“It Is What We Do”
But the path to that moment was extensive, fraught with setbacks, and required that a litany of seemingly impossible problems be solved along the way.ii
In early 1996, for the first time in CIA history, a ‘station’ was opened with the sole intent of tracking a single individual.iii
That pursuit ratcheted up exponentially following September 11, 2001. The Agency pulled out all the stops in the hunt, employing unprecedented — even brutal — methods in its quest, so long as those methods provided even the slightest possibility of delivering results.iv Sophisticated new techniques were developed while proven-but-discarded ones were dusted off and put back into use.v
The CIA’s activities were complemented by those of the larger intelligence community. The NSA flirted with the boundaries of science fiction with ever-escalating electronic surveillance capabilities as the FBI redefined the meaning of “the long arm of the law.” In addition, a dozen other entities proved their increased relevance time after time.
Low orbiting spy satellites and the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone — the so-called “Beast of Kandahar” that had been little more than a bat-shaped rumor not long before — tirelessly peered down on the suspected safe house.vi The National Geospatial Agency analyzed the incoming data in an effort to determine if ‘HVT-1’ was truly on site.vii
Civilian and military leadership overcame the paralyzing tendency toward risk aversion despite knowing full well what a mission failure could mean for the nation — and their careers. After months of study, rehearsal, and deliberation, the green light was finally given to a bold operation that would covertly send American forces deep into the sovereign territory of a nominal ally with the intent of neutralizing bin Laden.viii
To pull it off, the bleeding-edge Sentinel drone glided silently above as the operation unfolded, transmitting real-time video that was sent via satellite to the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), who oversaw the mission from the Jalalabad staging base just on the Afghanistan side of the border. The live feed was also beamed to the Situation Room at the White House in Washington, DC, and a makeshift command center at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, VA.ix The versatile Sentinel also simultaneously jammed Pakistan’s air defense systems to mask the heliborne infiltration and monitored Pakistani communications in order to provide early warning in the event of detection.x
Further ensuring the element of surprise was the utilization of specially modified MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. The secrecy of the ‘Stealth Hawks’ had been so well maintained that their very existence even came as a shock to many of those hailing from the shadowy world of special operations.xi
Manning their controls were vastly experienced aviators of the legendary 160th Special Operations Air Regiment (Airborne). Vision enhanced by the latest night vision technologies, the Night Stalkers remained undetected on their approach as they flew inch-perfect routes through valleys, brushing the tops of trees on a moonless night.xii
One of the 160th SOAR pilots further demonstrated his prowess, narrowly avoiding disaster when faced with a potentially fatal situation: a rapid loss of altitude brought about by the unique combination of altitude, temperature, and high concrete walls surrounding the compound. While forced to sacrifice the top-secret chopper by intentionally sticking its nose into the dirt, by doing so he ensured that his cargo — highly-trained warfighters — remained mission capable.xiii
At each successive step, capabilities were pushed beyond their previously established limits in order to accomplish a single goal.
But for the two dozen or so operators from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group who unloaded from the helicopters, set foot on bin Laden’s property, broke down his doors, invaded his home, and ended his existence with calculated precision, it was just another night on the job.
While allowing that the stakes were elevated due to the target, it is no exaggeration to describe the takedown as tactically routine — even easy — for the raiders. The steely-eyed professionals possess skills that had been honed to near-perfection, each having conducted hundreds of similar operations in the decade-long run-up to this objective.
Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, the man who tasked the unit and oversaw the mission’s planning and execution, had seen it play out many times before.
Noting that Operation Neptune Spear was but one of a dozen or so similar raids performed by the clandestine warriors of JSOC that evening alone, McRaven stated matter-of-factly, “…It is what we do. We get on helicopters, we go to objectives, we secure the objectives, we get back on helicopters, and we come home.”xiv
The debacle of Operation Eagle Claw — the failed rescue attempt of more than 50 Americans held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1980 — was a hard lesson for the nation but a lesson learned.xv
From the ashes of that failure emerged the Joint Special Operations Command, and with it, the formation of a Naval complement to the Army’s Delta Force dubbed ‘SEAL Team Six.’
