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MacDill's role in bin Laden raid a mystery

TAMPA — As secrets go, it was a doozy.

President Barack Obama joked about Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday, with hundreds of reporters unaware he already had ordered Osama bin Laden's hideout attacked.

About the same time, the commander of MacDill Air Force Base, home to the two major commands leading the Mideast wars, was ordered to increase security. But he wasn't told why.

Even after U.S. special forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan, reporters calling Special Operations Command at MacDill got a reply of two words: no comment.

The role MacDill personnel played in one of the most daring in special operations history remained shrouded in mystery Monday.

While military analysts say SOCom and U.S. Central Command leaders were undoubtedly involved, just how may never be clear.

Spokesmen for CentCom and SOCom, which are both headquartered at MacDill, declined to talk about the raid.

"That was one of the really surprising things of this mission — it didn't leak anywhere," said retired Army Col. Michael Pheneger, a former director of intelligence at SOCom. "It didn't leak until (the president) started telling Congress. And by then, the raid was already done."

The group of elite commandos who killed bin Laden — reportedly called SEAL Team 6 — are part of the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, located at North Carolina's Fort Bragg and a nearby air base. JSOC is one component of SOCom.

If asked, military officials say SEAL Team 6 does not exist.

JSOC forces are "sort of like Murder Incorporated," retired special forces Col. W. Patrick Lang told the Nation.

Military analysts and retired military officers say the raid has vindicated the idea of unifying special operations.

It has done so in a way that has not occurred since SOCom's creation in 1987 after the debacle of Operation Eagle Claw, the failed 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Iran.

"The bin Laden mission is exactly why SOCom was created — to do just this sort of thing," said retired Gen. James Lindsay, SOCom's first commander.

Pheneger, a Tampa resident, said he suspects that special forces worked with a "streamlined chain of command," both to ensure secrecy and provide those in the field more flexibility.

"The more steps you have, the more problems you can have," Pheneger said, adding that commandos "may simply have bypassed elements at MacDill."

He noted that personnel at CentCom and SOCom have been under "unrelenting pressure" to find bin Laden, and regardless of the commands' level of involvement Sunday, deserve credit.

"It's nice that they have the opportunity to share in one of the greatest successes we've had," Pheneger said.

Adrian Lewis, director of the Office of Professional Military Graduate Education at the University of Kansas and a military historian who has taught at West Point, said the Eagle Claw fiasco in Iran three decades ago showed how disaster results when elements of special forces are not seamlessly integrated.

"I'd say we've fixed that," Lewis said.

Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.

MacDill's role in bin Laden raid a mystery 05/02/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 2, 2011 11:37pm]
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