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.)