No one in the ballroom came right out and shouted, “William McRaven for elected office!” but the idea hovered like a thought bubble over the OSS Society’s William J. Donovan Award Dinner Saturday night, where the commander of US Special Operations was honored—including by President Obama—and even sounded himself a bit like a candidate. The annual celebration commemorating the World War II spy agency and predecessor of the CIA—for the intelligence and special operations communities, it’s the prom and the Oscars wrapped in one—is a time for reminiscing and gossiping for both the smooth-skinned, ramrod-spined young operatives and the retired spies and warriors with more medals than hair or teeth. But McRaven, the Navy admiral who oversaw the 2011 Navy SEAL mission that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden and who received the Donovan award, gave this year’s gathering a political edge.
President Obama addressed the audience and the honoree via taped video, his image filling three ceiling-high screens. He called McRaven “one of the finest special operators our nation has ever produced. Few Americans will ever see what you do, but every American is safer because of your service.” Also lauding him in taped messages were two other individuals who were directly involved in the bin Laden mission, former CIA director Leon Panetta and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
A third official who was a player in that historic episode, John Brennan, now director of Central Intelligence, relived the experience in his remarks. He said the deliberations to undertake the mission were “difficult and fraught with uncertainty.” He said there was “a key moment in those deliberations when President Obama seemed to move a step closer to his final decision. It was when Adm. McRaven looked at the President and said, ‘Sir, we can get this job done.’ You could hear a pin drop. It was at that time that everyone in that room knew the decision was made and we were going forward.”
McRaven was the last act after at least nine toasts, as many speeches, and several videos (including one of soldiers singing a spoof of At The Hop), a jazz performance, and repeated standing ovations. It probably helped that waiting for each guest at his or her place, was a gin martini with onions, to be raised in a toast to Ernest Hemingway, who famously liberated the Paris Ritz at the same time as the allies liberated Paris. It’s a ritual of the dinner.
McRaven did not equivocate. “I often hear disillusioned officers and noncommissioned officers ask, ‘Why aren’t we more like the OSS?’ Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am here tonight to tell you that the OSS is back,” he said, emphatically. “Not since World War II has there been such a lethal combination of intelligence officers and special operations warriors. Not since the fight against Hitler have we had such a talented group of government civilians, intellectuals, businessmen, writers, philosophers, engineers, tinkers, tailors, soldiers, and spies.” He took a pause before declaring, “but, still, there will be some who doubt this resurgence. So let me put those doubts to rest.”
McRaven noted that over the past dozen years he has worked side by side “with my intelligence counterparts” all over the world, “in every war zone, declared and undeclared.” He described the modern Navy SEAL arsenal, a kind of fantasy list for spy geeks. That includes craft that move “on the water and under the water. We have big planes and little planes and littler planes. We have submarines and mini-subs. We have scuba rigs and jet boots that propel us under water. We have jet skis and kayaks, we have motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles. We have high-definition sensors that look like rocks. We Tweet and Google and Bing. We are building an Ironman suit that will test the limits of technology and entrepreneurship.”
Lest anyone think SEAL life is all about gadgets, he went on to describe the modern intelligence and special operations recruit. “They come from all walks of life. They are New Yorkers and Texans. Big city and small towns. They are Ivy League and community college. They are bikers, lawyers, poets and musicians, geeks and old school, officers and enlisted, uniformed and suits; they speak Farsi, Pashtu, Somali, Chinese, Arabic, and Hangul.”
His stemwinder built to a rousing finish. “Today we are fighting extremism of another type, a medieval mindset that doesn’t recognize any civility, and it is international and it is a threat to our global humanity.” He said the intelligence and defense communities “stand as vanguards of our security, fighting this barbarism as far away from our shores as we can engage them.” He closed with a presidential, “God bless you and God bless America.” He received the longest and loudest standing ovation of the night.
Maria Riva, daughter of Marlene Dietrich, who assisted the OSS after becoming an American citizen early in the war, told the crowd about her mother’s plan to get her out of France as the Nazis’ menace grew. Dietrich had commissioned Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet On The Western Front, to escort her from the south of France to Paris. “It’s quite an experience to have a war descending on you out of the shadows and to be in a convertible car, driving through France” to board the Queen Mary for her last voyage before becoming a troop ship. “It’s a feeling you never get over. You always have to remember what it took to be able to say I am a citizen of these United States. The freedom of this country is never more apparent or more precious than when you flee and need her to house you.”
An important footnote to this occasion: Last year when the dinner was held the guests included then-CIA director David Petraeus and the woman who was his biographer, Paula Broadwell. They mingled at cocktails and sat together for a while during the dinner. Two weeks later it was revealed that they had been in a romantic relationship and Petraeus resigned his position, launching a boisterous scandal. Neither was at the dinner this year.