The CIA Gets a Rare Public Victory

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As the news of Osama bin Laden’s death moves from exhilarating novelty to accepted reality, one group in the U.S. government will emerge as key to the win: the Central Intelligence Agency. From the earliest identification of a Bin Laden courier, the pursuit of leads, the assessment of evidence and the execution of the raid in Abottabad, Pakistan, the CIA can rightly claim the most credit for finding and killing the world’s most wanted terrorist.

Taking credit for a win is not something the agency gets to do often. Though on high alert in the run-up to 9/11, the CIA was criticized afterward for failing to connect the dots of existing intelligence on the threat. Years of failed efforts to find and kill bin Laden thereafter embarrassed and frustrated the agency. And reforms intended to fix the CIA’s problems remained inconclusive in the public eye, without a win on the issue most important to Americans: bringing bin Laden to justice.

But the picture already emerging from senior administration sources will begin to turn that opinion around. In a briefing for reporters last night, officials laid out in detail the intelligence work that went into finding bin Laden. The case started with human intelligence:

From the time that we first recognized bin Laden as a threat, the CIA gathered leads on individuals in bin Laden’s inner circle, including his personal couriers. Detainees in the post-9/11 period flagged for us individuals who may have been providing direct support to bin Laden and his deputy, Zawahiri, after their escape from Afghanistan.

One courier in particular had our constant attention. Detainees gave us his nom de guerre or his nickname and identified him as both a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of September 11th, and a trusted assistant of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the former number three of al Qaeda who was captured in 2005.

Detainees also identified this man as one of the few al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin Laden. They indicated he might be living with and protecting bin Laden. But for years, we were unable to identify his true name or his location.

The fact that the initial tip about the courier emerged from detainee interrogations needs to be unpacked. Were any “enhanced interrogation techniques” used to obtain information about the courier? Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and al Libbi were two of the detainees who were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” KSM was waterboarded, a technique Obama and current CIA chief Leon Panetta have repeatedly decried as torture. There can be little question that both Al Libbi and KSM were questioned about the courier, whom the CIA was pursuing aggressively, according to the senior administration official:

Four years ago, we uncovered his identity, and for operational reasons, I can’t go into details about his name or how we identified him, but about two years ago, after months of persistent effort, we identified areas in Pakistan where the courier and his brother operated. Still we were unable to pinpoint exactly where they lived, due to extensive operational security on their part. The fact that they were being so careful reinforced our belief that we were on the right track.

Then in August 2010, we found their residence, a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a town about 35 miles north of Islamabad. The area is relatively affluent, with lots of retired military. It’s also insolated [sic] from the natural disasters and terrorist attacks that have afflicted other parts of Pakistan.

The work then moved to technical intelligence collection, including efforts by the CIA’s sister agencies, the satellite-running National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the eavesdropping National Security Agency:

When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw — an extraordinarily unique compound. The compound sits on a large plot of land in an area that was relatively secluded when it was built. It is roughly eight times larger than the other homes in the area.

When the compound was built in 2005, it was on the outskirts of the town center, at the end of a narrow dirt road. In the last six years, some residential homes have been built nearby. The physical security measures of the compound are extraordinary. It has 12- to 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire. Internal wall sections — internal walls sectioned off different portions of the compound to provide extra privacy. Access to the compound is restricted by two security gates, and the residents of the compound burn their trash, unlike their neighbors, who put the trash out for collection.

The main structure, a three-story building, has few windows facing the outside of the compound. A terrace on the third floor has a seven-foot wall privacy — has a seven-foot privacy wall.

It’s also noteworthy that the property is valued at approximately $1 million but has no telephone or Internet service connected to it. The brothers had no explainable source of wealth.

All of this information then went to the CIA’s directorate of intelligence to cook into a theory of the case—whether it could be assumed that it was in fact Bin Laden who was likely in the compound, and how confident the President could be that he was sending a strike force in for a worthwhile risk.

Intelligence analysts concluded that this compound was custom built to hide someone of significance. We soon learned that more people were living at the compound than the two brothers and their families. A third family lived there — one whose size and whose makeup matched the bin Laden family members that we believed most likely to be with Osama bin Laden. Our best assessment, based on a large body of reporting from multiple sources, was that bin Laden was living there with several family members, including his youngest wife.

Everything we saw — the extremely elaborate operational security, the brothers’ background and their behavior, and the location and the design of the compound itself was perfectly consistent with what our experts expected bin Laden’s hideout to look like. Keep in mind that two of bin Laden’s gatekeepers, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, were arrested in the settled areas of Pakistan.

Our analysts looked at this from every angle, considering carefully who other than bin Laden could be at the compound. We conducted red team exercises and other forms of alternative analysis to check our work. No other candidate fit the bill as well as bin Laden did.

So the final conclusion, from an intelligence standpoint, was twofold. We had high confidence that a high-value target was being harbored by the brothers on the compound, and we assessed that there was a strong probability that that person was Osama bin Laden.

More details will emerge in coming days, and there will no doubt be questions about the operation. But for now, the CIA is doing publicly what it hasn’t been able to do in quite some time: take a victory lap.