Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

The following is a republication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s exclusive interview with Adm. (retired) William H. McRaven and Nicholas Rasmussen ten years after the Usama bin Ladin raid. It appears in the CTC Sentinel’s current issue. Follow @ctcwp and visit www.ctc.usma.edu to access all CTC publications and analysis and to join the mailing list.

Admiral William H. McRaven is a retired U.S. Navy Four-Star admiral and the former Chancellor and Chief Executive Officer of the University of Texas System. During his time in the military, he commanded special operations forces at every level, eventually taking charge of the U.S. Special Operations Command. His career included combat during Desert Storm and both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He commanded the troops that captured Saddam Hussein and rescued Captain Phillips. McRaven is also credited with developing the plan and leading the Usama bin Ladin mission in 2011.

McRaven is a recognized national authority on U.S. foreign policy and has advised Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and other U.S. leaders on defense issues. He currently serves on the boards of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the National Football Foundation, the International Crisis Group, The Mission Continues, and ConocoPhillips.

McRaven graduated from The University of Texas at Austin in 1977 with a degree in Journalism, and received his master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey in 1991.

McRaven is the author of The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived, SPEC OPS: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare, and two New York Times best-sellers, Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life and Maybe the World and Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations.

Nicholas Rasmussen is the inaugural Executive Director of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT). A national security professional with more than 27 years in U.S. government service, Rasmussen held senior counterterrorism posts at the White House and in the U.S. Intelligence Community from 2001 to 2017. He concluded his government career as Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), leading more than 1,000 professionals from across the Intelligence Community, federal government, and federal contractor workforce. Rasmussen served in senior posts across three administrations, including as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council staff under Presidents Bush and Obama before being appointed Director of NCTC by President Obama and continuing his tenure at the request of President Trump’s administration. From 1991-2001, he served in policy positions at the Department of State, focused on the Middle East.

Editor’s note: To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Operation Neptune[’s] Spear, the May 2011 raid on Usama bin Ladin’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, CTC Sentinel spoke with Admiral William McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired) and Nicholas Rasmussen to compare vantage points of the operation from a military and policy perspective. A decade after the raid, the covert operation by CIA with Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) targeting al-Qa`ida’s leader continues to offer practitioners, policymakers, and researchers valuable lessons for the future. While some reflections here pertain to counterterrorism policies and practices, others speak to the importance of leadership at times of uncertainty, discipline, interagency collaboration, and most of all, commitment to a shared mission.

Additionally, as these recollections will highlight, the process and planning of the raid in Abbottabad was relatively paperless due to operational security concerns, which is an important consideration when looking back 10 years later. In our discussion after the interview, Admiral McRaven and Mr. Rasmussen discussed how personal accounts from this period, including their own, may inadvertently blur some details like the precise scope and sequencing of events in the months leading up to the operation. Both Admiral McRaven and Mr. Rasmussen have sought to reconstruct those events to the best of their recollection.

CTC: I’d like to ask you both to talk about where this story begins for you. At the time, then Vice Admiral McRaven served as JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) Commander, whereas Mr. Rasmussen worked as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council staff at the White House. We know that the hunt for Usama bin Ladin was ongoing, but what do you see as the turning point in that search? And when did you start exploring more actionable options?

Rasmussen: I remember exactly when I first became aware of the idea of Abbottabad as a ‘maybe.’ The CIA director came over to brief President Obama on September 10, 2010—so several months before the operation ultimately happened—and basically said that the Agency and the intelligence community had identified a compound of interest in Pakistan. The briefing made it very clear that additional intelligence work remained to be done—and CIA laid out a set of plans to try to develop that picture—but it was just a very earliest hint that there might be a location for a high-value target and potentially bin Ladin.

Now you, Bill, were in the business of high-value target work at JSOC across multiple theaters, and of course, the bin Ladin hunt was never something you were not engaged in, in some way. But when did the idea of a potential compound of interest first enter your consciousness and when did you think “we might be on to something” as an intelligence community?

McRaven: For me, it wasn’t until months later. It was December of 2010 when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen came out to Afghanistan, which he did pretty frequently. He came to our headquarters there at Bagram [Airfield], and after we’d spent an hour or so with the troops, he said, “Hey, Bill, let’s go up to your office. I’ve got a few things I want to chat with you about.” So I went up to my office, and he said, “The CIA thinks they have a lead on bin Ladin, and it’s possible they’ll be calling you here in the next couple of weeks to come back to Langley to talk to them about it.” I was probably a little dismissive, not to the Chairman, but I was thinking, “OK, we’ve had a lot of leads on bin Ladin.” And to your point, Nick, that’s obviously what the Joint Special Operations Command did, along with the Agency, was track down these leads on bin Ladin.

A couple of weeks later, I got a call from I think [General James Edward] “Hoss” Cartwright, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who said, “You need to come back to CIA headquarters.” I’m not exactly sure of the timeline, but I think it was in late January [2011] when I flew back to Washington, D.C., and I actually went over to meet with Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates and Admiral Mullen before going over to meet Michael Morella at the CIA headquarters. They gave me a little bit of a preamble to what I might see and then said, “Just go over there, listen to what Morell has to say, and then come back and give us your thoughts.” So I headed over to CIA and spent the next hour or so with Morell as he showed me pictures of the compound at the time, a kind of trapezoid-shaped compound. I remember Morell saying, “If you had to take down this compound, how would you do it?” I said, “It’s a compound. It’s what we do every night in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a little bigger than what we’re used to, but there’s nothing tactically challenging about it.” So we talked for a little while, and then I debriefed the Chairman and the Secretary, and then headed right back to Afghanistan. So that was my first actual exposure to the compound in Abbottabad.

