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If you like William McRaven's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
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Daniel Inouye,
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David Petraeus,
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William McRaven
William McRaven
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William McRaven Interview

The Art of Warfare

September 14, 2014
Napa Valley, California

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  William McRaven

We know there are many things you can't tell us about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, but maybe you can give us the big picture of your thoughts about it.

William McRaven: What I'm always happy to tell folks is the phenomenal work of the CIA. Our part of the mission was really pretty straightforward. I mean, it's kind of viewed as the sexy piece. We flew from Afghanistan into Pakistan and got Bin Laden and came back. And there was an attractiveness to that aspect of it. But that was a pretty straightforward mission for us. In fact, I would tell you that it was -- I mean, it had a political aspect of it and an angst aspect of it that was higher than the rest of the missions we do -- but from a standpoint of a pure military operation it was pretty straightforward. What I have said before is the credit really belongs to the CIA, who in fact located Bin Laden, and the President and his National Security team who made the decision, the President who made the decision to go after Bin Laden when our intelligence really at best had us at about 50/50. So the President made a decision to risk American lives and frankly to risk his political fortune, I think, to do the right thing for America. And I'm always very appreciative that he did that. And I think those are the big takeaways that the American public ought to have is that the President and his National Security team did the right thing. The CIA -- the best intelligence organization in the world -- along with the National Security Agency, which was part of their ability to figure out where Bin Laden was, those were the real stars of this mission. I'm very proud of what my guys did, but that's the sort of things we do pretty much every day.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Looking at some of the tenets you outlined in your book, The Theory of Special Operations, a lot of it applies to operation Neptune Spear as the Bin Laden operation was called.

William McRaven: Absolutely. I went right back to the book, because we had such tight security.

I had to do the planning for the mission. And I looked at being creative in a number of different fashions, and I won't go into detail on those, but suffice to say I looked at a lot of ways to get to the target. But at the end of the day, I looked at the point of vulnerability, and I realized that if we did, if we attempted to do some of those other approaches, we were potentially going to be vulnerable hours out. Now we may not have been, but the potential for the Pakistanis to identify us hours away from the target was there. With the helicopters, I knew we could get in and we would probably only be vulnerable about two minutes out, and I felt that was good enough. So I absolutely looked at the point of vulnerability, relative superiority, keeping the plan simple. I mean, we kept the plan as simple as we could. Get onto some helicopters, go to the target, take care of the objective, get back on the helicopters and come back home. Now we came back short of one helicopter, but we had a backup plan for that. So it absolutely followed the model, and I made sure that I went back and looked at my own research.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

A lot of people may not realize that there were more than a dozen other operations going on simultaneously. That is just incredible.

William McRaven: This is kind of what we did in Afghanistan. We normally had anywhere from ten to 15 missions a night in Afghanistan where you had Army Rangers or Navy SEALs or other Army Special Operations forces out conducting raids on Taliban targets with the same approach. Helicopters going from a forward operating base to an objective, taking care of business on the target, getting back on the helicopters and coming back. So one, we didn't want to change what we were doing for fear that people would know. So when we got to Afghanistan, my force had no clue that I had a separate force that was preparing to go conduct the raid, because we didn't stop them from anything else that was going on that night.

Because it was important that they not know the details.

William McRaven: Absolutely.

Not just the American public and the enemy.

William McRaven: We were trying to keep it as close to hold as possible, and fortunately we were successful in doing that.

You were taking risks, but they were educated risks.

William McRaven: Educated risks and we had, again, done the planning. I knew where all the risks were, and we had planned around those risks to mitigate the risks. So understanding that we wanted to fly in undetected, we knew what the Pakistanis had in the way of defenses. We understood what the compound looked like in Abbottabad. So we knew all of that information. We had very good intelligence that, again, the CIA and NSA provided us. And so with that good intelligence you were able to figure out where the difficulties in the mission were going to lie, and then take the opportunity to, again, buy down that risk to the point where, when I had the opportunity to brief the President, I was very confident that we could do the mission the way we had outlined it.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

He took risks too, political risks.

William McRaven: Absolutely, he did. He took tremendous risk. I am very proud of what my guys did, but the real risk and the burden was borne almost solely by the President.

William McRaven Interview Photo

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