Navy SEALs: A battle for the conscience

Thursday, September 6, 2012 - 9:00am

Deep inside the military's special operations forces there is a crisis of conscience unfolding. The publication of "No Easy Day," a former Navy SEAL's account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, is forcing many to rethink a fundamental point of military honor. How much should America's commandos talk about what they do?

It's a debate that goes beyond disclosure of classified information, which is a crime. The discussion now centers on honor, ethics and cultural values inside the ranks.

"This is a battle for the conscience of the SEALs," a recently retired senior SEAL told me.

He served for decades in operational positions in the force, and has never told me any of the details of his missions. For years he did what every SEAL has done: Go on raids, find targets and, if necessary, kill them. It's what the nation asks of them.

The question now: Is the SEAL community taking that Tom Clancy superman image and turning it into celebrity? "Was No Easy Day" indeed that last straw?

"It's a generational thing that is happening to some extent," the retired SEAL said. Some younger SEALs who have grown up in the age of the Internet and instant online communications simply feel it's their right to talk about their work, as long as they can claim it's not classified, he said.

This senior SEAL said he and his peers grew up in a generation where "we don't talk about what we do," and he feels it should be kept that way.

In fact, the chief Navy SEAL wrote a scathing e-mail to his 2,500 troops, which began with the fundamental SEAL ethos.

"We do NOT advertise the nature of our work, NOR do we seek recognition for our actions," said Rear Adm. Sean Pybus.

Pybus told the men he is "disappointed, embarrassed and concerned" that troops are now openly speaking and writing about what they do.

"Most of us have always thought that the privilege of working with some of our nation's toughest warriors on challenging missions would be enough to be proud of, with no further compensation or celebrity required.

"Today, we find former SEALs headlining positions in a presidential campaign; hawking details about a mission against Enemy Number 1; and generally selling other aspects of NSW training and operations."

Pybus continued:

"For an Elite Force that should be humble and disciplined for life, we are certainly not appearing to be so. We owe our chain of command much better than this."

Every SEAL, indeed everyone in U.S. military special operations units, knows exactly what Pybus is saying. He's warning that fundamental trust is at risk. And the risk is on many levels, from the campfire to the Oval Office.

Matt Bissonnette wrote in his book about casual chatter among SEALs, which he portrayed as less than supportive of President Obama. An Army special operations guy who read that passage was shocked.

"That's just 'team talk' around the fire," he said.

Does anybody expect that to show up in a book? The men on these small covert units literally place their lives in the hands of each other. They trust that they'll keep each others' confidence. And confidence must be unshakeable at the highest levels.

Pybus' reference to a chain of command is read by some to mean only one thing: the president of the United States. A president has to fundamentally believe when he sends SEALs on a secret mission to kill the world's top terrorist that those in the rank and file aren't going to start talking.

Of course, there has been plenty of chatter about Obama administration officials themselves talking too much about the raid. Now there has been outright admission classified information was exposed.

Pentagon spokesman George Little acknowledged classified information about the raid did get out in the hours and days after bin Laden was killed.

"We were all deeply concerned, not just in this building, but elsewhere in the administration, about the disclosure of highly classified information that made its way out the door," he said. "I don't know precisely who did it, but it shouldn't have happened. And many of us tried to keep some of those sensitive details, particularly those involving sources and methods, from making their way to press reports."

Little was the CIA spokesman at the time of the raid.

But many believe there is a difference between Pentagon officials disseminating information and rank and file members of the military sharing it. If service members want to write a book, the material has to be reviewed before publication. If a service member believes he or she needs to bring wrongdoing to light, there are procedures within the military for whistle-blowing. Bissonnette did not follow the rules, the Pentagon said.

In fact, in the book's introduction, Bissonnette justifies his book, writing "It is time to set the record straight" and, "This book will finally give credit to those who earned it." It's odd phrasing, because so many, including Pybus and Adm. William McRaven, the head of all 65,000 special operations forces across the military, think the SEALs have received plenty of credit around the world for killing bin Laden.

Both admirals are agonizing over the emergence of SEALs as celebrities as well as political operatives.

McRaven is aiming squarely at a group of former SEALs actively opposing President Barack Obama. The admiral is referring to the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, which has sponsored a Web video featuring former special forces officers accusing the president of taking too much credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden and allowing classified information about the raid to become public.

While McRaven said former SEALs have the right to express their opinions, he wants any link to the active duty force to be kept out of it. "By attaching a special operations moniker or a unit or service name to a political agenda, those individuals have now violated the most basic of our military principles," McRaven said in his e-mail message to the troops.

McRaven and Pybus know their worries are raising eyebrows. That's because the Pentagon itself has encouraged worldwide commercial interest in SEAL lore. In one case, top Pentagon and CIA officials offered their support for the upcoming "Zero Dark Thirty," a movie that Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow is making about the bin Laden raid.

Some in Congress have complained that the Pentagon and CIA should not have offered the filmmaker background briefings.

Active duty Navy SEALs also were given permission to perform in the Hollywood thriller "Act of Valor."

Also, Pentagon sources told CNN, SEALs are also working on two other Hollywood movies.

The recently retired senior SEAL summed up the problem for his brothers in arms since the Bin Laden raid: "We swallowed the golden egg. But now we can't get rid of it."
 

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