The explosive new book by former Navy SEAL, Chuck Pfarrer, has led to a reconsideration of what actually happened when SEAL Team 6 took out Osama bin Laden last May. The media coverage of the book has largely focused on the specific details of the operation, but there is much more to Pfarrer’s book, SEAL Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama Bin Laden, that has received little or no attention. Pfarrer recently gave an exclusive interview to Accuracy in Media, in which he talked about the culture and character of the SEALs, about his own unique story, and the so-called War Against Terrorism.
In the June-A AIM Report, I cited numerous discrepancies in the statements of government officials, including President Obama and then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, of how the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 actually killed al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden last May in Pakistan. The story kept changing in the first days and hours following bin Laden’s death. The differences seemed much greater than the usual “fog of war” defense could account for. Yet the White House and the Defense Department ultimately settled on a version of events that has been challenged by Pfarrer, a former assault element commander of the same SEAL Team 6, who claims to have spoken with a number of those involved in the operation.
But in the interview, we covered much more than this very important story. We discussed who the Navy SEALs are, and what it takes to become one. We talked about Pfarrer’s own experiences, such as helping to bring the notorious terrorist Abu Abbas to justice for his role in the Achille Lauro incident, his time in Lebanon, which included being there to clean up and investigate after the Iranian backed Hezbollah group attacked the embassy in Beirut killing 241 Americans. And we discussed his views on what actually happened during the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction after the U.S. and its allies’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. He has some surprising answers.
Pfarrer described the version of events leading up to and including the death of Osama bin Laden as provided by the Obama Administration. He goes into it, point-by-point, tells why it didn’t sound right to him, and what his investigation found. His book has come under fire from people still on active duty, people Pfarrer served with in Special Forces, who now say that he has largely made up his story. The spokesman for the U.S. special operations command, Colonel Tim Nye, has called Pfarrer’s book a “fabrication,” and said, “It’s not how it happened.” Nye was speaking on behalf of Admiral Bill McRaven, who was in charge of Special Forces operations at the time of the raid. McRaven was concerned, according to the UK Guardian, that the book “would lead Americans to doubt the administration’s version of events.” Pfarrer answered his critics in the interview.
The differences in the story had to do with whether, as the Obama Administration maintained, one of the two helicopters crashed early in the operation, followed by the SEAL team coming in at the ground floor, fighting their way up to bin Laden’s room on a “kill mission,” and killing him, though he wasn’t attempting to fight back. Pfarrer’s investigation led to a different conclusion. The helicopter crashed later in the operation, after it had lowered the men onto the roof. And within 90 seconds the whole thing was done, with bin Laden being shot twice while attempting to grab an AK47 in an attempt to fight for his life.
The book quickly climbed into the top ten on both Publisher’s Weekly and The New York Times best seller lists, so it probably has indeed lead Americans to doubt the administration’s version of the event.
Chuck Pfarrer’s personal story makes his case all the more compelling. Chuck Pfarrer went through basic Underwater Demolitions SEAL training in 1981, and spent eight years as a Navy SEAL. He served as a military advisor in Central America, trained NATO forces in Europe and the Mediterranean, and undertook duties in the Middle East—notably, in Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war. As Executive Officer of the SEAL Team assigned to the Multinational Peacekeeping Force, he witnessed the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut.
Pfarrer was one of the SEAL Team leaders responsible for the apprehension of Abu Abbas and the hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. He ended his service as Assault Element Commander at the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group, formally known as “SEAL Team Six.” He has written broadly on terrorism and counter-terrorism, and has served government and industry as an expert on topics such as special operations, terrorist operational methodology, counter-proliferation, and terrorist employment of weapons of mass destruction. After leaving the military, Pfarrer embarked on a career as a Hollywood screenwriter. His film credits include writing, acting, and production work in Navy SEALs, Darkman, and Hard Target, and he was the screenwriter on The Jackal. His best-selling autobiography, Warrior Soul: The Memoir of a Navy SEAL, was published in 2004.
