psychological wounds from Roberts Ridge would heal.
By late 2007, Slabinski was deployed to Afghanistan as the senior noncommissioned officer in Blue Squadron. The war was entering its seventh year and had become intractable, with no clear path to victory. Early in the war, the SEALs’ mission was to hunt down al Qaeda’s senior leaders, who had largely vanished into Pakistan, but now Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the leader of JSOC, extended the mission to target the Taliban, who along with al Qaeda were moving back and forth across the Pakistani border with impunity. The SEALs were now going after low-level Taliban financiers and shadow governors.
Blue Squadron was led at that time by Cmdr. Peter Vasely, a Naval Academy graduate who had not gone through the advanced assault training of Green Team that the other members of SEAL Team 6 had endured. He was an outsider, despite having been at the command for many years. Like Vic Hyder, he struggled to command the respect of his men. Slabinski — experienced, charismatic, and by now legendary — bridged the gap.
According to two senior SEAL Team 6 sources, however, the leadership dynamic in Blue Squadron was a failure. By 2007, the command’s leadership was aware that some Blue Squadron operators were using specialized knives to conduct “skinnings.” Using the excuse of collecting DNA, which required a small piece of skin containing hair follicles, operators were taking large strips of skin from dead enemy fighters. The two leading officers at the command, Moore and Szymanski, were informed that small groups in each of the three squadrons were mutilating and desecrating combatants in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Slabinkski and others in the squadron had fallen under the influence of an obscure war novel, “Devil’s Guard,” published in 1971 by George Robert Elford. The book purported to be a true account of an S.S. officer who with dozens of other soldiers escaped Germany after World War II, joined the French Foreign Legion, and spent years in Vietnam brutalizing the insurgency. The novel, which glorifies Nazi military practices, describes counterinsurgency tactics such as mass slaughter and desecration and other forms of wanton violence as a means of waging psychological warfare against the “savage” Vietnamese.
“These fucking morons read the book ‘The Devil’s Guard’ and believed it,” said one of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders who investigated Slabinski and Blue Squadron. “It’s a work of fiction billed as the Bible, as the truth. In reality, it’s bullshit. But we all see what we want to see.” Slabinski and the Blue Squadron SEALs deployed to Afghanistan were “frustrated, and that book gave them the answers they wanted to see: Terrorize the Taliban and they’d surrender. The truth is that such stuff only galvanizes the enemy.”
One telling illustration of what had gone wrong with Blue Squadron occurred on December 17, 2007, during a raid in Helmand province. Slabinski had told his operators that he wanted “a head on a platter.” Although some of the more seasoned SEALs took the statement metaphorically, at least one operator took Slabinski at his word, interpreting it as an order.
Later that night, after Blue Squadron’s assaulters had successfully carried out the raid, killing three or four armed men and recovering weapons and explosives, Vasely and Slabinski conducted a walk-through of the compound. Vasely, who was wearing night-vision goggles, looked through a window and saw one of his operators, his back turned, squatting over the body of a dead militant. Vasely later told investigators he saw the operator moving his hand back and forth over the militant’s neck in a sawing motion. Alarmed at seeing what he believed was a decapitation, he told Slabinski to go inside and see what the young operator was doing. By the time Slabinski entered the room where the dead militant lay, according to three former SEAL Team 6 leaders, the operator had severed much of the dead man’s neck.
Slabinski did not report the decapitation, however. He told Vasely that the operator had been trying to remove the dead fighter’s chest rack, a small vest that can hold ammunition and clips. Slabinski told Vasely, and later, Navy investigators, that there had been “no foul play.”
After leaving the compound and returning to their base in Kandahar province, Vasely reported to Moore, his superior officer, that he believed he had witnessed a war crime, a mutilation. Vasely told Moore he wanted an investigation into the incident. Moore, sitting in his office in Virginia Beach, pressed Vasely: What had he actually seen? Was there another explanation?
Moore told his deputy, Szymanski, who was in Afghanistan, to sort things out. Ten days later, the internal JSOC investigation was closed. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service then opened an investigation but was forced to rely on photographs and witness statements because active hostilities made the alleged crime scene inaccessible. When investigators approached the operator accused of mutilating the dead fighter, he exercised his right to remain silent and his right to counsel. A few days after the attempted interview, investigators obtained photos purporting to be of the dead fighter. No cuts were visible in the photos, according to a military official who has reviewed the file. Three weeks after the incident, NCIS closed its investigation, concluding that there was no evidence the SEAL had violated the laws of armed conflict. But according to multiple SEAL sources, the incident did in fact occur.
Szymanski, according to these sources, was directed by Moore to make the episode disappear. “Tim took a dive,” said a former noncommissioned SEAL officer, and it was “at Moore’s direction.” Szymanski had known Slabinski for at least 15 years. They had bonded over Roberts’s death.
Although Blue Squadron had avoided criminal charges, their battlefield conduct continued to set off alarms within the command. Some SEAL Team 6 leaders were appalled by how easily Vasely and Szymanski had folded under Moore’s pressure.
Within two weeks of the apparent beheading, Moore deployed to Afghanistan. While he was there, he confronted the Blue Squadron troop and the operator who’d tried to behead the Taliban fighter. A former SEAL Team 6 leader who has knowledge of the episode told me Moore shamed Slabinski and the squadron for their conduct. That was the only punishment. (The Intercept is withholding the name of the operator, who believed he was following an order. He remains on active duty and has not responded to requests for comment.)
One of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders, who investigated several Blue Squadron incidents, including the mutilation of bodies, said he repeatedly asked the operators why they felt the need to commit such acts. “Often we’d hear, well, they’re savages,” the former leader said. “They don’t play by the rules, so why should we?”
The Intercept submitted three pages of questions to both Adm. Szymanksi, who as head of Naval Special Warfare now commands all SEALs in the Navy, and Capt. Vasely, who currently runs the operations divisions of JSOC. Both declined to comment. Moore did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson at Naval Special Warfare, which oversees SEAL Team 6, declined repeated requests for interviews and refused to answer a detailed list of questions, writing in a statement, “We do not entertain or support public discussion of classified information because it puts our forces, their families and our future operations at great risk.” The SEAL command asserted that “all members of Naval Special Warfare are required to comply with the Laws of Armed Conflict in the conduct of military operations.”
reset-3-1484001272 Top: Capt. Peter Vasely with members of Blue Squadron in Afghanistan. Bottom: Britt Slabinski, left, and Capt. Timothy Szymanski, commanding officer of the Naval Special Warfare Group, after Slabinski was blackballed by SEAL Team 6 in Norfolk, Va., March 25, 2011. Photos: www.navyseals.hu; Robert J. Fluegel/U.S. Navy
IN 2010, WHEN Slabinski was up for a promotion at the command, SEAL Team 6 leaders conducted two internal inquiries before making a decision. Almost immediately, the issue that received the most scrutiny was the December 2007 attempted beheading. According to two former SEALs, Slabinski told his teammates and superiors that his remark about wanting a head was figurative and not a literal order. By then, there was no question about whether the attempted beheading had occurred; the question was why.
“We didn’t debate whether Slab had told his guys he wanted a head on a platter — he copped to that. The only issue was, was his order real, or just talk?” said one of the retired SEALs involved. “It didn’t make a difference. He said it and one of his operators did it because he believed he was following an order.”
Ten officers and master chiefs voted unanimously against allowing Slabinski to return to the command. At that point, the second inquiry was commissioned by the SEAL Team 6 commanding officer, Pete Van Hooser. Evidence was presented that Slabinski gave an order to shoot all the men they encountered during another raid, whether or not they were armed. According to the New York Times, Afghans accused Blue Squadron of killing civilians during that operation, but a subsequent military investigation determined that all those killed had been armed and hostile. When Slabinski was confronted by the command’s senior enlisted leader about whether he had instructed Blue Squadron operators to kill all males during the operation, code-named Pantera, Slabinski acknowledged that he had done so. The second inquiry also uncovered the “head on a platter” remark as the instigation for the beheading in December 2007, but the command’s senior enlisted leader told Slabinski he would not get the promotion or be allowed to serve at the command again because of the Pantera order. Overall, it had become clear that Slabinski’s run as a leader on the battlefield caused Blue Squadron to come “off the rails,” according to a former SEAL Team 6 leader.
Slabinski has not responded to multiple queries and requests for comment, though he did deny to the New York Times in 2015 that he gave the illegal pre-mission guidance to kill all males. In his interview with the Times, Slabinski asserted that it was he who had witnessed the operator slashing at the dead fighter’s throat, saying, “It appeared he was mutilating a body.” Slabinski portrayed himself as trying to police his men and said that he gave them “a very stern speech.” He claimed to the Times that he told his men, “If any of you feel a need to do any retribution, you should call me.” Slabinski says nothing in the Times story about Vasely ordering him to investigate the scene or the remark about a head on a platter.
“To this day, he thinks the guys turned on him,” said one of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders. “Well, they did. What we didn’t do was turn him in. You will step over the line and you start dehumanizing people. You really do. And it takes the team, it takes individuals to pull you back. And part of that was getting rid of Britt Slabinski.”
Two other SEAL Team 6 leaders with a combined 35 years at the command said the removal of Slabinski and the failure to pursue official punishment was an indictment of the senior officers — they had failed one of their most basic duties, to hold themselves and others accountable for wrongdoing.
When Szymanski, who was then commanding officer of all regular East Coast-based SEAL teams, heard that Slabinski had been rejected by Team 6, he requested him as his senior enlisted adviser. The request was approved and Slabinski was promoted.
“If a guy cuts off another guy’s head and nothing happens, that becomes the standard,” said one of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders. “You’re moving the bar and buying into an emotional justification, ‘War is hell.’ If you’re not disciplining your force, you’re saying it’s OK.”
Slabinski retired from the military in 2014 after 25 years in the Navy. The operator accused of the attempted beheading has experienced difficulties as a result of his service. Last year, the command became concerned about his psychological condition, determining that he was medically unfit to deploy again. His superiors believed he had become “unglued” over the 2007 deployment. He was quietly removed from Team 6 and returned to a regular SEAL unit. He has told at least one former SEAL Team 6 teammate that he hopes to never deploy again.
“He’s just beginning to suffer for what he did,” said another SEAL Team 6 leader.
A KIND OF SPORT
ON THE SECOND floor of the SEAL Team 6 headquarters in the Dam Neck naval annex, a computer, known as the “ops computer,” stores the classified data on every mission the unit has completed for the past decade. Here, commanders returning from a deployment leave their hard drives with technicians who transfer PowerPoints, after-actions reports, and photos of each operation a squadron conducted abroad. The database contains photographs of persons killed by SEAL operators during their missions and other mission documentation.
Some of those photographs, especially those taken of casualties from 2005 through 2008, show deceased enemy combatants with their skulls split open by a rifle or pistol round at the upper forehead, exposing their brain matter. The foreign fighters who suffered these V-shaped wounds were either killed in battle and later shot at close range or finished off with a security round while dying. Among members of SEAL Team 6, this practice of desecrating enemy casualties was called “canoeing.”
The canoeing photos are dramatic documentary evidence of the extreme and unnecessary violence that began to occur during multiple high-risk, exhausting, and traumatizing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There is and was no military reason whatsoever to split someone’s skull open with a single round,” said a former SEAL Team 6 leader. “It’s sport.”
The former SEAL Team 6 leader said that he first noticed canoeing in 2004, and that it does occur accidentally on the battlefield, but rarely. He said canoeing became “big” in 2007. “I’d look through the post-op photos and see multiple canoes on one objective, several times a deployment,” the retired SEAL said. When SEAL Team 6 operators were occasionally confronted about the desecration, the SEAL leader said, they’d often joke that they were just “great shots.”
Canoeing was just one of several acts of mutilation frequently carried out by SEALs. Two different sources said that over a six-year period — roughly 2005 through 2011 — battlefield reports and accounts of atrocities, particularly mutilations and taking of trophies, were ignored by SEAL Team 6 leadership. One source said his superiors repeatedly refused to address the issue.
The lack of battlefield discipline was not limited to a single squadron. Unlawful violence, aberrations from rules of engagement, mutilations, and disrespect of enemy casualties, actions that had been isolated at the beginning of the Afghan war, had by this point spread throughout SEAL Team 6.
In the early years of the war, SEAL Team 6 had an inflexible standard: Shooting people who were unarmed was forbidden and anyone who did so had to demonstrate the target had displayed hostile intent. Operators and officers prided themselves on their ability to kill only those who were deemed a threat.
