One of President Obama’s earliest kills came in April 2009. Somali pirates had stormed the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. container ship steaming across lawless waters off the Horn of Africa. The American crew of the ship had tried to overwhelm the pirates, who fled on a covered lifeboat, taking with them a 53-year-old hostage: ship captain Richard Phillips. Armed with AK-47s and pistols, the pirates stashed Phillips below deck and threatened to kill him if they didn’t get $2 million in ransom.
Barack Obama, not yet three months into his presidency, had already undergone a crash course in battlefield management. He had authorized drone strikes in Pakistan and sent 17,000 troops into Afghanistan. But until now, he had not experienced the personal immediacy and political risk of a kill operation involving an American hostage—one that would play out largely in public view. Nor had he worked with SEAL Team 6, the elite “tier one” commandos who carry out many of the darkest missions in the shadow wars.
Early on in the standoff, the Navy had requested permission to use force, but the White House held back. Military commanders had already dispatched a small armada to the scene, including a destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, and a frigate, the USS Halyburton. Transport planes ferried in the SEALs, who parachuted into the Indian Ocean with inflatable boats. On April 11, three days after the hostage taking began, Obama agreed to the use of military force—but only if the captain’s life was in imminent danger.
As Obama’s military advisers monitored events in the White House Situation Room, the president popped in for regular updates. SEAL Team 6 snipers were positioned on different ships to maximize the chances of getting off clean shots. At one point, the Navy laid a kind of a trap for the hostage vessel, but the pirates, by sheer luck, “waltzed” around it, according to a source involved in the operation. All the while, the pirates were drifting toward shore. If they were able to reach a Somali beach with their hostage, a rescue operation would be much more difficult. SEAL boats began zooming around the pirates, using “shouldering and blocking” tactics to keep them away from shore.
By dusk on April 12—Easter Sunday—SEAL snipers on the fantail of the USS Bainbridge were in position to shoot the pirates. But with the covered lifeboat bobbing on the water, it was still difficult to get clean shots. They attached night-vision scopes to their rifles and waited. At one point, two of the pirates came into plain sight. The sharpshooters could see a third pirate through a window pointing his gun at Captain Phillips. Each sniper fired a single round, and it was over. Three shots, three dead pirates. A SEAL assault team boarded the lifeboat and took Phillips to safety.
Back in the White House, officials quietly celebrated. So much could have gone wrong. For a young president with little experience overseeing military operations, a botched job would have invited charges of fecklessness from Republicans and drawn inevitable comparisons to Jimmy Carter. The generals also expressed relief. “Mr. President, it worked out. But if it hadn’t, it would have been my ass,” one military adviser told Obama. “It would have been our ass,” the president responded.
Obama has come to rely more and more on “special operators” for many types of missions. In an era of dwindling budgets and dispersed, hidden enemies, when Americans have become fatigued by disastrous military occupations, the value of pinprick operations by elite forces is clear. The budget for the Special Operations Command has more than doubled since 2001, reaching $10.5 billion, and the number of deployments has more than quadrupled. Now the head of that command, Adm. William H. McRaven, is calling for more resources and more autonomy. The New York Times reported on Feb. 12 that McRaven is “pushing for a larger role for his elite units who have traditionally operated in the dark corners of American foreign policy.” He wants to expand Special Operations Forces in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and have the authority to move forces and equipment as needed, assuring greater flexibility and speed.
Who can blame him? This is a Special Ops moment. The Navy SEALs, in particular, have never appeared so heroic and effective. They killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year, and just last month rescued two aid workers held hostage in Somalia. At a time when many Americans think their government is incompetent, the SEALs are public employees who often get the job done. They’re a morale booster, and they know it. Which may help explain why they collaborated in an upcoming full-length feature film starring active Navy SEALs called Act of Valor—a controversial undertaking, originally intended to bolster recruitment, that some in the military regard as foolish and helpful only to the enemy.
Obama wants to balance the need for the increasingly valuable services of special operators with a clear-sighted assessment of the strategic implications of expanding their missions. He’s right to be mindful of the dangers: mission creep, hubris, a messy “Black Hawk Down” disaster. Act of Valor represents its own kind of overreach: the military knows little about moviemaking, and the film reflects that. The kinetics will doubtless impress, but the acting and the script will not. (One SEAL, about to parachute into a dangerous mission, says to another: “I’ll tell you what, the only thing better than this right here is being a dad. Except for that whole changing-diapers thing.”) A better movie is likely to be one starring Tom Hanks, scheduled for release in 2013, about the Maersk Alabama episode.
