WASHINGTON — The raid that killed Osama bin Laden will earn permanent bragging rights for the the elite Navy SEAL team that carried it out.
The SEALs won't confirm they carried out the attack, but their current chief, Rear Adm. Edward Winters of the Naval Special Warfare Command in California, sent an email congratulating his forces and cautioning them to keep their mouths shut.
"Today we should all be proud. That handful of courageous men, of strong will and character, have changed the course of history," he wrote, adding, "Be extremely careful about operational security ... 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.
Even their families are kept in the dark about many of the details of their operations. "There's a lot of times too when they say, well I can't talk about that. And we don't know half the stuff... But what they can share they do when they get home," the wife of a SEAL told NBC News. The network revealed only her first name, Casey.
Eric Greitens, a former SEAL and author of "The Heart and the Fist," told NBC News that the unit that carried out the raid on bin Laden's compound was "the elite of the elite."
"The word is that when they heard that bin Laden was their target, there was a huge cheer that went up," Greitens said on NBC's TODAY. "These guys were excited for the mission, they had been practicing for months."
"They will be honored and revered," Greitens said of the group that carried out the mission. As for the man who fired the shot that killed him: "He's a hero in my mind, and I think for all Americans."
The SEAL team that raided bin Laden's compound reportedly came from a unit based in Dam Neck, Virginia, called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or "DEVGRU." They call themselves the "the quiet professionals."Video: Practice makes perfect mission, former SEALs say (on this page)
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 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.
Team Six 'doesn't exist'
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 of special operations forces and intelligence in the hunt for militants there.
SEALs and Delta Force both, commanded by then-JSOC chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal, learned to work much like FBI agents, first attacking a target, killing or capturing the suspects, and then gathering evidence at the scene.
McChrystal described it as building a network to chase a network, where the special operations forces work with intelligence analysts back at a joint operations center. The raiders, he said, could collect valuable "pocket litter" from the scene, like documents or computers, to exploit to hunt the next target.
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.
Delta Force units caught Saddam Hussein late in 2003 and killed his sons Uday and Qusay in a shootout in Mosul earlier that year. Delta Force later tracked down al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pinpointing the building where he sheltered for the aerial bombing that ended his life.Video: New details on mission to kill bin Laden
The race to be the unit that captured bin Laden had been on ever since.
"Officially, Team Six doesn't exist," says former Navy SEAL Craig Sawyer, 47, who advises Hollywood and acts in movies about the military.
- AP sources: Raiders knew mission a one-shot deal
- Slate: Is bin Laden's 'porn' worse than his terrorism?
- SEAL-mania grips US in wake of bin Laden raid
- Kerry: US-Pakistan alliance at 'critical moment'
- Bin Laden was logged off, but not al-Qaida
- US shows off warship that buried bin Laden
- NYT: Cities nationwide heighten vigilance on terror
- Pakistan threatens to cut NATO's supply line
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, Florida. "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 in Iran.
"I can't think of a mission as nationally important," Brown said.
Missions rarely made public
Although bin Laden's killer will not be named, nor will the other members of his unit, the Washington Post interviewed three former SEALs — including Greitens — to sketch out a likely profile.
"He's bearded, rough-looking, like a street urchin," Richard Marcinko, founder of SEAL Team Six, speculated. "You don't want to stick out," he said.
He is probably aged 26 to 33 and has carried out more than a dozen deployments, Marcinko told the Post.
Above all, he will have the drive and competitive spirit to want to get straight back into the action, the former SEALs predicted. And of course, he will remain anonymous.
The last time the public was made aware of a SEAL raid on Pakistani soil was 2008, when the raiders flew only a mile over the border to the town of Angurada, according to Pakistani officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic matters. The high-value targets the Americans had been told were there had fled, and those left behind in the compound fought back, resulting in a number of civilian casualties, U.S. and Pakistani officials say, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a classified operation.
While the U.S. usually does not comment on covert actions, especially ones that go wrong, the 2008 incident was caught on cellphone video, so they confirmed it and apologized publicly, U.S. officials said.
The successful bin Laden mission is a much-needed boost for the unit. The SEALs' reputation took a hit within the special operations community after a 2010 rescue mission led to the accidental killing of British hostage Linda Norgrove, held by militants in Afghanistan. One of the SEALs threw a fragmentation grenade at a militant when the team stormed their hideout, not realizing Norgrove was curled on the ground next to the militant, and then lied about throwing the grenade.
The SEALs originally reported that Norgrove had been killed by a fighter's suicide vest, but when the SEAL commanding officer reviewed the tape from simultaneous surveillance video, he saw an explosion after one of the SEALs threw something in Norgrove's direction, U.S. officials say, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a classified operation.
One SEAL was dismissed from the unit for his action.
DEVGRU is the same unit that rescued an American ship captain, Richard Phillips, held hostage on a lifeboat by Somali pirates after his capture from the USS Maersk Alabama in 2009. A DEVGRU unit fired precision shots from the rocking stern of a Naval ship, killing three of four pirates.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.