If a SEAL couldn’t justify the threat after a shooting, he was quietly removed from the unit. But even that rule evolved over time. SEALs were given wide berth as long as they could explain why they made the decision to shoot an unarmed person. In 2007, for example, a Gold Squadron sniper was pushed out of the unit after he killed three unarmed people — including a child — in at least two different operations. He was allowed to return to the regular SEAL teams. No investigation into an unjustified killing has ever resulted in formal disciplinary action against a member of SEAL Team 6.
reset-2-1484001270 Top left: CIA paramilitary officer and former SEAL Team 6 member Richard Smethers. Top right: Adm. William McRaven. Bottom: McRaven, left, and Capt. Scott Moore, right, then commander of SEAL Team 6. Photos: United States Navy
IN 2008, TENSIONS began to rise between SEAL Team 6 and the CIA over operations in Afghanistan. Paramilitary officers from the CIA, including a covert joint unit under the agency’s command called the Omega program, worked closely with the SEALs. These small teams of CIA, Seal Team 6, and Afghan commandos operated under the agency’s Title 50 authority, which governs covert activities. This meant there was less oversight over their missions — and less accountability if things went wrong.
Late that year, the CIA joined operators from Gold Squadron for an operation near Jalalabad. According to a CIA officer with direct knowledge of the incident, the CIA requested that the SEALs capture, rather than kill, their militant targets. During the pre-dawn raid, a small team from Gold Squadron breached a compound that was home to an insurgent cell that had targeted a U.S. base. Inside, they found six militants, four in one room, all sleeping with weapons near their beds. Despite orders to detain the men, the SEALs killed all six. In the room with four of the suspected insurgents, four SEALs counted down and canoed each sleeping man with a shot to the forehead. One of their teammates killed the other two targets in another room. All six were photographed.
The CIA team on the operation was angry because they had lost an opportunity to interrogate the suspected militants. “These were guys who were running a cell near our base,” the CIA officer said. “We could’ve used the intel.” Outside the compound, the SEALs were quick to show the photos to others on the assault team. “They were smiling, almost gleeful,” he said. “Canoeing them was funny.”
Shortly after that operation, a CIA paramilitary officer named Richard Smethers, who was himself a retired SEAL Team 6 officer, complained to his CIA superiors in Kabul that SEALs were committing atrocities. Smethers threatened to expose the SEALs for what he believed was a series of war crimes; the canoeing incident was just one of several operations in which Smethers alleged that Gold Squadron operators violated the laws of war. Over a period of several weeks, a fight erupted between SEAL Team 6 and CIA officers in Afghanistan. The SEALs quickly intervened and made a deal with the CIA station in Kabul. Gold Squadron was set to redeploy to the U.S., and the SEALs promised to rein in their operators. In exchange, Smethers, who never filed an official allegation or complaint, was sent back to the U.S. Smethers did not respond to requests for comment.
According to multiple members of SEAL Team 6, the fight with the CIA was one of the few instances in which the command’s battlefield misconduct was in danger of being exposed. A retired noncommissioned officer who tried to police the unit said the command suffered from “unspoken oaths of allegiance” among both the officers and the operators, and that the first instinct when misconduct surfaced was to “protect the command and then the men” rather than hold bad actors accountable.
“It’s important that you put this stuff in context,” the CIA officer said. “I’m not going to tell you this didn’t happen. Yes, we — they committed war crimes. It happens in war. War is an adrenaline rush. After three or four deployments in, you need more to get that stimulation. We didn’t hit women or kids. We killed bad guys. And afterwards, we added the psychological warfare.”
The CIA declined to comment for this article.
SMETHERS’S THREAT TO expose Team 6 came just as Vice Adm. William McRaven settled in as the new commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. McRaven became the first Navy SEAL to lead JSOC and was already familiar with Dam Neck’s status as the disrespectful sibling in the U.S. special operations family. In the early 1980s, a group of seasoned enlisted SEAL Team 6 operators kicked McRaven off a training exercise, relieving him of his already tenuous command for being too rule-bound. McRaven was subsequently transferred from the unit.
Just eight months after taking over JSOC, after a series of complaints from the Afghan government over special operations night raids and civilian deaths, McRaven sought to pull Team 6 back from its overly aggressive stance. He ordered a pause in most SEAL and JSOC operations over a two-week period in February 2009. Although the stoppage was not limited to the SEALs, his former unit pushed back against a new set of operational guidelines.
First, the SEALs would now be required to do “call outs” before entering a compound. The intention was to permit women and children to get out of harm’s way before operators conducted their assault. The operators were unhappy about the new restriction, arguing that call outs gave up the tactical advantage of surprise. McRaven’s other directive required a more extensive post-operation review to document and justify combatant deaths. Previously, the command had required only a frontal shot and a profile of each dead militant. The new rule required a full photographic accounting of who was killed, photos of the entire body, where the target was when he dropped, what weapons he held, the vantage point of the operator when he fired, and other atmospherics.
This directive had one primary purpose: to protect U.S. forces from accusations of unjustified killings by Afghan government officials. The photos and other review documents could be shared with local officials to justify operations. But the directive had another benefit. With more extensive photographic documentation, SEAL operators had less time to fire unnecessary rounds into the dead, and they had to use the photos to explain why they fired their weapon. As a result, photographs of canoed enemy fighters virtually ceased to appear in after-action reports.
MCRAVEN’S NEW ORDERS set off a struggle between the JSOC commander and SEAL Team 6’s enlisted ranks that played out in a series of high-profile hostage rescues ordered by President Obama. The first and best-known was the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, captain of the commercial vessel the “Maersk Alabama,” in April 2009 from Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. Red Squadron snipers killed three pirates who were holding Phillips in a lifeboat. But McRaven, who commanded the operation, had not ordered the snipers to fire, and neither had a SEAL Team 6 officer. The sniper team leader acted under his own “emergency assault” authority to kill the pirates as soon as all three could be taken out at the same time. McRaven, who was informed of the killings only after he knew Phillips was safe, was incensed.
After the operation, $30,000 in cash, which the pirates had stashed in a lifeboat, went missing. The SEALs were suspected of taking the money. The FBI and NCIS investigated two members of Red Squadron and conducted polygraphs, but the money was never recovered and neither of the SEALs was charged.
Then, in October 2010, SEAL Team 6 set out to rescue a British aid worker named Linda Norgrove, who had been taken captive in Afghanistan. The operation, code-named ANSTRUTHER, an homage to Norgrove’s Scottish heritage, was authorized by British Prime Minister David Cameron. The operation commanded high-level interest because Norgrove, though in Afghanistan as an aid worker for DAI, an American NGO, secretly worked with Britain’s MI-6, according to four U.S. military and intelligence sources. Two of these sources told me that the British government informed SEAL Team 6 mission planners that Norgrove worked for the spy agency, and that they had been tracking her movements since the abduction. Asked for comment, the British government told The Intercept that it does not comment on security matters and would “neither confirm nor deny” that Norgrove worked for the intelligence agency.
During a late-night raid at a northern Kunar compound, Silver Squadron operators killed several captors but accidentally killed Norgrove when an inexperienced SEAL threw a fragment grenade at one of the captors.
The operation’s team leader believed that a suicide vest had been detonated by one of the captors, and two Silver Squadron operators initially withheld the fact that a grenade had been thrown. Consequently, the SEALs initially reported to JSOC senior leaders that Norgrove had been killed by her captors.
Later, a JSOC officer watching drone footage of the operation noticed one of the SEALs throw an object that landed and exploded near where Norgrove’s body was found. One of the two SEALs who knew about the grenade eventually told his team leader, who then failed to inform his commanders until he was confronted the next day.
The operation commanded high-level interest because Norgrove, though in Afghanistan as an aid worker for DAI, an American NGO, secretly worked with Britain’s MI-6.
After a joint British-American investigation into the operation identified the failures and recommended that only the SEAL who threw the grenade be punished, McRaven personally traveled to Dam Neck and determined that all three SEALs involved in the cover-up should be thrown out of SEAL Team 6. The “admiral’s mast” was an unprecedented disciplinary action at the command, which had always been allowed to discipline itself. Normally, SEAL Team 6’s commanding officer, a captain, would conduct a captain’s mast, a form of non-judicial punishment. According to a senior JSOC official, the Norgrove operation was an “I told you so moment.” Even so, two of the three SEALs later returned to the unit.
In the world of SEAL Team 6, where operators never face criminal charges — despite allegations of war crimes, unjustified killings, and corruption — the admiral’s mast was a serious rebuke. One former SEAL leader who attended the proceeding told me McRaven’s message to the command’s leadership was clear. “What you’re saying is you have no faith in the commander,” he said. “All of us were upset.” The former SEAL Team 6 leader told me that for the unit’s operators, the greatest punishment was being kicked out of the unit in front of their peers.
McRaven, who did not respond to requests for comment, also held a meeting with a large group of senior officers under his command and said that SEAL Team 6 had effectively made lying to protect a teammate an honorable course of action, according to a person who attended the meeting. “He told us they had put unit and self before mission and country,” the retired officer said. “He reminded us all that our first loyalty was to the Constitution.”
Tactically, however, the command was winning on the battlefield, and despite McRaven’s directives, there was no serious internal scrutiny of the SEALs’ most excessive conduct.
“Several of us confronted the officers,” said one former noncommissioned officer who tried to stop the criminal behavior. “We knew what needed to be done to police the kids.” The former senior enlisted leader said he pressed several commanding officers to address what he believed were war crimes. “We failed to fix the problem,” he said. “It wasn’t complex, and had it been several one-off events, a guy chopping a head off — it wouldn’t be such a failure. But this started in 2002 and continued through the wars. Our leadership punted and I’m not sure it will ever be corrected.”
The failure of SEAL Team 6 to hold itself accountable for battlefield atrocities has resulted in lasting consequences for operators at the command. “No one prepared our guys for the collateral damage and the second- and third-order effects of this war,” the former SEAL leader said. “Night after night of kill or be killed. [There was] so much savagery. I’m not condoning the behavior — there’s no justification to hacking a body — but we didn’t prepare them either. If I told you I cut off a head after an operation, explaining that I got caught up in the moment, went over the line one time — you’d have sympathy for me. War is awful and it’s human to go too far, but this isn’t one time. This is multiple times on each deployment.”
THE PRESIDENT’S OWN
ALTHOUGH CANOEING AS a ritualized form of enemy mutilation ceased to be a widespread practice after McRaven’s clamp-down on the SEALs’ atrocities, it did not entirely cease. And though the gruesome and illegal practice has never been previously reported, at least one canoeing incident is quite well known, if hidden in plain sight.
By the time Robert O’Neill entered Osama bin Laden’s bedroom in the Abbottabad compound on May 2, 2011, the al Qaeda leader was bleeding out on the floor, possibly already dead, after being shot in the chest and leg by the lead assaulter on the raid. That operator, known as Red inside the unit, is still an active-duty member of SEAL Team 6 and has never been publicly identified. O’Neill entered the room, walked over to where bin Laden lay on the floor, and shot him twice in the face. He then stood above the now indisputably dead man and canoed him, firing a round into his forehead and splitting open the top of his skull, exposing his brain. Osama bin Laden had been branded by SEAL Team 6.
O’Neill has not been shy about the fact that he canoed bin Laden. “His forehead was gruesome,” he later told Esquire magazine. “It was split open in the shape of a V. I could see his brains spilling out over his face.” He has even alluded to the grisly practice on Twitter. What he has not done is name the practice or reveal that by canoeing bin Laden he had secured the ultimate war trophy, the culmination of a decade’s worth of bloody “sport” by elements of SEAL Team 6 who considered themselves craftsmen of killing.
The story of the bin Laden raid has been told and retold, but crucial details have never been made public. And from the moment President Obama announced the operation’s successful conclusion in a televised address, a variety of individuals and institutions have sought to profit from the elimination of America’s most hated enemy.
Two different SEALs, Robert O’Neill and Matthew Bissonnette, have publicly taken credit for killing bin Laden. According to multiple sources, both of their accounts contain multiple self-serving falsehoods. The texture of those accounts reveals much about what went wrong with the most celebrated special operations command in the U.S. military. The falsehoods, both significant and slight, demonstrate that even when conducting the most important missions, SEAL Team 6 was unable to rise above the culture of deceit, personal enrichment, and self-aggrandizement that has corrupted a fighting unit legendary for its discipline and code of honor.