Rasmussen: For me during that period—January/February [2011]—we knew there was an ongoing effort at CIA and with their intelligence community partners to develop the picture to try to get greater fidelity around the question of a) Is a high value target actually there and b) if there is, is it potentially bin Ladin? And we were told at the White House that CIA had started this conversation with DoD about potential options if this intelligence case matured in that particular way. And yes, much as you say, taking down compounds is what you did, but this would have been an extraordinary operation. And so for you to even begin the process of discussing this with CIA partners, who were you able to bring in from your team? I suspect it wasn’t the normal staffing process around developing options that you would be used to inside of a JSOC setting.

McRaven: As you know, it wasn’t. The president had a “BIGOT” list, [that’s] a term of art concerning the limited number of people that could have access to this information. So after my initial meeting with Morell, I came back to Langley a couple weeks later, and Morell gave me all of the detailed background information about the compound and “the pacer.”b At the time, it was just me [involved from JSOC], and I had to go into the Situation Room and give the president some sense of what a military operation might look like. I actually went back to the thesis that I wrote at the Naval Postgraduate School,c and by this point in my career, I had been exposed to about 10,000 special operations missions—either having commanded them, having been on them, or having reviewed the concept of operations. So when I looked at this, as challenging as it was, I kept going back to my post graduate thesis thinking: let’s keep this plan as simple as we can; I don’t want to overcomplicate it. I went through in my own mind a couple of things: can we parachute in, can we come in from the embassy by a truck, what were our options? But all of those kind of contradicted what I knew to be the “simplicity”1 factor in planning a mission like this.

The first time I briefed the president, when he asked me, “McRaven, what’s your plan?” I said, “Sir, our plan is to take a couple of helicopters and fly from Afghanistan into Pakistan, land the force on the compound, we’ll take down the compound, get bin Ladin, and bring him back or he’ll be killed on the spot.” It was that simple. And that was all of the planning I did early on because at the time, I wasn’t allowed to bring anyone else in. But I knew that the basic plan, the basic scheme of maneuver, was sound. We’ve done these thousands of times before; not over these distances and a few other things, but I was confident that what I was telling the president was executable. It wasn’t until later, when I could begin to slowly bring in the SEALs and the air planners, that we really refined it in terms of the routes and the maneuvers on the ground and those sorts of things.

Rasmussen: Just to help readers with a sense of timeline, the meeting you’re describing, where you first briefed President Obama on what military options might look like and what you would recommend from an operational perspective, was on March 14th in 2011. That meeting was the first opportunity where the president was sitting with his full team of national security advisors and hearing the intelligence case, but then also hearing from you about what the potential operational solution was, if the intelligence did, in fact, bear out.

My recollection from that meeting was that you were very, very confident about the operation itself—an assault operation on a compound of that sort—again because you had experienced that and [it] was well within your operators’ capability-set. I remember you were also quite careful about talking about the ‘getting there’ and ‘getting back’ parts of that because, again, this was an area well inside Pakistani territory, not some dramatically remote location far from urban locations. This was right in the heart of, in a sense, [the] establishment security structure of Pakistan, Abbottabad being closely located to many key Pakistani facilities. Do you remember how you framed that to the president, that you needed to do more work before you could really speak to some of the questions related to getting in and out of Pakistan without being detected?

McRaven: I can’t remember exactly when it was, but at one point in time, the president did ask me, “Bill, can you execute this mission?” I said, “Mr. President, I don’t know. Until I can bring the SEALs in and we have an opportunity to rehearse this again and again and again, I can’t tell you whether or not it is doable.” By [late] March, I think I had had an opportunity to bring in a few of the air planners and a few of the SEALs. I didn’t bring the whole body of SEALs in yet, but I had enough planners and, of course, the CIA provided a wealth of intelligence analysts, particularly when it came to the Pakistani Integrated Air Defense.

To your point, Nick, my biggest concern was, how am I going to get the force from Jalalabad, 162 miles into Pakistan to Abbottabad—which as you noted, the compound was near their West Point, about three or four miles from a major infantry battalion, and about a mile from a major police station—but I was really concerned about, would Pakistani radars pick us up, would Pakistani Integrated Air Defenses be a problem? Between the Agency planners, intel analysts, and the helicopter and the aviation planners I brought in, I got more and more confident that we could do it. We needed to rehearse it with the [right] number of people. As you recall, we were using special helicopters—I can’t go into much more detail than that—but the lift capacity of these helicopters was not the same as the generic Blackhawk, and that constrained us in terms of the number of troops I could get on the ground. Again, the reason I was always concerned about the air component was, can I get the number of SEALs I need to get there without having to refuel and not being picked up by Pakistani Integrated Air? All of that concerned me going forward, but the more we planned it, the more realistic it appeared, before even we had a chance to rehearse it.

Rasmussen: I remember at a certain point during the planning and policy discussions at the White House with the president, the question came up of how you would respond if Pakistani forces reacted and responded to the scene. We were in the middle of a diplomatic mess with Pakistan at the time over an individual who was part of the diplomatic footprint at the embassy in Islamabad who had been arrested by Pakistani security forces.2 Things were not good with Pakistan at that particular moment, and you had to plan around contingencies about what would happen if Pakistani security personnel rallied to the scene, surrounded the compound, and you were left with managing that situation. Can you say a little bit about how the president responded to that? Because I think it fundamentally changed the way many of us in the Situation Room looked at the operation after he weighed in on that question.

