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Intelligence and Evidence Part 1: One Reason It Took So Long To Find Osama bin Laden

Previous posts in the groundbreaking series "Intelligence and Evidence":

- One Reason It Took So Long To Find Osama bin Laden

- All The Piece’s Matter...Unless They Don’t: Guantanamo, America’s Best Recidivism Rate

- The Five Page Death Warrant

- The INVESTIGATION to Find Osama (bin Laden)

- A Conundrum: The Confessions

- Another Conundrum: Death By Fire

- Three Takeaways from Two Tragedies   

- Intel Gone Bad: The One Percent Doctrine

- Intel Gone Bad: Exhibit Iraq

- Intel Gone Bad: Exhibit Afghanistan

- Intel Gone Bad: Exhibit Terrorism

- Why Intel Goes Bad: The Devil's Advocate

- Why Intel Goes Bad: We Want Bad Intel

- Answering My Critics Part 1: Intelligence Isn't Counter-Terrorism

- Answering My Critics Part 2: Intelligence is Slightly Better Than A Ouija Board

- Answering My Critics Part III: The New Oracle at Delphi

- My Solutions to "Intelligence is Evidence"

Here is a little fact that got lost in all of today’s celebration: it took it nine and a half years for American special operators to track down and kill Osama bin Laden. Despite spending 80 billion dollars annually on intelligence, it still America took yet nine years to find him.

And I think I know why.

Most intelligence analysts don’t understand intelligence. Sure most intel folks can define it--in doctrinal terms, “intelligence” is knowledge or information about the enemy that enables the commander to make a decision to accomplish his mission--but they don’t understand it.

Since my arrogance knows no limits, I think I’ve figured it out: intelligence is evidence, especially when it comes to irregular, small, low-intensity, asymmetric, political wars and insurgencies. Both intelligence and evidence start with the same thing: information. Both then use that information to solve crimes--murders in our neighborhoods, IED explosions in the combat zone, or terrorist attacks on America shores, for example. Instead of solving past crimes, though, intelligence predicts (or fails to predict) the future.

(I've been planning this series on intelligence and evidence for a while--and this post has been on the calendar for a week--but Osama bin Laden’s capture provides the perfect jumping off point. Until some intelligence analysts embraced an evidence-focused view of intelligence, we wouldn’t have caught Osama bin Laden.)

Despite the similarities, intelligence analysts receive very little training in forensics or criminology. The Army doesn’t call it “crime scene investigation” either, we call it “sensitive site exploitation” and we don’t train many analysts in that task. Further, while detectives are the superstars of their field, intelligence folks are not. And even though the similarities are eerily close, intelligence and criminal professionals don’t work well together. Take, for example, the FBI abandoning Guantanamo early in its existence.

To explain this theory, I am going to use well publicized news stories that reveal how similar the job of an intelligence analyst is to a criminal detective. The first post describes Guantanamo, which straddles the line between the worlds of intelligence and criminal justice. The second post describes the inside world of the CIA drone program, a world firmly in the intelligence sphere, but suspiciously like a non-judicial criminal proceeding. Finally, I will go over the news about the Osama bin Laden operation, and how one group embraced evidence to find him. When the final story comes out, it will sound much more like a detective thriller than an espionage case.

This gap between the intelligence community and the criminal world is a huge problem. A huge chasm separates intelligence and evidence, though. Since 9/11, the national security world has believed that both our two counter-insurgencies and the fight with Al Qaeda use a fundamentally different philosophy of justice than that of the American legal system. The military doesn’t contend with “reasonable doubt” or even a “preponderance of the evidence”. Nope, deployed soldiers or intelligence operatives have mostly embraced the “one percent doctrine” of Vice President Cheney fame. Whereas police officers must build a case that passes judicial and constitutional muster, the military and national intelligence agencies care primarily about averting disaster before it strikes.

The result of those policies can be success--averting a terrorist attack--or they can be disaster--the torture of innocent people. So for the rest of this month--an entire month--I will explore the links between intelligence and evidence; the eerie similarities between them, the unfortunate tragedies of both branches, and the moral implications of sub-standard work. Stay tuned.

four comments

Long time On V readers know, we don’t like chasing the news.

I say this, because this post seems like it is chasing the news, the very obvious headline that Osama Bin Laden has been killed by American soldiers.

Two things: 1. We don’t necessarily have any pertinent insights yet. Michael C and I are processing, planning and editing what we think about it.

That said, my second point is this: the Osama bin Laden case perfectly folds into what Michael C had already planned to write about for the month. Call it serendipity.

I just hope the headline isn’t too misleading. I think this series is going to be good. Esoteric, but good.


Yeah it will be esoteric, for certain, but the intelligence is both widely misunderstood in and out of the field.

Also, I feel like this is trying to attach meaning to Osama bin Laden’s death that it doesn’t necessarily deserve. Either Al Qaeda is a much bigger threat than just Osama, or it was never much of a threat to begin with, it can’t be both. And just because it garners news coverage does not make the event important in a historical sense.


Very much looking forward to your insight. Thanks in advance for your hard work.


Eight years to the “mission accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.