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Who Shot Bin Laden? A Tale of Two SEALs

More than three years after SEAL Team Six killed the terror leader, the elite group of warriors is at war with itself.

Two different alumni of SEAL Team Six, the secretive group of highly trained warriors that killed Osama bin Laden three years ago, have been profiting off their role in the terror leader’s death since leaving the military.

Former Team Six member Matt Bissonnette, who wrote a bestseller under a pseudonym about shooting bin Laden, is about to publish his second book about being a Navy SEAL. Rob O’Neill, meanwhile, is the unnamed “shooter” who was credited in numerous magazine articles with firing the fatal shots, and according to two SEAL sources will be presented again as the “shooter” in a Fox News interview that airs later this month. He has been traveling the country giving paid motivational speeches on the unspoken understanding that he’s the man who killed bin Laden.

Neither man is the SEAL who was first up the stairs at bin Laden’s Pakistan compound and fired the first shot at Osama. But their dueling narratives are a sign of the backbiting and dysfunction that has roiled a once tight-knit band of warriors as former members violate their code of secrecy in search of the spotlight.

“Two different people telling two different stories for two different reasons,” said Matt Bissonnette in an interview with NBC News. His second book, “No Hero,” comes out next week. “Whatever he says, he says. I don’t want to touch that.”

Both men now face scorn from some brother SEALs. Unlike O’Neill, however, Bissonnette is under investigation by the federal government, which is trying to determine whether he disclosed classified information in his first book. He says he’s sorry he didn’t submit the book for legal review, but says there are “inconsistencies” about who is allowed to talk and who isn’t, since higher ups were apparently speaking freely.

“Everybody and their brother was talking about this,” said Bissonnette. “How can you be holding it against me?”

Just a week ago, the two officers who run the Naval Special Warfare Command fired off a stern warning letter to all SEAL “teammates” about seeking fame. The message, sent ahead of Bissonnette’s appearance on “60 Minutes” and O’Neill’s interview on Fox, seemed intended to shame Bissonnette and O’Neill.

“At Naval Special Warfare’s core is the SEAL Ethos,” said the letter, signed by Rear Adm. Brian Losey and Master Chief Michael Magaraci. “A critical (tenet) of our Ethos is ‘I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.’

“We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain.”

The letter closes by reminding the “teammates” that classified information is protected by law, and warns that “We will actively seek judicial consequences for members who willfully violate the law.”

Bissonnette, who left the Navy in April 2012, was the first SEAL from the bin Laden mission to cut a business deal based on his participation. When he published the book “No Easy Day” on Sept. 4, 2012, he used the pen name Mark Owen and pledged much of the proceeds to charity, but he still became persona non grata with his command and many former comrades.

Bissonnette had not submitted the book, which gives his account of the bin Laden raid, for prepublication review with the Department of Defense. He has said he was advised by counsel that it was not required.

Image: People walk past Osama Bin Laden's compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
People walk past Osama Bin Laden's compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed by U.S. Special Forces on May 2, 2011, the day after the raid. Getty Images file

The Pentagon sent him a letter threatening legal action, and said he had revealed classified information. A DoD investigation also revealed that Bissonnette and six other SEALs had served as advisers on the video game, “Medal of Honor: Warfighter,” at Bissonnette’s urging. Letters of reprimand, which are damaging to Naval careers, were sent to all seven.

Some of Bissonnette’s peers also took issue with the book, which became a No. 1 best-seller. In Bissonnette’s account, he’s the second man in the SEAL “stack” and the second man in bin Laden’s bedroom. After a teammate shoots bin Laden Bissonnette puts more bullets into him and helps finish him off.

His account did not match the story that O’Neill was telling Esquire magazine around the same time. O’Neill began talking to writer Phil Bronstein as early as March 2012, while still a SEAL. He left the Navy right around the time Bissonnette’s book hit the stands in September. The Esquire article followed less than six months later, in the March 2013 issue.

O’Neill is never named in the story, but he’s called “the Shooter.” The first line says, “The man who shot and killed Osama bin Laden sat in a wicker chair in my backyard.” (Three retired members of SEAL Team Six have confirmed to NBC News that O’Neill is the shooter in the Esquire article.)

Image: An illustrated diagram of Osama bin Laden's compound
An illustrated diagram of Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan.U.S. Department of Defense

In the Esquire version of the raid, O’Neill is second in the stack. The first SEAL in the stack, the point man, sees a tall man stick his head out of the bedroom door on the third floor. He fires at least one shot.

“I don’t think he hit him,” O’Neill told Esquire. “He thinks he might have.”

O’Neill then heads into the room as the point man pushes two women out of the way. O’Neill shoots bin Laden in the face and kills him.

Later, according to the story, the point man seems to accept that he didn’t hit bin Laden. At a debrief in Afghanistan, however, he says he took two shots and might have hit bin Laden once. According to the story, he says O’Neill “finished [bin Laden] off as he was circling the drain.”

Matt Bissonnette doesn’t appear at all in this telling. The encounter with bin Laden takes about 15 seconds, and only two men, O’Neill and the point man, are in the room. Later, more SEALs show up. O’Neill told Esquire that ultimately there were many more wounds on the body than the ones he inflicted.

(Update: Robert O’Neill has now said in an on-the-record interview with the Washington Post that he killed bin Laden with a shot to the forehead. He also acknowledges that at least two other SEALS, including Bissonnette, fired shots.)


