Teamwork Led Us to Bin Laden and Can Keep America Safe
As we look back on the Osama bin Laden raid of a decade ago, three lessons stand out.
Osama bin Laden didn’t have time to react. At 12:30 a.m. local time on May 2, 2011, bin Laden and his family were sound asleep when two dozen operators from America’s elite counterterrorism teams swooped into his compound and made their way up to his bedroom on the third floor of a large villa in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Within moments, America’s most wanted terrorist was dead, the culmination of a 10-year manhunt by U.S. intelligence that pinpointed his precise location on that moonless night.
CIA had converted the director’s Seventh Floor conference room into a command center where we watched the raid unfold. When the initial helicopter lost lift and crash landed into the compound, our hearts were in our throats. The conference room fell dead silent. But the professionals of the teams working for Joint Special Operations Command’s Adm. Bill McRaven didn’t hesitate, carrying out the mission as if nothing had gone wrong. A backup helicopter was called in and the mission was carried out successfully.
As we look back on the events of late April and early May a decade ago, three lessons stand out.
First, the operation was the result of unprecedented cooperation between our military and intelligence agencies. We have had the honor of helping to lead at both CIA and the Pentagon, and we can vouch for the fact that they are very different organizations — one is small and tightknit; the other is huge with 3 million people and thousands of offices under one department. They are different culturally, organizationally, bureaucratically, and operate under differing authorities, policies, and rules of engagement.
Yet, for this particular operation to work, CIA and DOD had to work together – and they did. Pentagon leaders had to agree to let the CIA command the operation; but CIA had to let the military execute it. CIA found Bin Laden – with help from partners at National Security Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency – but only the special operations community had the training, experience, and skill to fly 150 miles into Pakistan at night and raid the compound, kill Bin Laden, his adult son, and his couriers, protect women and children, and leave without any casualties.
We should never take this kind of teamwork for granted. It doesn’t flow organically from the goodwill of people sharing one goal. It has to be designed into any government endeavor, demanded by leaders, and rewarded when done right.
Second, this operation needed and received bipartisan support. We briefed congressional leaders in the fall of 2010 about the intelligence on the compound. Democrats ran the House. During the 2010 midterms, Democrats lost the House, and so we quickly briefed the new Republicans in charge. We needed them on board because we needed resources for surveillance, but more importantly we wanted the bipartisan leadership to be partners in supporting this critical mission.
To their credit, members of Congress briefed on the mission never breathed a word of it. Bipartisan cooperation is absolutely essential in America’s high stakes missions overseas. We believed in the tradition of partisanship stopping at the water’s edge, and in this mission, it did.
Third, if not for the skill and professionalism of the intelligence and military personnel involved in this mission, bin Laden might still be alive today. CIA officers meticulously combed through evidence about bin Laden’s courier network and followed every lead for 10 years. The special operations teams that undertook the mission risked their lives based on incomplete information about the compound’s residents and the knowledge that if they got pinned down in Pakistan, it was going to be hard to rescue them. We have the fortune of being able to tell the American people about this mission, but the quiet professionals from the intelligence community and DOD who really deserve the credit will take most of the details to their grave.
Though we were not sure at the time, bin Laden’s killing was the beginning of the end of al Qaeda’s status as America’s preeminent threat. The Abbottabad raid deprived al Qaeda of its inspirational leader, pierced the organization’s sense of invincibility, and sent other lieutenants into deeper hiding. Within months, other senior al Qaida leaders were killed, more plots were disrupted, and before long the stream of threats against U.S. homeland targets emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan began to dry up as the group further splintered.
Today, with most of its leaders captured or killed, most of its money gone, and most of its foot soldiers absorbed by other radical groups, al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self. No longer is this terrorist organization considered the biggest threat to the United States. Though they remain dangerous, we have been able to focus resources elsewhere. The recent Worldwide Threats briefing published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and presented on Capitol Hill contained 23 pages of information about the global threat landscape but devoted just three sentences to al Qaeda.
The teamwork from 10 years ago has allowed America to pivot to the next threats — from China, Russia, nuclear proliferators, and cyber attackers. The dual crises facing America today of the unprecedented pandemic and resulting economic downturn demand teamwork, bipartisanship, and professional leadership. The bin Laden mission from a decade ago should serve as a template on how to work together to keep America safe.
Leon E. Panetta is chairman of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy. He was the 23rd U.S. secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013, and CIA director from 2009 to 2011. He previously served as member of congress, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and White House chief of staff.
Jeremy Bash is managing director of Beacon Global Strategies, a Washington-DC based advisory firm. Bash previously served as Panetta’s chief of staff at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department.
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