WASHINGTON (AP) - The raid that killed Osama bin Laden will go down in history as the most important covert operation since 9/11, earning the elite Navy SEAL team that carried it out permanent bragging rights for finishing off the most-wanted terrorist on Earth.
Even in the already select world of Navy SEALs, team six is a breed apart. "SEAL team six is really the all-star team of Navy SEALs," said Stew Smith, a retired Navy SEAL officer himself.
An Academy graduate who served eight years on team two, he says the men chosen for the operation that killed bin Laden were well prepared. "These guys have probably been on a couple hundred missions already," he said. "They practiced and practiced so they don't have to go in there and think. As soon as they see a bad guy, they know what to do."
The Navy SEALs won't confirm they carried out the attack, but their current chief, Rear Adm. Edward Winters, at Naval Special Warfare Command in California, sent an email congratulating his forces and cautioning them to keep their mouths shut.
"Be extremely careful about operational security," he added. "The fight is not over."
It was a warning few needed in the secretive group, where operators are uncomfortable with media coverage, fearing revealing details could let the enemy know what to expect the next time.
Made up of only a few hundred personnel 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 said it 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.
U.S. official: CIA director in charge of operation
The unit is overseen by the Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the 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.
SEAL Team Six actually works so often with the intelligence agency that it's sometimes called the CIA's Praetorian Guard - a partnership that started in Iraq as an outgrowth of the fusion ofspecial operations forces and intelligence in the hunt for militants there.
The battlegrounds of Iraq and Afghanistan had been informally divided, with the SEALs running Afghanistan and Delta Force conducting the bulk of the operations in Iraq, though there was overlap of each organization. There is considerable professional rivalry between them.
"Officially, Team Six doesn't even exist"
After Delta Force units caught Saddam Hussein late in 2003 and killed his sons Uday and Qusay in a shootout in Mosul earlier that year, the race to be the unit that captured bin Laden had been on.
"Officially, Team Six doesn't exist," says former Navy SEAL Craig Sawyer, 47, who advises Hollywood and acts in movies about the military.
After undergoing a six-month process in which commanders scrutinized his every move, Sawyer says he was selected in the 1990s to join the team.
"It was like being recruited to an all-star team," he said, with members often gone 300 days a year, only lasting about three years on the team before burning out.
"They train around the clock," he said. "They know that failure will not be an option. Either they succeed or they don't come home."
Other special operations units joke that "SEAL" stands for "Sleep, eat, lift," though the term actually stands for Sea, Air, Land.
"The SEALs will be the first to remind everyone that the `L' in SEAL stands for land," says retired Army Gen. Doug Brown, former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla. "They have skills on the land equal to their skills at sea."
Brown, who led the command from 2003-07, said the operation against bin Laden is the most significant mission conducted by U.S. commando forces since the organization was formed in 1987 in the wake of the failed attempt in 1980 to rescue the American hostages apin Iran. "I can't think of a mission as nationally important," Brown said.
By Kimberly Dozier (Associated Press) with reporting from ABC7's Brad Bell. Associated Press writers Richard Lardner and Julie Watson contributed to this report.