The Pentagon is considering recommending a brash former Navy SEAL who has bragged about his tequila drinking for the top civilian post overseeing special operations forces — eliciting concerns about whether he has the mindset to rein in a pattern of misconduct among the elite troops
Lou Bremer is the leading contender to be assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, according to two current and former defense officials. Besides being an eight-year SEAL veteran, Bremer is a private equity investor with ties to the Trump administration through his boss, billionaire Stephen Feinberg.
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But word of his candidacy has alarmed some former special operations troops, Pentagon officials and experts in irregular warfare who worry that Bremer’s persona as a self-styled rebel would send the wrong message amid the spate of allegations involving homicides, sexual assaults and illegal drug and alcohol use among the SEALs and other commando forces. More broadly, they expressed doubts that a former SEAL with deep allegiance to the exclusive band of warriors would aggressively confront their systemic problems.
“If you want to clean house, it’s always best to go outside the organization, in terms of both optics and practicality,” said Frank Sobchak, a retired Green Beret colonel, referring to the SEALs. “It would give me pause to pick someone who came from within the organization to try to reform something as deeply ingrained as its culture. You risk the perception that it’s going be a whitewash.”
“I wouldn’t put a SEAL in that job right now,” added a former Navy special operations officer who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. “If you’re on the inside and you see this happen, you’re going to roll your eyes and say ‘This is business as usual — everything that’s happening here is lip service and it’s just because some guys got caught.’”
Bremer and his employer, Cerberus Capital Management, did not respond to requests for comment. Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said he had no personnel moves to announce.
Bremer, who also served as a homeland security aide in President George W. Bush’s White House, described himself on his private Instagram profile as a “Harley riding, tequila-drinking Navy SEAL and White House Fellow who buys companies on occasion.” He replaced the tequila reference with the phrase “USA-loving” last week after POLITICO began asking questions about his potential nomination.
The Pentagon has struggled to find a nominee for the assistant secretary role, which oversees elite units such as the SEALs, Marine Raiders, Army Rangers, Green Berets and Delta Force. The last person to hold the job permanently, Marine combat veteran Owen West, cited personal reasons when he stepped down in June.
One candidate for the post has already turned it down, according to another former official, who also requested anonymity.
“Anybody who comes into that position has got a difficult task ahead of them,” said Dick Couch, a retired SEAL captain who led frogmen in Vietnam and has advised top SEAL leaders on the problem. “There are deep-seated cultural issues that have to be addressed” in the SEAL community, he added.
Special operations troops have played a leading role in the war on terrorism, including advising foreign troops in combat and hunting terrorist leaders in nighttime raids and drone strikes. As the pace of combat operations for regular fighting units has slowed, the tempo has remained high among special operations troops, which have accounted for the bulk of U.S. combat deaths in recent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Niger and Somalia.
But the community — and the Navy’s storied SEAL teams in particular — have had a troubled year.
The military pulled a SEAL platoon out of Iraq during the summer, a decision that The New York Times reported followed allegations that a senior member sexually assaulted a fellow service member, and the Navy announced Friday it has fired the top three leaders of the platoon’s parent unit, SEAL Team 7, as a result. Other SEALs have either been sentenced or faced charges in recent cases involving the deaths of detainees or fellow U.S. troops.
The SEALs’ ills appear to stem from “a troubling culture,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said in July as he grilled Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, the nominee to be the Navy’s top officer, on a raft of misconduct issues among the commandos.
“These issues seem to not be isolated to one team and are being reported from units stationed in California and Virginia, which certainly raises a level of concern,” said Peters, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services subcommittee that oversees special operations. He is also a former lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve.
Peters and other lawmakers have not weighed in on Bremer. But an aide to Peters said the senator believes the top civilian post “needs to provide robust civilian oversight and leadership to the Special Operations Forces community.”
That oversight is sorely needed, critics of the SEALs and other elite forces say.
Just this spring, a member of SEAL Team 6 — the unit that killed Osama bin Laden and is now in charge of counterterrorism missions in Africa — was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty for his role in the death of a U.S. soldier in Mali two years ago. Another SEAL Team 6 member still faces murder charges in that case.
The recent trial of another SEAL, Edward Gallagher, resulted in an acquittal on charges that he murdered a detainee in Iraq but also cast a negative spotlight on the culture of the hard-charging operators, showing that the Navy commandos illegally drank while deployed to a combat zone and chafed at the role they were assigned supporting Iraqi troops, preferring to find ways to fight themselves. Gallagher was sentenced to four months’ confinement for posing for photos with the detainee’s corpse.