Other kinds of hubris get people killed, and can tarnish America’s standing for years. That’s partly why some U.S. diplomats, and even a few officers among the military brass, have expressed misgivings about expanding the role and power of Special Ops. Some of these critics worry that the Special Forces, if their numbers bloat further, won’t be so special anymore. “The whole idea of Special Ops is quality, not quantity,” says Peter Singer of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “But there are concerns in that community of, how big could it reasonably get before it gets bogged down?”
The challenges of secret missions are many: legal, moral, practical. Few people are more aware of that than the man who ultimately pulls the trigger. Obama’s generally balanced approach to such missions is captured in the story of an operation against a key al Qaeda terrorist in September 2009.
The CIA and military had been hunting Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan for years. He was a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and had been directly implicated in other deadly terrorist attacks in East Africa, including a suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Mombasa. He was an important link between al Qaeda and its Somalia-based affiliate, and a potential wealth of information on how the jihadist networks operate. Killing him would have been a significant victory, but capturing him alive could have been even better.
After months of patiently watching him, American intelligence officers suddenly learned that Nabhan was preparing to travel along a remote desert road in southern Somalia. There wasn’t much time to act. Early one September evening, more than three dozen officials assembled by secure videoconference to consider options. The meeting was led by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. After a short introduction, he called on Admiral McRaven, then head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and one of the military’s most experienced terrorist hunters. Nabhan had been under close surveillance for months. He had stayed mostly in heavily populated areas, where the risk of casualties, either to civilians or American soldiers, was too great to launch a raid. But now it looked as if Navy SEALs had the narrow window of opportunity they’d been hoping for.
McRaven told the group that Nabhan’s convoy would soon be setting out from the capital, Mogadishu, on its way to a meeting of Islamic militants in the coastal town of Baraawe. The square-jawed Texan and former Navy SEAL crisply laid out the “Concepts of Operation” that had been developed in anticipation of this moment. Several options were spelled out, along with the military hardware that would be required for each, as well as collateral-damage estimates:
The military could fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from a warship off the Somali coast. This was the least dangerous option in terms of U.S. casualties but not the most precise. (Missiles have gone astray, hitting civilians, and even when they strike their target, they don’t always take it out.) Such missile strikes had been a hallmark of the Bush administration. For all of its “dead or alive” rhetoric, the Bush White House was generally cautious when it came to antiterrorist operations in anarchic areas like Somalia. The second option was a helicopter-borne assault on Nabhan’s convoy. There was less chance of error there: small attack helicopters would allow the commandos to “look the target in the eye and make sure it was the right guy,” according to one military planner. The final option was a “snatch and grab,” a daring attempt to take Nabhan alive. From a purely tactical standpoint, this was the most attractive alternative. Intelligence from high-value targets was the coin of the realm in the terror wars. But it was also the riskiest option.
Unstated but hanging heavily over the group that evening was the memory of another attempted capture in Somalia. Many on the call had been in key national-security posts in October 1993 during the ill-fated attempt to capture a Somali warlord that became known as “Black Hawk Down,” after a book of the same name. That debacle left 18 dead Army Rangers on the streets of Mogadishu, and inspired al Qaeda leaders to think they could defeat the American superpower. As Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said during the meeting: “Somalia, helicopters, capture. I just don’t like the sound of this.”
As everyone left the meeting late that evening, it was clear that the only viable plan was the lethal one. Obama later signed off on Operation “Celestial Balance.” The job was given to SEAL Team 6, officially known as United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU, under the command of JSOC. (DEVGRU is the most elite team in the SEALs; its members refer to others as the “vanilla” teams.) The next morning Somali villagers saw several low-flying attack helicopters emerge over the horizon. Several AH-6 Little Birds, deployed from U.S. naval ships off the Somali coast, approached the convoy, strafing Nabhan’s jeep and another vehicle. Nabhan and several other militants were killed. One of the helicopters landed just long enough for a small team of commandos to scoop up some of Nabhan’s remains—the DNA needed to prove he was dead.
One of the debates around such operations, then and now, concerns something called Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE). From their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, Special Ops Forces had learned that the best intelligence often comes from sifting through after-action debris. They wanted not just to kill terror targets but to rummage through their belongings—what the spooks call “pocket litter.” “This is where the [political] fight comes,” says a Pentagon official involved. “From that day forward we wanted to put our boots on the ground to do SSE, but the president was not supportive ... That would become the issue between Special Operations Forces and the administration.” An official involved in such issues says the Pentagon misinterpreted many of the questions the president had about such operations. He was not opposed—as the Nabhan case illustrates—he just wanted to do cost-benefit analysis on a case-by-case basis.
