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.
When Judicial Watch–a conservative watchdog group that files lawsuits based on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)–learned of the existence of these documents, it promptly filed to have them declassified. The concerned agencies denied its request, and the case went to the courts. Eventually, Judicial Watch was defeated, and a followup appeal was also rejected.
The appellants challenged the government’s invocation of three FOIA exemptions–one, three, and five, respectively–that allow for keeping documents classified. They cited the sole objective of the FOIA is to shield the government from pursuing covert actions with questionable legality. In essence, to hold the government accountable, and thus ensure it adheres to the democratic processes of the republic.
The decision to not release the documents brings questions about the raid to the forefront. More specifically, what order did the SEALs receive: kill or capture? A captured bin Laden poised numerous problems for the U.S. government. For example, a public trial could have quickly turned into a public martyrdom, inspiring and inciting further acts of terrorism against America and other Western nations.
Evidently, it’ll be some time before every aspect of Operation Neptune Spear comes to light.