The recent incidents follow the expulsion of two SEAL leaders from Somalia last year over alleged sexual misconduct and revelations of cocaine use in another SEAL team.
The top commander of the SEALs and other elite Navy troops, Rear Adm. Collin Green, warned in a letter to subordinates in July that “we have a good order and discipline problem that must be addressed immediately.”
“Our force has drifted from our core Navy values … due to a lack of action at all levels of leadership,” Green warned in a separate memo to his forces last month, in which he called for SEAL leaders to crack down on poor discipline and misconduct. Green directed SEAL commanders to take measures including making SEALs shave their beards and slowing a planned expansion of the SEAL teams.
The problems go beyond the SEALs. Other cases have implicated Army Green Berets and Marine Raiders.
For example, of two Marines charged in the Mali murder case, one pleaded guilty to lesser charges and has been sentenced to four years’ confinement. Meanwhile, two former Green Berets were each sentenced to nine years in prison this spring for smuggling cocaine out of Colombia. And another former Green Beret is awaiting trial on murder charges in the 2010 killing of a Taliban bomb-maker he had detained.
The spate of alleged crimes and misconduct has prompted a series of internal reviews by the military’s Special Operations Command, headed by Army Gen. Richard Clarke. Clarke’s latest review follows a separate review ordered by Clarke’s predecessor and West.
The assistant secretary position — a job now filled on an acting basis by retired Col. Mark Mitchell, a former Green Beret — is in charge of overseeing Special Operations Command. And in recent years Congress has moved to boost the position’s authority. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act directed the assistant secretary’s office to take on more responsibility for administration and oversight of special operations forces, leading to growth in the office’s staff and funding.
“How do you go about changing the culture? I’m not sure they have a good handle on how to turn that supertanker around,” said Couch, the retired SEAL captain, of his former community. “It may require drastic measures to extinguish the minority of bad actors who are creating these problems.”
Bremer left the Navy in 2000, before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, but he would bring an existing relationship with the Trump administration to the position.
After his time in uniform, which included non-combat deployments to the Middle East and the Balkans, Bremer served on the staff of Bush’s Homeland Security Council as a White House fellow. He later did stints at Bain Capital, Veritas Capital Management and Windage Capital before joining Cerberus, where he is a managing director. Bremer also helped establish a foundation to raise money for the families of fallen SEALs.
Bremer is now in Trump’s orbit: The Atlantic reported that he attended the president’s inauguration and visited the White House with Cerberus founder and chief executive Feinberg — moments he documented on his Instagram account.
At the time of Bremer’s 2017 White House visit, Feinberg and Erik Prince, another former SEAL and the founder of the security contracting company Blackwater, were offering the Trump administration competing plans to privatize the war in Afghanistan with armed contractors. Those plans went nowhere, and it’s not clear what role Bremer played in them. But since 2018, Feinberg has headed the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
Bremer is “definitely on Team Trump,” said a former defense official who knows him.
Jonathan Schroden, director of the special operations program at the Center for Naval Analyses, a government-funded think tank, said the ex-SEAL’s background could lend credibility to efforts to address the recent bad behavior in the special operations community.
“It will give him more street cred with the community than West had, so if he endorses whatever the review’s findings are, it would add some weight to them,” Schroden said.
He also pointed out that the review being undertaken by the Special Operations Command is already being handled by a SEAL, Vice Adm. Timothy Szymanski. “So you’ve already got a senior SEAL sitting on top of the review process,” Schroden said.
If nominated, Bremer would not be the first former SEAL to hold the senior post. Retired Cmdr. Michael Lumpkin filled the position during the second term of the Obama administration.
But senators would almost certainly hit Bremer with tough questions about his views on SEAL misconduct, predicted Kimberly Jackson, a former Pentagon official who specializes in special operations and military culture at the government-funded RAND Corp.
“There’s significant public interest in why these ethical breaches are occurring,” she said, adding that someone with a different background might be a better choice to affect change. “I think there’s a perception that SEALs are relatively uninterested in heeding advice from outside their community.”
One of the former defense officials also predicted Bremer would have a tough time getting confirmed.
“Just running the odds, what’s the probability you’re going to get a self-described ‘old-school SEAL,’ with his social media trail, through confirmation?” the former official asked. “There’s going to be congressional resistance in this environment. Any former SEAL nominee would be treated that way right now, and it’s a bit unfair, but it’s the reality.”
Sobchak, the former Green Beret colonel, also said putting a former SEAL in charge of all elite troops would be problematic, especially since he believes the rule-breaking culture goes far beyond the recent misconduct.
“It’s not just what’s been going on recently,” Sobchak said. “It’s also part of the SEAL identity.”