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The torture and the glory: secrets of the navy Seals who terminated Osama bin Laden

The torture and the glory: secrets of the navy Seals who terminated Osama bin Laden

The truth of Seal Team Six reads like a made-for-Hollywood movie, with brutal training regimens, night-time raids and impossible missions driving the action-thriller narrative. What Hollywood doesn’t say about the soldiers who killed Osama bin Laden, though, is that the torture they’ve administered is probably a lot more brutal than the torture they’ve undergone. By KEVIN BLOOM.

The word for them is “secret”. Which you’d never have guessed on Friday, 6 May, when Google had 74,822 related items linked to the news search term “SEAL Team Six”. Still, you’re really not supposed to know about these guys. That’s because the elite unit that killed Osama bin Laden belongs to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a collection of classified task forces that reports directly to the US president and whose existence the military routinely denies. As Marc Ambinder, a White House correspondent for the National Journal and contributing editor to The Atlantic, noted on Monday, 2 May – you only hear about JSOC “when something goes bad” or “when something really big happens”. For instance, in the latter case, when the leader of the world’s most notorious terrorist organisation is assassinated. Then, you’ll read under the byline of journalists like Ambinder about MH-60 helicopters flying low towards Abbottabad, about the commandos on board braced and ready for action, about the navigators using “highly classified hyperspectral imagers,” and about the double tap (“boom boom”) to the left side of the target’s face as the SEAL Team lands and instantly overruns the garrisoned compound outside Islamabad.

Of course, as Ambinder also noted, there are some things about the operation that will always remain classified. “How did the helos elude the Pakistani air defense network?” he asked. “Did they spoof transponder codes? Were they painted and tricked out with Pakistan Air Force equipment? If so – and we may never know – two other JSOC units, the Technical Application Programs Office and the Aviation Technology Evaluation Group, were responsible. These truly are the silent squirrels – never getting public credit and not caring one whit. Since 9/11, the JSOC units and their task forces have become the US government’s most effective and lethal weapon against terrorists and their networks, drawing plenty of unwanted, and occasionally unflattering, attention to themselves in the process.”

Unflattering, though, is something of an understatement. The famed and celebrated general Stanley McChrystal, former commander of JSOC, got big kudos for the killing of Abu Massab al-Zarqawi (the militant Jordanian Islamist with a penchant for videotaped beheadings) in 2006, but his involvement in acts of systematic and sustained torture wasn’t quite as well publicised. At Camp Nama in Baghdad, when McChrystal ran the operation, the JSOC had a unit called Task Force 6-26, which had as its sole purpose the daily brutalisation of suspected terrorists and insurgents. The activities at Camp Nama continued long after the Abu Ghraib scandal, and many detainees were killed by the elite US soldiers who manned the task force. According to a report published in Counterpunch in 2010, placards were hung in the camp with the words “No Blood, No Foul,” a reference to the torturers’ proficiency in administering pain without spilling blood – and thus without subjecting themselves to potential punishment from the higher-ups.

Also in 2010, Scott Horton published a lengthy expose in Harpers magazine about three alleged suicides at Guantanamo, and especially about a mysterious section of the compound called “Camp No” – as in, if anyone was asked whether it existed, the answer would be, “No, it doesn’t.” The common consensus was that the camp was run by JSOC, and that acts of unspeakable and mysterious torture happened down there.

So who are the brave and upstanding fighting men that populate the various units and divisions of JSOC? A memoir written by a former member of SEAL Team Six, rushed into print by St. Martin’s Press on the announcement of Bin Laden’s death, is currently topping bestseller charts and giving readers an insight into this covert world. Vanity Fair’s exclusive extract from the book starts with Howard Wasdin describing an episode from the life of his Master Chief, Rick Knepper – a night-time raid on a tiny island off the Vietnam coast that starts with a 350-foot free climb up a cliff, a firefight that leaves two SEALs injured and many VC dead, the retrieval of documents and intelligence from the island that turns out to be critical to allied forces’ efforts in the region.

Wasdin says of Knepper, the guy responsible for his SEAL training, that he was amongst the best in the business. And then he starts to describe the training proper, a series of brutal and dangerous regimes designed to weed out the unfit and – more importantly – the mentally unready. It culminates in “drown-proofing,” an exercise that requires trainees to tie their feet together while a buddy binds their hands behind their backs. Remembers Wasdin: “’When I give the command, the bound men will hop into the deep end of the pool,’ Instructor Stoneclam said. ‘You must bob up and down 20 times, float for five minutes, swim to the shallow end of the pool, turn around without touching the bottom, swim back to the deep end, do a forward and backward somersault underwater, and retrieve a face mask from the bottom of the pool with your teeth.’

“The hardest part for me was swimming the length of the pool and back with my feet tied together and hands tied behind my back. I had to flip around like a dolphin. Even so, I’d rather be doing this than being awakened from a dead sleep and slapped around.”

But that, apparently, was only the “indoctrination” part of the training. Still to come was First Phase, and the notorious Hell Week, where instructors fire automatic weapons around the ears of trainees before taking them into second-stage hypothermia. Ironically (or not), the extract from SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy Seal Sniper, reads like a detailed manual on the art of handling torture – and if the captured enemy hasn’t undergone the experience, let alone read the manual, they could be in for a nasty surprise.

The Camp No story, unproven though it may be, casts the darkest pall over the clandestine activities of JSOC. Horton, writing in Harper’s, suggested that George W. Bush’s defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to transform JSOC into “a Pentagon version of the CIA,” and that under his direction it “began to take on many tasks traditionally handled by the CIA, including the housing and interrogation of prisoners at black sites around the world.” Camp No was reportedly one such site, and according to the Harper’s article, the three men who “officially” committed suicide in their cells at Guantanamo did no such thing – they were killed, most likely by JSOC operatives, because they were about to prove their innocence.

“Meanwhile,” wrote Stan Goff in Counterpunch, “JSOC flourishes, cloaked in secrecy with just the mystique peeking out.  But there was no leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, no warrior-poets protecting us from the manifold dangers lurking outside our borders.  There’s just garden variety machismo, men who beat, torture, and kill unarmed detainees… men who have learned to relish violence, because it raises their esteem in the eyes of other men the terrible escalations of probative masculinity that continue to underwrite the wars of capital and nationalism like no other phenomenon.”

That said, Goff and Horton were both writing in early 2010, more than a year before SEAL Team Six would bring great glory to JSOC in particular and the US Armed Forces in general. The killing of Osama bin Laden can’t be a bad thing; what might be is the truth – the real context and the real motives – of the people who did it. DM

Read more:

  • “The Secret Team That Killed Osama bin Laden,” in The Atlantic;
  • “The murderous mystique of JSOC,” in Counterpunch;
  • “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle,” in Harpers;
  • “A Veteran of SEAL Team Six Describes His Training,” in Vanity Fair.

Photo: United States Navy Seals, 2004 (Wikimedia Commons)


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