McRaven: I needed to think tactically and operationally, but you can’t put yourself in this position without recognizing the [geo]political constraints that you might be under. I knew that if we got on target and then all of a sudden the local Pakistani police showed up, if they started to engage us, it was not going to go well for them. If the infantry battalion showed up, we were probably going to have a hell of a good gun fight against them. So that was not going to serve anybody well. My issue all along was if we had bin Ladin, did that then become an ability to negotiate, if in fact we got locked down? It was just one of these: “Well, if we’ve got bin Ladin, if we show bin Ladin, maybe the Pakistanis just say ‘OK, all good.’” That conversation obviously didn’t go on very long. As you well know, the president very quickly told me, “No, I don’t want to put ourselves in [that] position at all”—which of course I didn’t either—”I want to be in a position to fight our way out.”

Now, I always had a plan to fight our way out. I had a package that was prepared to come in to pull the SEALs out if we needed to. And then the president gave me the latitude that I was looking for, which was, “Fine. Then we’ll fight our way out,” knowing that we had this remarkable force on the ground and that I could bring to bear the power of the U.S. military in terms of fighter, combat air support, AC-130s, you name it. We obviously didn’t want to do that. The Pakistanis are, as you know, an awkward ally at best, but certainly we didn’t want to kill, especially innocent Pakistanis that showed up doing their job. But we were certainly prepared to fight our way out if we got into that, and that goes directly to a great decision made by the president.

Rasmussen: You were an operator, but at the same time, you were a participant in the policy process unfolding at the White House. You were in a sense, jumping in and jumping out—going back and having your role with your operational team to plan and carry that part of the process forward; at the same time, you were a frequent participant in Situation Room meetings where these policy matters were being debated. You had had experience earlier in your career when you were an O-6 [Captain] having served on the National Security Council staff. Talk about how that looked to you given your prior experience as a more junior director at the National Security Council staff.

McRaven: I’m glad you raised that because I look back on that experience, and I’m the junior man in the room as a three-star, and as you well recall, the room [included] the president; vice president; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Secretary of Defense Bob Gates; Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]; Jim Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence; Leon Panetta, Director of CIA; John Brennan; Denis McDonough; yourself obviously, then the group got pretty small after that. The thing that was remarkable to me was how the president managed and led his National Security Council staff. I contend he was the smartest man in the room. He asked all the right questions. As you well know, he asked both tactical questions and operational questions and strategic and [geo]political questions. He wanted to understand the details, and I was happy to provide him the details because my sense was, he’s the president of the United States, he needs to understand the risks. The one thing I wanted to make sure I did was to convey the risk to the president because you’re a fool if you don’t explain the risks on something as high profile as this.

But the other thing, and you experienced [it], was everybody sitting around that table … it’s not that the arguments didn’t get heated, but there was never any rancor. People were just trying to do what was best for the country, best for the nation. And I have to tell you, I was inspired by that. I remember these debates, and of course I’m sitting at the far end of the table where the junior people sat but listening to the members go back and forth and try to look at all the options—the two kind of bombing options; the option that we waived immediately, which was including the Pakistanis; and then of course the raid option—and how well they were able to carry on these conversations in, again, a sometimes heated but collegial fashion, exactly the way I thought the process should work.

Rasmussen: Well, if you were at the junior end of the table, I was in the back bench one row behind, furiously taking notes and trying to think about agendas for the next meeting. From my perspective, what was extraordinary about this set of meetings that unfolded over a 4-, 5-, 6-week period leading up to the operation itself were the conditions under which those meetings took place: absolute attention to secrecy, absolute attention to discretion in terms of how information was shared, no physical written agendas, none of the usual bureaucratic stuff that we were used to as staff officers at the NSC staff. Instead, you had calendars that simply read “meeting,” and the individual went to the meeting with no backup, and then returned back to the organization that they came from with no capacity to back brief their staff about the meeting. It was quite extraordinary that in a town and bureaucracy where paper is everything, this operated almost entirely without paper.

And yet still—I think this is a credit to what you just said about President Obama, and I give a lot of credit to [National Security Advisor] Tom Donilon and [Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism] John Brennan in this regard, too—the attention to detail in making sure there was still rigorous process and debate over all of these questions. We didn’t just, for lack of a better word, half-ass our way through uncertainties; we actually worked through the different sources of uncertainty in a structured way. That, to me, was a remarkable testament to the way in which the president approached his responsibilities as Commander in Chief for something this consequential.

Now, Bill, as you know, right up until the very end, this whole operation had an overlay, which was that of significant intelligence uncertainty right up until the time your forces entered into Pakistani airspace. We still didn’t know if bin Ladin was at the compound. And there was quite a lot of the debate you described in the Situation Room around the question of the intelligence picture and how confident we could be in it. Can you talk a little bit about what your own take on that process was?

McRaven: Interestingly enough, whether bin Ladin was there or not was not going to affect the tactical aspect of the mission. We planned the mission as though he were there, but if he wasn’t, we weren’t going to make any dramatic changes to how we got on target, how we locked down the target, how we swept through the target, all those sorts of things. People often asked me, “Well, were you concerned that you didn’t know bin Ladin was there?” and I said, “No, not really,” because I understood what we had to do and that part of the mission was pretty straightforward in my mind.

The things that we didn’t know, which concerned me most, was whether or not the building was rigged with explosives and whether bin Ladin would be actually sleeping in a suicide vest. A number of times in Iraq, we had buildings that were completely rigged with explosives. And literally some of the high-value individuals we were going after slept in suicide vests. So part of it was asking, “Well, what if the guys get there on target and they’re beginning to sweep their way through the building and the whole building is booby-trapped?” As good as the intelligence was, and of course this will go down as one of the great intelligence operations in the history of the Agency, to your point, we couldn’t determine whether or not it was in fact bin Ladin, and lacked clarity on some of the real grainy details that the operators needed to at least put them in their comfort zone: things like, is the building rigged? We didn’t think it was, based on the movement of the women and children and other men from the imagery we had, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not. And of course, was bin Ladin sleeping in a suicide vest? Well, there’s no way to determine that. Did he have a bugout route? We just assumed that he would. Would there be some sort of tunnel? He’s been there for a long time, certainly going to all the trouble to build this massive compound, so wouldn’t he have built a tunnel for he and his wives and his kids to get out? Those were the unknowns that we were operating with. But in terms of thinking about whether it was bin Ladin, that part to me was pretty straightforward: We were going to do the mission pretty much the exact same way whether it was bin Ladin or not.