“The beauty of what they have constructed,” said a former teammate about how Bissonnette and O’Neill cornered the market on the bin Laden raid, “is that there is only one guy, essentially, who can come forward and say they’re lying — and he won’t ever talk.”
reset-7-1484007096 Top left: Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette in 2001. Top right: Robert O’Neill with his tattoo of two bloody feathers, representing his kills. Bottom: Winkler hatchet from Bissonnette’s personal collection. Photos: U.S. Navy; U.S. Air Photo by Force Technical Sgt. Brian Snyder; Instagram
O’NEILL’S AND BISSONNETTE’S careers mirrored one another. They each entered Red Squadron at the same time, and were both recipients of the Winkler hatchets handed out by Wyman Howard. They were both talented and competitive, and they were determined to profit from their experiences as SEALs.
Bissonnette was viewed by Howard as the prototypical SEAL Team 6 operator: a college-educated enlisted man with a savvy understanding of tactics and technology. O’Neill, by contrast, was not considered as clever as his teammate, but he was a deadly sniper and had a successful tour as a team leader in Red Squadron.
Both men were notorious among their teammates for their self-promotional tendencies — a trait not well-suited for a “team-first” environment. In the end, their inclusion in the bin Laden raid and their roles defined where they fit in: Bissonnette worked closely with the CIA and SEAL Team 6 superiors during the planning phase to help plot out the assault, and would lead a team of operators to find and kill bin Laden’s courier. O’Neill was chosen as a team leader for a group providing external security but ultimately traded that leadership role for a junior spot on the team he and Bissonnette believed would get the first shot at bin Laden.
The 23 SEAL Team 6 operators assigned to the mission prepared constantly for the entire month of April 2011, practicing on two different full-scale mock-ups of the bin Laden compound. Tactically, there was little about the upcoming raid that was complex. Unlike the hundreds of other assaults SEAL Team 6 had carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the operators would plan and carry out a raid within a matter of hours, this time they had weeks to prepare. They had detailed plans of the Abbottabad compound provided by the CIA and knew where they could expect to find bin Laden. The SEALs’ biggest concern was how much time they would have, which was dictated by the amount of fuel the two Black Hawks could carry for the round trip.
The planning was so meticulous, one retired SEAL Team 6 leader told me, that a helicopter pilot warned mission planners that one of the two stealth Black Hawks they were to use would likely experience a “vortex ring state,” which means air disturbed by the rotors would prevent the helicopter from getting the lift necessary to continue hovering. The pilot noted that the two mock-up compounds had chain link fences around the buildings, allowing the air to disperse, while the real compound had thick concrete walls.
Less than a week before the assault, Bissonnette and O’Neill got into a shouting match at the Dam Neck base over who would sell the inside story of the raid. Several of their teammates on the mission had to intervene, according to a former SEAL Team 6 operator. A former SEAL Team 6 leader told me that O’Neill and Bissonnette originally agreed to cooperate on a book or movie project after the raid was over, but later had a falling out. The former SEAL leader said the extensive amount of training for the mission, combined with Bissonnette’s planning role, gave both men ample opportunity to find ways to put themselves on the third floor, in a good position to kill bin Laden.
Despite claims by John O. Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, that the raid was a capture or kill operation, the SEALs were told explicitly to kill bin Laden. There was no plan for capture, and no contingency for a surrender. “They were told, ‘Go in, kill him, and bring the body back,’” said a former SEAL Team 6 leader involved in the raid.
FILE – In this May 5, 2011 file photo, local residents and media are seen outside the house where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Local residents say Pakistan has started to demolish the compound in the northwest city of Abbottabad where Osama bin Laden lived for years and was killed by U.S. commandos. Two residents say the government brought in three mechanized backhoes Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012, and began destroying the tall outer walls of the compound after sunset. They set up floodlights to carry out the work. (AP Photo/Aqeel Ahmed, File) Local residents and media on May 5, 2011, outside the compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Photo: Aqeel Ahmed/AP
ON MAY 1, two stealth Black Hawk helicopters took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and headed east toward Abbottabad. The flight took 90 minutes, and as the Black Hawk Bissonnette rode in approached the compound walls, it effectively slammed on the brakes. The pilot who had warned that one of the helicopters would stall was right. Bissonnette’s helicopter crashed into bin Laden’s side yard. Bissonnette and his teammates were nearly killed, and many of the operators aboard ended up with chronic injuries.
Bissonnette and a small team of SEALs moved from the helicopter to a small building adjacent to bin Laden’s main house. After the SEALs tried blowing the building’s gated front door, someone inside fired several rounds out a window. They were the only shots not fired by the SEALs during the raid. One of Bissonnette’s teammates then put his gun through the front door, which was now slightly ajar, and shot the gunman in the head. He was Ahmed al Kuwaiti, one of bin Laden’s couriers.
Afterward, Kuwaiti’s wife confirmed that bin Laden could be found on the third floor of the main building, just as the team had been briefed. Bissonnette and his team then moved to the main house.
Once inside, the SEALs proceeded slowly and methodically. O’Neill’s teammates shot and killed Kuwaiti’s brother and his wife on the first floor. After blowing open the iron gate blocking the main stairway, the lead assaulters, among them Bissonnette and O’Neill, followed the operator known as Red up the stairs. Red encountered and shot bin Laden’s son just before the second floor landing, and the SEALs following behind him fanned out into the hallways and rooms on the second floor to search and secure the area. It was then that both Bissonnette and O’Neill hung back on the stairway. Both should have remained on the second floor. Instead, as Red began his ascent to the third floor, they followed him up, hoping to get in on the kill. O’Neill was closer to Red, one of the first five assaulters. Bissonnette was much farther back down the stairwell.
As he approached the third floor bedroom, Red saw bin Laden standing in the doorway, peering out. He was unarmed and wearing pajamas. A few of his female relatives were nearby. Red came to a stop and fired two shots with his suppressed rifle. One shot hit bin Laden in the chest and the second shot glanced off his hip or thigh as Bin Laden stumbled backward into his room and fell toward the foot of his bed.
Red could see bin Laden bleeding out from his chest wound but he still had not entered the bedroom.
Red watched bin Laden fall. He later told his teammates that it was possible one arm was twitching reflexively as he died, but otherwise he was effectively dead and not a threat. The distinction was crucial. As the lead assaulter, it was Red’s job to make the most important tactical judgments because he largely blocked the view of the SEALs behind him. According to several former members of SEAL Team 6, the most basic principle of assault training is “follow your shot,” meaning that an operator who has fired on a target must ensure the target no longer poses a threat. Your teammates beside and behind you will cover all the other possible angles and areas of a room as you move forward.
Red could see bin Laden bleeding out from his chest wound but he still had not entered the bedroom. Then, as two of bin Laden’s eldest daughters began to scream, Red quickly corralled them at the doorway, a move considered heroic by other SEALs on the mission. Had the daughters been wearing explosives, Red would have died while shielding his teammates from much of the blast. Instead, he held them back long enough for his teammates, including O’Neill, to enter the bedroom.
O’Neill and two or three more assaulters moved past Red into the bedroom as bin Laden lay on the ground. O’Neill then fired two rounds. According to his own description, the first two rounds hit bin Laden’s forehead. Then O’Neill canoed bin Laden with a final shot.
Conflicting accounts have emerged about how many other SEALs fired rounds into bin Laden’s lifeless body, though one former SEAL Team 6 leader who viewed the body in Jalalabad told me the body appeared to be intact aside from the chest wound and obliterated face.
The SEALs had been specifically asked to avoid shooting bin Laden in the face. O’Neill’s decision to canoe the al Qaeda leader made him unrecognizable. A SEAL who spoke Arabic interviewed bin Laden’s wives and daughters until he was able to get two positive identifications. O’Neill later implied in the Esquire profile that he shot bin Laden because he wasn’t sure Red’s shots had hit the target. He also claimed that bin Laden had been standing when he fired and that a weapon was visible nearby. Yet immediately after the mission, O’Neill described shooting bin Laden while he was on the floor. The two weapons found on the third floor were not discovered until the rooms were searched. Neither was loaded.
O’Neill’s canoeing of bin Laden cost his teammates precious time, but his final shot to bin Laden’s head was unremarkable to them. They ransacked the compound for documents and media for intelligence, left the survivors inside, and returned to Jalalabad air base with the body.
THE RED SQUADRON assaulters later gathered in a private area of Bagram Air Base and debriefed the mission in front of a military lawyer. The squadron’s commanding officer recorded it on a cellphone. Bissonnette claimed he shot and killed al Kuwaiti and had fired bullets into bin Laden on the third floor. According to three sources familiar with the debrief, Bissonnette never fired his weapon at Kuwaiti. At least two of Bissonnette’s teammates who were with him when al Kuwaiti was killed were angry about the deception — taking credit for a teammate’s actions on a mission was unprecedented and dishonorable — but did not contradict him in the presence of a military lawyer. Several of Bissonnette’s teammates later informed their superiors that he had lied about his actions.
During the debrief, Red was identified as having hit bin Laden with a fatal shot, and O’Neill was credited with putting security rounds into him after bin Laden had already gone down. There was no discussion of a visible weapon, no claims that one of bin Laden’s wives had been used as a shield or a threat. The raid, several of the SEALs said afterward, was one of the easiest missions they’d ever conducted. There were no heroics, and, apart from al Kuwaiti’s shots, no firefight.
The SEALs in the unit were furious that the White House revealed to the world that Navy SEALs had carried out the raid, violating the traditional code of silence about their missions.
Some of the assaulters on the mission were also angry with Bissonnette and O’Neill because they neglected their responsibilities after bin Laden’s son was shot. Instead of helping search and secure the second floor, both headed to the third floor, hoping to get a chance for the historic kill. Both operators were accused of breaking with standard operating procedure to get themselves in position to be among the first to see or kill bin Laden. Morale at Red Squadron fell apart shortly after the team returned to Virginia Beach from Afghanistan. The SEALs in the unit were furious that the White House revealed to the world that Navy SEALs had carried out the raid, violating the traditional code of silence about their missions. Within hours, news trucks and reporters fanned out through the seaside town looking for anything affiliated with Navy SEALs.
O’Neill was soon removed from his role as a team leader in Red Squadron after he was observed publicly bragging in Virginia Beach bars that he was the man who shot bin Laden. Bissonnette left Red Squadron soon after the raid and retired from the Navy almost one year later. He had already set himself up for a profitable future. While on active duty, he’d formed a consulting company with four other SEALs and secured a contract with one of the command’s biggest equipment suppliers.
Bissonnette’s bestselling book, “No Easy Day,” was published in September 2012, four months after he retired and less than two weeks after O’Neill got out of the Navy. The publication came as a surprise to the Pentagon because Bissonnette had failed to clear it as required.
In the book, Bissonnette implies that he was directly behind Red just below the third floor when bin Laden was shot, and was one of the next two SEALs who entered bin Laden’s bedroom. His account credits Red with the shot that felled bin Laden and holds that he and a third SEAL — presumably O’Neill — fired several rounds into bin Laden as he was lying on the floor.
After the raid, the White House struggled to describe the exact circumstances of bin Laden’s death. First, bin Laden was armed, involved in a firefight, and using one of his wives as a human shield. Then officials took all three of those details back, though they maintained the al Qaeda leader posed a threat. Bissonnette’s book was the first eyewitness account, and it contradicted the Obama administration’s narrative.
After the publication of “No Easy Day” — which in one chapter describes in great detail the specialized gear, along with brand names, Bissonnette wore on the bin Laden mission — the Navy opened several inquiries into Bissonnette’s outside business contracts. They soon discovered he had violated a series of Navy regulations. A joint NCIS-FBI investigation into whether he disclosed classified material in the book lasted two years. During the investigation, Bissonnette surrendered a photo of bin Laden’s dead body that he had unlawfully retained.
Bissonnette eventually settled his legal case with the government, agreeing to return $6.7 million in profits from the sale of “No Easy Day” and giving up any proceeds from future sales of the book.
Other active-duty SEAL Team 6 operators who worked with Bissonnette on his various consulting deals were punished as a result of their profiteering. The unit conducted a captain’s mast on at least seven SEALs for revealing sensitive information during a series of promotional videos for the video game “Medal of Honor: Warfighter.” The reprimand ended the careers of two veteran SEAL Team 6 noncommissioned officers.
Although Bissonnette was able to sell a book and tell his story first, O’Neill arguably got the better deal. In March 2013, Esquire’s profile of O’Neill portrayed him as a humble “quiet professional” who after 16 years in the Navy would no longer have health insurance and was otherwise a downtrodden American hero. The account did not dwell on the fact that O’Neill had chosen to separate from the Navy nearly four years before he was eligible for extensive retirement benefits.
