Do Americans have a right to know about what happened in Benghazi and the broader war on terror as told through the lens of books (and follow on movies) like “13 Hours”, “Lone Survivor”, and “American Sniper?”

Do combat veterans have a right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution as long as they honor their confidentiality agreements?

The editors of this site say “Yes” to both questions.

A discussion once solidly in the shadows of the special operations community and private forums is now making its way into modern media like a drunken barroom brawl spilling out into the streets for all to watch.

SOFREP was recently given a copy of a master’s thesis written by Lt. Forrest Crowell (Navy SEAL) entitled “Navy SEALs Gone Wild: Publicity, Fame and the Loss of the Quiet Professional.” As the title suggests, Lt. Crowell takes a dim view of former teammates, who to varying degrees and in differing contexts, have written or otherwise communicated publicly about some aspect of their service.

Lt. Crowell has experience on the subject but only through the lens of someone currently serving. He lacks the context of this issue as seen through the lens of civilian life after service.

So, do former members of the spec ops community have a right to discuss their service and, if so, where is the line drawn concerning when, where, or how they do so? The fundamental questions Crowell asks throughout the paper are relevant, however, the evidence (or lack thereof) he offers by way of addressing them lacks substance beyond speculation, and only proves the answers are far from clear cut.

Presently there are no rules (beyond confidentiality agreements) or guidelines for special operations veterans in the media beyond the “ethos” of their respective branches of service, which is left to individuals to interpret according to personal beliefs. There are no clear rules, the dogma has not been set, and the only clarity is that the special operations community is divided on the subject.

If the paper succeeds in proving anything, it’s the urgent need for a constructive, realistic dialogue on this subject. By way of attempting to open such a dialogue, we wanted to highlight a few of the key points raised in the paper. 

One of the central tenets of Crowell’s thesis is that, by talking about their service, former SEALs erode the credibility of the “SEAL brand,” detract from its “mystique,” and thus reduce the ability of SEALS to be effective. He essentially argues against telling stories like Marcus Luttrell’s “Lone Survivor” and Chris Kyle’s “American Sniper.”

Should these men and their experiences be recorded, or should they be left in the shadows? Does the public need an understanding of the special operations mission, and the burden placed on the Warfighters and their families? We think so.

Veterans documenting personal experiences in the media or books does two things: First, it gives them an outlet to express – and process – their raw emotions, which can help them cope with PTSD and stress associated with combat. Second, it offers an opportunity for documentation of this generation’s War on Terror.

One of the problems with Crowell’s position is that it implies SEALs are effective because of “mystique,” that some magical force is at work behind the ability of the teams to successfully carry out operations. 

In our experience, SEALs (and other SOF units) are successful because of their high degree of training and skill, coupled with superior technology. “Mystique,” or some mysterious aura, has little to do with the fear SEALs instill in their enemies.

As a related point, Lt. Crowell argues throughout his paper that publicity by former SEALs poses a security risk and puts operations in jeopardy. On the face of it, this sounds like a reasonable assertion. The problem is that in the entire paper, he only cites one example where publicized information may have led to the compromise of a mission. That was in the case of “Extortion 17.”

In that instance, the leaked information came from the White House, not a former special operator. Operators on this site have helped report on incidents such as the attack on Benghazi, which helped bring the truth to the surface and reduced the ability of parties involved to bury the facts while pursuing partisan political agendas.

Lt. Crowell’s argument is akin to saying professional athletes who have second careers as sportscasters on ESPN are at risk of marginalizing their former sports teams success on the playing field; when in reality they are providing deeper, and more relevant commentary.  As with retired professional athletes, former special operators aren’t interested in giving away the playbook.

In a similar vein, Crowell contends that the media and the public appetite for stories about special operations is being driven by the content generated by former special operators themselves.  His argument is that, but for the actions of a (relatively small) group of former SEALs, the public desire for stories about spec ops would “dry up.”