Rasmussen: The intelligence picture, as you described it, was one that Director Panetta made clear that the Agency was pulling out all stops to get a clearer sense of whether it was, in fact, bin Ladin. But Director Panetta was also very honest in saying we were probably at the limit of what that intelligence was going to produce in the near term. It was one thing if we wanted to sit on this case for another several months and try to learn more over time with various collection activities, but if the president was going to be in a position to make a decision in the near term, meaning over the next few weeks, this was more or less the picture he was going to have. And to your point, that left a considerable amount of uncertainty on the table as the president approached these decisions.

Now, apart from the substance, Bill, what was it like to jump in and out of the Situation Room in the operational world? I know you bumped into people who were in your chain of command in one form or fashion or who wondered, “What’s Bill doing in the D.C. area this week? I thought he was at Fort Bragg or deployed forward.” How did you manage those interactions?

McRaven: Well, Nick, that did present some problems for me in terms of my bosses, General [David] Petraeus, General [James] Mattis, Admiral [Eric] Olson, none of whom early on knew my movements either way. I felt an awkwardness because certainly I felt it was important that, at a minimum, Admiral Olson know, he was my boss at SOCOM, and of course, General Petraeus who was at the time ISAF Commander in Afghanistan, and General Mattis at CENTCOM.

Having said that, I had a cover for action for lack of a better term. I had been diagnosed in 2010 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. None of my staff knew what was going on, even my closest aide, Colonel Art Sellers, my executive officer who got me everywhere I needed to go. Early on I told Art, “Just do what I tell you. Don’t ask any questions,” and Art was kind of one of these unsung heroes who got things done and, like the great Ranger that he was, followed orders to the T. My staff and my command knew that I have been grappling with the cancer. I felt I never said anything, but I think their assumption was I kept coming back to Washington for treatment because Bethesda Medical Center was there, and I didn’t disabuse them of that misconception. Every time I would leave Afghanistan, people didn’t want to pry in my personal life, so they didn’t ask me why I was going back.

I did bump into several folks while I was in D.C. and had to do the Texas two-step pretty quick. One of them was an old friend of mine, a reporter who I had known since 5th grade, who stopped me as I was going into the White House one day. As another bit of cover for action, the whole issue of Libya was happening. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time so she asked about family then the obvious question: “What are you doing here at the White House?” I was like, “Well…” and she goes, “Have something to do with Libya?” I said, “You know, I really can’t tell you,” and so that all kind of played out better than I hoped. But I remember after I walked into the White House, I thought to myself, “I need a better cover story. This probably won’t hold up too long.”

Rasmussen: Going back to your staff and command, I remember we all had some version of the compartmenting problem. Even in my own team at the National Security Council staff, I could only have one person brought in to support some of the staff work. That meant I was leaving out 10 or 11 high-caliber individuals, and it just killed me to make some of those choices. President Obama was very clear with his guidance that not a single person was to be brought into this process unless you could speak to the role that person would play, the value they’d add, and why that person was necessary to do it. Didn’t matter their rank or station, so you had individuals like the Secretary of Homeland Security and the FBI director who were very late into the process because, again, that very high bar for sharing of the information.

Now as we get further into March and April [2011], Bill, there’s a point at which the action shifts to you working with the Agency to rehearse and prepare truly operationally. You know, it’s been written before, of course, that mockups had been built where you could potentially rehearse against life-size or to-scale models of a compound. Meanwhile, at the White House, there’s a lot of policy work answering questions like what do we do if bin Ladin’s captured? What do we do if bin Ladin is killed? And what do we do if we need to dispose of his remains? All of these contingencies needed to be spun out, and we were doing that work at the White House with an interagency team while you were starting to engage in the real nuts-and-bolts planning process. Can you talk a little bit about that rehearsal process and how that unfolded from your perspective?

McRaven: As you recall, Nick, at one point in time—I guess it was in April—the president asked me, “Can you do the mission?” I said, “I don’t know, Mr. President. I’m going to have to bring the SEALs in now, and I’ve got to rehearse it to find out whether or not what I have presented to you is, in fact, doable.” And he said, “How long will you need?” And I had anticipated that question. I said, “Sir, it will take me about three weeks,” and he said, “OK, you’ve got three weeks.”

The first thing we did was recall the SEAL team, and this was interesting: I’m often asked, why did you pick the SEALs? Why didn’t you pick the Army special operations guys? Was that because you were a SEAL? And of course, I’m quick to point out: are you kidding me? I’m about to report to the president of the United States, you think I’m going to play favorites? I’m going to pick who I think is the best force for the job. In this case, there were two forces: one Army, one Navy. Both of those commanders I had tremendous confidence in, both those units I had tremendous confidence in. However, what happened was the Army unit I was looking at had just deployed to Afghanistan to relieve the Navy unit that I was looking at, and so had I gone with the Army unit, I would have had to have recalled them from Afghanistan, and that would have heightened people’s awareness.

