They have plotted deadly missions from secret bases in the badlands of Somalia. In Afghanistan, they have engaged in combat so intimate that they have emerged soaked in blood that was not their own. On clandestine raids in the dead of the night, their weapons of choice have ranged from customized carbines to primeval tomahawks.
Around the world, they have run spying stations disguised as commercial boats, posed as civilian employees of front companies and operated undercover at embassies as male-female pairs, tracking those the United States wants to kill or capture.
Those operations are part of the hidden history of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, one of the nation’s most mythologized, most secretive and least scrutinized military organizations. Once a small group reserved for specialized but rare missions, the unit best known for killing Osama bin Laden has been transformed by more than a decade of combat into a global manhunting machine.
That role reflects America’s new way of war, in which conflict is distinguished not by battlefield wins and losses, but by the relentless killing of suspected militants.
Almost everything about SEAL Team 6, a classified Special Operations unit, is shrouded in secrecy — the Pentagon does not even publicly acknowledge that name — though some of its exploits have emerged in largely admiring accounts in recent years. But an examination of Team 6’s evolution, drawn from dozens of interviews with current and former team members, other military officials and reviews of government documents, reveals a far more complex, provocative tale.
While fighting grinding wars of attrition in Afghanistan and Iraq, Team 6 performed missions elsewhere that blurred the traditional lines between soldier and spy. The team’s sniper unit was remade to carry out clandestine intelligence operations, and the SEALs joined Central Intelligence Agency operatives in an initiative called the Omega Program, which offered greater latitude in hunting adversaries.
Team 6 has successfully carried out thousands of dangerous raids that military leaders credit with weakening militant networks, but its activities have also spurred recurring concerns about excessive killing and civilian deaths.
Afghan villagers and a British commander accused SEALs of indiscriminately killing men in one hamlet; in 2009, team members joined C.I.A. and Afghan paramilitary forces in a raid that left a group of youths dead and inflamed tensions between Afghan and NATO officials. Even an American hostage freed in a dramatic rescue has questioned why the SEALs killed all his captors.
When suspicions have been raised about misconduct, outside oversight has been limited. Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees SEAL Team 6 missions, conducted its own inquiries into more than a half-dozen episodes, but seldom referred them to Navy investigators. “JSOC investigates JSOC, and that’s part of the problem,” said one former senior military officer experienced in special operations, who like many others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because Team 6’s activities are classified.
Even the military’s civilian overseers do not regularly examine the unit’s operations. “This is an area where Congress notoriously doesn’t want to know too much,” said Harold Koh, the State Department’s former top legal adviser, who provided guidance to the Obama administration on clandestine war.
Waves of money have sluiced through SEAL Team 6 since 2001, allowing it to significantly expand its ranks — reaching roughly 300 assault troops, called operators, and 1,500 support personnel — to meet new demands. But some team members question whether the relentless pace of operations has eroded the unit’s elite culture and worn down Team 6 on combat missions of little importance. The group was sent to Afghanistan to hunt Qaeda leaders, but instead spent years conducting close-in battle against mid- to low-level Taliban and other enemy fighters. Team 6 members, one former operator said, served as “utility infielders with guns.”
The cost was high: More members of the unit have died over the past 14 years than in all its previous history. Repeated assaults, parachute jumps, rugged climbs and blasts from explosives have left many battered, physically and mentally.
“War is not this pretty thing that the United States has come to believe it to be,” said Britt Slabinski, a retired senior enlisted member of Team 6 and veteran of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It’s emotional, one human being killing another human being for extended periods of time. It’s going to bring out the worst in you. It’s also going to bring out the best in you.”
Team 6 and its Army counterpart, Delta Force, have delivered intrepid performances that have drawn the nation’s two most recent presidents to deploy them to an expanding list of far-off trouble spots. They include Syria and Iraq, now under threat from the Islamic State, and Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, mired in continuing chaos.
Like the C.I.A.’s campaign of drone strikes, Special Operations missions offer policy makers an alternative to costly wars of occupation. But the bulwark of secrecy around Team 6 makes it impossible to fully assess its record and the consequences of its actions, including civilian casualties or the deep resentment inside the countries where its members operate. The missions have become embedded in American combat with little public discussion or debate.
