I recently struggled through a preview of Ryan Zinke’s upcoming book which I believe is titled There’s No I in Team, But There is a Me, and was struck by two things. The first was the old adage that a person should probably have read a book before trying to write one. The second was that Ryan Zinke is still in the business of condemning people for actions he took in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden and in his book unintentionally condemns his own actions after the raid, suggesting that he endangered American lives.
Describing the raid, Zinke writes:
But frankly, the way the raid and those who were on it were talked about makes me a little uneasy. I’ve said it before and I’ll certainly say it again: Too much media attention on current SEAL operations—from magazine articles to Hollywood films—is a booby-trapped gift, a neck-lace with a sharp, rusty edge. In the case of bin Laden, disclosure of which unit was responsible came from the top. On a raid of that magnitude, once the media is given a little light, they will pursue it right down to who pulled the trigger. And they did. I don’t judge those who were on the mission for deciding to put the record straight, but I do take issue with administration policies that are more about taking the credit than keeping America and our forces safe.
It’s a reasonable position for Zinke to take, actually. Disclosure of the team responsible for the raid against Osama bin Laden, not to mention operational details from that raid, was probably a mistake. Over the years, Zinke made a national profile for himself by repeating that claim, going so far as to suggest that the government officials should be prosecuted for having revealed classified information about a team so secretive that the government had not previously publicly disclosed its existence. Further yet, he suggested that administration officials had risked the lives of members of SEAL Team Six by identifying them as the people who led the raid.
Zinke even piously suggested in November 2014 that he would never reveal specific details about missions, criticizing Butte’s Rob O’Neill for identifying himself as the bin Laden shooter.
But all of that is indefensible for Zinke to claim, as I have pointed out in this space a number of times, because Ryan Zinke was so eager to cover himself in unearned glory after the bin Laden raid that he ran to press outlets across the country to spill specifics about who conducted the raid and how they did it. Within twelve hours, Mike Dennison of Lee Enterprises had posted an extensive story that included Zinke telling the press not only that his former team had led the raid, but bragging that he had inside knowledge about how it was conducted.
Within hours, Zinke got his name in press all over the country, including a TV station in Spokane, the Flathead Beacon in Kalispell, Morning Edition on NPR, and the New York Times. The most egregious example occurred on the day after the announcement of the successful raid, when Zinke was eager to spill details to the Daily Press, a newspaper in Virginia that serves the Hampton Roads area.
That Zinke should not have been speaking was made clear by the response of the actual former commander of SEAL Team 6 in the same story:
“I’m sorry — I really can’t talk about that,” said Albert M. Calland III, a retired SEAL who commanded Team Six from June 1997 to June 1999, according to his Navy biography. A former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Calland chairs the Virginia Beach-based Navy SEAL Foundation.
But that’s not how Congressman Zinke responded. Eager to kickstart his national profile to begin his ascendancy to Congress, Zinke sold out his former unit, and in his own words, was more interested in “taking the credit than keeping America and our forces safe.” The flood of media attention on Navy SEAL Team 6 didn’t start with Hollywood movies or the Obama Administration; it started with a self-aggrandizing wannabe national figure who sold out his own men to burnish his own reputation.
Other Special Operations leaders have made it clear they’re concerned about how self-promotion has damaged American special forces. In September, General Raymond Thomas, the head of US Special Operations Command, said that the self-promotion of some former members of Special Operations forces was undermining security and operations, and represented a violationof the standard for trust and secrecy so important to Special Operations:
“It is a phenomenon that is anathema to me. It runs counter to everything that any of us who ever entered special operations know [is] the right way to do business,” Thomas said during a conference hosted by the Institute for the Study of War in Washington on Wednesday. “It baffles me that people don’t hold true to that standard.”
In his thesis for the Naval PostGraduate School, Forrest Crowell builds on this theme, arguing that narcissistic self-promotion from former SEALS has damaged the SEAL community and national security. He writes that this behavior
contravenes the dual requirements of security and surprise necessary for the success of SEAL missions. This paper analyzes these trends, and argues that the cultivation of celebrity status has incentivized narcissistic and profit-focused behavior within the SEAL community, which in turn has eroded organizational effectiveness, damaged national security, and undermined healthy civil-military relations.
Crowell specifically calls out Zinke’s use of the SEAL insignia and particularly gratuitous exploitation of the death of bin Laden as examples of self-promotion that undermine the civil-military relations that have so effectively governed our society and asking what kind of control Navy Special Forces have over their image if “any SEAL can hijack NSW’s symbolic capital for personal gain, whether in the realm(s) of infotainment, entertainment, or politics? “
Zinke’s hypocrisy and narcissistic self-promotion have not gone unnoticed in the Special Forces community, as this letter from his former commander notes. In fact, I am told by two credible sources that Zinke is so reviled by members of his former team that Zinke’s name is listed on a persona non grata plaque that looks like a tombstone, third on a list of five former members of the unit who are considered to be non-persons to the members of the team. Perhaps that explains why Zinke, despite his personal depiction of his record, is so rarely flanked by members of SEAL Team Six, men who did their duty without promoting themselves at the expense of the ongoing mission.
It’s one of the great failures of Montana journalism that Zinke has never been held accountable for this incredible hypocrisy. As the founder of a Super PAC that became the foundation for his first run for Congress, he spread the lie that the Obama Administration had led to the deaths of men in the SEALs even though Zinke himself revealed far more information in the hours after the raid than anyone else. Now, as a member of Congress who imagines himself one day becoming Vice President or Secretary of Defense, he is hawking a book that makes the same allegations—all while personally profiting by revealing more details about the SEALS, their training, and their missions.
And the Montana media—a media that covered for him joking about having tortured people—has refused to confront the obvious fact that Zinke behaved even more egregiously than those he condemned. The Montana media has refused to confront Zinke for both his obvious deception, and worse, the implications if his accusations are true. If Congressman Zinke believes that revealing the identity of Navy SEAL Team 6 cost those men their lives and was a crime, why hasn’t the media investigated his actions as the first person to run to the press to talk about what they had done?
The deference to Zinke’s military service seems to have blinded the press to what is painfully obvious, that Congressman Zinke’s narcissism was far more important than his integrity or commitment to the men he had served with. And that deference has prevented them from telling the truth about Congressman Zinke’s motives and actions, to the detriment of all of us.