As it turned out, the SEALs had just come back from Afghanistan, so they were on three weeks leave. And so [that] gave me again kind of cover for action. I brought them in and nobody at their SEAL team knew that anything was going on because they just assume these guys were out with their wives or girlfriends and their families taking leave. I brought them into an undisclosed location on the East Coast, and we had told them that we were running this kind of high-level exercise, and it was {a} standard but very sensitive exercise. And boy, you could tell they were not happy campers because I had called them in off leave to do I’m sure what they considered to be this silly ass exercise. Now we’re sitting in this location and I’m looking around at the body language and they’ve got arms crossed, I’m getting the evil eye look: “You called us here to do this dog-and-pony show for a bunch of senior officers on our leave?” And then, of course, the CIA guy comes out, hands them all non-disclosure statements, which was not unusual for these sensitive missions, and then all of a sudden, he begins to talk about the intelligence we have on bin Ladin. And I’m watching around the room, and I can see the guys looking at each other like, “Is this part of the exercise? Are we serious here?” And, of course, the more he talked, they began to realize, “Oh my goodness, this is for real.” And so, I don’t remember how long that brief went but [it was] a couple hours, and then afterward, [with] the CO [Commanding Officer] of the team, the ground force commander, we pulled all the guys together.

To your point, the Agency had built a mockup for us right down the road from this facility we were using. That very day, the guys got at it, and we started rehearsing. That went on for the next three weeks, and then I was able to come back after we did a full dress rehearsal at another undisclosed location with a lot of viewers—Admiral Mullen, Admiral Olson, Mike Vickers—a number of folks came out to watch the final rehearsal. Once that went off well, then frankly, I was in a position to tell the president, “Yes, sir, we can do this.”

Rasmussen: The other thing, in addition to the president putting out the kind of three-week planning deadline for you, the other reality that was driving this was we were dealing with lunar cycles. You had briefed the president that you wanted to be able to conduct an operation in a period of maximum darkness. And so that gave us a window, and if that window passed, then we’d probably have to wait another several weeks until another window would open. Can you talk about when that started to make things real in terms of a real timeline planning horizon? This is either going to happen or not happen by a certain date.

McRaven: Yeah, there are actually a couple factors. You’re right, the lunar cycle was one of them. We wanted to make sure that we could do it as dark as possible; that’s what we always like. But the other part was the heat. The helicopters coming in, again modified helicopters, do not perform well at altitude and I think Abbottabad was above 4,000 feet. And the temperature was starting to rise. And this was going to be the 1st of May. We realized that if we didn’t get this done soon, probably in the first two weeks of May, it was going to be another four months before the temperature came back down in Pakistan for us to be in a position to conduct this mission. So there was a sense of urgency because if all of a sudden we didn’t do it in May, would we be in a position four months later to do it? What if we had gotten compromised? What if something had leaked? We knew we were up against what I thought was a little bit of a hard deadline with not a lot of flex time, between the lunar cycle and heat.

Rasmussen: Earlier in the conversation, you referenced that on the table in front of the president throughout this period was not only the raid option that you were developing and planning and rehearsing, but also right up until close to the end, there was the idea that a standoff strike of some form might have been the way to go after the compound and all of the difficult issues associated with that—identifying who was on the compound, knowing with certainty if it was bin Ladin, we wouldn’t control access to the site, all of those questions played in this. When you deployed to the region, when you deployed forward to stage for this, you still didn’t have an answer as to whether this was going to happen or not happen. Or did you, in your own mind, know that this was going to proceed?

McRaven: No. In fact, the last meeting I was in was I think one of the last Wednesdays in April, and as you recall, the president had asked the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Mike Leiter, to red team CIA’s intelligence, kind of review their intel. I recall at that meeting, I think the president started off and he turned to Mike Leiter, and there was kind of this long pause from Leiter and he said, “Well, Mr. President, we reviewed CIA’s intelligence and we think the chance that it’s bin Ladin is anywhere between 60% and 40%.” And when he said 40%, I’m thinking to myself, “Well, this mission’s off.” Who in the world is going to authorize a bunch of SEALs to fly 162 miles into Pakistan to hit a compound that’s near their West Point, three miles from a major infantry battalion, a mile from a police station and oh, by the way, the Pakistanis have nuclear weapons.

So actually, when I left, I thought it was less than 50/50 that we would do the mission. But once again, that affected nothing about my planning process. You go under the assumption that you’re going to make sure the boys are all ready to go, but by the time I got to Afghanistan—I think I left on a Wednesday night—no sooner had I arrived than Leon Panetta, the director of CIA, called me on that Friday and said, “Bill, the president’s decided to go,” and I remember thinking, “Wow. That’s a bold decision.” Again, it didn’t affect any of our planning because we were going to plan it like it was the case, but a pretty bold decision on the part of the president.

Rasmussen: That decision that you referenced just now, Bill, came out of a meeting on that Thursday, April 28th, when the president convened his full set of advisors for one last review of the intelligence, and then the idea of what the potential operational solutions were. You had deployed forward. I recall from that meeting the president methodically working his way around the room, wanting to hear the best advice from each and every individual. And that even included the backbenchers, which I was a little bit taken aback by. The president had made clear in that conversation that he was going to hear everybody, but he wasn’t going to make a decision in the moment in that room. Then it was the following morning, as you referenced, Friday, April 29th, when he shared the guidance through his national security team to Director Panetta and to the Secretary of Defense and the chairman that this was a go.

You’re now deployed forward, you now have a go order from the president, but as I recall, timing was left entirely to your discretion in terms of when to execute. You are now, in a sense, in control of the decision-making. The president did not want to micro-manage that from the White House.