Former Senator Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat and a member of the SEALs during the Vietnam War, cautioned that Team 6 and other Special Operations forces had been overused. “They have become sort of a 1-800 number anytime somebody wants something done,” he said. But relying on them so much, he added, is inevitable whenever American leaders are faced with “one of those situations where the choice you have is between a horrible choice and a bad choice, one of those cases where you have no option.”
While declining to comment specifically on SEAL Team 6, the United States Special Operations Command said that since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, its forces “have been involved in tens of thousands of missions and operations in multiple geographic theaters, and consistently uphold the highest standards required of the U.S. Armed Forces.”
The command said its operators are trained to operate in complex and fast-moving environments and it trusts them to conduct themselves appropriately. “All allegations of misconduct are taken seriously,” the statement said, adding: “Substantiated findings are dealt with by military or law enforcement authorities.”
The unit’s advocates express no doubts about the value of such invisible warriors. “If you want these forces to do things that occasionally bend the rules of international law,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, referring to going into undeclared war zones, “you certainly don’t want that out in public.” Team 6, he added, “should continue to operate in the shadows.”
But others warn of the seduction of an endless campaign of secret missions, far from public view. “If you’re unacknowledged on the battlefield,” said William C. Banks, an expert on national security law at Syracuse University, “you’re not accountable.”
FIGHTING UP CLOSE
Enemy fighters killed him before American troops were able to get there, mutilating his body in the snow.
It was SEAL Team 6’s first major battle in Afghanistan, and he was the first member to die. The manner in which he was killed sent shudders through the tight-knit community. America’s new war would be up close and ugly. At times, the troops carried out the grisliest of tasks: cutting off fingers or small patches of scalp for DNA analysis from militants they had just killed.
After the March 2002 campaign, most of Osama bin Laden’s fighters fled into Pakistan, and Team 6 would rarely fight another sustained, pitched battle against the terrorist network in Afghanistan. The enemy they had been sent to take on had largely disappeared.
At the time, the team was prohibited from hunting Taliban fighters and also blocked from chasing any Qaeda operatives into Pakistan, out of concern about alienating the Pakistani government. Mostly confined to the Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, the SEALs were frustrated. The C.I.A., though, was under no similar restrictions, and Team 6 members eventually began working with the spy agency and operated under its broader combat authorities, according to former military and intelligence officials.
The missions, part of the Omega Program, allowed the SEALs to conduct “deniable operations” against the Taliban and other militants in Pakistan. Omega was modeled after the Vietnam-era Phoenix Program, when C.I.A. officers and Special Operations troops conducted interrogations and assassinations to try to dismantle the Vietcong’s guerrilla networks in South Vietnam.
But an extensive campaign of lethal operations in Pakistan was considered too risky, the officials said, so the Omega Program primarily focused on using Afghan Pashtuns to run spying missions into the Pakistani tribal areas, as well as working with C.I.A.-trained Afghan militias during night raids in Afghanistan. A C.I.A. spokesman declined to comment for this article.
The escalating conflict in Iraq was drawing most of the Pentagon’s attention and required a steady buildup of troops, including deployments by SEAL Team 6 members. With the relatively small American military footprint in Afghanistan, Taliban forces began to regroup. Alarmed, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who was leading Joint Special Operations Command, in 2006 ordered the SEALs and other troops to take on a more expansive task in Afghanistan: Beat back the Taliban.
That order led to years of nightly raids or fights by Team 6, which was designated the lead Special Operations force during some of the most violent years in what became America’s longest war. A secret unit that was created to carry out the nation’s riskiest operations would instead be engaged in dangerous but increasingly routine combat.
The surge in operations started during that summer when Team 6 operators and Army Rangers began to hunt down midlevel Taliban figures in hopes of finding leaders of the group in Kandahar Province, the Taliban heartland. The SEALs used techniques developed with Delta Force in kill-and-capture campaigns in Iraq. The logic behind the manhunts was that intelligence gathered from a militant safe house, along with that collected by the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, could lead to a bomb maker’s workshop and eventually to the door of an insurgent commander.
