Commentary Magazine


Topic: Seal Team 6

Don’t Like the War on Islamist Terror? Trash SEAL Team 6.

Ours is an age dominated by cynicism. That’s especially true when it comes to the way our popular culture has depicted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in spite of that, the country still longs for heroes. That was made evident by the popularity of American Sniper, a biopic about a decorated member of the Navy SEALs, which became the most popular film in terms of box office in 2014. If any group deserves the title of heroes, it would seem to be the SEALs, whose daring operations against terrorists under difficult circumstances would seem to put them on a plane with the country’s most admired defenders, including those who fought in more popular and easier to understand conflicts in the past. But apparently not, according to the New York Times. Their front page feature in yesterday’s Sunday Times depicted a much darker story that portrayed SEAL Team 6, the unit that has attained legendary status for its successful strike on Osama bin Laden, as a “global manhunting machine” staffed by an unaccountable group of swaggering trigger-happy killers. The story leads one to wonder whether the editors at the Times think the U.S. should be fighting al-Qaeda and other terrorists and, if they do, how do think that war should be fought if not with tough warriors like the SEALs?

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Ours is an age dominated by cynicism. That’s especially true when it comes to the way our popular culture has depicted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in spite of that, the country still longs for heroes. That was made evident by the popularity of American Sniper, a biopic about a decorated member of the Navy SEALs, which became the most popular film in terms of box office in 2014. If any group deserves the title of heroes, it would seem to be the SEALs, whose daring operations against terrorists under difficult circumstances would seem to put them on a plane with the country’s most admired defenders, including those who fought in more popular and easier to understand conflicts in the past. But apparently not, according to the New York Times. Their front page feature in yesterday’s Sunday Times depicted a much darker story that portrayed SEAL Team 6, the unit that has attained legendary status for its successful strike on Osama bin Laden, as a “global manhunting machine” staffed by an unaccountable group of swaggering trigger-happy killers. The story leads one to wonder whether the editors at the Times think the U.S. should be fighting al-Qaeda and other terrorists and, if they do, how do think that war should be fought if not with tough warriors like the SEALs?

I don’t quibble with the decision to try and report about SEAL Team 6. The Navy’s special forces have played a key role in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban since 9/11. Despite the way the Obama administration trumpeted the killing of bin Laden and the success of films like American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty, and Lone Survivor, which all featured the SEALs, their operations have been understandably shrouded in secrecy leaving plenty of room for enterprising reporters to give us more background and details about how the SEALs work and what they’ve been doing.

The paper sent six reporters out into the field to investigate this unit, and the story they cobbled together was given its most prominent placement and ample space. But what they came up with is a jumble of quotes and anecdotes that doesn’t add up to much. It tells us that a small group of highly trained and motivated commandos have been carrying a disproportionate amount of the load of the wars America has been fighting. But if the best the Times can do is simply tell us that Navy SEALs “tend to swagger” and that in life-or-death situations when faced with armed opponents, things don’t always go as planned, then you have to wonder why the Times bothered to run this piece.

The notion that, of all of the functions of the U.S. government, it is SEAL Team 6 that deserves the kind of negative scrutiny and cynical trashing that makes up most of the substance of this story, tells us a lot about what the Times thinks about the fight against Islamist terror. Though the Times continually asserts throughout the piece, SEAL Team 6 is not being held accountable for its actions, what sort of war does it think America can fight against these terrorists if not a messy one in which people are going to get killed in large numbers under circumstances that are not as easily defined as those in wars where the opposing sides line up on opposite ends of a clearly marked battle field? Does it think such operations would operate more smoothly and with fewer casualties if there were Congressional committees or the Justice Department threatening SEALs with prosecutions for doing their duty under circumstances that defy conventional assumptions about war?

The story’s portrayal of the SEALs as a gung-ho band of killers who aren’t cut from the same cloth as even most of the other members of the Armed Forces doesn’t merit much response. Who exactly does the paper think should be fighting these battles except the kind of highly-trained and motivated forces that make up SEAL Team 6? As such, much of this piece can be merely dismissed as conventional background that tells us nothing that readers didn’t probably assume about the elite group without having to wade through a several thousand-word story.

