In September 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency briefed President Barrack Obama about the potential whereabouts of America’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. On a Thursday evening ten years later, the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security hosted a Zoom conversation between two of the senior leaders who led the hunt: retired Admiral William McRaven, former Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, and former Acting Director and Deputy CIA Director, and current Hayden Center senior fellow, Michael Morell. The evening kicked off with introductions from the Hayden Center’s founder, General Michael Hayden, Dean Mark Rozell of the Schar School of Policy and Government, and Hayden Center Director Larry Pfeiffer—who dedicated the event to the innocent people lost in the 9/11 attack nineteen years ago. CBS News’ intelligence and national security reporter Olivia Gazis moderated the discussion.
The speakers focused on three themes that led to mission success: risk, confidence, and interagency trust. Morell, who earned a Distinguished Intelligence Medal for the bin Laden operation, said it was the “best kept secret that I’ve ever been involved with in government.” He recalled the first meeting with CIA Director Leon Panetta and analysts who briefed them about a suspicious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in August 2010. “Nobody said the words ‘bin Laden might be there,’” Morell remembered, “but everybody was thinking that.”
Typical for the intelligence profession, there was never total certainty in bin Laden’s location until the moment Navy SEALs stormed the compound on May 2, 2011 under the watch of Admiral McRaven. McRaven, then in charge of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and leading the operation from Afghanistan, admitted he was “a little dismissive” when he first learned of the possibility in December. But he became more convinced after visiting Morell in his office and seeing the intelligence for himself.
That intelligence was, in the former deputy director’s words, produced through “really good spy work.” Morell stressed that after the Iraq WMD failure, it was important to “not only have a judgment, but also have a confidence level.” After a green light from the president, McRaven briefed the Pakistan-bound Navy SEALs with a basketball analogy taken from the classic sports film Hoosiers: “This is the exact same court that you’ve been playing on your whole life. Just play your game and we will be fine.” The operators had been “playing” that game since 9/11: raiding similar compounds with helicopters was “what we do every night.” Even when the first helicopter went down during the raid, McRaven “had no doubt whatsoever that the mission would continue.”
Morell described the moment when “For God and Country, Geronimo” was heard on the radio – the callsign for “we got bin Laden.” He recalled that “it wasn’t a locker room atmosphere at CIA; it was somber,” recognizing that the SEALs unintentionally killed one of bin Laden’s wives and “scared out of their wits a large number of children.” But they were happy that America took its number one enemy off the battlefield.
Each panelist credited the mission’s success to interagency trust. “This mission was too important to be anything but one team,” McRaven said. “There wasn’t anything we needed that the Agency didn’t provide.” Morell thanked other IC teammates: “We could not have done this without the men and women of NSA [National Security Agency] and NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency].”
During the Q&A session, Morell addressed the efficacy of “decapitation strategies” in counterterrorism, which have been continued by the Trump administration against leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS. He assessed that the strategy works: by making security “an obsession” for terrorists – like it was for bin Laden – “you don’t give them the opportunity to think about attacking you.” Both panelists also weighed in on President Trump’s Afghan exit strategy. Morell warned that if U.S. and Coalition forces withdrew, the “Taliban would take over the country again in a matter of months… and would provide safe haven for al-Qaeda.” McRaven doubted that “any deal with the Taliban will be worth the paper it is written on.”
Addressing reports of President Trump’s disparaging comments toward veterans, the retired admiral reminded the audience that “we in the military have an obligation to be apolitical.” But he found the president’s comment on Monday that Pentagon leaders want to keep fighting wars to keep defense contractors happy to be “incredibility offensive.” Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.
The former SOCOM commander also offered a word of advice for special operations veterans writing books: “If you’re going to do that, make it about the sacrifice of the families and the heroism of the guys. Don’t get off on political tangents.” After a review process, of course.
A full video of the event can be viewed on the Hayden Center’s YouTube channel here. Audio will be featured on the Intelligence Matters DECLASSIFIEDpodcast produced by CBS News and hosted by Michael Morell.
Alexander Naumov is an undergraduate student at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.