At this point the classified existence of SEAL Team Six and its status as an apex counterterrorist force rank among the worst kept secrets in the history of secrets.
The unit first attracted widespread attention in 1993 with the release of Richard Marcinko’s book, Rogue Warrior, which detailed its origin. However, DEVGRU essentially remained hidden in plain sight for the next two decades until its role in Operation Neptune Spear was divulged and a spotlight of unheard-of intensity shone down on its activities.
The United States Navy has long recognized the power of public relations and controlling the message. From Top Gun to Act of Valor, the Navy has consistently managed to effectively showcase its more glamorous missions. Prospective recruits have been given reason to believe that joining the Navy is not only honorable but frankly cooler than signing on the dotted line for the Army, Air Force, or Marine Corps.i
And as such, the Navy was clever in simultaneously concealing and advertising SEAL Team Six’s triumphs. Even with the recent media blitz concerning the unit, there remains a great deal of confusion among the public at large in discerning ST6 from the non-JSOC, “white” SEAL teams. And prior to May 2, 2011, 99.9%+ of the general population had no idea that SEAL Team Six was appreciably different than, for example, SEAL Team Two or SEAL Team Ten.
For years, television documentaries and stories leaked to the press boasted of the remarkable accomplishments of generically-branded “U.S. Navy SEALs.” Doing so proved a recruiting boon but also successfully sidestepped crediting the operations to a classified unit.ii
That was a tactic the Army could not easily replicate, for example, to boost Ranger recruitment with tales of Delta Force exploits.
As a result, the Navy has either won or lost the battle in the press — depending on one’s viewpoint; DEVGRU and Delta have racked up a similarly expansive catalog of achievements since 9/11, but one unit far outstrips the other in terms of press clippings.
Following the killing of Osama bin Laden, the lid has been blown off the unit’s cover, and a keen fascination on the part of the public has only perpetuated continued media attention.
Among a community that prides itself on its secrecy and operational security (OPSEC), the resultant acclaim has been widely considered a dangerous precedent, although exactly how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the additional coverage turns out to be remains to be seen.
On the bright side, additional exposure of special operation forces — and SEAL Team Six in particular — not only drives recruitment but may also serve as a deterrent as potential kidnappers and the like are made aware of America’s SMU’s extraordinary capabilities.
It can also be argued that the American public has a right to be informed — at least in broader terms — regarding the actions of its military, especially those that rank among the most important events of modern times. And there’s the collective boost to national pride that can be provided by acknowledging victories such as bringing Osama bin Laden to justice.iv
And some missions are so sensitive that their very outing could have serious national security implications.
There is also the constant fear that an informed enemy may prove a harder target and potential ambusher if aided by increased knowledge of a unit’s TTPs (techniques, tactics, and procedures).
In some ways, there is no going back; complete secrecy in a world of exponentially expanding social media connections and a 24/7 news cycle is an impossibility. This goes back to the idea of ‘controlling the message,’ but again, it’s debatable whether truth or deception represents the preferred means of guiding it.
Despite its overnight celebrity status, SEAL Team Six remains poorly understood. A Google search will show that there exists a sizable population of individuals who believe SEAL Team Six is/was one small group of men — essentially a single troop.
Many of these people also believe that the entirety of SEAL Team Six — the team that got bin Laden in Abbottabad — was wiped out in the Extortion 17 crash (even though the incidents involved different squadrons).vi On the positive side, jihadists were discouraged from seeking revenge on a group they believed to no longer exist. Less appealing are the crackpot conspiracy theoristsvii fueled by that belief who virtually shout that ST6 was executed by its own nation’s government as some sort of cover-up related to the “actual” fate of bin Laden.viii
USSOCOM commander Adm. William McRaven — himself an author who was initially inspired to pursue a career in special operations by the John Wayne feature film The Green Berets — accepts the inevitable and has advocated at least some degree of increased transparency by special operations forces.ix
However, even McRaven has been pushed far beyond his more generous limits by some of the more egregious examples, most notably No Easy Day, the recently released account of Operation Neptune Spear written by the pseudonymous ‘Mark Owen,’ an ex-Red Squadron DEVGRU operator who participated in the mission.
In response, McRaven issued a tersely written memo reminding the community of their nondisclosure agreements. He threatened that, in the case of violations, USSOCOM “will pursue every option available to hold members accountable, including criminal prosecution where appropriate.”x
It’s a tricky situation that is unlikely to be answered definitively one way or the other anytime soon. But either way, there is no end to ST6-mania in sight. DEVGRU-centric films are in the works by Hollywood heavyweights such as Oscar winners Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty, which tells the story of the hunt for bin Laden) and Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips, which concerns the merchant marine’s rescue from Somali pirates). Even Steven Spielberg was rumored to have been interested, at least initially, in pursuing the movie rights to No Easy Day.
