A federal judge has ruled that the US government must release photographs of the abuse that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that the Bush and Obama administrations have fought vigorously to suppress. The ACLU has been seeking the release of the photos under FOIA since 2004. While some of the infamous photos had leaked earlier, there are an estimated 2,000 still being kept under wraps. The US government had argued that their release would endanger its troops but the judge ruled that with only about 5,000 US troops still in Iraq and serving as advisors rather than in active combat, that danger had not been proven by the outgoing defense secretary.
One reason that the US government opposes their release has to be that they do not cast the US military in a good light. The by-now well-documented atrocities that have taken place in places like Abu Ghraib are often dismissed by the government as the acts of low-level soldiers who do not represent the best of the military. There was a concerted attempt to portray those who conducted the abuse of prisoners and even took photographs of their actions as poorly educated, low social-class individuals. When it comes to the glorification of the US military, most of the hype is reserved for its elite units, those who are supposedly highly trained for special missions that require high levels of precision and skill.
Navy Seal Team 6 is one the most celebrated units. As Matthew Cole writes:
NO SINGLE MILITARY unit has come to represent American military success or heroism more than SEAL Team 6, officially designated as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and known in military vernacular as DevGru, Team 6, the Command, and Task Force Blue. Its operators are part of an elite, clandestine cadre. The men who make it through the grueling training represent roughly the top 10 percent of all SEALs. They are taught to live and if necessary die for one another. The extreme risks they take forge extreme bonds.
But Cole and his team have been conducting a two-year investigation into the unit and find that the mystique of the unit created a sense of immunity leading to a pattern of brutal attacks known as “revenge ops” where innocent people were killed, mutilated, and otherwise brutalized in retaliation for the deaths of their own, that are now being revealed by some of the people who took part in them and some of whom have now retired.
This account of the crimes of SEAL Team 6 results from a two-year investigation drawing on interviews with 18 current and former members of the unit, including four former senior leaders of the command. Other military and intelligence officials who have served with or investigated the unit were also interviewed. Most would speak about the unit only on background or without attribution, because nearly every facet of SEAL Team 6 is classified. Some sources asked for anonymity citing the probability of professional retaliation for speaking out against their peers and teammates. According to these sources, whether judged by its own private code or the international laws of war, the command has proven to be incapable and unwilling to hold itself accountable for war crimes.
Cole says that the killing of a fellow Seal was a trigger for creating a culture of violence and secrecy.
The battle of Roberts Ridge, as it came to be known, has been frequently described in books and press accounts. But what happened during Objective Bull, the assault on the convoy in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, has never been previously reported.
Roberts’s death, and the subsequent operations in eastern Afghanistan during the winter 2002 deployment, left an indelible impression on SEAL Team 6, especially on Red Team. According to multiple SEAL Team 6 sources, the events of that day set off a cascade of extraordinary violence. As the legend of SEAL Team 6 grew, a rogue culture arose that operated outside of the Navy’s established mechanisms for command and investigation. Parts of SEAL Team 6 began acting with an air of impunity that disturbed observers within the command. Senior members of SEAL Team 6 felt the pattern of brutality was not only illegal but rose to the level of war crimes.
Most SEALs did not commit atrocities, the sources said, but the problem was persistent and recurrent, like a stubborn virus. Senior leaders at the command knew about the misconduct and did little to eradicate it. The official SEAL creed reads, in part: “Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond.” But after 9/11, another code emerged that made lying — especially to protect a teammate or the command from accountability — the more honorable course of action.
“You can’t win an investigation on us,” one former SEAL Team 6 leader told me. “You don’t whistleblow on the teams … and when you win on the battlefield, you don’t lose investigations.”
Cole’s full report describing the actions of the unit is chilling. The Intercept has obtained an internal memo sent out by the commander of Seal Team 6 in response to the report of its war crimes that does the usual non-denial denial that does not deny the facts presented. Cole also adds that Republican representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of the Interior, committed travel fraud while he was an officer of seal Team 6 though, like other senior officers, he was not punished for his transgressions.