Operation Neptune Spear: The Killing of Bin Laden

As a historian, it is hard to go watch historical films. We know how they are going to end. Such was the case this past Saturday. My wife, also a historian, and I went and saw Zero Dark Thirty. We were both stunned at how much we liked it. It was fast paced, tense, sad, inconceivable at times, and there were some holes in the story (historically speaking). But, actress Jessica Chastain was mesmerizing as the lead. She is worth the price of admission and the popcorn. All in all, it was one of the best movies of the last year.

It is also hard to write historically about recent events. One reason being, there is not enough information or reflection to see the true impact of the event. The National Security Agency usually doesn’t release documents for long periods of time. The NSA still has not released all the information about the Cuban Missile Crisis and that has been 50 years ago. After coming home from the movie, I began to do some more research on the film and the operation. I knew some information based on the Discovery Channel Program, “Osama Bin Laden: Shoot to Kill” and some reports on the news and information networks.

I was surprised to find a plethora of documents were released on January 17, 2013 by the NSA through their site at George Washington University. Referred to as “The Zero Dark Thirty” file, the web page contains over 20 documents relating to the hunting and killing of Bin Laden and the role the government had in the film’s story line.


Click on the picture to go the NSA site

There are many interesting documents including “Letters from Abbottabad,” a collection of letters to and from Bin Laden about the lack of control over where the movement had gone. Letters from AbbottabadCollectively, the documents detail the information given to the screenwriter of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Boal, and Director Kathryn Bigelow. There is nothing Earth shattering in these documents that would be considered a breach of national security.

The film centers around a young CIA agent placed in the field in 2003. All we know about is her name – Maya. No last name, nothing else about her family, friends, or life. For the next two and half hours, the film follows her trying to find Bin Laden, but mostly she is trying to find Bin Laden through a courier named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a fake name.

It was assumed that Bin Laden was most likely hiding in either the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border or in the northern tribal lands of Pakistan. The movie turns into following dead-end lead after dead-end lead. It is frustrating for the character and everyone at the CIA. After a car bomb takes out several CIA agents at an American base in Afghanistan, Maya is given a file with the possible real name of “the Kuwaiti” as he was nicknamed in the real world.

The film becomes very tense from that point on as the CIA tapes the phone conversations to Abu Ahmed’s mother and begins to close in on Ahmed. A link is established to a phone roaming around Pakistan. However, Ahmed’s role has still not been defined by Maya and by the CIA. Left out of the film is a phrase uttered by Ahmed that he was still with who he was before (meaning Bin Laden) is the key that the CIA has found who they have been looking for these many years. Back in the film, when the CIA does pinpoint the location of Ahmed in Abbottabad, the CIA is still unsure if Bin Laden is in the house. Some estimates and other government agencies went as high as 80% that Bin Laden was not in the house while other agencies put it only a 30% chance.

In the actual world, despite the CIA staking out the house for several months, it was not certain if Bin Laden was in the house. There was no trash to go through as all trash was burned inside. No phone lines came in or out. Only electricity went in. The occasional neighborhood ball would go over the wall and the inhabitants would pay the children rather than give the ball back. Seven foot tall walls on the top floor blocked the ability to see in that floor. A satellite dish can be seen in this photograph from the day after the raid.


Photo of the Bin Laden Compound – The Washington Post


The Bin Laden Compound in Abbottabad – CIA drone image

When the raid on Bin Laden’s compound took place on May 1, 2011, Seal Team Six (DEVGRU) called it Operation Neptune Spear and the target (Bin Laden) was given the code name Geronimo. They had practiced for several weeks on a mock up of the facility. The force flew two stealth Black Hawk helicopters to Abbottabad and a Chinook helicopter transport some 3o miles away for back up (not explained in the film). The 20+ Seals flew in from Afghanistan under a sky with no moon so as not to reflect light off the helicopters which had muffled motors and other stealth technology. One of the Black Hawks crashed in the compound but no one was hurt. It brought back images of an abysmal attempt to rescue Iranian Hostages and images of Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down).

All the while, back in Washington, D.C., the President listened and watched live reports from the situation room. Obama knew the operation was a huge risk on foreign soil and wasn’t sure himself if Bin Laden was in the building or if it was just another high value Al-Qaida operative.