But despite the way the authors peppered their prose with lines about “secret killings and blurred lines,” there’s very little here to justify all the language that seemed to point toward a portrayal of SEAL Team 6 as an out-of-control band of cutthroats.

There’s nothing to say that the unit has ever done anything but carry out orders from their Navy and Defense Department commanders. Nor is there any reporting that would even hint that the operations it has conducted in tandem with the CIA are illegal. Considering the way that President Obama took credit for SEAL Team 6’s attack on bin Laden’s compound, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that there is nothing this unit has done that wasn’t at the behest of the people at the very top of the defense pyramid.

Nor is there much here that points to misconduct. There is one story recounted in the piece that speaks of the SEALs killing eight schoolboys. But while the victims in question may have been enrolled in schools, the likelihood that they were armed makes it likely that this incident points to the problem of fighting a war in which the other side doesn’t wear uniforms, not to the Americans being bloodthirsty killers.

The SEALs have also been involved in many attempts to rescue hostages held by terrorists in the Middle East. But even that praiseworthy and highly dangerous activity generated attention from the Times in which reporters managed to dig up a couple of stories in which they might be portrayed negatively. One involved a mix-up during a rescue in which a hostage was killed by a grenade thrown by a SEAL at what he thought was an enemy. Another involved a confusing incident in which a rescued hostage seemed to think one of his captors — who had killed a SEAL rescuer — might have been killed after he was captured rather than before. But even that incident left the accuser awed by the efficiency of the unit and without any firm idea of what exactly had happened.

In other words, in several thousand words, the most readers come away with is a sense that this small unit has shouldered large responsibilities and suffered heavy casualties while compiling a record that appears to stand up very well to scrutiny. Call them a “global spying force” or the Pentagon’s “manhunting” outfit if you like, but does the Times or its no-doubt shocked liberal readership think America can fight terrorists on their home turf without such a force?

It may be that liberal elites chafe at the way ordinary Americans idolize warriors who are asked to operate in the shadows the way SEAL Team 6 had done. But all this sort of story accomplishes is to remind us just how great the disconnect is between the cynical worldview of the publishers of the Times and the gratitude the country feels for these men.

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Hollywood Gets OBL Info, SEAL Gets Sued

There’s plenty of disagreement over whether it was appropriate for SEAL Team 6 member Mark Owen — a pseudonym — to write a firsthand account of the Osama bin Laden raid. While I haven’t read the book myself, it seems (from interviews and excerpts) that Owen is not intending to spill tactical secrets or act in ways that are malicious and harmful to national security — despite the fact that he didn’t allow the Pentagon to vet the book beforehand and appears to have broken his non-disclosure agreement.

The question isn’t whether Owen should be held accountable for writing a book that may violate the non-disclosure agreement he signed with the Pentagon. Of course he should. But the controversy has also exposed the administration’s glaring double standard when it comes to classified information.

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There’s plenty of disagreement over whether it was appropriate for SEAL Team 6 member Mark Owen — a pseudonym — to write a firsthand account of the Osama bin Laden raid. While I haven’t read the book myself, it seems (from interviews and excerpts) that Owen is not intending to spill tactical secrets or act in ways that are malicious and harmful to national security — despite the fact that he didn’t allow the Pentagon to vet the book beforehand and appears to have broken his non-disclosure agreement.

The question isn’t whether Owen should be held accountable for writing a book that may violate the non-disclosure agreement he signed with the Pentagon. Of course he should. But the controversy has also exposed the administration’s glaring double standard when it comes to classified information.

The same administration that is suing Owen for his book reportedly gave unprecedented, classified access and assistance to Hollywood filmmakers working on a tick-tock movie about the mission. The difference? The Obama administration was providing the filmmakers with classified information that backed up its narrative about the bin Laden raid. Owen’s book, in contrast, is the only minute-by-minute account that the White House didn’t sign off on.

If the men who risked their lives in the bin Laden mission aren’t allowed to publicly give accounts of the raid, then the administration should honor that by also keeping quiet. Instead, the White House has pushed its authorized bin Laden narrative to the media and Hollywood, with selective release of classified information. This narrative has portrayed Obama and the administration in a favorable light, but as Owen’s book shows, it’s not the whole story.

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