Reality simply does not bear this out. The arguments he makes in support of this position are entirely anecdotal and/or speculative. He excludes from consideration what is to our minds the biggest factor behind the rise in attention being given to spec ops: the change in the fundamental nature of combat that has taken place over the past two decades since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. 

If tank battalions were still rolling across North Africa and naval fleets were still engaged in massive maneuvers in the South Pacific, it would be one thing to say that a few former SEALs were responsible for turning the media and public attention to spec ops. But that’s not the case. History took a turn when America was attacked by terrorists, and when it did, the public’s attention followed; people sought to learn about the modern war on terror and those doing the work. 

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 resurrected a national pride and patriotism in America, much like Pearl Harbor did.  Special ops are now at the sharp end of the spear, no longer in the shadows of a pre-9/11 American Department of Defense. It’s natural that media and public attention, given the pervasiveness of the internet, has shifted accordingly. The world changed for all of us September 11th, 2001. 

Their are over 24 million fans on Facebook who like Call of Duty Black Ops alone.

This isn’t something that a few former special operations veterans have orchestrated, nor is the “cycle” of demand for this kind of information going to simply “dry up.” Taking former special operators out of the equation entirely, the administration and U.S. Special Operations Command are beholden to report to the public, and elected officials who set budgets, how they are combatting terror and how they are protecting the country. They are going to have to publicize and communicate unclassified versions of this information—the stories—to the American public.

This gets to the most significant of the problems underlying Crowell’s thesis, which has to do with the First Amendment. 

He writes:

The American public does not need to know exactly what SEALs do, nor how they do it when executing missions. Arguably, the public only needs to know that a rare breed of man is willing to put his life on the line to protect America and its interests. (p. 5)

First of all, no serious person is arguing that the American public needs to know “exactly” what SEALs do or how they do it.  The American public does, however, have a need—and a right—to be informed. And, by the way, the government has a duty to tell them. 

We live in a free society governed by our Constitution. That’s how it works.

If state or military secrets were being shared, then Crowell would have a very valid point. But they’re not. Crowell doesn’t provide any evidence that people have revealed anything about “exactly” what SEALs do or “how they do it,” any more than we know, say, about the clandestine services from James Bond, Jason Bourne, or any of the thousands of historical and biographical books, movies, and articles written on that subject since humans have been conducting warfare.

In fact, Lt. Crowell admits the fundamental problem with his entire thesis when he writes:

To be fair, as long as former service members submit their manuscripts to the Department of Defense (DoD) for pre- publication security review, there is no legal issue with their right to publish. (p. 14)

He glosses over this point and dismisses it, but it’s important. Information is not a “leak” if it was approved and signed off on by the DOD publication review board and SOCOM (Special Operations Command).  Saying “to be fair,” and the sentence that follows, is the sum total of the time Crowell gives to this crucial point—a point on which his entire thesis hinges.

Beyond outlining what Lt. Crowell sees is the problem, it’s worth discussing what he suggests as the solution. 

His recommendations, in our opinion, do as much to discredit the very SEAL ethos he seeks to protect, as the very activities he advocates go against being a quiet professional.

His prescription further underscores the critical and urgent need of an open, level-headed conversation—and thoughtful, realistic solutions—about this issue.

One of his proposed solutions is that former operators who disagree with former colleagues who talk about service should engage in a smear campaign against their fellow retired servicemen and women. We’ve seen this actively play out recently with attacks, usually anonymous, on several SEALs in the media and political arena.

The motivation in most cases where we’ve seen SEALs attacked publicly are members of the community who haven’t transitioned to civilian life well, PTSD, financial hardship, and substance abuse tops the list.  Some of the most vocal critics we’ve seen on social media were actually SEALs forced out of the community for drug or performance issues.

Crowell further suggests that “all Navy SEALs need to actively oppose the commodification of the SEAL brand through peer pressure and by discrediting abusers of NSW’s symbolic capital.”