In 2003, Pfarrer wrote a New York Times op-ed on the 20th anniversary of the October 23, 1983, attack on the Marine headquarters at Beirut International Airport. A truck manned by a suicide bomber loaded with six tons of explosives smashed into the barracks killing 241 Americans, including 220 Marines, 18 Navy personnel and three Army soldiers. It was the most Marines killed in a single-day since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
Here is part of Pfarrer’s column in the Times:
It was by the smallest and most ignoble bit of luck that I was not killed. I was 500 yards away at a site called Green Beach, sound asleep in an underground bunker. The night before, I’d led my SEAL squad into the foothills above Beirut on a reconnaissance mission. As we withdrew, we came under artillery fire. We didn’t get back to our position until nearly 5 a.m. In what was nearly a lethal bit of morale boosting, I came close to ordering my men into a truck, arming them with mess kits and making them eat Sunday breakfast up at the Marine headquarters. I knew that a hot meal would do my guys good. But then, lazily, I thought that a couple of hours of sleep would do them better.
So a few minutes before sunrise, we fell into our cots—then a thudding shock wave tore through our bunker. The detonation had nearly vaporized the four-story headquarters building. The explosion could be heard in the city of Sidon, 30 miles south. In the minutes after, chaos reigned. No one had any idea if the truck bomb was a precursor to a move by the Syrian Army, or if the airport would soon come under general attack. In one stroke, the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit had lost almost a quarter of its men ashore.
We worked all day to dig the wounded and dead from the rubble as sniper rounds cracked and spattered the concrete around us; militiamen in the slums surrounding the airport fired on the rescuers at will. Late in the afternoon, I was called back to the beach, and I walked across the runway to catch a helicopter. On the tarmac the dead were laid out in neat lines, wrapped in nylon poncho liners and the shredded, gore-splattered sleeping bags in which they had died.
In the days that followed it was almost impossible to feel grief. The horror was so overwhelming that we became frozen to it. The thinnest cordon of marines now held the airport. The mountains above us bristled with artillery; we were outnumbered by at least five to one. It was only the resolve, tenacity and courage of individual marines that stood between us and Alamo time. The survivors clung together, every man aware that we were thousands of miles away from help or mercy. We held out until reinforcements from Camp Lejeune, N.C., arrived two days later, and were home by Thanksgiving.
Next to 9/11, the attack on the Marine barracks was arguably the most successful terrorist act of all time. The peacekeepers were withdrawn and the Lebanese people were abandoned to their fate. Lebanon, suffering under the occupation of the Syrian Army, has spent two decades as a lawless, basket case of a nation, a haven for Hezbollah thugs and a farm club for suicide bombers.
Following are statements Chuck Pfarrer made during the interview, and in some cases, include my questions. You can listen to the complete interview or read the transcript here.
PFARRER: The interesting thing about the SEALs, and something that they pride themselves on, is that they keep their greatest hits secret. I think one of their great contributions here to the ongoing war against terrorism is that pretty much every night you have SEAL Teams operational in the field. They are a constant nightmare to al-Qaeda. They are literally “the knock on the door.” Almost every night, naval special warfare elements are carrying out high-value, individual operations, which result, mostly, in the capture of al-Qaeda personnel. That’s what they’re extraordinarily good at. That, and also direct action—which means fighting the enemy where the enemy isn’t planning to fight you.
PFARRER: One operation I can talk about is after the Achille Lauro hijacking. We were able to hunt down and arrest the murderers of Leon Klinghoffer, and Abu Abbas, who was the crackpot terrorist mastermind of that awful murder on the Achille Lauro…Colonel [Oliver] North was part of a big machine. It was, as far as I understand, his idea to intercept the Egypt Air airliner with Tomcats off U.S.S. Saratoga. When the hijackers, in their airplane, were forced down at Sigonella, I was on the ground as one of the assault commanders that made sure that they weren’t going anywhere. I’d also like to point out that the conduct of Mr. Abbas is pretty true to form for these terrorist guys: When confronted with an ultimatum, and told that he was going to get a chance to martyr himself, he surrendered in very short order. None of these people are people who have physical courage. Mr. Abbas just proved what they’re all about.
