Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

William McRaven: The Admiral

William McRaven was tumbling from the sky, and there wasn't much sky left.

It was July 18, 2001, midway through that quiet summer before the whole world learned Osama bin Laden's name. McRaven, then a 45-year-old Navy SEAL captain, led a jump exercise near San Diego.

The commandos dropped into 10,000 feet of free fall, reserving their parachutes for the last moment. As they neared the release point, one of the men below McRaven drifted directly underneath. Seconds later, his canopy slammed into McRaven at well over 100 m.p.h., throwing him into a violent spin.

"Frankly, I wasn't sure whether I had been knocked unconscious, so when I had the chance, I pulled my rip cord," McRaven told TIME. "Part of the chute wrapped around one leg, the risers around the other, and the good news is that it opened. The bad news is that when it opened, it split me like a nutcracker, I guess, and just kind of broke the pelvis, broke my back."

Eight weeks later came the surprise attacks of Sept. 11. McRaven and his four SEAL teams had trained for such a moment, but it was all he could do to follow the news in bed. Naval Special Warfare Group 1 began the hunt for Osama bin Laden without its commodore, and he soon stepped down from command.

The story did not end there. McRaven recovered and rose up the ranks. Bin Laden lay low and stayed alive. This year, a decade later, their paths finally crossed.

By the time U.S. intelligence pinpointed its quarry, McRaven was a three-star admiral atop the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the U.S. military's clandestine strike force. And so on Jan. 29, it was McRaven who began to plan "finish options" for bin Laden alongside his counterparts in a seventh-floor CIA conference room. On May 1, with President Obama's go-ahead, it was McRaven who commanded the helicopter assault against the al-Qaeda leader's redoubt in Abbottabad, Pakistan. And on that night it was McRaven, linked by secure video from Jalalabad to the White House, who briefed the President in real time as the operation progressed.

"He was almost like the voice of Walter Cronkite, completely calm," says Michael Leiter, who was present as director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

When the lead helicopter lost its lift and crash-landed in an animal pen, one participant in the video call said he thought he might vomit.

"As you see, we have a helicopter down," McRaven said, expressionless.

Then: "We're going to push the QRF," the quick-reaction force.

Then, as commandos set explosive charges around the wounded aircraft: "We're going to destroy the helicopter."

Toward the end, with the assault team moving from room to room, McRaven stepped unexpectedly away from the screen. An unnerving silence descended as the camera stayed on the admiral's empty chair, his habitual yellow can of Rip It energy drink in the foreground. Then McRaven swung back into the picture. "I want to confirm we have a call of 'Geronimo EKIA,' " he said evenly.

Just like that, it was over. Bin Laden was in American hands, status adjusted: "enemy killed in action." Leon Panetta, who joined the video call from CIA headquarters, told TIME's Massimo Calabresi that "all the air we were holding came out." In his Kabul headquarters as outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus pumped his fist. "There was a degree of coming to closure," he says.

Operation Neptune Spear stripped al-Qaeda of its iconic leader and offered a kind of recompense for the traumas of 9/11. Billions of dollars and the labor of countless men and women had led to that day. Patient and ingenious work by U.S. intelligence agencies marked a spot — tentative, but more likely accurate than not — on the map. The Commander in Chief staked his presidency on a military plan with risks that daunted his Secretary of Defense.

Still, there was something more elemental in the final transaction. A small group of men would fly nearly 200 miles through the dark, and then they would kill, or fail to kill, a mortal foe. On that mission, they were representing a tribe that had trained and bled and hungered for 31 years to redeem itself as sensationally as it had failed in its public debut.

In a new book from TIME, Special Ops: The Hidden World of America's Toughest Warriors, international editor Jim Frederick reports on the secret world of the U.S. military units. Now available in bookstores everywhere, or go to to order your copy today.

The New American Commandos
Once there were U.S. commando units in World War II. Once there was a President who called for building up the Green Berets in the same speech, in 1961, that called for landing a man on the moon. But occupied France and John F. Kennedy are not what usually come to mind when special operators look for a reference point. The date that seared itself into their collective memory is April 24, 1980.

The Desert One hostage-rescue mission in Iran that day, aborted in a spectacle of flaming aircraft, left eight Americans dead and the nation's prestige badly burned. McRaven grew up as an officer in the aftermath. His story — with the near fatal jump accident and, before that, the ignominious loss of his first command — fit the narrative of setback and redemption in the special-operations community writ large.

Long before the bin Laden raid, the special operators came to believe they had rebuilt themselves as a stealthy, lethal and strategically potent military force. They had doubled their size and tripled their budget since 9/11, and 10 years of high-tempo combat missions had honed their skills in Iraq, Afghanistan and theaters of war they did not usually acknowledge: Somalia, Yemen, Tanzania, Kenya, Indonesia, the Philippines — and Pakistan, where bin Laden's compound was not the first to receive callers from JSOC.

