The bin Laden assassination

Did Pakistan know bin Laden was ‘hiding in plain sight’?

David Ignatius writes: The ISI is, in the biblical phrase, a house with many mansions. What was known in one wing was not always shared with others. Indeed, if the ISI had transmitted information about sheltering bin Laden, U.S. intelligence almost certainly would have picked it up through surveillance.

Pakistani officials reject the allegation — rapidly becoming conventional wisdom in Washington — that they didn’t adequately pursue al-Qaeda. In interviews, they disclosed some new details that support their account. A U.S. official responded: “The Pakistanis indeed provided information that was useful to the U.S. government as it collected intelligence on the bin Laden compound. That information helped fill in some gaps.”

The Pakistani dossier starts with a joint CIA-ISI raid in the Abbottabad area in 2004, pursuing Abu Faraj al-Libi, often described as al-Qaeda’s No. 3 official. He was captured the next year in another joint operation in Mardan, west of Abbottabad.

The Pakistanis argue their telephone intercepts may have helped CIA analysts identify the courier who was sheltering bin Laden and trace him to the compound in Abbottabad. ISI officials, in particular, cite several calls in Arabic in 2009 that may have been crucial, including at least one from the general vicinity of Abbottabad.

Communications intercepts have always been crucial to U.S. operations against al-Qaeda. In some instances, such as wireless calls, the United States can collect signals unilaterally. But in intercepting some landline and Internet communications, the United States had secret official cooperation, according to a Pakistani source. The source says this led to the sharing of many hundreds of useful calls and numbers. (Washington Post)

Was the Bin Laden raid a manhunt or an intelligence grab?

William Saletan writes: One after another, elements of the U.S. account of Osama Bin Laden’s death have unraveled. First it was the human shields. Then the armed Bin Laden. Then the million-dollar mansion. Then the ongoing firefight.

Which parts of the story will unravel next? Here’s my guess: the 50-50 gamble and the improvised intelligence harvest.

The gamble has been a favorite administration theme. According to the official story, the CIA never had solid evidence that Bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound. So President Obama had to go off by himself and make the tough call. He rolled the dice.

Sending U.S. ground troops into Pakistan did take guts. But the crux of the gamble story is that Bin Laden might not have been in the compound, in which case the raid would have been a risk for nothing.

A week ago, CIA Director Leon Panetta said his analysts had calculated a 60 percent to 80 percent chance that Bin Laden was in the compound. Then Obama, taping an interview for 60 Minutes, called it “a 55/45 situation.” Then National Security Advisor Tom Donilon went on the Sunday shows and claimed it had been “50/50.” As the number shrinks, the legend grows.

To convey the magnitude of the gamble, Obama asked 60 Minutes viewers to imagine the consequences if the SEALs had arrived at the compound to find that its occupant was a “prince from Dubai.” But that’s absurd. The CIA had found the compound by tracking Bin Laden’s couriers. It had studied the building and its inhabitants for months with satellite imagery, telephoto lenses, and eavesdropping devices. It knew that the men who owned and ran the compound were sons of a longtime Bin Laden associate and that their family had married into Bin Laden’s. And agency operatives had watched a third man—a tall man who never joined the other two men in their chores—take regular walks through an internal courtyard.

The only open question was the identity of the tall man. What the CIA knew for sure was that the compound and its inhabitants were linked to Bin Laden.

That’s important, because a major objective of the raid was to harvest intelligence from the compound. And that objective was attainable even if Bin Laden turned out not to be there. (Slate)

You can take the 9/11 security state from my cold, dead, top secret hands

Spencer Ackerman writes: Osama bin Laden’s death was the end result of a massive investment in surveillance and spy tools that arose after the 9/11 attacks, designed to end the emergency that al-Qaida posed. But according to the chairman of the House intelligence committee, rolling back that huge security state after bin Laden’s death would not only miss an opportunity to destroy al-Qaida once and for all, it would effectively give bin Laden one last laugh.

“This is the time to step on the gas and break their back,” Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and former FBI agent, told the Council on Foreign Relations in a Wednesday speech. The choice, as he laid it out, is between ratifying the post-9/11 redefinition of liberty and security and getting attacked again.

“All the tools” of the security state created after the Twin Towers fell need to be retained, Rogers argued. The Patriot Act, whose most controversial surveillance provisions are to expire on May 27? Keep it. The doubling of intelligence cash, which now stands at $80 billion annually? Keep it. The explosion of drones and other spy technologies that “didn’t exist ten years ago?” Keep it all.

Rogers argued that lesson of the bin Laden raid is that ballooning the surveillance state paid off — and that scaling back spycraft just leaves the U.S. vulnerable. Back in the 1990s, the government viewed “the intelligence community as the opportunity for the peace dividend for the fall of the Soviet Union,” he said. “We see what a serious mistake that was.”

And there are even more spy advances on the horizon, Rogers said, like better methods for analysts to navigate the flood of drone and satellite data coming in every day. He didn’t give any specific examples, but the Air Force is building a supercomputer-in-sky inside a giant blimp that will crunch drone footage before beaming it down to soldiers on the ground.

Not many people are calling for an intelligence rollback — especially not right as a team of spies sifts through a trove of hard drives, removable media, recording devices and cellphones taken from bin Laden’s compound. Besides, al-Qaida these days is more of a global franchise of terror groups than a strict hierarchy. And it’s not like bin Laden’s former crew are the only terrorists on the block.

By contrast, Rogers’ remarks come as the House Armed Services Committee is considering a measure that would reauthorize and expand the war to unnamed affiliates of al-Qaida. But, some wonder, if bin Laden’s death doesn’t prompt a chance to reconsider the security state, whatever will? (Danger Room)

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