The search for bin Laden was led by the CIA, which painstakingly pieced together scraps of intelligence that eventually pointed to a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But when President Obama gave the authorization to invade the site, CIA Director Leon Panetta delegated the raid to McRaven, who had been preparing for such a moment for most of his career.
He has worked almost exclusively on counterterrorism operations and strategy since 2001, when as a Navy captain he was assigned to the White House shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The author of a textbook titled “Spec Ops,” McRaven had long emphasized six key requirements for any successful mission: surprise, speed, security, simplicity, purpose and repetition.
For the especially risky bin Laden operation, he insisted on another: precision.
“He understands the strategic importance of precision,” said a senior Obama administration official who worked closely with McRaven to find bin Laden, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation. “He demands high standards. That’s why we’ve been so successful.”
As leader of the military’s highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command, McRaven has overseen a rapid escalation of manhunts for Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda figures around the world. Although he’s a three-star admiral, the muscular 55-year-old still sometimes accompanies his teams on snatch-and-grab missions.
On Friday, McRaven received the green light from Panetta to launch the raid at the earliest opportunity. Later that day, he met with a six-member congressional delegation that was coincidentally visiting Afghanistan. He gave the lawmakers a tour of the Bagram operations center that — unbeknownst to them — was gearing up for the critical mission.
“Little did we know he had already given the order to take out Osama bin Laden,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who led the delegation.
McRaven had been just weeks away from leaving Afghanistan for a new assignment. He had led the Joint Special Operations Command since 2008, when he succeeded Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, whose team helped turn the tide of the war in Iraq by relentlessly targeting insurgent leaders, including al-Qaeda’s chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006.
“Nobody thought it would be possible, frankly, to take that command beyond what Stan McChrystal did, but he has,” said Michael G. Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence. “He has taken what was already a very integrated, interagency organization and taken it to another level.”