Special Operations troops struck a seemingly endless succession of targets. No figures are publicly available that break out the number of raids that Team 6 carried out in Afghanistan or their toll. Military officials say that no shots were fired on most raids. But between 2006 and 2008, Team 6 operators said, there were intense periods in which for weeks at a time their unit logged 10 to 15 kills on many nights, and sometimes up to 25.
The accelerated pace caused “guys to become fierce,” said a former Team 6 officer. “These killing fests had become routine.”
Special Operations commanders say the raids helped unravel Taliban networks. But some Team 6 members came to doubt that they were making much of a difference. One former senior enlisted SEAL member, pressed for details about one mission, said, “It became so many of these targets, it was just another name.”
“Whether they were facilitators, Taliban subcommanders, Taliban commanders, financiers, it no longer became important,” he added.
Another former Team 6 member, an officer, was even more dismissive of some of the operations. “By 2010, guys were going after street thugs,” he said. “The most highly trained force in the world, chasing after street thugs.”
The unit pushed to make its operations faster, quieter and deadlier, and benefited from a ballooning budget and from advances in technology since 2001. Team 6’s bland cover name — the Naval Special Warfare Development Group — is a nod to its official mission of developing new equipment and tactics for the broader SEAL organization, which also includes nine unclassified teams.
The SEALs’ armorers customized a new German-made rifle and equipped nearly every weapon with suppressors, which reduce gunshot sounds and muzzle flashes. Infrared lasers enabling the SEALs to shoot more accurately at night became standard issue, as did thermal optics to detect body heat. The SEALs were equipped with a new generation of grenade — a thermobaric model that is particularly effective in making buildings collapse. They often operated in larger groups than they had traditionally done. More SEALs carrying deadlier weapons meant that fewer enemies escaped alive.
Some Team 6 assault troops also used tomahawks crafted by Daniel Winkler, a knife maker in North Carolina who forged blades for the film “The Last of the Mohicans.” During one period, members of Team 6’s Red Squadron — its logo shows crossed tomahawks below the face of a Native American warrior — received a Winkler hatchet after their first year in the squadron, according to two members. In an interview, Mr. Winkler declined to discuss which SEAL units had received his tomahawks, but did say many were paid for by private donors.
The weapons were not just wall ornaments. Several former Team 6 members said that some men carried the hatchets on missions, and at least one killed an enemy fighter with the weapon. Dom Raso, a former Team 6 member who left the Navy in 2012, said that hatchets were used “for breaching, getting into doors, manipulating small locks, hand-to-hand combat and other things.” He added that hatchet and blade kills occurred during his time with the SEALs.
“Whatever tool you need to protect yourself and your brothers, whether it is a blade or a gun, you are going to use,” said Mr. Raso, who has worked with Mr. Winkler in producing a blade.
Many SEAL operators rejected any use of tomahawks — saying they were too bulky to take into combat and not as effective as firearms — even as they acknowledged the messiness of warfare.
“It’s a dirty business,” said one former senior enlisted Team 6 member. “What’s the difference between shooting them as I was told and pulling out a knife and stabbing them or hatcheting them?”
SEAL Team 6’s fenced-off headquarters at the Dam Neck Annex of the Oceana Naval Air Station, just south of Virginia Beach, houses a secretive military within the military. Far removed from the public eye, the base is home not just to the team’s 300 enlisted operators (they disdain the term “commandos”), their officers and commanders, but also to its pilots, Seabee builders, bomb disposal technicians, engineers, medical crews and an intelligence unit equipped with sophisticated surveillance and global tracking technology.
The Navy SEALs — the acronym stands for Sea, Air, Land forces — evolved from the frogmen of World War II. Team 6 arose decades later, born out of the failed 1980 mission to rescue 53 American hostages seized in the takeover of the United States Embassy in Tehran. Poor planning and bad weather forced commanders to abort the mission, and eight servicemen died when two aircraft collided over the Iranian desert.
The Navy then asked Cmdr. Richard Marcinko, a hard-charging Vietnam veteran, to build a SEAL unit that could respond quickly to terrorist crises. The name itself was an attempt at Cold War disinformation: Only two SEAL teams existed at the time, but Commander Marcinko called the unit SEAL Team 6 hoping that Soviet analysts would overestimate the size of the force.
