The operation that killed Osama Bin Laden was carried out by an elite unit of the Navy SEALs and it is highly unlikely that we will ever learn the names of those who entered the compound, much less the SEAL who pulled the trigger twice to shoot Bin Laden dead. But we do know quite a bit about the man who designed and supervised the operation, Vice Admiral William H. McRaven.
While the CIA was responsible for tracking Bin Laden to the Abbottabad, Pakistan neighborhood where he had been hiding for years, once President Obama decided to launch the raid, Leon Panetta, the CIA Chief, turned the operation over to McRaven, a formed SEAL himself, who was positioned at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan for the raid.
McRaven has long been something of a star in the Special Operations community, having supervised the raids in Iraq that yielded Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein himself. But the responsibility for Operation Geronimo fell to him because he is presently the commander of JSOC, the highly secret Joint Special Operations Command that I outlined in my last post. It represents part of the restructuring of the service commands that occurred with the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. While the other operational commands are familiar and public, JSOC is not, and unlike the others, JSOC reports directly to the president and is subject to classified presidential directives revealed to no one but the president, a handful of executive branch officials, and the JSOC commander. Not even the regional combatant commanders are aware of the operations of JSOC, leading sometimes to resentment. Furthermore, most JSOC operations are undertaken in secret and remain secret even after the fact. When JSOC operatives die, for instance, their names are released by the Defense Department but with a cover story referring to a training accident, say, in eastern Afghanistan, or some other explanation.
In addition to the SEALs, JSOC commands the Army’s DELTA force, but this operation belonged exclusively to the SEALs. The SEALs have ten teams, divided into teams 1 through 5 and 7 through 10. Then there is Seal Team 6, the elite of the elite, the team that was chosen for the Bin Laden raid.
McRaven’s first career choice was journalism. At least, that was his major when he graduated from University of Texas, in Austin, in 1977. A San Antonio native, he continued to demonstrate a love for the written word, having authored “Special Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare,” a book that focuses mostly on episodes from World War II, though he does include an analysis of the famed Israeli hostage rescue in Entebbe, Uganda (1976), and the U.S. Army raid on the Son Tay, Vietnam POW camp (1970). How ironic that an author analyzing some of the most dramatic special operations in history would himself later lead what may be the most dramatic of all. In the book, McRaven cited Son Tay, in which 56 commados raided the North Vietnam camp and rescued 80 prisoners, as “the best modern example of a successful spec op, one that should be considered textbook material for future missions.” One wonders what he learned from this that was applied last Sunday.
Still, there are some constitutional questions presented by the raid or, more precisely, by the command structure within which McRaven was operating. Goldwater-Nichols set up an organizational command structure that goes from the President to the Secretary of Defense through the Joint Chiefs of Staff and finally to the combatant commanders. But since JSOC operates differently within this structure, it has been increasingly used as a means of intense civilian control of military operations, particularly since the advent of the so-called Global War on Terror. Starting with the George W. Bush administration, and owing in part to the intelligence-heavy nature of the terror-fighting mission, JSOC became, in the minds of many critics, an opportunity for the president to conduct military operations independent of career military input. While this operation, which combined CIA and Special Ops in a joint undertaking, was clearly known to the Joint Chiefs chairman and the Secretary of Defense as well as the Secretary of State, it was likely that the various regional combatant commanders did not know of it.
For McRaven, the success of Operation Geronimo will no doubt be a career-booster, but in fact he had already been scheduled for a promotion to full Admiral.