The previously anonymous Navy SEAL who claims he fired the shot that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has come forward and is scheduled to appear on cable television on Veterans Day in an interview with Fox News.
Robert O’Neill is the same person profiled in “The Shooter,” the moniker used by The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Phil Bronstein in a March 2013 article for Esquire headlined, “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden … Is Screwed.”
In that article, O’Neill told Bronstein, CIR’s executive chairman, that he alone killed bin Laden, recounting minute details of those brief seconds, when, as the second Navy SEAL went up a staircase, he saw bin Laden inside a room at the Pakistan compound.
“He looked confused. And way taller than I was expecting,” O’Neill told Bronstein.
In that moment, O’Neill said he felt a deep inner conflict about whether he had done the right thing by killing the world’s most wanted man.
“I remember as I watched him breathe out the last part of air, I thought: Is this the best thing I’ve ever done, or the worst thing I’ve ever done?” he said. “His forehead was gruesome. It was split open in the shape of a V. I could see his brains spilling out over his face. The American public doesn’t want to know what that looks like.”
But perhaps O’Neill’s most explosive revelation to Bronstein was that nearly six months after leaving the military, he felt abandoned by the government. Physically aching and psychologically wrecked after hundreds of combat missions, he left the military a few years short of the retirement requirement with no pension and no job.
As O’Neill’s name leaked to other media outlets this week, CIR and Bronstein declined to confirm his identity, citing the anonymity Bronstein had promised the former member of Navy SEAL Team 6.
On Thursday evening, O’Neill allowed Bronstein to confirm that he was, in fact, “the Shooter” in Bronstein’s story.
“We have to be able to establish and maintain the confidentiality of sources to do our jobs,” Bronstein said. “The value of everything I know about this story does not outweigh that fact, no matter how strange it may seem to remain silent in the storm of interest.”
A host of other outlets have reported that O’Neill is indeed the same SEAL, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. A well-respected special operations forces blog, SOFREP, was the first to reveal his name ahead of the Fox News appearance.
SOFREP also published an Oct. 31 letter from Naval Special Warfare Command, which is being characterized in military circles as a condemnation of both O’Neill and Matt Bissonnette, another member of Navy SEAL Team 6 who wrote a book, “No Easy Day,” under the pseudonym Mark Owen.
In the letter, Rear Adm. Brian Losey, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci state that service members who seek to bring attention to their actions “are neither Teammates in good standing, nor Teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare.”
The SEAL leaders also warn of the “judicial consequence” of releasing classified information, which, if charged under the Espionage Act, could lead to a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
In the Esquire article and the book “No Easy Day,” O’Neill and Bissonnette have given contradictory accounts of bin Laden’s final moments. In “No Easy Day,” Bissonnette said he stood directly behind the SEAL team’s point when the point man shot bin Laden.
Thursday’s New York Times story said an unnamed former commander of SEAL Team 6 told that publication that “he believed Mr. O’Neill fired ‘insurance’ rounds into Bin Laden’s body, after he was down.” In another story, by The Associated Press, one current and one former SEAL said that “O'Neill was long known to have fired the shots that killed the leader of the international terror group responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.”
According to O’Neill, the point man took a shot or two at bin Laden when he peeked around a curtain in the hallway a floor above them, but the terrorist leader remained standing and still was moving. The point man was not in the room when bin Laden was killed, O’Neill said, because he had tackled two women into the hallway, believing they were wearing suicide vests.
“It was the most heroic thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Addressing the differences when the Esquire article was published, CIR Executive Director Robert J. Rosenthal said: “The Shooter’s version of events is not the only one out there. But we believe his version of events is the most credible.”
On Sunday, “60 Minutes” aired a new interview with Bissonnette but did not ask him about the Shooter. The piece focused on a criminal investigation Bissonnette’s lawyer says has been launched against the former SEAL under the Espionage Act.
On Wednesday, the New York Daily News reported that Bissonnette has disclosed in a lawsuit that he must forfeit $4.5 million to the government for publishing the book without Department of Defense clearance. He is suing the lawyer he said advised him for $8 million.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.