Eyes on Target

Inside Stories from the Brotherhood of the U.S. Navy SEALs


By Scott McEwen

By Richard Miniter

Read by Holter Graham

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Told through the eyes of current and former Navy SEALs, EYES ON TARGET is an inside account of some of the most harrowing missions in American history-including the mission to kill Osama bin Laden and the mission that wasn’t, the deadly attack on the US diplomatic outpost in Benghazi where a retired SEAL sniper with a small team held off one hundred terrorists while his repeated radio calls for help went unheeded.

The book contains incredible accounts of major SEAL operations-from the violent birth of SEAL Team Six and the aborted Operation Eagle Claw meant to save the hostages in Iran, to key missions in Iraq and Afganistan where the SEALs suffered their worst losses in their fifty year history-and every chapter illustrates why this elite military special operations unit remains the most feared anti-terrorist force in the world.

We hear reports on the record from retired SEAL officers including Lt. Cmdr. Richard Marcinko, the founder of SEAL Team Six, and a former Commander at SEAL team Six, Ryan Zinke, and we come away understanding the deep commitment of these military men who put themselves in danger to protect our country and save American lives. In the face of insurmountable odds and the imminent threat of death, they give all to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

No matter the situation, on duty or at ease, SEALs never, ever give up. One powerful chapter in the book tells the story of how one Medal of Honor winner saved another, the only time this has been done in US military history.

EYES ON TARGET includes these special features:
  • A detailed timeline of events during the Benghazi attack
  • Sample rescue scenarios from a military expert who believes that help could have reached the Benghazi compound in time
  • The US House Republican Conference Interim Progress Report on the events surrounding the September 11, 2012 Terrorist Attacks in Benghazi
Through their many interviews and unique access, Scott McEwen and Richard Miniter pull back the veil that has so often concealed the heroism of these patriots. They live by a stringent and demanding code of their own creation, keeping them ready to ignore politics, bureaucracy and-if necessary-direct orders. They share a unique combination of character, intelligence, courage, love of country and what can only be called true grit.

They are the Navy SEALs, and they keep their Eyes on Target.


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The skinny guy on the bar stool was a minute away from being mauled.

It was already getting late in the dimly lit bar in Lakeside, California, a place where tattooed men buy beer for a dollar and drink from the bottle. It was a favorite of bikers and recent parolees, morose cowboys, and sailors waiting to be discharged. It had seen its share of bar fights.

As Don Zub, who had served in the Navy SEALs, downed another shot, his eye zoomed in on the skinny guy's T-shirt. He spotted a small black raven insignia. A semisecret symbol of the SEALs. It was like a Crip eyeing a Blood.

The only thing that SEALs hate more than terrorists is "fake SEALs"—civilians, or even other service members, who pretend to be a part of their sacred brotherhood. Fake SEALs can get their ribs broken, their noses smashed, and, if the bouncers are not quick-footed enough, their windpipes flattened.

Zub's temperature was already rising. One of us—Scott McEwen—had seen it happen before, and now he was watching it again.

If the short, skinny guy and his brunette girlfriend knew what was coming, they didn't let on. They pretended not to see Zub's bulging eyes or hear the menace in his voice. "I think I recognize that shirt. Where did you get it?"

The skinny guy hardly looked up. "I got it from the owner of the bar."

The Raven is a Virginia Beach bar—and more than a bar, it is a symbol. A SEAL bar where male outsiders aren't welcome. A secret cave where SEALs commune.

The brunette said nothing. She had seen this kind of thing before.

"Oh yeah?" said Zub, doubt creeping into his voice. "Where is it located?"

The skinny guy's voice was still carefully casual. "Virginia Beach."

Zub wasn't backing down. To the bartender or any passersby, this might have seemed like an ordinary conversation. But it wasn't. It was a verbal dogfight. One wrong answer and fists would fly. "How do you know the owner?"

"I used to work with him."

"Where did you work with him?"

"In the military."

"How long did you work with him?"

"Fifteen years. I used to babysit his kids."

Zub was more certain than ever that he had spotted a fake SEAL. His fingers were balling into fists. "I used to work with the same guys as him."

The skinny guy said nothing. What was there to say?

