Authors: Steve Martini
him from across my desk, Cameron Akers is not what you might expect. He is not a big man. Maybe five foot ten. I would guess he weighs about 180 pounds. In his early thirties, his face is chiseled, pockmarked in a few places by what I suspect are old wounds. His arms are well toned and covered with colorful tattoos, a dragon that ripples under the muscles of one forearm and demons of someone's imagination that dance on the other.
Passing him on the street, you might not look twice, Mr. CellophaneâÂlook right through him. Except that while you weren't looking, Cameron Akers could probably put four holes between the top of your eyes and your hairline, none of them more than half an inch apart.
According to our investigator Herman Diggs, who brought Akers into my office, Cam, as he calls him, is a career Navy SEAL. He is assigned to the BUD/S training depot a mile or so down the Silver Strand from our office here in Coronado. I am Paul Madriani, of the law firm of Madriani & Hinds. My partner Harry Hinds and I have a criminal defense practice confined mostly to cases in the state courts of California. Of late, these activities have become far more dangerous, due in part, it seems, to our proximity to the southern border with Mexico, the resulting narcotraffic, and its combination with international terrorism and the drug cartels.
“I assume Herman told you that we generally don't do cases involving military law?” I tell him.
“Told him,” says Herman. “According to Cam, any charges they bring would be filed in the federal courts.”
“I'm no longer in the Navy,” says Akers. “Been separated about two months. Cashiered, you might call it, though the decision to leave was mine.”
“What exactly are these charges?”
“Nothing yet,” says Akers. “It's a long story.”
“Can you give me the short version?” I ask him. “I have an appointment shortly.”
“Like Herman says, my last assignment was as a BUD/S training NCO, basic underwater demolition. Navy SEAL warfare base here in Coronado. My grade was chief petty officer. The assignment was a holding pattern 'til the brass could force me out. I'm shy of twenty years, so there's no retirement, no medical coverage.”
“Why did they want to force you out?”
“Before coming to Coronado, I was assigned to DEVGRU, the Naval Special Warfare Development Group .Â .Â .”
“SEAL Team Six,” says Herman. “As in AbbottabadâÂPakistan.” Herman, all 250 pounds of him, sits bolt upright in the other client chair across from my desk, beaming at me as if he were Akers's talent agent.
“You were there?” I look at Akers. “The mission to get bin Laden?”
“Where did you meet Herman?” I ask.
“Oh, we met at the health club,” says Herman.
“Let him talk for himself,” I tell Herman.
“Chuze Fitness, down in National City,” says Akers. “We got to talkin'. Herman said he worked for a law firm. I needed a lawyer.”
“I assume by now you know the story,” he says. “Operation Neptune Spear.”
You would have to live on Mars not to have heard about it. “Refresh my memory.”
“Everything went down pretty much the way it appeared in the newspapers,” says Akers. “All forty or so various versions. It was dark, we were on the run, lots of chaos and confusion, walled-Âoff doors and dead-Âend corridors. Your typical trip to armed Islam. One smashed-Âup bird going in, high-Âend Black Hawk with buffered rotors. At first it was pretty quiet. The sound of tactical boots on gravel, a few barking dogs. Then all hell broke loose. The first detonation from breaching charges to get through one of the walls. Then cinders of flashing-Âhot steel from somebody's grenades. Theirs or ours, I don't know. Some unsuppressed automatic fire from Âpeople inside the compound. You stop thinking and go into auto mode, all the stuff you learned in training and absorbed on missions. The stuff that keeps you alive. In the end, all the right Âpeople got shot. We all came home alive in one piece, strange as it seems. The problems came later. After the mission.”
“Loose lips,” says Akers “Lot of Âpeople talking. It started with the politicians. They wanted to wallow in the afterglow. Some of them ID'ed Navy SEALs as the strike team, and from there it all went downhill. The media pounced on Team Six, started hanging in bars where sources told them some of the squad bent elbows from time to time. Strangers would show up and buy rounds of drinks. Media was everywhere, knocking on every door, looking for information.
“And it got worse. A feature film was green-Âlighted by the White House. Hollywood producers demanded access to details. The president's Âpeople wanted to fire up the limelight for the reelection campaign. The film director demanded specifics on means and methods. Wanted to know how we did it, all the little details, stuff he could put in the movie for color. Except once he did that, how could we use the same techniques the next time? Didn't matter. Not to the powers in Washington. Our Âpeople were told to deliver. It's all buried now. All the compromising dirty little e-Âmails, deep in the bowels at the CIA.”
“Why there?” I ask.
“Neptune Spear was a CIA operation,” says Akers.
“I didn't know that.”
“Most Âpeople don't. The CIA is a cosmic sucking black hole. Information that goes there never comes out. The agency is totally exempt from Freedom of Information demands. If you're the president, you want all your darkest secrets and biggest mistakes filed there. Let me put it this way. If Cain had murdered Abel at Langley, God would still be asking who did it.”
“I get the picture.”
“Do you? To make a long story short, it became impossible to maintain operational security. The brass was furious. Some of the operators started to worry about their families, others caught the disease and started talking. One of them wrote a book, another came out of the shadows and declared that he was the man who shot bin Laden.”
“Did he what?”
“Shoot the man.”
Akers shrugs a shoulder, looks at me, and says: “Who knows? You won't hear it from me. I don't talk.”
“You just have.”
“Only about things that are already revealed. In the public wheelhouse, as they say.”
“According to the stories I've read, it was the second man up the stairs into bin Laden's bedroom who shot him,” I say.
“Maybe. But who was the second man? And does it really matter? Think of it as a fiesta,” says Akers. “Blindfolded, looking through the tunnel that is night vision, packing heat, squeezing off occasional rounds at anything that looked hostile and moved. When you take off the blindfold, there's candy all over the floor. Do you really care who broke the piÃ±ata?”