He flouted rules and fostered a maverick image for the unit. (Years after leaving the command, he was convicted of military contract fraud.) In his autobiography, “Rogue Warrior,” Commander Marcinko describes drinking together as important to SEAL Team 6’s solidarity; his recruiting interviews often amounted to boozy chats in a bar.
Officially, SEAL Team 6 does not exist. The unit performs some of the military’s most dangerous missions, those considered too risky for conventional troops.
Inside Team 6, there were initially two assault groups, called Blue and Gold, after the Navy colors. Blue used the Jolly Roger pirate flag as its insignia and early on earned the nickname “the Bad Boys in Blue,” for racking up drunken driving arrests, abusing narcotics and crashing rental cars on training exercises with near impunity.
Young officers sometimes were run out of Team 6 for trying to clean up what they perceived as a culture of recklessness. Adm. William H. McRaven, who rose to head the Special Operations Command and oversaw the Bin Laden raid, was pushed out of Team 6 and assigned to another SEAL team during the Marcinko era after complaining of difficulties in keeping his troops in line.
Ryan Zinke, a former Team 6 officer and now a Republican congressman from Montana, recalled an episode after a team training mission aboard a cruise liner in preparation for potential hostage rescues at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Mr. Zinke escorted an admiral to a bar in the ship’s lower level. “When we opened the door, it reminded me of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’” Mr. Zinke said, recalling that the admiral was appalled by the operators’ long hair, beards and earrings. “My Navy?” the admiral asked him. “These guys are in my Navy?”
That was the beginning of what Mr. Zinke referred to as “the great bloodletting,” when the Navy purged Team 6’s leadership to professionalize the force. Current and former Team 6 operators said the culture was different today. Members now tend to be better educated, more athletic, older and more mature — though some are still known for pushing limits.
“I got kicked out of the Boy Scouts,” said one former officer. Most Team 6 SEALs, he added, “were like me.”
Delta Force members, who have a reputation for going by the book, often start out as regular infantry, then move up through the Army’s Ranger units and Special Forces teams before joining Delta. But SEAL Team 6 is more isolated from the rest of the Navy, with many of its men entering the brutal SEAL training pipeline from outside the military.
After several years on regular SEAL teams — the even-numbered ones based in Virginia Beach, the odd-numbered ones in San Diego, and a unit in Hawaii dedicated to mini-submarines — SEALs can try out for Team 6. Many are eager to get to the most elite unit, but about half of them wash out.
Officers rotate through Team 6, sometimes returning for several tours, but the enlisted SEALs typically stay far longer, giving them outsize influence. “A lot of the enlisted guys think that they really run the show,” said one former senior member. “That’s part of the Marcinko style.”
And they tend to swagger, critics and defenders say. While the other SEAL teams (called “white” or “vanilla” SEALs within the military) perform similar tasks, Team 6 pursues the highest value targets and takes on hostage rescues in combat zones. It also works more with the C.I.A. and does more clandestine missions outside war zones. Only Team 6 trains to chase after nuclear weapons that fall into the wrong hands.
Team 6’s role in the 2011 Bin Laden raid spawned a cottage industry of books and documentaries, leaving tight-lipped Delta Force troops rolling their eyes. Members of Team 6 are expected to honor a code of silence about their missions, and many current and former members fume that two of their own spoke out about their role in the Qaeda leader’s death. The men, Matt Bissonnette, author of two best sellers about his tenure at SEAL Team 6, and Robert O’Neill, who said in a television special that he had killed Bin Laden, are under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service over accusations that they revealed classified information.
Others have been quietly kicked out for drug use or quit over conflicts of interest involving military contractors or side jobs. The Navy reprimanded 11 current and former operators in 2012 for disclosing Team 6 tactics or handing over classified training films to help promote a computer game,“Medal of Honor: Warfighter.”
