Obama's Secret Army

By Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, March 5, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Obama's Secret Army

Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek

Byline: Daniel Klaidman

At a time when many Americans think their government is inept, the 'Special Operators' get the job done. Just ask the President, who is doubling down on the Navy SEALs.

One of President Obama's earliest kills came in April 2009. Somali pirates had stormed the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. container ship steaming across lawless waters off the Horn of Africa. The American crew of the ship had tried to overwhelm the pirates, who fled on a covered lifeboat, taking with them a 53-year-old hostage: ship captain Richard Phillips. Armed with AK-47s and pistols, the pirates stashed Phillips below deck and threatened to kill him if they didn't get $2 million in ransom.

Barack Obama, not yet three months into his presidency, had already undergone a crash course in battlefield management. He had authorized drone strikes in Pakistan and sent 17,000 troops into Afghanistan. But until now, he had not experienced the personal immediacy and political risk of a kill operation involving an American hostage--one that would play out largely in public view. Nor had he worked with SEAL Team 6, the elite "tier one" commandos who carry out many of the darkest missions in the shadow wars.

Early on in the standoff, the Navy had requested permission to use force, but the White House held back. Military commanders had already dispatched a small armada to the scene, including a destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, and a frigate, the USS Halyburton. Transport planes ferried in the SEALs, who parachuted into the Indian Ocean with inflatable boats. On April 11, three days after the hostage taking began, Obama agreed to the use of military force--but only if the captain's life was in imminent danger.

As Obama's military advisers monitored events in the White House Situation Room, the president popped in for regular updates. SEAL Team 6 snipers were positioned on different ships to maximize the chances of getting off clean shots. At one point, the Navy laid a kind of a trap for the hostage vessel, but the pirates, by sheer luck, "waltzed" around it, according to a source involved in the operation. All the while, the pirates were drifting toward shore. If they were able to reach a Somali beach with their hostage, a rescue operation would be much more difficult. SEAL boats began zooming around the pirates, using "shouldering and blocking" tactics to keep them away from shore.

By dusk on April 12--Easter Sunday--SEAL snipers on the fantail of the USS Bainbridge were in position to shoot the pirates. But with the covered lifeboat bobbing on the water, it was still difficult to get clean shots. They attached night-vision scopes to their rifles and waited. At one point, two of the pirates came into plain sight. The sharpshooters could see a third pirate through a window pointing his gun at Captain Phillips. Each sniper fired a single round, and it was over. Three shots, three dead pirates. A SEAL assault team boarded the lifeboat and took Phillips to safety.

Back in the White House, officials quietly celebrated. So much could have gone wrong. For a young president with little experience overseeing military operations, a botched job would have invited charges of fecklessness from Republicans and drawn inevitable comparisons to Jimmy Carter. The generals also expressed relief. "Mr. President, it worked out. But if it hadn't, it would have been my ass," one military adviser told Obama. "It would have been our ass," the president responded.

Obama has come to rely more and more on "special operators" for many types of missions. In an era of dwindling budgets and dispersed, hidden enemies, when Americans have become fatigued by disastrous military occupations, the value of pinprick operations by elite forces is clear. The budget for the Special Operations Command has more than doubled since 2001, reaching $10.5 billion, and the number of deployments has more than quadrupled. Now the head of that command, Adm.

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