PFARRER: I think, in hindsight, lots of historians see that episode [the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut] as one of the opening salvos in what is now called the Global War on Terror. I’d also like to point out that that operation, we know now, through communications intercepts, was ordered and executed from Tehran. It was carried out by elements of the Revolutionary Guard corps using the cover of a theretofore unheard-of militia in Lebanon called Amal. The bomb that hit the Marine barracks was the largest non-nuclear explosion in the history of warfare—I was told that personally by the FBI bomb inspectors who we helped dig through the rubble. The French Foreign Legion detachment was hit simultaneously with the same weapon. Three days later, a third copy of the weapon was detonated 200 yards away from an Israeli checkpoint in Sidon, where it was still able to kill and wound dozens and dozens of people. These were inordinately sophisticated weapons, and the blame for them may be laid squarely at the feet of the Iranian government. They chose the date: October 23rd. That was the date on which the United States allowed the Shah of Iran…to be admitted into the United States for cancer treatment.
PFARRER: It’s almost indescribable. It was a horrifying event. I think it’s often forgotten by the people of the United States that more Marines died in combat in Lebanon than were killed in the Battle of Khe Sanh. The bombing was, of course, a horrendous day, but most of that tour—the latter parts of that tour, especially—were almost nonstop urban combat. I’ve compared it, in articles I’ve written, to the last fifteen minutes of Blackhawk Down—every day. The city of Beirut was literally tearing itself apart—it was almost out of Mad Max. The Marines and SEALs who had come, we had been deployed as peacekeepers, but we found ourselves drawn increasingly into a crazy six-sided war. It was a very tragic event.
Were Weapons of Mass Destruction found in Iraq After the Fall of Saddam?
ARONOFF: Kris Alexander, who has written a story, now, in response to your book, says he was a weapons expert in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. I’m not familiar with him—
PFARRER: God bless him for his service.
ARONOFF: Right. Absolutely. He’s written an article that says, “Pfarrer says that Saddam Hussein had dangerous, active chemical, biological and nuclear programs up until the day of his downfall. Worse, those weapons made it into the hands of Osama himself,” and the reason we don’t know about it is because “craven politicians and the lying media hid the truth about what U.S. military weapons experts uncovered.”
PFARRER: I stand by that statement. I agree with him: That is what I said.
ARONOFF: All right. Why don’t you elaborate? Rebut him.
PFARRER: I’d like to point out that the BBC, The New York Times, and Fox News all reported that, in al Bayaa, Iraq, in May of 2004, al-Qaeda attempted to detonate a 155 mm shell filled with VX nerve gas, the most toxic substance known to man. This was the first time in the history of the world that a weapon of mass destruction had been attempted to be used by a non-state actor. Now, did this event happen? It’s reported by the BBC and The New York Times as happening. Further, the Department of Defense Public Health Laboratory Journal, a peer-reviewed journal of medicine, published an article discussing the treatment of the two technicians who were exposed to VX. So this event categorically happened. Now, does that just mean al-Qaeda just has one? Okay. Let’s assume this, for a second: Let’s assume that what he’s saying is true. Am I supposed to believe that Saddam Hussein put himself at the service of world peace, destroyed all of his weapons of mass destruction in secret, then stood by and watched the United States Marine Corps march right into Baghdad? It boggles the mind. Saddam Hussein killed hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers with chemical weapons. He killed thousands of his own people with chemical weapons. Where did he destroy them? Where were the sites where he destroyed them? Were there factories? Were there furnaces? None of those have been found. What have been found in Iraq are thousands of…chemical weapons. Why do I say that? Well, would you believe the United Nations? The United Nations Monitoring Verification and Inspection Service? Here’s an oddly titled report—“Overview of the Chemical Munitions Recently Found in Iraq”—dated August, 2006. There are weapons there. They have fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda. The VX bomb in al Bayaa was not the only attack. Subsequent chemical attacks, ordered by al-Qaeda—a string of three large vehicle bombs, also loaded with chlorine gas.