The President's Situation Room

The President’s Situation Room

There were high moments of tension as the Seals made their way slowly and assuredly from floor to floor in the compound. Once in the building, the operation took a half an hour. In addition to Bin Laden, his courier, Abu Ahmed (later revealed as Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed), Ahmed’s brother and sister-in-law were killed along with one of Bin Laden’s sons. Once the Seals reached the top floor, the movie portrays one Seal first wounding Bin Laden in the head and then shooting him in the chest. Missing from the film is the relay of the message “E.K.I.A.” (enemy killed in action). At this point in the real world, the President, and all involved were pretty sure they had gotten their man. It was unclear in the film if Bin Laden was armed. This has been the bone of some contention. In real life, reports have Bin Laden armed and using his wife as a human shield.

Bin Laden’s body was bagged (his was the only body removed from the compound) and DNA samples were taken to confirm his identity based on family member DNA. His body was first flown to Afghanistan along with several documents and computers. This is where the movie ends. However, the story continues. Bin Laden’s body was prepared according to Muslim customs aboard the USS Carl Vincent and buried at sea. Initially, this decision was controversial because some people wanted proof of Bin Laden’s death. Photographs were taken after the raid and even Al-Qaida confirmed Bin Laden’s death a few months later. But the decision to not bury Bin Laden and create a martyr’s grave was at first misunderstood. In addition, the US never released photograph’s of Bin Laden’s body so as not to inflame anti-American sentiment in the region. Some news organizations have sued the US to gain a release of the photographs. It has been to no avail.

The movie brings into question the methods used (torture) during the Bush era to interrogate subjects in the War on Terror. In addition, it also brings into question the role of the US in the region now that Bin Laden is dead. As well, both political parties in the US politicized the event. Shortly after President Obama announced that Bin Laden was dead, the infighting at home began over who should get the credit. Republicans argued for the Seals, while Democratic faithful argued for the President. The CIA has not been given plaudits for finding the compound.

U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured after announcing live on television the death of Osama bin Laden, from the East Room of the White House in Washington May 1, 2011. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011, in a firefight with U.S. forces in Pakistan and his body was recovered, President Barack Obama announced on May 1, 2011.  REUTERS/Jason Reed

U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured after announcing live on television the death of Osama bin Laden, from the East Room of the White House in Washington May 1, 2011. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011, in a firefight with U.S. forces in Pakistan and his body was recovered, President Barack Obama announced on May 1, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed

As a teacher, it is hard to objectify this event because of the emotion of September 11, 2001 and its loss of life. But when I look at how I might teach this event in coming years, it will be hard, but the lessons must be flexible. By hard, the actual mission was a huge risk. There was no certainty that Bin Laden was there. I like to use scenarios where students must make a choice and then identify the consequences of not only making a choice, but also of not making a choice (Which is what I think drove Obama to green light this operation). Scenario lessons about this event could involve the same possible choices the CIA had to make along the way and whether or not to continue a course of action. In addition, scenarios about how to handle the press, the Bin Laden photographs, and his burial would make for great discussions.

By hard, the mission showed the US going it alone in another country with the threat of retaliation from a country (Pakistan) who was supposed to be our ally. I would be remiss if I did not discuss the ramifications in the region. Over time, it will be easier and easier to see how Bin Laden’s death will impact both sides. However, the flexibility comes into play by being able to incorporate new evidence, new documents, and new writings about the operation. This brings us back to the Zero Dark Thirty file. Should the government have cooperated with the director and writer so closely and so early?  For example, the Canadian Caper supposedly took place in 1979 when the Canadian Embassy helped get Americans out of Iran. Turns out, the CIA was behind the whole thing and was the basis for the movie Argo. That information was not released to the public until the late 1990s.

As for hunting and killing Bin Laden, it may be another 20 years before we really know what happened and by whom. After all, it took over ten and a half years to find and kill Bin Laden. While the event is still fresh, the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” does raise some interesting questions about a dark period of American history. Hopefully, they will be answered sooner than later.