"They went through a period of appearing more like cowboys, a period of 'tried but didn't quite make it,' " said retired Marine general James Cartwright, who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the raid took place. "It has been since 9/11 that both their utility and then their expertise have become the cutting edge."

On the night of the bin Laden raid, there were 13 simultaneous operations in Afghanistan by clandestine "special-mission units" under JSOC, according to McRaven and Petraeus. Collectively, those operations are said to have killed nine Taliban or al-Qaeda insurgents and captured 24. The most recent internal tally counted more than 2,500 such commando missions in and around Afghanistan over 12 months.

"There now has been an accumulation through the course of 2011 of very significant losses in core al-Qaeda and also the affiliates in Yemen and some of the other offshoots," Petraeus says, citing two al-Qaeda figures, Atiyah Abdel Rahman in Pakistan and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, whose deaths have not been officially acknowledged as JSOC's work. "All in all, a pretty good year," McRaven says, "but frankly it has been a big year for us really since 9/11."

According to participants in the closely held Abbottabad debate, McRaven spoke thoughtfully about the risks but never expressed doubt that his men could dispatch bin Laden and return home safely.

"One of the things we made clear to the President and the national leadership was, This is what we do," he told TIME. "We do raids. We fly in by helicopters, we assault compounds, we, you know, we grab the bad guy or whatever is required, and we get out. So admittedly that particular operation was a lot sportier, a lot further, a lot more political ramifications, a lot riskier for a lot of reasons, but basically similar to things that we do every night."

Secret Agent Man
McRaven grew up with war stories. According to Nan McRaven, one of two older sisters, their father Claude regaled the family with accounts of his exploits as a fighter pilot in British-built Spitfires during World War II. It was scuba diving that captured young Bill McRaven's imagination. When McRaven was 10, Sean Connery's James Bond spent a lot of screen time in Thunderball pummeling underwater bad guys and making out with Domino, the underwater hottie. "That was his favorite!" Nan McRaven says. "I said to him, 'You can grow up to be 007.' I guess he did."

McRaven signed up for Navy ROTC at the University of Texas, wooed Georgeann Brady at Alpha Delta Pi and majored in journalism at the peak of the profession's post-Watergate élan. He graduated in 1977 with an ensign's commission, signed up for SEAL training, married Georgeann and deployed to the Philippines.

A lucky break came his way, it seemed, in 1982, two years after the hostage-rescue debacle. The Navy brass had established a secret counterterrorist unit under Commander Richard Marcinko, a creative, mercurial and extravagantly profane enthusiast of commando arts.

Marcinko picked McRaven to lead a team in the hot new command with a purposely wonky name: Naval Special Warfare Development Group.

Those were the Wild West days of special operations, and McRaven did not share his commander's easygoing attitude about rules.

Marcinko rented Mercedes sedans with Navy funds, a friend of McRaven's says, "just because he could." False, Marcinko says. He bought them. The standard-issue AMC Eagle wagon was no kind of ride for commandos. "If I were to react to a ship takedown in a foreign port or an embassy in a foreign country, the Eagles would stick out like a" — O.K., well, that's as much of the quote as you get in TIME.

Marcinko acknowledges that he arranged for female companions at the hard-drinking beach parties he threw on Navy property, but it would not be politically correct, he says, to call them "ladies of the night."

"The SEALs were happy, I was happy, and nobody was getting in trouble except Bill McRaven," he says.

There were more serious charges, one of which eventually landed Marcinko in prison. But by then he and his young lieutenant had fallen out. Marcinko fired the 27-year-old McRaven after a year. "He was a bright guy, but he didn't like my rude and crude way," Marcinko said. "If I was a loose cannon, he was too rigid. He took the special out of special warfare."

Today, McRaven calls Marcinko a "charismatic figure" who deserves credit for building an important new unit from scratch. "I was not some white knight on a horse going with my lance against the windmill," he says. "He was the boss. I was a very young lieutenant. There were some things I didn't think were exactly right ... and he relieved me." Plenty of junior officers admired McRaven's stand, but most, as one puts it, "thought that was the end of his career." With otherwise outstanding efficiency reports, however, McRaven won a chance at platoon command in SEAL Team 4. From there he began an extraordinary rise, moving rapidly through command and operational roles. His only known experience of combat before reaching flag rank came as a SEAL "task unit" leader in the Persian Gulf War. Every particular of his missions remains classified.

