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updated 5/3/2011 3:51:24 PM ET 2011-05-03T19:51:24

From Ghazi Air Base in Pakistan, the modified MH-60 helicopters made their way to the garrison suburb of Abbottabad, about 30 miles from the center of Islamabad. Aboard were Navy SEALs, flown across the border from Afghanistan, along with tactical signals, intelligence collectors, and navigators using highly classified hyperspectral imagers.

After bursts of fire over 40 minutes, 22 people were killed or captured. One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap — boom, boom — to the left side of his face. His body was aboard the choppers that made the trip back. One had experienced mechanical failure and was destroyed by U.S. forces, military and White House officials tell NationalJournal.

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Were it not for this high-value target, it might have been a routine mission for the specially trained and highly mythologized SEAL Team Six, officially called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, but known even to the locals at their home base Dam Neck in Virginia as just DevGru.

Video: Inside the intense world of SEAL training

This HVT was special, and the raids required practice, so they replicated the one-acre compound at Camp Alpha, a segregated section of Bagram Air Base. Trial runs were held in early April.

DevGru belongs to the Joint Special Operations Command, an extraordinary and unusual collection of classified standing task forces and special-missions units. They report to the president and operate worldwide based on the legal (or extra-legal) premises of classified presidential directives. Though the general public knows about the special SEALs and their brothers in Delta Force, most JSOC missions never leak. We only hear about JSOC when something goes bad (a British aid worker is accidentally killed) or when something really big happens (a merchant marine captain is rescued at sea), and even then, the military remains especially sensitive about their existence. Several dozen JSOC operatives have died in Pakistan over the past several years. Their names are released by the Defense Department in the usual manner, but with a cover story — generally, they were killed in training accidents in eastern Afghanistan. That’s the code.

Video: For SEALs, brains as important as brawn

How did the helos elude the Pakistani air defense network? Did they spoof transponder codes? Were they painted and tricked out with Pakistan Air Force equipment? If so — and we may never know — two other JSOC units, the Technical Application Programs Office and the Aviation Technology Evaluation Group, were responsible. These truly are the silent squirrels — never getting public credit and not caring one whit. Since 9/11, the JSOC units and their task forces have become the U.S. government’s most effective and lethal weapon against terrorists and their networks, drawing plenty of unwanted, and occasionally unflattering, attention to themselves in the process.

JSOC costs the country more than $1 billion annually. The command has its critics, but it has escaped significant congressional scrutiny and has operated largely with impunity since 9/11. Some of its interrogators and operators were involved in torture and rendition, and the line between its intelligence-gathering activities and the CIA's has been blurred.

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But Sunday’s operation provides strong evidence that the CIA and JSOC work well together. Sometimes intelligence needs to be developed rapidly, to get inside the enemy’s operational loop. And sometimes it needs to be cultivated, grown as if it were delicate bacteria in a petri dish.

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In an interview at CIA headquarters two weeks ago, a senior intelligence official said the two proud groups of American secret warriors had been “deconflicted and basically integrated” — finally — 10 years after 9/11. Indeed, according to accounts given to journalists by five senior administration officials Sunday night, the CIA gathered the intelligence that led to bin Laden’s location. A memo from CIA Director Leon Panetta sent Sunday night provides some hints of how the information was collected and analyzed. In it, he thanked the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for their help. NSA figured out, somehow, that there was no telephone or Internet service in the compound. How it did this without Pakistan’s knowledge is a secret. The NGIA makes the military’s maps but also develops their pattern recognition software — no doubt used to help establish, by February of this year, that the CIA could say with “high probability” that bin Laden and his family were living there.

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Recently, JSOC built a new Targeting and Analysis Center in Rosslyn, Va. Where the National Counterterrorism Center tends to focus on threats to the homeland, TAAC, whose existence was first disclosed by the Associated Press, focuses outward, on active “kinetic” — or lethal — counterterrorism missions abroad. Its creation surprised the NCTC’s director, Michael Leiter, who was suspicious about its intent until he visited.

That the center could be stood up under the nose of some of the nation’s most senior intelligence officials without their full knowledge testifies to the power and reach of JSOC, whose size has tripled since 9/11. The command now includes more than 4,000 soldiers and civilians. It has its own intelligence division, which may or may not have been involved in last night’s effort, and has gobbled up a number of free-floating Defense Department entities that allowed it to rapidly acquire, test, and field new technologies.