For more information: Go to the NSA document release page


John Chambers – The Real Master of Disguise: Studio 6, Argo, and the Iranian Hostage Crisis

John Chambers was a respected makeup artist in Hollywood. But most people did not know until recently that Chambers, an Academy Award Winning makeup artist, also worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for most of his career. Chambers, the man behind “The Planet of the Apes” masks did some of his best work for “the company” and it will never be seen. Recently, the movie “Argo,” directed by Ben Affleck, delivers some aspects of what Chambers did for the CIA in one operation in 1979 during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

John Chambers was born and raised in Illinois. During World War II, the young Chambers served as a medic technician. After the war, Chambers came home to Illinois and worked at the Veteran’s Hospital in Hines, Illinois. There, Chambers began his first work in prosthetics. Hines helped soldiers from the war with fake limbs and prosthetics for their face. The skills Chambers developed at the hospital led to his getting makeup gigs. First was NBC in 1953, and then later Universal Studios. His work on TV in the 1960s included the shows The Munsters and Spock’s ears on Star Trek, and ironically, masks on the TV show Mission Impossible. In 1968, Chambers did his greatest work developing the masks for “The Planet of the Apes.” His work resulted in a special Academy Award just for his efforts.

In addition, Chambers mentored many future make-up artists. Some would call him a surrogate father, His influence in the industry was far-reaching. Famed makeup artist Michael Westmore (Star Wars, Star Trek) said of John,

“John had a reputation for being a very talented individual. I was in my last year of my apprenticeship at Universal and John basically had knowledge of doing everything. John’s forte from working as a dental technician in the Army was teeth — he taught me how to make teeth. When I got the job supervising [‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’] I made all the alien teeth.”

All the while, Chambers had begun working with the CIA in developing disguises. By the late 1960s, Chambers had befriended a young CIA agent, Tony Mendez. Mendez had first sought help from Walt Disney, but is was Chambers who helped Mendez design “disguise kits” for operatives. Chambers helped Mendez with CIA missions in Laos, Poland, and Russia. In 1979, Mendez called upon Chambers once again. However, this time, Chambers’ connections in Hollywood were of more importance than his makeup skills.

In 1979, the people of Iran rose up against the Shah of Iran, the ruler of the nation since the early 1950s. The revolution was led by a religious group headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The people of Iran lashed out at the Shah’s largest supporters, the United States. The Shah has been placed in power by the CIA when the group helped overthrow Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953. The wrath of the people of Iran toward the US never faded. In the days after the revolution, students and other radicals surrounded the American Embassy in the capital of Tehran. Eventually, the embassy is taken over and the staff, or most of it, was taken hostage. However six Americans made it out of the embassy and wound up being hid in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor.

The Canadians informed the US about the hostages. However, months went by before a plan was designed late in 1979. Mendez sought help from his old pal, John Chambers. Together, along with Bob Sidell, another special effects guru (Who would later do the makeup for E.T.), they would concoct a scheme that could only work in the movies.

Mendez’s experience in the cloak and dagger game was extensive. As stated in a Wired magazine article,

“He’d once transformed a black CIA officer and an Asian diplomat into Caucasian businessmen — using masks that made them ringers for Victor Mature and Rex Harrison — so they could arrange a meeting in the capital of Laos, a country under strict martial law. When a Russian engineer needed to deliver film canisters with extraordinarily sensitive details about the new super-MiG jet, Mendez helped his CIA handlers throw off their KGB tails by outfitting them with a “jack-in-the-box.” An officer would wait for a moment of confusion to sneak out of a car. As soon as he did, a spring-loaded mannequin would pop up to give the impression that he was still sitting in the passenger seat. Mendez had helped hundreds of friendly assets escape danger undetected.”

Artwork by Jack Kirby

This mission was to be a little different. Mendez would travel to Tehran and bring the hostages home disguised as a film crew. Chambers and Sidell set up a fake studio, Studio 6 (named for the six Americans). In just four days, the three men set up the company that included business cards, letter head, stationary, and artwork designed by legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby (X-Men, Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk).

An office was created at Sunset Gower Studios and Chambers found a script based on an aborted project on Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, Lord of Light. That project never got off the ground because of embezzled funds. Mendez renamed the film project “Argo” after the ship of Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. Ads were placed in Variety magazine and The Hollywood Reporter stating that principal photography would begin shooting in March 1980.

Studio 6 Artifacts

The Script

Business Cards and Envelopes

The letter Mendez carried about the production

The ads place in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter

While Mendez flew to Tehran with approval of President Carter, Chambers and SIdell had to actually run Studio Six films. The office contained three phone lines (2 regular lines and 1 secret line from the CIA), posters, typewriters, and some left over  film canisters. In the movie Argo, the office was sparse. In real life, Sidell’s wife Andi was constantly answering the two regular phones. Writers and other Hollywood producers were calling to get their own projects off the ground. The ad in the Hollywood Reporter ensured the office would stay busy when it said,

“Their first motion picture being Argo, a science fantasy fiction, from a story by Teresa Harris … Shooting will begin in the south of France, and then move to the Mideast … depending on the political climate.”

