AUSTIN, Texas – Once the longest-serving Navy SEAL on active duty, Adm. William McRaven played a key role in thousands of dangerous missions abroad, including commanding the one that cost Osama bin Laden his life.
McRaven, who is retired, warns that the greatest threat to American democracy he's seen during his decades in national security comes not from a rogue regime or a terrorist group but from the caustic rhetoric of President Donald Trump.
"An attack on the press or an attack on the Department of Justice, or to imply that there are dirty cops at the FBI or to ignore the intelligence community, I think, really undermines our institutions," McRaven told USA TODAY in an interview about his memoir, "Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations," out Tuesday. "And that makes me fearful of the future direction of the nation."
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Five years after retiring as commander of U.S. Special Operations, McRaven retains the ramrod bearing and the reserve of a career officer with more than 37 years in uniform. In his new book, being published by Grand Central Publishing, he also reflects on the military tradition of expressing nothing but regard for the presidents he served in top jobs, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
His account of daredevil missions — to intercept Somali pirates, free American missionaries held hostage in the Philippines, interrogate Saddam Hussein and recover long-frozen military remains in British Columbia — ends with his final salute in dress whites in 2014.
Donald Trump's name doesn't appear in the 335-page memoir.
But in 2017, during a stint as chancellor of the University of Texas, McRaven began raising objections to Trump's attacks on the press in an address that also called on journalists to hold themselves accountable for accuracy and fairness. Last year, he wrote an open letter protesting the president's decision to revoke the security clearance of a frequent critic, former CIA director John Brennan, and asking that his own security clearance be revoked as well.
That brought a rebuke from the president — he dismissed McRaven as a "Hillary Clinton fan" who should have caught bin Laden faster — and blowback from some of his former military colleagues, who argued that it was inappropriate for him to publicly criticize the commander in chief.
"It has been an unwritten rule that senior military officers don't come out against the president, and I think that's a good unwritten rule," McRaven said. "But I've got to look myself in the mirror and make sure I'm doing what I think is the right thing."
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His concerns about Trump's attacks on democratic institutions have only deepened, he said, noting the president's increasingly defiant response to congressional investigations.
"When the lawmakers of this nation ask for a person to testify or ask for certain documents, I think sooner or later, the White House needs to comply, as does the military or anybody else that's being subpoenaed to provide information," he said.
At stake, in his view, is faith in the foundations of democracy.
"If the American people feel like they can't trust those institutions, then what do they turn to?" he asked. "Our institutions really have got to be able to survive whoever's in the White House."
He said he doesn't plan to play a role in the 2020 presidential campaign but added that he's "learned never to say 'never.'"
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Climbing the walls
When the Navy SEALS were established in 1962, McRaven was 6 years old and to all appearances already in training for the special operations force.
His father was a Spitfire combat pilot in World War II who was then assigned to the military arm of NATO, based in France. The youngster would terrify his older sister by scaling from window to window on the outside of their three-story chateau, or by climbing down the well in the backyard. When their father was assigned to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, McRaven became a regular visitor to the Wilford Hall Air Force Hospital emergency room to have gashes stitched up and broken bones set in the aftermath of adventures.
At the University of Texas, he graduated with a bachelor's degree from the journalism school, but only because he saw the subject as easier to ace than his previous majors, in pre-med and then accounting, where his grades were so borderline that they might have made it difficult for him to get the Navy commission he wanted.
He joined the elite SEALS (an abbreviation for Sea, Air and Land teams), was pushed out of SEAL Team Six when he complained about a lack of military discipline, then thrived. He would hold command at every level. Finally, in 2011, he designed and executed the special-ops raid in Pakistan that led to the death of bin Laden a decade after the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
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In some ways, he said, the experiences of his long career seemed to be in preparation for Operation Neptune's Spear.
"I was at the top of my game," he said, having run Special Operations longer than anyone else. "I had seen thousands of missions. I knew the personalities of the people involved. I knew how to do this mission. I knew how to command this mission, because my life had brought me to that point." The mission succeeded even though one of the stealth helicopters crash-landed during the assault and had to be abandoned.
When the other Black Hawk helicopter carrying the body of the man they believed to be bin Laden returned to the Jalalabad airfield in Afghanistan, McRaven went to the hangar to confirm his identify. He unzipped the rubberized bag, pulled out the body and stretched it to its full length. He looked like bin Laden, but McRaven wanted to double-check before he informed President Obama.
"Son, how tall are you?" he asked one of the SEALS, who told him he was 6'2". "Good," McRaven said. "Lie down next to the body." Bin Laden was reported to be 6'4", and the unorthodox way of measuring the corpse indicated it was him.
In the office of his home, in a leafy area of Austin, McRaven has a plaque that Obama presented him a few days later. On it is mounted a bright yellow 25-foot metal tape measure.
"If we can afford a $60 million helicopter," the inscription reads, "I think we can afford a tape measure."
'Which time was that?'
McRaven already is a best-selling author. His 2014 commencement address detailing 10 principles he followed as a Navy SEAL was published in 2017 as a self-help volume titled "Make Your Bed." (The title of Chapter One: "Start Your Day with a Task Completed.") It has sold more than a million copies.
He was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2010, when he was on duty in Afghanistan. He managed the symptoms of the blood cancer for years but hit "a perfect storm of bad health" in 2017 that forced him to retire as chancellor of the University of Texas the next spring. Exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals has been tied to the disease.
"I've been exposed to so many things over the course of my career," said McRaven, now 63. "I used to dive under nuclear submarines and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. You're diving in waters that are hardly crystal-clear."
But he expressed no regrets. "I wouldn't change it for anything."
It was dangerous duty from the start.
Asked in the USA TODAY interview to describe more details about "that time when you were sure you were going to die," McRaven replied, brow furrowed, "Which time was that?"
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What threatens democracy? Navy SEAL warns of Trump's attacks on US institutions