McRaven: I think this was really one of the strengths of both the president and Director Panetta. I’d had an opportunity to work for the president for several years at this point in time on a number of operations, and he had always given me the latitude as the military commander to run the military portion—whether it was an airstrike or hostage rescue or whatever. He never inserted himself into that aspect, so I felt completely comfortable and had the full flexibility to make the decisions I needed to make. But what happened was on Saturday, there were two circumstances that caused me to roll it to Sunday. There was fog, a little bit of fog in the valley, and while it wasn’t significant, frankly, I was looking for the perfect environmental situation. The heat was also rising and the meteorologist had said, “We think on Sunday the fog will be gone and the heat will have diminished a little bit.” And so on Saturday, I rolled the mission 24 hours, but never once did I feel like the president or the White House or even the CIA was trying to give me directions on how to conduct the military portion of this operation.

Rasmussen: Once it did roll into a Sunday-night-into-Monday operation, I remember we brought the group together to be there on scene at the White House to monitor what was happening with you in the field and be prepared to deal with any fallout in the aftermath. There was quite a lot of planning around the question of diplomatic and other outreach in the aftermath: What do we say to our partners? What do we say publicly? How do we engage with the world if we’ve either successfully captured or killed Usama bin Ladin or worst case, if it turns out that the intelligence has been bad or there was a bad outcome to the military operation?

As we’re gathering in the Situation Room, we’ve got one of your deputies, Brigadier General [Marshall] “Brad” Webb, and one of his communications colleagues there to keep us plugged in to you. Can you talk about what it was like to be speaking to two audiences as the operation got underway? You’re briefing Washington back through Director Panetta at CIA headquarters and into the Situation Room. At the same time, you’re single-mindedly focused on commanding an operation that is as delicate and sensitive as any you’ve ever been involved with. How did you manage both ends of that communication pipeline?

McRaven: It was actually simpler than it sounds because we constructed it to be simple. I told the guys I wanted a decision matrix and decision points along the route. And really, all I needed to do as the commander was make decisions when we hit those points. At the end of the day, once the guys got on the ground, the tactical aspect of this was going to be with the ground force commander. But my decisions were, for example: are we going to launch the mission, yes or no? If we get over the border and were discovered by the Pakistanis, do we keep going, yes or no? If we get a quarter of the way there and we’re discovered, do we keep going, yes or no? Halfway, yes or no? Three-quarters, yes or no? We’re in the final turn, now what? I wanted to go through in my own mind all the decisions I needed to make ahead of time if things go south, because I don’t want to be sitting there in the middle of a crisis [saying], “I don’t know. What do I want to do?” I had already made up my mind. If we were compromised crossing the border, we’re going to turn around and come back. A quarter of the way, turn around come back. Halfway, turn around and come back. Over halfway, it got a little gray there, but part of that was going to be, “OK, if we were compromised, what’s happening on the ground? Do we still have time to get to the target?” But once we got three-quarters of the way there, we were committed. Then, on target. What happens if we lose a helicopter? “OK, I know what we’re going to do immediately. I got a backup helicopter. I’m going to move it to the little mountain range; we have a little rally point up there.”

With those decisions made in my mind, I just had to give the order when the decision point happened. So, for me, it was a relatively easy operation to manage. Now again, I was in contact with both Leon Panetta and then of course, later on, the White House, but they were following the execution checklist and the code words just like I was. Once the guys launched, I felt very comfortable they would make all the right decisions on the ground, and I knew what decisions I needed to make if things went south on the operation.

Rasmussen: I can tell you from being a part of the team in the Situation Room that day, we were very hands off. This was entirely a decision process that was forward, but that didn’t lessen the sense of drama and concern as each of those milestones was met as you worked through the timeline. And, of course, it’s well documented that some of those contingency plans that you had put into place had to be called upon because you did, in fact, encounter problems with the aviation support. I guess that’s the kind way to put it. In the Situation Room, there was an awareness that things were now straying from the preferred plan. But what I remember, Bill, was the remarkable sense of calm that you projected to those various audiences; no one had any sense of panic or [felt] that we were off script or not able to adapt. I think that speaks to the planning process that you just referred to.

Say just a very quick word about the point at which you were informed that the commander on the ground had assessed that you had, in fact, secured the objective. How did you want to present that information to both Director Panetta and to Washington, wanting to put the appropriate caveats around it, of course?

McRaven: I’d have to go back and check the timeline, but somewhere around 15 minutes into the mission [at the compound], the ground force commander came along and said “For God and Country. Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” And of course, “Geronimo” was the code word for bin Ladin. People have asked, “What was your reaction?” and to me it was just another check in the box. OK, we called “Geronimo,” but believe me, in no way, shape, or form did that suddenly relieve my concern in terms of the force on the ground or whether or not it was actually bin Ladin. We had a number of times in the course of Iraq or Afghanistan where we called “jackpot,” referring to the fact that we got the individual only to bring him back and find out, “you certainly look like that guy,” and it wasn’t. So I didn’t get overly excited one way or the other. We still had to complete the mission. The guys had to get off target.

I had originally planned the mission to go about 30 minutes, and part of this frankly goes back to my naval postgraduate school thesis when I reviewed special operations. As a rule of thumb, once you got past about 30 minutes, the enemy started to get their act together, they started to converge on the good guys, and things began to go south. So when we had planned it, I’m not sure I had told the guys exactly why I was limiting it to 30 minutes—I remember Bob Gates asking me one time and I kind of deferred the question—but in my mind, I had a framework for how I wanted this thing to go. Then at about the 20 or 25-minute marker, I get a call from the ground force commander and he says, “Hey sir, we have found a treasure trove of intelligence on the second floor, and we were starting to bundle this up.” I looked at my watch, and I’m thinking, “Oh man, I’m not comfortable with this.” But I said, “OK, grab as much as you can.” Thirty minutes comes, then 35 minutes, 40 minutes, and of course at 40 minutes, I called him back and I said, “Hey, I gotta be honest with you, getting a little nervous here.” He goes, “Sir, there’s just so much stuff here. We’re throwing it into trash bags.” They were just loading this stuff up. Finally, at the 45-minute mark, I said, “OK everybody, get out of there,” and I think at 48 minutes we were off the target. But, of course, that material was, in fact, a treasure trove of intelligence that was eventually returned to the CIA, where CIA and the FBI did a lot of the exploitation on it.

