Last month Esquire reporter Phil Bronstein scored a major scoop: An exclusive story about the "man who shot and killed bin Laden." The piece was a powerfully written profile of the anonymous member of SEAL Team 6, now retired and struggling to make ends meet while dealing with the psychological and physical scars of war. But problems with the story's claim that "The Shooter" had no access to health care arose almost immediately. Now it seems the core of the story is wrong as well.
CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen reports that a member of SEAL Team 6 disputes The Shooter's account of the raid, as reported by Bronstein. The shooter exaggerated his own role and heroism, according to the SEAL. Others are alleging the Shooter is profiting off his bogus story.
The dramatic story of Osama bin Laden's last moments that the Shooter told Esquire went like this: The Shooter was right behind the "point man" as the two climbed the stairs to the top floor of Osama bin Laden's compound that night. Bin Laden poked his head out of the bedroom at the top of the stairs. The point man shot and either missed or lightly wounded bin Laden. Then the point man peeled off to tackle a couple of women in the hallway whom he believed were armed with suicide vests. So the Shooter ran alone into the bedroom where he found bin Laden standing behind one of his wives, perhaps using her as a human shield, with a gun within reach. The shooter then shot him twice in the forehead and killed him.
But that story is "complete B.S." a member of SEAL Team 6 also on the raid told CNN. The real story, according to the SEAL was this: The point man successfully shot bin Laden in the head when he poked his head out, gravely wounding him, then tackled the women. When the other SEALs came into the bedroom, bin Laden was already on the ground, basically dead, and the SEALS finished him off with shots to the chest. He was not within reach of a gun, because the guns were only found in the bedroom after extensive searching. So the shooter certainly could have shot bin Laden, but if he did, he was already lying on the ground and completely harmless. It's a less heroic scenario, as CNN points out, and matches up with the account of Matt Bissonette, the third SEAL to reach the top floor of the compound. Bissonette recounted the raid in a bestselling first-hand account No Easy Day using the pseudonym Mark Owen.
Rumors had already been swirling that Esquire had been had. CNN's story comes a few days after the military blogger and former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb said Esquire had been duped by The Shooter in a post on his blog, The Special Operations Forces Situation Report (SOFREP). Citing anonymous SEAL operators, Webb wrote "Sorry to rain on your parade, Phil, but your guy is not the actual shooter."
But in addition to alleging the details of the raid was false, Webb also raises the intriguing possibility that The Shooter has been benefiting financially off his self-anointed, and apparently false, role as OBL's assassin.
Phil Bronstein, who heads the Center for Investigative Reporting, portrayed The Shooter in Esquire as a humble and struggling warrior. Unlike Mark Bissonette, The Shooter wasn't out to cash in on the raid. "There is commerce attached to the mission, and people are capitalizing," wrote Bronstein. "Just not the triggerman."
But according to SOFREP's sources, the Shooter has not completely exempted himself from a payday. He's "off cashing large checks from unsuspecting donors who bought the Esquire pity piece." How he might have connected with those donors is unclear. But the Shooter is also "very active on the public speaking circuit," despite the concerns for his personal safety voiced in the Esquire piece, according to SOFREP. Both SOFREP and CNN say that The Shooter was booted off an exclusive SEAL Team for bragging at bars that he was the guy who killed bin Laden.
SOFREP offers no proof, but they are a generally reliable source and many of the details floated in their post appear to be confirmed by CNN's reporting. So is the heroic but humble Shooter of Bronstein's piece actually an opportunistic liar? We'll see, but for now the Esquire story appears to have been too good to be true.
Update: Esquire says in a statement that they stand by their story.
The Esquire article, The Shooter: The Man Who Killed Osama Bin Laden, in the March 2013 issue, is based on information from numerous sources, including members of Seal Team 6 and the Shooter himself, as well as detailed descriptions of mission debriefs. We stand by our story.