Zub pressed. "What kind of work did you do together?"

"I really don't want to talk about it."

Zub pulled out a new Spyderco knife, flipped it open, and locked the blade. It flashed in the overhead light.

The skinny guy pretended not to notice the knife. At one time, it was a standard-issue tactical blade among the SEALs, who used it to cut away parachute cords and underwater entanglements. It, too, was a kind of totem.

Zub reached over and slammed the blade into the bar.

The knifepoint landed between the brunette's small hands and stayed there, planted into the wood of the bar. The knife was a challenge. No one moved. The brunette did not even move her hands. She had seen this kind of thing before.

McEwen had noticed both the skinny guy's nonreaction and the brunette's careful nonchalance. Urgently, he turned to face his SEAL friend. "Don, he's real. The chick's real. Back off!"

Zub looked at him and then eyeballed the skinny guy.

Then the skinny guy spoke. "My name is Johnny Walker. I was a Plank Owner in SEAL Team Six with Dick Marcinko."

Marcinko founded SEAL Team Six, perhaps the world's best-known elite fighting unit, and Marcinko frequented the Raven, the legendary bar in Virginia Beach that was a longtime SEAL hangout. It was the kind of bar where no one called the cops. A Plank Owner is a founding member of the U.S. Navy SEAL unit. It meant that Walker was handpicked by the founder of SEAL Team Six and had hung out at Marcinko's favorite bar. And he literally got the coveted T-shirt. He was, therefore, SEAL royalty.

Zub gave his name and announced that he was a member of SEAL Team One, sometimes called "No Fun One." He had served from 1975 to 1979 on the West Coast. Walker had joined "the teams"—as the SEALs call themselves—later and had served on the East Coast.

The tension rushed away, like steam streaming from a pinhole in a pipe.

Zub bought drinks, and the men swapped stories. Two Navy SEALs had met and challenged each other and the bonds of brotherhood were established.

* * *

This was one of the greeting rituals of the world's smallest and strangest fraternities, the U.S. Navy SEALs. If you are a member, it doesn't matter where or when you served. You can show up uninvited at the funerals of the youngest or oldest veterans and be hailed as a brother by total strangers. You can phone another SEAL whom you've never met and be taken for a drink. You might show up to mow the lawn of a widow whose husband died before you served. The bonds are strong partly because the group is so small. There have been fewer than three thousand U.S. Navy SEALs in the history of the world and about half of them are still alive. They all know, or know of, each other. The SEALs call themselves a "brotherhood," and they actually are one.

The brotherhood is forged by one of the most demanding selection processes on Earth—Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, known universally as "BUD/S." Even being selected for BUD/S means running a gauntlet of approvals inside the U.S. Navy. Once a sailor, Marine, or other service member is cleared to attend BUD/S, the climb to becoming a SEAL gets steeper and harder. Chuck Pfarrer, who was a member of SEAL Team Six, recalls his first day at BUD/S. A humorless Navy officer stepped to the podium in a small concrete room at a SEAL base in Coronado, California. He told the men to look left and look right. Each man did. In the next few weeks, the officer said, "almost two-thirds of you are going to quit." The high washout rate was expected. He said it without regret, as a simple cold fact. He was daring the men to meet the highest standards and expecting that only a few of them would.

The training was demanding enough to persuade many hard men to ring the bell to quit. "I've seen Olympic-quality athletes wash out," Pfarrer said.

The Navy is happy to see them go. What defines a SEAL is his unwillingness to ever, ever give up. It requires extraordinary will in all three aspects of human existence: body, mind, and spirit. Very, very few men are dominant in all three.

A Navy corpsman, who supervises the medical care for SEALs during BUD/S, told us: "Injuries that I would usually send someone to the hospital for, in BUD/S I just patch up. Those guys don't want to quit."

Still, some are forced to—regardless of their determination or ability to succeed. Broken legs, smashed arms, cuts requiring more than a dozen stitches… Medical reasons can knock as many as one of every five applicants out of BUD/S. Usually, men given medical leave are begging the corpsman to put a little tape over their cracked ribs and assuring the medical officer that they are fine… as the stretcher carries them off.