Rasmussen: That’s absolutely right, and that became an important way for the intelligence community to document the state and organizational health of al-Qa`ida. It’s something we had assessed and analyzed for a long time, but this was probably the greatest single input of fresh information to that analytical project that we had had in many, many, many years.

In the Situation Room at the time, there was obviously some sense of relief that “Geronimo” had been declared, but like you noted, that was still a very uncertain outcome. Even more to the point, you still had a very significant bit of work ahead of you to extract from the target, exit Pakistani territory, and reach in a sense safety again back inside Afghanistan. That process still took a couple of hours to execute. Can you talk a little bit about what you were thinking about [regarding those] successive milestones of leaving Pakistani airspace, what that looked like from your perspective?

McRaven: Forty minutes or so into the mission [at the compound], of course, the Pakistanis did start to wake up and realize something was going on in Abbottabad. We’re obviously collecting some intelligence and know they are trying to figure it out, but now they’re beginning to mobilize some ground effort. They’re beginning to look at launching some of their fighters because they know a helicopter had gone down. So things are starting to spin, but once again, I would offer [that] my situational awareness was so good, and oh, by the way, I had what I referred to as the “gorilla package” on the other side of the Afghan border. I was not particularly concerned that the Pakistanis were going to be able to engage our helicopters because I just wasn’t going to let that happen.

What I didn’t want was us to engage the Pakistanis. Again, while I was going to do anything I needed to protect the boys at the end of the day, I was hoping we could avoid conflict with Pakistan because I knew that wouldn’t serve the mission and our relationship with Pakistan well. I also knew we had to refuel, and we picked an isolated location. After the [modified Blackhawk] and the Chinook took off, they had to stop to refuel. I think it took 19 minutes, and it was probably the longest 19 minutes of my life. As I sat there watching them on the screen, I kept turning to the guy running the helicopter part of the mission, going, “Can we just kind of top him off and keep going?” and he’d say, “Sir…” As it turns out, they landed, and sure enough, local Pakistani[s] came by and went, “Hey, what are you guys up to?” “Oh, just got an exercise going on.” “OK, can I watch?” “Sure.” They just kind of stood off to the side while the guys refueled and eventually got up and running. But I will tell you that anytime you are refueling in an unknown location at night, as we found with Desert One,d there is always potential for bad things to happen. So watching it on the screen, that’s probably the more nervous aspect of the mission from my standpoint, just because I wanted to make sure that everybody got back safely. And 19 minutes after they landed, they refueled, got up, and it was another 40 minutes or so until they finally crossed the border into Afghanistan.

Rasmussen: I can remember a palpable sense of relief among the set of people in the Situation Room when you reported to Director Panetta and through him to the White House that you were back on the Afghan side of the border. Again, still a lot to do and figure out, but just knowing that we were past the point of most imminent danger to the operating force was a huge sense of relief.

CTC: With nearly 10 years of distance from the raid in Abbottabad, what do you believe are the most notable takeaways from the operation? Additionally, whether concerning the exploitation of captured materials, how decapitation strategies affect organizations, the role of special operations in counterterrorism, or even just a renewed respect for collaborative teams that make plans like this possible, what insights should we carry into the future?

Rasmussen: As we look back on this event, it’s an incredible story of intelligence, and it will go down in the annals of intelligence history, not only for CIA, but also for our intelligence community writ large. Quite an amazing achievement. And then you obviously can speak to where this sits in the pantheon of operational success stories for your community, but I think one thing that is sometimes lost is how quickly it could have gone sideways along the way and how the different bad outcomes could have made this a very different story. Whether that was faulty intelligence, where [it] could have been proven not to be bin Ladin, conflict with Pakistan, or an operational catastrophe of some sort on the target. When you look back on it now, what are your takeaways in terms of where this fits in that long arc of our counterterrorism efforts since 9/11?

McRaven: Let me talk briefly about the lessons that I took away, and then I’ll address that last part of the question. One, we talked about the process in the Situation Room, and what I was incredibly pleased, impressed, and inspired by, frankly, was how the president and his national security team worked the process—as you pointed out, with Tom Donilon running it from the National Security Advisor standpoint—to come to the best decision. There was never any discussion about [U.S. domestic] politics, even though the president had to know that if this went south, he was going to be Jimmy Carter and probably a one-term president. But just the president’s demeanor, the thoughtfulness, and the collegiality even in the heat of the moment was, to me, impressive. So I would offer that almost all the credit for this mission really goes to the president, who had to bear the responsibility of everything you just laid out, Nick. If the helicopter had gone down and killed a bunch of SEALs and helo pilots, if we’d have gotten into a shooting match with Pakistan, if the compound had blown up in our face, there were a whole lot of things that could have gone wrong and the one man that bore the responsibility for that was going to be the president of the United States. And so, you have to go back and put that in context as you think about this mission.

When you look back in hindsight you go, “Hey, everything went great, nobody was killed.” But make no mistake about it: as we went into this, we had 24 SEALs and a CIA operator and some great helicopter pilots and back-enders who have no idea what that night is going to mean for them. They could get shot down, they could die going on this mission, yet they all volunteered to do it. That’s sometimes lost, I think, in the narrative about the fact that “Nobody even got wounded. How bad of a mission could it have been?” But they didn’t know that going into it. The president didn’t know the outcome.

