William H. McRaven, a retired Navy admiral, was commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command from 2011 to 2014. He oversaw the 2011 Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. Michael Leiter was director of the National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011.
Nine years ago this month, Osama bin Laden’s reign of terror as the leader of al-Qaeda came to an end. This date is etched in many of our memories. Americans and millions of others around the world felt a complex set of emotions: elation, relief, deep sadness from the events of 9/11 and the many of thousands of deaths that followed in combatting al-Qaeda and its allies in the years since.
For those of us who played a small part in the mission that led to bin Laden’s death, this anniversary reminds us of something else: how to best protect our country. Although distilling exactly what led to success in a few words is impossible, its foundations are unmistakable. Nonpartisan teamwork, fact-based analysis, relentless focus on a national priority, self-sacrifice, rigorous and objective debate among a team striving for a clear goal, and humility even — in fact, especially — in the face of victory.
Above all, it is crucial to remember that this victory was the result of a unified vision, serious planning and thought, and sustained hard work. Not by Democrats, Republicans, independents or others. Not just by Americans but by all of those who had a common vision for a better tomorrow. Nine years ago, we saw what it took to make us all safer and provide a window for greater prosperity in years to come. We cannot forget what it took to get there then — and what it still takes today.
On May 1, 2011, this was true from the ground up. From the intelligence officers who collected and analyzed information, to the Special Operations forces who executed the raid, to the diplomats who handled the fallout, to the leaders in the Situation Room who debated and directed the operation. And of course, to the presidents who initiated the hunt for bin Laden — George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — and the president, Barack Obama, who oversaw the operation and ordered its execution.
In the moments after we learned of bin Laden’s death, each of us in the Situation Room that day undoubtedly reflected in our own ways, whether it was recalling friends who had been lost in the previous decade or thinking about how this might help the strategic counterterrorism struggle ahead. Simultaneously, many of us were tasked to call senior officials around the world and in the United States to inform them of the victory. The list included past presidents, prime ministers, kings, lawmakers and senior officials within the U.S. government who didn’t even know of the mission given its secrecy. Mike was also lucky enough to call one of the family members who lost a loved one on 9/11 — a call he will never forget and that still brings tears to his eyes today.
With all that occurred that day, we are quite sure none of us involved — not the brilliant intelligence community team that solved the puzzle, not the courageous special operators who risked everything in the dead of night, and not the officials who made calls or picked up the phones — ever gave a second of thought to the political persuasion of their counterparts. In a moment of national victory — one that had grown out of an incredible national crisis — we were simply professional colleagues who had worked together for a national and global priority. And during the entirety of the mission, I’m confident that no one had time for anything but hard-nosed, factual, objective analysis of how to best perform the mission.
None of this is to suggest that over the course of the preceding decade we had not made mistakes. We had — some repeatedly. Exactly what mistakes were made was (and continues to be) an appropriate subject of debate, scrutiny and remediation. And the debates themselves of course haven’t been perfect, either. Some have been overtly partisan, some arguably misguided. But at least in the run-up to, and the hours of, May 1, 2011, these challenges were pushed aside in the name of not merely an American victory but a global victory for all who had suffered incalculable pain due to al-Qaeda’s purely evil pursuits. American leadership had surely conducted and enabled the final mission, but it had done so only with the help of countless partners around the world who themselves had made enormous sacrifices.
In a time of current national — and indeed global — crisis, it is too easy to pine for a moment when all seemed to go our way. Much more important is to remember why we had the victory we did. What worked for our country. What didn’t work. And why seriousness, focus, and commitment are still required to fix those things that may still be broken.