It remains to be seen if the runaway success of No Easy Day opens the floodgates for further memoirs from post-9/11 JSOC SMU operators. But even if it doesn’t, investigative journalists such as Mark Bowden and Sean Naylor are busily preparing new titles that promise to shed even more light on the units’ activities.
Even the realm of video games has not escaped the OPSEC question completely.xiii The Medal of Honor series boasts a number of authentic details previously unseen in the medium,xiv which is due in large part to the active consultation of a sizable collection of former DEVGRU and Delta Force operators.xv
Taking the Show on the Road
Red Squadron’s foray into Pakistan to eliminate bin Laden and the rescue operations that took aim at Somali pirates were not isolated incidents so much as a glimpse of what has taken place in the shadows away from the more visible war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now fully living up to the worldwide mandate upon which it was founded, SEAL Team Six will likely increasingly operate on a global scale going forward. Attention has long since shifted away from Iraq, and the Afghanistan campaign has recently been reorganized in a couple of important respects: Afghan commando kandaks have taken on more and more responsibility for conducting raids in their home country,xvii and the efforts of Tier 1 units have been stymiedxviii by heightened operational restrictions.xix
In order to increase its reach, JSOC has invested heavily in the development of an offensively-minded counterpart to the civilian National Counterterrorism Center. Massively-networked cloud computing allows JSOC to rapidly process and exploit new intelligence, and in turn, strike at terrorists through the use of armed drones or targeted special operations raids anywhere on the planet with little advance notice.xx
Depending on the needs of the nation and the specifics of its most highly-sensitive activities, DEVGRU operates interchangeably under Title 10, which applies to military force, and, when “on loan” to the CIA, under Title 50, which governs covert intelligence activities.xxi
The shackles have been loosened dramatically if not stripped altogether since 9/11. The AQN ExOrd (al-Qaeda Network Execute Order), first signed by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2004, set the conditions for DEVGRU and Delta Force to undertake action against al-Qaeda in some 15-20 different nations.xxii
That authorization has since been expanded upon, including through a secret directive signed by Gen. David Petraeus in 2010 with the explicit goal to “penetrate, disrupt, defeat, or destroy” terrorist networks throughout the Middle East.xxiii
While increasing in frequency, this is not an especially new development. Prior to the bin Laden raid, DEVGRU had reportedly “surreptitiously entered (Pakistan) on ten to twelve previous occasions.”xxiv
In September 2008, SEAL Team Six conducted a cross-border operation in the village of Angoor Ada in South Waziristan, much to the consternation of the Pakistani government.
The pre-dawn heliborne raid, which targeted the Haqqani network, saw one chopper watch down from overhead as two others unloaded a ST6 strike force at the target location. The operators reportedly proceeded to kill between one and two dozen individuals while detaining others in what U.S. officials subsequently deemed a “successful operation.”
As a result of Pakistan’s protests, cross-border raids were halted for a time following the Angoor Ada operation.xxvi Earlier in the GWOT, during a period from 2002 to early 2003, ST6 had operated inside the tribal areas of Pakistan with the host nation’s consent.xxvii
In 2009, 160th SOAR and DEVGRU operators successfully erased the threat presented by Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, one of the three leading al-Qaeda figures active in Somalia.
In Operation Celestial Balance, a group of AH-6 and MH-6 Little Birds set off for the coast of Somalia from a U.S. Navy vessel in the Indian Ocean. xxviii The Night Stalkers intercepted the two-vehicle convoy of Nabhan — one of four co-conspirators wanted in connection with the ’02 Mombosa attacks — where the group had stopped to eat breakfast, near the al-Shabaab-controlled town of Barawe.xxix
The helicopters fired on the terrorists in one pass and then circled back so that ST6 operators could dismount from the outboard benches of an MH-6 to confirm the kill and retrieve the remains of Nabhan and three others.xxx
The attack was reportedly the sixth in a “series of U.S. assassinations of al-Qaeda operatives in (Somalia)” that took place in a timeframe of less than three years.xxxi A number of those kills came when JSOC operators repeatedly crossed into Somalia from Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, to hunt senior AQ figures.xxxii
Meanwhile, attention continues to shift to the Americasxxxvi as concerns build regarding the growing links connecting global criminal and terrorist organizations.xxxvii Most recently, (controversial) reports have surfaced claiming that the Pentagon has put Mexican drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, the head of the ruthless and enormously powerful Sinaloa Cartel, in the sights of SEAL Team Six.xxxviii
Operating as a global hit team has required an unprecedented intermeshing of the capabilities of JSOC and the CIA, formerly bitter rivals that engaged in regular turf wars as JSOC found its footing.xxxix
However, today the cooperation is so great and so routine that the lines have been blurred almost completely.xl DEVGRU has become a de facto operational asset of the CIA to the degree that it is has been called “the CIA’s Praetorian Guard” in reference to the select force of warriors who were charged with the defense of Roman emperors.xli
All of this almost certainly represents just a scant percentage of the vast operational history that has been SEAL Team Six’s post-9/11 reality. Even the little that is known makes clear that a random month or even week of modern-day DEVGRU operations would have literally defined any number of highly-regarded CT units prior to September 11, 2001 (and even into today in many examples).
