WASHINGTON — After Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the White House released a photo of President Barack Obama and his Cabinet inside the Situation Room, watching the daring raid unfold. Hidden from view, standing just outside the frame of that now-famous photograph was a career CIA analyst. In the hunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist, there may have been no one more important. His job for nearly a decade was finding the al-Qaida leader.
The analyst was the first to put in writing last summer that the CIA might have a legitimate lead on finding bin Laden. He oversaw the collection of clues that led the agency to a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. His was among the most confident voices telling Obama that bin Laden was probably behind those walls. The CIA will not permit him to speak with reporters. But interviews with former and current U.S. intelligence officials reveal a story of quiet persistence and continuity that led to the greatest counterterrorism success in the history of the CIA. Nearly all the officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters or because they did not want their names linked to the bin Laden operation.
The Associated Press has agreed to the CIA’s request not to publish his full name and withhold certain biographical details so that he would not become a target for retribution.
Call him John, his middle name.
John was among the hundreds of people who poured into the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center after the Sept. 11 attacks, bringing fresh eyes and energy to the fight. He had been a standout in the agency’s Russian and Balkan departments. When Vladimir Putin was coming to power in Russia, for instance, John pulled together details overlooked by others and wrote what some colleagues considered the definitive profile of Putin. He challenged some of the agency’s conventional wisdom about Putin’s KGB background and painted a much fuller portrait of the man who would come to dominate Russian politics.
That ability to spot the importance of seemingly insignificant details, to weave disparate strands of information into a meaningful story, gave him a particular knack for hunting terrorists.
“He could always give you the broader implications of all these details we were amassing,” said John McLaughlin, who as CIA deputy director was briefed regularly by John in the mornings after the 2001 attacks. From 2003, when he joined the counterterrorism center, through 2005, John was one of the driving forces behind the most successful string of counterterrorism captures in the fight against terrorism: Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Nashiri, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Ramzi bin Alshib, Hambali and Faraj al-Libi.
But there was no greater prize than finding bin Laden.
Bin Laden had slipped away from U.S. forces in the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora in 2001, and the CIA believed he had taken shelter in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. In 2006, the agency mounted Operation Cannonball, an effort to establish bases in the tribal regions and find bin Laden. Even with all its money and resources, the CIA could not locate its prime target. By then, the agency was on its third director since Sept. 11, 2001. John had outlasted many of his direct supervisors who retired or went on to other jobs. The CIA doesn’t like to keep its people in one spot for too long. They become jaded. They start missing things.
John didn’t want to leave. He’d always been persistent. In college, he walked on to a Division I basketball team and hustled his way into a rotation full of scholarship players. The CIA offered to promote him and move him somewhere else. John wanted to keep the bin Laden file. He examined and re-examined every aspect of bin Laden’s life. How did he live while hiding in Sudan? With whom did he surround himself while living in Kandahar, Afghanistan? What would a bin Laden hideout look like today?
The CIA had a list of potential leads, associates and family members who might have access to bin Laden. “Just keep working that list bit by bit,” one senior intelligence official recalls John telling his team. “He’s there somewhere. We’ll get there.”
John rose through the ranks of the counterterrorism center, but because of his nearly unrivaled experience, he always had influence beyond his title. One former boss confessed that he didn’t know exactly what John’s position was.
“I knew he was the guy in the room I always listened to,” the official said.
While he was shepherding the hunt for bin Laden, John also was pushing to expand the Predator program, the agency’s use of unmanned airplanes to launch missiles at terrorists. The CIA largely confined those strikes to targets along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. But in late 2007 and early 2008, John said the CIA needed to carry out those attacks deeper inside Pakistan.
It was a risky move. Pakistan was an important but shaky ally. John’s analysts saw an increase in the number of Westerners training in Pakistani terrorist camps. John worried that those men would soon start showing up on U.S. soil.
“We’ve got to act,” John said, a former senior intelligence official recalls. “There’s no explaining inaction.”
John took the analysis to then CIA Director Michael Hayden, who agreed and took the recommendation to President George W. Bush. In the last months of the Bush administration, the CIA began striking deeper inside Pakistan. Obama immediately adopted the same strategy and stepped up the pace. Recent attacks have killed al-Qaida’s No. 3 official, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, and Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. All the while, John’s team was working the list of bin Laden leads. In 2007, a female colleague whom the AP has also agreed not to identify decided to zero in on a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a nom de guerre. Other terrorists had identified al-Kuwaiti as an important courier for al-Qaida’s upper echelon, and she believed that finding him might help lead to bin Laden. “They had their teeth clenched on this and they weren’t going to let go,” McLaughlin said of John and his team. “This was an obsession.”