Those who survive and graduate from BUD/S realize two truths: they are now members of a small, exclusive group; and they are part of a larger, profoundly important tradition. Their class numbers and names are painted on a wall at Coronado, alongside the class numbers and names of the men who came before them.

Still, BUD/S graduates are not yet SEALs. Another training program, SEAL Qualification Training, known invariably as "SQT," transforms the BUD/S graduate into a SEAL. Some call it "BUD/S on paper." In that months-long course, students learn Navy history, ballistics math, ocean currents, enemy ideologies, and other useful subjects. After months of training and written tests, the men who survive receive the distinctive pin known officially as "the trident" and unofficially as "the Budweiser"—a brass-plated pin of an eagle with an anchor and Neptune's trident in its claw. Like Masai warriors, SEALs have brutal rites of passage. The informal part of the SEAL initiation process usually involves pounding the metal pin into the new SEAL's bare chest. The wound and the blood are part of the rite. No one complains as the blood trickles and drips off his pectoral muscles. It is a moment of joy and pain, fused paradoxically together, like the mixed nature of victory in combat. It is a feeling SEALs will experience throughout their careers.

Still, the process is not over. SEALs are constantly under observation by chief petty officers, whose watchful evaluations are merciless. Months after SQT and specialized schooling, new SEALs may be shifted to an operational unit and still treated as rookies because they have not yet endured hours of combat. Sometimes they are called "fresh meat." Every conversation, every training evolution, every "down range" operation is a test. SEALs are endlessly examining themselves and their comrades, hunting for dangerous weaknesses.

At each stage, the ideal of brotherhood is forged, hammered, tempered, and sharpened.

* * *

For almost forty years, their unique ethos was unwritten, passed along by gruff instructions from chief petty officers and the molds of men who came before. When it wasn't said, it was shown. It was the sum of things that were quietly praised and the body of things noisily ridiculed. SEALs have a vivid and vicious sense of humor; sharp words are meant to point out a path. The sensitive and the weak are weeded out early. "If you can't take it," one SEAL said, "get the fuck out."

By 2005, the backgrounds of SEAL officers had changed. More officers were graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and fewer were "mustangs," officers who had come up through the ranks. It began to seem natural that the SEALs would have a written credo, much like a corporation's vision statement or the U.S. Army Rangers' written creed. (SEALs and Rangers sometimes operate together.)

Mark Devine, a SEAL officer, was part of the team (composed of both officers and enlisted men) who helped put the unwritten ethos in black-letter type. It was a long, soul-searching process, debated in dull conference rooms and late-night bars. Akin to the operating ethos of the teams, it was a product of many heads, the sum of many experiences. In the end, the code summarizes SEAL culture as carefully, specifically, and expertly as a mission plan.

The SEAL Code

• Loyalty to Country, Team, and Teammate

• Serve with Honor and Integrity On and Off the Battlefield

• Ready to Lead, Ready to Follow, Never Quit

• Take Responsibility for your Actions and the Actions of your Teammates

• Excel as Warriors through Discipline and Innovation

• Train for War, Fight to Win, Defeat our Nation's Enemies

• Earn your Trident every day

United States Navy SEAL—The SEAL Creed

In times of war or uncertainty there is a special breed of warrior ready to answer our Nation's call. A common man with uncommon desire to succeed.

Forged by adversity, he stands alongside America's finest special operations forces to serve his country, the American people, and protect their way of life.

I am that man.

My Trident is a symbol of honor and heritage. Bestowed upon me by the heroes that have gone before, it embodies the trust of those I have sworn to protect. By wearing the Trident I accept the responsibility of my chosen profession and way of life. It is a privilege that I must earn every day.

My loyalty to Country and Team is beyond reproach. I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves. I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions. I voluntarily accept the inherent hazards of my profession, placing the welfare and security of others before my own.

I serve with honor on and off the battlefield. The ability to control my emotions and my actions, regardless of circumstance, sets me apart from other men.

Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond.

We expect to lead and be led. In the absence of orders I will take charge, lead my teammates, and accomplish the mission. I lead by example in all situations.

I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.

We demand discipline. We expect innovation. The lives of my teammates and the success of our mission depend on me—my technical skill, tactical proficiency, and attention to detail. My training is never complete.