Delta’s founder and first commander, Charlie Beckwith, saw the need for SEAL components that could be attached to Delta. A SEAL officer by the name of Dick Marcinko took the idea and ran with it. He expanded upon the concept and successfully campaigned for the formation of a full-time Navy counterterrorism command.xvi
Marcinko largely grew ST6 out of a preexisting East Coast SEAL intercept/CT initiative known as Mobility 6 (or MOB-6).xvii He worked overtime to get the new unit up and running with just six months allotted to stand it up and be declared mission-ready.xviii
While notionally intended to fill a capability void in maritime counterterrorism (saving hostages aboard hijacked cruise ships, taking down oil rigs, and the like), Marcinko envisioned SEAL Team Six as an alternative as much as a complement to Delta Force (“…so long as we carried water in our canteens, we’d be in a maritime environment — or close enough for me…”).xix
To his supporters (of which there were many), Marcinko was a visionary. An innovative outside-the-box thinker, ‘Demo Dick’ was not afraid to ruffle feathers to get the job done. He was also fiercely protective of his men, garnering him considerable loyalty by many within Six. It didn’t hurt that he had been blessed with rare determination and charisma, not to mention a pragmatic approach not often seen inside the bureaucratic confines of the military.xx
Marcinko took what others may have considered disadvantages and spun them as inherent strengths. So what if Delta had more operators, a substantially larger support network, and a stricter, more scientific training regimen? To him, that just meant ST6 was leaner and meaner, less cumbersome (and Delta was as “cumbersome as a bloody elephant”xxi), and better prepared for the fluidity and chaos of real-world assignments.
The hard-charging Marcinko readily admitted that his unit broke the rules and did so gladly. As he pointed out, the rules were never designed to govern such a unique command — one on a constant war footing and with a global area of operations, which required hyper-specialized skills and an ability to blend in no matter which dark and gritty corner of the world its men were sent to operate.xxii
For every questionable procurement, exercise, or action, Marcinko was quick with an expletive-laced explanation. He claimed that every bit of it was mission critical, from the mammoth ordinance budget down to the team’s mandatory nightly drinking sessions (they built “unit integrity”).xxiii
Anyway, he said, whether or not you understood the method to his apparent madness, the proof was in the results.
According to Marcinko, despite the abbreviated timeframe for which he had to assemble SEAL Team Six, his men were even better shooters than Delta’s.xxiv In fact, even a random collection of ST6 assaulters had defeated a group of Unit ringers in a shootout.xxv
After being forced to give up his command following three years at the helm, Marcinko boasted, “…even my enemies will admit that SEAL Team Six was the best-trained, deadliest, and most capable counterterror unit ever formed.”xxvi
Not everyone agreed.
Even among his detractors (of which there were many), Marcinko was universally given his due for having the foresight and force of will to build the unit from scratch. That’s just about where the compliments ended.
Robert Gormly, another SEAL officer who earned a strong reputation operating in Vietnam, took command of SEAL Team Six from Marcinko. There was a great deal of friction in the handover, however, as Marcinko called in every favor he had in a desperate bid to retain control of the fledgling unit.xxvii
Upon arrival, Gormly was warned about the unit’s actual state of readiness, which had been hidden behind a cloak of bluster and secrecy. Six’s XO informed him the team lacked discipline and that its training had been substandard; under Marcinko’s watch exercises were rarely completed because “as soon as things got tough, Dick would step in, abort the exercise, and take the troops drinking.”xxviii
Another former ST6 officer told similar tales of dysfunction, damning the unit in the early days as “all show, no go.”xxix
The way they described it, SEAL Team Six had devolved into Marcinko’s “personal fiefdom” where blind loyalty to the commander was the most valued trait, ranking just above tactical skill.xxx His handpicked selection of operators often confused those on the outside; highly-regarded SEALs were regularly turned away while “shit birds” were accepted into the secretive flock.xxxi Junior officers were routinely undercut and/or bounced out, creating “a rigid meritocracy married to the worst sort of personality cult…that brought out the worst portions of cronyism, backstabbing, and flattery.”xxxii
SEAL Team Six would be scrutinized for the questionable activities that transpired during Marcinko’s reign (and subsequently at Red Cell, a follow-up initiative). He would ultimately be incarcerated in federal prison.xxxiii
As a result, SEAL Team Six became known as “‘the command under constant investigation’ – Dick Marcinko’s legacy.”xxxiv
Sensing enormous unrealized potential, Gormly took on the challenge. He no longer allowed ST6 to believe its own hype, implementing stringent standards of performance and generally preparing the unit for war (which he would lead Six into for the first time in its brief history soon enough).xxxv
But SEAL Team Six had been built from the ground up by Marcinko and still bore his imprint in a number of ways. The rogue warrior had constructed a rogue organization. However, many of the underlying concepts were fundamentally sound; there was some genuine inspiration to Marcinko’s vision even if its execution had been less than perfect.