It took three years, but in August 2010, al-Kuwaiti turned up on a National Security Agency wiretap. The female analyst, who had studied journalism at a Big Ten university, tapped out a memo for John, “Closing in on Bin Laden Courier,” saying her team believed al-Kuwaiti was somewhere on the outskirts of Islamabad. As the CIA homed in on al-Kuwaiti, John’s team continually updated the memo with fresh information. Everyone knew that anything with bin Laden’s name on it would shoot right to the director’s desk and invite scrutiny, so the early drafts played down hopes that the courier would lead to bin Laden. But John saw the bigger picture. The hunt for al-Kuwaiti was effectively the hunt for bin Laden, and he was not afraid to say so.
The revised memo was finished in September 2010. John, by then deputy chief of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Department, emailed it to those who needed to know. The title was “Anatomy of a Lead.” As expected, the memo immediately became a hot topic inside CIA headquarters and Director Leon Panetta wanted to know more. John never overpromised, colleagues recall, but he was unafraid to say there was a good chance this might be the break the agency was looking for. The CIA tracked al-Kuwaiti to a walled compound in Abbottabad. If bin Laden was hiding there, in a busy suburb not far from Pakistan’s military academy, it challenged much of what the agency had assumed about his hideout.
But John said it wasn’t that far-fetched. Drawing on what he knew about bin Laden’s earlier hideouts, he said it made sense that bin Laden had surrounded himself only with his couriers and family and did not use phones or the Internet. The CIA knew that top al-Qaida operatives had lived in urban areas before.
A cautious Panetta took the information to Obama, but there was much more work to be done.
The government tried everything to figure out who was in that compound.
In a small house nearby, the CIA put people who would fit in and not draw any attention. They watched and waited but turned up nothing definitive. Satellites captured images of a tall man walking the grounds of the compound, but never got a look at his face. Again and again, John and his team asked themselves who else might be living in that compound. They came up with five or six alternatives; bin Laden was always the best explanation.
This went on for months. By about February, John told his bosses, including Panetta, that the CIA could keep trying, but the information was unlikely to get any better. He told Panetta this might be their best chance to find bin Laden and it would not last forever. Panetta made that same point to the president. Panetta held regular meetings on the hunt, often concluding with an around-the-table poll: How sure are you that this is bin Laden?
John was always bullish, rating his confidence as high as 80 percent.
Others weren’t so sure, especially those who had been in the room for operations that went bad. Not two years earlier, the CIA thought it had an informant who could lead him to bin Laden’s deputy. That man blew himself up at a base in Khost, Afghanistan, killing seven CIA employees and injuring six others. That didn’t come up in the meetings with Panetta, a senior intelligence official said. But everyone knew the risk the CIA was taking if it told the president that bin Laden was in Abbottabad and was wrong. “We all knew that if he wasn’t there and this was a disaster, certainly there would be consequences,” the official recalled. John was among several CIA officials who repeatedly briefed Obama and others at the White House. Current and former officials involved in the discussions said John had a coolness and a reassuring confidence.
By April, the president had decided to send the Navy SEALs to assault the compound. Though the plan was in motion, John went back to his team, a senior intelligence official said. “Right up to the last hour,” he told them, “if we get any piece of information that suggests it’s not him, somebody has to raise their hand before we risk American lives.” Nobody did. Inside the Situation Room, the analyst who was barely known outside the close-knit intelligence world took his place alongside the nation’s top security officials, the household names and well-known faces of Washington.
An agonizing 40 minutes after Navy SEALs stormed the compound, the report came back: Bin Laden was dead.
John and his team had guessed correctly, taking an intellectual risk based on incomplete information. It was a gamble that ended a decade of disappointment. Later, Champagne was uncorked back at the CIA, where those in the Counterterrorism Center who had targeted bin Laden for so long celebrated. John’s team reveled in the moment.
Two days after bin Laden’s death, John accompanied Panetta to Capitol Hill. The Senate Intelligence Committee wanted a full briefing on the successful mission. At one point in the private session, Panetta turned to the man whose counter-terrorism resume spanned four CIA directors. He began to speak, about the operation and about the years of intelligence it was based on. And as he spoke about the mission that had become his career, the calm, collected analyst paused, and he choked up.