In O’Neill’s account, he did not see Red fire his shots at bin Laden because he was looking back down the stairs for reinforcements. When he finally entered the bedroom, alone, bin Laden was standing uninjured, a weapon nearby, his wife in front of him like a human shield. Only inches from his target, O’Neill claims, he shot bin Laden twice in the forehead. Bin Laden dropped and O’Neill fired the security round that canoed him.
Some of O’Neill’s teammates were outraged he’d been so brazenly inaccurate and self-serving in his account. For many on the raid, including those who had been present in bin Laden’s bedroom with O’Neill, it was the first time they’d heard anyone in the command say the terrorist leader was standing, posing a threat of any kind.
In 2014, O’Neill unveiled himself as the man who killed bin Laden in an hourlong Fox News special, just as Bissonnette published a second book. The former teammates both hit the press circuit, each telling reporters off the record that the other was a liar. Already a popular motivational speaker, O’Neill now charges up to $35,000 per speech. Today, he is a paid on-air commentator for Fox News and is reportedly eyeing a run for the Senate in his native Montana. He even has his own line of clothing.
Both Bissonnette and O’Neill declined to answer questions for this article.
The truth about what happened in bin Laden’s bedroom may never be fully known. One former SEAL Team 6 leader who was involved in the raid told me he was never too concerned about the discrepancies between O’Neill’s and Bissonnette’s claims. A veteran of hundreds of raids and assaults during his career, the former SEAL said he disagreed with the order to kill bin Laden, regardless of whether he was armed, and compared it to Britt Slabinski’s order to his Blue Squadron men in 2007. “I didn’t give their different accounts much thought,” the SEAL said. “They shot an unarmed dude. It was disappointing. I’d almost wish they’d beaten him to death. That seems more fair.” And here were two guys who set out to make money off a mission that required 23 SEALs to pull off: “It’s dishonorable.”
Bissonnette and O’Neill are no longer welcome at SEAL Team 6 headquarters. The command’s top noncommissioned officer placed their names on the SEAL Team 6 rock of shame, the unofficial list of unit pariahs. The list also includes Britt Slabinski, who was blacklisted in 2015 following the New York Times article that quoted him denying he’d ever ordered his men to kill unarmed Afghan targets. “That’s what’s wrong with my community,” the former SEAL Team 6 leader told me. “Our sense of what’s right and what’s wrong is warped. No one was upset that he ordered a beheading or all the men shot even if they were unarmed. They were mad because he spoke to the New York Times and lied.”
GoogleEarth_Image-2-crop-1484001263 SEAL Team 6 headquarters at Dam Neck naval annex, Virginia Beach, Va., showing the 30-foot trident sculpted from a fragment of the World Trade Center. Photo: Google
SEVERAL MONTHS AFTER the bin Laden raid, in October 2011, SEAL Team 6 held its annual “stump muster,” a reunion of current command members and their families, as well as past leaders and senior operators. That year’s reunion, the first under Wyman Howard as commanding officer, was held at their new headquarters, a $100 million, state of the art testament to the stature of the command as the home of the “President’s Own,” the clandestine global force capable of striking anywhere, killing anyone, the tip of America’s military spear. Outside the main entrance stands a 30-foot trident sculpted out of a fragment of the World Trade Center.
At the reunion, a few hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean, a small group of current and former master chiefs stood around drinking and telling war stories. One retired senior SEAL Team 6 leader was there who led the unit during the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the years, he had worried about battlefield discipline and retaliation after Neil Roberts had been nearly beheaded, and he had feared his men would seek retribution in Iraq during the height of the violence there. He’d left the SEALs before the worst of the atrocities had taken place, though his former teammates would occasionally call him to report what was happening on deployments. He’d been told that Blue Squadron had collected ears and that mutilations had become common. He wasn’t surprised. After more than 30 years in special operations, he knew that elite forces would inevitably cross ethical, moral, and legal boundaries if they were given too long a leash. When he first arrived at Dam Neck, operators in the unit who had served in Vietnam warned him that war crimes and battlefield atrocities hung like a cloud over the entire unit — even if only one SEAL had participated.
Sitting with old friends, the retired SEAL was handed a ring-bound portfolio. Opening it up, he saw a collection of photographs, more than a dozen canoed enemy heads. He was told that the photographs were part of SEAL Team 6’s “greatest hits” of terrorists killed since 9/11. They were not the private collection of some individual operator, but the command’s official after-action pictures. The old sailor put the portfolio down. After a short while, he quietly left the base. He hasn’t returned since.
Illustrations: Attila Futaki, Colorist: Greg Guilhaumond
January 10 2017, 12:01 p.m.
Find this story at 10 January 2017
New Intercept Exposé Uncovers SEAL Team 6’s Ghastly Trail of Atrocities, Mutilations, Killings
February 7, 2017
A stunning new exposé published today in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6 reveals a darker side of the group best known for killing Osama bin Laden. National security reporter Matthew Cole spent two years investigating accounts of ghastly atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings and attempted beheadings. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—and often helped to cover it up.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a stunning new exposé published today in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6. Known as the “President’s Own,” the group is best known for killing Osama bin Laden, as well as other high-profile rescue missions, including that of Captain Richard Phillips from the Maersk Alabama. But Intercept national security reporter Matthew Cole reveals a darker side of the celebrated group. Cole spent more than two years investigating accounts of ghastly atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings and attempted beheadings. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—and often helped to cover it up. In the article, “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6,” Cole quotes one former leader as saying, “You can’t win an investigation on us. You don’t whistleblow on the teams … and when you win on the battlefield, you don’t lose investigations.”
Well, for more, we’re joined by Matthew Cole.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
MATTHEW COLE: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you found, what we don’t know about—and there’s much we don’t know about—this unit.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah. I think the biggest takeaway is, is that after 15 years of war and unquestionable successes on the battlefield, there have been virtually no accounts of SEAL Team 6 outside of the parameters of heroism, and they’ve become almost mythic in terms of the American public and how popular they are. And what was missing from those accounts was that after 15 years of continuous warfare, very personal, up-close warfare, there were some very, very dark things that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere that were largely suppressed and hidden from the public, and actually from the military itself, as a way of protecting the command and those who had gone over the line to commit war crimes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the bombing that occurred—you write about it in the opening part of this very lengthy article—in Afghanistan.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so, in March of 2002, there was a operation that was—JSOC had video footage of a tall man in white garb—
AMY GOODMAN: It’s Joint Special Operations Command.
MATTHEW COLE: Joint Special Operations Command—and saw someone that they thought was bin Laden, and was afraid he was going to get away. They didn’t have much intelligence, but they had the notion that he was—people around him were showing deference, and he was leaving a compound. So they sent SEAL Team 6 in some helicopters to go investigate and, basically, to do an interdiction. But fearing that the convoy was going to get across the border into Pakistan before the SEALs would get there, JSOC officers ordered a bombing, and they dropped two bombs on the convoy. And they killed a lot of people pretty quickly, almost instantaneously. As the helicopters were coming down onto the scene, they then fired their—the helicopter guns, miniguns, onto the remaining survivors, if—regardless of whether they were armed, because it was all presumed that everyone there was al-Qaeda.
When the SEALs got down onto the ground and inspected, what they found right away was that it was all civilians and that the men, the few men who were armed, were carrying family weapons, because in Afghanistan it’s traditional and customary for each male, at least, and certainly each family, to have one weapon. And, in fact, what they saw were dead women and children, along with men. And it was a horrific sight for the SEALs, who were on their first deployment in the war. And remember, this is right—this is shortly after 9/11 and shortly after the war in Afghanistan begins. And they weren’t veterans yet of those kind of wars.
And according to my sources, the—one of the officers who was on the mission allegedly mutilated one of the victims, one of the civilian victims, after he had been killed. And it was so upsetting to his teammate in the unit, that he then came back and reported it to his leader. And what transpires then is a meeting with everyone in the unit who was enlisted, and not the officers, the next day to discuss battlefield ethics. How are we going to treat the dead? How are we going to conduct ourselves on the battlefield? And the decision in the meeting was, hey—you know, one person who was there told me, “We shoot them, and we move on. If they’re bad guys, we shoot them, and we move on. That’s fine. But we don’t mutilate. That’s not part of the game.” And they essentially ostracized the officer who they believed had done so. But they didn’t turn him in. They didn’t report it. They didn’t tell anyone. It was strictly within the unit. And that’s one of the things—
AMY GOODMAN: And the officer’s name was?
MATTHEW COLE: Was—his name was Lieutenant Commander Vic Hyder. And just to be clear, in the article, on the record, he denies that he stomped this man’s head in. But that story became—it really becomes a sort of blueprint for how SEAL Team 6 has kept war crimes, excessive violence, criminal brutality a secret for 15 years. They keep it in house, and they have their own system of justice—prison rules, if you will. And there is a real divide between the officers, who have the commission by law for law and order, and the enlisted, who make up most of the command.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the SEAL Team 6 officer who made so-called bleed-out videos?
MATTHEW COLE: OK, he wasn’t an officer. He was an enlisted—he was enlisted. He was a very troubled SEAL, a member of Red Team—Red Squadron, who filmed—his job, he had a responsibility, which was to film the aftermath of an operation for intelligence gathering. So he had a camera. It was part of the normal course of duties. After an operation would end, he went around and filmed to identify—you know, later they can try to identify who had been killed, in terms of the militants.
And he began doing what he—what was described to me as bleed-out videos and what were known as bleed-out videos within the team at the time. He would bring them back, and having—on the battlefield, having taunted people who were dying, essentially telling them that they weren’t—they couldn’t die yet, they weren’t going to heaven, they weren’t going to see Allah, there were no virgins, and then bring the videos back and then spend time reviewing them, rewinding them over and over with a group and doing a countdown, to watch the last few moments of a person’s life as they expired.
And that was done—this wasn’t done in some corner of, you know, some dark hole in Afghanistan. It was done at Bagram Air Base in front of a lot of people. And no one would do anything about it. It was not considered morally reprehensible. And that was—we use that as an example because, in and of itself, it’s not illegal, but it gives you a sense of sort of the dark nature of what this war brought for members of elite special operations forces, in particular, SEAL Team 6.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened to U.S. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts.
MATTHEW COLE: So, Neil Roberts was the first SEAL Team 6 member and the first special operations soldier to die after 9/11. He was killed by—he fell off the back of a helicopter during Operation Anaconda in early March of 2002 in eastern Afghanistan. And there was a—later became known as the Battle for Roberts Ridge, was an effort to save him. But Roberts fell off, was killed fairly quickly by al-Qaeda fighters, who had already established a stronghold on the mountaintop. And Predator drone feed later sees one of the fighters standing over him, attempting to behead him, and, in fact, mutilated him very significantly. And so, when his body was brought back to Bagram and his teammates found that not only had they lost their teammate and pierced their sense of invincibility, which is appropriately built up for your best warriors, they were devastated by the manner, and the gruesome manner, in which his body had been treated.
And so, Objective Bull, which happens about 18 hours later, we don’t know, but we believe that the alleged stomping in and mutilation of the civilian armed man in Objective Bull was very much—
AMY GOODMAN: Objective Bull is the story you describe before.
MATTHEW COLE: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the operation, they called it.
MATTHEW COLE: That it was the beginning of what was sort of a tit for tat against al-Qaeda, which was “You do this to ours, we’ll do this to yours.” But the Roberts death and the manner of his death really shook up SEAL Team 6. And although there have been an enormous amount of accounts of the Battle of Roberts Ridge and some of the heroism and valor in trying to get him back, and there were others who died, what had—
AMY GOODMAN: And others who died—
MATTHEW COLE: Up on the—up on the—
AMY GOODMAN: —and didn’t die, as it was originally thought, and survived and then died.
MATTHEW COLE: Right. And so—but what was never told was this incident that happens 18 hours later. And there’s—looking back, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t tell the story. But the Pentagon itself, they had announced a week after the bombing of—in Objective Bull, that they had killed civilians, but even then, they made—they said that they were associated somehow with—affiliated somehow with al-Qaeda. So they left the impression that although they killed civilians, it was a justifiable bombing. In fact, it was only civilians, and they had no intelligence whatsoever.
AMY GOODMAN: It was a wedding party?
MATTHEW COLE: It was—they were on their way to a wedding party, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Where does Britt Slabinski fit into this picture?