Next, I think about Leon Panetta and the way he approached us. As you know, the fact of the matter is the Agency and JSOC have always had this kind of love-hate relationship. We’re kind of tied at the hip on so many issues that sometimes that creates friction. Not with Leon Panetta. Director Panetta embraced us early on, made us part of the team, and when you think about his willingness to really make this a military operation rather than a CIA operation because it was what was right for the country—not what was right for CIA, not what was right for JSOC, but what was right for the country—I think that is a remarkable decision and a remarkable mark of the character of the man. And then I would offer the third part here was the great cooperation with all the agencies that were part of it. I talked about CIA because they had the lead, but as you know, Nick, the National Security Agency was there, the National Geospatial[-Intelligence] Agency was there, and the relationship that the operators and the intelligence community had, you could not have put a piece of paper between them when it came to getting this mission done.

And then finally really was the remarkable work of the operators, who had been in this fight for a long time. They were all combat veterans, along with their helicopter pilot brethren, and they followed through doing exactly what the nation expects them to do, which is go on target, get the bad guy, and come home safe. Take care of the other men on the target, and then of course, there were also women and children. There’s always this kind of belief that the SOF operators are a bunch of steely-eyed killers that don’t care about anything but getting the mission done. Of course, that’s just not the case. They are brothers and fathers and sons, and they’re going to go on target and do what they can to also do what is right by the innocent people that were there. I was really proud of them for making sure that they took care, as best they could, of the women and children on target while still getting the mission accomplished. So there were a lot of takeaways from that mission for me, but those are four of them.

Rasmussen: I think what makes this such a compelling story at the 10-year mark is that it has such an important operational story to tell, but also, as you pointed out, it’s a remarkable window into presidential decision-making under extraordinary conditions of uncertainty and risk. As you said, everybody else could have an opinion around the room, but only one individual in the end bore the ultimate risk, beyond the risk borne by the operators—that’s always first and paramount in peoples’ minds—was the president who had to make the case to himself that the intelligence was compelling enough to support an operation, who had to understand that this could ultimately sink his presidency if this had gone the wrong way. And so for that reason, it’s an even more compelling story when you combine the operational, the decision-making, and the collaborative work across all of the different agencies and components involved.

Maybe one last area of questions to ask, Bill, would be around the ultimate impact of the raid. I know one thing we all wrestled with was, what would it mean to remove bin Ladin from the battlefield? I don’t think anybody thought that it would end our war on terrorism. I don’t think anyone argued that al-Qa`ida would be defeated as a global organization because of this one highly significant act. Yet I don’t know that we also understood that 10 years later, we’d still be very much engaged around the globe in efforts to deal with al-Qa`ida and al-Qa`ida affiliate groups. How do you look at the ultimate result of the raid now, 10 years later?

McRaven: To me, it really was about bringing bin Ladin to justice, as the president said that night in his speech.3 It really wasn’t about revenge. It was about justice. But the impact of the mission didn’t hit me right away. The next day after the mission, I went back to Washington, D.C., briefed Congress, then went over to the Oval Office. The president was very gracious, thanking me on behalf of all the guys that had participated in this. Right after that I had to go back to work and keep chasing bad guys for a while. But later that year, after I took command of U.S. Special Operations Command in November, I went up to New York City. I had not been in there in 50 years or something, and the police met me because I was giving a speech to 2,000 of New York’s finest. And just their appreciation for the work that the guys have done on the mission, but not just these guys, all the conventional forces, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, that were part of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was never just about the SEALs. We were honored to have the opportunity to go on the mission, but make no mistake about it, this was about 500,000 plus soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines that took this fight to al-Qa`ida, and at the end of the day, yes, the SEAL pulled the trigger, but let me tell you, there were hundreds of thousands of men and women behind us. And I didn’t really appreciate that, and I didn’t appreciate how New Yorkers viewed this until I had a chance to get to New York.

So it wasn’t so much—as you point out, Nick—were we going to crush al-Qa`ida? We all knew going in that this wasn’t fundamentally going to change the fight against al-Qa`ida, but it really was about bringing some sense of closure to those folks who were killed on 9/11 and bringing bin Ladin to justice. I hope the signal it sent to others out there is that if you come after America, we don’t care how long it takes, we will find you and we will bring you to justice. That was an incredibly important message to send to the world. CTC

Substantive Notes[a] Editor’s note: Michael Morell was then Deputy Director of the CIA.

[b] Editor’s note: In the period leading up to the raid, intelligence analysts reportedly nicknamed a figure at the compound “the pacer” because of his regular walks within the compound’s courtyard. From an intelligence perspective, that figure, “the pacer,” was also a possible candidate for bin Ladin. Bob Woodward, “Death of Osama bin Laden: Phone call pointed U.S. to compound – and to ‘the pacer,’” Washington Post, May 6, 2011.

[c] Editor’s note: Admiral (Retired) McRaven’s master’s thesis was published as a book in 1996. William H. McRaven, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Presidio Press, 1996).

[d] Editor’s note: In 1980, a Delta Force operation to rescue American hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran culminated in failure before the operators reached the embassy. For more, see Mark Bowden, “The Desert One Debacle,” Atlantic, May 2006. See also “‘Desert One’: Inside the failed 1980 hostage rescue in Iran,” CBS News, August 16, 2020.

Citations[1] Editor’s note: For more on “simplicity,” one of the six principles of special operations emphasized in Admiral McRaven’s research, see William H. McRaven, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Presidio Press, 1996), pp. 11-14.

[2] Editor’s note: For more context, see Adam Goldman and Kimberly Dozier, “Arrested US official Raymond Allen Davis is actually CIA contractor,” Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 2011.

[3] Editor’s note: See “Osama Bin Laden Dead,” The White House, May 2, 2011.

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