In the early hours of May 2, 2011, two specially-designed stealth Black Hawk helicopters full of Navy SEALs from SEAL Team 6 infiltrated Abbottabad, Pakistan. Their mission was to kill or capture the world’s most wanted man: Osama bin Laden. Shortly after they landed, the leader of al-Qaida and mastermind behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was dead, pierced by multiple shots from SEAL operators. America was avenged.
However, Operation Neptune Spear didn’t end on that night. Its aftermath is ongoing.
Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals denied declassifying the legal memoranda that led President Barack Obama to greenlight the operation. First, some background. During the months leading to Operation Neptune Spear, the Obama administration consulted four lawyers to determine the legal parameters of the mission. These individuals included the legal adviser of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the legal adviser of the National Security Council, the General Counsel of the Department of Defense, and the General Counsel of the CIA. The four attorneys were tasked with drafting memoranda examining and outlining the legal peculiarities of a kill-or-capture mission.
The lawyers faced numerous obstacles due to the top-secret and compartmentalized nature of the mission. For instance, the administration’s top lawyers weren’t aware of the location of bin Laden’s hideout. Although they knew it was in a foreign country, they didn’t know if it was friendly or not. Although on paper Pakistan is on friendly terms with the U.S., in practice the American-Pakistani relationship is extremely complicated and often radically different based on any given situation. Additionally, legal advisors weren’t allowed to work with their staff members due to fears of press leaks.