The former Navy SEAL who claims he killed Osama bin Laden went public Tuesday night. Fox News broadcast the first of a two-part series based on interviews with Robert O’Neill, a key member of the SEAL team that assaulted the Al Qaeda leader’s Pakistani hideout in 2011.
Is Mr. O’Neill backing off his insistence that he was the person who fired the actual fatal shots? Nope. That does not appear to be the case, though the editing of the Fox News team left him a little wiggle room.
At the top of the show, reporter Peter Doocy asked him directly what it was like to kill Bin Laden.
“It wasn’t real. It was another guy in the house that we shot. It didn’t sink in. It didn’t sink in for a while,” said O’Neill.
O’Neill’s claim of responsibility here has roiled the secretive world of US special operations forces. Others who took part in the raid have given slightly different accounts of the event, with shots coming from as many as three SEALs. O’Neill was the second man charging the room where Bin Laden was hiding, and others say the first man may have killed the Al Qaeda mastermind before leaping at two women in case they carried explosives.
O’Neill has reacted to this criticism with a kind of shrug. In a separate interview broadcast on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360° over the weekend, he said, “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.”
It’s possible the former SEAL has more to say about this aspect of the raid. The Fox piece revealed a bit about the actual encounter with Bin Laden at the beginning of the show, then moved back in time and covered his early life, training, and other SEAL exploits. It ended just as SEAL Team Six boarded the helicopters that would carry them to the Bin Laden raid.
And really, does this matter? In terms of the dramatic impact of last night’s broadcast, it certainly doesn’t. There was enough interesting detail about the life of a SEAL and O’Neill’s personal experience that whether or not he actually pulled the fateful trigger seems almost beside the point.
O’Neill said that the more the SEALS trained for the Bin Laden mission the more they came to believe that it would be one-way. They would not come back. Either Bin Laden would trigger a suicide explosive belt, or the house would be booby-trapped and explode.
But either way, Bin Laden would not survive, either.
“It was worth it,” O’Neill remembers thinking.
He wrote letters to his children to be opened only upon his demise, telling him he loved them. (He shredded them when he returned safe.) Just before he boarded the helicopter, he called his father, and told him goodbye and thanks for everything. His father sat for 17 minutes in a Walmart parking lot after hanging up, emotionally distraught.
Fox is set to show the second part of the interview this evening. Presumably it will cover more details of the actual operation.
Should the former Navy SEAL have gone public at all? That’s a larger issue. O’Neill’s not the first SEAL on the raid to try and profit from his presence. Colleague Matt Bissonnette wrote a book, “No Easy Day,” under a pseudonym. Higher-ups such as former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have published memoirs that include their reminiscences of the Bin Laden operation.
Pentagon officials cooperated with the producers of “Zero Dark Thirty”, the Hollywood thriller about the raid released in 2012.
Still, SEALs are expected to keep their mouths shut, writes veteran Time military correspondent Mark Thompson. They sign non-disclosure agreements. Selflessness is supposed to be part of the special operations ethos.
And they are only the tip of the spear. Hundreds of other personnel, from intelligence analysts to military technicians, work behind the scenes to support SEAL exploits.
“If fame, and the fortune it can bring, become part of the allure of signing up with US Special Operations Command, the men and women who actually make those missions possible are going to sour on their private sacrifice,” writes Mr. Thompson. “The net result will be a less-capable force.”