MATTHEW COLE: Well, that’s very interesting. Britt Slabinksi is sort of at the heart of all of this, although we have to remember that he was an enlisted SEAL and not an officer, although he became a very senior enlisted. Britt Slabinski was on Roberts Ridge. It was—Neil Roberts was part of his team. He was the leader of the team that went back to get Neil Roberts. He won a Navy Cross for his efforts on the top of Takur Ghar, which was the mountaintop in eastern Afghanistan. And he was in the meeting at Bagram after Objective Bull, in which the discussion about how Vic Hyder had behaved and what he had done during Objective Bull was determined that was just not how SEAL Team 6 was going to operate.
Slabinski was devastated by Roberts’ death. And frankly, according to sources who spoke with him at the time, he sought revenge. He wanted to go back out on the battlefield and get payback. And we unearthed, in the course of reporting, some exclusive audio that had never been found before of Slabinski giving an interview to an author, who was writing a book about Roberts Ridge, in which he describes a third operation that happens after Objective Bull, in which they ambushed a group of al-Qaeda fighters who had been on top of Takur Ghar, who had been in the Battle of Roberts Ridge. And he was a sniper who led a sniper team at the time. And they killed roughly 18 or 19 al-Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan in mid-March 2002. And in the audio, what you hear him talk about is the operation as payback and revenge, essentially, for what happened on Roberts Ridge, as a way for the guys and his men to get their confidence back, as I think he says, is to get back in the saddle again.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the SEAL Team 6 member Britt Slabinski, here describing the aftermath of an operation to take down a convoy they believed was filled with al-Qaeda fighters trying to escape to Pakistan. Slabinski and the team of snipers had killed what? Nearly 20—
MATTHEW COLE: Nearly 20.
AMY GOODMAN: —al-Qaeda—
MATTHEW COLE: Fighters.
AMY GOODMAN: —fighters.
BRITT SLABINSKI: After I shot this dude in the head, there was a guy that had his feet, just his feet, sticking out of some little rut or something over here. I mean, he was dead. But, I mean, you know, it got—people got nervous. I shot him about 20 times in the legs. And every time you’d kick him or shoot him, he would kick up, and you could see his body twitch and all that. And it was like a game. Like [inaudible]. And the guy would just, you know, twitch again. It was good therapy. It was really good therapy for everybody that was there.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Navy SEAL Team 6 member Britt Slabinski, this audio being played publicly for the first time—
MATTHEW COLE: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —that you got at The Intercept. And the significance of this?
MATTHEW COLE: Well, I think what it does is it gives you a window into the mindset of someone who became a very senior—first of all, he was—after the Battle of Roberts Ridge, he became a legendary SEAL. He had a Navy Cross. He was a hero. He became a very influential member of SEAL Team 6. And at a command that is referred to and known as an enlisted mafia, run effectively by the enlisted SEALs who spend a decade or more in the unit, he was a top leader. And as a result, he ended up in a position running a squadron.
And there were a series of events that occurred, that I report exclusively for the first time, about the fallout of his leadership. And what you get to see—what you get to hear in that is the mindset. I mean, the thing that was most disturbing to me, I think, in listening to it was the gleefulness in his voice, that it was therapy for him. And I don’t—that, I think, gives us some understanding. And as I was talking to a former senior leader of SEAL Team 6 about that tape—he had never heard it, and I showed him the transcript. And one of the things he said, he said, “What’s so scary is, is that this guy undoubtedly influenced so many of our guys with that kind of attitude.”
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole, one of the most disturbing forms of atrocities Navy—the SEAL Team 6 committed was called “canoeing.” If you can talk about that and then talk about whether you believe Osama bin Laden was canoed?
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so, one of the—I would say one of the, if not the darkest secret in the last 15 years is that over the course of the war, SEAL Team 6, as well as other elements of JSOC, were involved in something called canoeing, which is a form of firing a bullet in the top of the forehead that splits the head open in the most gruesome manner and leaves, frankly, the brain matter exposed, and looks like a—puts the head, the top of the head, in the shape of a V, with a negative space that looks like a canoe would fit in there or that a canoe went through it. And it can happen incidentally in battle, and it does happen incidentally in battle.
What I found was that for a period of years SEAL Team 6 was photographing—they photographed their dead for documentation and preservation. And for a period of years, canoed dead took up an enormous amount of space in those—in that catalog. And it was not mathematically possible. And what my sources said were, it became a sport. You shoot a person when they’re dead or dying, at very close range, for the sake of seeing the gruesome results.
AMY GOODMAN: And Osama bin Laden?
MATTHEW COLE: Well, what happened to Osama bin Laden was hiding sort of in plain sight. The man who claims that he killed Osama bin Laden, Robert O’Neill, did an interview, a long interview in Esquire in 2013, in which he described what bin Laden’s face looked like after he shot him three times in the face and forehead. And there it is. Without using the word “canoe,” he describes this gruesome scene of splitting the top of his skull open into a V, you know, with the negative space in the shape of a V, and his brain matter exposed. And one of the points that I make in the story is, is that SEAL Team 6 then branded Osama bin Laden. That was—it’s an act of dominance, and it is a form of sport, and it’s reflexive. And it doesn’t—in this case, it does not necessarily mean that Robert O’Neill committed a war crime, but there is no question that the ritualistic manner in which and the frequency in which it occurred and the fact that it had no military necessity was criminal.
AMY GOODMAN: You believe that bin Laden was killed unarmed and in the dark?
MATTHEW COLE: Absolutely. I think one of the things that my story presents fairly conclusively is that the order from the beginning was to kill him, regardless of the situation inside. And, in fact, one of my sources who was a—
AMY GOODMAN: We have four seconds.
MATTHEW COLE: —senior member, said, “Kill him. Bring the body back.” That was the order.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this conversation, post it online at democracynow.org. Matthew Cole, we’ll link to your piece at The Intercept.
Part 2: Intercept Exposé on How SEAL Team 6 Killed Osama bin Laden, “Canoeing” & Other Atrocities
We continue our conversation with reporter Matthew Cole about his stunning new exposé published this week in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6 that reveals a darker side of the group best known for killing Osama bin Laden. National security reporter Matthew Cole spent two years investigating accounts of ghastly atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings and attempted beheadings. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—and often helped to cover it up.
Watch Part 1: New Intercept Exposé Uncovers SEAL Team 6’s Ghastly Trail of Atrocities, Mutilations, Killings
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we turn to Part 2 of our discussion about the stunning new exposé published in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6. It’s called the “President’s Own,” the group best known for killing Osama bin Laden, as well as other high-profile rescue missions, including that of Captain Richard Phillips from the Maersk Alabama. But Intercept national security reporter Matthew Cole reveals a darker side of the celebrated group. Cole spent more than two years investigating accounts of atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings, attempted beheadings and canoeings, which we’ll talk about in a moment. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—often helped to cover it up. The article is called “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6.” Cole quotes one former leader as saying, “You can’t win an investigation on us. You don’t whistleblow on the teams … and when you win on the battlefield, you don’t lose investigations.”
Matthew Cole, thank you for staying with us for Part 2 of this conversation. And I want to start where we left off on Democracy Now!, talking about the killing of Osama bin Laden. but now we have a little time, so take us through what happened in May of 2011.
MATTHEW COLE: Well, I think the first thing—the first place to start is that, despite what the Obama administration was at pains to try to say in the hours and days after the raid, was that, from the beginning, the order to the SEALs were—was to go in and kill Osama bin Laden. And it went further than that. The order was to go in and kill all males on the compound, regardless of whether they were armed. It was an assassination, an execution, however you’d like to call it. It was murder. And the SEALs went out and did it, very effectively. And what we know is that despite the fact that—
AMY GOODMAN: You write that even before the killing, that two of the Team 6 members, Matt Bissonnette and Robert O’Neill, had an argument that had to be broken up by their fellow SEALs about who would tell the story after.
MATTHEW COLE: Right. So, the two SEALs who have come out from that raid and given first-hand accounts, one in the form of a book, the other in a magazine article and then in a Fox News special identifying himself as the shooter, were involved in an argument prior to the raid, before they had even gone to Afghanistan and Pakistan, over how they were going to work together to sell the story afterwards, and then had to be separated by their teammates, because they were—it wasn’t a physical fight. They got into a screaming match. And lo and behold, after the raid, they, of course, were the first to get out of the unit, and there was—as one of their former bosses said to me, they were in a race to write a book and make money off of the operation.
And so, after their accounts came out, in addition to the Obama administration’s account, everything sort of got muddled in terms of what happened. And one of the impressions that was left was that bin Laden was killed because he was a threat, because he hadn’t laid down on the ground and said, “I surrender.” But that was always fiction. He was killed because there was an order to kill him, no matter what. And he was killed by a SEAL who was the first to encounter him. He was unarmed. He was wearing, effectively, his pajamas. He was standing with two female relatives to the side—on each side of him. And he was put down with two shots, one to the chest and a second which glanced off his hip as he fell back onto the floor.
And that’s a key point, because he falls down on the floor, and then the man who says that he ended bin Laden’s life, Robert O’Neill—and no one disputes that he put the bullets into bin Laden and effectively ended his life, but the way O’Neill tells the story is that bin Laden was standing, had his wife in front of him, holding his wife’s shoulders as a sort of shield, and has a weapon nearby, and so that he’s scanning the scene and making the determination that—based on his training, that this man is a threat, and he can be killed. And so he shoots him, he drops, and then he puts a third bullet in his forehead. And by his own words, he describes in Esquire magazine a canoeing, which is the intentional splitting open of the skull with a round to the top of the forehead. And what my reporting found was that he wasn’t standing. There was no threat. He was—he would have died had he not been shot by Mr. O’Neill. He was on the ground bleeding out from his—the shot to his chest.
And what was interesting, actually, is how much, I learned over the two years—how much animosity was directed towards the two SEALs who spoke out and exaggerated or lied, whatever you want to say, falsehoods. They spun a story to make themselves heroic and make money off of it, and it wasn’t accurate. And so, there’s an enormous amount of animosity inside the unit at these two guys.
AMY GOODMAN: What did Matt Bissonnette say? You say that he lied in No Easy Day, his book.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so his book—his account, effectively, of how bin Laden died is actually mostly accurate. The issue is, is that he actually wasn’t a witness. He makes—he makes it sound as though he was there and next to O’Neill and, with O’Neill, fires the last shots that kill bin Laden. In fact, he was much further back down the line, comes in later. But prior to that, his team was to go after bin Laden’s courier. And they killed him. Both in the book but then also in the official debrief that SEAL Team 6 did with a lawyer in Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, he lied and said that he had killed the courier. And, in fact, he had not.
And that became a big deal, because that’s something you—even within their code, that’s something you don’t do. You don’t take credit for another man’s work. And so, in the subsequent years afterwards, their teammates viewed that lie, that he had killed the courier outside in the adjacent compound, as the beginning of Bissonnette’s effort to shape his story so that he could sell it, because you need to have drama whenever you’re selling a myth. And in the case of both O’Neill and Bissonnette, and in SEAL Team 6 at large, that’s what we have here. We have a set of myths. We have narratives that are filled with—you know, let’s say 75 percent of the facts are true, but a quarter of them are false or omitted. And it makes a big difference in terms of understanding what really happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew, you write, “‘The beauty of what they have constructed,’ said a former teammate about how Bissonnette and O’Neill cornered the market on the bin Laden raid, [quote] ‘is that there is only one guy, essentially, who can come forward and say they’re lying—and he won’t ever talk.’”
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah. So that’s in reference to what is known as sort of the lead assaulter on the mission, whose nickname in the unit is “Red.” And he was the first to get up the stairs onto the third floor of Osama bin Laden’s house and is the first to see bin Laden peeking through the doorway of his bedroom. And he fires two shots into bin Laden. And he then waits to see what happens. And they slowly get to the door. One of the things that’s interesting, just as an aside, in learning about special operations and the SEALs is that there’s not a whole lot of running. They have a whole terminology, which is, “Don’t run to your death. Walk to your death.” You take your time to make decisions. And that’s one of the things—you know, their training is—their brilliance is at the tactical level. It’s minutiae. And so, he did exactly as he was trained to do, which was to go slowly to the doorway and see and assess whether or not the person he shot was still a threat.
And he says to his—to the debrief and to the team later, he wasn’t a threat, so he then wraps his arms around two of the women who are in the room, who are becoming hysterical. And that’s described in both O’Neill and Bissonnette’s book. And what’s funny is, is they give him credit for doing something very heroic, that had they been wearing suicide vests, he put himself on top of them and would have absorbed the blast. But what they’ve left out is that the only reason why he made that decision to do that was because he had already determined that bin Laden was either dead or was going to die in a matter of moments.