We train for war and fight to win. I stand ready to bring the full spectrum of combat power to bear in order to achieve my mission and the goals established by my country. The execution of my duties will be swift and violent when required yet guided by the very principles that I serve to defend.

Brave men have fought and died building the proud tradition and feared reputation that I am bound to uphold. In the worst of conditions, the legacy of my teammates steadies my resolve and silently guides my every deed. I will not fail.

In short, SEALs are supposed to be superheroes out of the old American playbook: physically fit, morally sound, and humbly quiet about their achievements. SEALs must follow orders and, in the absence of orders, improvise to save the lives of their teammates or accomplish their mission. A SEAL is an ordinary man who emerges, trains to an extraordinary standard, serves his country, and anonymously returns to civilian life. He aspires to be an unknown hero, whose record serves to inspire the next generation of SEALs, in a perpetually renewed tradition.

This is their culture and this is the story they tell themselves about themselves. And it is true.

But it is not the whole story of their unique culture, which is both precious and strangely fragile. As we shall see in the course of this book, politics and bureaucracy—the twin curses of the SEALs' many successes—threaten to destroy what is unique about this elite unit.

A culture is never the product of abstract reasoning; it is a living, organic thing that forms and grows through experience, some of it sweet, more of it bitter. Cutting out parts that seem unreasonable to outsiders is always a dangerous undertaking. Is the "unnecessary" organ an appendix or a lung? The risk of operating on a living culture is that one can't tell the difference between a vital organ or an unneeded appendage, until after the operation, when the patient may be killed or crippled.

Nevertheless, SEAL culture is now facing several traumatic operations. These operations include unfounded prosecutions, oversight by those who have limited knowledge of special operations, and an overall attempt to impose political correctness on their ranks.

* * *

This is the first book to treat the U.S. Navy SEALs, whose storied history reaches back more than forty years and whose origins stretch back to World War II, as a character in its own right. Its exemplary individuals make up parts of an unusual and a unique whole. The teams, as the SEALs call themselves, have the arc of a single character: illustrious parents, daring birth, growing pains in its adolescent years, finding itself in the early twenties, and now, after a span of remarkable achievements, a crossroads. A midlife crisis.

By tracing the life of the SEALs as a unit, we aim to define its distinctive culture and to warn the nation against trying to tamper with it too drastically. The war on terror is increasingly a special-forces war—a battle of covert operatives dropped into hostile territories to kill or capture those who would dearly love to inflict another September 11 on the United States. The SEALs are the tip of the spear. If you dull its edge, it may not function. America and her allies would lose a key asset in its ability to wage the war on terror.

* * *

There is no predictable prototype for a Navy SEAL, even though the U.S. Navy has spent millions of dollars in research studies to find a formula. It costs the Navy more than one million dollars (measured in man-hours and equipment) to train a potential SEAL. If the Navy could discover which essential attributes enable a man to succeed in its demanding program, it could reduce the failure rate and save money. But it can't. There is no formula.

SEALs hail from all backgrounds. Some tower over six feet, but many are average sized. Some spent their childhoods in cold waters off the Northeastern and Northwestern United States; others had never seen the ocean until basic training. A few come from illustrious military families, many more from families who previously served only due to a draft. Some were award-winning athletes in high school or college; others had never worn a team jersey until they joined the Navy. Some had served in the U.S. Navy or the Marine Corps; others came straight from civilian life. Some were the sons of millionaires; others subsisted on food stamps. Some were straight-A students; others barely graduated from high school. Many were native born; yet some of the most distinguished were born overseas. There are SEALs of every race and many of mixed race. The only thing that the successful graduates of BUD/S and SQT have in common is an unwillingness to quit when their bodies were spent, their brains exhausted, and the odds seemed insuperable. What makes a SEAL is not genetics, background, education, or even aptitude—it is a quality of character that the men themselves are not sure that they possess until they demonstrate it. There is no formula for this.

* * *

Once you spend some time with the SEALs, as we have, their internal inconsistencies become obvious.

