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The INVESTIGATION to Find Osama (bin Laden)

(On Violence is devoting the month of May to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

If only Osama bin Laden was named Richard Kimball. Because then, instead of treating Osama as a terrorist, we could had treated him as a fugitive. And then we could have sent US Marshall Samuel Gerard after him. He wouldn’t have lasted for more than a few months. (Or Special Agent Luke Hobbs.)

Alas, in America, intelligence is not evidence. Since I’m spending the month explaining how “intelligence is evidence”, I’d be remiss to not include the most celebrated example of intelligence in action: the capture of Osama Bin Laden. In the same way that I used prisoners at Guantanamo and CIA drone strikes as case studies, the “hunt” for Osama bin Laden can best be understood as a investigation.

Specifically, a criminal investigation.

(Before you read further, drop the terms “terrorism”, “intelligence” and “Osama bin Laden” from your brain. The issue of terrorism has been so polluted with politicization and emotion that it is hard to approach this issue rationally.)

Let’s start with the evidence. According to Mike Allen, two organizations provided a good chunk of the evidence to take down Osama bin Laden. The first organization is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. It “specializes in imagery and maps”, just like police detectives and federal agents tail suspects or use cameras to watch them. The second organization, the National Security Agency can “covertly watch and listen to conversations around the world”, in the same way that law enforcement in the U.S. can place wire taps on communication devices.

Like most investigations, though, the biggest clue came not from technology but good old fashioned police work. That’s a code word for talking to humans. Investigators identified a courier who multiple sources confirmed Osama bin Laden still trusted. Tailing him led to a suspicious compound.

Since bin Laden lived in Pakistan, far from where federal agents could reach him, elite commandos took the mission. To be clear, this isn’t much different than how a major crimes unit would approach the take down of a major drug dealer. A major crimes unit would combine multiple types of evidence--confidential informants, wire taps and observation of the suspects--into a compelling case, convince it’s boss it has enough evidence, and then plan the take down. Taking down a major drug dealer or mafia boss would require a huge amount of planning to succeed, just like the bin Laden raid.

Finally, after taking down Osama bin Laden, the agents confiscated loads of paper, electronics and other evidence to use to build future leads.

While the investigation or “man-hunt” was basic police work, it has been described in several forums as a vindication of the intelligence community’s approach. Sure apprehending Osama bin Laden presented agents with an incredibly difficult challenge, but when the bulk of the evidence is finally presented, it is clear: this was police work.

(All information in this article about intelligence comes from declassified or unclassified reporting.)

twelve comments

I guess what I would say is that information is still coming out, but I agree with the general premise: this was a manhunt. I mean, that’s why Osama was on the FBI’s most wanted list.

Also—and this is the danger of unfolding news stories like this—I heard that the CIA had a house staking out bin Laden’s compound. Literally, a stakeout. Make of that what you will.

I’ve been watching your intelligence = evidence series and find I must disagree with the fundamental premise. Intelligence is a far lower bar in terms of actually providing proof and, at best, serves only to provide decision makers with possible courses of action based on a balance of probabilities. Evidence on the other hand, seeks to establish an absolute.

With this in mind it is worth looking again at the example of OBL. Intelligence simply led to a knowledge of where he was hiding and in what circumstances. That was it.

I think this issue is well illustrated by this 2005 exchange between Jeremy Paxman and Martin McGuiness on the BBC’s Newsnight with Paxman citing high level intelligence whilst naming it evidence. It wasn’t.

Unlike OBL Mr McGuiness was not in hiding but knew there was little in the way of evidence that would convict him of the crime of being on the Army Council of PIRA, a proscribed organization. The choice, by successive British governments, to treat with the violent elements of the Irish Republican movement as criminals rather than legitimate combatants sought to delegitimize the struggle (unlike the U.S.’ GWOT which did the opposite). This, of course, created its own problems, one of which was the requirement for evidence – whether of membership of a proscribed organization or of involvement in mass murder – in order to convict. Intelligence was not – and never would be – to high enough standard.

So yes, OBL was eventually found because of good intelligence work, but I suspect he was executed because there was a lack of evidence to convict him of involvement in the attacks of 9/11.

The Big Difference Between Intelligence and Evidence

@ Dion – Great link. I think that it validates a lot of what Michael C wrote.

One, this link stuck out: “Intelligence analysts — one hopes — go to work before a crisis; detectives usually go to work after a crime.” How does this apply to Osama bin Laden? The main reason we were after him was what he did in the past, not what he could do in the future. That’s unarguable.

Two, seeing as this op-ed was written in Feb 2003, well, I think we can all agree the intelligence analysts blew it on their case to invade Iraq. In that case, we didn’t have enough evidence, and we needed more.

