For its extraordinary complexity and stunning success, the mission to kill Usama bin Laden – and the tidy removal of his corpse for subsequent forensic examination – may be the greatest covert operation ever mounted.
Students of intelligence history were hard-pressed Tuesday to cite another operation that focused on so high profile and valuable a target, and that ended in such resounding triumph. “I think this one is rather unique. You'd have to go back to the exploits of the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, I think, to find a comparable exploit,” said former Acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin. “But this one is, by any measure, the most important and prominent and best documented.”
Clandestine work is, by definition, intended to remain secret, and some of the most successful covert ops have been ones that resulted in nothing at all happening: an embassy not blown up, an informant kept alive. But the world has seen some missions to rival what the Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Navy SEALs, and other personnel pulled off in Abbottabad this past weekend.
Perhaps the closest analogue is Israel’s capture of escaped Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, in May 1960, 15 years after his disappearance at the end of World War II. Israeli Mossad agents kidnapped the fugitive on his way home from work in Buenos Aires and spirited him – aboard a commercial flight, no less – to Jerusalem, where the unrepentant defendant was prosecuted for his central role in Hitler’s Final Solution and ultimately hanged.
Less consequential, but still extremely difficult to accomplish, was the FBI’s penetration and bugging of the heavily guarded Staten Island compound of Mafia godfather Paul Castellano in the early 1980s. CIA veterans also recalled the agency’s four-year manhunt and capture – also in Pakistan – of Aimal Kasi, the gunman who killed two agency employees outside Langley headquarters in 1993. Kasi was executed by lethal injection in 2002.
To be sure, the reputation of the CIA has taken its hits over the years. From the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs to the Watergate era to the erroneous conclusions about Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs, the agency has faced periodic calls for its emasculation and defunding – even its abolition.
“When I was in the CIA, back in the early '90s, you'll remember, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there were calls for the ‘peace dividend,’ and the mission was accomplished,” Chad Sweet, a former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, told Fox News. “If you eviscerate the CIA and these operations, which was done in the Clinton administration, it takes decades to build everything back up right.”
Now, with the killing of bin Laden, a number of questions arise – and they extend well beyond those already raised about Pakistan, and what assistance, if any, that country’s senior officials may have provided to the Al Qaeda leader during his decade on the run.
Chief among them: Does America’s intelligence community, dramatically restructured after 9/11 and widely disparaged in the Iraq war, have its mojo back? And will America’s adversaries on the world stage accordingly feel less emboldened to tangle with the U.S.?
McLaughlin, a former Army officer who spent nearly three decades at CIA, told Fox News the agency “never lost its mojo,” but that the bin Laden operation will produce both positive and adverse consequences for U.S. policymakers going forward. “I think adversaries will think twice before taking steps that will draw this kind of retaliation and focus,” McLaughlin said. “On the other hand, they also – aware of this capability – will make it harder for the United States to gain this kind of information.”
Foreign responses to the news of bin Laden’s death showed conflicting evidence of how it would affect the calculus of leaders with whom the U.S. does not get along.
"We hope that this development will end war, conflict, unrest and the death of innocent people,” said a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry in Tehran. He added tartly: “This development clearly shows that there is no need for a major military deployment to counter one individual."
"Crime and murder [for the U.S.] have become something natural," Jaua said on the country's state-run TV channel. "For the empire, there is no other alternative."
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).