State Sen. Ryan Zinke, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL, said Monday that his former unit, SEAL Team 6, led the assault that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan - but that it had plenty of support from other branches of the military and intelligence community.
"This was an operation that went far beyond the SEALs," he said in an interview with the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. "They may have been the pointy end, but there is a supporting cast that is extensive."
Zinke, a Whitefish Republican, also said the SEALs wouldn't have killed bin Laden unless he fought back and posed a threat to the people on the mission.
"I have no doubt that Osama bin Laden was killed because he had to be killed," said Zinke. "The guys are trained that ... they only engage those who are threatening to themselves and those around them."
A U.S. official says Osama bin Laden went down firing at the Navy SEALs who stormed his compound.
An official familiar with the operation says bin Laden was hit by a barrage of carefully aimed return fire.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because aspects of the operation remain classified.
The official says two dozen SEALs in night-vision goggles dropped into the high-walled compound in Pakistan by sliding down ropes from Chinook helicopters in the overnight raid.
U.S. officials say bin Laden was killed near the end of the 40-minute raid.
The SEALs retrieved bin Laden's body and turned the remaining detainees over to Pakistani authorities.
Zinke, 49, spent 23 years with the Navy SEALs, retiring in 2008 at the rank of commander and as acting commander of U.S. Special Forces in Iraq. He said he spent half his career with SEAL Team 6, including stints in Bosnia, Kosovo, southeast Asia and the Middle East.
The SEALs and the U.S. Army's Delta Force are the military's top special operations units, Zinke said, often chosen to strike against "high-value targets," weapons of mass destruction and terrorist targets.
You have free articles remaining.
There are about 2,200 Navy SEALs, who undergo rigorous physical and mental training, and only 10 percent of those make it to Team 6, which involves additional training and screening, he said.
"You really represent the most elite of our military," Zinke said.
Zinke said he had no advance knowledge of the raid on the bin Laden compound on Sunday, but was getting phone calls and emails Sunday night from former SEALs who knew people involved with the mission.
The team attacking bin Laden's compound probably had about 40 people, he said, going in by helicopter. Security would have to be maintained on the outside of the building as mission members entered and tried to find the target inside, he said: "You're on the clock."
SEAL missions sometimes must operate on limited intelligence, he said, but the bid Laden mission had a series of rehearsals and verifications that allowed it to be well-prepared.
In a helicopter assault in a foreign country, "the number of things that can go wrong are limitless ... and any time something does go wrong, your options get fewer and fewer and fewer," Zinke said.
But SEALs or similar special-ops forces are trained to mitigate any damage from failure, and go in with the mindset that "you cannot fail," he said. "You've picked a group that will go toe-to-toe for as long as it takes."
He also said that SEALs are keenly aware of the risks of any operation, and what failure would mean.
"When you bring these forces to bear, the consequences of failure are catastrophic," Zinke said, recalling the 1980 failure of Delta Force, when it attempted to rescue hostages from the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran. "It means our nation's best has failed."
Yet this time, of course, the mission was successful - which Zinke said is a testament to hard work by SEAL Team 6 and many others in the military.
"The SEALs come in and grab the high-value targets and a lot of accolades and glory, but the guys who are doing the heavy lifting (on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan) are doing it every day," he said. "My hat's off to everyone in the military, because they all share in this success. ... I couldn't be prouder of the job they've done."