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. Follow him on Twitter.

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.

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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: