Shadow Games

Culture of leaks at CIA, Pentagon and false portrayals dog classified raids.

A scene from "Zero Dark Thirty," directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
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"A tendency to break the rules, and a healthy disrespect for authority."

Dave Cooper uses this phrase almost like a mantra to describe the team of elite and secretive men with whom he served for a quarter of a century. He operated in some of the world's most austere environments conducting missions that will likely never enter the public record.

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That code of silence, however, is becoming harder to maintain for his former unit, the ultra-secret Navy Special Warfare Development Group or DEVGRU, more commonly known by its Hollywood title, "SEAL Team Six."

Any military organization wishes to portray itself as the best and most desirable, not in the least to get top missions, secure the most funding and attract the best applicants to its selection process. However a string of movies, books and newspaper articles perhaps has done as much harm to the unit's reputation as it has bolstered it.

"The stereotype can be dangerous," says Cooper, who began in special operations in the larger SEAL force on Team 2 before entering the elite DEVGRU, where he spent the bulk of his 25-year career. He retired in 2012 as one of only 12 to become the unit's command master chief, the highest enlisted rank.

Cooper is concerned about a culture at the CIA, Department of Defense and at offices of elected officials where the threat of leaks can define covert operations before they have even begun.

He participated in and later oversaw the high-profile missions that inspired such pop culture blockbusters as "Zero Dark Thirty," a reference that causes the former operator to grimace slightly.

"I don't think it's an accurate portrayal," says Cooper, who has subsequently traded tactical gear for a business suit in his new role as president of the Navy SEAL Foundation.

He offers the film "Captain Phillips," as an example, which depicts a unit of flawless operators who serve as quite literal shadow warriors, never exposing themselves long enough for the audience to get a clear image of any of their faces. The film breathes life into what government sources have leaked about the incident: At least three DEVGRU snipers set up on the fantail of the USS Bainbridge and, in rocking seas, simultaneously shot and killed the three remaining Somali pirates holding hostage the real Captain Richard Phillips in a lifeboat. The team then packs up its gear and disappears back into the darkness shortly before the closing credits.

[REVIEW: 'Captain Phillips,' a Tale of Two Captains]

"One of the best snipers I know, he was on the back of that fantail," says Cooper. "He is a guy you might not even know is a Navy SEAL. He's quiet. He's humble. He's in good shape, but he's not muscle bound. He looks just like a normal guy. You wouldn't be able to tell.

"And you wouldn't want to be within a mile or two if he's got a bone to pick with you," he says. "[He's] just a normal guy who is incredibly skilled." In real life, those operators completed an after-action report following the mission to critique any shortfalls in their own performance. They then worked out, read a book, played video games or turned to other routine methods of "winding down."

DEVGRU's place in the U.S. military arsenal as well as it's best-seller image comes from stories like these that become public despite every participants' very specific non-disclosure agreement.

Cooper can't totally fault former teammate Matt Bissonnette, for example, for penning his 2012 tell-all "No Easy Day" under the nom de plume "Mark Owen." That book spilled classified information with dangerous effects, but the authors likely beat out other senior officers from spilling the same story without the same accuracy.

From Osama bin Laden's compound to the shores of Somalia, the storied unit's exploits have been splattered across the public sphere yet often miscategorize or outright mislead the true nature of the team's work.

Cooper reveals new behind the scenes details of these recent operations in an attempt to clear the record.