13 Nov 2014

Bin Laden’s killer: should secret soldiers ever be celebs?

Elite US soldier Robert O’Neill has been “unmasked” as the man who shot the 9/11 mastermind – but does his desire for recognition threaten the future of special forces?

(Kylie Morris speaks to Brig Gen Stephen Cheney. Footage from Zero Dark Thirty and Medal of Honor Warfighter.)

For years, Robert O’Neill has been opening himself to audiences as a motivational speaker, but has just gone a step further – by revealing himself as one of the men who stormed an isolated compound in Pakistan three years ago to kill Osama bin Laden.

“Osama bin Laden died like a pussy,” Mr O’Neill told US media – while simultaneously claiming a need to keep secret his deadly exploits as member of the elite fighting unit Seal Team 6.

“He died afraid, and he knew that we were there to kill him.”

There is definitely an issue of greed. Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings

Previously shrouded in secrecy, the Seals were suddenly opened up to the world as the US government proudly announced how they had finally taken down the leader of al-Qaeda – 10 years after he masterminded the 9/11 atrocities that killed over 3,000 people.

Mr O’Neill’s claim that he was the one to fire the fatal shots took the story a big step further, and is hotly disputed by another member of his unit, Matt Bissonnette – exposing serious rifts inside the usually close-knit special forces, but also the potential for high-publicity operations to backfire badly.

“For those guys to argue over who did what must be a sign that there is bad blood – somewhere along the line the some of these guys have fallen out,” says Tim Ripley, defence analyst for IHS Jane’s.

“There is definitely an issue of greed – there is so much money at stake that they can’t resist temptation,” he told Channel 4 News.

Final shots

Mr O’Neill’s star turn on Fox News has reignited the controversy on whether secret soldiers should ever be allowed to share their stories.

Having bolted up the stairs to a darkened room, he shot bin Laden “three times in the face”.

“He was a threat, he had to be wearing a suicide vest – that’s a threat,” he added. “I’m within my rules of engagement, he’s not surrendering.”

Mr O’Neill thinks his life might be in danger after speaking out, and the threat of criminal action hangs over him for spilling the beans on military secret.

He had already told the story to Esquire magazine two years ago, but only as an anonymous soldier in the now legendary Seal Team 6.

His proper public unveiling was anything but smooth, after he was exposed on a special forces blog before he was able to reveal his story on Fox News in the US.

But thrilling as it is, does his top secret story damage the special forces? If not their image, then the fighting spirit of soldiers who may want more credit for life-threatening missions that their generals mostly insist remain secret?

Since they were formed, politicians have used special forces as a way of demonstrating intent Tim Ripley, defence analyst for IHS Jane’s

“When individual warriors break the rules or violate codes of conduct, it hurts morale – or at least risks doing so,” says Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow covering military strategy at the Brookings think tank.

Psychology and bullets

He says the “absolute secrecy” and some of the Seals’ mystique has diminished as a result of such exposure.

“I am not sure, however, that this has had any lasting deleterious effect on the prestige of the special forces or on the nation’s ability to employ them effectively in combat,” he told Channel 4 News.

The Seals are one of several special forces units run by the US, but the UK has had its own dilemma in deciding how much to keep secret about its most daring soldiers ever since they were founded during world war two.

During the 1970s and 80s, the UK government was torn over whether to deploy the Special Air Service (SAS) to bolster operations in Northern Ireland – knowing their presence was invaluable to reassuring the UK public, but increasingly aware of the damage done by hugely controversial killings, often mired in uncertainty and official denials.

The SAS, and its naval counterpart the Special Boat Service, have remained crucial in war efforts since then, giving succour to a concerned public but also spreading fear among opposition forces, says Mr Ripley.

“It is all part of the psychology, it’s not new that they’ve done this,” he says.

“Since they were formed politicians have used special forces as a way of demonstrating intent and capability.”

Growing role

Special forces also afford “that certain diplomatic kudos” when prime ministers meet presidents, allowing them to gently brag about the exploits of their elite troops, he adds.

The greater willingness to talk about special forces may also reflect their greater role in warfare, certainly for the UK.

“UK special forces are bigger than ever: there’s never been more of them, they’ve never been used so often,” he says.

SAS exploits were sensationally exposed by Bravo Two Zero, a book depicting the desperate mission of troops deployed to Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war, leading to a struggle to contain soldiers’ desire to reveal the results of their “who dares, wins” approach.

The Ministry of Defence changed its rules about 10 years ago to prevent its most secret troops from telling their stories.

But rather than using something akin to the official secrets act, “it was a celebrity popstar type contract” for non-disclosure, Mr Ripley says.

He adds: “There’s another issue of how hard it’s enforced, and whether it’s enforced in a fair manner.”

Some troops may be questioning “whether certain special forces generals who are media celebrities are being treated differently,” he says.

Mr O’Neill’s exposure may not seriously threaten the fighting prowess of special forces, but generals will continue to protect fiercely their secrecy – long before anyone’s motto can be changed to “who dares, blabs”.