10 Sep 2012

Bin Laden’s killing: ex-US Navy Seal tells all

“We weren’t sent in to murder him”. One of the elite Navy Seals who took part in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden gives details about the mission – but should he have gone public?

He was right behind the point man: the second to crash into Osama Bin Laden’s bedroom in the daring raid by the US Navy’s elite counter-terrorism unit, Team 6. It was the culmination of 10 years’ searching for the world’s most wanted man.

Now the former Seal, under the pseudonym Mark Owen, has published a book giving full details of what happened, along with an interview on CBS 60 Minutes. US media have identified him as Matt Bissonnette, aged 36, and although he insists that nothing he has written or said would put his military colleagues in harm’s way, the Pentagon is not happy with the way he has gone public.

Owen told CBS that Bin Laden was shot as he looked out of his bedroom, because the Seals couldn’t see his hands and feared he could have had access to a weapon. “You don’t wait to get that AK or the grenade thrown down the hall or the suicide vest”, he said. “If a guy sticks his head around the corner, he very easily could have a gun.”

We’re not there to assassinate somebody. We weren’t sent in to murder him. Former SEAL Mark Owen

Crucially, this differs from the official account of the raid, when US officials told the world that the fugitive al-Qaeda leader was shot only after he ducked back inside the room, when he could easily have been trying to get hold of a weapon. But Owen insisted it had not been a kill-only mission: “We’re not there to assassinate somebody. We weren’t sent in to murder him.”

The true facts about what happened may be impossible to verify, but military chiefs are frustrated by what they see as a flagrant breach of non-disclosure rules. When Owen’s book, No Easy Day, was published, the Defense Department’s deputy general counsel warned him that “further public dissemination of your book will aggravate your breach and violation of your agreements”.

Pentagon’s legal options

The book, says the Pentagon, was not submitted for review before publication, contrary to a Defense Department directive which states clearly that any former or retired members of the armed forces should “ensure that information they submit for public release does not compromise national security”. Officials said they were considering “all remedies legally available to us”.

However the authorities are in something of a double-bind. It would hardly look good to prosecute one of the men who helped to eliminate Osama Bin Laden, who was awarded a Purple Heart for bravery and a Silver Star for injuries he sustained during the raid. However, taking no action at all could open the door to others who have taken part in secretive missions.

Rear Admiral Sean Pybus, who heads the Naval Special Warfare Command, has expressed his wider concerns in a letter to thousands of Seals and support troops under his leadership. Recent behaviour, he said, had left him “disappointed, embarassed and concerned,” declaring: “At risk with irresponsible disclosures is (our) reputation and security.”

Controversial video

Owen is not the only former member of the elite force to go public in recent weeks. Just as controversially, several ex-officers appeared in an internet video put out by a political action committee criticising President Obama. The group behind it has raised around $1m to spend on political advertising in some key swing states.

In the ad, a series of former military and intelligence officers accuse the president of disclosing information about the bin Laden raid for his own political gain. One man, identified as a former Seal, says: “As a citizen, it is my civic duty to tell the president to stop leaking information to the enemy. It will get Americans killed.”

Not that the controversy has damaged sales of Mark Owen’s book. On the eve of the anniversary of the 11 September attacks, it has pushed the publishing phenomenon 50 Shades of Grey off the top spot on Amazon’s best-seller list.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News