Before the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound earlier this week, President Obama had experience monitoring a white-knuckles counterterrorism operation. In the early morning hours of April 12, 2009, less than three months after the president took office, Somali pirates were holding an American merchant-marine captain captive.
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Three Navy SEALS had three pirates in the sights of their long-barreled Barrett BMG rifles. A SEAL platoon leader stood on the deck of the USS Bainbridge, on patrol in the Indian Ocean off Somalia, directing the operation as Obama listened in. The president had already given them the authorization to shoot if the life of the hostage was in danger.
Moments later, the SEAL snipers snapped their triggers, and the hostage situation was over.
Buried in a White House press release after the operation was a congratulations to Vice Adm. William McRaven, the commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. That meant the sailors belonged to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, DevGru, popularly known as SEAL Team Six. JSOC is supposed to operate in the shadows, but presidents can’t resist praising it. President George W. Bush had thanked Gen. Stanley McChrystal for commanding JSOC when it captured Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, a captain in al-Qaida. (“JSOC is awesome,” is how Bush put it in a 2008 interview with journalist Bob Woodward.)
JSOC was intimately involved in the killing of bin Laden, and the operations command remains one of the most formidable and least-understood elements in America’s military arsenal. The story of how JSOC works is essential to understanding not only how the world’s most-wanted terrorist ended up dead but also how this president and future presidents are likely to wage war.
Created in 1980 after the disastrous hostage-rescue mission in Iran, JSOC is part of the U.S. Special Operations Command that oversees the various special-operations commands of the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy. Over the past 10 years, JSOC units have been essential to U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. JSOC has fought a silent but successful proxy war against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—even, National Journal has learned, engaging directly with its soldiers in at least three countries. It has broken up nuclear-proliferation rings. JSOC has developed contingency plans to safeguard Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the event of a coup in that nation. Its intelligence unit helps Colombian commandos dismantle lucrative drug rings that finance Hezbollah operations around the world. It has provided intelligence that has helped to break up domestic terrorism rings. Operating in tandem with other special forces and regular military battalions, JSOC eviscerated al-Qaida’s network in Iraq. It is nothing less than a secret army within the U.S. military.
Presidents have a special relationship, legally and personally, with the country’s elite special-missions units. In secret annexes to several presidential directives, JSOC is designated as the official executive agent for counterterrorism worldwide. It nominally reports to the Defense secretary, but the president can task it directly and often does. Presidents get to know the majors and colonels who command Delta Force units and the captains who lead the SEAL platoons.
After that 2009 incident with Somali pirates—Obama’s first “3 a.m. moment,” to use the famed words of a Hillary Rodham Clinton attack ad in the 2008 presidential primaries—a relationship flourished between the young president who had never worn the uniform and this most elite of forces. Obama invited McRaven to most of his planning meetings on the Afghanistan war. The two men became chummy, according to people who know them. McRaven is a cerebral warrior, himself a DevGru SEAL and the author of a textbook on special operations. During the Bush administration, he commanded a JSOC task force and later wrote counterterrorism policy at the National Security Council.
Just months after the Somalia episode, the White House authorized a large expansion of clandestine military and intelligence operations worldwide, sanctioning activities in more than a dozen countries. Obama gave JSOC unprecedented authority to track and kill terrorists, to “mow the lawn,” as one former top JSOC commander told me; in turn, JSOC would keep al-Qaida from regenerating the networks and branches needed to mount large-scale attacks against the U.S homeland.
In this sense, Obama was expanding a Bush policy, not overturning it. Bush had given JSOC plenty of latitude, essentially by telling military leaders to do what they needed to do as long as it was within the law. Bush, through Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, had a close relationship with McChrystal, the commander of JSOC from 2003 to 2008. (McChrystal would, of course, be relieved of command of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan after aides allegedly mouthed off about Obama to a Rolling Stone reporter.)
It is extraordinarily difficult to figure out what JSOC is doing. Its missions are classified, and Congress applies only a light layer of oversight because legally, in wartime, JSOC’s covert activities are not subject to congressional notification, unlike even the CIA’s most sensitive operations. The Bush and Obama administrations have interpreted the law expansively, believing that the congressional resolution authorizing military force against al-Qaida provides the legal framework for almost anything presidents want JSOC to do. Many JSOC missions fall under the purview of U.S. Central Command, whose former commander, Gen. David Petraeus, signed a secret directive—the Al Qaida Network Exord—that increased the operational tempo of covert military action in several countries, including Yemen and Somalia.
“On the Spear Point”
To understand how JSOC grew and expanded its purview, go back to 2003. The U.S. was bogged down in Afghanistan, and battlefield commanders were demanding better tactical intelligence, complaining that the “blinks”—the time lag between “information and access”—were too long. Rumsfeld helped to lay the foundation for a transformation. He saw to it that special-operations forces received enormous budget increases, and he raised JSOC’s stature within the Pentagon by giving it more flexibility to prioritize its mission and designating it as the executive agent for counterterrorism. “We elevated them and put them on the spear point,” Rumsfeld said in an interview.