Obama has certainly been impressed with the Special Ops—their precision and their professionalism. A wooden board that hangs above the SEAL training grounds in Coronado, Calif., is inscribed with a line that all newbies internalize: “The only easy day was yesterday.” Instructors make sure “everything goes wrong” on a training mission, says Don Mann, 53, a retired SEAL and author of Inside SEAL Team Six. Mock raids include surprise booby traps, faulty equipment, and unexpected snipers. Special operators “will get off [a real] mission and say that was a piece of cake, only because they were used to difficult training,” Mann says.
Still, no amount of training can teach fighters what they can learn in life-and-death situations. Better-honed skills are one clear benefit of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where special operators carried out mission after mission. Some of those went badly, of course. In one such case in 2010, SEAL Team 6 conducted a predawn raid to rescue Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove and three Afghan colleagues from their Taliban captors. Tragically, a grenade thrown by one of the commandos killed Norgrove. Many special operators have also sacrificed their lives, including 22 on a helicopter that was shot down in Afghanistan last August. Howard Wasdin, a former SEAL whose memoir, Seal Team Six, came out a week after the bin Laden raid, says the high risk of death is built into the job. “We used to have a saying,” he remarks: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also accustomed the special operators—and their political bosses—to cross-border operations. There was hesitation at first. In 2007, for instance, when the insurgency was raging in Iraq, al Qaeda fighters were pouring across the Syrian border to join the fight against America. U.S. intelligence believed the Syrian government had either helped or looked the other way. The Bush administration placed diplomatic pressure on Damascus to try to end the terror pipeline, but the problem persisted. Something had to be done.
In October 2008 Gen. David Petraeus ordered a bold helicopter-borne assault inside Syria. Two dozen commandos dropped out of Black Hawk helicopters into the village of Sukkariyah, about six miles from the Iraqi border. Their mission was to kill or capture Abu Ghadiyah, an al Qaeda cell leader who was coordinating the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq. A gun battle erupted and as many as nine terrorists were killed, including Abu Ghadiyah. The Americans returned to base unharmed. Syria closed down several U.S. institutions in Damascus and protested to the United Nations.
There were more such raids that the military has never discussed. Over time, the al Qaeda pipeline was effectively shut down, at least for a while.
In some lawless places, or countries that harbor terrorists, such operations may be necessary. But what about elsewhere? The Act of Valor movie shows the SEALs moving from place to place—Costa Rica, the high seas, Somalia, Mexico—treating the world as their war zone. (They cooperate with Mexican forces, but elsewhere they seem to march to their own music.) In real life they do a lot of collaborating, but there are risks even in projecting a more aggressive Hollywood image to the rest of the world.
The Rambo approach doesn’t always sit well with diplomats. “If you start taking out people all over the world in other people’s countries, some of whom we are at peace with, I think you’ll get into some serious diplomatic issues of people saying the U.S. isn’t the global police,” says Ronald Neumann, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who now runs a Washington nonprofit. “There is also the risk a mission will eventually go wrong and we’ll end up with lots of prisoners somewhere in the world.”
Others worry that the military is conducting spy missions without the same kind of scrutiny that is given to the CIA or other civilian agencies. “The challenge is, how do you balance operational efficiency, JSOC’s main talent, against the need for oversight?” says Marc Ambinder, coauthor of a recent e-book on Special Ops. Military critics have their own concerns. “One of these days, if you keep publishing how you do this, the other guy’s going to be there ready for you,” fumed retired Army Lt. Gen. James Vaught at a recent conference in Washington. He was speaking directly to Admiral McRaven: “Mark my words. Get the hell out of the media!” Vaught knows a thing or two about how things can go wrong. He ran the task force that tried to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980, which became a fiasco after aircraft ran into dust storms and encountered other unexpected problems.
McRaven responded to Vaught’s criticism by saying that the military is in a different era now and needs to be more open. “With the social media being what it is today, with the press and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s very difficult to get away from it,” he said, adding that “not only does the media focus on our successes, we’ve had a few failures. And I think having those failures exposed in the media also kind of helps focus our attention, helps us do a better job.” McRaven also defended Act of Valor as a natural progression from earlier portrayals of Special Ops in Hollywood. He recognized the value of such images as a recruitment tool, and related them to his own experience. His infatuation with the military and Special Ops began, he said, when he saw John Wayne in The Green Berets.
With Daniel Stone and Aram Roston in Washington, D.C., and R.M. Schneiderman in New York