Robert O'Neill, the retired Navy SEAL who says he shot al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the forehead publicly identified himself Thursday amid a debate among special operations brethren about whether they should break silence about their secret missions.
O'Neill, 38, told The Washington Post in an interview that he fired the two shots that killed bin Laden during a raid in Pakistan in May 2011. He first recounted the story in February 2013 to Esquire magazine, which identified him only as "the shooter."
One current and one former SEAL confirmed to The Associated Press 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.
Defense Department officials confirmed Thursday that O'Neill was a member of SEAL Team Six and was part of the bin Laden raid. But they said they could not confirm who fired the fatal shot, noting that other SEALs on the mission also fired at bin Laden.
- Navy SEAL book to give inside look at bin Laden mission
- Team Six: the super-secret SEALs who killed bin Laden
- The fifth estate: Target Bin Laden
- Bin Laden death ends 10-year manhunt
O'Neill told the Post that shots also were fired by two other SEAL team members, including Matt Bissonnette, who described the raid somewhat differently in his book, No Easy Day. His lawyer said Bissonnette is under federal criminal investigation over whether he disclosed classified information in the book, which he did not vet with the military. In the Esquire piece, O'Neill makes no mention of Bissonnette shooting bin Laden.
O'Neill discussed his role in the raid during a private meeting with relatives of victims of the 9/11 attack on New York's World Trade Center before the recent opening of the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum. He donated the shirt he was wearing in the operation, which is now on display there.
He told the Post he decided to go public because he feared his identity was going to be leaked by others. Indeed, his name was published Monday by SOFREP, a website operated by former special operations troopers.
Drawn scorn from colleagues
The actions of both O'Neill and Bissonnette have drawn scorn from some of their colleagues. In an Oct. 31 open letter, Rear Adm. Brian Losey, who commands the Naval Special Warfare Group, and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci, the top noncommissioned officer of the group, urged SEALs to lower their public profile. Their comments were widely perceived as being aimed at O'Neill and Bissonnette.
"At Naval Special Warfare's core is the SEAL ethos," the letter says. "A critical tenant of our ethos is `I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions."'
The letter added, "We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety or financial gain."
Rick Woolard, a former SEAL team commander who previously urged his comrades to avoid discussing recent operations, said, active-duty SEALs are "pretty much very disappointed and I'd have to say angry with guys who have used their deeds and those of their companions for personal gain."
In the Esquire piece, O'Neill said he was one of two SEALs who went up to the third floor of the building where bin Laden was hiding. The first man fired two shots at bin Laden as he peeked out of the bedroom, but O'Neill says those shots missed. The man then tackled two women in the hallway outside of bin Laden's bedroom.
O'Neill went into the bedroom, he recounts. "There was bin Laden standing there. He had his hands on a woman's shoulders, pushing her ahead, not exactly toward me but by me, in the direction of the hallway commotion. It was his youngest wife, Amal."
O'Neill added: "In that second, I shot him two times in the forehead. Bap! Bap! The second time as he's going down. He crumpled onto the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again. Bap! Same place. ... He was dead."