In a rare on-the-record interview, the U.S. military is refuting the revisionist account of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound published this month by former Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer. The denunciation is interesting both for its attacks on Pffarrer's credibility and for what it leaves uncontested in Pfarrer's account of the May 1 Abbottabad raid.
“It’s just not true,” U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Col. Tim Nye told the Associated Press. “It’s not how it happened.” The denunciation follows a string of media appearances Pfarrer made on Fox News, CNN and elsewhere detailing specific logistical discrepancies between the official White House narrative of the raid and what he says SEAL Team 6 members told him about the operation. Chief among them: the way the two Blackhawk helicopters swooped into the compound, the existence of a 45-minute long firefight between the SEALs and bin Laden's henchmen and the use of bin Laden's wife as a human shield.
The primary sticking point for Nye, speaking to the AP, is Pfarrer's repeated assertion that he spoke with SEALs who carried out the raid. "This is a fabrication," said Nye. “We have never come forward and gone after an author and say that is a lie,” Nye said. “That tells you how far off the mark we believe this book is.” Unfortunately, Nye does not describe what specifically Pfarrer got wrong in his account. Was it the allegations about the firefight not happening? That SEAL Team 6 shot bin Laden within 90-seconds of arriving in the compound? Or that bin Laden's wife was used as a human shield, a detail that was later retracted from the official narrative?
Instead, the challenges to Pfarrer's account come in pointing out errors in his book that don't involve the raid. The way the AP describes these errors, it's not clear if the military pointed them out or if the AP discovered them independently. Either way, they call into question the reporting in his book:
Pfarrer gets a multitude of facts wrong in describing events that are part of the public record. For instance, Pfarrer states that Obama appointed McRaven as the first Navy SEAL to head JSOC in April of this year. McRaven was actually appointed to that post in early 2008 by President George W. Bush. He states that the Army Special Forces Green Berets were established in 1962, instead of 1952. When U.S. special operations forces rehearsed for the famous Son Tay Raid in Vietnam in 1970, they trained at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, not Offutt in Nebraska.
Those are certainly embarrassing errors but a more convincing denunciation of Pfarrer would have been to refute his book with an on-the-record account. Unfortunately for journalists, that's been difficult to come by. Most of the details have come from anonymously-sourced accounts leaked to outlets such as the Associated Press and The New Yorker.
Another glaring detail that isn't addressed by Nye is the involvement of Admiral William McRaven, who is quoted directly in Pfarrer's book. McRaven commanded the Joint Special Operations Command that carried out the bin Laden raid. CNN described McRaven's involvement in Pfarrer's book on November 4:
Pfarrer said he engaged in "dramatic reconstruction" of some events in the book where he directly quoted top officials involved in the attack including Admiral William McRaven ...
Pfarrer quotes McRaven as saying the "National Reconnaissance Office has parked a satellite over the place. They got a measurement on his shadow. He's over six feet tall.
Interestingly, the AP notes that Nye has gone on the record to speak about the raid "on behalf of Navy SEAL Adm. Bill McRaven, who took command of all special operations this summer." The AP adds, "Nye said McRaven was concerned the book would lead Americans to doubt the administration’s version of events." Nye does not refute that Pfarrer spoke with McRaven in researching the book. Nye merely says "Pfarrer had no access to any troops connected to the mission." If Pfarrer did indeed speak with McRaven, who is quoted on-the-record in the book, that would mean his source was more than close to the operation. He actually oversaw it.
Still, an interview with McRaven should not imply that Pfarrer is a reliable narrator on the bin Laden raid. The errors the AP story points out are significant and they're not the first. Last week, Wired's David Axe listed a number of questionable ways Pfarrer describes the Pentagon's technology in his book:
Some of the technical specs Pfarrer cites for the stealth choppers seem implausible. Leaving aside the author’s exaggeration of the helicopters’ ability to evade detection — no rotorcraft with big, spinning blades is “invisible to radar” — he describes the Stealth Hawk as carrying 20 people in the cabin. That’s unlikely, considering the added weight of the stealth modifications.
Finally, this niggling detail: Pfarrer has C-5s delivering the high-tech copters to the NATO airfield at Jalalabad. But the runway at that facility is probably too short and narrow for the giant C-5, America’s biggest airlifter.
Regardless, a little transparency on the military's part would help set the record straight and put Pfarrer in his place (if in fact he deserves it).