What followed was a perpetual struggle to retain SEAL Team Six’s edge while sharpening it into a more functional, precise outfit that could better leverage the remarkable talent it held within its ranks.
But despite the best efforts of Gormly and a string of successors, ST6’s reputation had already been cemented. It was widely regarded as a cowboy outfit — an image that had been embraced and even cultivated by those on the inside. SEAL Team Six became legendary in some corners but in others was viewed as “lacking in the areas of planning, leadership, and operator maturity.”xxxvi
As evidence of Marcinko’s continued influence, even among operators who joined the unit following his departure (and resented the tattered reputation they inherited), Marcinko’s initial impression of their ‘friendly’ rivals over at Delta Force remained very much alive throughout the remainder of the ’80s and into the ’90s.
Memoirs authored by former JSOC SEALs who operated prior to 9/11 often paint the Army unit as too by-the-book and scientific for its own good, lacking ST6’s outside-the-box thinking and unpredictable tactics.
A prime example was given by former ST6 SEAL Don Mann, who cheerfully detailed the units’ contrasting approaches to HALO/HAHO training. Delta’s Operator Training Course featured countless practice jumps in the wind tunnel, extra safety precautions while packing chutes, and video recorded jumps that were meticulously studied later with instructors. Meanwhile, ST6 free-fall training was considerably less formal, taught by a Vietnam-era SEAL who informed them, beer can in hand, “If there are any of you assholes here who don’t know how to free fall, you’re gonna learn to pack and jump by morning.”xxxvii
(Whether or not the assessment was fair is debatable. Delta has long been celebrated for its creative mission planning and training techniques.xxxviii Nevertheless, the small sampling of former ST6 operators-turned-authors suggests it was a relatively widespread belief at Six at the time.)
Not content with just the surf, Marcinko positioned SEAL Team Six to engage Delta in turf battles for missions. But operations requiring such specialized capabilities came along far too infrequently for the liking of either unit. And inside both commands, it was understood that the Army special mission unit (SMU) enjoyed more political firepower at JSOC.xxxix
When opportunities did arise, Delta was generally given priority — even, in one instance, for an over-the-beach hostage rescue that should have been a slam-dunk Six assignment considering the mission’s unique requirements. To add insult to injury, Delta even commandeered ST6’s OTB gear in order to carry out the operation.xl
That said, the two direct action units of the National Missions Force garnered their fair share of now-legendary successes prior to 9/11 (while numerous others have remained but classified whispers or completely unknown).
SEAL Team Six first made its mark rescuing Governor General Paul Scoon in Grenada in 1983,xli helped capture Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1989,xlii played a key role in Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia in 1993,xliii proved one of the most effective war criminal hunting units in Bosnia in the mid-’90s,xliv and covertly immobilized an “illegal weapon” aboard a North Korean ship as it navigated the Panama Canal in 1997.xlv
But the fact is neither JSOC counterterrorist unit was tasked even a single time with eliminating terrorists who had killed Americans prior to 9/11,xlvi despite the (empty) promises of preemptive strikes made by the nation dating as far back as the years of Marcinko’s command.xlvii
A former ST6 operator acknowledged, “During the eighties and nineties, we trained and trained and trained but had only the occasional op…”xlviii — a far cry from what would become the reality following the world-altering September 11th attacks.
More than two decades after Marcinko founded SEAL Team Six — or ‘DEVGRU’ as it became known in 1987 following a rebranding of sorts — the unit still clung onto its wayward reputation. Significant progress had been made, and was recognized over at Delta, as the two units developed mutual respect through regular joint training sessions. But when finally called upon in retaliation to al-Qaeda’s assault on the homeland, ST6 once again had its professionalism and capabilities called into question.xlix
Two Delta squadrons from Task Force Green rotated through Afghanistan in late 2001 (and got the first shot at Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora) before a DEVGRU squadron from Task Force Blue was given an opportunity to join the hunt around the start of ’02. Despite ST6’s claims of land warfare expertise dating back to its inception, the Delta operators were more than a bit skeptical of the SEALs’ ability to operate in the demanding mountainous regions of the landlocked nation.l
Early on, there were reports of SEAL Team Six operators who either complained incessantly or were simply unprepared for certain aspects of the arduous assignments they were given in Afghanistan. li
DEVGRU’s reputation was further sullied within the community in the opening months of the invasion due to the alleged actions of a Lieutenant Commander Vic Hyder. On New Year’s Eve, Hyder reportedly led a team of SEALs on an ill-advised “joyride” that involved blasting through Afghan militia checkpoints. The driver was struck when their vehicle was fired upon, forcing the SEALs to pull over and surrender their equipment to the tribesmen.lii
It was an embarrassing episode far too reminiscent of the free-wheeling Marcinko-era for a unit that had worked tirelessly to change its culture and shed a largely outdated outlaw image.
