New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


The Bin Laden Raid: This Isn’t Your Father’s CIA

A decade may not be an eternity when judged by broad geopolitical standards – and it’s but an eyeblink, if that, in geologic terms – but it’s quite a long time in the short-horizon world of politics and public policy, particularly in America.  In the wake of the United States’ historic targeted killing of Osama bin Laden a week ago, it is worth looking back at some aspects of how the war on terrorism seems to have changed U.S. intelligence.

As far as most people in the world could tell before last week, bin Laden was well on his way to becoming the Keyser Söze of the counterterrorism (CT) world – a CT analogue to the mythologized criminal bogeyman from the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects, a figure of feverishly imagined potency, rumored to be behind all manner of mischief, but always elusive and never actually apprehended.  Indeed, with the al-Qa’ida (AQ) terrorist leader long thought to be suffering from kidney disease, it was quite possible he would die (or had already died) in secret and without confirmation, perhaps thereafter always to be half-glimpsed in the shadows of every plot.

Yet now bin Laden is dead: shot in the head by U.S. commandos and today nothing more than a tall, weighted corpse dumped from an aircraft carrier and consigned to the attentions of crabs and hagfish on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.  This website isn’t the place to describe in detail how this came about, but it’s worth taking a moment to ponder a few of the institutional and psychological changes that apparently helped make it possible.

Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom about the U.S. intelligence community (a.k.a. “the IC” in American government jargon) was that it was struggling to adapt to post-Cold War conditions, especially in its work against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the iconic post-Cold War threats.  Among other traditional critiques, which I heard frequently when I started working for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) in 2001, there were six with particular salience to the hunt for bin Laden:

  • The IC was very good at signals intelligence (a.k.a. “SIGINT,” or electronic eavesdropping) but lamentably weak at human intelligence gathering (“HUMINT”).
  • Our intelligence bureaucracies kept their data in agency-specific “stovepipes” impenetrable even to other members of the IC.  This made it very difficult for analysts to “connect the dots” by cross-correlating information acquired by different means, and contributed to the IC’s unpreparedness for al-Qa’ida as of September 2001.
  • The IC was too reliant upon spies working under official cover – that is, CIA case officers ostensibly employed as U.S. embassy officials, and thus possessing diplomatic immunity – and this put us in a bad position to gather the best information about terrorist and proliferation networks.  As it was repeatedly pointed out, after all, official cover might work fine if your job were to chat up the military attaché during a party at an embassy down the street, but relatively few U.S. diplomats are welcome at terrorist recruitment meetings.  The difficult and much more dangerous job of doing non-official cover (NOC) spying was felt to be bureaucratically disfavored and under-emphasized by risk-averse IC bureaucrats.  (If caught, a spy under official cover is usually simply declared persona non grata in the host country, but a NOC agent might be imprisoned or even hanged for espionage.)
  • The IC put too much trust in liaison relationships with host government security and intelligence services in countries where we had CIA “stations.”  A reluctance to ruffle local political feathers and the weakness of our NOC programs – combined with the fact that local security services know that close surveillance of accredited diplomats can sharply limit the ability of official-cover case officers to do their work – was believed to leave our spies overly reliant upon information passed along by the host government.  As one might imagine, this could lead to problems of information “spin,” incompleteness, or even falsehood.
  • The IC was also felt to be problematically risk-averse, and skittish about the use of violence or even “dirty sources” (i.e., relationships with foreign information-providers who themselves had been involved in unseemly activity).  To some extent, many observers feared that the trauma of widely-publicized Congressional hearings in the 1970s – which aired all sorts of information about bungled and incompetent assassination plots and other scandals – was felt to have left the IC’s institutional culture overly fearful of the political risks that boldness can bring.
  • Finally, and most broadly, the entire U.S. national security community was felt to view international terrorism too much as a mere “law enforcement” issue – rather than a broader “security” issue that needed to be addressed in part using tools more associated with warfare than police work.

The successful hunt for Osama bin Laden (OBL), however, suggests that the last ten years of CT work under Presidents Bush and Obama have helped the IC rebut much of this criticism.

Most information about how precisely the United States tracked down OBL is not – and should not be – publicly known.  From leaked accounts to date, however, it certainly appears that the hunt was a paradigmatically “all-source” (a.k.a. “multi-INT”) search.  Well aware of our superlative SIGINT capabilities, OBL’s closest inner circle reportedly shunned cell phones and Internet activity, at least when anywhere near him, relying instead upon a close network of human couriers communicating in the old-fashioned way: face to face.  (Some press sources recount that AQ officials associated with the compound would not even put the batteries in their cell phones within 90 minutes’ drive of OBL’s compound even on those occasions when they used phones at all.)

