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 Qaeda 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 US 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 US 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 US 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.