TIME Military

The Rescue That Wasn’t

Part of a damaged helicopter is seen lying near the compound where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad
The tail of a downed Special Ops helicopter inside bin Laden's compound in Pakistan in 2011. The pilots who led that successful mission belonged to a unit created because of a failed rescue effort in Iran 31 years earlier. REUTERS

If you're waiting for perfect intelligence to guarantee success, you'll never launch a military rescue mission

The Pentagon spoiled Americans with its near-perfect grab of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Save for a wrecked helicopter, Operation Neptune Spear went off without a hitch (assuming, as many Americans did, that taking bin Laden alive was never a top priority).

But the Navy SEALs drew to an inside straight that night in Abbottabad, Pakistan. All the practice in the world can’t trump bum intelligence. And the U.S. intelligence community’s estimates that bin Laden would be in the compound where he died ranged from 30 to 95%. If bin Laden hadn’t been there, the raid would have been deemed a failure, and would perhaps still be a secret.

The Pentagon only confirmed the failed July raid to rescue James Foley, whose murder was made public in a video released by Islamic militants on Tuesday, and several other U.S. hostages in Syria, after word began to leak out late Wednesday. “Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, said in a statement.

Such misses have happened before.

In 1970, 56 U.S. troops raided North Vietnam’s Son Tay prison camp to rescue the estimated 55 U.S. POWs believed to be there.

Technically, Operation Ivory Coast succeeded: the U.S., using more than 100 aircraft to support the operation, seized the camp. Unfortunately for the U.S., the North Vietnamese had moved the prisoners a day earlier due to North Vietnamese concerns that the camp was too close to a river that might flood. Two U.S. troops were injured during the mission.

Perhaps the most infamous rescue attempt since then was 1980′s Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted mission to bring home the 52 U.S. hostages held in Tehran after Iran seized the U.S. embassy there. They had been held for six months when President Carter ordered eight choppers on a risky two-night mission to rescue them. But sandstorms and mechanical woes grounded three of them on the first day, forcing the military to scrub the mission. As they withdrew, one of the helicopters hit a refueling plane at the Desert One staging site in the Iranian desert, killing eight U.S. troops.

The fiasco doomed any chance Carter had of winning a second term—Iran released the hostages shortly after Ronald Reagan took office—and led Congress to create the U.S. Special Operations Command to coordinate such efforts in the future. It also led the Army to create the Night Stalkers of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the unit whose pilots flew the Navy SEALs to bin Laden’s lair.

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