Few first-hand accounts have emerged from the recent operation to take out terrorist mastermind Osama bin-Laden. The Navy SEAL team that conducted the raid has been sworn to secrecy, and the few details that have become public are murky, as most are based on hearsay and suppositions.
Now, for the first time, an insider has come forward to offer precious insight on how the heroic team prepared itself for the mission, then carried it out in nearly flawless fashion. A CIA contractor, not covered by national security restrictions but who nevertheless has asked to remain anonymous, offers the following first-person narrative.
I was a copy editor for SEAL Team Six.
In September of 2010, I got a call from Langley, Va., offering me a six-month stint of freelance work. I was asked to provide an estimate of how much I would charge to make the daily drive to CIA headquarters, where I would review a confidential training manual and offer editorial suggestions on how its readability might be improved. They quickly accepted my rate of $40 an hour, which makes me think I should’ve asked for $50.
Soon I discovered that the booklet I’d be editing was the complete operational instruction guide for the elite squad of soldiers known as the Navy SEALs. The manual had been compiled from several sources — the Army Rangers, the Green Berets, an unnamed “black ops” outfit — and needed a consistent editorial voice. I pulled out my red pen and set to work, knowing that the fate of our war against terror could lie in the balance.
A quick scan of the document revealed that it was a grammatical disaster area, a virtual Ground Zero of misplaced modifiers, subject and verb disagreement, and inconsistent punctuation. The serial comma was used in some lists and not in others, creating the potential that trainees studying how to “kill, capture, or neutralize” the enemy might be confused or distracted. The usual inadequacy of spellcheck was apparent throughout; one reference to a contingency that would cover unexpected events mentioned plans that might go “a rye,” while elsewhere an attack on the enemy’s lair was written as an “a salt.” I wondered, was this a blueprint for knocking out al-Qaeda or a cookbook?
Word choice was not appropriate for the reading level of most soldiers with a high-school education. The terrorist hideout, for example, was called a “redoubt.”
“Redoubt?” asked one particularly gung-ho soldier. “We have no doubt at all.”
As my work on the manual unfolded, I got the opportunity to expand beyond the original specifications of my duties. I don’t consider myself a graphic designer, but I was able to point out that a serif font would be much more legible in the field than the Helvetica sans-serif that was the CIA’s standard. I suggested they use more call-outs with bullet points, something you’d think a gun-toting military writer would have already considered. As the editing process neared completion, I was even able to squeeze line leading to eliminate a short page, reducing the page count from 65 to 64 so the CIA could save on its paper purchase.
On what was to be my last day of work, the bureau chief stopped by my cubicle with an offer I couldn’t refuse. He asked me to accompany the SEAL team on its secret mission deep into Pakistan, to make sure any written communications needed during the assault were unambiguous and to offer a generalized “quality assurance” to the operation.
“I can’t tell you who we’re going after,” he said cryptically. “Let’s just say I don’t want our men encountering a typo that will send them after ‘Obama’ instead of ‘Osama.'”
Next thing I knew, I was getting off a troop transport plane in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. I could tell already my assistance would be crucial, as the passenger list carried a heading with one too many “ala’s” in “Jalalabad.”
The next few days were a whirlwind of activity as we prepared for the May 1 D-Day. I met with top brass on the code name for the operation, guiding them away from “Uranus Spear” and toward the ultimate title of “Neptune Spear.” I suggested they brand themselves as “SEAL Team Six” rather than the clunky “United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (or DEVGRU).” I came up with a great hook of a name for the technique of firing two kill shots, one to the chest and one above the left eye.
“How about ‘double tap’?” I asked the lieutenant general in charge of preparation.
“Fabulous,” he said. “Where would we be without you? You’ve saved us again!”
On the night of the attack, I joined the 24 SEALs as we loaded our gear from the helipad onto the choppers. I suggested a last-minute switch that would employ Black Hawks instead of the harder-to-spell Chinooks, concerned that newspapers around the world might inadvertently obscure the message of might we were bringing down on the perpetrators of 9/11.
We came in low over the Pakistani countryside that night, certain we had done everything necessary to prepare for a successful mission. On the approach into Abbottabad, I learned the disappointing news that, as a civilian contractor, I would not be allowed to slither down the descent ropes and join in the expected firefight. I could watch everything unfold from my perch above the action, vigilant against any miscommunications that might lead to failure. Also, I was asked to clean up after Cairo, the now-famous tracking dog that would ultimately help to corner bin-Laden.
Explosions and flashes of light filled the hot evening air. We lost one of the choppers when a rotor came too close to the wall of the compound. As the wounded Black Hawk settled into a soft crash landing, I offered a quiet prayer of thanks that I’d made the right decision to leave the larger and bulkier Chinooks behind.
After about a half hour into the operation, word came via radio that a man believed to be Osama bin-Laden had been killed. Soldiers on the ground were unsure how to positively identify the body. They had a photo of the victim’s bloodied face, but were unsure that facial recognition software back in CIA headquarters would be able to make an ID.
“Take another photo, and this time, position the head so the face is more in profile,” I suggested. “That angle is a lot more flattering for most people.”
The Navy SEALs heeded my word and, within another few minutes, it was confirmed: the hated bin-Laden was dead.
We high-tailed it out of Pakistan as fast as we could, heading for the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea. Plans to bury bin-Laden’s corpse at sea were finalized, and I was brought forward for one last piece of editorial advice. Could I look over the traditional Islamic service that would be delivered as the body, now wrapped in a white sheet and placed in a weighted plastic bag, was slid into the sea?
“I don’t know Arabic,” I protested to the vice-admiral of the fleet.
“Just give it a quick once-over to see if any typos jump out at you,” he said.
The squiggles looked about right to me, and I signed off on the proof just before it was delivered to the chaplain.
Later that afternoon, I was put aboard another transport plane for the 20-hour return flight to the U.S. After an exhausting several months on the front line of history, I slept most of the way back across the Pacific.
I had made a significant contribution to America’s efforts in ridding the world of Islamist terrorism. Justice for the thousands of innocent victims had been served. And whether you spell it “Usama bin-Ladn” or “Osama bin-Laden,” whether you spell it “al-Qaeda” or “al-Qaida” or simply “Qaeda,” there was now a little less evil in the world.
Thanks to me and Navy SEAL Team Six.