“Perhaps history does.”
“Any one of us could have put a bullet in the man's turban. Rumor has it, and I'm not confirming this, that by the time they got the body back to Bagram, it had more holes in it than your average colander. Nobody is ever going to know all the details of what happened that night. All you're gonna get is one man's story of what he thinks he saw.”
“The fog of war?” I say.
“Nature of the mission,” says Akers. “We were after the devil. If it even looks like it wiggles, shoot it.”
“Can't remember,” he says. “Let's not talk about operational details. That's why I'm in trouble,” he says. “It's why they forced me out. They think I've talked, and I haven't.”
“Have you talked to anybody about the details of this particular mission, or anything else for that matter?”
“Family, friends, other members of the team?”
“No one!” he says.
“Did anybody talk to you about it?”
“A few operators. ÂPeople who were pissed off about the leaks, same as I am.”
“So you did commiserate?”
“Shop talk,” he says. “All of it in-Âhouse. On the base with Âpeople who were there on the mission. Nothing outside. Most of the others have been washed out, too. Sent off to other assignments. Detached from DEVGRU.”
“So you're not alone in this?”
“Why would they do this? The brass, I mean?”
“Who knows? Political fallout. A lot of paranoia. Higher-Âups were furious about the leaks, particularly operational details on tactics and methods. Once disclosed, they couldn't be used again. The politicians, especially the ones who fingered us after the mission and were called on it were busy looking to blame someone else. There is talk that the Justice Department is working up a case against some members of the squadron. Violation of the agreement signed by us.”
“Nondisclosure,” says Akers. “Violation carries criminal penalties. In the end, we come away with nothing. No pension, no medical coverage for ourselves or our families, and no security or protection in the event of retaliation by the enemy. We're left bare, all of us in the same situation, with the threat of criminal prosecution now hanging over our heads. It's not just me. It's my family,” he says.
“It's not fair” says Herman.
“Tell me about your family?” I say.
”My wife and two boys, six and eight. If I go to prison, what's gonna happen to them? If I'm prosecuted in open court, identified as being part of the mission, and some fanatic of a lone wolf decides to take revenge, who protects my wife and kids while I'm in jail?”
It's a good question. One for which I have no answer.
“Knowing all this, why did you get out of the military? Why not tough it out and retire? At least take the benefits?”
“I didn't leave by choice. You don't understand. Let me explain. Among the SEAL teams, DEVGRU, what you know as SEAL Team Six, is the peak of the pyramid. It took me six years to get there, a tough, hard climb. Once you get there, you're called on to participate in countless missions over long years, all of them dangerous. You don't ask questions, you do it because it's what you do. Then to have all of that taken away, to be reassigned to BUD/S training because of scuttlebutt that somebody is talking and your name got mentioned and now your career is over, that's what happened. No matter what I do, what I say, I know it's over. There is no coming back from this. On paper, it may look like I quit. The fact is I had no other alternative. You know the military, the Navy, they can get rid of anybody they want anytime they want. They let it be known that if I stayed, they would bring charges. Probably a court-Âmartial. They would see to it I got a dishonorable discharge. I'd lose everything anyway.”
“They told you this?”
“Not in so many words. But the message was clear.”
“So what is it you want us to do?”
“I want my life back,” he says.
“You want to be reinstated in the military?”
“That's never going happen,” says Akers. “But I'd like to be able to move on. Make the criminal thing go away and find a decent job.”
This would seem a reasonable request. Still, I don't know all the facts or what motivates the Âpeople in power.
“Are you working now?”
“I was, until two weeks ago. The FBI came snooping, asking questions of my employer. I was on probation. They cut me loose.”
“What type of work?”
“Sheriff's department up in Orange County. As you can imagine, there is a limited demand for the skill set you develop jumping out of helicopters and shooting Âpeople for a decade and a half. Police agencies might take a look. But not when the FBI keeps stopping in to ask questions.
“There is Blackwater and some of its subsidiaries, private security companies hired by government agencies overseas. The problem is, you have a bigger target on your chest with fewer assets at your back. The pay is all right, but the mortality table is awful. Besides, as you get older, you get burned-Âout. You can only do this stuff so long and stay alive.”
“I understand. Why didn't you think about this before you enlisted?”
“I was nineteen years old. I was young and stupid, like everybody else. The equivalent of being immortal,” says Akers. “If you make it through the training phase, which is about 1 percent, you figure you'll probably be lucky to survive the first few missions. By the time you're older, it's too late. By then, you're in for the durationâÂdeath, disability, or retirement. Or what happened to me.”
“It's enough to make anyone angry,” says Herman. “The government is getting ready to shower billions in benefits on millions of Âpeople who entered the country illegally. The same time, it's turning its back on men who risked their lives every day on the battlefield.”
This is all very true. Still, I can hear my law partner Harry Hinds, the two inevitable questions he will ask: “What can we possibly do for this man? And more to the point, how is he going to pay us?'
Akers answers the first as if by telepathy before I can speak. “If you can get the government off my back, make the threat of prosecution and the FBI go away, I can take care of the rest,” he says.
“Easier said than done,” I tell him. “Do you have a copy of this nondisclosure agreement?”
Akers says: “No. It was a formality. Some missions they asked for it, and some they didn't. On the bin Laden raid, they got it from every squad member. We assumed because of the possible political fallout.”
“But they didn't give you a copy?”
He shakes his head. “We always figured the agreements were classified.”
“They probably are.”
“Why can't we demand a copy?” says Herman.
“Without some kind of an action pending to trigger discovery, we have no standing. Even then, if they argue national security, the court may deny access.” I ask Akers if he remembers what the agreement said.