The Washington Post, Staff writers Greg Miller, Dana Priest and Karen Tumulty and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
5 May, 2011
Vickers has known McRaven since he was a Navy SEAL lieutenant commander and Vickers an Army Special Forces captain. They’ve worked especially closely over the past four years, when Vickers served as the Pentagon’s top civilian official overseeing Special Operations forces, including units hunting al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
“Bill is a great leader but also a pretty big thinker,” Vickers said. “It’s a rare balance of these two skills.
McRaven returned to Washington after bin Laden’s death and briefed lawmakers in a closed session Wednesday on Capitol Hill. He declined to be interviewed for this article.He grew up as the son of an Air Force colonel who flew British Spitfires during World War II and played briefly in the NFL. McRaven graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied journalism, in 1977. His 1995 book analyzed eight famous moments in special-operations history, including the Israeli raid to free hostages on a hijacked airliner at Entebbe, Uganda.
Unlike some high-ranking military officers, McRaven is “definitely not a yeller-screamer,” said a former Special Operations official who has known him for years and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the clandestine nature of their work. “He’s a guy that I think you can look at as a modern-day SEAL, a post-Vietnam-era SEAL — guys that are quiet, humble, smart.”
Under his leadership, the Joint Special Operations Command has expanded its reach beyond Afghanistan and Iraq. In September 2009, McRaven negotiated an agreement with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to conduct secret missions with Yemeni troops against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate of bin Laden’s network that some officials say has become the primary terrorist threat to the United States.
But McRaven has spent most of his time in Afghanistan, where JSOC efforts have greatly intensified. His forces have killed or captured hundreds of insurgent leaders over the past year, primarily in nighttime raids, according to U.S. military officials.
They have portrayed the raids as a cornerstone of their war strategy. Although they acknowledge that such raids alone cannot defeat the Taliban, “the results have been staggering,” said the senior Obama administration official.
But the nighttime operations have strained relations with the Afghan government, which says that the raids often target the wrong individuals and that U.S. forces are not held accountable for lethal mistakes.n October, Special Operations forces accidentally killed a kidnapped British aid worker with a grenade during a botched mission. U.S. officials at first blamed the death on the Taliban but were forced to retract the assertion.
Also last year, after Special Operations forces killed five innocent Afghan civilians in another bungled raid, McRaven admitted that his team had committed “a terrible mistake” and visited the victims’ relatives to ask for forgiveness.
Paying homage to tribal honor codes, McRaven took two sheep to the village in Paktia province and offered to sacrifice them in a mercy-seeking gesture. Village elders spared the sheep but did accept a cash payment of about $30,000, according to an eyewitness account reported by the Times of London.
“I am a soldier,” McRaven told the father of two of the victims. “I have spent most of my career overseas, away from my family, but I have children as well, and my heart grieves for you.”
In an attempt to minimize further casualties, McRaven ordered the reinstallation of bright-white spotlights on AC-130 gunships that often accompany assault forces on the nighttime raids. Military officials describe the lights as an intimidating factor that encourages insurgents to give up, or at least not to flee and grab a weapon.
In March, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he was recommending McRaven for promotion to four-star admiral and leader of the U.S. Special Operations Command, based in Tampa.
The move is subject to Senate approval. But Shuster, the congressman, said that given McRaven’s role in bin Laden’s capture, “they won’t be able to confirm him quickly enough.”