Sep
22
How SEAL Team 6 Killed Osama bin Laden and turned mutilation into entertainment.


Here on Democracy Now!,
democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.
I’m Amy Goodman. We turn now to a stunning
new exposé published today in The Intercept about
the elite military unit SEAL Team 6. Known as the “President’s Own,” the group is 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 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. In the article,
“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.” Well, for more,
we’re joined by Matthew Cole. Welcome to Democracy Now! MATTHEW COLE: Thank you, Amy. AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you found, what we don’t know about—and there’s much we don’t know
about—this unit. MATTHEW COLE: Yeah. I think
the biggest takeaway is, is that after 15 years of war and unquestionable successes
on the battlefield, there have been virtually
no accounts of SEAL Team 6 outside of the parameters of heroism, and they’ve become almost mythic
in terms of the American public and how popular they are. And what was missing
from those accounts was that after 15 years of continuous warfare,
very personal, up-close warfare,
there were some very, very dark things
that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere that were largely suppressed
and hidden from the public, and actually from
the military itself, as a way of protecting the command and those who had gone over the line to commit war crimes. AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the bombing that occurred—you write about it in the opening part of this very lengthy
article—in Afghanistan. MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so,
in March of 2002, there was a operation that was—JSOC had video footage
of a tall man in white garb— AMY GOODMAN: It’s Joint Special
Operations Command. MATTHEW COLE: Joint Special Operations
Command—and saw someone that they thought
was bin Laden, and was afraid he was
going to get away. They didn’t have much intelligence,
but they had the notion that he was—people around him
were showing deference, and he was leaving a compound. So they sent SEAL Team
6 in some helicopters to go investigate and, basically,
to do an interdiction. But fearing that the convoy was going to get across
the border into Pakistan before the SEALs
would get there, JSOC officers ordered a bombing, and they dropped two bombs
on the convoy. And they killed a lot
of people pretty quickly, almost instantaneously. As the helicopters were coming
down onto the scene, they then fired their—the
helicopter guns, miniguns, onto the remaining survivors, if—regardless of whether
they were armed, because it was all presumed
that everyone there was al-Qaeda. When the SEALs got down
onto the ground and inspected, what they found right away
was that it was all civilians and that the men,
the few men who were armed, were carrying family weapons, because in Afghanistan
it’s traditional and customary for each male, at least, and certainly each family,
to have one weapon. And, in fact, what they saw
were dead women and children,
along with men. And it was a horrific
sight for the SEALs, who were on their first
deployment in the war. And remember, this is right—this
is shortly after 9/11 and shortly after the war
in Afghanistan begins. And they weren’t veterans
yet of those kind of wars. And according
to my sources, the—one of the officers who was on the mission allegedly mutilated one
of the victims, one of the civilian victims, after he had been killed. And it was so upsetting
to his teammate in the unit, that he then came back
and reported it to his leader. And what transpires
then is a meeting with everyone in the unit
who was enlisted, and not the officers, the next day
to discuss battlefield ethics. How are we going
to treat the dead? How are we going to conduct
ourselves on the battlefield? And the decision
in the meeting was, hey—you know, one person
who was there told me, “We shoot them,
and we move on. If they’re bad guys, we shoot them,
and we move on. That’s fine.
But we don’t mutilate. That’s not part of the game.” And they essentially
ostracized the officer who they believed had done so. But they didn’t turn him in. They didn’t report it.
They didn’t tell anyone. It was strictly within the unit. And that’s one of the things— AMY GOODMAN: And the officer’s name was? MATTHEW COLE: Was—his name
was Lieutenant Commander Vic Hyder. And just to be clear,
in the article, on the record, he denies that he stomped
this man’s head in. But that story
became—it really becomes a sort of blueprint
for how SEAL Team 6 has kept war crimes,
excessive violence, criminal brutality
a secret for 15 years. They keep it in house, and they have their own system of justice—prison rules,
if you will. And there is a real divide
between the officers, who have the commission by law
for law and order, and the enlisted, who make up
most of the command. AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about
the SEAL Team 6 officer who made so-called
bleed-out videos? MATTHEW COLE: OK, he wasn’t an officer.