To crack this network and follow it to OBL’s hiding place, U.S. spies seem to have had to perform great feats of what is called intelligence “fusion” – that is, the integration of information from a great many sources, combining reams of fragmentary or individually inconclusive tidbits into a useful overall picture.  (This is another way of saying that they had to become quite good at “connecting the dots.”)  The effort took years, with efforts to focus upon OBL’s courier network having begun under the Bush administration and continued under Obama, and involving everything from sophisticated SIGINT to surveillance by Predator drones, reconnaissance satellites, and – yes – old-fashioned HUMINT using case officers and informants.

(According to media accounts, the CIA eventually found it necessary to conduct its own sort of “surge,” placing additional case officers on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Among other things, it has been reported that once OBL’s suspected compound had been identified, the CIA set up a safe house in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad for a team assigned to conduct very discreet surveillance for some weeks, building a network of local Pakistani informants in order to develop a picture of the “pattern of life” at the compound.  HUMINT indeed!)

Press reports have suggested that such techniques enabled our spies to build upon a couple of key “breaks.”  First, if these accounts are to be believed, the long trail to finding OBL began in 2005 with the arrest in Pakistan of a senior AQ figure by the name of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who had worked as bin Laden’s “official messenger.”  Held at so-called “black sites” – that is, secret prisons – by the CIA, and reportedly subjected at some points to harsh interrogation techniques such as “waterboarding” (simulated drowning), al-Libbi apparently helped identify individuals linked to OBL’s communications network, among them a particular courier who thereafter became a major collection target.  (Information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and history’s most famous waterboarding victim to date, also reportedly helped identify the courier.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, the success of the OBL raid is already re-igniting debates over the efficacy of such interrogation techniques.)

Last year, the IC is said finally to have struck gold with this courier, a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, when he was intercepted in an incautious phone conversation seeming to suggest that he had rejoined OBL’s coterie.  In what is said to have been a triumph of all-source collection, al-Kuwaiti was then apparently eventually traced to the compound near Islamabad where it turned out that Osama bin Laden had indeed been hiding for several years.  The rest, as they say, is history.  (The late-night comedian David Letterman has suggested that OBL’s last words might have been “I need a house full of Navy SEALs like I need a hole in the head.” )

Outsiders must of course be cautious in assessing the degree to which the OBL search demonstrates that the IC has fixed the problems for which it was so criticized a decade ago.  Media accounts can naturally be “spun,” may sometimes simply be wrong, and even under the best of circumstances must be regarded as incomplete accounts.  Nor is what the IC was able to do against what was surely its highest-priority target necessarily illustrative of its general level of competence.  Nevertheless, the intelligence success illustrated by the OBL raid – so hard won as the result of so many years of work – does to some extent speak for itself.

There clearly seems to have been a significant HUMINT component to the OBL success, not least in the Abbottabad surveillance operation.  There was also a notable degree of multi-INT information fusion and collection cross-cueing (i.e., using information from one type of source to focus efforts by other collection methodologies).  The fact that the OBL operation was carried out entirely in secret, with neither leaks to the U.S. press nor even a whisper to the Pakistani authorities on whose territory everything transpired, probably also bespeaks a commendable use of NOCs – perhaps including purportedly private contractors working for the CIA, such as the American arrested in Lahore last January – as well as the IC’s complete and no doubt much-justified distrust of local intelligence liaison officials (in this case, the notoriously jihadist-friendly Pakistani ISI).

And the very fact of the raid itself, as the capstone to a years-long hunt, may also say something important about where the IC is today psychologically, compared to the late 1990s.  Clearly, symbolically, the decision to kill OBL – and one probably shouldn’t pretend that this raid was anything but a targeted killing, especially with leaked accounts sounding a bit slippery on the degree to which the raiders had to fight their way into bin Laden’s compound, and the degree to which OBL himself “resisted” or “fought back” – represents a reaffirmation that the United States views its struggle with al-Qa’ida and associated groups much more through a “war” than through a “law enforcement” prism.  There appears to have been little interest in capturing and prosecuting the man.

The Obama Administration has tried to distance itself from Bush-era “global war on terrorism” phrasing, but its operational reality is no different: the United States indeed regards itself as being in some sense at war with those terrorists who have taken up arms against it, and feels justified in pursuing – and if necessary, killing – them where they can be found.  This idea is such a commonplace in the U.S. policy community today that it is worth pausing for a moment to remember how controversial it was in international circles when first articulated by the Bush Administration.  (In fairness, even Bush-era officials had some initial trouble countenancing this principle when it was invoked by others.  State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, for instance, once embarrassingly chastised Israel for its own anti-terrorist attacks, proclaiming in 2002 that “we are against targeted killings.”  Perhaps he wasn’t cleared for the CIA’s then-secret drone program, which was already well underway at the time.)