With multiple deployments over the last 13 years, few of the unit’s members are unscathed. About three dozen operators and support personnel have died on combat missions, according to a former senior team member. They include 15 Gold Squadron members and two bomb specialists who were killed in 2011 when a helicopter with the call sign Extortion 17 was shot down in Afghanistan, the most devastating day in Team 6 history.
Blasts from explosions used to breach compounds on raids, repeated assaults and the battering from riding on high-speed assault boats in sea rescues or training have taken a toll. Some men have sustained traumatic brain injuries. “Your body is trashed,” said one recently retired operator. “Your brain is trashed.”
“SEALs are a lot like N.F.L. guys: They never want to say ‘I am taking myself out of the lineup,’” said Dr. John Hart, medical science director at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, which has treated many SEAL patients. “If they send guys back in who already have the effects of a concussion, they are constantly adding a dose of a hit to an existing brain condition. The brain needs sufficient time to heal.”
LATITUDE TO KILL
Early on in the Afghan war, SEAL Team 6 was assigned to protect the Afghan leader Hamid Karzai; one of the Americans was grazed in the head during an assassination attempt on the future president. But in the years that followed, Mr. Karzai became a bitter critic of the United States Special Operations troops, complaining that they routinely killed civilians in raids. He viewed the activities of Team 6 and other units as a boon for Taliban recruiting and eventually tried to block night raids entirely.
Two years later, Dr. Joseph remains grateful for his rescue and the sacrifice made by Petty Officer Nicolas D. Checque, the team member killed on the mission. But he still wonders what happened with Wallakah.
“It took me weeks to come to terms with the efficiency of the rescue,” Dr. Joseph said. “It was so surgical.”
A GLOBAL SPYING FORCE
From a string of firebases along the Afghan border, Team 6 regularly sent Afghan locals into the tribal areas of Pakistan to collect intelligence. The team transformed the large, brightly painted “jingle” trucks popular in the region into mobile spying stations, hiding sophisticated eavesdropping equipment in the back of the trucks and using Pashtuns to drive them over the border.
Outside the mountains of Pakistan, the team also ventured into the country’s southwest desert, including the volatile Baluchistan region. One mission nearly ended in disaster when militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade from a doorway, causing the roof of their compound to collapse and a Team 6 sniper atop it to fall through onto a small group of fighters. A fellow American sniper nearby quickly killed them, one former operator recounted.
Beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, members of Team 6’s Black Squadron were scattered around the world on spying missions. Originally Team 6’s sniper unit, Black Squadron was reconfigured after the Sept. 11 attacks to conduct “advance force operations,” military jargon for intelligence gathering and other clandestine activities in preparation for a Special Operations mission.
It was a particularly popular concept at the Pentagon under former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. By the middle of last decade, General McChrystal had designated Team 6 to take on an expanded role in global intelligence-gathering missions, and Black Squadron operatives deployed to American embassies from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America to the Middle East.
The unit sets up front companies to provide cover for Black Squadron operators in the Middle East, and runs floating spying stations disguised as commercial boats off the coasts of Somalia and Yemen. Black Squadron members, working from the American Embassy in Sana, the Yemeni capital, were central to the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric and American citizen who had become affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He was killed in 2011 by a C.I.A. drone.
One former member of Black Squadron said that in Somalia and Yemen, operators were not allowed to pull the trigger unless the highest-value targets were in their sights. “Outside Iraq and Afghanistan we were not throwing any nets,” the former member said. “It was totally different.”
Black Squadron has something the rest of SEAL Team 6 does not: female operatives. Women in the Navy are admitted to Black Squadron and sent overseas to gather intelligence, usually working in embassies with male counterparts. One former SEAL Team 6 officer said that male and female members of Black Squadron would often work together in pairs. It is called “profile softening,” making the couple appear less suspicious to hostile intelligence services or militant groups.
Black Squadron now has more than 100 members, its growth coinciding with the expansion of perceived threats around the world. It also reflects the shift among American policy makers. Anxious about using shadow warriors in the years after the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Mogadishu, Somalia, government officials today are willing to send units like SEAL Team 6 to conflicts, whether the United States chooses to acknowledge its role or not.
“When I was in, we were always chasing wars,” said Mr. Zinke, the congressman and former Team 6 member. “These guys found them.”