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Killing Bin Laden: A ‘Routine Mission’ for War-Tested SEALs

May 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama praised troops Friday at Fort Campbell, Ky., after a big victory in the long war against al-Qaida. Ray Suarez discusses the special military units that brought down Osama bin Laden with retired Navy Cmdr. Ryan Zinke, a former SEAL Team Six member, and retired Army Col. Kalev Sepp, a former Special Forces officer.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to those special military units that brought down Osama bin Laden.

Ray Suarez has that.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, Fort Campbell!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: The end of an eventful week found the president praising troops at Fort Campbell, Ky., after a very public victory in the long war against al-Qaida.

BARACK OBAMA: Thanks to the incredible skill and courage of countless individuals — intelligence, military — over many years, the terrorist leader who struck our nation on 9/11 will never threaten America again.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: But elsewhere on the sprawling base, well beyond the cameras’ reach, the president earlier met with members of the special operations team that killed bin Laden.

BARACK OBAMA: It was a chance for me to say, on behalf of all Americans and people around the world, job well done.

RAY SUAREZ: Among them, operators from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, often called “SEAL Team Six,” and pilots from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, nicknamed “Night Stalkers.”

Along with comrades from other so-called special missions units, like the Army’s Delta Force, they work for the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. After the disastrous 1980 attempt to free hostages in Iran, JSOC was formed to use the top special forces units of the U.S. military and today is a vital tool in the American arsenal.

MARC AMBINDER, “National Journal”: This wasn’t the first time or fifth or 10th or 20th time that JSOC has — has conducted secret ops in Pakistan without — without the knowledge of the Pakistani government.

RAY SUAREZ: “National Journal”‘s Marc Ambinder writes about intelligence and national security matters, and to the extent possible, JSOC.

MARC AMBINDER: Since 9/11, the units have turned into an army, a secret army within an army. They have incorporated intelligence elements, logistical elements, technological and development elements. And they really became the tip of the spear in the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

RAY SUAREZ: Since 9/11, JSOC has handled among the highest-profile and sensitive operations.

In 2003, JSOC operatives killed Saddam Hussein’s sons and captured the Iraqi leader himself. In 2006, JSOC tracked down al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike. And, in 2009, snipers from SEAL Team Six killed Somali pirates holding an American mariner off the Horn of Africa.

But JSOC’s tactics in Iraq also led to revelations of detainee abuse and torture by American forces under the command of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who later led the war in Afghanistan.

Over the last decade of war in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, JSOC has quadrupled in size, from 1,000 to 4,000 personnel, as it’s been asked to perform more and more tasks.

CIA Director Panetta said Tuesday on the NewsHour the high operational tempo gave policy-makers confidence they could do this job.

LEON PANETTA, CIA director: These teams conduct these kinds of operations two and three times a night in Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: JSOC now works intimately with the CIA on both intelligence and operational matters. Though it operates in near-total secrecy, its missions are national security priorities.

And that has created a quandary, says Ambinder.

MARC AMBINDER: Let’s be very clear what happened. The U.S. violated the sovereignty of a country to carry out a targeted assassination of someone. Now, 98 percent of us, including myself, think it was exactly the right thing to do — right thing to do. But it absolutely has the potential to and probably should increase the public debate, or at least the public’s knowledge, of this entity called JSOC.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on special operations and the SEALs, we turn to former SEAL Team Six member retired Navy Commander Ryan Zinke. He’s now a Montana state senator. And former Army Special Forces officer retired Col. Kalev Sepp, he also served in civilian special operations posts in the Pentagon. He’s now an assistant professor at the Navy Postgraduate School.

And, Senator, let me start with you. Just a short time ago, Vice President Biden called the units that pulled off this operation in Afghanistan some of the most capable fighting forces in the history of the world.

Who are they? How do you end up training, being picked for one of these units?

CMDR. RYAN ZINKE (RET.), U.S. Navy SEAL: What you are seeing is, is two tier-one forces, which really represent the best of the Navy and the Army.

On the SEAL side, it takes five years to — in order to become — when a young man says, I want to be a Navy SEAL, that process alone is a long and arduous journey. It represents about a 90 percent attrition rate. And then, when you’re finally a member of a SEAL team, is that you will have a couple deployments under your belt, show you that are a superior performer, and then you are either asked or request an interview with SEAL Team Six, at which you go to another selection course, of which 50 percent fail.

So, really, when are you talking about the caliber of these individuals, both in dedication and skill level, it really represents the best of the best.

RAY SUAREZ: And by the time you become a member of that team, I guess you are no longer a real youngster either. How — what is the average age in a unit like Team Six?

CMDR. RYAN ZINKE: Well, we used to call it the old man club. When I was active, it was — we were about 34, 35 years of age on average.