Mendez was able to implement the plan a little differently than in the movie Argo. However, due to the nature of the political climate at the time, the Canadians were given credit for the caper. Chambers, Mendez, and Sidell would not be given their due until the 50th anniversary of the CIA in 1997. Then surprisingly, the Agency acknowledged their role in securing the six Americans from Iran. Chambers was given an award by the CIA. Surprisingly, Mendez was allowed to write a book about his career during the Cold War.

Chambers would not be so lucky. He passed away in 2001. He does have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his career as a makeup artist. This event of Studio 6 was part of the cloak and dagger aspect of the time period of the Cold War. Mendez and Chambers had worked together before and they would work together again. However, it would always be in secret.

The six freed Americans had to keep the role of Chambers and Mendez a secret for many years. In the film, actor John Goodman played John Chambers. Sidell loved Goodman’s portrayal. Sidell said,

“Johnny Chambers had a little bit of arthritis … he had a little bit of a limp in his left leg. John Goodman has the same limp — that was like the icing on the cake. […] John Goodman was a Xerox copy of Johnny Chambers”

Sidell was thought to be dead and was not part of the prep for the film but he did give the film his approval, 

“When Affleck saw me at the after-party, he looked me up and down and said, ‘You are in pretty good shape for a dead man.’ I think what happened was Ben knew that John Chambers was dead and I think they made the assumption that I was too.”

The freed Americans meet with President Carter

Surprisingly, here is a PBS video about the event from 1980. No mention of Chambers or Mendez is made.

An interview with Mendez

For further reading:

Mendez’s account to the CIA:

Tony Mendez’s book, “The Master of Disguise

Wired Magazine

Chicago Tribune

Every Little Bit: The Pinkerton Detective Agency

Every little bit of history alwys leads back to another bit of history. When I look at the modern police force, security firms, the F.B,I., and the C.I.A., they all lead back to one organization: The Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Yes, the same people who aided Lincoln during the Civil War and chased after train and bank robbers are the same agency who developed most of the methods used today in modern law enforcement.

In the 1800s, the Pinkertons were the Police, the Army, and the CIA all rolled into one. Aside from stakeouts, bounty hunters, and strike breaking, they were the hired guns of corporations and Presidents alike.Pinkerton promised to:

accept no bribes, never compromise with criminals, partner with local law enforcement agencies, turn down reward money, and apprise clients on an ongoing basis.

For Pinkerton, no job was too small and no record too insignificant. If anything else, the Pinkertons were meticulous record keepers. One of the most pioneering aspects of 19th century crime fighting comes from the Pinkertons. The mug shot revolutionized law enforcement. They would not only get pictures of the intended targets, but also record everything about them. By taking photography to another level, the Pinkertons went global in pursuit of offenders – extradition treaties be damned.

Starting in the 1850s, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was built by the genius of one man – Alan Pinkerton. The Scottish immigrant built the organization through hard work and a reputation for getting the job done. It was Pinkerton who came up with the plan to sneak Abraham Lincoln into Washington under the cover of darkness in 1861. Throughout the war, Pinkerton and his agents did spying for the Union and Pinkerton often traveled with and for Lincoln.

After the war, Pinkertons continued to do work in the days before the Secret Service, the FBI, and the CIA. In fact, they are the models for these organizations. Everything about security for trains, banks, and factories was perfected by the eye that never sleeps. Most people think the Pinkerton National Detective Agency died out with the Wild West. In fact, it continued to thrive throughout the 20th century and was bought out by Securitas a few years ago.

Alan Pinkerton’s Thirty Years a Detective is a collection of his stories of adventures in the mid 1800s. It is an interesting tale. There was never a lead too insignificant. There was never an event too insignificant. Almost every major event or legend of the later half of the 1800s came in contact with a Pinkerton man. From Lincoln to Grant to Jesse James to The Hole in the Wall Gang to owners of factories, trains, and even the common man all knew what amounted to a national police force for hire. Every little bit of their history is filled with a richness not seen in many businesses nor any person of any era of American History.