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.
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.