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Adm. William McRaven on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden


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Judy Woodruff: It is the strike that made SEAL Team Six, a covert special operations unit, a household name.

They stormed a compound in Pakistan, killing Osama bin Laden in 2011. Admiral William McRaven oversaw the mission. He now details his 37 years in the Navy in a new book, "Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations."

Admiral William McRaven, thank you very much for joining us.

Adm. William McRaven: Oh, thanks. Great to be here.

Judy Woodruff: So this book is about much more than the raid to kill bin Laden. It's about your growing up as the son of a career Army Air Corps officer, going and choosing to go into the SEALs, the training you went through, getting into all kinds of scrapes as a boy, guarding Saddam Hussein.

But I guess my first question is, where did this physical courage come from, this lack of fear?

Adm. William McRaven: Yes, I'm not sure it was a lack of fear, as much it was this kind of sense of adventure.

I grew up, as you pointed out, in a military family. My father was a fighter pilot during World War II. And hanging around that Greatest Generation, these men and women that were children of World War I, children of the Depression, all the men went off and fought in World War II, and I would listen to their stories.

And their stories were -- they were poignant, they were funny, they were inspiring. Sometimes, they were a little unbelievable. But I will tell you, they were always stories of courage.

And so, as a young boy growing up around these courageous men and women, I think that instills a certain courage in you and a certain sense of adventure. And that was one of the reasons I wanted to join the military.

Judy Woodruff: There's a mystique, of course, around the SEALs, and that whole -- the training that they go through.

And you write about how very hard it is, how most of the men who go through it don't make it.

Adm. William McRaven: Right.

Judy Woodruff: What sets apart the ones who do from those who don't?

Adm. William McRaven: Yes, it's really very simple.

SEAL training really doesn't have a lot to do with how big and how strong and how fast you are. There's only one thing you have to do in SEAL training. And that's not quit.

So, the one thing that defines everybody that goes through SEAL training is that they didn't ring the bell, as we say. They didn't quit. And that's really what you're trying to find in the young SEAL students, because, in the course of your career, you're going to be cold, wet, miserable. You're going to kind of fail often as a result of bad missions, bad training.

And we need people that can persevere through all of that. So, while it is important to be physically fit when you go through training, you find out very quickly that your background, your social status, your color, your orientation, none of that matters.

The only thing that matters is that you go in with this purpose in mind and this -- the thought that you are just not going to quit, no matter what happens.

Judy Woodruff: Let's go back to the bin Laden raid.

When those 24 -- I think it was 24 men went off on those two helicopters, what worried you the most?

Adm. William McRaven: What worried me the most was the unknown.

So, we didn't know whether or not the compound in Abbottabad, where we thought bin Laden was, we didn't know whether it was booby-trapped. So I was pretty confident that we could make our way from Afghanistan. It was about 162 miles into Pakistan. We had looked at all the intelligence. We figured we could get by the Pakistani integrated air defenses, and we could get to the compound.

And I knew that, once the guys got to the compound, they were going to be successful. However, what we didn't know was, was bin Laden wearing a suicide vest, were the doors booby-trapped, was the entire compound loaded with explosives?

We had seen a lot of times, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the guys had gone into compounds to get high-value individuals, and the entire compound had exploded because it was wired.

This was the one thing we couldn't determine ahead of time. And that was the thing that probably worried me the most.

Judy Woodruff: I want to ask you about several things involving foreign policy.

President Trump is today in Great Britain meeting with the prime minister and other -- other things.

My question is, this is an administration that's had some tense relations with our European allies.

Adm. William McRaven: Sure.

Judy Woodruff: How important is it, based on what you saw as a military officer, for the U.S. to have those strong relations with allies? Or can the U.S. go it alone?

Adm. William McRaven: No, the U.S. can't go alone. And I think our alliances are critical, not just with the Europeans, but in all sectors of the world.

But NATO, in particular, of course, is an incredible alliance we have had really since the end of World War II that has really shaped the not only European theater, but the world. We cannot live without NATO.

And when you take a look at what the NATO forces did, particularly after 9/11, I'm always quick to tell people they invoked Article V of the NATO charter, which says an attack on one is an attack on all.

But I will tell you, it had nothing to do, in my opinion, with the NATO charter. It really had to do with the fact that we were friends, we were allies. We had been there for the Europeans after World War II, and they remembered that.

And so, you know, NATO went with us to Afghanistan. The Brits, of course, came with us to Iraq. We have got to have those alliances. They are incredibly important to us.

Judy Woodruff: Iran. The Trump administration has been raising the alarms about Iran, beefing up U.S. military presence there.

Was it the right thing to do? Has it benefited the U.S. that this administration decided to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement?

Adm. William McRaven: Yes, well, I wasn't in favor of pulling out of the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear agreement.

And while it wasn't perfect, certainly, I do think that it kept a little bit of the Iranian desires in check. And, certainly, it was going to push out their ability to build a nuclear weapon for some years. And I think that was all good.

But I'm not particularly concerned about Iran. One, the president doesn't want to go to war in Iran. The Iranians certainly don't want us to go to war against them. We have been dealing with the Iranians for decades.

The only concern I have with Iran -- and I think interim Secretary Shanahan said it well the other day -- is a miscalculation. If the Iranians miscalculate and think they can come after us, or if you happen to get a rogue Iranian naval officer that decides to get too close to the fleet, or somebody that decides to take a shot into the Green Zone, that would be a miscalculation on the part of the Iranians, and it wouldn't end well for them.

Judy Woodruff: You served several American presidents.

We are upon the next presidential election. What are the qualities that Americans should look for?

Adm. William McRaven: Well, I had the great good fortune of working with George W. Bush in the Bush White House right after 9/11. And then, of course, I was one of President Obama's commanders.

And, as I have said many times, I didn't agree with either president on a lot of issues, but what I found was, they were both men of great integrity and great character. And certainly, as a military officer, while you may not agree with a policy, it is much easier to follow the commander in chief when you know they are men of great character or great integrity, and you believe that they are doing what they think is right for the country.

So I would offer that whoever is going to be elected in 2020 or whoever the candidates are, character matters. Integrity matters. And if you don't think so, then you have never led an organization, because let me tell you, leadership does start at the top. And if you have a bad leader at the top, it will affect the organization, absolutely.

A leader needs to be driven by three things when he thinks about a decision: Is it moral, is it legal, and is it ethical? Those are three litmus tests for every decision that a good leader has to make.

And if you fail to use that litmus test, then, eventually, you're creating this organization that is a house of cards, and it will collapse at some point in time. Good leadership requires good integrity.

Judy Woodruff: Last, you also worked with Joe Biden when he was vice president of the United States.

Your take on him.

Adm. William McRaven: Well, I like Vice President Biden a lot.

One, he is very frank. He is very warm. He is -- I mean, he is a guy that will embrace you, you know, personally in a way that is -- that's hard to miss. You know, he's great to be around.

I will leave it up to the American people to decide whether or not he should be the right candidate. But, for whatever it's worth, I like Vice President Biden a lot.

Judy Woodruff: Admiral William McRaven.

The book is "Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations."

Thank you.

Adm. William McRaven: Thank you very much.

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