He was an enlisted—he was enlisted. He was a very troubled SEAL, a member of Red Team—Red Squadron, who filmed—his job,
he had a responsibility, which was to film
the aftermath of an operation
for intelligence gathering. So he had a camera. It was part of the normal
course of duties. After an operation would end, he went around and filmed
to identify—you know, later they can try to identify
who had been killed, in terms of the militants. And he began doing
what he—what was described to me
as bleed-out videos and what were known as bleed-out videos
within the team at the time. He would bring them back, and having—on the battlefield, having taunted people
who were dying, essentially telling them that they weren’t
—they couldn’t die yet, they weren’t going to heaven,
they weren’t going to see Allah, there were no virgins, and then bring the videos back and then spend time
reviewing them, rewinding them over and over
with a group and doing a countdown, to watch the last few moments of a person’s life
as they expired. And that was done—this
wasn’t done in some corner of, you know, some dark hole
in Afghanistan. It was done at Bagram Air
Base in front of a lot of people. And no one would do
anything about it. It was not considered
morally reprehensible. And that was—we use
that as an example because, in and of itself,
it’s not illegal, but it gives you a sense
of sort of the dark nature of what this war
brought for members of elite special
operations forces, in particular,
SEAL Team 6. AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened to U.S. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts. MATTHEW COLE: So, Neil Roberts
was the first SEAL Team 6 member and the first
special operations soldier to die after 9/11. He was killed by—he fell off the back of a helicopter during Operation Anaconda in early March of 2002
in eastern Afghanistan. And there was a—later became known as the Battle
for Roberts Ridge, was an effort to save him. But Roberts fell off, was killed fairly quickly
by al-Qaeda fighters, who had already established
a stronghold on the mountaintop. And Predator drone feed later sees one of the fighters standing over him, attempting to behead him, and, in fact, mutilated him
very significantly. And so, when his body
was brought back to Bagram and his teammates found that not
only had they lost their teammate and pierced their sense
of invincibility, which is appropriately built up
for your best warriors, they were devastated
by the manner, and the gruesome manner,
in which his body had been treated. And so, Objective Bull, which happens about
18 hours later, we don’t know, but we believe
that the alleged stomping in and mutilation of the civilian
armed man in Objective Bull was very much—
AMY GOODMAN: Objective Bull is the story you describe before.
MATTHEW COLE: Right. AMY GOODMAN: That’s the operation,
they called it. MATTHEW COLE: That it was the beginning
of what was sort of a tit for tat against al-Qaeda, which was “You do this to ours,
we’ll do this to yours.” But the Roberts death
and the manner of his death really shook up SEAL Team 6. And although there have been
an enormous amount of accounts of the Battle
of Roberts Ridge and some of the heroism and valor
in trying to get him back, and there were others
who died, what had— AMY GOODMAN: And others who died— MATTHEW COLE: Up on the—up on the— AMY GOODMAN: —and didn’t die,
as it was originally thought, and survived and then died.
MATTHEW COLE: Right. And so—but what was never
told was this incident that happens
18 hours later. And there’s—looking back, it’s easy to see why
they wouldn’t tell the story. But the Pentagon itself,
they had announced a week after the bombing of—in Objective Bull, that they had killed civilians,
but even then, they made—they said that they were associated somehow with—affiliated
somehow with al-Qaeda. So they left the impression
that although they killed civilians, it was a justifiable bombing. In fact, it was only civilians, and they had no
intelligence whatsoever. AMY GOODMAN: It was a wedding party? MATTHEW COLE: It was—they were on their
way to a wedding party, yes. AMY GOODMAN: Where does Britt Slabinski
fit into this picture? MATTHEW COLE: Well,
that’s very interesting. Britt Slabinksi is sort of
at the heart of all of this, although we have to remember that he was an enlisted SEAL
and not an officer, although he became
a very senior enlisted. Britt Slabinski
was on Roberts Ridge. It was—Neil Roberts
was part of his team. He was the leader of the team that went back to get Neil Roberts. He won a Navy Cross for his efforts on the top of Takur Ghar, which was the mountaintop
in eastern Afghanistan. And he was in the meeting at Bagram after Objective Bull, in which the discussion about
how Vic Hyder had behaved and what he had done
during Objective Bull was determined that was just not how SEAL Team
6 was going to operate. Slabinski was devastated
by Roberts’ death. And frankly, according to sources who spoke with him at the time,
he sought revenge. He wanted to go back out
on the battlefield and get payback. And we unearthed,
in the course of reporting, some exclusive audio that had never been found
before of Slabinski giving an interview
to an author, who was writing a book
about Roberts Ridge, in which he describes
a third operation that happens after Objective Bull, in which they ambushed
a group of al-Qaeda fighters who had been on top of Takur Ghar, who had been in the Battle
of Roberts Ridge. And he was a sniper who led
a sniper team at the time. And they killed roughly 18
or 19 al-Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan
in mid-March 2002. And in the audio,
what you hear him talk about is the operation as payback and revenge,
essentially, for what happened
on Roberts Ridge, as a way for the guys and his men to get
their confidence back, as I think he says, is to get back
in the saddle again. AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the SEAL Team 6 member Britt Slabinski, here describing the aftermath
of an operation to take down a convoy they believed was filled
with al-Qaeda fighters trying to escape to Pakistan. Slabinski and the team
of snipers had killed what? Nearly 20—
MATTHEW COLE: Nearly 20. AMY GOODMAN: —al-Qaeda— MATTHEW COLE: Fighters.