However, frequently a single mission is held up as a unit’s signature, sometimes even decades after the fact. For the British SAS that signature is the Iranian Embassy siege and for the Israeli Sayeret Matkal it is Entebbe.
Likewise, SEAL Team Six’s reputation has been forever cemented by their decisive role in Operation Neptune Spear, and it’s unlikely any SOF unit will boast a more obvious hallmark in the foreseeable future.
However, it’s better thought of as not just a single victory — and quite frankly, a relatively easy one for ST6 — but rather the culmination of thousands upon thousands of operations that helped shape the unit into a force for which the job of neutralizing Osama bin Laden was a tactically routine assignment.
And Operation Neptune Spear doesn’t come close to representing an ending to this story either. While the death of bin Laden may serve as a natural bookend to the attacks of 9/11, the operators inside the Abbottabad compound continued to work in a diligent manner even after the killing was done, collecting troves of intelligence materials that fueled a raft of follow-up operations.xlii
ST6 is the once-rogue organization that grew into a collection of lethally proficient professionals. While retaining its outlaw roots, that rough edge is now wielded expertly through an effective combination of leadership, discipline, talent, and dedication.
The unit is no longer simply a cog in a dusty contingency plan that rehearses the act of saving lives and eliminating terrorist threats more often than it actually performs those duties. Rather, it now stands on the vanguard of American foreign policy in a dangerous time — an instrument of choice called upon to protect the nation’s interests and its people’s freedoms on a daily basis.
Stepping up beyond any reasonable expectation when finally unleashed, DEVGRU has made the post-9/11 world its own.
i Rafer Guzman, “Review: ‘Act of Valor’ has better action than acting,” Newsday (February 24, 2012), http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/movies/review-act-of-valor-has-better-action-than-acting-1.3554382.
ii “Captain freed after snipers kill Somali pirates,” NBC News (April 13, 2009), http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30178013/ns/world_news-africa/t/captain-freed-after-snipers-kill-somali-pirates/#.UEYuXJbsYTA.
iii Jack Murphy, “SEAL Team Six Throws OPSEC to the Wind, Next Time Use Delta Force or Rangers,” SOFREP (August 24, 2012), http://sofrep.com/10674/seal-team-six-and-the-white-house-throw-opsec-to-the-wind/.
iv Dalton Fury, “No Easy Day: From One Who Has Been There,” Command Posts (September 3, 2012), http://www.commandposts.com/2012/09/no-easy-day-from-one-who-has-been-there/.
v Mike Brunker and Jim Miklaszewski, “Al-Qaida linked websites threaten ex-Navy SEAL turned author with ‘destruction,” NBC News (August 24, 2012), http://openchannel.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/08/24/13458745-al-qaida-linked-websites-threaten-ex-navy-seal-turned-author-with-destruction?lite.
vi “Seal Team 6 was killed in a copter crash?” Yahoo! Answers, http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110806210409AAdIMrv.
vii Finian Cunningham, “Dead Men Don’t Talk: US Navy Seals Destroyed To Cover Up Washington’s Bin Laden Execution Hoax?” (August 7, 2011), http://12160.info/forum/topics/dead-men-don-t-talk-us-navy-seals-destroyed-to-cover-up.
viii Ann Barnhardt, “Were Seal Team Six Members Executed?” (August 6, 2011), http://beforeitsnews.com/obama-birthplace-controversy/2011/08/were-seal-team-six-members-executed-920139.html.
ix Huma Khan and Luis Martinez, “Navy SEAL Commander Advised to ‘Get the Hell Out of the Media,” ABC News (February 7, 2012), http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/navy-seal-commander-advised-to-get-the-hell-out-of-the-media/.
x “U.S. Special Operations Commander Cautions Against Expoliting ‘Celebrity’ Status,” The New York Times (August 24, 2012), http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/u-s-special-operations-commander-cautions-against-exploiting-celebrity-status/.
xi Nellie Andreeva, “Navy SEALs Drama From TV Lands At ABC With Put Pilot Commitment” Deadline.com (August 17, 2011), http://www.deadline.com/2011/08/navy-seals-drama-from-bruckheimer-tv-lands-at-abc-with-put-pilot-commitment/.
xii Dion Nissenbaum and Siobhan Gorman, “Navy SEAL Memoir Exploits Market,” The Wall Street Journal (August 31, 2012), http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444772804577623833060964576.html.
