A stunning new exposé published today in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6 reveals a darker side of the group best known for killing Osama bin Laden. National security reporter Matthew Cole spent 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.
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.