Intelligence, Secrecy Drove bin Laden Operation

WASHINGTON, May 2, 2011 — In the ear­ly morn­ing hours of dark­ness yes­ter­day, about 35 miles north­east of Islam­abad, Pak­istan, dozens of U.S. spe­cial oper­a­tions mem­bers and CIA agents read­ied them­selves aboard mil­i­tary heli­copters for the oper­a­tion of a life­time.

U.S. intel­li­gence offi­cers had been gath­er­ing evi­dence since August that al-Qai­da leader Osama bin Laden was not in a cave along the U.S.-Pakistan bor­der, as had become lore, but was liv­ing com­fort­ably with his fam­i­ly and oth­ers in a $1 mil­lion com­pound in Abbot­tabad, a sub­urb of the Pak­istani cap­i­tal, Defense Depart­ment and CIA offi­cials who spoke on back­ground about the oper­a­tion at the Pen­ta­gon said today.

Intel­li­gence offi­cers spent the next eight months gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion, which flowed heav­i­ly ear­ly this year, in part from detained fight­ers with the Afghanistan insur­gency, they said. “The intel­li­gence on the com­pound was shared with no one out­side the U.S. gov­ern­ment, and only a small num­ber inside,” an intel­li­gence offi­cial said. Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma “pushed this to an action­able lev­el,” a senior defense offi­cial said, hold­ing numer­ous meet­ings with his nation­al secu­ri­ty team to con­sid­er all pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios.

The spe­cial oper­a­tions team, mean­while, used its intel­li­gence infor­ma­tion to train for the oper­a­tion, includ­ing devel­op­ing con­tin­gency plans for any­thing they could think of that might not go as planned. With no one oth­er than a small group of U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty offi­cials aware of the oper­a­tion, offi­cials said, the team was flown in to take bin Laden dead or alive.

Offi­cials would not say how the forces breeched the walls of the com­pound, which range from 10 to 18 feet high around the perime­ter, are topped with barbed wire and cov­er an acre of land. Once inside the tri­an­gu­lar-shaped fortress, the team engaged in a fire­fight that killed two men who lived there in sep­a­rate, small­er homes out­side the three-sto­ry home of bin Laden and his fam­i­ly, offi­cials said. The men are believed to have been broth­ers; one owned the prop­er­ty and was a couri­er for bin Laden, deputy nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sor John O. Bren­nan said lat­er at a White House brief­ing.

As expect­ed, offi­cials said, bin Laden resist­ed cap­ture and was killed in the fire­fight with U.S. forces on the third floor of the home. Bin Laden’s adult son and a woman believed to be his wife also were killed in the shootout, and two women were wound­ed, they added.

U.S. forces were in the com­pound for about 40 min­utes and took no casu­al­ties, offi­cials said. Dur­ing that time, they also seized numer­ous items that are being inves­ti­gat­ed, they said.

Oba­ma and his nation­al secu­ri­ty team anx­ious­ly mon­i­tored the oper­a­tion in real time, Bren­nan said. “The min­utes passed like days,” he said. “The pres­i­dent was very con­cerned about the secu­ri­ty of our per­son­nel. Clear­ly, it was very tense. A lot of peo­ple were hold­ing their breath, and there was a fair degree of silence as we got the updates.” Tech­ni­cal prob­lems with one of the heli­copters added to the ten­sion, he said. After the U.S. team was safe­ly out of the coun­try, offi­cials said, Oba­ma and oth­er mem­bers of the nation­al secu­ri­ty team began call­ing gov­ern­ment lead­ers in Pak­istan and Afghanistan and mem­bers of Con­gress.

“The accom­plish­ment that these very brave per­son­nel from the U.S. gov­ern­ment were able to do yes­ter­day is very sig­nif­i­cant” to the broad­er effort against ter­ror­ism, Bren­nan said. “This is decap­i­tat­ing the head of the snake. This is some­thing we’ve been after for 15 years. We are going to try to take advan­tage of this oppor­tu­ni­ty we have to demon­strate to the Pak­istani peo­ple and oth­ers that al-Qai­da is a thing of the past.”

An intel­li­gence offi­cial who spoke to Pen­ta­gon reporters on back­ground said the oper­a­tion demon­strat­ed “the tremen­dous part­ner­ship between the CIA and the U.S. mil­i­tary since 9/11.”

As intel­li­gence allowed them to piece togeth­er details of the com­pound and its occu­pants, he said, it became clear bin Laden “was more or less liv­ing in plain sight” while al-Qaida’s low­er lev­el oper­a­tives “are liv­ing in dire con­di­tions.” “You have to won­der what they think today when they see that their leader was liv­ing high on the hog,” he said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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