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Under a variety of standing orders, JSOC is involved in more than 50 current operations spanning a dozen countries, and its units, supported by so-called "white," or acknowledged, special operations entities like Rangers, Special Forces battalions, SEAL teams, and Air Force special ops units from the larger Special Operations Command, are responsible for most of the “kinetic” action in Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials are conscious of the enormous stress that 10 years of war have placed on the command. JSOC resources are heavily taxed by the operational tempo in Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials have said. The current commander, Vice Adm. William McRaven, and Maj. Gen. Joseph Votel, McRaven’s nominated replacement, have been pushing to add people and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technology to areas outside the war theater where al-Qaida and its affiliates continue to thrive.

Earlier this year, it seemed that the elite units would face the same budget pressures that the entire military was experiencing. Not anymore. The military found a way, largely by reducing contracting staff and borrowing others from the Special Operations Command, to add 50 positions to JSOC. And Votel wants to add several squadrons to the “Tier One” units — Delta and the SEALs.

When Gen. Stanley McChrystal became JSOC’s commanding general in 2004, he and his intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, set about transforming the way the subordinate units analyze and act on intelligence. Insurgents in Iraq were exploiting the slow decision loop that coalition commanders used, and enhanced interrogation techniques were frowned upon after the Abu Ghraib scandal. But the hunger for actionable tactical intelligence on insurgents was palpable.

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Video: Bin Laden death marks end of an era

The way JSOC solved this problem remains a carefully guarded secret, but people familiar with the unit suggest that McChrystal and Flynn introduced hardened commandos to basic criminal forensic techniques and then used highly advanced and still-classified technology to transform bits of information into actionable intelligence. One way they did this was to create forward-deployed fusion cells, where JSOC units were paired with intelligence analysts from the NSA and the NGIA. Such analysis helped the CIA to establish, with a high degree of probability, that Osama bin Laden and his family were hiding in that particular compound.

Video: Details on US raid that killed bin Laden (on this page)

These technicians could “exploit and analyze” data obtained from the battlefield instantly, using their access to the government’s various biometric, facial-recognition, and voice-print databases. These cells also used highly advanced surveillance technology and computer-based pattern analysis to layer predictive models of insurgent behavior onto real-time observations.

The military has begun to incorporate these techniques across the services. And Flynn will soon be promoted to a job within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where he’ll be tasked with transforming the way intelligence is gathered, analyzed, and utilized.

The article, "The secret team that killed bin Laden," first appeared in the National Journal.

Video: Practice makes perfect mission, former SEALs say

  1. Closed captioning of: Practice makes perfect mission, former SEALs say

    >> to get osama bin laden . george, good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning, matt. you can see behind me the s.e.a.l. training compound. the people inside here politely declined our requests for interviews today, but as the s.e.a.l.s are fond of saying, "we are the quiet professionals." their missions are shrouded in secrecy. their names and faces unknown to the public. but the reputation of the u.s. navy s.e.a.l.s as the best of america's elite warriors has never been higher. the operation that resulted in the death of osama bin laden is only the latest, most noteworthy chapter in the story of a legendary fighting force . itle all starts here with the high intensity training course designed to push candidates to their limit. in scenarios that test mental toughness, physical fitness and extreme courage. whether on land, in the air or under water,le sel s.e.a.l.s demonstrate ability to stay focused under fire.

    >> whether it's a scenario change-up delivered as a platoon exercises, those things make you more capable and likely to survive the unforeseen over seas seas.

    >> reporter: in this exercise s.e.a.l.s are taught to react quickly in a dark environment. as the hoods are pulled off their heads they have seconds to assess the situation and respond accordingly. s.e.a.l. teams carried out missions in afghanistan since shortly after 9/11. in 2009 pulled off the spectacular rescue of american merchant captain richard phillips who was taken hostage by somali pirates . back in coronado at a bar owned by a former s.e.a.l., a special feeling of bride and gratitude at the news of bin laden 's death.

    >> you can count on the navy s.e.a.l.s and special forces to do the hard jobs. it's thankless. you can't exactly name who they were. but pretty sure they are proud of what they did.

