The OSS Society honored Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations, the mastermind behind the raid to get Osama bin Laden, at its annual William J. Donovan Award Dinner Oct. 26 at the Ritz-Carlton in the West End.
The OSS gala is a unique Washington event, where old spies and young silent warriors gather to tell stories and recognize today’s achievers — and where national intelligence and covert actions are seen as high service to the nation.
The OSS Society is dedicated to those who served during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Special Operations, and honors the memory of legendary Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan, OSS founder.
Where else do you have nine toasts at the beginning of dinner? To the commander-in-chief, our allies — and the last, being “to the ladies.” How about applause for Ernest Hemingway who drove into Paris with OSS forces in 1944 and his love of martinis? Or for Marlene Dietrich, whose recordings were broadcast by the OSS during World War II? Even closer to home, why not have a menu inspired by Julia Child who worked for the OSS and lived briefly in Georgetown?
Retired Maj. Gen. Victor J. Hugo, Jr., master of ceremonies for the dinner, told attendees at one point to sit down or they’d be shot — the program was long but full of gratitude and history. Among the awards, the 99-year-old Fisher Howe toasted Julia Child and her “genuineness.”
Marlene Dietrich was honored for our work during World War II, recording melancholic songs to demoralize German troops. It was fine for her international fame, she said, to be used “as a weapon against evil.” Her only child Maria Riva was on hand to salute her as did the entire ballroom and a swing band. In a heartfelt speech, Riva recalled preparing to leave France before the growing Nazi threat: “America’s freedom is never more apparent than when you flee and need her to house you.”
CIA Director John Brennan said that he was “humbled” to give the keynote speech. He noted that he and McRaven were both longhorns from the University of Texas. It is a time of “greater need for intelligence,” Brennan said, as he looked out at “the excellence and professionalism in this room.” Intelligence and special operations are back together “like the OSS.”
Brennan spoke of McRaven, whose dissertation was on special ops and who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism, leaving pre-med and accounting behind — and then chose the “comfort and ease” of being a Navy SEAL. McRaven, Brennan said, called the Osama mission “sporty.” It was the integrity of McRaven — “We can get the job done.” — that convinced President Obama to proceed with the raid, he said. McRaven is a decent as he seems, Brennan said, “not just a hero but a good guy.”
After video tributes by Leon Panetta, Robert Gates and Obama, the presentation of the Donovan Award by retired Major Gen. John Singlaub, McRaven launched into a well-prepared speech. “The OSS is back,” he said. Not since World War II have intelligence and special operations meshed so well, he said, especially since the attacks of September 11 and the aftermath. He gave a long list of the different talents required for special ops, the different devices and different languages involved. Harking back to previous threats, such as fascism and communism, McRaven said, “Today, we are fighting extremism of another type, a medieval mindset that doesn’t recognize any civility. It is international, and it is a threat to our global humanity.”