From an IC perspective, moreover, it’s also worth observing the degree to which such “war”-making is clearly no longer regarded as a strictly military activity.  Yes, U.S. Navy SEALs – apparently super-elite members of what the Navy calls “Development Group” (or DEVGRU), but which most of the world knows as Seal Team Six – seem to have spearheaded the OBL raid.  Interestingly, however, they appear to have been under CIA operational command at the time: the raid was put under CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Moreover, some accounts claim that CIA paramilitary officials were also involved in the raid.  This alleged CIA involvement not merely in finding but also in killing OBL may be quietly embarrassing for Panetta, insofar as he himself had early in the Obama Administration canceled a Bush-era CIA program to develop hit teams for just such purposes, but it is certainly hard today to depict the Agency as being dangerously risk-averse.  The IC’s move into the targeted killing business in late 2001 under President Bush was in itself an epochal event, but even within this context it can no longer be said that U.S. intelligence operatives only try to kill enemies by sterile and impersonal remote control using drone aircraft.

The hunt for Osama bin Laden thus suggests that – at least in the CT context, anyway – much has been done over the last ten years to rebut the criticisms of the IC that I recall from my early days with the SSCI.  In this respect, the Obama Administration deserves credit for continuing developments begun under President Bush, and for taking the hunt for OBL to its conclusion.  Remember when President Obama, new to the office, suggested that he was watering down Bush’s “dead or alive” approach to hunting for bin Laden?  Well, that was then.  When the IC produced an opportunity to do more than just keep OBL “on the run,” more was duly done.

Those who decried Bush-era CT innovations are no doubt unhappy with this, and may be forgiven for having counterterrorism on their list of foreign and security policy areas in which Obama’s promises of “transformation” and “change” have turned out to presage only policy continuity.  Those who generally supported Bush’s post-9/11 changes, on the other hand, will no doubt be correspondingly pleased.  Whatever value judgments one attaches to these IC developments, however, U.S. intelligence continues its struggle against al-Qa’ida and associated groups – a struggle which should not end with the overdue and well-deserved demise of bin Laden himself – with a repertoire of skills and tools that seems to be notably broader than before.  After ten years of the war on terrorism, one might say, this is not your father’s CIA.

By the way, the last decade of the war on terrorism was not the first time that U.S. officials learned new tricks in order to track down a stealthy and elusive unconventional foe.  There was an interesting – and perhaps quite deliberate – historical echo in the OBL raid.  According to press accounts, the code word broadcast back to Washington in order to signify the success of the attack a week ago was “Geronimo!”  Now, American children may be most accustomed to this word as a simple exclamation (e.g., when jumping into a pool), but there was of course a real Geronimo, a famous Apache leader who rebelled against U.S. Indian resettlement efforts in the 19th Century, and who led the U.S. Army on a merry chase for some time, before finally being captured.  (Geronimo died in captivity years later, from pneumonia after a fall from his horse; he is buried at the Fort Sill Army post in Oklahoma.)

History buffs may be intrigued by the Geronimo invocation, for his capture represents a fascinating earlier example of a prominent adversary finally being tracked down through the use of state-of-the-art intelligence techniques and innovative pursuit strategies.  In that case, U.S. success came through the use of an elaborate network of hilltop forts manned by the U.S. Army Signal Corps for telescopic observation of Indian movements and near-instantaneous transmission of this data, by means of heliograph signals, to army pursuers.  Supported by this new network, the Army was finally able to counteract the mobility and concealment advantages of Geronimo’s Apaches, and harassed them into finally surrendering to General Nelson Miles in 1886.

Preliminary accounts of the hunt for Osama bin Laden suggest that the U.S. Intelligence Community has also managed to learn a lot in the last ten years.  The IC and its leadership over the past decade should be commended for this.  The IC is an old dog, and a fairly slow-moving bureaucracy on a good day, but it is clearly not beyond learning new tricks. Its leaders – including General David Petraeus, when he presumably takes up his next job as head of the CIA – should not let up in their pursuit of AQ and its allies.  They should also work to ensure that the rest of the Intelligence Community learns to employ across all its various mission areas the same degree of effective interagency coordination, focus, and boldness that IC officials have shown against bin Laden.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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