@ Steve – I think one of the points of this series is that we need to hold Intelligence to a higher standard—that it will lead to less war crimes, less countries invaded for fictional weapons, etc.

Anyways, evidence doesn’t prove an absolute, it proves something beyond a reasonable doubt. God, I wish we had that before we invaded Iraq.

Steve, obviously they aren’t identical. But I think the biggest distinction between intelligence and evidence is that intelligence is information gathered about foreigners, and evidence is gathered for Americans. In the British example, and I am no expert on the struggles in Northern Ireland, it seems to me that they were trying to keep the country together, and relying on law enforcement and evidence did delegitimize the opposition.

I’ll be getting into counter points in later posts, but Steve, the argument that intelligence requires a lower threshold is a part of the problem.

Also your definition, “intelligence serves only to provide decision makers with possible courses of action based on a balance of probabilities”. which I agree is what intelligence is, doesn’t match counter-terrorism at all. Counter-terrorism and targeting in our two insurgencies, is all about using past evidence of crimes to detain individuals. Once they are detained, it is assumed they won’t cause terrorism further.

And major crimes units operate the same way. I mean, do we take down a mafia boss because we want to punish him for past transgressions, or do we do it stop him from being a mafia boss? I’d say its both. Sub in terrorist for mafia boss, and you have the intelligence/evidence argument.

And I want to stay to Steve and Dion, I don’t want to come across as defensive. I love people challenging my ideas so I can make them stronger in future posts. So keep up the challenges.

Hey Michael, no problem, you don’t come across as in any way defensive.

First, for Eric: I was being very precise in my language when I said, “Evidence on the other hand, seeks to establish an absolute.” The key word there is “seeks” and recognizes that what is supposed to be evidence – proof – can often fall short of that lofty goal. The absolute is guilt or innocence.

Michael, I believe there are various keys to the differences between the two that are worth exploring. Among them – and there may be a number of skeins woven together in this – is the fact that evidence is usually collected in the knowledge that it will be severely tested in an open forum by being held up to public scrutiny. This means that sources of information will also be tested for errors, personal defects, prejudices etc. This will be done to one degree or another by experts taking a necessarily adversarial role and the results of the trial (if it gets that far) will be decided on the strength or weakness of the evidence and the credibility of its source.

We rarely get to have that kind of say in the collection, collation and utilization of intelligence and this reality leaves the process open to all sorts of manipulation and abuse. As Eric mentioned: would that the intelligence presented in the lead up to the Iraq war really been what it was so frequently called: evidence. But it wasn’t and it never will be because it cannot be reasonably tested.

I remember sitting in Kabul when Sec Powell gave his presentation to the U.N. Alongside me watching the show was a former FBI officer. I turned to him an expressed my doubts as to whether this was credible (you may recall that none of the presented elements was verifiable). He replied: “If that man says it, it must be true.” I was astonished, to say the least. I could understand the emotion that went into his reply (along with his biases, sense of self, attachment to national identity et al) but when collecting, presenting and weighing evidence, these are things that must be overcome, if not by self-discipline then by being imposed.

Both of the examples you use above (the terrorist and the mafia boss) only strengthen my argument. The “evidence” of past crimes – if that’s what it is – should not be used for the purposes of summary execution but should be tested in a court. The alternative is that we just become another “mob”.

I should add that I find your central premise – that intelligence should be of sufficient quality that it is equal to evidence – to be praiseworthy. What I really take issue with is the notion of this having any possibility of being achieved.

Instead, I would like to see a situation where each is presented, seen and understood for what it is and that actions accrue from that foundation. For example: intelligence that a terrorist attack was carried out by So-and-So would be a good foundation for an investigation that would collect evidence of So-and-So’s guilt – or otherwise.

Where I’m really with you (and every young policeman has this hammered into his skull) is on training individuals on the preservation of crime scenes and the value of maintaining a chain of evidence.



@Steve-We really are saying the same thing, and I have to say hold on for follow on posts. The idea of an adversary—a devil’s advocate—is one of the biggest changes the IC could make.

I’ll also say that the IC shouldn’t have applied “intelligence” to “terrorism” and hence, make it a war. That was a deliberate action that is part of what I am challenging in this series. Maybe the better way to say it is, “intelligence related to terrorism is evidence.”

Oh and my last post will be on why I don’t think my ideas will ever get adopted. It comes down to political pressure, and the American voting public doesn’t have the will.

I look forward to it, Michael.

Also – and I believe it’s relevant to the topic – if you haven’t yet seen War Don Don, do so without delay. The doc follows the progress of the ICC trial of Issa Sesay and calls into question many notions of evidence, truth and justice in post-war situations.