WASHINGTON – Osama bin Laden's death in a ripped-from-a-spy-thriller helicopter raid and firefight gives a storied unit of U.S. special operations forces bragging rights for what has become the most famous covert operation since the Sept. 11 attacks launched on bin Laden's orders.
The unit, called Navy SEAL Team Six, likely won't ever claim the credit publicly, however.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say units from SEAL Team Six dropped into bin Laden's high-walled compound in Pakistan early Monday morning, sliding down ropes in the pre-dawn dark. The military won't confirm which unit carried out the attack.
But the head of the Navy SEALs, Rear Adm. Edward Winters, sent an email congratulating his forces and warning them to keep their mouths shut.
"Be extremely careful about operational security," he added. "The fight is not over."
Made up of only a few hundred forces based in Dam Neck, Va., the elite SEAL unit officially known as Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or "DEVGRU," is part of a special operations brotherhood that calls itself "the quiet professionals."
SEAL Team Six raided targets outside war zones like Yemen and Somalia in the past three years, though the bulk of the unit's current missions are in Afghanistan. The Associated Press will not publish the names of the commanding officers, to protect them and their families from possible retaliation by militants for the bin Laden operation.
The unit is overseen by the Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the U.S. Army's Delta Force and other special units. JSOC's combined forces have been responsible for a quadrupling of counterterrorism raids that have targeted militants in record numbers over the past year in Afghanistan. Some 4,500 elite special operations forces and support units have been part of the surge of U.S. forces there.
CIA Director Leon Panetta was in charge of the military team during the covert operation, a U.S. official said. While the president can empower the SEALs and other counterterrorism units to carry out covert actions without CIA oversight, President Barack Obama's team put the intelligence agency in charge, with other elements of the national security apparatus answering to them for this mission.