May 2, 2011

 
 

From Ghazi Air Base in Pakistan, the modified MH-60 helicopters made their way to the garrison suburb of Abbottabad, about 30 miles from the center of Islamabad. Aboard were Navy SEALs, flown across the border from Afghanistan, along with tactical signals, intelligence collectors, and navigators using highly classified hyperspectral imagers.

After bursts of fire over 40 minutes, 22 people were killed or captured. One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap -- boom, boom -- to the left side of his face. His body was aboard the choppers that made the trip back. One had experienced mechanical failure and was destroyed by U.S. forces, military and White House officials tell National Journal.

Were it not for this high-value target, it might have been a routine mission for the specially trained and highly mythologized SEAL Team Six, officially called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, but known even to the locals at their home base Dam Neck in Virginia as just DevGru.

This HVT was special, and the raids required practice, so they replicated the one-acre compound at Camp Alpha, a segregated section of Bagram Air Base. Trial runs were held in early April.

DevGru belongs to the Joint Special Operations Command, an extraordinary and unusual collection of classified standing task forces and special-missions units. They report to the president and operate worldwide based on the legal (or extra-legal) premises of classified presidential directives. Though the general public knows about the special SEALs and their brothers in Delta Force, most JSOC missions never leak. We only hear about JSOC when something goes bad (a British aid worker is accidentally killed) or when something really big happens (a merchant marine captain is rescued at sea), and even then, the military remains especially sensitive about their existence. Several dozen JSOC operatives have died in Pakistan over the past several years. Their names are released by the Defense Department in the usual manner, but with a cover story -- generally, they were killed in training accidents in eastern Afghanistan. That's the code.

How did the helos elude the Pakistani air defense network? Did they spoof transponder codes? Were they painted and tricked out with Pakistan Air Force equipment? If so -- and we may never know -- two other JSOC units, the Technical Application Programs Office and the Aviation Technology Evaluation Group, were responsible. These truly are the silent squirrels -- never getting public credit and not caring one whit. Since 9/11, the JSOC units and their task forces have become the U.S. government's most effective and lethal weapon against terrorists and their networks, drawing plenty of unwanted, and occasionally unflattering, attention to themselves in the process.

JSOC costs the country more than $1 billion annually. The command has its critics, but it has escaped significant congressional scrutiny and has operated largely with impunity since 9/11. Some of its interrogators and operators were involved in torture and rendition, and the line between its intelligence-gathering activities and the CIA's has been blurred.

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