The claim: Joe Biden leaked SEAL Team 6 names leading to a deadly attack
Since former Vice President Joe Biden announced Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., would join him on the 2020 Democratic presidential ticket, she has been subject to misinformation. But that doesn't mean Biden's been spared.
A popular false claim accuses Biden of endangering the servicemen that killed one of America's biggest enemies: Osama bin Laden.
“Remember and never forget this about Joe Biden: When he was the Vice President, he did the most STUPID, unthinkable thing for a man in his position. He revealed the names and the unit that killed Bin Laden," Facebook user Tom Harwood posted on July 30.
Harwood wrote that Biden had disclosed the names of SEAL Team 6 members during a speech to prove he was “in the know.”
The long post explained how Biden’s words later prompted the Taliban to take down an aircraft killing its 38 passengers, including most of “if not all of Seal Team Six.”
According to the claim, the elite team was able to warn their relatives so that they could erase any evidence of their connection so the extremist group couldn't target them next.
“This traitor revealed the names, and signed the death warrants of America's finest warriors and never looked back,” the post continued.
But Biden never leaked those names and an investigation found that the subsequent, deadly helicopter attack was not a pre-planned revenge attack targeting those servicemembers.
Harwood has not returned USA TODAY's request for comment.
Confirming Osama bin Laden's death
President Barack Obama announced in the late evening of May 1, 2011, that an American team had killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. During his televised announcement, Obama did not mention the Navy SEALs nor Team 6.
The same day officials confirmed that Navy SEAL and CIA operatives were involved. Within 24 hours sources confirmed the operation had been carried out by the specialized counterterrorism group SEAL Team 6.
On May 3, CIA Director Leon Panetta confirmed the SEALs' involvement during an interview with PBS.
“We're still getting the feedback from the SEALs themselves as to just exactly what took place during that mission,” he said.
Biden praises CIA and Navy SEALs
On May 3, Biden applauded the SEALs' work in a speech at the 2011 Atlantic Council Awards Dinner.
“Let me briefly acknowledge tonight’s distinguished honorees. Admiral Jim Stavridis is the real deal,” he said. “He can tell you more about and understands the incredible, the phenomenal, the just almost unbelievable capacity of his Navy SEALs and what they did last Sunday.”
“As Vice President of the United States, as an American I was in absolute awe, awe of the capacity and dedication of the entire team, both the intelligence community CIA, the SEALs. It just was extraordinary," he continued. “Those brave professionals who tracked and killed Osama bin Laden, it was just a … actually breathtaking. It was a staggering undertaking and there was no one else, I believe, other than an American group of military warriors who could do it.”
During his speech, Biden did not name SEAL Team 6 nor any of its members.
Snopes, FactCheck.org, the Associated Press, PolitiFact, Check Your Fact and Reuters have all rated this claim false. None of those outlets nor USA TODAY has found any evidence Biden ever disclosed the names of the individuals involved.
Officials worry about dangerous leaks
After al Qaeda acknowledged bin Laden’s death and promised revenge attacks, many leaders expressed concern about the safety of American troops.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke about the importance of keeping raid details confidential and expressed concern about leaks in the chain of command.
“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,” he said. “That all fell apart on Monday — the next day.”
Gates did not specifically name Biden. He expressed concern that there were “too many people in too many places talking too much” and worried that leaked information could hinder the Pentagon’s ability to carry out future covert operations.
Critics blame Biden for Extortion 17 attack
On Aug. 6, 2011, insurgent forces in Afghanistan shot down an American aircraft. The incident became known as “Extortion 17” after the helicopter’s call sign.
Thirty Americans and eight Afghans died. Twenty-two of those Americans were Navy SEALs and most of them were members of Team 6. Team 6 had between 250 and 300 operators at the time, according to the Washington Post.
After the attack, critics blamed Biden for identifying the SEALs' involvement three months earlier.
“SEAL Team 6 is a covert unit, which is supposed to operate in the shadows,” The Washington Times wrote in an opinion piece. “Their reward, however, for killing the world’s foremost terrorist mastermind was to be outed by their own government.”
The parents of Aaron Vaughn, a SEAL Team 6 member killed in the attack but not believed to have been on the mission that killed bin Laden, have criticized Biden's speech at the awards dinner. In a 2012 interview with the Vaughns, Fox News reported that Biden had identified the SEALs.
Military leaders say Biden isn't to blame
In February 2014, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Defense For Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Garry Reid testified before Congress that the Department of Defense did not believe Extortion 17 was a targeted attack.
“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,” he said.
Reid explained that “there was no external coordination, so there was no possibility of information going up the chain and somehow coming back out to the Taliban.”
In a 2019 email to Snopes, Admiral James G. Stavridis, who Biden was honoring with his 2011 speech, said he and his colleagues thought Biden’s speech respected the SEAL team’s confidentiality.
“The Navy Special Warfare community is generally (and appropriately) tight lipped about their operations,” he wrote. “That said — I did not believe that night in May 2011 — or today — that Vice President Biden’s comments were in any way inappropriate or that they put at risk the lives of those who conducted that historic operation. I think he kept it at a level of generalization that made it completely acceptable in my view.”
Alleged Team 6 members identify themselves
Since then, two former SEALs have gone public about their role in bin Laden's death.
Matt Bissonnette, a SEAL Team 6 member who allegedly participated in the raid that killed bin Laden, revealed his identity to write a book about his role in August 2012.
Two years later, Robert O’Neill said he killed bin Laden with a shot to the forehead in several media interviews.
The identities of the other SEALs on that mission are still unknown.
Our ruling: False
There is no evidence that former Vice President Joe Biden ever leaked the names of the Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden. During the speech in question, Biden praised the SEALs for their work without naming individuals or Team 6. SEAL Team 6's involvement had been reported prior to Biden's speech. Military leaders have said Biden's words did not lead to the deadly Extortion 17 attack three months later. We rate this claim FALSE because it is not supported by our research.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Biden did not leak SEAL Team 6 identities