And he is the one who, effectively, is the only one who could come out and say, “Here’s what really happened,” because he was the first in the room, the first up and the one who fired the shots. And one of their teammates said to me that quote that you just read, which is, there was a cleverness to what O’Neill and Bissonnette did to make it so that it’s just—you know, they’re not going to have people contradicting them in public. And as a result, they’ve made a lot of money.
AMY GOODMAN: And why won’t he contradict them?
MATTHEW COLE: Well, because he is a silent professional. I mean, in a world where silence is part of the—is supposed to be part of the norm. He sticks by it and is still in.
AMY GOODMAN: So explain how, as you put it, Osama bin Laden was canoed.
MATTHEW COLE: So, essentially, O’Neill, who is the second to fire shots in bin Laden, puts two rounds in his face or his forehead. And after he’s down, at a very close range, O’Neill fires a third round. And that round hits him in the top of the forehead. And that’s—canoeing requires a certain location in the head. And by his own description, by O’Neill’s own description, it split open his head and exposed his brain matter and split open his head in a V shape. And that V shape is the canoe.
And what I know, and is not in the story, but what I know is that his face was so disfigured, when they brought his body back to Jalalabad and they took him out of the body bag, they had him nude with only his genitals and his face covered, because—genitals, out of respect, and face, because it was so disfigured, they put a small towel or tissue over his face. And splitting his head open disfigured him so much that the SEALs in the compound couldn’t recognize him. He was unrecognizable. And so, it required one of the SEALs who was there, who was doing—who spoke Arabic, to go around and get confirmation, double confirmation, that this was Osama bin Laden. So there was a practical side to it, too. But splitting his face open, I think, is, it’s very safe to say, a significant reason why the Obama administration never released the photo of bin Laden’s face. It was just too gruesome to show.
AMY GOODMAN: As they had released the photo, for example, of capturing Saddam Hussein.
MATTHEW COLE: Right, or his sons, killing his sons. They put out Uday and Qusay pictures shortly after he was killed. I mean, it was a curious thing to do, given the—what you knew would be conspiracy theories and questions about whether he had even been killed. But his face was just too gruesome to show.
AMY GOODMAN: So you say bin Laden was killed unarmed and in the dark.
MATTHEW COLE: Absolutely. He was killed 15 minutes after the mission began. No lights. Could hear certain things, but there wasn’t a lot of noise. I mean, their suppressed weapons are very quiet. And he dies with no—he has two weapons in the room that they find later in a search. They are—they have no bullets in them. They’re essentially trophies. Certainly wasn’t carrying them or holding onto them. He died in the dark in his pajamas, listening to the sounds of people moving through the house. And with very little—you know, he sticks his head out of his room, and he gets shot.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is your sense of why the Obama administration wanted him dead, not alive?
MATTHEW COLE: Well, I think it was just a heck of a lot easier to not have to worry about the spectacle of a trial, that the story was over and a case closed. And it certainly would easier to sell to the American people that, to some end, part of the war was over. So, you know, and I still think that there are questions that remain unanswered about the mission, the operation and how the—what the administration knew about his location. But by and large, I think the order to kill him was just to have everything tied up neatly.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole, as you talk about, really, in some of these cases, for the first time, what this unit has done, Team—SEAL Team 6, and you talk about canoeing, in general, there are those who wanted to expose this, like a CIA paramilitary officer’s attempt to blow the whistle on this. Explain what happens to someone who wants to challenge the practices.
MATTHEW COLE: So, in 2008, a former Navy SEAL 6, Team 6, member himself, who was retired and went to the CIA as a paramilitary officer, named Richard Smethers, was upset with some of the conduct that SEAL Team 6 was up to in the late end—the end of the year in 2008. He was upset about civilians being killed, unarmed people being killed, excessive violence and an overall failure of leadership at SEAL Team 6 in not policing their men. And so, he was put forward by a small group of CIA officers at a base in Northeast Afghanistan to complain and to blow the whistle, effectively, on SEAL Team 6. And it began a very rancorous fight between SEAL Team 6 and the CIA in Afghanistan over what to do. And SEAL Team 6 said very quickly he needed to be quiet. And his response was “I’ll go to the press.” And, in fact, I think, specifically, he threatened to go to The New York Times. And SEAL Team 6 told the CIA, “If this guy goes public, we will end his career. He will lose his clearances. He will never work again,” and also told the CIA, “Hey, we’re working together here. If this stuff comes out or there are investigations into war crimes or excessive criminality and excessive violence and brutality, it’ll hurt all of us.” And so the CIA agreed to send him home. He was up for going back home anyway. There was a natural change both with him and with the SEAL unit that was in at the time. And so, the two sides said, “Listen, we will calm things down. You send him home, keep him quiet. And we will go about taking care of our guys.”
And what happened shortly after that is, Admiral Bill McRaven, who was then the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, had come in, and the complaints from the Afghan government about night raids and civilians, unarmed civilians, being killed had grown—the complaints about them had grown loud inside Afghanistan. And politically, Karzai was hitting U.S. forces. So McRaven orders a stand-down, about a two-week stop in almost all special operations forces. And a lot of that was meant to pull the leash on SEAL Team 6. And he issued new guidelines in terms of how they operated in country. And those guidelines were, in a lot of ways, done to protect SEALs. You know, it is important to remember that in all of this, most members of SEAL Team 6, the majority of SEAL Team 6, did not commit war crimes and atrocities. This was more like a persistent virus. But a significant number did. And they had gotten out of control. And the man who led them, at a very high level, understood that. And so, McRaven orders the stand-down, gives them new rules. And the Smethers issue, the whistleblowing, just sort of fades off into the sunset.
And that was the only case and it was the only time there was someone who had whistleblown on SEAL Team 6, where there was some threat, and they were worried about being exposed for what they were doing on the battlefield. And I think the lesson you can learn from that is, is that they go to great lengths to make sure that it goes away. And it hurts—you know, their view to the CIA, I think, was really interesting. It doesn’t just hurt us. It hurts you. It’ll hurt the administration. It’ll hurt the war. And I think that’s a very compelling argument for people who work in the government or the military when you’re in the middle of a war. And so, it’s swept under the rug. And that—that’s the kind of thing that has occurred at a small level for SEAL Team 6 and at a bigger level. And that’s really what the story is trying to—attempted, and I hope succeeded, in uncovering, are these various levels in which it was obvious that things were going on that were illegal, that were immoral, that were unconscionable, and they were either quietly and implicitly, sort of tacitly encouraged, or people in charge just looked the other way.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew, talk about how Linda Norgrove fits into this picture and who she was.
MATTHEW COLE: So, Linda Norgrove was a aid worker working in Afghanistan in 2010, when she was kidnapped by factions of the Taliban or militants in Northeast Afghanistan. And she was taken from a road and sent up into a very mountainous place, and was a U.K. citizen, was actually from Scotland originally. And the only unit that was capable, both at the time and in general, to operate in Afghanistan for a high-risk rescue mission was SEAL Team 6. So, the British government requested that SEAL Team 6 go save her. And as SEAL Team 6 was putting the mission together, the British government kept giving her location with a very precise—with total precision. And SEAL Team 6 said, “How do you know where she is with such precision, in a place where we’ve been operating for years, and you just don’t get that kind of fidelity in such short time?” And the British government disclosed, according to my sources, to four sources, that she was working for MI6 and had been essentially working undercover for British intelligence, and so they had a—some form of tracking on her and knew her exact location. And that was a bona fides that SEAL Team 6 needed to feel comfortable with sending their men out to find her at this location. And she was unfortunately killed in the raid, unintentionally, by SEAL Team 6, as the—as a firefight broke out when they arrived.
And the initial story that the SEALs presented to their superiors and to the British government was that she had been killed by one of her captors, who had detonated a suicide vest that he was wearing, and it blew up, and she was nearby, and it killed her. Well, it turned out that that was not what happened. And, in fact, what had occurred was that one of the SEALs, a young SEAL operative on his first hostage rescue mission, had thrown a grenade and hadn’t seen her, and initially had reported that he had thrown the grenade. And what came there was a slow—sorry, I should say, a fast cover-up by three members of SEAL Team 6 who were on the mission, to avoid the embarrassment of what had just happened, which was that, in fact, the captor had not killed her, SEAL Team 6 had.
And that was another case where the punishment, you know, the way the command tried to hold itself accountable, was considered insufficient. And so, Admiral McRaven stepped in and conducted what’s called an admiral’s mast, which was unprecedented. And it’s a—SEAL Team 6 is a—you know, it has a law unto itself. It’s in its own world. It’s its own tribe. And one of the things that it uses is a Navy system called non-judicial punishment. And what it allows you to do is to punish an individual without any form of court-martial. It’s a reprimand. And you can be removed from a unit, but it saves your career. And he stepped in and conducted a mast and punished, threw out, three members of SEAL Team 6. And it was considered this total insult that the admiral had to come to the command and conduct a proceeding that normally would be done by a captain. But I think one of the things I say in the article is, is that this was very dramatic in the world of SEAL Team 6, but even within their own mores, two of the three later returned to the unit. So, you don’t get justice or accountability at SEAL Team 6. It just doesn’t happen. It hasn’t happened. I have sources that argue that it hasn’t happened since they were started in 1980. And I think one of the reasons—one of the motivations for sources to talk to me over the last couple of years has been their frustration, some of them over two decades, to get the command’s leadership to hold itself accountable for what it’s been doing.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk a lot about Britt Slabinski, the legendary member of SEAL Team 6. Talk about the story of this man, who was a Navy Cross winner, telling his men he wanted a head on a platter.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so, in 2007, Britt Slabinski was the Blue Squadron master chief, which is one of the assault teams within SEAL Team 6. And they deployed to Afghanistan late in the year into Kandahar and Helmand, which at the time was, and still is, an incredibly violent, incredibly destabilized section of the country where the Taliban effectively rule. They had encountered an enormous amount of resistance and violence from the Taliban. And at some point during that deployment, he tells his men that he wants a head on a platter. One of his men interpreted that remark as an order, as a direction to be given and followed through. And so, on December 17th, 2007, they conduct a raid into a compound in Helmand province, killing three or four Taliban fighters. And in the aftermath, one of the young operators begins to try to cut off the head of one of the fighters.
And the officer of the unit, who was Slabinski’s superior, happens to be on the mission, and he walks by a window of a compound and peers in and sees this young operator standing over this dead fighter and what he believes is the sawing action over this man’s neck. And he sends Britt Slabinski, who is his senior enlisted leader, into the room to inquire what happened. And Slabinski comes back and says, “No foul play. He was just trying to take gear off of the man’s body, and nothing—nothing was untoward.” But the officer doesn’t believe it. He still has suspicions, thinks there was something wrong with what he saw, and so he goes back and reports it to the command, to his leadership, at SEAL Team 6 and demands an investigation. And two subsequent investigations, first one for JSOC, and which is effectively an internal investigation, and one for the Navy—Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the federal law enforcement organization that the Navy has that conducts criminal investigations—
AMY GOODMAN: NCIS.
MATTHEW COLE: NCIS—find no evidence to support a violation of the law of armed conflict. And part of what they found was that Slabinski tells his story, the officer tells his story, and they—the young SEAL, who was alleged to have done this, refused to testify—he took the Fifth—and was moved out of the country, was sent home. And my sources—from the beginning, it was never a question of whether this operator had mutilated this guy. In fact, he had severed a good portion of this man’s head off before he was stopped by Slabinski. The real question became: Why had he done it? And after some internal inquiries at the command, what became clear was that he believed that he was following an order.
And when Britt Slabinski was up for a promotion a few years later, they did two informal internal inquiries. You can’t call them in investigations. And again, this—you know, these words, they mean something in terms of understanding how subtle SEAL Team 6 operates. They were inquiries. And they were inquiries because there’s no paper record of this. And what they found was that during that deployment, Slabinski had, A, said that he wanted a head on a platter. Some of the men who were more veteran and savvy saw him as speaking metaphorically and didn’t pay attention. The younger ones didn’t. And, B, that this young man, this young SEAL—and, by the way, he wasn’t young. He was young for SEAL Team 6. When you join SEAL Team 6, you already have six years of experience as a SEAL. So he wasn’t a kid. He was just a kid relative to someone like Slabinski, and impressionable and easily influenced. He believes he’s following an order. So, after a mission, he tries to cut a man’s head off. And Slabinski tries to protect him, but also protect himself.