xiii Marc Ambinder, “The Story Behind ‘Medal of Honor,” The Atlantic (October 13, 2010), http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/10/the-story-behind-medal-of-honor/64441/.
xiv Alex Pham, “‘Medal of Honor Warfighter’ enters dangerous territory,” The Los Angeles Times (September 19, 2012), http://herocomplex.latimes.com/2012/09/19/medal-of-honor-warfighter-could-seem-too-realistic/.
xv Alex Pham, “Bin Laden raider is ‘Medal of Honor: Warfighter’ consultant,” The Los Angeles Times (August 23, 2012), http://herocomplex.latimes.com/2012/08/23/bin-laden-assassin-is-medal-of-honor-warfighter-consultant/.
xvi Bradon Webb, “Are Navy SEALs Becoming Political Pawns?” SOFREP (August 21, 2012), http://sofrep.com/10565/are-navy-seals-becoming-political-pawns-opsec/.
xvii Carlo Munoz, “New joint special ops command won’t assume control of Afghan commandos,” DEFCON Hill (August 21, 2012), http://thehill.com/blogs/defcon-hill/operations/244621-new-joint-special-ops-command-wont-assume-control-of-afghan-commandos.
xviii Spencer Ackerman, “Actually, Special-Ops ‘Night Raids’ Are Rather Gentle,” Danger Room (June 28, 2011), http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/06/actually-special-ops-night-raids-are-rather-gentle/.
xx Kimberly Dozier, “Building a network to hit militants,” Associated Press (January 3, 2011), http://www.newsvine.com/_news/2011/01/03/5758784-ap-exclusive-building-a-network-to-hit-militants.
Robert Chesney, “Military-Intelligence Convergence and the Law of the Title 10/Title 50 Debate,” Journal Of National Security Law & Policy (February 9, 2012), http://www.jnslp.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Military-Intelligence-Convergence-and-the-Law-of-the-Title-10Title-50-Debate.pdf.
xxiii Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. Is Said to Expand Secret Actions in Mideast,” The New York Times (May 24, 2010), http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/world/25military.html?_r=1.
xxv Jonathan Karl, Nick Schifrin, Kirit Radia, and Luis Martinez, “U.S. Conducts First Raid on Terrorists in Pakistan,” ABC News (September 3, 2008), http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=5718172&page=1#.UEY2WJbsYTB.
xxvi Sean D. Naylor, “Spec Ops Raids Into Pakistan Halted,” Army Times (September 28, 2008), http://www.armytimes.com/news/2008/09/Army_border_ops_092608w/.
xxvii Mazzetti and Rohde, “Amid U.S. Policy Disputes, Qaeda Grows in Pakistan,” The New York Times (June 30, 2008), http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/30/washington/30tribal.html?pagewanted=all.
xxviii Bill Roggio, “Commando raid in Somalia is latest in covert operations across the globe,” The Long War Journal (September 15, 2009), http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2009/09/commando_raid_in_som.php.
xxix Sean D. Naylor, “Successful manhunt,” Navy Times (November 25, 2011), http://www.navytimes.com/news/2011/11/army-secret-war-africa-112511/.
xxx Justin Fishel, “Navy Seals Kill Wanted Terroist in Somali Raid,” FOXWIRE (September 14, 2009), http://www.foxnews.com/world/2009/09/14/foxwirenavy-seals-kill-wanted-terrorist-somali-raid/.
xxxi Alex Perry, “Striking al-Qaeda in a Terrorist Breeding Ground,” Time (September 15, 2009), http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1923169,00.html.
xxxiii Jeremy Scahill, “The CIA’s Secret Sites In Somalia,” The Nation (July 12, 2011), http://www.thenation.com/article/161936/cias-secret-sites-somalia?page=full.
xxxv Jeremy Scahill, “Obama’s Expanding Covert Wars,” The Nation (June 4, 2010), http://www.thenation.com/blog/obamas-expanding-covert-wars.
xxxvii Carlo Munoz, “Defense Department seeks new authorities for counterterrorism fight,” DEFCON Hill (March 3, 2012), http://thehill.com/blogs/defcon-hill/operations/219343-defense-dept-seeks-new-authorities-for-counterterrorism-fight.
xxxviii Jorge Carrasco Araizaga and J. Jesus Esquivel Proceso, “The Pentagon Mission: to Catch El Chapo… or to Kill Him,” Borderland Beat (August 12, 2012), http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2012/08/the-pentagon-mission-to-catch-el-chapo.html.
xl Marc Ambinder, “The Secret Team That Killed Osama bin Laden,” The Atlantic (May 2, 2011), http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/05/the-secret-team-that-killed-osama-bin-laden/238163/.
xli Kimberly Dozier, “Fabled SEAL Team 6 ends hunt for bin Laden,” Associated Press (May 2, 2011), http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2014937057_apusbinladenseals.html.