Those were but isolated, early missteps by a few individuals and not reflective of the unit as a whole. In the following months, the operators of DEVGRU would repeatedly prove their courage and proficiency in battle.
And in the coming years, ST6 would not only erase any remaining doubts concerning its competency and professionalism but push to set the new standard.
Coming in Part 2: From Outlaw(s)… to Professional(s) & Use the Force
i “Osama bin Laden Dead 2011, President Obama Confirms,” ABC News (May 1, 2011).
ii David Williams, “The biggest manhunt in history,” Daily Mail.
iii Peter L. Bergen, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden – from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 77.
iv Richard Esposito and Jason Ryan, “CIA Chief: We Waterboarded,” ABC News (February 5, 2008).
v Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, “CIA analyst a key figure in tracking down Osama bin Laden,” Associated Press (July 5, 2011).
vi Greg Miller, “CIA flew stealth drones into Pakistan to monitor bin Laden house,” The Washington Post (May 17, 2011).
vii Marc Ambinder, “In Raid on bin Laden, Little-Known Geospatial Agency Played Vital Role,” National Journal (May 5, 2011).
viii Bergen, Manhunt, 179.
ix Miller, “CIA flew stealth drones into Pakistan to monitor bin Laden house.”
x Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady, “Semper ad Meliora” in The Command: Deep Inside The President’s Secret Army (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), Kindle edition.
xi Jack Murphy, “What Brought Down The 160th SOAR’s Stealth Black Hawk,” SOFREP (February 14), 2012.
xii Bergen, Manhunt, 215.
xiv “Special Interview with Admiral William McRaven,” The Situation Room, CNN (July 28, 2012).
xv Sean D. Naylor, “Bin Laden raid a triumph for Spec Ops,” Navy Times (April 28, 2006).
xvi Richard Marcinko, Rogue Warrior (New York: Pocket Books, 1993), 237.
xvii Ibid, 237.
xviii Ibid, 241.
xx Command Master Chief Dennis Chalker, USN (Ret.) with Kevin Dockery, One Perfect Op: An Insider’s Account of the Navy SEAL Special Warfare Teams (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 336.
xxi Marcinko, Rogue Warrior, 7.
xxii Ibid, 252.
xxiii Ibid, 263.
xxiv Ibid, 22.
xxv Ibid, 284.
xxvi Ibid, 322.
xxvii Captain Robert A. Gormly USN (Ret.), Combat Swimmer: Memoirs of a Navy SEAL (New York: Dutton Group, 1998), 244.
xxviii Ibid, 198.
xxix Chuck Pharrer, SEAL Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama bin Laden (New York, 2011), Kindle Edition.
Chuck Pfarrer, Warrior Soul: The Memoir of a Navy SEAL (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004), 290.
xxxii Ibid, 329.
xxxiii Gormly, Combat Swimmer, 244.
xxxiv Ibid, 233.
xxxv Ibid, 204-205.
xxxvi Naylor, “Bin Laden raid a triumph for Spec Ops.”
xxxvii Don Mann, Inside SEAL Team Six: My Life and Missions with America’s Elite Warriors (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011), 121.
xxxviii Pete Blaber, The Mission, The Men, And Me: Lessons From A Former Delta Force Commander (New York: Berkley Caliber, 2008), 177.
xxxix Naylor, “Bin Laden raid a triumph for Spec Ops.”
xl Mann, Inside SEAL Team Six, 8-9.
xli Chalker, One Perfect Op, 133.
xlii Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin, SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 106.
xliii Ibid, 177.
xliv Michael Smith, The Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America’s Most Secret Special Operations Team (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006), 196-199.
xlv General (Ret.) Hugh Shelton, The Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 279.
xlvi Richard H. Shultz Jr., “Showstoppers: Nine reasons why we never sent our Special Operations Forces after al-Qaeda before 9/11,” The Weekly Standard (January 26, 2004).
xlvii Marcinko, Rogue Warrior, 290.
xlviii Mann, Inside SEAL Team Six, 5.
xlix Sean Naylor, Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda (New York: Berkley Caliber, 2005), 31-32.
l Ibid, 32.
li Ibid, 110-111, 326.
lii Ibid, 300-301.