US Navy SEAL Robert O'Neill backs off claim that he was bin Laden 'shooter'

Navy SEALs are meant to keep quiet about their deadly missions around the world. But the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden by SEAL Team Six – who was “the shooter” – is causing considerable public debate within the SEAL community.

© Robert O'Neill/Twitter
Former US Navy SEAL Robert O'Neill, identified in news accounts as the member of SEAL Team Six who killed Osama bin Laden.

The public squabble among supposedly zip-lipped US Navy SEALs over who, exactly, killed 9/11 mastermind and al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden has taken another turn.

Robert O’Neill, the former SEAL identified in several news accounts as the “shooter” who fired the fatal shot to bin Laden’s head at close range, now says “it doesn’t matter” who did so during that US raid on bin Laden’s compound hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.

"The most important thing that I've learned in the last two years is to me it doesn't matter anymore if I am 'The Shooter.' The team got him," Mr. O'Neill said in an audio interview with freelance journalist Alex Quade, a former CNN correspondent that aired Friday on CNN's "AC360."

No doubt Fox News will try to pin him down on this point in its two-part interview with O’Neill to be aired this coming week.

“Offering never before shared details, the presentation will include ‘The Shooter’s’ experience in confronting Bin Laden, his description of the terrorist leader’s final moments as well as what happened when he took his last breath,” according to Fox. 

There are two main threads to the story.

These special forces operators, meant to be silent-but-deadly in their shadowy forays around the world, aren’t supposed to be popping off publicly about their exploits – certainly not boasting for credit or financial gain.

In a letter last week, the admiral and senior enlisted man who run the United States Naval Special Warfare Command reminded all present and former SEALs that a critical tenet of the organization’s ethos is: “I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.”

“Violators of our Ethos are neither teammates in good standing, nor Teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare,” Rear Adm. Brian Losey and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci wrote. “We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain, which only diminishes otherwise honorable service, courage and sacrifice.”

Then there’s the “fog of war” that envelopes any combat mission of the type that took down bin Laden: at night, deep inside foreign territory, and with the high likelihood of unknown events – such as the crash of one of the SEAL’s helicopters in Abbottabad. (It was the collision of two US aircraft at a staging point in the Iranian desert that catastrophically ended the attempted rescue of 52 American hostages in 1980, killing eight US servicemembers – likely a factor in former President Jimmy Carter’s reelection defeat that year.)

The Navy SEALs sent to Pakistan were experienced combat veterans and highly trained for the mission, which included a mockup of bin Laden’s compound.

But as is often said at the Pentagon, “No plan survives contact with the enemy” – a quote variously attributed to Napoleon, Dwight Eisenhower, or George Patton. (But probably dating back to Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth Von Moltke, whose rather less pithy remark was, “No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.”)

As the 23 SEALs (and a combat dog) dashed off the helicopters toward their planned positions, several barreled upstairs toward what was thought to be bin Laden’s living quarters, according to several accounts, including this lengthy piece in Esquire magazine published last year. “The Shooter” (the piece’s title) is not identified, but is now generally assumed to have been O’Neill – who now works as a motivational speaker.

Bin Laden’s guards and several other household members were shot and killed. The point man rushed upstairs, along with O’Neill and fellow SEAL Matt Bissonnette (whose book “No Easy Day,” published in 2012 using the pseudonym “Mark Owen,” became a New York Times bestseller).

Somebody fired first, but others shot bin Laden too – including, apparently, a number of SEALs who arrived seconds or minutes later, firing into bin Laden’s body. Bin Laden’s body was flown to a US Navy ship, where DNA testing confirmed his identity. There was no autopsy, and he was buried at sea following traditional Islamic procedures to prevent any burial site from becoming a place for would-be militants to gather.

“The real story of who killed bin Laden may have gone to the bottom of the ocean or been plowed back into the dirt in Abbottabad,” writes Shane Harris, intelligence and national Security correspondent for The Daily Beast. “But if the anonymous ‘point man’ comes forward, O’Neill won’t have the last word.”

So the mystery of “The Shooter” and the flap within SEAL ranks is likely to continue.

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