JSOC’s warriors inverted the way that asymmetric warfare is fought by becoming a little bit like crime-scene investigators. Using techniques as simple as basic forensics and as advanced as Radio Frequency Identification chip technology that remains highly classified, JSOC forces sought to move faster than the enemy and to get inside the decision loop of terrorists and insurgents.
JSOC brought intelligence analysts to the battlefield and created fusion centers so that evidence that might help identify terrorist plots could be processed as soon as it was found, rather than languishing in an FBI lab back in the States. The operators were in the same room with the intelligence analysts. JSOC “borrowed” surveillance and reconnaissance assets from the rest of the military, becoming its own hotbed of intelligence analysis. The operational tempo increased significantly. The time between the flash and the bang seemed to become as short as that between lightning and thunder. You raided a house, you found evidence, you processed it, and you were on to the next battle, quickly and efficiently.
Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. It took three years to hone JSOC’s crime-scene techniques. McChrystal’s exacting and iconoclastic intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, has complained that the rest of the intelligence establishment was slow to catch on. Flynn will soon take a position at the office of the Director of National Intelligence where he can spread his techniques and theories throughout the intelligence community.
The two dozen Navy SEALs who stormed into Osama bin Laden’s compound last Monday (Pakistan time) benefited from the revolution in military intelligence that their parent command fostered. Before they hit bin Laden, they were responsible for dozens of high-value-target kills in Afghanistan. When Rumsfeld ramped up the special operations and Special Forces troops in the Middle East, JSOC divided the duties of its two major combat elements, the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six. Delta would get Iraq; the SEALs would get Afghanistan. Occasionally they mixed; the SEALs nabbed some high value targets in Iraq, and Delta tracked down Iranian arms merchants in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the SEAL-led task forces operated quietly and independently under a separate and still secret presidential directive. They tried to stay clear of the CIA, which was given authority to conduct covert operations in a formal finding that Obama signed soon after taking office.
For the bin Laden mission, the president needed a legal foundation that would withstand congressional scrutiny if something went wrong. So once he decided on an option that would use commandos, Obama attached (“op-conned”) the JSOC task force to the CIA, permitting it to operate under the agency’s covert authority.
There was poetry in this decision: Langley had developed the intelligence that pinpointed bin Laden’s location. On Friday, April 29, Tom Donilon, Obama’s national-security adviser, sent a one-page memo to CIA Director Leon Panetta that authorized the CIA, with assistance and support from the Defense Department, to assault the compound believed to be bin Laden’s hideout.
The White House made clear to JSOC that it strongly preferred to have bin Laden killed, rather than captured, because the administration had no good idea where to put him. Still, just in case bin Laden successfully surrendered, a contingency plan was created for taking custody of him. It involved flying bin Laden to a U.S. aircraft carrier in international waters, with decisions to be made later on where to take him after that. The half-formulated plan, of course, never had to be used.
After Panetta received the document from Donilon, he telephoned McRaven on a secure line. “It’s a go,” Panetta said. CIA had the control. JSOC was the tip of the spear.
The formal name for the shooting tactic is “controlled pairs.” But among commandos, it’s called a double tap: “Boom, boom.” A shot to the head, and a shot to the chest. It’s the audio signature of the four SEAL squadrons belonging to JSOC. “Boom, boom. Door down.” Pause. “Boom, boom”—the last burst of noise that bin Laden’s brain would ever process.
The SEALs who entered his compound were veterans of these types of operations. Some were in their early 40s, wizened by the standards of combat soldiers. National Journal has learned that they had rehearsed the takedown in San Diego and North Carolina as well as in Afghanistan. Before the mission, they were segregated from other members of their unit, the Tactical Development and Evaluation Squadron RED, and given a final intelligence briefing.
Best-case scenario: They would be in and out in 30 minutes. The SEALs had operated in Pakistan before and knew how quickly the Pakistani air-defense system could kick in. As the mission began, one of the helicopters, an MH-60L, built in the 1980s but equipped with radar-jamming capability, landed too hard and had to be disabled. That added a few minutes to the operation, causing anxious moments in the White House Situation Room, said one official who was there. “All of our blood pressures spiked, especially when we saw the helicopter go down. But McRaven’s was the only one whose blood pressure went down. He told us, ‘Don’t worry, folks, we’ve got a plan for this.’ ” A number of unarmed people in the compound were momentarily detained; three other men, one woman, and bin Laden were killed.
Having cleared the compound, an intelligence-exploitation team was given five minutes to grab everything it could and stuff the equipment and records in canvas bags. About 40 minutes after the operation began, the SEALs and intelligence operatives were airborne, ascending from the high-altitude town of Abbottabad, with the platoon leader having uttered the victory phrase—“Geronimo.” America’s most intense manhunt was over, and the days of JSOC operating in obscurity were over, too. Mission accomplished, Obama convened a secure video conference with JSOC and personally thanked McRaven.
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This article appears in the May 7, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.