Our guys go in in the dead of night. It's pitch black. They're taking out walls, false doors, getting shot at. They killed Bin Laden. And they had the presence of mind to still gather up a whole bunch of Bin Laden's material which will be a treasure trove of information that could serve us very well in the weeks and months to come.
"Presence of mind" implies that the roundup of material was an astute afterthought. But that can't be true.
American surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft were watching and listening to how Pakistan's police forces and military responded to the raid. That determined how long the commandos could safely remain on the ground going through the compound collecting computer hard drives, thumb drives and documents.
And what a haul it was: "100 thumb drives, DVDs and computer disks, along with 10 computer hard drives, 5 computers and assorted cellphones," plus "piles of paper documents." On Meet the Press, Donilon called it "the largest cache of intelligence derived from the scene of any single terrorist. It's about the size, the CIA tells us, of a small college library."
A report posted Tuesday night by CBS News estimates the total harvest at "2.7 terabytes of data, the equivalent of 220 million pages of text." The report adds:
The target was bin Laden, but a U.S. official says the terrorist leader was killed "relatively early" in the operation. "At least half" the 40 minutes the Navy SEALs spent on the ground went into collecting lap tops, hard drives, CDs and paper files. … Every minute the SEALs spent collecting intelligence from bin Laden's compound was another minute the Pakistani police and military had to react. Two backup helicopters carried more SEALs in case the ones in the compound got into a firefight with Pakistani forces.
Think about that. The intelligence-gathering part of the operation was so important that even after Bin Laden was dead, the SEALs stayed on site, at enormous peril, to ransack the compound for every hard disk, thumb drive, or box of papers they could find. They spent more time on this job than on dealing with the compound's inhabitants. It's inconceivable that they would have done this without explicit orders and preparation.
On 60 Minutes, Obama gave three reasons for sending the SEALs instead of taking out the compound with missiles:
Putting our guys on the ground entailed some greater risks than some other options. I thought it was important, though, for us to be able to say that we'd definitely got the guy. We thought that it was important for us to be able to exploit potential information that was on the ground in the compound if it did turn out to be him. We thought that it was important for us not only to protect the lives of our guys, but also to try to minimize collateral damage in the region, because this was in a residential neighborhood.