And the inquiry finds that, you know, he—was no question that this was a result of Slabinski’s leadership. And then they find additionally that there was another operation in which he ordered—Slabinski ordered all the men on the operation shot, regardless of whether they were armed. Now, that order is illegal. It is effectively—it’s tantamount to ordering murder or an execution, precisely as the SEALs were ordered in the bin Laden raid to do. As it happened, in that operation, the subsequent investigation found that all the people who were killed in that operation had been armed. But the order itself was illegal. And so, in 2010, Britt Slabinski was told that he could never come back to SEAL Team 6. He was not allowed to be back. And one of my sources, who was a former senior member of the command, said to me something—I’m paraphrasing roughly, but he said, “You know, to this day, Slabinski thinks that the guys turned on him. And they did. But what they didn’t do was turn him in.” And that was—to me, that was so telling. Their justice was to throw him out of the unit. That’s their justice. It wasn’t to bring him up on charges or suggest that he should retire, or provide any other sense of accountability. It was to make sure he couldn’t be among them.
And so, what happens? He is then requested by a—someone who was close to him, who had been another SEAL Team 6 officer, who was in Afghanistan during the Roberts Ridge, Neil Roberts’ death, and that deployment, who was one of the investigators and the senior SEAL Team 6 member on the ground when the young SEAL had tried to behead the Taliban. He—upon learning that Slabinski had been blackballed out of the unit for substantiated allegations of war crimes or criminal activity, what does he do? He requests that he be promoted and come in as his senior enlisted leader at his command. And that man is currently a two-star admiral, Rear Admiral Tim Szymanski. And he is now in charge of all SEALs in the United States. So, that’s the—that really gets at the heart of what is at this story, which is that they knew what was going on. When they had an opportunity to do something about it, not only did they not do anything about it, they effectively encouraged it by promoting their own. There was no punishment whatsoever. And Slabinski, Britt Slabinski, is really—his story, which is really a tragic one, and it starts in 2002 on Roberts Ridge, and it extends all the way out to being blackballed by SEAL Team 6, is really indicative of sort of the worst of what can happen at a unit like this.
AMY GOODMAN: But he is awarded a Navy Cross.
MATTHEW COLE: He was awarded a Navy Cross, and that won’t ever be taken away from him. And he—by all accounts, what he did on the battle—on the top of Takur Ghar during Roberts Ridge to try to retrieve his teammate was heroic. And it’s not—you know, what happened subsequently is not meant to take away from what he did on this day in this mission. But it—you know, the command had opportunities, specifically with Britt Slabinski. The command had opportunities. They understood that he had deep psychological scars from what happened on Roberts Ridge. And they knew he was troubled. And I think the audio that we played, that you played earlier, is indicative of someone who does not have his head right. And I shared that, the transcript of it, with two of his former bosses, who were horrified that he said this, and not only that he said it, but that he said it in an interview to an author, and that the younger men around him were undoubtedly influenced by that kind of talk, by that kind of bravado and bloodlust.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to that clip, which we played in Part 1 of the conversation. Again, it’s being played here publicly for the first time. A Team 6 member at the time, Britt Slabinksi, describing the aftermath of an operation to take down a convoy that they believed was filled with al-Qaeda fighters trying to escape to Afghanistan—Slabinski and a team of snipers, who killed nearly 20 al-Qaeda fighters.
BRITT SLABINSKI: After I shot this dude in the head, there was a guy that had his feet, just his feet, sticking out of some little rut or something over here. I mean, he was dead. But, I mean, you know, it got—people got nervous. I shot him about 20 times in the legs. And every time you’d kick him or shoot him, he would kick up, and you could see his body twitch and all that. And it was like a game. Like [inaudible]. And the guy would just, you know, twitch again. It was good therapy. It was really good therapy for everybody that was there.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is, at the time, SEAL Team 6 member Britt Slabinski—actually, not at the time, because this is recounted afterwards. Is that right? And he was—
MATTHEW COLE: No, he was—he was a member. That was in 2004, 2003-2004. He was a member of SEAL Team 6 at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: The title of your investigative exposé in The Intercept is “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6.” The crimes. So, you are putting this out at the end of the Obama administration. Talk about exactly what you found, the crimes as you’ve been telling us, and what you think should happen now.
MATTHEW COLE: I think that what this investigation has found, what I’ve found over the last couple of years, is that there was a consistent and persistent forms of largely mutilations and desecration of bodies in Iraq and Afghanistan, beginning in 2002, continuing all the way through at least 2011. To be honest with you, I don’t think it stopped. I think it might have lessened. I mean, I’ve got some indications that, simply from the lowering of the—slowing down of the tempo of the wars, both in Afghanistan and then the pullout in Iraq, simply brought things to—mostly to a halt. There were a series of pretty horrific acts. We had canoeing, as we described, which is this particular type of firing a bullet into someone’s head after they’ve been killed or are mortally wounded; skinnings, which were done under the excuse of needing DNA and became sort of a cover to pull large sections of skin off of someone with a knife, using these specialized hatchets that were given to some members of the—of SEAL Team 6 to hack bodies after they were killed or, again, dying. There were, frankly, a whole host of criminal activity, excessive violence, brutality, unjustified killings, some of which were not criminal in nature or intent, but were certainly problematic and poor judgment. And again, just there’s not a case—there is not a single case of punishment or legal action against any member of SEAL Team 6 in 15 years for accusations of unjustified killings, in particular, or any atrocity or what would be deemed a war crime, mutilating a body.
You know, one thing that I didn’t mention before, and one of the things that needs to be said, is that what they were doing, in large part, was a form of psychological warfare. I spoke to several SEAL Team 6 members and people who worked with SEAL Team 6 who witnessed war crimes, who said that this was a message that they were sending, and they felt encouraged to send, to al-Qaeda, to the Taliban, that they, too, fought dirty. And that, to me, was one of—I mean, you know, in a large sense, this has been going on since the beginning of time, in terms of warfare. But with such a professional force, it was really startling to hear that America’s most heralded unit, the best of the best, the “President’s Own,” were so emotionally involved with this war and these battles that they felt the need to conduct a form of psychological warfare on the enemy.
And what I think—what I took away from this investigation, what I hope happens is that the senior leaders of the command, who knew about it or should have known about it, are held to account from the standpoint of their ability to be promoted. And I think—we put this story out now. It comes at the end of the Obama administration. It is a very thorough accounting of what this unit became, first under President Bush and then under President Obama. And the senior leaders who knew about it, who failed to hold their men to account, are now senior people inside JSOC and special operations who end up being who President Trump will have at his beck and call to conduct operations. And that is the significance. The real significance here is, is a lot of this is history, but when no one gets punished and people get promoted, you’re bringing that history forward. And you’re saying to people who made decisions when they were, you know, young officers, who are now—have stars on their lapels, who are making serious decisions for the United States and making recommendations to the president about what they’re going to do on a mission or in general in a war zone, they are now in positions of great responsibility and authority, and there has been no accounting. So, if there was something that we hoped could happen out of this, it would be that some of these people’s careers would effectively end. Not fired. There’s—you know, there’s very little chance that anyone will look back into and reopen these investigations. This is more about trying to determine whether particular officers who had served at SEAL Team 6 did their job, whether they, you know, did what they were supposed to do, which was provide law and order.
AMY GOODMAN: And the names of the officers you feel should be challenged?
MATTHEW COLE: There are three in particular that my story goes into. One is current Rear Admiral Hugh Wyman Howard, who is a one-star admiral at JSOC. Another is rear admiral, two-star, Tim Szymanski, who is the commander of WARCOM, which is the overall SEAL command out in California, is effectively the highest-ranking SEAL or the—in charge of all Navy SEALs in the Navy. And Captain Pete Vasely, Peter Vasely, who is—who may in fact be—have already made promotion to admiral, who is—also has a senior position inside JSOC. These are people who have—and, by the way, we spent months, in some cases years, trying to get these people to answer questions, to talk to us. They refused. The military refused to respond to this story for five months, with dozens of questions, specific questions, to get them to say, “Hey, we’d like your help here.” And it was total silence. Total silence.
AMY GOODMAN: And your allegations of what Vasely did?
MATTHEW COLE: Vasely initially reported the beheading in Afghanistan in 2007, but, effectively, allowed Slabinski to cover it up. And so, there was a—in a very subtle way, he made sure that there were no charges. And he—there was pressure applied to him from above to make the charges go away, and he did his duty. He certainly was fully aware of what occurred in that room, and walked away from it.
AMY GOODMAN: And Howard?
MATTHEW COLE: Howard was—Howard is a very interesting individual. He is a descendant of an admiral, a long history of naval officers in his family, graduate of the Naval Academy. And Wyman—he’s known as Wyman in the SEAL world. Wyman Howard was commander of Red Squadron. And he came up with the idea of purchasing $600 custom-made hatchets to give to his men, because their unit insignia and moniker was a Native American warrior. They wear patches. They have tattoos. He thought it would be great to give them a hatchet and then encourage them to wear them on the battlefield. They had no military purpose whatsoever. And then he would—he would tell some of his men and others that he wanted them to go out and bloody their hatchet. And it was largely a euphemism, but not unlike the way Britt Slabinski tells his men that he wants a head on a platter, what occurred was people started using those hatchets to hack bodies and commit war crimes with them. And Howard later became the commander, overall commander, of SEAL Team 6 and has had, frankly, quite a rising career. And when you look deeply at some of the things that happened under his command, it’s quite disturbing. And that’s the point, you know, that no one has looked deeply at what’s occurred.
AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama’s knowledge of all of this?
MATTHEW COLE: Can’t speculate. I mean, I—you know, on the bin Laden raid, obviously, he has very good knowledge. But, you know, overall, my impression and what I’ve been told is that the—what was so, you know, in a way, sinister about what occurred on the battlefield by SEAL Team 6 was their way—their ability to suppress the information from getting out beyond even to the admiral level or the generals level. They kept it in the unit. And so, I don’t know, you know, who knew or how many people knew. I certainly know that senior leaders at JSOC had an idea. They certainly—I’ve spoken to some officers from JSOC who said, “We feared it. We had inclinations. But we never could prove anything.” And, you know, I think that’s probably largely true for a lot of people. “We feared it, but we couldn’t prove anything.”
AMY GOODMAN: And, Matthew Cole, the difference between your piece for The Intercept, your piece called “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6,” and The New York Times in the summer of 2015, “SEAL Team 6: A Secret History of Quiet Killings and Blurred Lines”?
MATTHEW COLE: The Times did a very good job of introducing the public to some of the darker side of SEAL Team 6, which—you know, that article was very well reported. And what it did was it raised a lot of questions, I think. But it didn’t provide a whole lot of answers. And what I tried to do was get past that, which was there was a lot there. And they—their story, in particular, quotes, on the record, Britt Slabinski denying that he ever gave an order to kill all men on an operation, that the young man who—young SEAL who was cutting off the head of another—of a militant had done anything other than having his knife slipped when he was trying to get, you know, military equipment off of a dead body. And my story pieces together what really happened.
And one of the things that was so interesting was that SEAL Team 6 has essentially a—what we call a rock of shame. They have a rock that sits in one of their senior leaders’ offices that has names on of former SEAL Team 6 members that are no longer welcome to come to the command physically. And two names that are on there are Matthew Bissonnette and Rob O’Neill from the bin Laden raid, because of their publicity. After The New York Times article was published, Britt Slabinski’s name was added to that list. And I was talking to my source, who had told me about it, and he was—he was disgusted, but he said—and I think we quoted him in the story—he said, “That’s the problem with SEAL Team 6. They didn’t put his name on after they blacklisted him for suspicion of war crimes. They put his name on after he went and spoke on the record and lied to the press.”
And, you know, I felt—we felt we had to put that in there to explain sort of the full narrative of what the values are, sort of how the values are off at SEAL Team 6. The Times did a very good job with their story, but it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t go deep enough. And I won’t speculate as to why. I’m glad that they did the story. I think we need to have more stories about SEAL Team 6 that are not putting them on a pedestal. They do great work. They do important things. I’m not vilifying them in any way. But they need to be held to account, because the secrecy has insulated them, and their elite stature has insulated them from any kind of accountability or justice.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we turn to another of Donald Trump’s picks for his Cabinet. This piece in The Intercept is headlined “Trump’s Pick for Interior Secretary Was Caught in ‘Pattern of Fraud’ at SEAL Team 6.” In it, Matthew Cole writes, “A Montana lawmaker tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be secretary of the interior committed travel fraud when he was a member of the elite Navy SEAL Team 6, according to three former unit leaders and a military consultant. In announcing the nomination of Republican [Rep.] Ryan Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL commander, Trump praised his military background. [He said,] ‘As a former Navy SEAL, he has incredible leadership skills and an attitude of doing [whatever] it takes to win.'” Matthew Cole, you dug deep into Zinke’s history. Talk about what he did as a Navy SEAL and why, ultimately, he was forced out.