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According to the Esquire story, when asked by an Obama administration official which SEAL had shot bin Laden, O’Neill responded, “We all did it.”

That response was in line with the SEAL code, and won him goodwill with fellow SEALs. A former senior SEAL Team Six leader who was involved in the bin Laden mission confirmed that the exchange between O’Neill and the official took place and said, “It was classy."

But when O’Neill left SEAL Team Six and began making motivational speeches, with part of the unspoken lure for audiences his central role in bin Laden’s death, the goodwill began to ebb away. He is not, however, being investigated by the Pentagon.

Image: Rob O'Neill
Rob O'NeillCourtesy of

The former senior SEAL Team Six leader, who knows both Bissonnette and O’Neill, said he was “utterly disappointed” with both men. “What they’ve done is dishonorable,” he said. “All of this has been done for personal gain.”

He said both men were now persona non grata with SEAL Team Six command in Virginia Beach. After “No Easy Day” was published, said the former senior leader, Bissonnette sent a text to the commander of SEAL Team Six. The commander replied, “Delete me.”

But another former SEAL, while acknowledging that public scrutiny of their actions was fair, defended both Bissonnette and O’Neill. “They haven’t done anything leadership wouldn’t have done,” said James Hatch. “We are at this place in time because of a double standard. The leadership created that double standard.”

Hatch pointed out that leadership had allowed active-duty SEALs to participate in the movie “Act of Valor,” a fictionalized account of SEAL missions against terrorists around the globe. The film was released in February 2012 and capitalized on the bin Laden raid publicity.

Said Hatch, “The same leadership that promoted and produced ‘Act of Valor’ now want to punish people who did some heavy lifting. Doesn’t that seem odd to people? It’s either OK to talk shop or it isn’t.”

“I have 40 names in the contact list of my cell phone that are dead. Forty. And not one of those names did it for political gain or Hollywood.”

Bissonnette told NBC News he “almost has to laugh” when he hears about the code of silence. “It’s hard for me to take when I've been reading books my whole life about former special operations warriors, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. There's how many former generals, how many former CIA directors, how many former secretaries of defense? How many of them all get out and write books?”

The bin Laden mission was “just another day at the office,” said Bissonnette, though being a SEAL is the kind of job not everyone survives. “I have 40 names in the contact list of my cell phone that are dead. Forty. And not one of those names did it for political gain or Hollywood.”

He said he still has “plenty of friends” in the SEAL community, and still gets messages of support. But he said the amount of friction in that world is “very sad,” and knows he may have contributed to it by writing his first book. He also conceded that criticism from other SEALs, even if they’re strangers, can be painful. “It's tough to hear a lot of different SEALs that I've never met, I've never worked with and I don't know. And they come out and say things. That's tough to hear.”

But, he added, “They have every right to say it and that's fine.”

As Bissonnette notes, both he and O’Neill offered their versions of events long after other government employees had apparently spoken to journalists about the bin Laden raid. In August 2011, a New Yorker article quoted an unnamed “counterterrorism official” in describing the shooting. The New Yorker piece talks about three SEALs assaulting the bedroom, and according to the official, the first SEAL in the stack sees bin Laden through the open door, fires and misses.

The SEALs then head through the door, and the first SEAL pushes two women aside. The second SEAL shoots bin Laden in the chest and the head and then reports, via radio, “For God and country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo. Geronimo, E.K.I.A. (Enemy Killed in Action).” The account doesn’t mention what the third SEAL did.

A cinematic account of the bin Laden raid, the box office hit and Oscar winner “Zero Dark Thirty,” began shooting on location in February 2012. Some Republicans charged that the Obama administration had provided secret access to the filmmakers. Screenwriter Mark Boal said he had access to sources who had helped him with an unproduced screenplay about the 2001 raid on bin Laden’s Tora Bora hideout, and that he spoke to people in the military and the CIA about details of the raid. Both Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, however, said they relied mostly on open sources for the details of the raid, and had received no classified documents.

Rep. Peter King, R.-N.Y., called for an Inspector General’s investigation in August 2011 after learning of reports in the media that Bigelow and Boal had enjoyed access to government officials. A draft report of the internal investigation later showed that CIA Director Leon Panetta had revealed some classified details during an event at CIA headquarters. Boal was part of the large audience.

On Oct. 31, Rear Adm. John Kirby cited the final lines of the finished report to deny that the Pentagon had provided any sensitive information to “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmakers.

Said Kirby, “I'll just read for you the last paragraph: ‘Within the Department of Defense, we did not identify instances whereby any Special Operations tactics, techniques and procedures-related information was provided to filmmakers.’

“So, no. There was no active participation by the Department of Defense in that movie to reveal any tactic, technique or procedures or classified information to the movie's filmmakers.”

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When asked whether Bissonnette remained under investigation, Kirby said, “I’m not going to speak to the details of an investigation, but I can tell you that there is an investigation ongoing regarding the book ‘No Easy Day’ and some of the assertions in it.”

A Defense Department official told NBC News Tuesday that at the Defense Department's request, the Justice Department is investigating whether Bissonnette revealed classified information. The official was not aware of any similar request for an investigation of O'Neill.

Kirby had no comment on Oct. 31 when asked about the upcoming Fox interview with the unnamed “shooter” of bin Laden, but cited the SEAL code of ethics. “I think it's something that all individuals who are participating or have knowledge of sensitive operations should follow,” said Kirby.

Robert O’Neill did not respond to an NBC News request for comment.

-- Courtney Kube contributed reporting to this story