SEAL unit on raid considered all-stars

US team is so elite, existence classified

By Elisabeth Bumiller
New York Times / May 5, 2011

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WASHINGTON — There were 79 people on the assault team that killed Osama bin Laden, but in the end, the success of the mission turned on some two dozen men who landed inside the Qaeda leader’s compound, fought their way to his bedroom, and shot him at close range — all while knowing that the president was watching in Washington.

The men, hailed as heroes across the country, will march in no parades. They serve in SEAL Team 6, a unit so secretive that the White House and the Defense Department do not publicly acknowledge its existence. Its members have hunted war criminals in Bosnia, fought in some of the bloodiest battles in Afghanistan, and shot three Somali pirates dead on a bobbing lifeboat during the rescue of an American hostage in 2009.

The raid early Monday in Pakistan has nonetheless put a spotlight on a unit that has been involved in some of the US military’s most dangerous missions of recent decades.

Leon E. Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said the SEAL commandos went into the mission with a 60 to 80 percent certainty that bin Laden was in the compound. The commandos made the “split-second decision’’ to shoot him — the unarmed Qaeda founder had a rifle within reach, a US official said yesterday — when they found him in his third-floor bedroom.

There was no debate among former SEAL members that whoever shot bin Laden did the right thing.

“It’s dark; there’s been a lot of bullets flying around, a lot of bodies dropping; your mission is to capture or kill bin Laden; who knows what he’s got tucked in his shirt?’’ said Don Shipley, 49, a former SEAL member in Chesapeake, Va.

“It happens in an absolute blink of an eye,’’ Mr. Shipley said. “And there’s that target in front of you. Second chances cost lives.’’

Lalo Roberti, 27, a former SEAL member who took part in a gruesome rescue mission in Afghanistan in 2005, concurred. “For us to take a shot, it has to be bad,’’ Roberti said. “Especially for the ‘6’ guys.’’

Inside the Navy, there are regular unclassified SEAL members, organized into Teams 1 to 5 and 7 to 10. Then there is SEAL Team 6, the elite of the elite, or, as Roberti put it, “the all-star team.’’

Former SEAL members said this week that the unit was chosen for the bloody raid, the most high-profile operation in the history of the SEALs, because of the group’s skills in using lethal force intelligently in complex, ambiguous conditions.

All SEAL members face years of brutal preparation, including a notorious six months of basic underwater demolition training. About 80 percent do not make it; at least one has died.

SEALs — the term stands for Sea-Air-Land teams — were created by President Kennedy in 1962 to expand unconventional warfare.

SEAL Team 6 has specialized in war on the seas, but in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, it has increasingly fought on land in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the mission’s success, former SEAL members acknowledged the precariousness of the raid and the degree of luck involved. “If that thing had gone bad, the conversation you and I would be having would be completely different,’’ Shipley said. “There’s only two ways to go in these operations — zero or hero.’’