They have covert identities and can be very tight-lipped. Ask a SEAL who doesn't know you, what he does for a living, and he is likely to say that he is "in the military" or "in the Navy" and leave it at that. Yet, once they are among their teammates, they can be very free with their opinions—mercilessly taunting a fellow SEAL who failed in a training evolution or boasting about stealing a girl away from an ordinary mortal. They have little patience for any of their own who miss the standard by even an inch. One SEAL, who took three attempts in order to pass BUD/S, was called a "turd" because he was slow in training or took longer to prepare his gear. Later he was called a "shit bird" because he frequently had driving accidents with a SEAL minisub off of Hawaii. He later won a Navy Cross and other honors. These blunt assessments are common among SEALs. They have no time for "happy talk" or "blowing sunshine up your ass." SEALs are brutal, because small errors cost lives in training and combat.

Even SEAL officers are brutally and bluntly evaluated by enlisted men. One SEAL officer, whose name is omitted because he is still on active duty, was described to us by a fellow teammate. "He really was a detriment, to be frank. He was so stupid and he was not a top performer," said Carl Higbie, a SEAL Team Ten member. "He could shoot straight, yeah, but his reasoning skills were not to the caliber of a Navy SEAL." These kinds of comments are not rare among SEALs, if the men believe a teammate does not measure up.

SEALs are competitive and praise each other in quantitative terms. They will talk about their teammates in terms of body weight or body-fat percentage. They boast about who can bench the most, swim the longest, or shoot the straightest. Cars, stereo, and computer equipment are constant sources of competition among them. And, among SEALs of a certain age, so are girls. SEALs are always keeping score.

They are not politically correct, and enlisted SEALs are often puzzled by the entire notion that certain words or phrases are off limits. If a man has proven himself, words should be harmless to him. If he has not, he has bigger problems than words.

The constant joking and taunting nature of SEAL banter excludes any kind of politically correct restrictions, especially when officers aren't around. When they do run into political correctness, which is common on civilian college campuses, they tend to refer to it as "bullshit." SEAL officers often try to keep the comments of their men in bounds—a constant struggle. Still, the officers realize the dangers of being zealous in policing speech. SEAL teams are not political coalitions and every man must be free to express a view in order for missions to succeed.

Tattoos are as common among SEALs as they are among South Sea Islanders. But sometimes they lead to trouble. After a stint in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, Denny Chalker joined the Navy and was admitted to BUD/S. There instructors spotted his tattoo on his arm ("God is my jump master") and they used it in place of his name. "Instead of 'Chalker' being called out, it was "Where is 'God is my jump master'?"1

Many will admit to being adrenaline junkies. To relax, they race motorcycles, surf big waves, ski black diamond trails, or scale icy mountains. Brandon Webb, a former SEAL Team Three member and SEAL Head Sniper instructor, bought a thirty-five-year-old Soviet Yak-52 trainer aircraft. It is old, poorly built, and has few flight instruments. It had crashed before. He would often hold mock dogfights with former SEALs in other aircraft. When Webb showed a Hollywood producer a picture of his plane, the man asked: "You actually go up in that?"

* * *

Though most SEALs are not Irish, many of their rituals revolve around fighting, drinking, and death.

Bar fights are common. At one time, so were fights on duty. In the 1970s, when a dispute started, someone would say: "Take it behind the conex box," Zub recalls.

The conex box was a shipping container at Coronado that was too high and too long for officers to see around or over. It was a black hole where SEALs would go to fight SEALs. The routine was always the same. Two men would go behind the box and emerge, a few minutes later, bloody, dirty, and sandy. No one would join them to watch, and no one would ever talk about it. "There was no bragging. It was just kept real quiet," Zub said.

But it settled things.

Another SEAL, Ryan Job, put it this way: "Despite what your momma told you, violence does solve problems." (After being shot in the face in Ramadi, Iraq, Job died on an operating table in Phoenix, Arizona.)

Today, fights still occur, but they are much more likely to happen off base. On-duty fights can now lead to dismissal from the SEAL teams or even courts-martial.

SEALs drink at reunions, graduations, and deaths, and after work. It remains an informal weeding-out process. "There are team guys and then there are guys in the teams," Zub said. There are guys with a strong sense of brotherhood, but there are some who merely do their jobs.

