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Newsmaker interviews

Reuters Newsmaker: Adm. William H. McRaven — A life in Special Operations

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

Tad Simons  Technology Journalist/Thomson Reuters Institute

Reuters Editor-at-Large Sir Harold Evans joins Admiral William McRaven to discuss his storied military career and why having a Plan B is always necessary.

In an op-ed piece late last year, Reuters Editor at-Large Sir Harold Evans theorized that the 2020 presidential candidate most capable of standing up to President Donald Trump on the debate stage was Admiral William McRaven, the retired Navy commander who led the special-ops teams responsible for capturing Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and countless other terrorists.

McRaven isn’t running for president, but Evans suggested that McRaven’s stellar military leadership combined with his “brave, brainy, and eloquent” demeanor would make him a formidable and worthy candidate.

Paired together onstage in New York for the May 22 Reuters Newsmakers event, Adm. William H. McRaven: A Life in Special Operations, Evans led a discussion of McRaven’s exploits, all of which are recounted in McRaven’s new book, Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations. There was no mention of presidential aspirations, but after listening to McRaven explain his thought process during some of the most dangerous and nerve-wracking military operations in American history, it’s not hard to see why Evans is so smitten with the idea of a President McRaven.

We know how to do this

During his re-telling of the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, for example, McRaven recalled a CIA meeting beforehand in which he was asked whether a raid on the compound was possible, and how he and his team might accomplish it. His response was telling. According to McRaven, he told them, “It’s a compound. It’s what we do every night. We were doing 25 missions a night in the Iraq part of the war, and about 10 to 12 missions in Afghanistan. We know how do to this.”

In other words, the most dangerous, daring, and important mission in recent military history was, to McRaven, just another day at the office. Furthermore, on the night of the actual mission, when the first helicopter arrived at the bin Laden compound and crashed — with President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff watching nervously from the White House — the situation seemed dire. Evans asked McRaven if he considered aborting the mission at that point. Again, his answer was telling: “Absolutely not. We were committed. There was no way we were canceling the mission.” The crashed helicopter didn’t phase him he says, because “we had a Plan B.”

“I’ve got to look at myself in the mirror every morning, and I’m going to stand up and do what I think is right and accept the criticism.”

McRaven always has a backup plan. The bin Laden raid didn’t happen in one night, after all — it was the culmination of five months of careful, “very complex” planning.

The same dynamic was at work during a logistically challenging takedown of Somali terrorist Saleh Nabhan, who was wanted by the FBI for his connection to the 1998 U.S. Embassy attacks in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed more than 250 people. Again on this mission, McRaven explained that there was a tight, 15-minute window in which to target and destroy a blue sedan that Nabhan regularly drove between villages in rural Somalia. The option preferred by President Obama and Secretary Clinton — a bomb drop — became untenable due to cloud cover in the area. Rather than abort the mission, however, McRaven made the call — without consulting the President — to send in backup Blackhawk helicopters (his Plan B) to take out Nabhan. They did, successfully.

Cool head, heated talk

Time and time again, in the heat of battle, under extraordinary pressure, McRaven has been the cool head that prevailed. That’s why it was so extraordinary when he broke protocol last year by publishing an op-ed in The Washington Post criticizing President Trump’s decision to revoke former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance. In that piece, McRaven wrote, “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.”

When Evans asked about it, McRaven was candid. “I received some criticism from friends who said it wasn’t the right thing to do, and it was fair criticism,” he says, adding that he will act “when I find something in my heart that I just can’t live with.”

“I’ve got to look at myself in the mirror every morning,” he explains. “And I’m going to stand up and do what I think is right and accept the criticism.”

In the final minutes of the interview, McRaven offered several olive branches of hope for people who are despairing about the current moment in history. He assured the audience that despite suggestions that the U.S. should pull out of NATO, “the institutions continue to function.” The alliances, partnerships, and friendships that make up the NATO alliance have been built over decades, he adds.

Reuters Editor at-Large Sir Harold Evans speaks with Admiral William McRaven during a Reuters Newsmakers event. REUTERS/Bryan Bedder

“I think these friendships extend beyond presidents or prime ministers or heads of state,” McRaven says. “These friendships and alliances are built from the bottom up, soldier to soldier, foreign service officer to foreign service officer, intelligence officer to intelligence officer. So while I worry that we are disengaging to some degree internationally, I will tell you that the institutions still stay deeply engaged.”

In closing, McRaven offered an enthusiastic endorsement of the millennial generation, which he thinks has been unfairly maligned. “I’m a huge fan of the millennials,” he offers. “I hate this narrative that goes along with the millennials that they are soft and entitled and pampered. I’m always quick to say, ‘Well, you never saw them in a firefight in Afghanistan or Iraq.’”

“This is a great generation,” he adds. “For anyone who is worried about the future of the United States, spend a little time with this generation and they will lift your spirits. We’re going to be just fine.”

The question left unanswered: What’s his Plan B for the nation?

Click here to see the full video of the Thomson Reuters Newsmakers event, Adm. William H. McRaven: A Life in Special Operations.

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