Are Navy SEALs really angry with Obama?

The Special Forces community is facing some criticism for the attention it's been receiving in the media. "CBS This Morning" senior correspondent John Miller reports.
AP Photo
Are Navy SEALS getting too much publicity?
AP Photo

Over the past two days, a pair of stories have suggested that Navy SEALs are angry with President Obama for politicizing the death of Osama bin Laden, who was killed one year ago Tuesday.

The first, from the conservative Daily Mail, claimed that "[s]erving and former US Navy SEALs have slammed President Barack Obama for taking the credit for killing Osama bin Laden and accused him of using Special Forces operators as 'ammunition' for his re-election campaign."

The second, from Buzzfeed's Michael Hastings - author of the Rolling Stone story that led to the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal - said that "[t]he frustration - or, even anger - within the SEAL community is real, and has been brewing for months, particularly among a politically conservative core of operators." It went on to suggest that some SEALs blame Mr. Obama for the shooting down of a Chinook helicopter last August that led to 30 American deaths, many of them SEALs.

The stories - with their implication that America's military heroes don't like Mr. Obama - evoke the 2004 "swift boat" attacks on then-Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry. Kerry's military service had been expected to be one of his greatest strengths, but it was undermined in a series of questionable ads in which Kerry was criticized by Vietnam veterans. Now, Mr. Obama is seeing one of his strongest arguments for reelection - his decision to authorize the mission to kill bin Laden - come under a similar sort of attack.

Both stories attracted significant attention, particularly the Daily Mail's, which was promoted by popular conservative aggregator The Drudge Report. Their critiques mirrored Republican talking points that Mr. Obama was taking undue credit for the mission - but came with added weight, because they were ostensibly coming from some of the men who executed the mission.

Neither story included comment from a named active-duty SEAL. That's not a surprise: SEALs are forbidden from talking with the media, and they would face significant consequences if they went on the record attacking their commander-in-chief. (Attempts to get active-duty SEALs to speak on the record for this story were unsuccessful.) But it does mean they warrant particularly close scrutiny. Do the stories reflect legitimate anger toward the president from within the ranks over his public discussion of the bin Laden mission? Are they essentially a political hatchet job designed to undermine the president's strongest claims for reelection? Or is it some combination of the two?

The culture in the military has grown increasingly conservative in recent years, one former special operations soldier told CBS News, and there was broad apprehension about President Obama when he took office - including in the SEALs. But according to the former special operative, senior special operations leadership has warmed to Mr. Obama during his time in office because the president has shown he is a risk-taker (as evidenced by his decision to go forward with the bin Laden mission) who has "given them a longer leash" than former President George W. Bush did.

"They're tickled s*itless because the guy has approved missions and the use of predator drones to a greater extent than his predecessor," said the former special ops soldier. (John Brennan, the president's top counter-terrorism official, on Monday offered a rare discussion and defense of the Obama administration's campaign of drone strikes, which have killed suspected militants as well as civilians. )

This isn't to say that some SEALs aren't angry with the president. There has been frustration over the fact that the bin Laden mission was announced so quickly after it occurred, which potentially limited the value of intelligence that was gathered. Leif Babin, a former SEAL, complained in the Wall Street Journal in January that such information is offered "for political gain" and ultimately endangers troops. Babin specifically complained that the bin Laden mission was laid out in such significant detail by the administration, potentially endangering operational security in future missions.

But the notion that rank-and-file SEALs are outraged that the Obama campaign put out a video questioning whether Mitt Romney would have authorized the bin Laden mission - something suggested in the Daily Mail story - is dubious.

CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan, who has accompanied SEALs on missions, says they simply aren't engaged with the political jockeying in Washington.

"The political aspect is not even a dimension that comes into their orbit," said Logan. "It's so far beyond anything to do with that."

The suggestion by Hastings, meanwhile, that some SEALs feel the president may deserve blame for the shooting down of a Chinook helicopter last August doesn't reflect the consensus inside special ops: Sources say that incident is widely seen as the result of errors on the ground, not some sort of incitement or security breach by the administration. Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith declined comment on Hastings' story.

Ultimately, the SEALs are not all that different than the American public: Some like the president, others don't, and still others are ambivalent or uninterested. Even among those predisposed to dislike Mr. Obama, there is grudging respect for his decision to authorize the bin Laden mission despite less-than-surefire intelligence. And even among those predisposed to like him, there is resistance to the decision to publicize the bin Laden mission at all, for fear that the attention could make the SEALs more of a target.

"There was a time when you didn't talk about this stuff," said the former special operations soldier. "The guy just would have been dead. That's how it used to be." (It's worth noting that the Obama administration isn't the only one publicizing the SEALs these days: Some recently participated in a military-sanctioned movie called "Act of Valor" that celebrated their heroism.)

In his story, Hastings wrote that it "wouldn't be surprising to see the website: sprout up soon." Unsurprisingly, exactly that happened shortly after his story was posted Tuesday morning. Who's behind it? It's impossible to say: Whoever registered the site used a proxy service to keep their identity hidden. Still, it seems safe to assume that the rank and file SEALs who it ostensibly represents have more important things to worry about.