Commander Dick Marcinko, the founder of SEAL Team Six, was legendary for drinking with the enlisted men under his command. After a hard training evolution in the waters off Virginia Beach, he would invite his men to a dive bar. (Later, he bought a nearby bar, the iconic bar called the Raven.) They would stay until closing time and sometimes beyond.

Zub first met Marcinko in 1982, when a Navy buddy introduced them in a San Diego bar named El Capitan.

Marcinko didn't act like any naval officer that Zub had ever seen before. While other Navy men could be hard drinkers and admirers of female bodies, Marcinko took it to a whole new level. He bragged about out-drinking men and bedding women. He pulled out what Zub remembers as a "wad of money," and he gave Zub and his two former Navy buddies a few hundred bucks each. As the drinking progressed, Marcinko revealed that he was wearing a small-caliber pistol on each ankle and two knives hidden on his body. Then he fanned out a stack of fake identification cards. "It was wild," said Zub.

They went on a tour of bars on Shelter Island and strip clubs that ended at dawn.

In the 1970s and 1980s, after-work drinking sessions would either strengthen the bonds among men or mark out the man who could not be a team player. Swimming in alcohol together, for building trust among the SEALs, was once as important as swimming in water together. Drinking wasn't just accepted, it was encouraged. "Alcohol is a truth serum. You've got a problem with somebody, you keep it under your hat. You get drinking, the hat comes off," Zub said. Those drinking sessions would settle disputes and reestablish equilibrium.

In those days, SEALs seemed safest in rough seas and most at risk when the water was small, flat, and cubed. Drinking caused divorces, DUIs, and even deaths.

Now drinking is much more carefully done. Just as attitudes about drinking have changed in American society, so have they shifted among the SEALs. Today a single DUI offense usually leads to dismissal from the SEAL teams. In 2010, Virginia Beach police stopped a new SEAL. The legal blood-alcohol limit was 0.08 at the time. The SEAL, who submitted to a Breathalyzer, was measured at 0.09. He had been in the teams for only a few weeks, and he knew that the ticket would cost him his career. "You don't have to do this," he pleaded. He briefly explained the training and the sacrifice that got him to that point and the fact that he had only two beers in an hour. The cop, as he recalls, was heartless. "Yes, I do." He was exiled from the teams as soon as the officer-in-charge learned of his offense. He spent the rest of his time in the Navy aboard ship and left the service bitterly disappointed.

Once it was a badge of honor to have alcohol stashed in your locker or to sneak a drink on base. Today, even drinking in war zones is forbidden. SEALs still drink—it remains a vital part of their culture—but they do so off duty and off base, and they make sure that their girlfriend or a taxi driver takes them home. Not getting caught is also a key part of the SEAL way.

* * *

SEALs are often treated as the bastard stepchildren of the Navy. Deployed outside the United States, they often grow long, shaggy beards and wander around base in flip-flops and cutoffs. David B. Rutherford, a SEAL Team One combat medic, remembers walking into a chow hall outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2002. A full-bird colonel started shouting at Rutherford and his teammates to shave and wear appropriate desert "digital" camouflage uniforms—or go somewhere else.


On Sale
Feb 25, 2014
Hachette Audio

Scott McEwen

About the Author

Scott McEwen is the author of many books and the co-author of #1 New York Times bestseller American Sniper, which has sold more than one million copies and has been translated into over twenty languages. American Sniper, the movie, starring Bradley Cooper, and directed by Clint Eastwood, was the number one movie in the United States for that year, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning one. McEwen lives in San Diego, California, where he began writing while practicing law.

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Richard Miniter

Richard Miniter

About the Author

Richard Miniter is an award-winning investigative journalist and best-selling author. He was a national security contributor for Forbes.com. He was editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe and was a member of the famed investigative team of The Sunday Times of London. As vice president of The Washington Times, Miniter turned around an ailing division and managed a team of 17 journalists.

He is the author of a number of New York Times bestselling books: Losing bin Laden, Shadow War, Mastermind and Leading From Behind. Miniter has been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, Forbes, New Republic, National Review and others.

He appears regularly on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and hundreds of radio programs.

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