By Jonathan Ellis, USA TODAY
A new super PAC that includes retired special operations personnel and other veterans announced plans Wednesday to raise money to run ads in swing states against President Obama.
The group, Special Operations for America, filed paperwork Monday with the Federal Election Commission. It is headed by retired Navy SEAL Commander Ryan Zinke. During his 23-year career, Zinke spent time in the Navy's elite SEAL Team 6, the same team that killed Osama bin Laden in a commando raid last year.
Zinke said he and other members of the special operations community are outraged that SEAL Team 6 was identified as the commando unit that carried out the raid, saying it put its members and their families at risk. Zinke said he believes the president has politicized his role as commander in chief to win re-election.
"Who was it at risk?" he said. "Was it the president? Or was it the young SEAL with the wife and kid at home? That's the arrogance."
Zinke, a Republican state senator from Montana, said the group also objects to deep military cuts and increases in health care costs to veterans. While he agreed there's room for cuts in military spending, he said the $1.1 trillion in cuts over 10 years that could start at the end of the year are too deep.
Officials with the group claim membership is in the "hundreds" and growing, although there is no way to confirm the number. And while spokesman Scott Hommel said the group is in negotiations with donors and is aiming for a budget of $10 million, records indicate it currently has assets of only $60.
Special Operations for America is registered as a 527 group, and it can take unlimited amounts of money from contributors. Whatever money the organization eventually raises, Hommel said, would be used to air ads in swing states targeted on veterans issues.
Rob Diamond, the national veterans and military families vote director for the Obama campaign, said the president "has their backs" when it comes to veterans and military families, and the president's record is a "stark contrast" to Mitt Romney's. He said Romney has refused to outline plans for veterans, has suggested that health services provided by Veterans Affairs be privatized and has failed to put forth a specific jobs proposal to get veterans back to work.
"Even worse, his reckless and naïve statements about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show that he would prefer our servicemen and women remain overseas, indefinitely fighting in wars he has no strategy to lead and no plan to end," Diamond said in a statement.
But Benjamin Smith, who spent six years as a SEAL, said he is upset by the level of detail that emerged about the bin Laden operation. Special operations personnel have a mystique that depends on secrecy, and details about the use of stealth helicopters and other information that leaked about the operation run counter to the way they conduct themselves.
"That right there to any operator is blasphemy," said Smith, 36, of Wilmington, N.C. "It's insulting. It made me sick to my stomach."
Not all members of the new super PAC are veterans, Zinke said. Members are "people who have been successful on the battlefield or in business." Its board includes former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana and former Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, and it has ties to the conservative groups Stand Up for America and Veterans for a Strong America.
"It's a good group of guys, and they're going to come out swinging," said Joel Arends, an Iraq Army veteran and chairman of Veterans for a Strong America.
But Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics said there's debate over how much influence these types of groups have in presidential elections.
Sabato thinks macro issues drive presidential elections, issues such as the economy, war and peace and scandals. In this election, the campaigns for Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney have been competently run so far, he said.
Still, polls generally give Romney an edge with veterans, he said, and such groups can have an effect on the margins. But they aren't the deciding forces.
"I don't think it will be one of the things we'll cite after the election's over," he said.
Contributing: Ellis also reports for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.