    >> reporter: the s.e.a.l.s don't expect parades or medals. in fact, not even their families know details of what they dole while deployed over seas.

    >> there are times they say, well, i can't talk about that. we don't know half the stuff. but what they can share, they do when they get home.

    >> reporter: rear admiral ed winters, in charge of the s.e.a.l.s, sent out this e-mail. today, we should all be proud. that handful of courageous men of strong will and character have changed the course of history. the fight is not over. because the s.e.a.l.s operate in secret, the identities of t people in the bin laden operation may never be known, may never be recognized publically for heroism. wherever the fight leads now rest assured that the s.e.a.l.s and other members of the special forces community will be there on the front lines. matt?

    >> george lewis , thank you very much. we have the author of "the heart and the fist," the making of a navy s.e.a.l. michael sheehan started in the army special forces . good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> the level of anxiety once they find out who the target is, the navy s.e.a.l. team 6 get into the choppers. what was the level of anxiety likely aboard the choppers?

    >> the word is when they heard osama bin laden was the target there was a huge cheer that went up. the guys were excited for the mission. they had been practicing for months going through every possible contingency. adrenaline was high. excited, but these are professionals ready for the operation.

    >> you talk about every possible con ten g contingency. i was glad they had the backup, two choppers coming in. how do they go through all the things that can go wrong.

    >> these s.e.a.l.s are the elite of the elite. some of the best commandos in the world. they practice time an again. they run different scenarios where things go wrong and they practice adjusting. they can never know for certain what will happen on the target but they know the objective was to kill bin laden , grab intelligence and get out.

    >> 40 minutes on the ground. that's how long it took to get in and out. you're operating in a sovereign nation . could be hostile. you are expecting to meet resistance inside the compound. how important is speed?

    >> speed is critical. three key principles for them in planning the operation. number one is speed. two is surprise and three, violence of action.

    >> overwhelmingly force.

    >> make sure the enemy doesn't know you're coming, hit fast and hard.

    >> this is shock and awe.

    >> yes.

    >> when i first heard about the operation, helicopters are noisy.

    >> yes.

    >> you have to assume osama bin laden is expecting to be attacked and that there are ways out of the compound like tunnels. is it safe to assume there were other people on the ground, our people on the ground that were helping to secure the compound even as the s.e.a.l.s were flying in?

    >> helicopters are not only noisy but dangerous. they fall out of the sky. there are crashes. president carter saw it in tehran in 1980 . we crashed a helicopter and an aircraft. mogadishu, a blackhawk goes down in 1993 . disaster ensues. i imagine there were people on the ground for somebody trying to escape, having to exfiltrate people out, a crash. i would think probably operatives on the ground.

    >> perhaps still on the ground. for those slower to get out than the s.e.a.l.s who were in and out in 40 minutes.

    >> exactly.

    >> trust. clearly we didn't trust the pakistanis. we didn't share one piece of information about thinking he was there. does it speak for itself?

    >> it does. there are answers that need to be made in the days ahead. they are a flawed partner for us.

    >> two questions. mike, i get this mental image of the unsung heroes here. that there were people for years at computers, filing names into a program, locations, dates, cold cup of coffee and a steal donut. like the cops who go after cold cases .

    >> the cia, everyone likes beating up on them when things go bad. this went well. the unsung heroes are people in pakistan trying to find a person in the basement of an office trying to piece together the dots. they are normally forgotten. i hope we remember to recognize them. they were as crucial as the brave fighters that went through the door.

    >> we may never know the names of the members of s.e.a.l. team 6 that carried this out. but within the organization, within the navy s.e.a.l.s, how will they be regarded in the years to come? where does it fall in the history of accomplishments of the navy s.e.a.l.s?

    >> they will be honored and revered. for a lot of men who undertook the mission, it was not just a courageous action on a particular day. many of these men had been fighting this battle for nine and a half years. they made sacrifices, their families made sacrifices. they lost comrades. others came off wounded and disabled. for them it wasn't just about hitting a target. it was about justice.

    >> the guy that fired the shot that killed bin laden ?

    >> a hero in my mind and i think for all americans.

    >> thank you both. i appreciate

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