Bin Laden's tech trove may give up secrets

The intelligence that led to Osama bin Laden's hiding place may yield a benefit beyond just the killing of the terrorist mastermind: even more intelligence, information taken directly from computers, thumb drives and other devices recovered in the raid, according to a top Defense Department official.

To deal with the vast trove of material recovered from the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that served as a major command-and-control center, DOD is bringing in help from an array of government organizations.

“A multi-agency task force led by the CIA has been established to triage, catalogue and analyze this intelligence,” a senior defense intelligence official speaking on background told reporters at a May 7 Pentagon briefing.

The task force comprises members from the Central Intelligence Agency, Homeland Security Department, Defense Intelligence Agency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, FBI, National Media Exploitation Center, National Counterterrorism Center, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and the Treasury Department.

The official said there is so much material collected from the raid, the task force is still working to accurately quantify it.

“This collection represents the most significant amount of intelligence ever collected from a senior terrorist. It includes digital, audio and video files of varying sizes, printed materials, computer equipment, recording devices and handwritten documents,” the official said.

“There’s quantity and then there’s quality. And we want to make sure that we methodically process this material so that we get the highest quality intelligence from the collection,” the official added.

DOD so far is strictly limiting the information it releases on the intelligence that has been gleaned in the May 2 raid, including whether any of the data has produced actionable intelligence.

“Our top priority is, of course, to identify any threat information and to disseminate that threat information widely within the U.S. government and, as appropriate, with our foreign partners,” the official said. “Of course, another top priority is to exploit the information to attract leads to other members of al Qaeda. But I’m not going to comment on actionable intelligence.”

The official did say it is certain that bin Laden’s compound served as a major command-and-control center from which he played an active role in leading al-Qaeda, providing strategic, operational and tactical direction to the group.

“It’s hard for me to describe precisely given the sensitive nature of the intelligence we gleaned, but what we’ve gone through thus far shows that…he was actively involved in plotting operations and in directing the daily operations of the group. He was not simply someone who was penning al-Qaeda strategy. He was throwing operational ideas out there and he was also specifically directing other al Qaeda members,” the official said.

What’s not completely clear is how bin Laden operated a major command-and-control post without phone lines or Internet access, but the official said the U.S. believes he relied heavily on a courier network – which eventually led to his discovery.

It’s also unclear if there is an alternate or back-up command-and-control center, but the official said that is something for which analysts are searching. 

Agencies began compiling an intelligence case around August 2010 that ultimately led to the discovery and take-down of bin Laden, the official said.

Despite the length of time it took to find bin Laden in Abbottabad, rather than in tribal border regions of Pakistan or Afghanistan as previously believed, it is far from an intelligence failure, the offical said.

“This is the greatest intelligence success perhaps of a generation. This is a hunt for a top al-Qaeda leader that has spanned nearly 10 years. And this government, our intelligence community and counterterrorism agencies have expended relentless effort to pursue leads on Osama bin Laden. This has always been a top priority. And this is a classic and historic intelligence success,” the official said.

The official also pointed out the need for time to build an intelligence case solid enough to lead to bin Laden’s discovery, and praised the magnitude of meticulous effort put into it up until the last minute.

“Intelligence cases aren’t built overnight. And it took a great deal of precision work, and persistence and perseverance on the part of collectors and analysts over many years to piece together the intelligence case that led to the raid. This was a circumstantial case up until the very end – a very strong one. But the intelligence picture didn’t become clear, obviously, until [the May 2 raid],” the official said.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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