PFARRER: I can speak to why the media is avoiding it: They are heavily invested in the narrative that there were no WMD in Iraq, when, in fact, there have been thousands of weapons discovered in Iraq. Thousands. Now, again, don’t take my word for it! Read the ongoing United Nations reports. They exist in unclassified form right on the Internet.
ARONOFF: What do you think of how we deal with the enemy on the battlefield—the rules of engagement, what our soldiers are faced with in confronting the enemy on the battlefield?
PFARRER: I can tell you this: Not only are all American combatants obliged to follow the rules of engagement, and the Geneva Convention as well—as if they needed any other encouragement than the orders of their lawful noncoms and officers—but it shouldn’t be lost on this audience that this administration has prosecuted—brought Navy SEALs to court-martial….This is an administration that let that court-martial run its full course. Luckily, they were acquitted, and returned to duty.
PFARRER: Given that that’s the scene, the milieu, that we’re in, is it very likely that the members of SEAL Team Six were sent on a, quote, “kill mission,” unquote? Is it very likely that one of them would want to shoot an unarmed man, and shoot a woman in the leg? But again, as I’d point out to Mr. Holder, a lot of these people—look: These are attorneys who have never slept a day outdoors in their lives. I’m afraid that this does become a politicized bit of sport. The specter of these investigations hangs over the CIA like a cold, dead hand. Everyone in that building has the example of what’s already been done to two patriotic officers who’ve pretty much had their lives ruined by this. I think that it is an ironic bit of history that Mr. Holder is looking at the guns that he sent across the border, that they’re coming back. Good luck with all his memos!
ARONOFF: Okay. How do you characterize who we’re fighting, globally, in this War on Terror, War on Terrorism? Is it jihadists? Radical Muslims? How do you view this?
PFARRER: It’s referred to within the community as the “Global Salafist Jihad.” A Salafist is an Islamic fundamentalist who wants to go back to the time of the Prophets. Again, what a Salafist will do is take the concept of jihad, which is basically a spiritual struggle, and turn it outward into a physical struggle as well. Here, recently—just within the last year or so—the whole atmosphere in which jihad is conducted had changed. Jihadis like Ayman Zawahiri, who is the present head of al-Qaeda, are not only Salafists, in that they want to turn the world back to the sixth century, but they also practice a doctrine called takfiri, which means that they can determine, in their own minds, which Muslims are “good” Muslims, and which Muslims are apostates, “bad” Muslims. Al-Qaeda, unfortunately, among their victims, they have killed more Muslims than anyone else. Dr. Zawahiri is proud and happy to kill Muslims with whom he does not agree.
ARONOFF: Let’s move on here to the Neptune Spear, the operation that killed bin Laden. Start by telling me your version: What did they [the Obama Administration] say, and what do you say actually happened?
PFARRER: Like everyone else, I first heard of the mission when the President made his statement live. The President’s statement was accurate. It did not contain any internal contradictions. It was full and complete, and had it been the last word on this mission, I wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t have written this book. The President was not very well served by his national security staff, which, within minutes of the President’s speech, began speed-dialing journalists and feeding them factoids, some of them true, some of them false. Like everyone else, I heard, at first, that this was a 45 minute firefight. In my limited combat experience, 45 minutes is a lifetime. I didn’t see any bullet holes in the buildings. In a 45 minute firefight, there were no SEAL casualties, and, of the 35-odd people, only five were killed? Like everyone else, I heard that, allegedly, upon insertion, a helicopter crashed close to the target. I was left to wonder, like everyone else, why, if the first helicopter crashed, its back-up helicopter then landed on the other side of a twenty-foot wall with a ten-foot steel door. These things didn’t make sense to me. What drove me, however, to write the book, was that, in August, a New Yorker article appeared, which was informed correctly, politically, but, unfortunately, drew all these half-truths together into a sordid tale of murder that had the SEALs crashing a helicopter on the way in, then landing outside the building, where they had to blow their way through several external walls and gates into Mr. bin Laden’s house, where they commenced shooting women, children, and unarmed men, fighting their way up three flights of stairs, and then shooting a woman and murdering her husband in cold blood. That story just didn’t stand with me. I talked to people very close to the operation—I mean, close enough to smell the powder. I talked to people in planning. I talked to people in the intelligence community. I talked to people officially, on the record. I talked to people off the record. I soon found that people were trying to feed me some of these implausible stories. I was fed the 45 minute firefight by some sources—I said, “Where are the bullet holes?” I was told the helicopter crashed on insertion—I said, “Why did they divert?” Finally, pulling together all these sources, I had to sort through them all myself. I laid down my narrative closer to the eyewitness accounts, and the story told in SEAL Target Geronimo is different from any of the various stories put forward by the administration.