MATTHEW COLE: So, Congressman Zinke was a member of SEAL Team 6 as a mid-career officer and junior officer in the 1990s. And he—during the war in Bosnia, in which SEAL Team 6 was assigned, he frequently came home to the United States after a deployment and, instead of coming back to Virginia Beach, would fly to Montana, where he’s from, Whitefish, and work on a house that he had there, that he was hoping to live in when he retired. And he did this several times and was warned, I think after one or two times, that what he was doing was travel fraud. He was expensing it to the U.S. government and calling it work, when in fact it was personal. And he was warned verbally not to do it, and then he got caught doing it again. And after he shifted positions inside SEAL Team 6, the people who followed him discovered his paperwork and realized he had been—he had a long pattern of it. And so they brought it to the command’s attention.
And the command—this was in 1999 or 2000, before the wars—decided that he had to leave the unit. They were going to, you know, spank him. But he wasn’t going to—they weren’t going to punish him or reprimand him in any way. And as one source said to me, the commander of—commanding officer of SEAL Team 6 at the time said, “We don’t want to punish him, because it will hurt his family. He’s got a family, and, you know, he’ll lose pay. And we don’t want to do that. He’s a nice guy.” And so, they wrote his evaluation report in such a way that he wouldn’t be allowed into SEAL Team 6, but he could leave the unit and continue on as a—in his career as an officer in the Navy SEALs. And that’s exactly what happened.
And, you know, in a lot of ways, Zinke is sort of too small a crook to be nominated for Trump’s Cabinet. But it gets at the issue of integrity and leadership in SEAL Team 6, the officer corps. And here was someone who made some serious mistakes and—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain further what he did and how many times he did it.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, oh, I’m not sure the specific number of times. We were told multiple times, in the range of four or five times. He would fly out to Montana and claim that it was some kind of SEAL Team 6-related endeavor. Publicly, he has stated that these were training trips. My understanding is, is that he never claimed that they were training trips, and that, in fact, what he was doing was helping to rebuild or renovate a house that he intended to live in when he retired from the military. He was—he’s a native of Whitefish, Montana. And so, he got caught. I couldn’t get a sense, actually, of—my sources couldn’t remember, because it was a long time ago—how much money was the total dollar figures.
He has—in his 2014 campaign, to give him his side of it, he reported that he wrote a check—returned a check to the Navy for something like $214, that covered a travel voucher that he did, and that he had been duly punished for this. He had made a poor decision. He didn’t—he portrayed it as a—something that was justifiable, but that the Navy ultimately decided they wouldn’t pay for.
My sources, who were both contemporaries of his at the time at SEAL Team 6, as well as senior to him, said that that was not an honest portrayal, that he in fact did it several more times than that and for higher amounts, and that there was nothing close to a justifiable reason for his travel. He was spending government time and resources for his own personal efforts on a home, essentially.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what kind of response—you wrote this in December, after, of course, Donald Trump chose him to be his nominee for secretary of interior. What kind of response did you get to your piece?
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, you know, a lot of silence. I mean, Zinke has still never responded. The Trump team, the transition team, called me to say that—they didn’t dispute any facts in the story. They only said this was old news. And, you know, they had confidence, the president-elect had confidence in the congressman.
AMY GOODMAN: They called you because you called them?
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, we had called—we had sought comment before the story ran. They responded after the story published. Zinke’s team never responded. You know, there’s been some response. Actually, a lot of people from Montana responded to our story, on both sides, saying that he was honorable, other side saying that, you know, he was terrible. And he’s their congressman, so it’s a political issue. I think I do—I do know—and it wasn’t in this piece, but there is more to—you know, he had some subsequent positions in the Navy SEALs that were—had some—there were some ethical flags raised in those positions, as well, towards the end of his career. And we may or may not get to those in the coming days. But there was—this was not an isolated incident, is the sense that I have from talking to folks who were in the Navy with him.
AMY GOODMAN: And he was forced to leave?
MATTHEW COLE: He was effectively forced to leave SEAL Team 6. He was not officially forced to leave the Navy. He retired at retirement age.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain the difference.
MATTHEW COLE: The difference between being forced to leave versus?
AMY GOODMAN: Forced to leave SEAL Team 6 but not the Navy.
MATTHEW COLE: So, SEAL Team 6 has—and any unit can do this, but there are effective ways to get someone to move on, which is that when their time is up, when their pre-assigned task is over, their assignment, the evaluation is written in such a manner, as I understand it, that they cannot get another job within that command afterwards, because of the way the evaluation is written. And so, you’re never fired. You are never dismissed. You are—your time is up, and you are quietly told that you just won’t be able to come back here. But no one else is told, going forward, in any other assignment that you get, that that’s what happened to you.
AMY GOODMAN: You write about a celebration, a reunion, really, of Navy SEALs back in Virginia at the headquarters. Describe where that his and what happened.
MATTHEW COLE: So, each year in October, SEAL Team 6 has what it calls its annual stump muster, which is like a reunion, and it brings back old members of the command, original members of the command, people who have just recently retired, current members and their families. And, you know, they—it’s a party. And my story ends with a former senior leader of the command who went back in October of 2011. The organization, the headquarters, had just completed a $100 million building and facility and essentially were christening it. And it was under the command then of Captain Wyman Howard, who had just taken over at SEAL Team 6.
And he was—this former SEAL team leader was standing in a group with old friends, and he was handed a portfolio, a ring-bound book. And he opened it up, and someone said to him, “This is our greatest hits.” And he looked down, and they were a collection of canoed heads since 9/11. And what he realized, and I subsequently was able to confirm, was that this collection was not the private collection of some member of SEAL Team 6. This was the SEAL Team 6 official collection and photo book that they were sending around as entertainment at a private party, essentially, but out in the open. And the senior who saw it decided after he left—he was disgusted with what he saw, and decided he was never going to—he has not gone back to the command for a reunion since, because of how upset he was with the lack of morality and the sort of, you know, bloodlust and glee, you know, the gleefulness around essentially what is their professional work.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole, I want to thank you for being with us, national security reporter for The Intercept. We’ll link to his new exposé, just out, “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6.” This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.
JANUARY 10 and 11, 2017
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They bombed al-Jazeera’s reporters. Now the US is after our integrity (2010)
January 9, 2015
A lot can change in five years. In December 2005 the Guardian opened its pages for me to respond to a leak – the Bush-Blair memo in which both leaders discussed the possibility of bombing Al-Jazeera’s Qatar HQ, where more than 1,000 people work. While those who leaked the memo were imprisoned, its detailed contents were never disclosed. Earlier this year I learned from a senior US official that the discussions had indeed taken place.
I was not surprised. Our bureaus in Kabul and Iraq had previously been bombed by the US in an attempt to stifle the channel’s independence; one of our journalists in Iraq was killed. But this did not deter us from our mission to provide “the opinion and the other opinion” – our motto; to give a voice to the voiceless; to hold centres of power to account; and to uphold our editorial independence no matter what the cost. We maintained these values even as the US bombed our offices, continuing our coverage of both sides of the story.
The Arab world, the region in which we are located, continues to see its share of bloodshed and war. Our audience, often the victim of these conflicts, demands honesty, credibility and integrity. If we get a story wrong, or are biased, it could mean the difference between life and death for viewers. They have come to expect independence as a standard.
This week our independence was once again called into question. Cables from the US embassy in Doha were made accessible by WikiLeaks, alleging that Qatar was using Al-Jazeera as a tool for its foreign policy. While nothing could be further from the truth, US diplomats had the freedom to express their opinions. But interpretation and conjecture cannot take the place of analysis and fact. They focused on the source of our funding rather than our reporting, in an attempt to tarnish our work. Judgments made in the cables are plainly erroneous, such as the assertion that we softened our coverage of Saudi Arabia and the Iranian elections due to political pressure – one needs only to look at our reporting of these events to see that this is not the case. We are journalists not politicians – we are not driven by political agendas, for or against anyone.
Journalists across the world picked up the story, and while some were careful to place it in context, many uncritically took the claims as fact. The Guardian’s report went well beyond even what was stated in the cables; the article clearly misunderstood the rhetorical statements reportedly made by Qatar’s prime minister, which then fed the false claim that al-Jazeera was being used as a “bargaining chip”. Those who understand the Middle East also know that Al-Jazeera’s coverage is no obstacle to a durable peace in the region. Context, analysis and a deep knowledge of the region are essential to a proper reading of the cables. Without these, journalism is another unwitting tool for centres of power.
The region where we are situated is host to some of the most repressive governments in the world, where freedom of expression is silenced, journalists languish in prisons, and independent civil institutions are rare. Allegations that we lack independence are part of our daily routine – they no longer surprise us.
But we take measures to protect our editorial integrity in spite of intimidation from governments and regimes – our journalists have been banned, imprisoned, tortured and killed. Al-Jazeera’s bureaus have routinely been closed, many times by Arab regimes with which Qatar has good relationships. Although banned in these countries, we continue to cover their stories with depth and balance. To institutionalise our independence we have ensured diversity among our staff, and have more than 50 nationalities represented – with no majority of any one nationality.
Questions about al-Jazeera’s independence and its relationship with Qatar, our primary source of funding, are asked in almost any interview I give. Because the region has a history of state-controlled media it’s assumed our host country must impact upon our editorial policy. But the Qatari government has kept its distance – it is similar to the kind of model one sees in other publicly funded arm’s length broadcasters such as the BBC. Qatar’s prime minister openly criticises al-Jazeera, and has talked about the “headaches” caused by our independence. But we subject state officials to the same hard questions and journalistic standards we have for everyone else. Al-Jazeera has strong editorial policies to protect its independence from the influence of power – one only has to look at the screen to witness this.
While we don’t claim to get it right all of the time (we are only human), we have got it right most of the time. We have placed a great deal of value on reporting from the field. Had the US diplomats actually watched al-Jazeera’s reports, they would have heard the voices and players who were shaping conflicts, wars and emerging democracies. By analysing our content they would have gained insights into the region. When George Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq and most media outlets echoed his simplistic version of events, al-Jazeera was providing pictures and analyses that predicted the coming storm. At the time we were roundly criticised, often by states who had friendly relations with Qatar. And in Afghanistan, while others broadcast images of progress and calm, al-Jazeera highlighted the growing influence of the Taliban, reflecting the politics on the ground. In these cases and many others, time has vindicated our reporting. Had these diplomats listened to the voices reflected in our coverage perhaps some of their mistakes could have been averted.
Those who lobby against al-Jazeera seek to delegitimise the work of dedicated and courageous journalists who put their lives on the line. For 14 years we have committed ourselves to safeguarding our editorial independence. Our audiences rely on us for this, and we will not be affected by pressure from regimes, states, media or other centres of power. We have full confidence in our mission as journalists.
The Guardian, Friday 10 December 2010 21.46 GMT
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Guantánamo Bay files: Al-Jazeera cameraman held for six years (2011)<< oudere artikelen
January 9, 2015
An al-Jazeera journalist was held at Guantánamo for six years partly in order to be interrogated about the Arabic news network, the files disclose. Sami al-Hajj, a Sudanese cameraman, was detained in Pakistan after working for the network in Afghanistan after 9/11, and flown to the prison camp where he was allegedly beaten and sexually assaulted.
His file makes clear that one of the reasons he was sent to Guantánamo was “to provide information on … the al-Jazeera news network’s training programme, telecommunications equipment, and newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan, including the network’s acquisition of a video of UBL [Osama bin Laden] and a subsequent interview with UBL”.
The file shows that the camp authorities were convinced that al-Hajj was an al-Qaida courier who had provided funds for a charity in Chechnya suspected of having links with Bin Laden.
However, the contents of the file also appear to support complaints made by al-Hajj to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, that during his first 100-plus interrogations he was never once questioned about the allegations he faced, and that he eventually demanded that he be questioned about what he was supposed to have done wrong.
Stafford Smith believes the US military authorities were attempting to force al-Hajj to become an informer against his employers.
Al-Hajj was finally released in May 2008.
The Guardian, Monday 25 April 2011
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