Was the Bin Laden raid a manhunt or an intelligence grab?

Science, technology, and life.
May 11 2011 8:46 AM

Kill the Men, Take the Thumb Drives

Was the Bin Laden raid a manhunt or an intelligence grab?

Doctored photograph of a flash drive. Click image to expand.
How important was intelligence-gathering to the Bin Laden raid?

One after another, elements of the U.S. account of Osama Bin Laden's death have unraveled. First it was the human shields. Then the armed Bin Laden. Then the million-dollar mansion. Then the ongoing firefight.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Which parts of the story will unravel next? Here's my guess: the 50-50 gamble and the improvised intelligence harvest.

The gamble has been a favorite administration theme. According to the official story, the CIA never had solid evidence that Bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound. So President Obama had to go off by himself and make the tough call. He rolled the dice.

Sending U.S. ground troops into Pakistan did take guts. But the crux of the gamble story is that Bin Laden might not have been in the compound, in which case the raid would have been a risk for nothing.

A week ago, CIA Director Leon Panetta said his analysts had calculated a 60 percent to 80 percent chance that Bin Laden was in the compound. Then Obama, taping an interview for 60 Minutes, called it "a 55/45 situation." Then National Security Advisor Tom Donilon went on the Sunday shows and claimed it had been "50/50." As the number shrinks, the legend grows.

To convey the magnitude of the gamble, Obama asked 60 Minutes viewers to imagine the consequences if the SEALs had arrived at the compound to find that its occupant was a "prince from Dubai." But that's absurd. The CIA had found the compound by tracking Bin Laden's couriers. It had studied the building and its inhabitants for months with satellite imagery, telephoto lenses, and eavesdropping devices. It knew that the men who owned and ran the compound were sons of a longtime Bin Laden associate and that their family had married into Bin Laden's. And agency operatives had watched a third man—a tall man who never joined the other two men in their chores—take regular walks through an internal courtyard.

The only open question was the identity of the tall man. What the CIA knew for sure was that the compound and its inhabitants were linked to Bin Laden.

That's important, because a major objective of the raid was to harvest intelligence from the compound. And that objective was attainable even if Bin Laden turned out not to be there.

The official story is that intelligence collection was incidental. As a Pentagon briefer put it Saturday: "There was one objective for this mission, and it was to find Osama bin Laden."

Obama fleshed out that story on 60 Minutes, describing the intel extraction this way:

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.

According to New York Times sources, Bin Laden was killed about 20 minutes into the raid. Yet the SEAL team stayed on the ground for another 18 minutes, while

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.

In other words, extracting intelligence was built into the raid's design. And on Obama's list of considerations, it preceded the avoidance of collateral damage.

One implication of the updated time frames is that the SEALs began to round up papers and computer hardware before they knew whether Bin Laden was there. They would surely have taken that booty with them even if he hadn't turned up. And they had reason to expect that it would prove useful, since the compound was known by the CIA to be a well-fortified hideout of Bin Laden's couriers and close associates.

In that event, Obama would probably have justified the raid as he did on 60 Minutes: "I said to myself that if we have a good chance of not completely defeating but badly disabling al-Qaida, then it was worth both the political risks as well as the risks to our men."

So the intelligence harvest was more central, and the raid was less of a gamble, than the U.S. pretends. There's no shame in this revised narrative. And it makes much more sense than the official story does. Everything Obama has done in office reeks of rationality, pragmatism, and prudence. It's what has made him a good president. It's why he insisted that the raid be designed with safeguards and backups, including—if the revised narrative is correct—a second, nerdier objective in case the first one evaporated.

An instinctive, all-or-nothing roll of the dice on a kill shot would have been sexier. It certainly makes a better story. But it doesn't fit Obama. And it doesn't fit the facts.

(Readings I recommend: Rich Lowry at National Review laments that we shot Bin Laden, and lost him as an intelligence source, because we "wouldn't know what to do with him" under hypersensitive restrictions on detainee interrogation. Stephen Hayes at the Weekly Standard makes the case that Pakistani officials knew about Bin Laden's compound. Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman at Danger Room explain how the compound was designed to thwart drones, not commandos. Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy counsels the U.S. to extract "terrorists and information" from Pakistan, then divorce its government. Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast argues that killing Bin Laden was justified, but torture isn't, based on the principle of captivity. Ross Douthat at the New York Times celebrates the "Bush-Obama convergence" on targeted assassination and other counterterror policies.)

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