But, you know, what you have to understand, too, is these guys have been fighting a war for over 10 years. They are hardened combat veterans. They have — they have conducted operations in hundreds of compounds. And they are experienced. They know what they are doing. This is a routine operation and — you know, for these guys anyway. They know what they are doing. They’re pros.

RAY SUAREZ: Col. Sepp, what can these units do that conventionally trained forces can’t or are not assigned to do?

COL. KALEV SEPP (RET.), U.S. Army: Well, Sen. Zinke answered part of that question in describing how they are selected for these missions.

There are simply operations, military operations, that are directed by the president that require a very high degree of assurance of success and to minimize risk — there will always be risk — by — putting together people and teams that — you know, that are physically powerful, highly intelligent, and then have a body of experience and maturity that attend to that, and then are connected to all the support systems, the aviation units that move them, the intelligence structures that — that prepare the — their understanding of their target for them.

These are truly national mission forces.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s — I would like to get some more examples from both of you of the kinds of things that these men are taught to do that conventionally trained people just wouldn’t learn in basic training, as generations of American service people have experienced.

Colonel?

COL. KALEV SEPP: The historical piece would be — explain some of this.

The Son Tay raid into North Vietnam in 1970 — that is the idea of being able to go deep into the — you know, the heart of an enemy country right next to their capital and attempt a rescue of prisoners that are held at a prison camp is the — is the modern model for the capabilities that a — that these mission — that these special mission units are supposed to be able to provide for the president.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator, some examples?

CMDR. RYAN ZINKE: When you look at weapons of mass destruction or hostage takeover, Achille Lauro, or any of those high-profile missions where you cannot fail, I think that this is the force. This is the force the president would call on.

They are constantly in training. They are war-hardened. They are a very expensive force to run as well. I mean, the resources that are brought to bear with these forces are — are phenomenal.

And the other thing to understand is, is that for every one SEAL that was on the ground in the compound, there’s 200 or 300 supporting cast members that are also doing the job, from intelligence collection, to bringing the fuel, loading the ammunition. I mean, these guys have a lot of great people behind them that are supporting the effort.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator, are you surprised at all that we’re even having this conversation? In this week’s “TIME” magazine, there is a quote to a report from a former SEAL, “I can’t say a word about Team Six. There is no Team Six.”

And, yet, here are you and I talking about it.

CMDR. RYAN ZINKE: Well, I was, quite frankly, shocked at the early confirmation by senior officials that used the term SEAL Team Six.

And in previous operations, it’s been special operations. And, occasionally, you will break it down to Army Special Forces or Navy Special Forces. But I think this is the first time that we have had early confirmation of SEAL Team Six.

And, of course, when that happens is — the public wants to know, who is SEAL Team Six? And, of course, Richard Marcinko in books, and then, pretty soon, with the technology available today, you are able to find, you know, Sen. Ryan Zinke in Whitefish, Mont., as a former member.

RAY SUAREZ: Colonel, do the JSOC units from the various branches of the services work together at all, or, under JSOC, do they remain very much Navy, Army, Marine, distinct units?

COL. KALEV SEPP: Oh, the strength of the Joint Special Operations Command is the — is the cohesion that these units have in working with each other.

Elements of it tend to be pure only in the sense of where they are recruited from and formed. The — there is an Army special mission unit. There is this Navy SEAL special mission unit. There is aviation units from the Army and Air Force.

But in the — in the — over the past 10 years, the duration and intensity and demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other locations around the world, in the counterterrorism missions that these special mission units have, have driven them to work together as a whole, as a complete team.

RAY SUAREZ: I’m glad you brought up the operational tempo, because it is reported that there is very high demand for the skills in — that are embedded in JSOC.

We have a long tradition of civilian oversight of the military in this country. Is that weakened at all by a unit that seems a little bit beyond the reach of that civilian oversight?

COL. KALEV SEPP: The unit is under very direct control of the national executive authority of the United States.

It is — they are — although they maintain a very tight classification of, you know, the capabilities of the unit, who the membership are, what their tools and weapons and support capabilities are, in fact, they’re — they’re under very tight review and control. And the evidence of that is the president’s direct role in ordering this mission to capture or kill bin Laden inside Pakistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Sen. Zinke, same question.

CMDR. RYAN ZINKE: Well, I don’t think so.

I think the technology is moving so rapidly forward. One is, you do need a force like this. And the demands on special operations forces have increased and will continue to increase. But when you look at the complexity of the operations that face these troops, I mean, it’s no surprise that you do need years of experience.

And the fact that the president of the United States can look and observe on operations, you know, in foreign countries down to detail about almost a room-to-room clearance, well, you know, I think should give one pause, both that, A., you can command and control it from further away, and, B., that the level of scrutiny, I think, has never been more intense and more relevant and clear in operations that are being conducted.

RAY SUAREZ: Sen. Zinke, Col. Sepp, gentlemen, thank you both.

COL. KALEV SEPP: Thank you.

CMDR. RYAN ZINKE: Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.