By Bob Cusack - 07/24/13 09:00 AM EDT
Congress has launched an investigation of the helicopter crash that killed 30 Americans in Afghanistan, including members of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6 unit, The Hill has learned. [WATCH VIDEO]
The victims’ families say the Pentagon hasn’t provided answers to their many questions about the deadly attack, which took place on Aug. 6, 2011, three months after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by Team 6 forces.
Chaffetz said he met with the victims’ families about a month ago in what he described as an “emotional” gathering. He is poised to send questions to the Pentagon and may hold hearings on the matter.
Charlie Strange, whose son Michael was among those killed, said he asked President Obama two years ago at Dover Air Force Base to fully investigate. The death toll in the crash was the largest of any single incident for the U.S. military during the Afghanistan war.
Obama praised Michael’s service to Strange, who responded, “I don’t need to know about my son. I need to know what happened to my son.”
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The president promised he would investigate, Strange said, but he never heard back from the White House. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has provided him and others with incomplete and contradictory information, he said.
Administration leaks that emerged after the bin Laden raid prompted members of Team 6 to worry about their safety.
For example, Michael Strange told his father he was working on a will before he returned to Afghanistan in the summer of 2011, his father said.
Documents provided to the families indicate that the Pentagon doesn’t believe the SEALs were targeted in the wake of the bin Laden operation on May 1, 2011.
The Hill reviewed many of those documents which total more than 1,000 pages.
In a transcript, a Department of Defense official disputed claims that there was an “established ambush.” The official states, “it was a lucky shot of a low-level fighter that happened to be living [in the area]. He heard all the activity and he happened to be in the right spot.”
Yet, Strange says insurgents were boasting on the Internet they had taken out Team 6 shortly after the helicopter crashed.
Shortly before the CH-47 Chinook helicopter took off on a rescue mission (operation Extortion 17), seven Afghan commandos who were on the passenger list were replaced by other Afghan military officials.
It remains unclear why the manifest was incorrect, raising red flags among the victims’ families. They have noted that their sons didn’t trust Afghan soldiers. One was quoted as saying, “They are loyal to the highest bidder.”
In the transcript related to the Pentagon’s probe, a Defense official confirmed that all seven names of the Afghan soldiers were incorrect.
The official said, “I cannot talk to the back story of why…” before being interrupted by another Department of Defense employee.
The Chinook was shot down by Afghan militants, and all 38 on board perished. Among the dead were 30 Americans, including 22 Navy SEALS, seven Afghan soldiers and one Afghan translator. Their bodies were later recovered, but the helicopter’s black box was not. Pentagon officials have said that it could not be recovered, citing a flash flood that happened soon after the assault.
Some say that all the bodies were cremated, but this assertion has been disputed by the Pentagon.
Chaffetz said he has seen a photo of a deceased SEAL that raises questions.
“The body I saw didn’t need to be cremated,” Chaffetz said, adding that the Department of Defense’s explanation of its failure to find the helicopter’s black box seems “awfully odd.”
The Utah congressman said the families deserve answers: “That’s why you do an investigation. I want to be as factual as I can.”
Two soldiers from Chaffetz’s district were killed in the attack.
Strange said he has visited Capitol Hill to discuss the issue with several members, including his own congressman, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.).
He has also met with Chaffetz and Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Some of the victims’ families are being represented by Freedom Watch, which is headed by Larry Klayman.
“This is a scandal even greater than Benghazi,” Klayman said. “There we lost four valued American lives; here we sacrificed 30 American soldiers. The big question is were these brave Americans sold out by the Afghani government as payment to the Taliban for the death of bin Laden?”
Klayman, Strange and others have questioned why so many special ops were on one aircraft that they claim was not equipped for such a dangerous mission. They also want to know why members of Team 6 weren’t looked after just months after the bin Laden operation.
Strange said, “There was no eye in the sky tracking [the Chinook]. Why not?”
Klayman said, “The tragedy of Extortion 17 is a tragedy for all Americans. When we do not protect our brave fighting men and women, we put their lives in harm’s way…”
It is unclear how many of the 22 SEALS who died that summer were part of the bin Laden operation in Pakistan. One source said there were at least a couple who were involved in both.
Chaffetz says he is looking into how the Pentagon handled the situation post-attack.
During a ceremony at Bagram Air Base for the 38 killed, the deceased Afghan soldiers were loaded onto planes with the bodies of the U.S. forces. An imam spoke an Islamic prayer that included language on U.S. soldiers burning in hell.
The families later used translators to find out what the imam had said.
Chaffetz called those series of events “inappropriate.”
“My son Michael died,” Strange said. “I want to know, who made these calls?”
He is confident Chaffetz, Fitzpatrick and Issa will find out: “I know they are going to get answers.”
A Pentagon spokesman declined to answer detailed questions but said “the operational planning and execution of this mission was consistent with previous missions” and “was thoroughly investigated … we share in the grief of all of the families who lost their loved ones. The loss of 38 U.S. and Afghan military personnel was a tragic loss during a difficult campaign.”
This article was updated on Feb. 26, 2014 to clarify information on whether the U.S. soldiers were cremated.