Of Reputations Lost: The New York Times and SEAL Team Six

Over the weekend, the normally stolid New York Times published an almost hysterical screed targeting the operators of the Navy’s SEAL Team Six. The article accused them of a variety of war crimes, including the unprovoked murder of civilians, the summary execution of enemy combatants, the mutilation of corpses and the use of snipers to kill little girls.

In sensationalist prose, Mark Mazzetti, Nicholas Kulish, Christopher Drew, Serge F. Kovaleski, Sean D. Naylor, and John Ismay enumerated a litany of despicable acts supposedly carried out by SEAL Team Six— an outfit they depicted as out of control and running amok in the shadows of America’s secret war against terror.

I was disgusted to read these allegations, though I did try not to take them personally. I am a former Assault Element Commander who served at SEAL Team Six. I have commanded SEALs in combat, and my experience in the unit and my knowledge of the men and women who serve there makes it impossible for me to believe what I have read. Let me share my doubts.

In SEAL Team 6: A Secret History of Quiet Killings and Blurred Lines, murder, mutilation and beatings are described in lurid detail—the authors even allege that SEAL operators used “primeval” tomahawks to kill Afghan civilians. Could this be true? The article is certainly gripping and tries to make a case marshaling allegations and very few facts. Missing are the names of the alleged perpetrators, the dates and locations of their crimes, and something, or anything, resembling motive. Unfortunately, the motives of Misters Mazzetti, Kulish, Drew, Kovaleski, Naylor and Ismay might be easier to guess at. Their article has been splashed in headlines around the world.

While the most serious allegations in the article are made by anonymous parties, the credibility of their accusations is uniformly marginal. Drawing on second- and sometimes third-hand information, apparently from the ‘war stories’ of unnamed persons, the authors do not once offer hard evidence. They do, however, shovel a great deal of blood curdling hearsay. Though a handful of former operators did speak on the record about injuries SEALs themselves receive, most of the article’s scabrous innuendo was gleaned from non-SEALs, officers from other units and civilian academics.

After making allegations about summary executions in an unnamed Afghan village, the authors solicited comment from United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), who, perhaps understandably, “Would not comment on SEAL Team Six”.

Ominous? Perhaps, until one is informed that despite a grand and omniscient sounding name, the United States Special Operations Command has nothing to do with the manning, training, organization or operational control of SEAL Team Six.

Nothing.

Where an organizational fire-wall was an insufficient clue to the authors (and their editors), a geographical one might suffice. SOCOM is located on an Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida– more than 900 miles from the SEAL’s base in Virginia. SEAL Team Six’s parent organization, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), is located in North Carolina and shares nothing with SOCOM except the words “Special” and “Operations.” Though JSOC is mentioned in the article, and accused of exonerating SEALs after numerous investigations, the authors apparently did not choose to print statements from the Public Affairs Officers of either SEAL Team Six or JSOC.

Because it was cobbled together by so many different people, the article is studded with contradictions. The authors decry the needless violence of SEAL missions carried out “in dark rooms with few witnesses” and in the next paragraph state “Team 6 members often operate under the watchful eyes of their commanders — officers at overseas operations centers… can routinely view live surveillance feeds of raids provided by drones high above.” Which is it? Few witnesses, or control centers full of direct video feeds?

In plain fact, SEAL missions are very frequently streamed live via satellite. Yet the article laments, “Even the military’s civilian overseers do not regularly examine the unit’s operations.” That allegation, too, is flat wrong.

Within hours of the Bin Laden raid, the White House press office foisted on the world the now-famous ‘situation room photograph’— showing the President, the Secretaries of Defense and State, along with ten other civilians who watched the SEAL’s Abbottabad operation live as it unfolded. Twenty-first century technology makes it possible for the Commander in Chief of the US military to view missions as they unfold, not only by circling drones, but also with footage beamed from individual operator’s helmet cameras.

Closer civilian supervision can hardly be imagined.

Presuming for a moment that this same technology makes it possible to witness any SEAL Team mission, carried out anywhere on the planet, one might ask what command centers full of Admirals, Generals, Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries have come to think of the ‘war crimes’ the New York Times believes the SEALs carry out on a weekly, if not nightly, basis.

Are the SEALs operating outside Command and Control? Hardly.

In a further contradiction, the authors admit that on most SEAL missions “no shots are fired.” SEALs prefer to operate at night, and to use stealth as their principal weapon, striking and withdrawing before the enemy is even aware of their presence. The most successful intelligence gathering missions are those accomplished without arousing the attention of either the enemy or the civilian population that harbors them. In the parlance of Special Operations, this is called “economy of force.”

Yet even when SEALs accomplished these missions, the authors complained “a number of detainees had broken noses after SEALs punched them in struggles to subdue them.” As though that were not sufficiently absurd, the authors go on to question why SEAL Team Six found it necessary to kill the captors of an unnamed American hostage during a rescue operation.

Perhaps it was because the captors were holding an American hostage.

The nadir of this tripe comes when an unnamed SEAL operator alleges that a Team Six sniper shot and killed three unarmed people, including a little girl. In what country this occurred is not clear, though it might possibly be Afghanistan. Like the location and the shooter, the date can only be guessed at. Did this happen? It is extremely unlikely. In the first place, the wanton shooting of unarmed non-combatants makes no sense, moral or tactical. Shooting into a crowded square would not only reveal the hidden location of the team, but also serve to enrage the surrounding populace. In the second place, presuming this “sniper” was not operating alone (and SEALs do not operate solo), directing a person in the US military to shoot, or deliberately wound, an unarmed person or prisoner is an unlawful order. The mere act of ordering such an action is, in itself, a crime. Witnessing this action, and concealing it is conspiracy. Also a crime.

Of all of the accusations, this is the one I find so appalling, because I have operated as a counter-sniper and I have witnessed with my own eyes the wretchedness and evil of random shooters. I encourage the authors and the accuser to come forward, name the guilty party, and specify charges. Should this story prove to be false, grossly exaggerated, or apocryphal, I would expect any responsible journalist to retract it and issue apology.

In this case, with these writers, that is probably too much to hope for.

In my career I have never seen nor would I tolerate the harming of any innocent person, or prisoner or noncombatant. No officer, Chief Petty Officer, Petty officer or operator I have ever known would stand by and watch a corpse be desecrated. Frankly, we don’t care enough to do it. We are trained from the first day to subtract emotion and hatred from operations. We are technicians. We hit them, and then we forget them.

Unfortunately, no action will be taken against the six scribblers who produced this libelous sludge. The Times itself is unlikely to issue a retraction or clarification, and will, instead, attempt to ride out the controversy in self-satisfied silence.

While this happens, the men and women who serve at SEAL Team Six will continue to serve their country by putting themselves in harm’s way and between us and our enemies. Their service will be carried out without fanfare or clamor or desire for fame– because the men and women who serve us in this fight are the true “Silent Professionals.”

Chuck Pfarrer is a former Assault Element Commander at SEAL Team Six. He is the New York Times bestselling author of SEAL Target Geronimo: Inside the Mission to Kill Osama Bin Laden, and Warrior Soul: The memoir of a Navy SEAL. Pfarrer serves presently as an Associate Editor of The Counterterrorist Journal and is a distinguished fellow of the US Naval Special Warfare Institute.


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