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False claim: Biden revealed identities of Navy SEAL Team Six

Update May 21, 2020: paragraphs 5 and 6 have been revised to add the local time zones of the events described.

FILE PHOTO: 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., August 10, 2019. REUTERS/Scott Morgan -/File Photo

A lengthy post on social media makes the claim that on May 3, 2011 then Vice President Joe Biden publicly revealed the identities of the Navy SEAL Team Six, a special operation unit responsible for the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. This is untrue.

The post makes the further claim that Biden’s remarks put the lives of SEAL Team Six at risk of retaliation by “the Taliban”, “jihadists” and “al Qaeda sympathizers” and implies he is responsible for the attack against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in August, 2011 that killed 31 personnel, including 25 Navy SEALs. Examples of the post can be seen here , here .

There is no evidence to corroborate that Biden publicly revealed the names of SEAL Team Six members or of their families.

TIMELINE

On the late evening of May 1, 2011, Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), then President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. had killed Osama bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan ( here ). In his remarks, Obama noted that the attack, which occurred in the early hours of May 2, Pakistan Standard Time, had been carried out by “[a] small team of Americans” who worked “with extraordinary courage and capability.”

The New York Times reported in an article carrying a May 1 date stamp that the operation had been executed by “members of the Navy Seals and C.I.A. operatives” after approval from the President ( here ).

The following day, the Washington Post identified the operatives who had carried out the mission as an “elite team of Navy SEALs” known as “Team 6” ( here ).

On May 3, Vice President Joe Biden provided the Distinguished International Leadership keynote address at the Atlantic Council Awards Dinner. This is presumably the “national event” the posts on social media refer to at which Biden supposedly revealed the identities of the SEAL Team Six members.

During his remarks, Biden praised the operation against bin Laden and one of the dinner’s honorees, James Stavridis, at the time a United States Navy Admiral.

“He could tell you more about and understands the incredible, phenomenal, just almost unbelievable capacity of his Navy SEALs and what they did last Sunday,” Biden said referring to the attack against bin Laden ( here ).

Later that evening, Biden said that he was in: “absolute awe […] of the capacity and dedication of the entire team, both the intelligence community, the CIA, the SEALs, it just was extraordinary.” Biden also noted that despite the briefings with members of Congress that occurred prior to the operation, not a “single, solitary thing leaked”. ( here )

During his address, however, Biden did not provide further details about the identities of the team’s members.

OPERATIONAL SECURITY

On May 5, Reuters reported that al Qaeda had vowed revenge against the West for bin Laden’s killing ( here ).

On May 12, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed concern about the safety of the members who participated in the raid and their families. At a town hall meeting in Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, Gates said: “There is an awareness that the threat of retaliation is increased because of the action against bin Laden.” ( here ).

According to the Christian Science Monitor, when Gates met with SEAL Team Six he said, “team members expressed concern for their continued anonymity and their safety, ‘particularly with respect to their families.’”

At the time Gates also expressed frustration with information leaks: “Frankly, a week ago Sunday, in the Situation Room, we all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out bin Laden,” Gates said. “That all fell apart on Monday — the next day.” ( here ).

His remarks made clear that the spread of information about the raid made future operations more difficult: “My concern is that there were too many people in too many places talking too much about this operation. And we [had] reached agreement that we would not talk about the operational details,” he told reporters at a Pentagon briefing, according to Politico. “I am very concerned about this, because we want to retain the capability to carry out these kinds of operations in the future.” ( here )

EXTORTION 17

On August 6, 2011, Taliban fighters shot down a helicopter transporting U.S. military personnel on a mission to capture or kill a senior Taliban leader ( here ). Among the crew onboard were members of SEAL Team Six, according to Newsweek ( here ). The attack became known as Extortion 17, after the helicopter’s call sign.

The parents of Aaron C. Vaughn, a Navy SEAL killed in the incident, publicly criticized the Obama administration’s handling of information related to the bin Laden operation, and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Biden and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta along with the parents of three other servicemen also killed in the attack ( here ).

The complaint alleged that Biden and Panetta prompted the August attack by revealing the SEAL team’s role in the raid against bin Laden, according to a local media outlet. Vaughn was not part of the operation that killed bin Laden, but belonged to the same military unit.

In 2014, Garry Reid, then a Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, provided a statement to Congress on Extortion 17 and stated: “We do not believe Extortion 17 was the victim of a pre-planned enemy ambush, nor do we believe the enemy had advance knowledge of our flight route and landing zone location.” ( here )

The lawsuit against Biden and Panetta was dismissed without prejudice by Judge James E. Boasberg in December 2013 ( here ).

REVEALING the SEALS’ IDENTITIES

In August 2012, Reuters reported that the real name of one member of the SEAL Team Six who participated in the raid against bin Laden had been revealed. Matt Bissonnette’s name came to light shortly after news broke that he would publish a first-hand account of the daring operation in Pakistan in 2011 ( here ).

A second member’s identity was revealed in 2014. Former Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill publicly spoke about shooting bin Laden in an exclusive interview with Fox News ( here , here ).

CONCLUSION

On May 1, 2011 Obama reported that the U.S. had killed bin Laden. In the following days, the press reported that the team behind the raid that killed bin Laden consisted of Navy SEALS operating in secrecy.

On May 3, 2011 Biden publicly praised the SEAL team that executed the mission against bin Laden, but did not reveal the identities of its members.

Three months later, a Taliban fighter shot down a military helicopter, killing 31 personnel, including Navy SEAL Team Six members. There is no evidence linking information leaks related to the May 1 operation and the ambush by the Taliban against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Two of the SEAL Team Six members’ identities have come to light since the 2011 raid in Abbottabad, while the others’ remain secret ( here ).

VERDICT

False. There is no evidence supporting the claim that Vice President Joe Biden revealed the identities of Navy SEAL Team 6 members, nor that this leak resulted in retaliation against U.S. forces on August 6, 2011 in Afghanistan.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here

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