AMY GOODMAN: —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’s Navy SEAL Team 6 member Britt Slabinski, this audio being played publicly for the first time—
MATTHEW COLE: Right. AMY GOODMAN: —that you got
at The Intercept. And the significance of this? MATTHEW COLE: Well, I think
what it does is it gives you a window into the mindset of someone who became
a very senior—first of all, he was—after the Battle
of Roberts Ridge, he became a legendary SEAL. He had a Navy Cross. He was a hero. He became a very influential
member of SEAL Team 6. And at a command
that is referred to and known as an enlisted mafia, run effectively by
the enlisted SEALs who spend a decade
or more in the unit, he was a top leader. And as a result, he ended up in a position running a squadron. And there were a series
of events that occurred, that I report exclusively
for the first time, about the fallout
of his leadership. And what you get to see
—what you get to hear in that is the mindset. I mean, the thing that was
most disturbing to me, I think, in listening to it was
the gleefulness in his voice, that it was therapy for him. And I don’t—that, I think,
gives us some understanding. And as I was talking to a former senior
leader of SEAL Team 6 about that tape—he had never heard it, and I showed him
the transcript. And one of the things he said,
he said, “What’s so scary is, is that this guy
undoubtedly influenced so many of our guys
with that kind of attitude.” AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole,
one of the most disturbing forms of atrocities Navy—the SEAL Team 6 committed was called “canoeing.” If you can talk about that
and then talk about whether you believe Osama bin
Laden was canoed? MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so,
one of the—I would say one of the, if not the darkest secret
in the last 15 years is that over the course
of the war, SEAL Team 6, as well as other
elements of JSOC, were involved in something
called canoeing, which is a form of firing a bullet in the top of the forehead
that splits the head open in the most gruesome manner
and leaves, frankly, the brain matter exposed, and looks like a—puts the head, the top of the head,
in the shape of a V, with a negative space that looks like a canoe
would fit in there or that a canoe
went through it. And it can happen
incidentally in battle, and it does happen
incidentally in battle. What I found was that
for a period of years SEAL Team 6 was photographing—they
photographed their dead for documentation
and preservation. And for a period of years, canoed dead took up
an enormous amount of space in those—in that catalog. And it was not
mathematically possible. And what my sources said were,
it became a sport. You shoot a person
when they’re dead or dying, at very close range, for the sake of seeing
the gruesome results. AMY GOODMAN: And Osama bin Laden? MATTHEW COLE: Well, what happened
to Osama bin Laden was hiding sort of
in plain sight. The man who claims that he
killed Osama bin Laden, Robert O’Neill, did an interview, a long interview
in Esquire in 2013, in which he described
what bin Laden’s face looked like after he shot him
three times in the face and forehead. And there it is.
Without using the word “canoe,” he describes this gruesome scene
of splitting the top of his skull open
into a V, you know, with the negative space
in the shape of a V, and his brain matter exposed. And one of the points
that I make in the story is, is that SEAL Team 6 then branded Osama bin Laden. That was—it’s an act of dominance, and it is a form of sport,
and it’s reflexive. And it doesn’t—in this case, it does not necessarily mean that Robert O’Neill
committed a war crime, but there is no question that the ritualistic manner
in which and the frequency in which it occurred
and the fact that it had no military
necessity was criminal. AMY GOODMAN: You believe that bin
Laden was killed unarmed and in the dark?
MATTHEW COLE: Absolutely. I think one of the things that my story
presents fairly conclusively is that the order from the beginning
was to kill him, regardless of the situation inside. And, in fact,
one of my sources who was a— AMY GOODMAN: We have four seconds. MATTHEW COLE: —senior member,
said, “Kill him. Bring the body back.”
That was the order. AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part
2 of this conversation, post it online
at democracynow.org. Matthew Cole, we’ll link
to your piece at The Intercept. 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. Subtitles by the Amara.org community