SEAL Team Six, the classified US special operations unit best known for killing Osama bin Laden, has grown into a "global manhunting machine" that often kills civilians and operates with only partial oversight, according to a major new report.
The account by the New York Times said the Navy special forces unit, which officially operates under the cover name Naval Special Warfare Development Group, has grown to more than 300 operators and 1500 back-up personnel.
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The use of the special unit expanded following the US and UK invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 and the subsequent decade of tough, relentless operation against Taliban fighters.
More members of the unit have died over the past 14 years than in all its previous history, the report said.
Between 2006 and 2008, Team Six operators said there were intense periods in which for weeks at a time their unit logged 10 to 15 kills on many nights, and sometimes up to 25.
The accelerated pace caused "guys to become fierce," said a former officer. "These killing fests had become routine."
The newspaper said there had been numerous instances in which SEAL Team Six members had been accused of killing civilians during raids, spawning investigations by Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC.
A number of former members of the unit said they were aware of civilian deaths the team had caused.
"Do I think bad things went on?" one former officer told the newspaper. "Do I think there was more killing than should have been done? Sure."
The unit, probably the US's most mythologised and most secretive military outfits, is also one of the least scrutinised, even as its operations have grown and its coastal headquarters in Virginia has been developed.
Even the military's civilian overseers do not regularly examine the unit's operations, the newspaper said.
"This is an area where Congress notoriously doesn't want to know too much," said Harold Koh, the State Department's former top legal adviser, who provided guidance to the Obama administration on clandestine war.
The report - said to have been long anticipated by the Pentagon - also reveals the involvement of the Naval special forces in the CIA's so-called Omega Programme.
This operation saw the commandos hunt down Taliban fighters with fewer restrictions than other military units, sometimes in "deniable operations" in Pakistan.
The operation had parallels with the Phoenix Programme, a Vietnam-era effort in which Special Operations troops performed interrogations and assassinations, the newspaper reported.
One example of a operation that reportedly led to the death of many civilians was a 2008 operation in Afghanistan's Helmand province in which a Taliban official identified as Objective Pantera was to be killed.
Numerous allegations were made that civilians in the village involved were killed, prompting a SEAL Team Six commander to ask for a JSOC investigation, the newspaper said.
The inquiry cleared the SEALs involved of any wrongdoing in the Pantera operation, but SEALs were sometimes sent home from deployments when concerns about questionable killings were raised, the article added.