WASHINGTON — The retired Navy SEAL who says he shot al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in the forehead publicly identified himself Thursday amid a debate among special operations brethren about whether they should break silence about their secret missions.
Robert O'Neill, 38, told The Washington Post in an interview that he fired the two shots that killed bin Laden. He first recounted the story in February 2013 to Esquire magazine, which identified him only as "the shooter."
One current and one former SEAL confirmed to The Associated Press that O'Neill was long known to have fired the shots that killed the leader of the international terror group responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Defense Department officials confirmed Thursday that O'Neill was a member of SEAL Team Six and was part of the bin Laden raid. But they said they could not confirm who fired the fatal shot, noting that other SEALs on the mission also fired at bin Laden.
If O'Neill discloses classified information during the interviews he could be subject to an investigation or action by the Justice Department, the Defense Department officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name.
O'Neill told the Post that shots also were fired by two other SEAL team members, including Matt Bissonnette, who described the raid somewhat differently in his book, "No Easy Day." His lawyer said Bissonnette is under federal criminal investigation over whether he disclosed classified information in the book, which he did not vet with the military. In the Esquire piece, O'Neill makes no mention of Bissonnette shooting bin Laden.
O'Neill discussed his role in the raid during a private meeting with relatives of victims of the 9/11 attack on New York's World Trade Center before the recent opening of the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum. He donated the shirt he was wearing in the operation, which is now on display there.
O'Neill is scheduled to be featured in lengthy segments next week on Fox News. He told the Post he decided to go public because he feared his identity was going to be leaked by others. Indeed, his name was published Monday by SOFREP, a website operated by former special operations troopers.
The actions of both O'Neill and Bissonnette have drawn scorn from some of their colleagues. In an Oct. 31 open letter, Rear Adm. Brian Losey, who commands the Naval Special Warfare Group, and Force Master Chief Michael Magaraci, the top noncommissioned officer of the group, urged SEALs to lower their public profile. Their comments were widely perceived as being aimed at O'Neill and Bissonnette.
"At Naval Special Warfare's core is the SEAL ethos," the letter says. "A critical tenant of our ethos is 'I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.'"
The letter added, "We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety or financial gain."
Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles Burlingame was the pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon, attended the 9/11 museum ceremony. She said O'Neill, whose name was not divulged at the event, offered the families clarity on conflicting information they had received about the raid.
She said she didn't have an opinion about whether SEALs should disclose information about their deeds. "Whatever that (SEALs') ethos is, is between the SEALS," she said. "The 9/11 families are the beneficiaries of any rules he might have broken or whatever lines he might have crossed."
"He went through the mission in really in great detail. All that information was very helpful to me because this is a figure in a terror organization that has loomed large in our lives," she said, adding that she listened to him so intently that the 9/11 commemorative coin she was clasping tightly in her hand left a bruise.
Rick Woolard, a former SEAL team commander who previously urged his comrades to avoid discussing recent operations, said, active-duty SEALs are "pretty much very disappointed and I'd have to say angry with guys who have used their deeds and those of their companions for personal gain."
"No Easy Day" was published in 2012 under the pseudonym Mark Owen. Bissonnette recounted on "60 Minutes" that he sent a text to the commander of SEAL Team Six after its publication. He said that the commander replied, "Delete me."
At the same time, Woolard said, there is frustration among some special operations soldiers that senior government officials have left office and written memoirs revealing and profiting from actions involving troops who are sworn to secrecy. However, one active-duty SEAL officer, who declined to be quoted by name because he had no permission to speak publicly, said some SEALs had grown accustomed to some of their members seeking to profit from their connections to the elite group, upon retirement.
Senior Pentagon and CIA officials cooperated extensively with the makers of "Zero Dark Thirty," a film that depicted both the CIA's yearslong hunt for bin Laden and the SEALs raid that killed him in Pakistan.
In the Esquire piece, O'Neill said he was one of two SEALs who went up to the third floor of the building where bin Laden was hiding. The first man fired two shots at bin Laden as he peeked out of the bedroom, but O'Neill says those shots missed. The man then tackled two women in the hallway outside of bin Laden's bedroom.
O'Neill went into the bedroom, he recounts. "There was bin Laden standing there. He had his hands on a woman's shoulders, pushing her ahead, not exactly toward me but by me, in the direction of the hallway commotion. It was his youngest wife, Amal."
O'Neill added: "In that second, I shot him two times in the forehead. Bap! Bap! The second time as he's going down. He crumpled onto the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again. Bap! Same place. ... He was dead."
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.