Navy SEALs are the toast of America, but revelations show that the top brass has not always watched their backs during the Obama administration.
SEALs have brought exhilarating moments for the White House. The storied SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 and rescued U.S. cargo ship captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009. Hollywood transformed both operations into blockbuster movies — with the administration’s help.
But some in the special operations community cite shabby treatment.
A book by Billy Vaughn, father of a SEAL killed in the Aug. 6, 2011, shootdown of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan, blames the administration for leaking too much information about his son’s unit.
Another book by two former SEALs tells the “shameful ordeal” they endured based on allegations of prisoner abuse by one unreliable sailor and one determined terrorist. Instead of issuing gratitude for nabbing the “butcher of Fallujah” in Iraq in 2009, U.S. Central Command court-martialed the SEALs on felony charges.
The two authors and a third SEAL were acquitted by military juries when the prosecution’s case fall apart.
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One of those former SEALs, Matthew McCabe, said in an interview that the ordeal encouraged him to leave the Navy last year rather than try out for Team 6 as he had planned.
“At that point, I really was thinking, ‘We gave a lot to be in this position. And for the minor allegation we’re being accused of, for you to turn your back on us that quick, I’m not going to give any more,’” said Mr. McCabe, now a commodities analyst in Houston. “I’m done with what’s going on. Should I go to work every day and give 1,000 percent if at the drop of a dime someone is going to stab me in the back? I’m not going to do that.”
The Pentagon said last week that it plans to take punitive action against a former SEAL Team 6 member for writing an unauthorized book about his role in killing bin Laden.
The threat was made even though the White House leaked a huge amount of details about the raid and cooperated in the making of “Dark Zero Thirty,” for which the film’s director received CIA briefings.
Courts-martial for capture
In 2010, pro-military lawmakers and citizens expressed outrage that U.S. Central Command had filed charges against Mr. McCabe and two other SEALs in the capture of Ahmed Hashim Abed. One of the most-wanted by the U.S., Abed was the accused mastermind of the slayings and desecrations of four American security contractors in the volatile town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in 2004.
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The SEAL unit had executed a precise raid to infiltrate Abed’s hiding place, capture him and whisk him away in a chopper. No one was hurt.
The SEALs were stunned to learn days later that Abed had accused the three of hitting him. Their superiors, all the way up to Central Command, sided with the terrorist. No one believed their repeated denials. This was a setup, they said.
A master chief petty officer confronted them and demanded their weapons, a devastating scene rendered in the book “Honor and Betrayal,” written by Patrick Robinson, as told by Mr. McCabe and fellow former SEAL Jonathan Keefe.
“Right here it should be recorded that to strip a U.S. Navy SEAL of his armaments is almost to strip him of his birthright,” Mr. Robinson writes. “These men have darn near killed themselves to earn the right to serve their country. To line them up and remove their ever-present combat gear was also to strip them of their dignity, pride and honor.”
Three successive courts-martial showed Abed to be following the al Qaeda textbook: Once captured, claim to have been abused. The credibility of the accusing sailor collapsed under cross-examination.
A Central Command spokesman declined to comment on the book.
Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, who filed the charges as Central Command’s top commando, defended his action in a letter to Congress as the courts-martial were about to begin in 2010.
“Regrettably, it appears that your perception of the incident is based on incomplete and factually inaccurate press coverage,” wrote Gen. Cleveland, who is now commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command. “Despite what has been reported, these allegations are not founded solely on the word of the detainee, but rather, were initially raised by other U.S. service members.”
Mr. McCabe said he still feels betrayed.
“The ‘betrayal’ in the book title is directed at the couple of guys in that leadership position and then everyone above that who was part of it,” he said. “We got betrayed by them. Not the military as a whole, not the country. Ninety percent of the military is awesome. There are always bad eggs everywhere. Anybody who condoned this to go on and knew about it, that’s who we got betrayed by.”
A year after the courts-martial, SEALs were victimized again — this time on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Some family members say their sons were let down by a military command that sent them on a poorly planned mission.
One of the fathers, Billy Vaughn, has written a book, “Betrayed: The Shocking True Story of Extortion 17 as Told by a Navy SEAL’s Father.”
Extortion 17 was the call sign for a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in which 30 U.S. service members, including 17 SEALs and five naval special operators, rode to their deaths on Aug. 6, 2011.
Mr. Vaughn, father of Chief Petty Officer Aaron Vaughn, writes that he reached a heartbreaking conclusion as he looked into the crash.
“We quickly came face-to-face with our worst nightmare,” he and his wife, Karen, write on their website. “Our boys shouldn’t have died that night. The downing of Extortion 17 was at best unnecessary and at worst a negligent, reckless loss of life.”
The Taliban’s accuracy with a rocket-propelled grenade that night marked the most fatalities for naval special operators in any single day of the war on terrorism.
The Washington Times on Oct. 20 published a lengthy report about the tragedy based on 1,300 pages of investigative transcripts and reports.
U.S. commanders told investigators that Extortion 17’s landing zone in the Tangi Valley was not scrutinized for threats, and two Apache gunships did not cover for the approaching Chinook.
Other witnesses said the mission was assembled hastily and that the Chinook lost the element of surprise because the Apaches and an AC-130 gunship had been flying overhead noisily for three hours looking for fleeing Taliban fighters.
Some family members say the men never should have been put on a conventional helicopter flying into a hotbed of Taliban activity. Commandos, especially the elite SEAL Team 6, should ride in specially configured helicopters that are faster, better protected, and guided by special operations pilots.
Some family members also suspect that a traitor in the Afghan security force tipped off the Taliban in Tangi Valley. That is how, they say, Taliban with rocket-propelled grenades were standing just 100 yards away from a landing zone that the command had never used.
‘No Easy Day’
Last week, the Pentagon made it clear that it plans to take action against former SEAL Matt Bissonnette. It says he violated a signed nondisclosure agreement by writing “No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the administration is in discussions with Mr. Bissonnette’s attorney and is ready to sue the ex-SEAL in civil court.
“The department continues to assert forcefully that this individual breached his legal obligations by publishing the book without pre-publication review and clearance,” Mr. Little said. “We’re also poised to pursue civil litigation, if necessary, for the author’s breach.”
A reporter noted that Mr. Bissonnette also was part of the operation that saved a U.S. cargo ship captain from the hands of Somali pirates. Hollywood turned the 2009 rescue into the feature film “Captain Phillips,” with the Navy’s help.
“Do you think this is somewhat ironic and maybe the department should lay off or ease off?” a reporter said.
“When you are in material breach of your contract with the Department of Defense, that’s action worth pursuing in our minds,” Mr. Little said. “So I think our position is clear and has been clear from the very beginning. And I wouldn’t change a word about what I’ve said over the past year since this issue came to light.”
Mr. Bissonnette’s supporters say the White House, Pentagon and CIA anonymously released scads of details about the bin Laden raid, perhaps even more than are revealed in “No Easy Day.”
They say that, if the Pentagon wants commandos to honor agreements, it should set a better example.