In the second half of 2012, something strange started happening at SOFREP. I say strange because it wasn’t something I’d expected, planned, or intended, or even anything I saw coming. In fact, I didn’t fully realize it was happening until it was already well underway.
We had started out that February writing pieces aimed purely at the Spec Ops community. After all, that was our mission. But by that fall, it was clear that this was not all we were doing. We were also writing about foreign policy, international developments, and other current events. Our identity was shifting. We were changing the core description of what we did. Organically and without our having planned it this way, SOFREP was becoming a hard news site. In the business and leadership literature, you read constantly about how important it is to have your mission clearly defined. How you need to emblazon that on a sign and hang it on the wall and make sure everyone in your company knows what it is. Apple = “The computer for the rest of us.” FedEx = “The world on time.” Nike = “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”
And that’s great, as far as it goes. But here’s the dirty little secret of business missions: Sometimes you don’t really know what the ultimate mission is when you start. Sometimes you don’t find out un- until you’ve been at it for a while. In fact, this happens a lot more often than you’d think.
You start out with what you think the mission is. But it shifts and changes, and if you’re paying attention, you follow. You pivot.
That’s what happened to SOFREP. Before our first year was out, our mission had shifted. This wasn’t a top-down change. It didn’t come from me; it came from the writers. And it happened because we had a standard, and that standard led us where it wanted to go, not where I originally thought it was going.
That Standard Was Excellence
It started in August 2012, with the announcement of No Easy Day, that firsthand account of the bin Laden mission. The book sparked some controversy about the whole idea of SEALs going public with details of the raid. On September 12, Time published a piece I wrote on the subject titled A (Former) SEAL Speaks Out . . . About (Former) SEALs Speaking Out.
That same day, my best friend, Glen Doherty, was killed in the attack on the American consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi.
Benghazi changed my life. Glen was my closest friend in the world. We’d been SEAL Team Three teammates, and we’d gone through Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) sniper school together as shooting partners, three months that forged a lifelong bond. My kids knew him as Uncle Glen. Losing him hurt worse than I had known anything could hurt. It also upped my own sense of commitment, to do my best to live up to the standard Glen set — not just as a SEAL, but as a human being.
Benghazi not only changed my life; it also changed SOFREP. It was the signal event that really thrust SOFREP into the news business because it showed us the gaping hole that existed in the conventional civilian media and underlined the responsibility we felt to address that deficit.
If there is one defining characteristic of who Special Operators are and how they operate, it is excellence. Excellence means exactly what it says: you excel. Everything everyone else does, you strive to do better: faster, sooner, more efficiently, more effectively, more re- liable, more consistently, and with greater results. You take on the job at hand and do it to the limit of human possibility — and then do it better than that.
What I saw in the latter half of 2012 was American media doing a mediocre job. And it pushed every SEAL button I had.
In the aftermath of Benghazi, the mainstream conversation went absolutely nuts. There was a presidential election happening, and the whole event became ridiculously politicized — on both sides of the aisle. What got lost in the noise was both facts and perspective: what actually happened, and what it actually meant or didn’t mean. Once again, we were the first media outlet to provide a detailed account of the events of September 11 and 12, 2012, from credible sources. Over the following months, we published dozens of pieces that put accurate information and reasoned perspective in front of the public.
At the same time, SOFREP’s cadre of writers was growing. Our writers are all vets, including Special Operators from every branch: not only SEALs, but also Rangers, Delta, Air Force Controllers, Marine Force Recon and MARSOC operators, people with high-level intel backgrounds, CIA experience, every type, and level of active-duty, in-the-trenches history you can think of. Every one of them had the same kind of top-tier standards of excellence.
These men and women were watching what was happening in the news cycle, and they weren’t liking it. Not just about Libya, but about all the trouble spots around the world, from the Middle East to Africa to Europe to Asia to right here in the United States, an awful lot of what was being written in the existing media was bullshit. And this was across the board: Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, everyone — too many people were writing about topics and events plainly without knowing what the hell they were talking about. VICE especially comes to mind.
Our guys had operated on the ground in all these places and in many cases still had extensive active networks in place in these AOs (areas of operation). This enabled them to give the story to the American public straight, without any spin. They started writing op-ed pieces and commentary on what was showing up in the news. Soon SOFREP writers were offering pointed critiques of everything from the Veterans Administration debacle to Special Operations Command mismanagement to overall foreign policy.
At the same time, we were also breaking stories, beating other outlets to the punch with accounts that were not only more accurate and better sourced but also more timely.
We were the first to report the death of Chris Kyle when he was murdered on a shooting range in Texas.
SOFREP broke the news on the first transgender SEAL, Kristin Beck. We also broke the story on the first openly gay SEAL, Brett Jones. We then did a follow-up on Jones’s contract with the CIA and broke the story about the intense and flagrant discrimination against him in the CIA.
In June 2013, we were the first outlet to publish Ambassador Stevens’s personal diary. In our piece, we included reproductions of the last five pages of his diary, written in his hand, including the final page, jotted down on September 11, 2012, with its chilling concluding line: “Never ending security threats . . .” —after which the diary went blank. (Yes, he actually put the ellipsis at the end of that final entry.)
The stories kept happening, and we decided to take our original reporting to the next level. Rather than simply comment from where we were, why not put our guys on the ground in hot spots around the world? We started by deploying Jack Murphy, our then-editor-in-chief, to Syria, where he did a series in late 2014 and early 2015, including his report on the YPJ (Kurdish militia) female snipers. (His account of how he physically managed to get on location, let alone what he found when he got there, is well worth the read.)
We started SOFREP with a stated mission to provide information and relevant stories and interviews about the Spec Ops community. We could have doggedly stuck with that. Instead, we followed our growing journalistic instincts.
Our writers were seeing mediocrity in the media, and they wanted to respond with the same level of excellence they had adhered to in the military. They had something to say and I’m glad to have let them say it.
Well, there you have it, folks, the origin story of SOFREP.