Brian Williams may have been suspended without pay from the “NBC Nightly News,” but the fallout from the anchor’s admitted factual inaccuracies doesn’t end there.
In the week since Williams confessed to propagating an inaccurate story about his experience covering the Iraq war in 2003, the once-venerated reporter’s every word seems to have been placed under a microscope, whether it’s his contributions to NBC’s Peabody Award-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina or an anecdote about getting robbed at gunpoint while working as a teenage Christmas tree salesman.
NBC may be investigating Williams’ reporting, but skeptics in the media aren’t waiting around for the results of that fact-finding mission to do a little digging of their own. Most recently, the reporter’s purported relationship with the elusive Navy SEAL Team 6 came under scrutiny.
The Huffington Post was the first to question statements Williams had made following the 2011 SEAL Team 6 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, suggesting he’d once been embedded with the elite team.
“We have some idea which of our special operations teams carried this out,” Williams told David Letterman on “The Late Show” the night after bin Laden was killed. “It happens to be a team I flew into Baghdad with, on the condition that I would never speak of what I saw on the aircraft, what aircraft we were on, what we were carrying, or who we were after.”
Williams mentioned SEAL Team 6 again on the “Nightly News” the following night. “I happen to have the great honor of flying into Baghdad with them at the start of the war,” he said.
Williams went on to elaborate further on his experience with the special team in later Letterman appearances and claimed — on the “Late Show” and in other interviews — to have received gifts from the SEALS over the years since their flight into Baghdad, including a piece of Black Hawk helicopter that crashed into the courtyard of bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout.
After digging through the LexisNexis archives of NBC transcripts, the Huffington Post acknowledged that Williams’ apparent failure to mention his trip with SEAL Team 6 before 2011 could certainly be explained by the secrecy to which he said he was sworn, as the team was not known to the public until after the bin Laden raid. After unsuccessfully attempting to confirm neither the flight nor the gifts with NBC News, the Huffington Post turned to former Navy SEALS for insight on whether Williams’ stories are realistic.
“My initial reaction is it sounds completely preposterous. There is a healthy dislike towards embedded journalists within the SEAL community” former SEAL sniper Brandon Webb told the Huffington Post. “I can’t even remember an embed with a SEAL unit. And especially a SEAL Team Six? Those guys don’t take journalists with them on missions.”
A U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman verified Webb’s comments, saying “We do not embed journalists with [SEAL Team 6] or any other unit that conducts counterterrorism missions.”
To be fair, Williams didn’t say he was necessarily “embedded” with the team, just that he flew to Baghdad with them. But SEALs who talked to CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen suggest there's little likelihood that Williams and SEAL Team 6 could have just happened to be on the same flight.
“That early in the conflict, there were only missions taking place, not bouncing between outstations,” a SEAL officer told Bergen.
Then what about the gifts? The same SEAL officer is dubious, especially about the bit of blown-up helicopter because “there’s no connection between the guys that went in early  and the guys at A-bad,” referring to Abbottabad, the Pakistani city where bin Laden was killed.
It’s curious, Bergen writes, that a different group of SEALs from the ones he says he met would feel compelled to share with him a souvenir from their historic mission. But even if they did, the fast-paced mission didn’t seem to allow much time for anything off script, with the addition of blowing up the stealth helicopter that had crashed at the bin Laden compound to destroy its radar-evading technology before leaving the scene.
“If Williams’ story is true,” Bergen writes, “then during all this intense drama one of the SEALs took the time to pick up a piece of the damaged helicopter fuselage that he would later send to his favorite news anchor.”
CNN also requested comment from NBC on the SEALs stories, but was told that the network will refrain from discussing anything Williams-related until its investigation is complete. In the meantime, the independent media investigation pushes on, digging deeper in the archives of Williams’ life. Up next on the chopping block: stories about meeting Pope John Paul II in 1979 and watching the Berlin Wall fall in person.