Nearly two years after 23 Navy SEALs and their interpreter helicoptered into the Pakistani compound where Osama bin Laden hid and was subsequently killed, we still don't know exactly what happened. Hollywood brought us a blockbuster film about the raid, and several books have been published about it — including one by Matt Bissonnette (using the pseudonym Mark Owens), one of the three SEALs present when bin Laden was shot — and another first-hand account in Esquire from a SEAL simply called The Shooter.
In the Esquire article, by Phil Bronstein, The Shooter says that he was the man who shot and killed bin Laden, putting two bullets into the al Qaeda leader's forehead before the still-standing terrorist leader could grab a nearby gun. But that account is "complete B.S.," a third SEAL tells CNN's Peter Bergen. According to Bergen's SEAL, the man who shot and mortally wounded bin Laden was the first man up the stairs, "the point man," and the other two men, the Shooter and Bissonnette, entered the room later and finished off the near-dead bin Laden with two shots to the chest.
This account is less heroic, says Bergen, but it hews much closer to Bissonnette's published account and the versions Bergen has heard from U.S. officials and other current and former SEAL Team 6 members. It also fits the narrative being pushed by former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb, who blogs at The Special Operations Forces Situation Report (SOFREP). Esquire and Bronstein were "duped," Webb said on March 25. "Sorry to rain on your parade, Phil."
The Esquire "shooter" isn't the shooter after all. To be clear, he wasn't the point man that put the well placed rounds into [bin Laden]'s head that ended the terrorist leader's life. Sure he was there, and deserves credit but he wasn't the man who shot [bin Laden], and ended his life. And this is an important fact that must be clarified. The actual shooter... has continued to maintain his professional integrity and has not come forward with the story, and most likely never will. Looks like Esquire and Bronstein are the ones who are really screwed, not their interviewee; our sources say he's off cashing large checks from unsuspecting donors who bought the Esquire pity piece. [SOFREP]
The sources speaking to Webb and Bergen — and they may well be the same few guys — say that not only is the Shooter grossly embellishing his story, but he also got kicked off Red Squadron, the core of the SEAL Team 6 group that carried out the bin Laden raid, because he was shooting his mouth off about the killing in bars around Virginia Beach. That doesn't match the humble, struggling commando portrayed by Bronstein. And the magazine has already had to append one correction, when a key claim about the Shooter's problems didn't pan out.
Bronstein and Esquire are standing by their story, says the magazine's spokeswoman Stephanie Tuck, in a statement to CNN:
The Esquire article, 'The Shooter: The Man Who Killed Osama Bin Laden,' in the March 2013 issue, is based on information from numerous sources, including members of SEAL Team 6 and the Shooter himself, as well as detailed descriptions of mission debriefs. We stand by our story. [CNN]
Bronstein didn't talk on the record with CNN, and he tells BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray that he doesn't want to get "embroiled in other discussions about" the article, but he reiterated Esquire's statement about standing by the story.
Bergen, who toured the bin Laden compound before it was torn down, says the physical evidence he saw could back up either story. And after making a pretty damning case that Esquire got the story wrong, he sort of wusses out:
By all accounts, it was a confusing situation the night of the bin Laden raid in Abbottabad. One of the SEAL team's helicopters had crashed and there was then a firefight with one of bin Laden bodyguards. All the electricity in the bin Laden compound and indeed the surrounding neighborhood was off on a moonless night and the SEALs were all wearing night vision goggles that allowed them only quite limited vision. What seems incontrovertible is that the point man, the Shooter and Bissonnette were the first three SEALs to assault bin Laden's bedroom. But to determine exactly which of them killed bin Laden may never be possible. What is certain is that it was a team effort. [CNN]
Adrian Chen at Gawker is less equivocal. "SOFREP offers no proof, but they are a generally reliable source and many of the details floated in their post appear to be confirmed by CNN's reporting," he says. "So is the heroic but humble Shooter of Bronstein's piece actually an opportunistic liar? We'll see, but for now the Esquire story appears to have been too good to be true."