An Example of a smear campaign against former SEAL Eric Greitens

Note: Active-duty SEALs were quoted in follow-on media reports but refused to give their names, citing “security concerns.” It is doubtful that any of these active-duty members had permission to speak to the press, and in doing they are violating the very ethos they are trying to uphold in our opinion.

Greitens’s response

Crowell is essentially advocating for the Naval Special Warfare Command, and more broadly, the special operations community, to engage in a public-relations smear campaign against former colleagues who they deem, by no clear measure, to be doing something wrong. 

The problems with this abound and do not represent the special operations community in a professional or positive way. 

The paper contains a subjective definition of what’s okay to talk about and what’s not. Crowell’s best attempt at a definition of the criteria is blurry at best. It’s one thing to talk about ethos, but it’s another thing entirely to codify it into administrative, regulatory and legal language when the broader special ops community and administration aren’t clear about what the standard should be. And this issue is what should be addressed in our opinion, create clear contractual obligations for members of the special operations community, both active and veteran alike. 

By making these suggestions, Lt. Crowell is fomenting a potentially large-scale, messy, and endless cycle of infighting – the same infighting we see today spilling into the media today. This serves nobody well, and only further fractures and degrades the very ethos discussed. 

He also advocates for the U.S. military (SOF components) to pressure companies into not conducting business with SOF veterans who violate this open-to-interpretation ethos. This recommendation is not only impractical, it’s illegal. Federal laws prohibits the U.S. military from influencing business organizations or playing “favorites”.

The other notable recommendation the paper offers – one Crowell deems “the most critical” – is the Continuum of Leadership Development (CLD) program.

He writes:

The aim of this program is to overcome two pitfalls that have historically caused problems within the SEAL/SWCC training pipeline: deselecting/dropping good candidates and selecting/qualifying bad candidates. CLD focuses on selecting men based on character and competence rather than physical performance alone.  This is the crux of the problem with individuals like Robert O’Neill, Matthew Bissonnette, Brandon Webb, and others.  They may have been very successful practitioners, but they categorically failed when faced with the tough decision of defending the SEAL Ethos. The goal of CLD will be to ensure that individuals prone to putting themselves first (for whatever reason) never make it through training. (p. 53)

The implication of this statement is that the world would be a better place without SEALs, and the others he called out as examples throughout the paper. It would be hard to imagine serious person—inside of the military or out—who would agree. It’s also interesting that, in listing the SEALs who would presumably have been screened out by the CLD, he did not include Marcus Luttrell, American sniper Chris Kyle, or Congressman Ryan Zinke

In this context, they are conspicuous by their omission, and highlight the absurdity of the CLD proposal. One could also make a counter-argument that, by writing this thesis targeted at former SEALS and members of special operations, Lt. Crowell is “putting himself first (for whatever reason).” 

While we don’t agree with many of Lt. Crowell’s arguments and the conclusions he draws, we do applaud him for raising the issues. His thesis points to the need for a serious conversation on these issues. 

In bringing attention to the key points in his paper, we hope to engage all people with positions of influence in this debate—from former members of the spec-ops community to current leadership in SOCOM, American citizens, and the top branches of government.

These are important issues. They relate to morality, the Constitution, our legal system, and national security. It’s simple enough to draw a line in the sand, pick one side, and demonize the other side. It’s another thing entirely to squarely face the facts of the real world, specifically the laws that govern this country. The same rights so many have lived and died for since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  

These are important questions. They deserve serious discussion, without encouraging more infighting within the spec-ops community. This only degrades our collective reputation and shows up to most of the public as gossipy, Kardashian-like skirmishes and name-calling. 

It’s time for a more serious debate on the subject, one that occurs within the political, legal, and leadership framework of the community. If this doesn’t happen, the situation will worsen, sides will become more and more entrenched, and nothing useful will come out of it, and the only certainty is that the public’s admiration of the U.S. Special Operations community will erode. 

Written by: Desiree Huitt, Jack Murphy, and Brandon Webb

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