A View from the CT Foxhole: Admiral (Retired) William H. McRaven, Former Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, and Nicholas Rasmussen, Former National Counterterrorism Center Director, Reflect on the Usama bin Ladin Raid.

AuthorAlexander, Audrey

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 ofleads 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 Morell (a) 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...

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