The retired Navy SEAL who says he shot al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the forehead publicly identified himself on Thursday amid a debate among special operations brethren about whether they should break silence about their secret missions.
Robert O’Neill, 38, told The Washington Post in an interview that he fired the two shots that killed bin Laden. He first recounted the story in February 2013 to Esquire magazine, which identified him only as “the shooter.” One current and one former SEAL confirmed that O’Neill was long known to have fired the shots that killed the leader of the international terror group responsible for the September 11 attacks.
O’Neill told the Post that shots also were fired by two other SEAL team members, including Matt Bissonnette, who described the raid somewhat differently in his book, “No Easy Day.” His lawyer said Bissonnette is under federal criminal investigation over whether he disclosed classified information in the book, which he did not vet with the military. In the Esquire piece, O’Neill makes no mention of Bissonnette shooting bin Laden.
O’Neill discussed his role in the raid during a private meeting with relatives of victims of the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Center before the recent opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. He donated the shirt he was wearing in the operation, which is now on display there.
O’Neill is scheduled to be featured in lengthy segments next week on Fox News. He told the Post he decided to go public because he feared his identity was going to be leaked by others. Indeed, his name was published Monday by SOFREP, a website operated by former special operations troopers.
The actions of both O’Neill and Bissonnette have drawn scorn from some of their colleagues. In an Oct. 31 open letter, Rear Adm. Brian Losey, who commands the Naval Special Warfare Group, and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci, the top noncommissioned officer of the group, urged SEALs to lower their public profile. Their comments were widely perceived as being aimed at O’Neill and Bissonnette.
“At Naval Special Warfare’s core is the SEAL ethos,” the letter says. “A critical tenant of our ethos is `I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.'”
The letter added, “We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety or financial gain.”
Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles Burlingame was the pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon, attended the 9/11 museum ceremony. She said O’Neill, whose name was not divulged at the event, offered the families clarity on conflicting information they had received about the raid.
She said she didn’t have an opinion about whether SEALs should disclose information about their deeds. “Whatever that (SEALs’) ethos is, is between the SEALS,” she said. “The 9/11 families are the beneficiaries of any rules he might have broken or whatever lines he might have crossed.”