PFARRER: I watched the press coverage unfolding, yes. It really isn’t a surprise that an administration would seek to influence the narrative of a military event. Lyndon Johnson, with his spin on the Gulf of Tonkin incident; Richard Nixon spun the invasion of Cambodia—it’s likely that the White House does what it can to spin the events. But, like you, when there were more contradictions than answers, I felt we weren’t getting the real story, and by the time that New Yorker article came out, I felt that men had risked their lives, not only to take out Mr. bin Laden, but to gather all this intelligence which could have put al-Qaeda away forever, and this was a case where military security and the needs of national security had brushed up against physical and political expediency—and it looked like the politicians won. For a while it even looked like the politicians were going to get to write history.
ARONOFF: That’s an interesting point. In your book you said that the intelligence revealed that bin Laden was about to part ways with Zawahiri.
PFARRER: Yes, there had often been friction between the two men. Zawahiri might also have been complicit in sending an informer so that the Pakistanis and the CIA could arrest Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. After 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s star was in the ascendant. You’ve got to bear in mind that it was bin Laden who had all the money, and what he lacked in personal wealth, he made up for in retaining the vast amounts of money—tens, perhaps even hundreds, of millions of dollars that poured into his organization, the Afghan Services Bureau. This has always been a goal of Dr. Zawahiri’s. Intelligence indicates that as the anniversary of 9/11 approached, the ten year anniversary, there was some consternation that they weren’t going to be able to mount a sufficiently magnificent attack. Dr. Zawahiri, who betrayed his co-conspirators in the Sadat assassination, also was complicit in the assassination of Sheikh Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s former partner in the Afghan jihad days. Zawahiri has it over bin Laden in that he could read and speak English. Dr. Zawahiri’s an avid consumer of press about himself, and also press about al-Qaeda. Zawahiri could read in several books that Abu [Ahmad] al-Kuwaiti, the courier, was known—not just known to the CIA, but known to journalists. Not only did he continue to use this man in a communications network, but made sure that it was al-Kuwaiti who was communicating and driving in and out of the compound daily—and to make sure no one missed him, he made sure he was driving a Toyota four-by-four with a rhinoceros painted on it.
PFARRER: Well, when you examine the pushback, against this book, and also having to resort to personal attacks and releasing my health information—why on earth is it so necessary to push back on what is merely a book of history? Well, the elephant in the room is that the administration didn’t wait 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours. They announced this so quickly that not one single follow-up mission could be launched. When this news went global, it traveled as fast as any news can travel on this planet. There were al-Qaeda guys literally dropping their cell phones and running for the hills. Political expediency was traded for national security. That’s why it’s necessary to push back on this story so hard.
PFARRER: If this podcast should wind up in a bunker somewhere, in a foxhole somewhere, on top of an armored vehicle somewhere, if a guy has the time to listen when he’s not fighting for his life, I want to tell you that there isn’t a minute that goes by that I don’t think of the sacrifice that men and women are making on my behalf overseas. There is not a minute that I don’t know that the freedoms that I am enjoying right now are provided by guys who spend the night out in the open, and are lucky if they get a hot meal. Thank you for protecting me, and protecting my country. If anyone should be interested, the website is www.chuckpfarrer.com. Sign on, leave a comment. If you disagree, I’m happy to hear about that, too.
Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.