The Theory and Practice of Special Ops
Like most promising midcareer officers, the 36-year-old McRaven was dispatched to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. There he produced an original treatise, "The Theory of Special Operations," that the Navy credits with "considerable impact not only on the special-operations community but on [the Defense Department] at large." It begins by stating matter-of-factly that Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian strategist whose On War is a standard text, was wrong about two of his central maxims. That is not exactly the same as choosing two commandments to rebut in church, but it is provocative. The master's thesis, which weighs in at 612 pages, proposes a theory of "relative superiority" to explain how a small offensive force can defeat a larger, well-fortified defense, which Clausewitz described as holding a decisive advantage. Along the way, McRaven sketches the qualities required to pull off something very much like the bin Laden raid, 18 years in advance: "a simple plan, carefully concealed, realistically rehearsed and executed with surprise, speed and purpose." On the downside, "relative superiority" does not last long.

Then, in 2001, came the parachute accident and the long climb back. "He walked again, which was amazing," sister Nan recalls. "He was climbing the steps, and it was agony, step by step. We were holding our breath whether he could make it. It still brings me to tears."

Around that time came a call from Wayne Downing, a retired Army four-star general. President George W. Bush had asked Downing to inaugurate a new position as Deputy National Security Adviser for Combatting Terrorism. Downing wanted McRaven on his staff. It was an ideal post for a cerebral commando whose body needed mending. McRaven charmed the civilians on staff over late-night beers at the Smith & Wollensky steak house. He kept tabs on the SEALs who had gone to war without him. "It was hard to watch it from afar, at the White House, but at the time, because I was still broken up pretty bad, I'm not sure I could have done much to help," he says.

In a new book from TIME, Special Ops: The Hidden World of America's Toughest Warriors, international editor Jim Frederick reports on the secret world of the U.S. military units. Now available in bookstores everywhere, or go to to order your copy today.

Over the next two years, McRaven became principal author of Bush's National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. One of its central messages was intended to caution against a literal idea of combat: "We will not triumph solely or even primarily through military might. We must fight terrorist networks, and all those who support their efforts to spread fear around the world, using every instrument of national power — diplomatic, economic, law enforcement, financial, information, intelligence, and military."

Then it was back to operations. For most of the past decade, McRaven hunted down high-value targets overseas. He was running special operations in Iraq when Task Force 121, a clandestine unit under JSOC, tracked Saddam Hussein to his spider hole. Thomas O'Connell, then Assistant Secretary of Defense, paid him a visit, and the two shared cigars just outside the former Iraqi President's prison cell. In 2008, McRaven succeeded Army Lieut. General Stanley McChrystal as JSOC's top commander.

Taking Apart al-Qaeda
Bush famously kept a list of al-Qaeda leaders in his Oval Office desk drawer and drew an X over each face as the target was captured or killed. But new leaders always stepped in. It became a dark joke in military and intelligence circles that the U.S. knocked off al-Qaeda's No. 3 commander twice a year.

"Look how much of their leadership we've taken apart and how long it's taken, and the movement is still not dead," says Wade Ishimoto, a former Delta Force intelligence officer. Cartwright, the Marine general, says, "If every time you knock one off all they do is replace him, how valuable was that, particularly if you ... could have been watching him?"

Does killing high-value targets make sense as a recipe to defeat al-Qaeda? McRaven says it is just one part of a broader offensive against America's foes. "There is nobody in the U.S. government that thinks we can kill our way to victory, certainly not the special-operations guys," he says, "but what happens is, by capturing and killing some of these high-value targets, we buy space and time for the rest of the government to work."

Meanwhile, JSOC carries on with those 2,500 commando raids a year, an average of seven per night.

There are costs. McRaven says civilians die in fewer than 1% of the raids, a good record in close urban combat, but it still means U.S. commandos are killing noncombatants twice a month.

"Special forces have taken greater measures in the last year and a half to reduce civilian casualties," says Erica Gaston, who wrote a report for the Open Society Foundations, "but one night raid in a village can be enough to turn [people] against international and Afghan government efforts."

A Fourth Star
McRaven speaks respectfully of Bush as Commander in Chief, saying he "made some very, very tough decisions." About Obama, without a question to prompt him, he waxes lyrical and at length. The planning and decisionmaking for the bin Laden raid, he volunteers, "was really everything the American public would expect from their national leadership."

"The President was at all times presidential," he says. "I would contend he was the smartest guy in the room. He had leadership skills we'd expect from a guy who had 35 years in the military." The sentiments appear to be mutual, for McRaven and his special-operations units. In April, a month before the bin Laden raid, Obama tapped McRaven for his fourth star and nominated him to lead the U.S. Special Operations Command. He began the new job this summer. Few believe it will be his last. McRaven's special operators, meanwhile, are flying high. While the rest of the Pentagon is scaling back spending, special-operations forces are asking for more. Television, film and video games have infused popular culture, and the political debate, with the power of special warfare to get the job done on the cheap. The potency of that image may depend on making sure the triumph in Abbottabad is not succeeded by another Desert One or Black Hawk down. "Everybody will try to fix all evils with a success, but that only lasts until you screw something up," Cartwright says. "People like McRaven know that."