Bin Laden reward: Did the government's $25 million bounty help nail him?

Commentary about business and finance.
May 2 2011 6:32 PM

The $25 Million Man

Did the government's huge reward help nail Bin Laden?

Elsewhere in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of al-Qaida after Osama Bin Laden, John Dickerson looks at Obama's secret meetings, and Jack Shafer says to follow the news skeptically. Dahlia Lithwick says it's time to end the war on terror, Chris Beam explains the mood in Pakistan, and Dave Weigel looks at Congress' reaction. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate's complete coverage is rounded up here

Osama Bin Laden. Click image to expand.
Bin Laden

For much of the past 10 years, the United States has been offering a reward of $25 million for information leading to the capture of Osama Bin Laden. Now that he has been found and killed, who, if anyone, gets the reward money?

The unsatisfying answer is that we do not know. It seems that nobody sold Bin Laden out—the government likes boasting about it when it happens, in part to encourage more people to turn criminals in for cash. But for the moment, the government is not saying whether it paid any informants.

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Bin Laden sat at the top of the FBI's most-wanted list, but it was not the FBI actually offering the reward. It was the State Department, through a special program, Rewards for Justice, that pays for information leading to the capture of terrorists. In Bin Laden's case, the State Department pledged $25 million and the Airline Pilots Association and Air Transport Association added another $1 million each, offered to anyone who brought the government to Bin Laden.

Rewards for Justice has a track record of gaining actionable intelligence with cash prizes. So far, it has paid out more than $100 million to 60 informants and been central to the capture of Odai and Qusai Hussein, Saddam's sons; Ramzi Yousef, convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and others. Foggy Bottom likes publicizing the program and describing the criminals nabbed with tips from the public. But it remains otherwise tight-lipped: Almost all details about Rewards for Justice stay classified, and we do not know the recipients of any of the disbursed funds.

Tanya Powell, a spokeswoman for the State Department, confirms that the reward is no longer available, since Bin Laden is dead. But she says that the department declines to say whether anyone received part or all of the cash, or might be still be under consideration for it, because of information they supplied leading to the Pakistan raid.

How do you get a Reward for Justice? First, a U.S. "investigating agency," such as the Defense Department or the CIA, needs to nominate the tipster. (Employees of the government, whether civilian or military, are not eligible for the reward money.) Then, an Interagency Rewards Committee examines the nomination and gives it an OK. The secretary of state has final discretion over whether to make an award and also the amount given. Though the State Department advertised a $25 million reward for Bin Laden, the total could have ended up being much higher.

So far, the Obama administration has said that initial intelligence came from Guantanamo detainees, who provided the name of Bin Laden's most-trusted courier. The government gathered information on the courier for four years, ultimately tracking him to the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound where they got Bin Laden. There is no chance the Gitmo detainees will get the prize money. The unanswerable question, at least for now, is whether anyone else provided actionable intelligence leading to Bin Laden.

If the government did pay the reward—perhaps to a local suspicious of the $1 million home with a security fence, no phone line, and no trash—it would be money very well-spent. The United States has spent many billions trying to find and track Bin Laden. For instance, the New York Times reports today that the United States has been paying Pakistan "more than $1 billion a year for counterterrorism operations whose chief aim was the killing or capture of Bin Laden." In comparison, $25 million looks like peanuts.

But as a general point, economists and crime watchers do not have much to go on when it comes to figuring out how well such programs work, dollar for dollar. As Loyola Law School professor Alexandra Natapoff puts it in her book Snitching, when it comes to terrorism, informants, and rewards, "data is simply unavailable."

Still, the State Department describes Rewards for Justice as "one of the most valuable U.S. government assets in the fight against international terrorism." And its tendency to hype the program and its successes at least implies that this time the United States got the bad guy the old-fashioned way.

Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for New York magazine. She can be reached at annie.lowrey@gmail.com.

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