An election year battle between liberal and conservative veteran groups over President Barack Obama's national security record has taken a nasty turn, with a prominent pro-Obama group VetPAC raising questions about the service record of Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who is chairman of an anti-Obama group.
“It’s Swift Boat Veterans all over again,” retired colonel Dick Klass, vice-president of VetPAC, told BuzzFeed. “It’s some guys being used, they are trolling for money among the Boone Pickens and Koch Brothers.”
Zinke, who started Special Operations for America PAC last month, is a Montana State Senator. In June, he lost his primary bid to be the state's lieutenant governor.
“We heard some things about this founder,” Klass continued, referring to Zinke. “If a guy has had two combat tours and retired as a lieutenant commander, he did not have a brilliant career.”
Klass, a former Air Force pilot with over 500 combat hours, is referring to claims by former military officials — who declined to be quoted on the record — that Zinke left the Navy SEALs acrimoniously after being accused of improprieties surrounding his travel reports in the late ‘90s.
“There were ethics issues around his travel,” a former Navy SEAL and senior Defense Department official told BuzzFeed. “He was using government travel to visit his home in Montana. He got caught. That’s why he left the SEALs.”
Zinke did not contest the allegation, but suggested that the travel dispute is hardly major a blot on his service record.
"I was younger," he says, referring to his time on SEAL Team Six. "It was a wild team. We trained hard, we ran hard, we were hard."
Zinke explained that he had wanted the SEALs to train in Montana--similar terrain to Afghanistan, he says--leading to what he calls "the incident with the travel claims."
"I was very aggressive wanting to open up opportunities in Montana," he says. "I'm sure I pissed people off along the way."
Zinke said the reason he left the SEALs, though, was because he was getting "very old."
VetPAC is an veteran's group that has traditionally aligned itself with Democratic and progressive candidates.
According to Klass, the "right wing" is trying to exploit the popularity of the Navy SEALs and Special Forces personell.
"They are being used as front men," says Klass. "One is tempted to say 'pimped' for ultra rich conservatives. It’s a very dishonest and dishonorable."
By all public accounts, Zinke, a 23-year SEAL veteran, had a distinguished career.
After leaving the SEALs in 1999, he re-joined after September 11th, where he served overseas. The tours earned him two Bronze stars, according a biography he provided.
His military service helped launch his candidacy as a State Senator in Montana, though he now says he has "no interest in continuing in politics at any level."
He added: "Being a SEAL was much easier than being in politics."
Republican activist Joel Arends, who is also involved in the PAC, blamed the White House for the attacks on Zinke, calling them "a brazenly cowardice (sic) move aimed at silencing the President's critics through false charges and innuendo by nameless and gutless critics who conveniently provide no factual support for their baseless claim."
Zinke’s and his group's high profile attacks on Obama over Bin Laden have touched on what has been a highly sensitive debate within the Special Forces community, made up both current and former operators.
Several current and former SEALs told BuzzFeed in interviews that the high profile activities of some Special Forces operators—including writing op-eds, books, and appearing on television shows—goes against the community’s ethos.
Others see it as their duty to speak up, and truly feel that the disclosures President Obama made after the Bin Laden raid put their work in jeopardy.
And there are those, still involved in missions, who view the entire debate as a distraction.
“Nobody I know in the Teams is even talking about it,” one current SEAL recently confided to BuzzFeed. “I hear former SEALs on the news but the guys I work with just keep moving forward and doing their jobs.”
For his part, Zinke says he now regrets the hyper-partisan tone of his group, and plans to take Special Operations for America in a more "bipartisan" direction.