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Navy SEAL teams plagued by "lawlessness" within their ranks

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Both former and active-duty Navy SEALs are sounding the alarm over well-documented cases of criminality, drug use and exploitation of the elite military unit's brand, just as they prepare to mark 10 years since a SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden in a daring raid in Pakistan.

CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge spoke with more than a dozen people in the SEAL community, including current and former SEALs,  on the condition of anonymity. They told her that while the vast majority of their fellow SEALs serve honorably, there is a corrupt element in their brotherhood.

"We love the job. We love the community. But it has taken a wrong turn," one SEAL told Herridge.

Three of them agreed to sit down with CBS News for interviews on the condition that their voices be changed and their identities hidden.  

Days after September 11, 2001, standing at Ground Zero in New York, President George W. Bush launched a massive global manhunt for the chief culprit behind the terror attacks. A decade later, the search ended at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where SEAL Team 6 had zeroed in on Osama bin Laden

Herridge asked the three SEALs who spoke to CBS News why they'd insisted on hiding their identities.

"We are risking a lot to be here, risking careers, possible safety," replied one of the men. The group claims there are bad SEALs who have outsized influence on the teams.

"There are three groups in the teams. There's a small group on one side that is evil. They're lawless. There's a small group on the other side that stands up to them," the second SEAL said. "And then there's a giant group in the middle that cowardly stays out of it, and they watch the evil guys railroad the good guys."

Two SEALs recently pleaded guilty to the strangulation of Green Beret Logan Melgar in West Africa. His death in 2017 has been described as a hazing incident gone wrong, but one of the SEALs who spoke to CBS News said they didn't believe that explanation.

"This didn't just happen suddenly," a second one added. "There were a hundred steps leading up to that. Lawlessness, narcissism, thinking they're untouchable."

There is also the controversial case of Edward Gallagher, who was accused of killing a teenage ISIS prisoner in 2017. During Gallagher's war crime trial Special Operator 1st Class Corey Scott, a SEAL team medic, said that he, not Gallagher, had killed the teenager by asphyxiation.

President Trump publicly sided with the SEAL, defending him in November 2019: "They wanted to take his pin away, and I said, 'no, you're not going to take it away. He was a great fighter.'"

In the end, Gallagher was convicted of a lesser charge for posing with the dead prisoner's body.

Drug abuse has been a problem, too. Around 2016, senior SEAL commander Jamie Sands read the East Coast teams the riot act.

"How do you decide that it's ok to do drugs?" Sands asked the elite forces.

But two years later, after the dressing down by Sands, a heavily redacted Navy investigation obtained by CBS News showed that six members of SEAL Team 10 had tested positive for cocaine.

Two of the SEALs who spoke to CBS News said they had firsthand knowledge of deployments where members of the teams were taking drugs. The 2018 investigation into Seal Team 10 highlighted SEALs who admitted to using cocaine during sniper school, training and on deployment.

The SEALs said the drug use went beyond cocaine to include "methamphetamine, ecstasy and marijuana." Some SEALs called drug testing a "joke."

"I would say the majority of guys are not doing it. We've got to work hard to find the guys who are and how they're getting it around," one of the SEALs who sat down for an on-camera interview told CBS News.

Allegations of drinking and sexual assault got a SEAL platoon pulled from Iraq in July 2019. That same week, a memo from SEAL leadership read: "We have a problem."

"Our lack of order and discipline comes from weak leadership and — and not enforcing the standards," one of the SEALs told Herridge.

According to multiple members of the elite military unit, speaking up can have consequences. They showed photos of a fellow SEAL who they said was physically beaten by several teammates for calling out bad behavior.

"His leadership turned a blind eye to it, didn't act on it, and essentially gave permission to the SEALs that he accused to deal with it on their terms," the SEAL told CBS News, agreeing with Herridge's description of the incident as "street justice."

"For the SEALs watching this, the one thing I want them to think about is, where's the line for you?" one of the troops told her. "If we can't all agree that wrong things are wrong, then it's just gonna keep going on."

The acting Navy Secretary and the current SEAL commander declined on-camera interviews with CBS News.

In a statement, Rear Admiral Hugh Howard III, who heads up the Naval Special Warfare Command, told CBS News that the "Special Warfare team is quietly proud of our contributions to the joint force — our brothers and sisters — who make possible the incredibly complex missions the Nation asks of us. We strive to be an authentic and timeless team — a highly reliable team humble in triumph and fully accountable in failure. We serve all Americans with humility — a humility sharpened through combat losses, mission failures, and imperfection; a humility that drives our sense of urgency to learn, to evolve, and to come back stronger and even more resolute in defense of the United States of America. Our commitment is to be stewards of the incredible trust the American people place in us."

The killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, 2011, was celebrated in the streets. The operation by SEAL Team Six brought a kind of celebrity that was at odds with the tradition SEALs being a "quiet professionals."

"They should never have said, 'Navy SEALS did this,'" retired SEAL Eric Deming said. With nearly two decades as a SEAL, Deming did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said that the Navy SEALs became a "brand," to their detriment.

"I hate being in this chair talking to you [CBS News] right now. I don't know if this is gonna help. But at least it'll expose the problem," Deming said. "And I'm hoping this encourages good SEALs to start saying: 'Enough is enough.'"

Herridge asked the group who sat down for interviews with CBS News whether they believed the SEAL community would be in a better place today had it never been revealed that their teammates fellow SEALs took out bin Laden.

Two of them said yes, and one added that as soon as it was made public, he had wondered, "how long are we gonna go before somebody exploits this for personal gain? And we didn't have to wait long."

Hollywood told the story of the raid in the film "Zero Dark Thirty," and CBS has aired four seasons of its own prime-time series, "Seal Team." Online, former SEALs have monetized their newfound fame, including with autographed photos for sale online.

As Herridge showed the three SEALs she sat down with signed photos she'd purchased, one of them started shaking his head, and said he didn't want to touch it.

"It's not ok. What about the 'quiet professional' does that encompass? None of it," the SEAL said.

Members of SEAL Team Six were disciplined for serving as paid consultants to a video game company. When Herridge asked what the problem was with that, one of the troops answered: "[It was] exposing tactics, techniques, procedures. They expose all kinds of things of how we operate."

Another was punished for writing an unauthorized account of the raid.

"It's not everybody doing it. Most guys in the SEAL Teams want the books to stop. They want the movies to stop. The TV shows to stop," one of the SEALs said.

Asked why the elite troops shouldn't make some money off their service when it's finished, one of the SEALs said: "'Cause this isn't going to Harvard to get a business degree. You serve to uphold the Constitution of the United States and to protect our country. The military and our operations, they're not for sale."

When asked why they came to the media, one of the SEALs said there was "desperation: To put it in three words: 'We need help.' And that's why we're here."

Herridge asked retired SEAL Deming what it would take to fix the problem.

"It's gonna take good guys in the teams staying there, fighting the good fight, calling them out. And then some outside entity coming in and doing a full review of everything," he said. "It's gotta come from outside, and there's gotta be somebody that's got some integrity."

Deming who filed a complaint about training practices, still carries the trident from his days as a SEAL.  He said he'd shattered his own son's dreams by telling him he wouldn't allow him to join the SEALs — at least not until he sees real change.

What comes next could be even more significant: In January, the Pentagon inspector general has undertaken an evaluation into potential war crimes and whether U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. CENTCOM are doing enough to prevent potential war crimes, and reporting them if they do happen on the battlefield

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