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"They're lawless": Current, former Navy SEALs allege criminality, drug use within ranks

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This weekend marks 10 years since Osama bin Laden was killed in a daring raid by Navy SEALs, some of the most elite special operators in the U.S. military. But a CBS News investigation found it's been a rough road for some SEALs in the decade since. Catherine Herridge spoke to current and former SEALs who say while most have served with honor, there is criminality and drug use within the ranks.

Video Transcript

GAYLE KING: Welcome back to CBS This morning. A CBS News investigation has uncovered evidence of criminality and drug use among America's Navy SEALs. Catherine Herridge spoke to current and former SEALs who wish to stay anonymous. And while most of the SEALs have served with honor, we know that, they say that the bad ones tend to have outside's rather influence.

Catherine, good morning to you. We're hearing that one of the guys even used the word evil and that the shift came after the bin Laden raid 10 years ago. This is very, very surprising. Good morning.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: Gayle, we spoke with more than a dozen people who are part of the SEAL community or worked directly with the SEALs, who said the problems persist. And they said the celebrity that came with the raid made some SEALs feel untouchable. Days after 9/11, President Bush launched a massive global manhunt from ground zero.

GEORGE W. BUSH: And The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.


CATHERINE HERRIDGE: A decade later, the search ended at this compound in Pakistan, where the quiet professionals of SEAL Team Six executed the mission and were thrust into the headlines.

BARRACK OBAMA: The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida.

- We love the job. We love the community, but it has taken a wrong turn.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: Three SEALs, including one on active duty sat down with CBS News on the condition we changed their voices and hide their identities.

Why the disguise?

- We are risking a lot to be here, risking careers, possible safety.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: The group told us there are bad SEALs with 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. 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.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: Two SEALs recently pleaded guilty in the strangulation of Green Beret Logan Melgar in West Africa. His death has been described as a hazing incident gone wrong.

- I don't believe it. This didn't just happen suddenly. There were a hundred steps leading up to that-- lawlessness, narcissism, thinking they're untouchable.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: And there's the controversial case of Edward Gallagher, who was accused of killing a teenage ISIS prisoner in 2017. He was put on trial for war crimes. But in surprise testimony, a SEAL medic who'd been granted immunity confessed to what he described as a mercy killing. Then President Trump publicly sided with the SEAL.

DONALD TRUMP: With Eddie Gallagher, you know that story very well. They wanted to take his pain away. And I said, no, you're not going to take it away. He was a great fighter.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: In the end, Gallagher was convicted of a lesser charge of posing with the prisoner's body.

JAMIE SANDS: But I am angry. I feel betrayed.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: Drug abuse has been a problem too. Around 2016, Senior SEAL Commander Jamie Sands read the East Coast teams the Riot Act.

JAMIE SANDS: How do you decide that it's OK for you to do drugs?

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: Two years after that dressing down, a heavily redacted Navy investigation obtained by CBS News showed six members of SEAL Team 10 tested positive for cocaine.

You have firsthand knowledge of deployments where individuals have been taking drugs.

- Yes.

- Yes.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: At least one SEAL admitted his cocaine use during sniper school and on deployment. Drug use went beyond cocaine to methamphetamine, ecstasy, and marijuana. Some SEALs said drug testing was 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.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: 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 not enforcing the standards.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: The SEALs told us speaking up can have consequences. They showed us photos of a fellow SEAL who they say was physically beaten up 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.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: Street justice, is that what you're saying?

- Yes.

- For the SEALs watching this, the one thing I would want them to think about is where's the line for you? And if we can't all agree that wrong things are wrong, then it's just going to keep going on.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: The acting Navy Secretary and the top SEAL commander declined on-camera interviews and told CBS News in a statement that the SEALs, "Strive to be a highly reliable team, humble in triumph and fully accountable in failure, a humility that drives our sense of urgency to learn, to evolve, and to come back stronger."

In part 2 of our investigation tomorrow, we'll tell you about profiteering, the SEALs who cashed in and those who were disciplined, Anthony.

ANTHONY MASON: Looking forward to that, Catherine Herridge. Thank you, Catherine. Really disturbing story, and these SEALs point the finger at leadership.

GAYLE KING: It's pretty jaw dropping. But I really appreciate them speaking up. I'm glad they hid their identities because I think it takes bravery and courage to turn on your own and to say, but where is the line for you? Never good when they using words lawlessness, and narcissism, and untouchable.

- Yeah, although I will say leadership in that memo did say we have a problem. So they recognize it and somebody is going to address it.

ANTHONY MASON: Yeah, but they point the finger, "Our lack of order and discipline comes from weak leadership," they say.