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Getting Orwellian: Navy SEALs

Before we started “Intelligence is Evidence” two years ago, I ran a quick series bemoaning some abuses of military language in the press. At the time, I criticized “terrorist”, “Al Qaeda in Iraq” (which I just heard the other day on a podcast) and some other terms. Well, I have a new term that I think the press just doesn’t use quite right:

Navy SEALs

What are Navy SEALs? SEALs are assault troops trained by the U.S. Navy to conduct amphibious missions when it can’t rely on the U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps. They started with underwater demolition missions to destroy enemy mines, bridges and other amphibious targets. Then they moved to securing vessels as well. Though SEALs still do those things, since 9/11, Navy SEALs have expanded their mission to include counter-terrorism operations. (I’ll get back to that.)

Did Navy SEALs kill Osama bin Laden? This is the complicated question most Americans won’t get right. Yes...and no. Navy SEALs who were members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) killed Osama bin Laden.

What’s the difference? (Warning: jargon, terminology and acronyms ahead.)


Well, the gap between Navy SEALs and DEVGRU is as wide as the gap between the Special Forces and Delta Force (now called the, “Combat Applications Group” [CAG]). Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces both fall under their respective branches and under the command of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Both have a rigorous selection process and are about the same size. Special Forces teams focus on waging irregular warfare (though in the last ten years they have deemphasized this skill set) and the Navy SEALs focus on amphibious operations (this skill set too has been deemphasized because of all the desert and mountain stuff in Iraq and Afghanistan). Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces are around the same size.

What are DEVGRU and CAG, then? After being selected for either SEALs or SF/Rangers, you can then try out to make one of those two organizations. Both DEVGRU and CAG fall under Joint Special Operations Command, which is SOCOM’s secret terror hunting force, which is roughly aligned with the CIA’s Special Activities Division. DEVGRU used to be called Navy SEAL Team Six and CAG, as said above, used to be “Delta Force”. These elite units specialize in counter-terrorism, which has been the cool kid on the block in the special ops world since the 1980s. (You know, before 9/11.)

SOCOM has been described by a friend of the blog as “the fifth branch of the Pentagon”, and that’s not too inaccurate. SOCOM has a huge budget for the number of people it employs and it has the perks to go along with that budget. (For instance, increased secrecy, increased operational tempo and more flexibility in budgeting.)

As I answered above, DEVGRU SEAL operators killed Osama bin Laden and have been responsible for many of the other widely-publicized operations around the world.

Why is this post in our “Getting Orwellian” series? Because most of the credit going to Navy SEALs actually belongs to DEVGRU. Most former SEALs speaking out on political issues are not DEVGRU operators, but plain old, non-DEVGRU SEALs. That’s not to take away credit, but too often I’ve heard people say (including the media), “He’s a former SEAL, like the people who took out Osama bin Laden.” They’re not.

This TIME magazine article shows what I mean. It dives into a photo gallery with this headline, “The elite force that killed Osama bin Laden has been serving as America's special warriors since 1961.” This CBS report is another classic example. I’ve also heard this in conversations with plenty of civilians who think all Navy SEALs could have been on that raid.

They couldn’t; only the best of the SEAL’s best could have and did. That’s how good DEVGRU is, and we should give them the credit they deserve.